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Washington Spirit NWSL Challenge Cup preview: Portland Thorns and Houston Dash

Two teams that made big changes this offseason complete the Spirit’s preliminary schedule

Nikita Taparia

The NWSL Challenge Cup may be a weird, ad hoc competition that the league had to throw together on the fly because we’re in a pandemic, but the Washington Spirit aren’t letting that change their plans. They went to Utah to win their first-ever trophy, and the first step is taking care of business in the preliminary round against the Chicago Red Stars, North Carolina Courage, Portland Thorns, and Houston Dash.

This is part two of our preview of the Spirit’s opponents. You can read part 1 right here!

Portland Thorns

Last year:
3rd place (11W-7D-6L, 40 points, +9), lost in semifinal at Chicago

For a lot of clubs, this is a pretty great year. For the Thorns, it’s coming up short, and there has been a pretty significant exodus of players as a result. Portland holds itself to the standard that North Carolina is currently meeting, so there’s pressure to do well at the Challenge Cup.

Projected lineup:

The Thorns are very much in a Chicago situation, in which there’s a lot of talent, but the pieces on paper don’t seem to add up. Portland made major changes to their roster after last year, and between those moves and Tobin Heath opting out of the tournament, there aren’t a lot of obvious wide options.

That makes formations like this diamond 442 or some kind of 352 more likely, but we run into issues either way. Mark Parsons has indicated that he sees Lindsey Horan and Raquel Rodriguez as dual no. 8s, which would either require this diamond, playing a 3412 that is built to win every game 6-5 rather than defend central midfield, or perhaps moving Christine Sinclair up as a true forward (where she hasn’t played in NWSL for years, as Portland has required more speed up top).

The diamond’s issue is that you need attacking width from both fullbacks, and the Thorns don’t have an obvious candidate to do that now that Ellie Carpenter signed with Olympique Lyon. Katherine Reynolds is a stay-at-home type that would be better off on the right side of a back three, while moving Meghan Klingenberg over means not having her crossing ability on the left.

In any case, they’ve also got some important absentees. Heath isn’t going to Utah, while Equalizer Soccer’s Jeff Kassouf is reporting that goalkeeper AD Franch (knee) will miss the entire tournament. Kassouf also says that prized rookie forward Sophia Smith will be dealing with a knock in the early stages of the Challenge Cup. If she can play even 45 minutes against the Spirit, look for her to start over one of Simone Charley or Morgan Weaver.

What’s the vibe?:
Normally the Thorns are a default contender, but for this particular tournament, that feels like a stretch. They’ve obviously got some wonderful players, but they went for the big rebuild this offseason, which generally requires some build-up time rather than just jumping into make-or-break games amid several world crises.

It’s not just that, though. As this excellent piece from Rose City Review points out from multiple angles, there are just a lot of question marks around Portland right now. The defense, the midfield, the front line...it’s all a bit of a puzzle right now. It feels like there are games where the raw talent and experience on the Thorns roster will be enough, but there will also be games where the lack of time to figure out a successful recipe with all these ingredients is going to be clear.

Strengths:
There’s just an extravagant amount of talent on this team, issues or no. They’ve improved at center back both in terms of talent (no disrespect to Emily Sonnett, but Becky Sauerbrunn is Becky friggin’ Sauerbrunn) and in terms of compatibility. Horan and Sinclair are two of the best players on earth, and Menges, Klingenberg, and Rodriguez are all upper-tier players at their position within NWSL. They’ve also assembled some exciting youngsters in the attacking end, with Smith, Weaver, and Charley all potential nightmares to defend.

Weaknesses:
It’s all so unproven, and as we’ve been talking about, they’ve got no time to build up to their best. This roster is built for a marathon, and the Challenge Cup is a sprint. The flaws that might have been sorted out with time are just going to be there for as long as Portland is in this tournament.

Prospects of a Spirit win:
Normally the Spirit play extremely tough games against Portland, but in general those games have not gone their way. This time around, things feel different: it’s Washington that has the established foundation, and the Thorns are the team in transition. This is still going to be a difficult game, but the Spirit should approach this one with genuine confidence.

Houston Dash

Last year:
7th place (7W-5D-12L, 26 points, -15), missed playoffs

The Dash were not very good last year, as that -15 in particular illustrates. They had some games where they were competitive, but when the wheels came off, frankly Houston could be accused of giving up on games. However, they’ve improved their roster in terms of talent and character, and the Spirit can’t overlook them. Last year, with a lower-quality roster, the Dash beat Washington at the Plex, and held them to two 0-0 draws.

Projected lineup:

James Clarkson could opt for a 433 if he’s willing to move Haley Hanson to right back (bringing in former Spirit midfielder and Maryland native Christine Nairn), but the Dash added multiple potential fullbacks in part to keep the underrated Hanson in the midfield. So, look for this 4231 to be the go-to formation throughout the Challenge Cup. With the improvements they’ve made at center back and the addition of Shea Groom on the wing, the Dash are a more formidable opponent than they were in 2019.

What’s the vibe?:
For the first time in a few years, there’s some quiet confidence building in Houston. No one is saying the Dash are a favorite to win the Challenge Cup, but they’ve made real strides forward, and they certainly have it within themselves to play spoiler for some of the more fancied teams.

Strengths:
Just look at the spine of the team. From Rachel Daly to Jane Campbell, they’re all smart, tough, experienced players who don’t make mistakes, and who demand success from the rest of the group. Throw in Allysha Chapman and Shea Groom, and the Dash are no longer just a team making up the numbers. In particular, if Clarkson wants to adopt a counter-attacking style, they’re going to be a real problem.

Weaknesses:
The Dash have a lot of good starters, but do they have a Best XI player? Most likely, they don’t, and given how tightly competitive NWSL games tend to be, those matchwinners have an outsized influence on games. Houston isn’t going to get steamrolled any more, but they’re still probably one more piece away from being able to turn those tight games into wins on a regular basis.

Prospects of a Spirit win:
The Dash should provide a real test for the Spirit, but the talk around Washington as we approach the tournament is trending towards “semifinalist, possible finalist.” To fulfill those expectations, a team getting that kind of treatment has to be able to separate themselves from teams like Houston that are solid, tricky opponents who ultimately don’t have as high of a ceiling. The Dash are going to push the Spirit hard, but if Washington is who we hope they are, they should be up for the challenge.