As we head into the final third of the NWSL schedule the race for the NWSL Shield - the prize for topping the regular season table - is still wide open. With the North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars, and Portland Thorns poised on 33, 29, and 28 points respectively ahead of this weekend’s games, all three have the trophy in their sights.
A game that could be pivotal is this Saturday’s matchup between the Red Stars and the Thorns; a win for the Red Stars would see them keep within touching distance of the Courage, but a Thorns win would mean that they leapfrog Chicago into second.
A draw would boost North Carolina’s lead to up to six points (if they beat the Seattle Reign on Sunday) - and unfortunately for both Chicago and Portland, a draw seems the most likely result in this fixture. Of their 12 meetings all-time, exactly half of these have resulted in ties.
The track record doesn’t look good for Chicago - their only win over the Thorns was way back in 2013, and the matchup between these sides earlier this year resulted in a 1-0 victory for Portland (although the game was marred by dubious refereeing decisions).
Chicago back at home
One factor that is certainly in Chicago’s favor is the fortress they’ve built at Toyota Park. The Red Stars have just one win in their last five matches - and it’s not a coincidence that it’s the only one they didn’t play on the road. They’re still unbeaten at home through 2017 and whilst Portland pose a massive threat, it’s hard to see that record disappearing. Rory Dames knows how to set up his team to protect their goal and it’ll be hard to get through what’s been a very solid defense this year - especially now that Julie Ertz and Casey Short are back from international duty.
The return of the USWNT stars isn’t the only boost that Chicago has received ahead of the Portland match; their Japanese star Yuki Nagasato has finally been cleared to play after a month battling injuries. The experienced attacker will no doubt look to connect with Christen Press and Sofia Huerta and help boost the team’s goalscoring rate.
A thorn in Chicago’s side
After a frustratingly slow start, the Portland Thorns are finally hitting stride. They’ve won their last three games - including an important victory over the Courage - and they don’t mind spoiling Chicago’s party.
Nadia Nadim’s penalty kick goal was what separated the sides in the last meeting, and after losing the European Championship final she is likely to be even more fired up than ever. Even without their superstar names, this team can be dangerous - as proved when rookie Tyler Lussi bagged her first professional goal against the Houston Dash last weekend.
After winning the NWSL Shield last season, it’s clear the Thorns won’t give it up without a fight.