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.

Day Four: All the action from the U20 World Cup

Hong Hae-in/Yonhap via AP
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South Korea and Venezuela clinched berths in the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup on Tuesday, while Germany and Argentina have surprising work to do after two matches in South Korea.

[ MORE: Allardyce steps down at Palace ]

South Korea 2-1 Argentina

Barcelona B man Lee Seung-woo helped South Korea take a 2-0 lead, then hold on for the win and group lead over England.

England 1-1 Guinea

Chelsea youngster Fikayo Tomori scored a wild long range own goal to cost England the three points, but the Blues are still well-positioned to advance out of the group stage. Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook scored for England, and it was a beaut.

Venezuela 7-0 Vanuatu

Seven different Venezuelans have scored through a pair of shutout wins, with Caracas’ Sergio Cordova the only one to bag a pair.

Mexico 0-0 Germany

Germany has just one point through two matches, thanks largely to Pachuca’s Abraham Romero’s seven saves. Mexico was outshot 12-6.

Porto, Watford, Hull? Marco Silva in demand

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Marco Silva is one of the hottest properties in management, months after eliciting cries of “Who?” following his appointment at Hull City.

While those cries may have been a tiny bit myopic given his time at Sporting CP and Olympiacos, the 39-year-old is now visible to the world despite Hull’s relegation.

[ MORE: Real Madrid nabs $50m teen ]

Silva will be back in England to meet with Hull on Wednesday, but a clause in his contract that said he could leave if the club was relegated gives the Tigers very little hope.

Rumors have him wanted at Watford, and he’s also been linked with a number of other jobs including Southampton (should the club part ways with Claude Puel).

However, the former right back is also reportedly a target of one of the biggest clubs in his home country: Champions League side Porto.

UEFA Europa League Final preview: Manchester United vs. Ajax

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Jose Mourinho’s big European gamble takes center stage on Wednesday in Sweden, when Manchester United attempts to topple young Ajax in the UEFA Europa League Final.

United’s chances for UEFA Champions League qualification, a magnificent opportunity, are overshadowed by the pall cast over Manchester by sinister terrorist attacks at a pop concert that killed and injured many on Monday night.

Alas, there’s soccer to be played, and Mourinho is looking to make it a trio of shiny items in his first year on the job. United beat Leicester City for the Community Shield, then topped Southampton in the EFL Cup Final en route to Sweden.

United’s well-documented dearth of healthy defenders will march out one more time on Wednesday, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones tasked with manning the center of the back line. Expect Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian out wide.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Despite the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho’s attack is going to give Ajax fits. Marcus Rashford has been next level for most of the second half of the season, and United will also likely feature Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba atop Ander Herrera.

If someone is going to break United down, it could be midfield wizards Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone. The creative middle men have a variety of options to find with the ball, including on-loan Chelsea man Bertrand Traore and Danish teenager Kasper Dolberg.

But how will they deal with United’s attack? Sure Ajax has stopped Lyon, Schalke, Copenhagen, and Legia Warsaw, but United and Mourinho? That’s another challenge for Peter Bosz and his men.

Ajax won the 1992 UEFA Cup, and this is United’s first ever trip to this particular final. The Red Devils are heavy favorites, and we expect United to prevail. Don’t sleep on Juan Mata heroics. Call it 3-1.

Allardyce resigns, opening up intriguing vacancy at Palace

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Sam Allardyce is walking away on top outside the relegation zone.

The veteran Premier League manager, 62, resigned his post as Crystal Palace on Tuesday, weeks after leading another team to safety.

The move ends a tumultuous eight months for Allardyce, who was fired as England manager after an undercover sting exposed unethical dealings with agents.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

It also comes about an hour after somebody wrote that Crystal Palace should move on from Allardyce. What a jerk, that somebody.

Rarely at a loss for words, here’s Big Sam from cpfc.co.uk:

I want to be able to savour life while I’m still relatively young and when I’m still relatively healthy enough to do all the things I want to do, like travel, spend more time with my family and grandchildren without the huge pressure that comes with being a football manager.

This is the right time for me. I have no ambitions to take another job, I simply want to be able to enjoy all the things you cannot really enjoy with the 24/7 demands of managing any football club, let alone one in the Premier League.”

All kidding aside — and I’m far from a Big Sam fan — congrats to the man on walking away to enjoy the finer things in life. He had a heck of a run, and we’ll see how long he can resist being away from the fray. Cheers, Sam.