Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. Chicago, 8.25.19

NWSL Preview | This is Thorns FC's chance to end Chicago's hopes of an NWSL Shield

Hardcore National Women's Soccer League fans remember Zakiya Bywaters as the first NWSL College Draft pick in league history. Chosen out of UCLA by the Chicago Red Stars in 2013, Bywaters went on to appear in 25 games over the league's first two seasons, scoring four times while making 15 starts. Though she was out of the league by 2016, the Las Vegas-born attacker will forever be the answer to one of the league's cornerstone trivia questions: Who was the first pick in the first college draft in NWSL history?

For Thorns FC and Red Stars fans, though, Bywaters is also the answer to another question, one that becomes stranger and more remarkable as the league goes on: With Chicago having beaten Portland only once in league history – and having done so all the way back in 2013 – which Red Stars player has the club's only game-winning goal against the Thorns? The answer: Zakiya Bywaters.

I brought this streak up in this week's Thorns Report, too, because it's just so remarkable. The Red Stars are one of the best teams in the NWSL, and have been for a few years now. They have as much talent as anybody in the league and have made more consecutive playoff appearances than other club. Yet somehow, someway, the team that's had talents like Christen Press, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Sam Kerr has a 1-9-9 all-time record against the Portland Thorns.

Things between these teams have got make sense at some point. The record has got to even out. The questions are when and, for the Thorns, at what cost?

A recent slump that's seen Chicago drop matches to Sky Blue FC and the Orlando Pride has given Portland a four-point lead at the top of the league, meaning should the Thorns beat the Red Stars in Sunday's match at Providence Park (12pm PT, TICKETS, ESPNews), the visitors' hopes for the NWSL Shield will be all but vanquished. Should they leave Portland seven points back with five to play, playoff positioning becomes Chicago's main focus. If, however, the Red Stars can start making sense of their matchup with Portland, Sunday will fade with a three-team race (once North Carolina is factored in) remaining at the top of the NWSL.

Here are three areas of focus before this weekend's top-of-the-table battle:

What's going on in Chicago?

Two weeks ago, the Red Stars had won their fifth straight game, swapped playoff questions for a Shield push, and looked ready to make the franchise's most significant title challenge yet. They'd defeated North Carolina, Reign FC and Utah in that stretch, sending Kerr clear in the Golden Boot race while successfully managing the returns of all their U.S. internationals. 2019 was starting to look like Chicago's long-awaited breakthrough.

Then they lost a mid-week game at Sky Blue. A week later, they lost another mid-week game to one of the league's struggling teams. This time it was Orlando. This time it was at home.

Maybe the Red Stars have hit a wall. Or maybe they needed some adversity to remind them that it's never easy. Whatever the reason, Chicago's gone from the league's hottest team to, over the last week, its worst. Only two points clear of fifth place (aka, out of the playoffs) Chicago suddenly needs to be worried about making the postseason.

Containing Sam Kerr

One thing the Red Stars don't have to worry about is their best player. Despite missing more than a month while at the World Cup, Kerr is running away with the Golden Boot race and, probably, another Most Valuable Player award. With 13 goals and two assists in 15 games, the Australian international has been involved in more than half of Chicago's 29 goals. She's also five goals clear of closest competition for another scoring title.

Kerr's career totals against the Thorns are relatively modest by her standards, scoring "only" eight times in 14 appearances. Since being traded to Chicago before last season, though, that rate has increased. In three appearances against Portland as a Red Star, Kerr has scored three times, including once earlier this year in Chicago.

Increasingly, Kerr is becoming the Babe Ruth of the NWSL, playing as if she's a generation ahead of her peers. That may feel like an exaggeration, but when a player has scored 46 times in her last 57 games – and no player is within five goals of her on the scoring charts – it's hard to keep comparing her to the rest of the NWSL world.

The Thorns' steady climb

A recurring theme in this space over the last few weeks has been the strive for consistency, part of the reason I made a bigger deal out of Saturday's win over Washington than others might. Coming off a victory over North Carolina the week before, the Spirit game represented a chance to put in a level, business-like performance, avoiding the highs and lows that accompanied games, for better, against the Courage and, for worse, Reign FC and Sky Blue.

Chicago is obviously a stiffer challenge than the Spirit, but some of the same goals apply. The game is at Providence Park, where the Thorns should expect a certain level of performance. And with only six games left in the regular season, Portland needs to be building toward their postseason selves. The time for setbacks has passed. Now's when you establish who you are, and what you are going to be for the rest of the season.

That's part of what makes Chicago's recent slip so worrisome, from the Red Stars' point of view, but that slip also provides a warning to a team like the Thorns. One week, you could be riding a streak toward the top of the table; the next, you could be left wondering what tweaks need to be made, and if you have time to make them.

Right now, the Thorns are in a good place, but they need the consistency to stay on course. That will be Sunday's broader goal.