3 things to watch as the Thorns look to finish the regular season in the #1 spot
With Wednesday afternoon’s 3-0 win against Racing Louisville, the Portland Thorns FC officially clinched its spot in the 2022 NWSL postseason with two games to spare. But there's no letting off the gas pedal in the regular season’s final week. The NWSL Shield is still up for grabs, awarded to the team that finishes first in the standings at the end of the regular season.
The good news is that the Thorns are in control of their own destiny: if they win both their final games, starting with the Chicago Red Stars at Providence Park this Sunday, they will win the Shield for the second year in a row.
What should fans keep an eye on this Sunday? Here are three things to watch:
Defending home field
Providence Park is notoriously a difficult place for any visitor to play and has remained that way this season. The Thorns are 5-3-2 this season at home, with their only two defeats coming in 2-0 score lines against the Houston Dash on May 21 and the San Diego Wave on August 27. They've also score a boatload of goals in front of the home crowd—24 goals. Wednesday's game offered a reminder of what it looks like when Providence Park is at its best: a roaring cauldron of sheer energy.
With only one regular season game left after Sunday—a cross-country away trip to NJ/NY Gotham FC—the Thorns will look to capitalize on that advantage one more time before the playoffs.
First half drought?
Portland has scored just one goal in its last six games during the first half. The Thorns can outshoot opponents, look comfortable and play with confidence, but the longer they fail to put the ball into the back of the net, the more pressure inevitably begins to build.
Fans saw that play out in the recent games against the Kansas City Current and Racing Louisville. Portland dominated Kansas City from a shots and possession perspective, but the later it allowed the Current to hang in the game the more pressure built. That happened once again in the first half against Racing Louisville, but on Wednesday night the dam finally burst in the second half as the Thorns raced to a comfortable 3-0 win.
“Playing the way we play, trusting ourselves, sometimes when we don’t score we get anxious,” said Kelli Hubly after Wednesday's game. “So doing what we know we can do and doing it well.”
Once in the playoffs, early goals will be pivotal to settle a game early and prevent frustration from mounting. In a situation where a single slip-up or mental lapse ends a season, taking advantage of an early scoring opportunity will be paramount.
The depth is clicking into place
One of the most important parts of any playoff run is a team’s depth and Portland has it in spades, something it is beginning to showcase late this season. n the midst of another three-game week, coach Rhian Wilkinson rested Hina Sugita and Morgan Weaver against Racing Louisville on Wednesday in favor of Janine Beckie and Olivia Moultrie, both of whom made a major impact.
Three different players (Sophia Smith, Sam Coffey, Moultrie) scored in the midweek match; extrapolate that out to the last three games and six different Thorns are responsible for the last six goals.
Oh, and by the way, Crystal Dunn is also returning to fitness ahead of the Thorns’ late push.
“The team has done a brilliant job through the season of being team first and we have used our roster,” said Wilkinson on Wednesday. “Even today—three different goal-scorers. It's a testament to them and how they handle themselves when we do have days off that they are feeling refreshed and we're very clear.”