2018 has not been kind to the Washington Spirit, but this evening at Audi Field, they get a chance to put all that to the side for one night as they host Portland Thorns FC. The Spirit say they’ve sold more tickets than their all-time record attendance already, and they’ll be hoping to impress them and the national TV audience by pulling off what would be a stunning upset of the star-studded Thorns.
Despite the gulf between the two sides in the standings — Portland has 26 more points than the Spirit — Washington has been a tough opponent for the Thorns this year. A 1-1 draw at Providence Park was highlighted by a late Aubrey Bledsoe penalty kick save, and the Spirit fell 1-0 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in a game of few chances. To win today, they’ll have to get back to being hard to play against, and they’ll have to break a 604 minute scoreless run. It’s a lot to ask, but hopefully they can rise to the occasion.
Key player: Andi Sullivan
It’s difficult to pick just one player, because the Thorns are an excellent team with a lot of motivation to show Washington no mercy. The Spirit, meanwhile, are going through a season that has drained them of the collective belief required to pull off upsets. The Spirit are going to need to take care of the ball in a way they haven’t in a while. This isn’t about winning the possession battle so much as not giving the ball away in moments that would expose the defense.
The Thorns are a versatile team that can dominate the ball, or sit back a bit and pounce on opposing mistakes. Either way, turnovers are going to be harshly punished, so Sullivan and the entire central midfield need to be at their best. On the defensive side, MVP candidate Christine Sinclair is arguably the best player off the ball in the entire league. Stopping her isn’t one person’s job, but Sullivan is going to see more of her than just about anyone. Tracking those runs, being up for battling with a physically strong player, and communicating when it’s time to shift responsibility for Sinclair to others are huge challenges, and they’re all on Sullivan’s to-do list tonight.
Location: Audi Field (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 8:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (4231) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Taylor Smith, Rebecca Quinn, Estelle Johnson, Caprice Dydasco; Whitney Church, Andi Sullivan; Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, Mallory Eubanks; Ashley Hatch
Bench: DiDi Haracic, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Joanna Lohman, Havana Solaun, Cali Farquharson, Arielle Ship, Francisca Ordega
Wednesday’s gameday 18 was this group save for Ordega, who has been questionable with a foot contusion. It seems reasonable to expect her to be in uniform, even if her minutes are limited. Elsewhere, following Wednesday’s loss, interim head coach Tom Torres said “We knew going into the last few games that we wanted to make sure both goalkeepers got an opportunity,” so expect Bledsoe to rotate back in.
Torres also said that, provided their fitness data allows for it, he hopes to get Pugh and Lavelle to both play 75 minutes, which would be a season high for them as a duo. Pugh hasn’t played that long since May 23rd, while Lavelle hasn’t played 75 minutes in a game since 2017.
Projected Portland starting 11: (4231) - Adrianna Franch; Ellie Carpenter, Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, Meghan Klingenberg; Celeste Boureille, Lindsey Horan; Hayley Raso, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath; Caitlin Foord
If this game weren’t such a big occasion for the league, I think Mark Parsons might consider rotating just a bit more. After all, the Thorns played Wednesday and then flew cross-country, which is a tough task. However, they’ve got time off due to the upcoming international window, and they either need to win twice or get some help from Chicago to clinch a home semifinal in the playoffs.
So, most likely, expect no changes. However, if that’s incorrect, the players most likely to get a start would be Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic (who would replace Foord) and Maryland native Midge Purce (who could come in for former Spirit attacker Raso or for Carpenter as a particularly attack-minded right back).
Referee: Katja Koroleva
Available TV: ESPNews
Available streaming: WatchESPN (domestic), NWSLsoccer.com (international)
What are you drinking?: These answers have gotten pretty boring with so many home games. Iced coffee en route, bottled water in the press box.
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