Game Preview: Portland Thorns vs Washington Spirit

Washington Spirit midfielder Diana Matheson has led the attack early in the season. - Cynthia Hobgood

The Washington Spirit are set to host the offensive firepower of Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair in Saturday’s NWSL match-up with the Portland Thorns at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

It seems everyone in the soccer community expects Washington to lose this one. Portland is 2-0-1 with 7 points atop the standings. Washington is 0-1-2 with 2 points, not far from the bottom of the table. All of the hype has been about Morgan and Sinclair.

But nothing is a given and as former US international Brandi Chastain said after the US lost to Norway in the 2000 Olympic final, "You never know the outcome. That is why you play the game." While the cards may be stacked against Washington, Brandi’s words echo in my head.

Key Match-Up: Washington Defense v Portland Offense

In some ways, the Spirit match up well with the mighty Thorns, especially on defense. Yes, the Thorns are led by Morgan, Sinclair, and Danielle Foxhoven, who has impressed early on this season, scoring a goal last week against Chicago.

But the Spirit backline of Ali Krieger, Tori Huster, Robyn Gayle and Kika Toulouse have only conceded three goals in three games, despite having faced some intimidating duos already, including Abby Wambach and Adriana for Western NY; Lisa De Vanna, and Kelley O’Hara for Sky Blue FC; and Heather O’Reilly and Sydney LeRoux. (Having typed that list, I must stop and shake my head at how offense was allocated by the NWSL. Parity was clearly not a concern.)

Regardless, the Spirit absolutely must contain Sinclair and Morgan. They must not let them combine. If they are successful in those endeavors, the pressure will be on Foxhoven, who is also dangerous, so they can’t forget her either.

Additionally, the Spirit will need to find a way to turn defense into offense, aggressively countering, not wasting any chances that develop. Lori Lindsey being aware and making the quick connection between the backline and frontrunners could be the difference-maker in these counter-attack scenarios.

Giving the Goalkeeper Edge to DC

Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris is second only to Western NY’s Adrianna Franch in saves with 17 and has faced 22 shots on goal. Harris has been spectacular—and I’m not just talking about stats. She’s beena vocal leader of the team on the field, giving direction to players everyone from her defensive line all the way up to the strikers.

Comparatively, Portland’s Karina LeBlanc has faced only 8 shots on goal and saved 6 of those. If the Spirit can find a way to get the ball on frame and test LeBlanc, they may be able to claw their way to a win. LeBlanc, by the way, was not taking goal kicks last week against Chicago. That may indicate some kind of injury, but nothing has been announced.

Chappie's Possible Return

Canadian center back Candace Chapman will be available for the first time this season, after a knee procedure earlier this spring. I am unsure exactly what her return will mean for the lineup, but the 30-year-old veteran’s 11 years of international experience is much needed on this relatively young side.

One option is to move Tori Huster to her more natural position in the midfield, but there appear to be several viable scenarios. I think the Spirit have struggled to get the ball through the midfield into the last third. If Huster could help solve that issue, it might open up the offense immensely. I could also see her moving to left back as she’s already prove how adaptable she is, and there she’d have more room to push forward on the outside flank.

Size Matters…or Does It?

It’s been frequently noted that the Spirit lack size and height. This will likely be exploited by the Thorns, both on set pieces and in the run of play. The Thorns have proven to be a very physical team, anchored by Allie Long in the midfield. But this strength could potentially become a liability if Portland does not remain disciplined.

And while size has been a challenge in many ways for the Spirit, 5’1" Diana Matheson has consistently been a catalyst for the offense. If you don’t enjoy watching her cut up a defense, you just aren’t paying attention. She has fabulous instincts and can reach just about any ball sent forward to her.

When it was announced "DMath" allocated to Washington, my initial reaction was: She is going to be awfully fun to watch. And she has been. The Spirit will need her to earn her way to the top of the goal-scoring table this week in order to win. I’m sure not going to bet against her. However, Matheson will also need the strikers to be more active and make runs so she can dump off to them after she’s attracted the attention of the defense.

Packing the ‘Plex

To end on a positive note, there has been much ado about Portland’s support of women’s soccer, which is undeniably extraordinary. But to only focus on that one location is missing the point that the NWSL has gotten off to a solid first month in terms of ticket sales.

Washington, for instance, has performed extremely well without the league’s most well-known players. After hosting a sold-out home opening April 20 at the Maryland SoccerPlex, "DMV" area residents proved they are interested in more than one game. Last week’s game drew a very respectable 3,102 fans for a match-up with Sky Blue FC—not necessarily seen as marquee.

A few notes on attendance history in Washington:

  • In 2009, the Freedom averaged 5,747, including three games at RFK Stadium and the rest at the SoccerPlex.
  • In 2010, the Freedom averaged 3,825 with just one game at RFK and the remaining at the SoccerPlex.

Washington is on target to average about 4,000 for the first three home games. As an obsessive ticket sales watcher, I am very encouraged by this support for the team.

With only 50 general admission tickets and a few dozen VIP reserved seats left as of Friday evening, another sellout is assured Saturday. The stadium has only 3,200 fixed seats. The remaining general admission fans will need to find spots on the "Spirit Hill," beer garden or concourses.

In short, if you are going to the game and don’t have an assigned seat—get there early to save a spot to enjoy your Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy.

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