(Image courtesy of WashingtonSpirit.com)
With half of the NWSL season played, and sitting in fourth place in the league table, the Washington Spirit are setting their sights on securing playoff positioning. The most immediate of their opponents en route to that goal are a considerable one: Portland Thorns FC, who even without Olympians Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan or newly-minted gold medalist Christine Sinclair, have gone 4-0-1 to widen their lead at the top of the table with 25 points.
“Marc’s a good coach, very good tactically,” Spirit coach Richie Burke said of Portland’s Marc Skinner, who is serving his last season in charge of the Thorns before leaving to coach the Netherlands national team. “I think the two strikers are very dangerous and they play a little bit freelance. They’re not as disciplined out of possession, but the diamond is very, very structured, very organized and I think they’re back four do a very good job too. So I think it’s gonna serve as a little bit of a test for us tomorrow. they generally get out the gates really quickly, they’ve scored early goals in a number of matches so we have to be very prepared from the get go.”
Burke, who was disappointed in the team’s start to last weekend’s match, a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Red Stars in which the team “lacked any bite, any real character, any real personality,” in the first half, relishes the challenge of starting the back stretch of the season against such a formidable opponent.
“We want to be challenged,” said Burke. “We’ve gone through 12 games. The first half of the season’s done now, so that season’s over, we’ve rear-view mirrored that one. We went 5-4-3, a winning record. Could have been better, but a couple of results didn’t go our way.”
“But now we’re going into the second part of the season and we’re looking at these 12 games as a brand new season, there’s a couple that we’ll do without our Olympians but then everybody should be back in full strength, and we’re going to try to make a charge for the playoffs.”
While some results have eluded Washington over the past month, they’ve had strong individual performances that have been recognized by the league; forward Ashley Hatch was named the league’s Player of the Month for July, and Andi Sullivan, who came second in votes, was named to the July Best XI. Burke is proud of his players, and believes even more should have been recognized, particularly midfielder Ashley Sanchez, who he feels were just as deserving of a spot on the Best XI. Burke said those players will be motivated to put in good shifts against a tough Portland team.
“Sullivan is always incredibly critical of herself,” said Burke. “She strives for perfection all the time, and she was mad at herself by the way she played in the first half against Chicago last weekend, but she played much better in the second half. I expect both of them to be firing on all cylinders and motivated by playing against a Portland team that didn’t lose in the month of July and are the top of the league. I think that they both will be showing up to play tomorrow.”