The NWSL Top 4 is exceptionally tight. The Chicago Red Stars are in second place, one point ahead of the Portland Thorns— their opponents for tonight’s clash. Depending on how North Carolina fares this weekend, either Chicago or Portland could potentially move into the top spot with a win.
So, you know, no pressure or anything.
Hot Time In Old Town: The Thorns are in third place in the NWSL table. A win over the Red Stars could potentially send them to the top of the table, depending on how North Carolina does this weekend. What would you attribute their success so far this season to?
Stumptown Footy: This is an interesting question, because if you'd talked to Thorns fans a month ago, the question on everyone's minds was, "why aren't the Thorns better?"
For whatever reason—or rather, for several reasons that one could devote a lot of space to—the Thorns, who have a roster that looks on paper like the best in the league, haven't looked like the world-beaters they should be until they beat North Carolina in mid-July. The midfield trio of Amandine Henry, Allie Long, and Lindsey Horan often looked sluggish and had trouble connecting with their forwards consistently.
During that time, what kept them afloat was a strong defensive unit. The so-called Great Wall of Emily (Sonnett and Menges), anchors a back line that's the second-best in the league after the Courage. When they've slipped up, AD Franch has gotten them out of trouble more than once.
In July, a few things happened. Henry, Nadia Nadim, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir left for the Euro, and Mark Parsons switched to a three-back formation that's brought out the best in a number of players. Meghan Klingenberg, as we all know, is really still a forward at heart, and being backed up by three center backs gives her more cover while she runs forward to put in crosses or connect with players like Hayley Raso and Tyler Lussi. Ashleigh Sykes, in the opposite wingback slot, has impressed both offensively and defensively. Raso, meanwhile, has been an absolute revelation. She's in the form of her life, and that's allowed Sinc to sit a little deeper and be more of a playmaker than a pure striker.
HTIOT: Last week Portland signed forward Savannah Jordan, a graduate of the University of Florida who most recently played in Scotland. How much would you say Jordan moves the needle in terms of squad quality and depth?
SF: She's definitely good to have around, but frankly, she's showed up at a time when Portland is already pretty deep at forward. Raso and Lussi stepped up in a big way in Nadim's absence, and Nadim, meanwhile, as you'll know if you watched the Euro, is another player who's in the form of her life. I would have loved to have her in June. It remains to be seen, of course, how well she adapts to NWSL play, but the additions of Lussi and Sykes, plus Nadim's return to full health, plus Raso's recent transformation to Super Saiyan, mean she's got a lot of competition up there.
HTIOT: If you're Mark Parsons and you're trying to put together a team and a gameplan to beat the Red Stars on the road, how would you approach it?
SF: The obvious answer is "shut down Press and Huerta," and that's not wrong, is it? But how do you do that?
It has to start with squeezing the midfield. Portland can't give players like DiBernardo, Huerta, and Colaprico any breathing room in the central third. I've really liked seeing Lindsey Horan play as a destroyer deeper in the midfield, and I'd love to see her and Henry there and Allie Long spending more time connecting with Sinc on the attack.
To keep spouting clichés, the back line has to stay organized, and not let Press pull them out of position, as she's often able to do. They also can't fall back into the plink-it-around-the-midfield hole they got themselves into so often early in the season, and be willing to just kick the dang ball when the need arises.
SF: Other than Press, who does Portland need to keep an eye on here?
HTIOT: I'd say Julie Ertz. Moving to a defensive midfield role this season has been a revelation, and it's been crucial to the Red Stars' ability to close down the opposition and stop attacks before they start. Our backline is solid and Alyssa Naeher has been tremendous in goal, but Ertz has been absolutely crucial to Chicago's defensive gameplan. If Portland want to get a result on Saturday, they need to figure out how to get around (or through) her, and that won't be easy. The Red Stars aren't invulnerable, but they're incredibly hard to break down, and Ertz is the key to unlocking them.
SF: The Red Stars have had more consistency over the last few years than many teams, with one head coach dating back to the WPS days, and relatively little roster turnover from one season to the next. What, or who, has been the biggest surprise about this team in 2017?
HTIOT: Casey Short. For my money, she's probably the best wide defender in the league. She's smart, she's tough, she's a true two-way fullback, and she has a knack for sensing problems as they develop and snuffing them out.
SF: Chicago and Portland are both defensively strong teams. Are we headed for another low-scoring affair? How does Rory Dames go about breaking down Portland's back line?
HTIOT: I think so, yeah. I think it's going to be a 1-0 game— and I couldn't tell you for sure who will come out on top. I think Dames will stick to his gameplan and put Press and either Huerta or Hoy up top, with DiBernardo at the forward tip of the midfield diamond. If the Red Stars get no joy in the first 45, expect them to switch to a three-woman front line sometime in the second half in an attempt to pressure the Portland defense and screw up their shape. Both team's back lines will have to be at their best on Saturday if they want to get a result.