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ESPN FC  By ESPN

Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars lead NWSL into break

With the exception of one game, the 2019 NWSL season will step aside for an international break after the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns conclude this week's schedule (ESPNEWS, 3 p.m. ET Sunday) in a showdown between teams currently occupying first and second place.

While many of the league's players will stay busy in the interim with the U.S. national team's Victory Tour, Euro 2021 qualifying or the U-23 Nordic Tournament in England, the break is one last pause in the stretch run. By the time most teams resume play after Labor Day, more days will have passed since the World Cup final than remain until the NWSL final.

Here's the landscape entering Sunday's game.

NWSL Shield

Is it a two-team or three-team race for the regular-season title?

Chicago will answer that question this weekend.

With a comeback against North Carolina on Aug. 11 and last weekend's rampaging win against Washington, Portland propelled itself five points clear of everyone else at the moment.

But with two games in hand, thanks to its break for the International Champions Cup, North Carolina still controls its own destiny entering Saturday's game against Reign FC. The Courage have the more favorable schedule, including games against Orlando and Sky Blue, but the Thorns play four of their final six games at home -- including the Courage on Sept. 11.

Either way, if the defending champions make use of those games, the odds are slim that any other team makes up five or more points on both the Thorns and Courage. Enter Chicago. After back-to-back losses against Orlando and Sky Blue, the Red Stars would fall seven points behind the top of the table with a loss Sunday. A draw is a must. A win, to pull within a point of the Thorns, would send the league into the international break with a three-way race.

Playoffs

Utah and Reign FC aren't necessarily limited to playing for fourth place and the final playoff spot -- both could make the playoffs, and events could conspire to leave either in second place and playing a home semifinal. But it's all the more interesting to find them in fourth and fifth, respectively, given that coaches who effectively swapped places are also both among names mentioned in connection with the U.S. vacancy. It is an inopportune time, in other words, for either Utah's Laura Harvey or Reign's Vlatko Andonovski to miss the playoffs.

Houston and Washington aren't done yet but need not only their own wins but also help from others.

MVP

Sam Kerr, Red Stars: In other seasons that coincided with major global tournaments, 2015 and 2016, MVP honors went to players who didn't split their summers between club and country. Kerr is making a strong case that the MVP can do both. World Cup disappointment with Australia hasn't stopped her from again tearing up the league with 13 goals in 15 starts. And her hat trick for the Red Stars a week after World Cup elimination is a signature moment.

Christen Press, Royals: She had more ground to make up on the rest of the league than Kerr, thanks to the extended U.S. stay in France. At this point, having played just eight of 18 games, the résumé might not be enough. But at the rate she's going, she could yet catch everyone if Utah makes the playoffs. Her five goals since returning to the league are impressive enough, but even that total undersells her impact on the field at the moment.

Midge Purce, Thorns: Purce and North Carolina's Kristen Hamilton are two of the best examples of players making use of a World Cup year to raise their profiles in the NWSL. Asked to train in the offseason as not only a No. 9 but also a fullback or winger -- and from either the left or right side -- she handled the challenge with aplomb. Now playing primarily up top, she has managed to make herself indispensable amidst a roster of more established stars.

Rookie of the Year

Bethany Balcer, Reign: With so many top picks out of the running because of either World Cup duty (Tierna Davidson), injuries (Tegan McGrady) or signing elsewhere (Hailie Mace, Julia Ashley), Balcer's rise from NAIA Spring Arbor University to preseason non-roster invitee to Andonovski's starting lineup would be the perfect story for this scramble of a season.

Paige Monaghan, Sky Blue: The first pick of the second round has played more minutes than almost anyone selected in the opening round. Far from hitting any rookie wall or fading against teams bolstered by World Cup returnees, she earned player of the week honors last week with two goals and was named to the U.S. Under-23 team for next week's European trip.

Sam Staab, Spirit: Teammate Jordan DiBiasi is also in this mix from a big draft class for the Spirit, but Staab has already settled in as a reassuring presence on the back line while starting every game this season. Add in a long throw that is almost in Megan Campbell's class as an offensive asset, and the fourth overall pick's stock only continues to rise. Like Balcer and Monaghan, she's headed to the U-23 event next week.

International break players to watch

Kristen Hamilton, Courage: In addition to a place in the MVP debate, Hamilton earned a call-up to the U.S. U-23 team that will play games in England next week. At 27, she's an over-age player (each team is allowed three). But especially with a new coach taking over the senior national team, this is an enormous opportunity for her to make an impression for a future senior call-up.

Anna Patten, South Carolina: Rachel Daly and Jodie Taylor are among Phil Neville's England call-ups for friendlies against Belgium and Norway, but so are South Carolina defender Anna Patten and Clemson goalkeeper Sandy MacIver. Daly and Taylor made homes in NWSL after playing collegiately in the United States. It will be interesting to see what path Patten, MacIver, South Carolina's Grace Fisk and North Carolina's Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy follow.

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