(Image courtesy of Bella Bixby’s twitter)
The Portland Thorns sit atop the NWSL, with 19 points from 10 games. Marc Parsons’ side have earned a 6-1-3 record with a +9 goal differential. Why mention this usually inconsequential tiebreaker? Because this NWSL season, it looks like every inch will count for something as the top seven teams are separated by a mere four points, and teams 3-6 all have 16 points.
Portland’s next match is against a side square in the middle of everything: the fifth placed Houston Dash. The Dash had a slow start to the season but entered Saturday in fine form, having won three of their last four, while the Thorns entered with a 2-1-1 record over their last four outings. So in a season where every advantage counts, in a game with depleted rosters because of the Olympics, how can Portland pull this off?
Keep Sophia Smith Strutting
Last year’s draft pick notched what could be the goal of the season last week when she took the ball all the way, by herself, en route to firing a laser from outside the box. While the goal in and of itself was a brilliant show of individual talent, it was also emblematic of what Smith means to this team: the possible successor to Sinclair’s throne.
The offensive prowess, the grit, the work ethic, everything about Sophia Smith brings up shades of a prime-era Sinclair, and much of what the Canadian captain still brings today. Portland’s success in this Olympic stretch, and beyond, is not distantly linked from Smith’s continued breakout; if she’s motoring, the team seems to follow, as any team Sinclair has suited up for seems to have done.
Smith has absolutely seen more minutes since the big four left for the Olympics, which has boosted her confidence. She struts onto the field pregame and looks every part the superstar we media people think she’ll become. It’s not hard to imagine that if she had the same opportunity earlier in the season, she may have looked to pass. Instead, she’s playing with a swagger and a confidence that lets everybody else know: she’s good and she knows it. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Big Time Bixby
Bella Bixby has been nothing short of a brick wall for the Thorns since taking over the net after Franch’s departure. Case in point: she is the new record-holder for the longest shutout streak to start an NWSL career at 269 minutes. Bixby was a mere few moments away from extending her shutout streak to three games if not for a 95th minute strike by Viggiano in the team’s last outing.
Portland’s backup goalie has looked every part the starter the team needed her to be with Franch off to Tokyo. Bixby hasn’t had to make a slew of sensational stops on her streak, but she has needed to remain sharp from whistle to whistle as the Thorns’ defense makes sure that opposing chances are few and far between. When she has needed to come up with big saves, she’s made it look effortless, a feat even more impressive when you consider that this stretch of games are Bixby’s first in front of fans, and first coming off of a devastating injury.
The way Bixby has stepped in and looked almost superhuman has sent waves of confidence through the rest of the team. There is a certain level of calm knowing that should the ball get past you as the last defender, you have a fearless keeper playing in top form right behind you. The value of this confidence cannot be understated with defensive powerhouse Sauerbrunn being among the Tokyo absences. In a season that could very easily come down to goal differential, Bixby is slowly becoming an MVP candidate for this Thorns squad.
Let us know who you think will be the key for Portland to holding on to top spot in the standings over on Twitter!