The Portland Thorns may no longer be in first place in the National Women's Soccer League, but the road to the playoffs may still go through JELD-WEN Field and the league's most intense fans.
The Chicago Red Stars have already won once at JELD-WEN, and they could keep their late drive to the playoffs alive if they can do it again this week ( live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 7 p.m. ET ).
While other NWSL clubs have created good game-day atmospheres in cozier stadia, the Thorns share their home ground with their Major League Soccer sibling, the Portland Timbers , and they've drawn five-figure crowds throughout the season.
"The coolest part about that was we were winning in the 89th minute, and the crowd was still screaming for Portland," Chicago forward Ella Masar said. "That's energy for anyone. Everyone's excited to come to Portland because of the environment they've created."
Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone knows the fans are not only backing the home team but also the game itself.
"I love our fans," Cone said. "They're super-energizing, not only for us but for the opposing team as well. They're just great fans. They're not demeaning to the other team. They appreciate great soccer."
Portland may get an extra boost from their home fans but they have actually been better on the road (5-1-2) than at home (4-3-1) in a season which is proving to be tight at the top. The Thorns are in third place with 30 points through 16 games. Leaders FC Kansas City have 32 points through 18 games; second-place Sky Blue has 31 through 17. The top two teams play each other Sunday evening, so the Thorns could move up and improve the chances of hosting a playoff game at JELD-WEN.
Chicago is still climbing the table after a rough start to the season, going 0-4-2 through April and May, including two 2-0 home losses to Portland. Then German veterans Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss arrived in time for the Red Stars' visit to JELD-WEN, and the team has steadied with a 6-7-4 record, five points shy of the final playoff spot heading into the weekend's games.
"When Sonja and Inka got here, we finally got a roster that was somewhat comparable to everybody else's," Chicago coach Rory Dames said.
The Red Stars had been unbeaten in four games in July until losing 4-1 Thursday night in Seattle. Chicago also showed a knack for second-half goals, especially in their lone tie in that four-game stretch, a 3-3 draw against league-leading Kansas City in which Masar scored in the 90th minute and Lori Chalupny struck deep into stoppage time.
And yet the Red Stars still haven't been playing at full strength. U.S. midfield veteran Shannon Boxx has only managed two games this season while battling injuries. Boxx is still out, along with top overall college draft pick Zakiya Bywaters and starting defender Taryn Hemmings.
"T was playing at probably the highest level she ever has," Dames said. "That's disappointing for her, let alone the whole group. And Z was our first pick in the draft -- we rate Z very highly. To lose any of those players is difficult, let alone losing all of them."
The Thorns, on the other hand, are coming into this game at full strength. When Chicago visited Portland in June, the Thorns were without several national team players -- US megastar Alex Morgan, Canadian scoring legend Christine Sinclair and clutch Canadian keeper Karina LeBlanc. Later in June and July, the Thorns fizzled and went winless in four games to slip to third place. They rebounded to beat Boston 2-1 last weekend and should have a full roster for the busy stretch of games ahead.
With Boxx hurt, Keelin Winters traded to Seattle, and Amy LePeilbet out for the season, the Red Stars have no healthy players in the US women's player pool. Their leader in goals, assists and minutes played is Lori Chalupny, a former United States player who was ruled out of the national team because of her concussion history a couple of years ago but remains cleared to play professionally.
"They have a lot of weapons in different parts of the field," Cone said. "I believe Lori Chalupny is a very special player -- very dangerous but also good on the defensive side of the ball. Grings has proven in the international game and in the NWSL that she can score goals. Their backline is good, with (Erin) McLeod in goal, and they're very good defensively as well, especially with Leslie Osborne and Sitch in the midfield."
Though the teams are in different places on the field -- Portland trying to solidify its place in the league elite, Chicago trying to surge into the playoff spots -- they have one thing in common off the field: something colorful that has attracted interest on social media.
In Portland's case, that would be the large hats Cone has worn on the sidelines. The Thorns are now auctioning a game-worn Cone hat (as of Friday afternoon: $100), and Cone responded publicly to a Twitter feed that uses the name @CPCsHat : "Don't worry. You may not always be on my head but you are always on my mind. Safely by my side on the bench."
@CPCsHat @itsmeglinehan Don't worry. You may not always be on my head but you are always on my mind. Safely by my side on the bench.
-- Cindy Cone (@cone_cindy) July 22, 2013 Cone wears the hats to protect her fair skin from the sun and keep wind out of her hair. A player showed her the CPCsHat tweets.
"So I tweeted at him. Or at 'it.'"
Cindy Parlow Cone is often seen wearing her hat on the sidelines. (Photo: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports).
Chicago features Masar on a YouTube segment called "The Ella and Erin Show." The show was called "The Ella and Carm Show" until defender Carmelita Moscato was traded for Canadian teammate Adriana Leon in a defense-for-offense deal. McLeod, also Canadian, stepped into Moscato's place to help Masar interview and tease teammates on camera.
"When Carm got traded, we played a game that night," Masar said. "People didn't say 'Good game.' From the parents to the kids, they said, 'We're so sad about The Ella and Carm Show! We all watch it.'"
But the show has gone on. Just not with the team's coach.
"I have not been asked to be on the show, but I don't know that I would go on," Dames said. "That's a fun thing for the players and Ella to do, and I think some of the fans enjoy it. They like getting to know the players. I don't know that I would have a lot of stuff to offer that people would be overly interested in."