5 things to watch as the Thorns take on the Wave
The Portland Thorns will finally return to the field to take on the San Diego Wave in the semifinal playoffs of the NWSL Championship this Sunday. It's guaranteed to be a fierce battle, with both teams hungry to reach the Championship final in DC next weekend.
Here are five things we're watching ahead of kickoff.
On paper, it's a matchup between playoff veterans and playoff newcomers. The Thorns are the only team left in the playoffs that has won the Championship, having done so twice in 2013 and 2017, with an 5-0-5 all-time playoff record. Meanwhile, expansion side San Diego has only one postseason game under their belt, a neck-and-neck affair at home against the Chicago Red Stars last Sunday. The Wave managed to avoid penalty kicks thanks to an Alex Morgan goal in the second half of extra time, the third-latest game-winning playoff goal in the league's history.
But the Thorns won't count on playoff experience as an advantage—the Wave is hungry to prove itself as a contender.
Portland smashed San Diego twice in the Challenge Cup this spring, but San Diego found its form in the regular season, tallying a 2-2 tie against the Thorns at home and a 2-0 road win at Providence Park. The stinging memory of that last game could be flipped into a positive, if the Thorns needed any more motivation to come out strong.
"The last time we played San Diego... we still have that haunting us a little bit because we didn't show up that well," Thorns forward Morgan Weaver said on the Attacking Third podcast this week. "I think that's in the back of our heads. We want to go out and we want to perform well. We want to win and we want to make it to the Championship. Everyone's ready to go. Everyone is ready to fight."
Bye week unknowns
It's been three whole weeks since the Thorns ended the regular season at NJNY Gotham FC on October 2. Their second place finish in the standings earned them a bye week, and an international break prolonged the game-less stretch. The Thorns are rested and ready, yes, but can they match the sharpness that San Diego will bring, having tested themselves last week? Or will that not matter at all?
"Historically, I don't think [having a bye week] has been a great advantage," head coach Rhian Wilkinson said at a press conference this week. "I would say that it would be naive to think that since [San Diego] had a game, they're going to be more tired. They're going to look after their athletes... We've done what we can to make sure we're ready."
MVP nominee vs MVP nominee
There will be two MVP nominees taking the field in different colored jerseys: the ever-dangerous, defense-befuddling Sophia Smith and the prolific Alex Morgan. Morgan secured the Golden Boot with 15 goals—one more than Smith, who also bagged 11 goals for the US Women's nation team—but Wilkinson made a strong case for Smith as MVP this week, describing how she unlocks the talents of everyone around her:
"Sophia as taken up so much bandwidth from opposition back lines that it is allowed our team to have a scoring profile that has broken records this season. And it's not by chance," Wilkinson said. "Her movement... There are probably training sessions that opposition [teams] have to do to just to get all over. It takes three people to stop Soph, which opens up space for Morgan, or Hina, or any one of our players who have had successful scoring years. So even though Soph is spoken about a lot, I don't think people recognize that off the ball work she's doing, the assists she's creating."
Player to watch: Taylor Kornieck
In the four previous games of 2022 across all competitions, San Diego has scored six goals on Portland. And midfielder Taylor Kornieck has scored 50% of them. While all eyes will be on Alex Morgan (who logged a goal and an assist in San Diego's last visit to Portland in August), Kornieck's record is something of a wildcard.
Rhian Wilkinson speaks to the press ahead of the NWSL Championship semifinal