The Washington Spirit face the NWSL-leading Portland Thorns tonight in a game that is equal parts difficult and important. The Spirit are by no means out of the playoff race, but they’re at the point where they need to get results every time they step on the field, and that includes this tough road game in Oregon. The Thorns (33 goals) are the league’s top-scoring team despite only playing 7 of their 17 games at home. At Providence Park, they’ve averaged over 2 goals per game, and have only conceded 6 times.
The task sounds monumental, but there are reasons for the Spirit to have some confidence. They’ve beaten Portland this season, and they’ve already gone to the west coast and come home with a point (a 1-1 draw at Reign FC back in June). That said, adding to that list today is probably going to require their best performance of 2019.
Key player: Andi Sullivan
Sullivan’s to-do list today is daunting. First up, she’s going to be seeing a lot of Christine Sinclair, which is not easy in multiple ways: Sinclair is as good off the ball as any player on the planet, and on it she’s so hard to dispossess because of her ability to always position herself correctly and see the angles of where the ball needs to go next. And then, there’s the general physicality of the Thorns, who pair their team-wide smarts and ability on the ball with also being to out-muscle most teams if it comes to that.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Spirit’s stylistic approach hinges on players being able to complete passes under pressure, and the Thorns have thrived on pressing teams that want to play in their own end all year. Sullivan is going to have to be pretty close to flawless in this department, or else Washington is going to end up defending for too much of this game to have a realistic chance of getting a much-needed result.
Location: Providence Park (Portland, OR)
Kickoff time: 10:30pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (4231) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Elise Kellond-Knight; Andi Sullivan, Meggie Dougherty Howard; Rose Lavelle, Jordan DiBiasi, Chloe Logarzo; Ashley Hatch
Bench: Shae Yanez, McKenzie Berryhill, Amy Harrison, Dorian Bailey, Bayley Feist, Cheyna Matthews, Arielle Ship
The Spirit are again without Mallory Pugh due to a hip injury incurred on national team duty, while Matthews (ankle) and Feist (glute) are questionable. Richie Burke may opt for a more conservative approach based on Portland’s scoring ability, but mostly that’s about having two holding midfielders and a narrow midfield overall rather than an outright bunker.
On the plus side, Nielsen is back from suspension, and Huster should be good to go after missing last week’s game. If Matthews or Feist isn’t able to give it a go, Cali Farquharson seems like the likely option to step in on the bench. If they’re both out, Farquharson will probably be joined by Crystal Thomas or Megan Crosson.
Projected Thorns starting 11: (4231) - Britt Eckerstrom; Elizabeth Ball, Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, Meghan Klingenberg; Lindsey Horan, Dagny Brynjarsdottir; Hayley Raso, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath; Midge Purce
The big news came out as I was wrapping up this piece: defensive midfielder Gabby Seiler, who is probably Staab and DiBiasi’s only real competition for Rookie of the Year, tore her ACL yesterday. That’s enormous news, as the Thorns are also without Celeste Boureille, Angela Salem, and Andressinha as well. Brynjarsdottir should slot in, but don’t be surprised if she plays as the no. 8 and Horan (the best 8 on the planet) has to drop in as a no. 6.
In goal, Adrianna Franch is the normal starter (and the two-time defending Goalkeeper of the Year), but she’s listed as questionable with a thigh issue. Look for Mark Parsons to play it safe, as he has a trustworthy back-up in Eckerstrom. At right back, Ellie Carpenter made a late appearance against North Carolina last week, but she probably isn’t fit enough to play from the start. Ball, who is having a strong season, remains the probable starter instead.
Finally, it’s not entirely certain who will make up the front four. Sinclair and Heath are locks, and Purce is probably the starter up top. That leaves one spot on the right for Raso, Caitlin Foord, and Simone Charley.
Referee: Michael Radchuk
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington
Available streaming: Monumental Sports Network, Yahoo (domestic), NWSLsoccer.com (international...unless yesterday’s low-detail announcement about ESPN kicks in straight away?). That Yahoo link should take you right to the correct page.
What are you drinking?: That Skipjack Bohemian pilsner I’m going to crack open just before D.C. United kicks off is probably going to carry me right into the start of this one.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion.