The Portland Thorns and Washington Spirit played out an entertaining 1-1 draw at the Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. Thorns will be frustrated at not getting a win given that they dominated the first half in possession. With this result, Spirit is now in 4th place with 4 points, and the Thorns in 5th with 2 points, after each of them have played 3 matches. With just 1 preliminary round match remaining for both, Spirit have a better chance of finishing in the top 4 and getting a relatively weaker opponent for the quarterfinal match.
Thorns did lose experienced USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn due to a left hip injury, and highly rated rookie Sophia Smith (Stanford) who’s not yet recovered from a left knee injury. But their midfield diamond (in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation) was full of experience and quality - NWSL veteran Angela Salem at the base, Canadian superstar Christine Sinclair at the top, and Costa Rican international Raquel Rodríguez, and Lindsey Horan of the USWNT on the sides.
Spirit gave 2 of its rookies their first professional starts - Averie Collins (Washington State University, previously Stanford) at centre forward, and Natalie Jacobs (University of Southern California) at right back. Japanese international Kumi Yokoyama was back in the starting XI. The dangerous duo of Rose Lavelle (central midfielder), and Ashley Hatch (striker) were rested to manage their minutes given the short turnaround between the matches, in addition to the heat and altitude of the place. Given how young and inexperienced this starting XI was, a lot of the responsibility fell on captain and central midfielder Andi Sullivan, and the now regular centre-back pairing of Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab. The Spirit reverted back to their 4-3-3 formation that gave them the win over the Chicago Red Stars in the first match, after trying out the 4-1-2-1-2 in their match against the North Carolina Courage, in which they lost. Coach, Richie Burke, had owned up and said they should probably just play the style and formation they are comfortable with, and in which they are able to take it to teams, rather than change it drastically to contain certain opponents.
The first half started at a frenetic pace from both teams. The Spirit were running with the ball at Thorns defenders at every opportunity they got. But by the 17th minute it was clear that the Thorns had settled into a nice groove thanks mainly to Horan and Rodríguez, easily breaking up Spirit’s build-up play, using width effectively and putting in dangerous crosses, even having some nice passing sequences in the final third, but with no end product, because of resolute defending from the Spirit backline. The Spirit were on the backfoot, struggling to keep possession, and compounding their own problems sometimes by misplacing simple passes. But they did spring some threatening counterattacks, ending the half with the same number of shots (7) as the Thorns, and more shots on target (3) than the Thorns (1), that kept the Thorns defenders honest, and tested the goalkeeper Bella Bixby who made some decent saves.
The Spirit brought in their big guns, Lavelle and Hatch at half time. Burke asked wide forwards Sanchez and Yokoyama to come inside a bit, and Andi Sullivan to get much more involved and aggressive in tackling, recoveries, and getting up to support attacks. The result was that the Spirit were more composed on the ball, patient in building out from the back, and comfortable in possession compared to the first half, but at the same time ready for quick counterattacks when required. Lavelle played a blinder, putting on a complete performance in central midfield - stealing balls off their defensive midfielder, initiating counterattacks, combining nicely with Yokoyama on the right flank, and playing line-breaking passes to the forwards Sanchez, Hatch, Hellstrom and with ease. Like with the USWNT, it is criminal that so much of her good work doesn’t end up with more goals.
The Thorns took the lead in the 69th minute, when Horan scored from an amazing diving header off a Meghan Klingenberg free kick. But the Spirit hit back just 8 minutes later, when Sam Staab headed home when Sanchez sensationally backheel volleyed a wayward corner kick. The game opened up after this, with both teams going for the win, but the best chance fell to Horan in the 88th minute, but Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe came up with a brilliant save, to keep her team level.
Horan, who played the full 90 minutes, was no doubt the player of the match, pulling the strings in the Thorns midfield, starting and building attacks, and sometimes even there to end them. But the Thorns have to consider if this over-dependence on her is a good thing. Maybe it is time to find a truly world class creative attacking midfielder in the number 10 role that Sinclair currently plays, as her displays have been underwhelming for some time.
The Spirit, on the other hand, look like a very balanced team despite their youth and inexperience, and will be hoping for a deep run in this tournament.
By Alok Dadhekar
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos