NWSL Game of the Week: Washington Spirit at Portland Thorns FC

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While two of the league’s early powers face off Saturday in Overland Park (Lauren Cheney and FC Kansas City hosting Sydney Leroux and the Boston Breakers), a battle from teams at different ends of the NWSL’s early spectrum will take place in Portland. On Sunday afternoon, the Thorns FC, fresh off their first loss of the season, will host Washington, a team who broke out Thursday in Tukwila.

A rematch of the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago, Portland hosting Washington is this round’s ProSoccerTalk NWSL Game of the Week.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Opposites in almost every way

By now you know: Portland was almost everyone’s favorite to win this league. And if that’s one of the few things you’ve heard about the new women’s league – that Portland has Alex Morgan (above); and Christine Sinclair; and these great facilities; and oh my god it’s women’s soccer’s Shangri-La — you probably haven’t heard much about Washington, who were the consensus pick to finish last. Go back two months, and this match looked like David knocking on Goliath’s door, only with five-digits worth of neighbors heckling David while doing do.

The contrast between the two sides extends beyond preseason expectations. Portland was giving an established, potent attack while Washington has had to rely on drafted kids. The Spirit have the likes of Lori Lindsey and Diana Matheson in midfield, while the Thorns had to turn to free agency during Tobin Heath’s Parisian sojourn. Portland was given a bedrock center half (Rachel Buehler) while the Spirit’s allocated defender (Ali Krieger) is a fullback, yet Washington was given Ashlyn Harris, to date the league’s best keeper.

Leave those initial impressions behind and fast-forward to mid-May, where all the lip service the league’s coaches have given to the quality of each side – arguments encouraging fans and media to look beyond the big names — is starting to have merit. Back in March, their comments seemed like empty platitudes – the kind of hogwash that’s more American folklore than something that correlates to reality. Overlooked, under-appreciated Washington, whose attack was considered one of the league’s weakest, just exploded for four goals against Seattle. And Portland? They were shocked at home by Sky Blue, with a late song from Taylor Lytle giving Jim Gabarra’s a 1-0 win. Goliath’s not so big, David’s not so small, and the rash predictions of a preseason spent evaluating teams we’d never before seen has proved predictably fallible.

Portland and Washington may have been at opposite ends of March’s spectrum, but the gap appears to be closing. Despite their strong record (now 4-1-1), the Thorns are still struggling to meet their potential, while after a break out performance in Tukwila, the Spirit may have just received a first glimpse of their’s.

After Sunday’s game, comparisons to David and Goliath may prove as foolish as our preseason assumptions.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. +/- PST
Rank
1 Portland 6 13 +5 3
2 Sky Blue 6 13 +4 5
3 Boston 4 8 +4 2
5 W. New York 5 7 +0 4
5 Kansas City 4 7 +2 1
6 Washington 6 6 +0 6
7 Chicago 5 2 -7 7
8 Seattle 6 1 -8 8

2. Young, talented, and unproven: Spirit’s attack still coming into its own

It’s not that Washington got a bad allocation, as far as their attackers were concerned. They didn’t get any help up top. One goalkeeper, three defenders, three midfielders – no forwards. That meant Mike Jorden and the Spirit organization were reliant on the supplemental draft, college players, and limited free agency to forge an attack, a daunting task given each team’s financial constraints.

Come Week 1, Washington had three main options:

  • With the second overall pick in the college draft, Washington went for Florida State’s Tiffany McCarty, a local product who had spent time with the W-League’s Washington Freedom. Only 5’4″, McCarty has the speed to beat anybody in the league, though finding an end product has proved more difficult than blowing past some of the world’s best defenders.
  • Stephanie Ochs, an industrious striker from San Diego, was selected third overall in WPS’s last draft before that league officially folded in 2012. After a year in relative limo, spending some time with the U.S. U-23s, Ochs signed on with Washington, her work rate a potentially potent complement to McCarty.
  • Caroline Miller, last year’s ACC Offensive Player of the Year, slipped into the college draft’s second round. A consistent part of the U.S.’s youth national teams, the former Virginia attacker was seen a possible Week 1 starter, even if she’s eventually settled into a substitute’s role.

They represented three lottery tickets. In a league where few teams have more than one true goal-scoring threat, all Jorden needed is for one to come good. Combined with Diana Matheson’s play making and Lori Lindsey’s occasional attacking contributions, the Spirit could be viable. It was just a matter of getting one player to click.

Early, though, it wasn’t happening. The Spirit scored one goal in each of their first five games, with Matheson being the team’s only consistent threat. Long balls that tried to use McCarty’s speed weren’t being converted into chances, while Och’s determination was often left unrewarded.

