This season seems to be going off script a bit. At least for one team. Let's take a brief look at the Portland Thorns before we get to the awful predications, shall we?
Last season's Champion Portland Thorns haven't found a way to reliably finish games, and consequently sit fifth in the table. They haven't collected a victory in more than a month, and have somehow surrendered one more goal than they've scored through eight games. It was always going to be challenging to replace Amandine Henry (and, perhaps surprisingly to some, Allie Long), but at the beginning of the season, nobody would have expected a home draw to the Spirit or a 2-1 home loss to the Pride, let alone a draw away at the Dash. Providence Park was intimidating and formidable to visit. But that advantage seems to be fading a bit this year (though the supporters are as raucous and energetic as ever). This Thorns team has been unable to deliver winning football, and it's a bit of a head scratcher.
The roster is loaded with talent. But three in the back hasn't worked through the first third of the season for the Thorns. Especially not with a formation that essentially asks two players to defend and eight to attack. Adrianna Franch's absence has been sorely felt, as it's not hard to think that she might have taken up positions to save at least a few of the goals that have slipped past Britt Eckerstrom. Britt hasn't been bad, but Franch is just seriously so good that few would be able to compare. There's a bit of relief for the defense this week with the return of Emily Menges, but I wouldn't be surprised to see four women in the back line as the Thorns try to get back into form against the Washington Spirit in Maryland.
Another idea worth exploring for Mark Parsons might be to start employing a proper holding midfielder. Frequently, Lindsey Horan ends up tracking back to collect the ball and shepherd it through the middle third. Celeste Boureille had mostly served in the role up until the past few weeks, but she was often caught too far forward and struggled to recover as speedier flank players and forwards forced her into sometimes desperate challenges. More recently, Andressa Cavalari Machri (did you know that was her full name?) has supplanted Boureille, and she and Horan have swapped duties at the back end of the midfield. But what if a defense-minded player was inserted in this role? A player whose entire career has been spent specializing in recognizing oncoming runs, disrupting attacks, timing tackles and picking out counter passes? I can think of one such player, and she's even on the Thorns roster. Though she started all 24 games and played 2117 minutes for the Boston Breakers last year, earning both team MVP and Player's Player honors, Angela Salem has only spent two minutes on the field for the Thorns thus far in 2018. Deploying Salem would free up all of the attack-minded Thorns to bomb forward without having to continue to be so worried about conceding on the counter.
Finishing chances is another area of concern for this team, and Ifeoma Onumonu's inability to convert from five yards out last week is emblematic of the problem. Ify is another former Breaker, and always looks almost dangerous. She sometimes has difficulty getting the ball out from under her feet, and the result is that through five starts and 24 appearances in 2017 and 2018, she's only put four of her 13 shots on target, though none of them have found the net. For her sake, I hope that first goal comes soon, because that might be enough to give her the boost of confidence she needs to start converting regularly. When that happens, watch out.
Stats can be deceiving, and sometimes players have immeasurable value even when they don't get on the scoresheet. Mallory Weber's irrepressible energy, disruptive pressing and sustained high work-rate have only earned her one goal over two Thorns seasons, but she's certainly been a major catalyst in creating offense (plus, she sometimes gets to play defense!). Eventually, Hayley Raso will return, and all she does is score. Plus, there's another world-class attacker in Caitlin Foord who still may figure in the Thorns late-season plans. Reinforcements are coming. But will they be too late?
It's hard to imagine this roster not performing better eventually. I think they'll take a good first step in the right direction tonight in Maryland.
What Happened in COG 7?
We had a lot happen in COG 7, and it started with the aforementioned 1-1 draw for the Thorns and Dash, which the Thorns followed up on with a 2-1 home loss to the Pride. For their part, the Dash added yet another draw on Saturday, 2-2 at the Red Stars. The Pride arrived in Portland to collect their win after managing only a scoreless draw at the Royals. Washington went to North Carolina and came home empty handed on a 1-0 defeat, and Sky Blue received a similarly unfriendly welcome in Seattle, where the Reign trounced them 4-1.
The Courage and Reign are the clear class of the league right now, with Orlando rising. Will we get any surprises this week?
Houston Dash at Utah Royals
Saturday at 3:30PM Eastern on Lifetime
Houston and Utah have combined for two wins and nine draws over 15 games. Neither side has looked at their best yet, and though there have been some solid team performances in those draws, the need to convert draws to wins has got to be getting under the skin of both rosters.
Houston comes into the match healthy, with only Linda Motlhalo listed as questionable. The Royals, however, will be without Kelley O'Hara and Elise Thorsnes, both due to hamstring injuries. That's not optimal, and may tip the wide play to favor the Dash.
This feels like another draw, but I'm going to say a late #FormerBreaker goal from Brittany Ratcliffe grabs a home win for the Royals.
Utah Royals 2-1 Houston Dash
Portland Thorns at Washington Spirit
Saturday at 7PM Eastern on Go90
Sorry, Spirit fans.
As questionable as the Thorns have been for the past two months, they haven't looked as bad as the Spirit. Sure, they managed an impressive draw against these same Thorns in Portland, but their only win came at the expense of an early-season depleted-of-internationals and Alex Morgan-free iteration of the Pride. Play that game again today? Different result.
But there is some good news:
The weather looks crummy for this one, but it's hard to see Washington being able to compete against the Thorns. There's always a chance, but I'm not feeling it today.
Washington Sprit 1-3 Portland Thorns
North Carolina Courage at Sky Blue FC
Saturday at 7PM Eastern on Go90
Plot thickener: The Courage signed GK Michelle Dalton this week, as Sabrina D'Angelo remains sidelined by an ankle injury. Will it matter? MMMMmmmmmm....... no.
Sky Blue, still hampered by the odd schedule quirk that has them only having completed five matches to date compared to the Courage's eight, hasn't quite come together yet. Last weekend's thumping at the hands of the Reign won't help. Christina Gibbons being out and Rebekah Stott being questionable also won't help. Is there hope?
Well, the Courage will be without Lynn Williams, but she's only been responsible for one of their goals this year, so it's hard to make a case that she's a critical piece of the Courage's success. I think they find a way to score even without the speedy Williams, and Sky Blue remains winless.
NC Courage 3-1 Sky Blue FC
Chicago Red Stars at Seattle Reign
Saturday at 10PM Eastern on Go90
I may owe Red Stars fans an apology. I hopped on the bandwagon several weeks ago, only for all the positive things they'd been doing to abruptly stop. This occurred, oddly enough, right as the world's best player arrived. But here we are, four draws and a loss since their last victory, and they feel like they're reverting to their unpredictable, inconsistent 2017 form.
That's going to make it really difficult to get anything done in Seattle. The Reign were good early in the year, with Megan Rapinoe. Then she got hurt and they still looked good. Shocker: when she returned last week, they looked the best they have all season. Yes, against Sky Blue, but c'mon.
This isn't a good road trip for the Red Stars. Seattle will be flying. The only thing that could be of interest is if #FormerBreaker Megan Oyster can't go for the Reign. She's listed as questionable, and will be a big part of keeping Kerr from becoming a menace (unless she's on the bench, duh).
Seattle Reign 3-1 Chicago Red Stars