Portland Thorns FC @ Portland Pilots Match Preview

Our first look at the team on the pitch will feature no NT players, but lots of puzzle pieces.

Nope, none of the national team players will be there (nor will any kits be revealed, I'm told), but Saturday night's friendly between Portland Thorns FC and the Portland Pilots (7 p.m., Merlo Field; free admission, although donations to the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute are encouraged) is, at long last, our first chance at least see the team take field.

This being the inaugural match for the Thorns, the storyline here isn't so much X's and O's as it is question marks.

Not questions marks in a pejorative way, just questions marks as in, the way head coach Cindy Parlow Cone has set up this team, it's hard to predict who will be playing where, especially since the allocated players are off to the far corners of the globe and will be absent until April 10.

Part of this seems to be by design. Judging from her comments and the way she's been running training sessions, Parlow Cone's guiding philosophy --at least one of them-- about this team is that it's going to need to be versatile in terms of both positioning and formations. So let's break this down a little:

The roster sits at 21 if you take Tobin Heath out of the equation. Assuming that one of the keepers is cut to make the finalized roster of 20, it's safe to assume the position players are set.

The roster for Saturday's game is as such, then:

Players Not Available:

Forwards

Alex Morgan

Christine Sinclair

Midfield

Tobin Heath

Defenders

Rachel Buehler

Goalkeepers

Karina LeBlanc

Players Available

Forwards

Danielle Foxhoven

Nicolette Radovcic (F/M)

Jessica Shufelt

Midfield

Becky Edwards

Angie (Woznuk) Kerr

Allie Long

Emilee O'Neil (M/D)

Meleana Shim

Nikki Washington

Courtney Wetzel (D)

Defenders

Jazmyne Avant

Marian Dougherty

Nikki Marshall

Kathryn Williamson

Goalkeepers

Roxanne Barker

Cris Lewis

Aline Reis

Without the NT players staking claim to specific positions, how this will all fit together is still a bit of a question. It's pretty much guaranteed that Foxhoven will start in the frontline; the question is, who will be up there with her? Parlow Cone's practice formations since the arrival of Morgan and Sinclair have pretty much stuck to using two forwards with midfielder Kerr acting as a liaison between the front line and the middies. Will that trend continue Saturday? Who knows! Although Foxhoven is a proven scorer, at least in college (UP, no less), she might need more help than just one other forward. Parlow Cone could pair her with draft pick Radovcic (who is undersized at 5'4", but has a nose for the goal), or Shufelt (who has potential, but who has a spotty scoring record). Or both. No matter how Saturday's lineup shakes out, however, the absence of Morgan and Sinclair necessitates shifting gears from seeing the frontline as a powerhouse to seeing it as a little weak.

Meantime, with its surfeit of able players, the midfield shuffle could be as intricately option-packed as a game of Tetris. Kerr will definitely play, and I'm 99 percent sure she'll play in the middle. The formation I've noticed has been four in the back, and sort of 3.5 in the middle and 3.5 up top --the .5 being Kerr occupying a spot between the midfield and forward positions. So let's call that a 4-4-2 for the time being. Although Parlow Cone could mix that up with Radovcic, Foxhoven, and Shufelt playing up top, and three in the middle --Kerr, Edwards, and Washington (if Parlow Cone wants to work the ball outside) or Long (if Parlow Cone wants to work the interior connective tissue)--with four still in the back.

Other options for midfielders: Long, Shim, or even O'Neil, although O'Neil also might go to the back line.

Backline-wise. Avant's speed makes her a likely candidate to start at right back --she can close on a player in a flash, and is a good candidate for pushing forward. The solid and seasoned Dougherty most likely will hold down the left back spot. This leaves Marshall and Williamson --or possibly Wetzel-- in the center. Wetzel's a player to keep an eye on. I won't go so far as to call her a sleeper pick, but the be-dreadlocked trialist out of Oregon State has proven a bit of a surprising presence in training camp. Even though she's listed as more of a defender, Wetzel's calm demeanor on the pitch, distribution skills, and patience with the ball would serve her well as a middie, if need be. If not, I wouldn't be shocked --surprised, maybe, but not shocked-- to see her starting in the backline.

Confused yet? It's a lot of puzzle pieces to be sure. Should be fun to see it all put together.

PS: I suspect Roxanne Barker to start in goal. Her previous quad injury doesn't seem to be affecting her any more.

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