On Thursday, however, that changed. Perhaps a floundering Reign FC side contributed to the outburst, but after flying cross-country for a battle of winless sides, Washington finally broke through. McCarty scored her second goal of the season. Matheson found her fourth. Defenders Krieger and Tori Huster also got on the scoresheet as Washington tied a (young) league record for goals in a game: four. The Spirit won, 4-2.

Along the way, Ochs and Miller also made contributions, providing a glimpse of how Washington’s attack may come around before their lottery tickets are cashed. As long as his Jorden’s young attackers can threaten, the game opens up for players like Matheson, who’s now tied for the league lead in goals.

Washington’s forwards are still be a work in progress, but with nine goals in six games (as many as team in the league), they may not have to wait for something to click. Perhaps something already has.

source: AP3. Tactics or talent? There’s a problem in Portland’s midfield

When the Thorns opened the season with a 1-1 draw at Kansas City, many remarked on the trouble Cindy Parlow Cone’s midfield had in Overland Park, the quartet of Angie Kerr, Allie Long, Nikki Washington and Becky Edwards unable to generate chances for Morgan and Sinclair. Since, Cone has made adjustments, dropping Sinclair into Kerr’s spot while the team continues becoming more familiar with each other.

It hasn’t helped that Portland has played four games on the road. Half their matches have been on the type of multi-purpose, turf surfaces that most midfield creativity. While every team’s facing similar problems as they try to establish a style and a systems, Portland’s time on the road combined with a want to play a possession-style has presented the Thorns with some distinct obstacles.

Thursday, however, those excuses went out the window. Against a Sky Blue team who, like their previous opponents, sat deep and dared the Thorns to break them down, Portland still seemed to lack ideas. And this wasn’t on the road, on a bad field. This was at home, on the same field they practiced on all week. Still, the movement Cone had promoted all preseason was non-existent. There was no combination play, no significant buildup. The team was playing into Sky Blue’s jam-packed block.

Having carried a four-game winning streak into Thursday’s game, Portland is clearly capable of winning despite their shortcomings. But they can’t reach their potential without improvement. The cohesion and familiarity, which has only been evident on one goal this year (their second last Saturday at Chicago), needs to improve. They need to draw compact defenses out of their positions, and if they can’t, they have to kind a way to play wide. To date, the Thorns have had almost no presence down the flanks, their wide midfielders pinching in to contribute to the congestion.

That’s meant Long (left midfield) has been in focus, with onlookers asking if there’s more that can be done to serve Morgan and Sinclair. Same goes for Washington (right midfield, pictured), though at some point, when the players are repeatedly trying the same, unsuccessful approaches, you have to look beyond their individual play. Why are the Thorns persistently trying to work through the middle? Why aren’t they going wide, be it with by more readily overlapping their fullbacks, overloading a flank, or just playing behind their opposing fullbacks? Instead of trying to go through teams’ two-woman shields, why aren’t they playing in, out, and around the defense, trying to pull players out of position while encouraging Morgan to make better runs behind the center halves?

Perhaps Long and Washington need to do more, but when you consider how Portland’s played through six games, it’s unclear they’ve been asked to do anything different. At some point, the team needs to change it up.

QUICK HITS

Portland Thorns FC Washington Spirit
Star to Watch Christine Sinclair – The natural forward has been draw into attacking midfield to try and solve the team’s biggest problem. She’s still Portland’s best player, but while adjusting to her new role, Sinclair has yet to discover how to balance a midfielder’s demands with her goal-scoring talent. Diana Matheson – Arguably the league’s best player after five-plus weeks, the Canadian international is capable of creating chances by going either from the middle or by going wide. To date, however, she’s been handling the goal-scoring herself. She’ll go into Sunday’s match tied for he league lead in goals (four).
Still Important Alex Morgan – The U.S. international leads the league in shots and shots on goal, but the quality of chances need to improve. Part of that is on Morgan’s teammates to put her in better spots. Part of that is on Morgan, who’s still adapting to a markedly different style than what she’s flourished in for the U.S. national team. Ashlyn Harris – No NWSL keeper has been better about decisively coming off her line to collect opposition through balls. If Portland’s plan to beat Washington depends on running through the Spirit defense, they better hope Harris is off her game.
Win if … … they either add another trick to their attack, thus finding a way around what’s bound to be blockade in the midfield, or they get something special from Sinclair or Morgan. … they stay tight and deep through the middle, eschew risks for organization in defense, and find a moment’s magic from Matheson going forward.

OTHER GAMES, WEEK 6

Seattle Reign 2-4 Washington Spirit (Thursday) – While we’re only six games into the season, you have to consider whether Reign FC can come back from this. If there was one game they were going to win, it was this one – returning home, against another winless side. Instead, they become the first team to give up four goals at home.

Portland Thorns 0-1 Sky Blue FC (Thursday) – Jim Gabarra’s team moves into a tie for first after an 80th minute blast from Lytle handed Portland their first loss. One of the least-entertaining match of the season, Lytle’s long shot was the only real test either keeper saw. Karina LeBlanc, ultimately had no chance to stop the winner.

FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers (Saturday, 8:35 p.m. Eastern) – The Blues are coming off their first loss of the season, falling 2-1 at Western New York. Venturing out of the Eastern time zone for the first time this year, Boston looks to remain the league’s last undefeated team. Watch for the how Leigh Ann Robinson and Lauren Sesselmann deal with Heather O’Reilly.

Portland Thorns vs. Washington Spirit (Sunday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern)

Seattle Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC (Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern) – Last weekend, Sky Blue got two first half goals en route to a 2-0 win over Seattle at Yurcak Field. While a change of venue would seem to embolden the Reign, there’s an increasing feeling the first-year club is in a flat spin. Based on mid-week results, it appears these teams are going in opposite directions.

Bayern Munich smashes 10-man Besiktas

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Jupp Heynckes already had Bayern Munich humming, and didn’t need the help provided by Domagoj Vida and Besiktas in the first leg of the Bavarians’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie with Besiktas.

Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski each scored twice  as Bayern Munich punished 10-man Besiktas 5-0 at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday.

Kingsley Coman also scored for Bayern ahead of the March 14 second leg in Turkey.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Besiktas would’ve wanted to find an away goal at the Allianz Arena, but Domagoj Vida made it very hard to imagine that when he sent the Turkish side down to 10 men inside the first 20 minutes.

What followed, as you might expect, was Bavarian dominance. The goals did not come, but Bayern had 70 percent possession and a 10-2 shot attempts advantage by the half hour mark.

Mueller scored from close range before the break to give Bayern its advantage.

Coman then made it 2-0 with an assist from Robert Lewandowski, and Mueller completed his brace off a cross from Joshua Kimmich.  Lewandowski then scored twice in the final 11 minutes to salt away — in 999 of 1000 scenario — a place in the quarterfinals.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Three things we learned from Chelsea v. Barcelona

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LONDON — It was honors even at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday as Chelsea and Barcelona battled to a 1-1 draw in an intriguing UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg.

The familiar foes (this was their 13th meeting in the Champions League) played out a tight game with Willian hitting both posts in the first half with sumptuous curling efforts before scoring the opener in the second half, while Lionel Messi equalized late on to grab a crucial away goal.

Chelsea are unbeaten in eight Champions League games against Barcelona, who have won just once in their seven trips to Stamford Bridge, yet Barca are among just four teams who remain unbeaten in the UCL this season and they’ll fancy their chances of getting by the Blues at the Nou Camp on Mar. 14 in the return leg with a vital away goal in the bag.

Here’s what we learned from another massive European night between the clubs in west London, as Chelsea need a score draw 2-2 or higher or a win at the Nou Camp to advance to the UCL last eight for the first time since 2013-14.


WILLIAN, HAZARD DAZZLE

This wasn’t the Messi and Luis Suarez show. Chelsea’s dynamic duo of Eden Hazard, and particularly Willian, took charge early on Tuesday.

Hazard has yet to really carry Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League and it was his job to take the game to Barcelona in the first leg. He did the best he could, and although he had little support, he caused problems for Barca on the break.

With Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata both left on the bench from the start, Hazard was asked to play a role he has rarely flourished in. His talents are much better suited to playing in a No.10 role floating off a front man or cutting in from the left flank.

Hazard, 27, flashed an effort over the bar early on and wriggled free of Barca’s defense on a few occasions as he slammed another effort over the bar. Then Willian took over.

The Brazilian continued his fine form after two goals last time out against Hull City and he smashed each post with trademark curling efforts from outside the box. Antonio Conte stood with his head in his hands on the sidelines, but deep down he knew he’d got his tactics spot on.

It was a case of third time lucky for Willian as in the second half he hit a low shot into the bottom corner to put Chelsea ahead. Chelsea’s dynamic attacking duo of Hazard and Willian had delivered.

Suarez’s drought in front of goal was now his worst in the Champions League, while Messi’s peculiar lack of potency against Chelsea looked to be continuing…


MESSI’S CHELSEA CURSE IS OVER

A moment in the first half acted as a precursor to Messi’s magic. It was a warning for Chelsea that they didn’t heed.

The Argentine magician is a joy to watch in the flesh and the way he simply glided past N'Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger summed up that his gearbox us more than capable of cranking up five gears at a time with minimal fuss.

Yet Messi didn’t get too many chances to click through the gears as Barcelona’s pragmatic approach saw both he and Suarez left isolated for much of the game as the La Liga leaders struggled to get going until late on. He only needed one chance to grab the all-important away goal.

Barca’s defensive record was the best in the Champions League this season going into this game and although Ernesto Valverde has added steel to their swashbuckling style, too often they lacked cutting edge in the final third.

Messi, now 30, may not come up against Premier League clubs many more times in his career but he provided a dagger of an away goal 15 minutes from time to end the talk of him struggling against Chelsea.

It took over 730 minutes, but Messi finally has a goal against Chelsea and it was a hugely important strike.


CONTE GETS TACTICS SPOT ON

The decision to not start with Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud up top was a bold one from Conte and it paid off brilliantly.

Some may call it boring. Some may criticize him for not playing with a recognized striker. Yet Conte’s tactical masterplan to have Hazard, Pedro and Willian charging at the center of Barca’s defense whenever they could worked to perfection.

Ahead of this clash Conte admitted he didn’t sleep well because he was concocting a plan to stop Messi and Co.

“I must be honest… it was a bit difficult to sleep well,” Conte said. “When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare. You have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too.”

He got the small details spot on as the Blues retreated into a 5-4-1 formation at times with Conte screaming at Thibaut Courtois for lumping the ball long to Hazard and Willian. He wanted the Blues to keep the ball, give it to Cesc Fabregas and have Hazard, Pedro and Willian running behind Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti.

They launched several counters in the second half but could only finish one of them off, while one mistake from Andreas Christensen cost them dear in defense.

That said, Chelsea will use this same gameplan in the second leg at the Nou Camp with confidence they can at least take the game to extra time.

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Messi makes impact

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Nas only needs one mic. Barca only requires one chance.

Lionel Messi scored on Chelsea’s lone mistake of the night, as Barcelona came back to score a potentially vital away goal in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 meeting with the Blues on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

Willian scored Chelsea’s opener after hitting both posts in a Man of the Match performance.

The second leg is March 14.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Chelsea played without a true “No. 9,” keeping Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud on the bench to start.

Both teams had chances in the first 15 minutes, with Jordi Alba having plenty of work on Barca’s left side and Paulinho missing a header for the Blaugranas at the other end.

Willian, ever dangerous, broke against the run of play and drew a foul from Ivan Rakitic to earn a free kick five yards beyond the arc of the 18.

The attempt was Marcos Alonso territory, though Willian also stood over the ball. Alonso’s swooping kick dipped toward the near post but Marc-Andre ter Stegen got low to collect the ball.

Willian then cranked a shot off the far post after cutting quickly past Sergio Busquets. Five minutes later, he ripped one off the near post.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Willian did his damage in the 62nd minute, getting a Hazard cross atop the 18 and pending it around six bodies and inside the near post.

And Messi. I mean, what can you say? Chelsea went from 1-0 to level with an away goal conceded when Iniesta cut the ball back for Messi off an Andreas Christensen error and mistimed desperations slide from Cesar Azpilicueta.

LIVE, UCL – Chelsea vs. Barcelona; Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas

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Two can’t-miss matchups are on display as the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first legs continue on Tuesday afternoon.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Chelsea and Barcelona continue its terrific recently rivalry over the past two decades with Ernesto Valverde’s side traveling to Stamford Bridge to face Antonio Conte and co. At the same time, Bayern Munich hosts Turkish giant Besiktas at the Allianz Arena.

Lionel Messi, who has yet to score against Chelsea in eight games, will be looking to break his own five-game goal drought while also keep Barcelona’s Champions League hopes alive against one of his club’s toughest opponents. Messi will be playing up top alongside Luis Suarez, with both Paulinho and Sergio Busquets sitting deep behind them to keep Chelsea from posing too much of a threat on the counter attack.

For Chelsea, the Champions League remains the last trophy the club can theoretically win, and Conte has named a strong side, though without a recognizable No. 9, with Eden Hazard playing as a false nine.

Bayern Munich is looking to reach the Champions League semifinals for the seventh time in the last nine years, and they’re facing a side who’s in the knockout stage for the first time. Vagner Love leads the line for Besiktas with Ricardo Quaresma and Anderson Talisca looking to create behind. Former Real Madrid centerback Pepe starts on the backline, and will look to stop Robert Lewandowski.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary of the two UCL last 16 games, while we will have you covered for analysis and reaction from both games right here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Chelsea vs. Barcelona – 2:45 p.m. ET
Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas – 2:45 p.m. ET