It can't be easy on a team's soccer psyche to have to go lurching back and forth between the cozy confines of Jeld-Wen and some of the raggedy pitches on which some of the other NWSL teams play. That will be the case when the Thorns take on the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday on yet another field crisscrossed with confusing lines, on an unfamiliar surface.
But the Thorns, having a week to bask in the fan love and to mull over the team's impressive win over the Seattle Reign, should come into Chicago with a little swagger.
They'll need it. Every team in this league is going to be tough, and Chicago is no exception.
Will home pitch advantage be an issue? Probably not, as the Red Stars lulled an anemic couple thousand fans to their season opener against the Seattle Reign a couple weeks ago.. Granted, more folks should probably come out to gape at Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, but will come anywhere close to resembling the Rose City Riveters' wall of sound? Nah.
But the Red Stars, as the outgrowth of a more established franchise, do have the advantage of having a number of teammates who have played together before. While the Thorns showed great improvement in last Sunday's game, even they admitted they aren't quite a well-oiled machine. The Red Stars look to be a little more set.
A second, more specific concern: The Red Stars may have eked out only one goal in their 1-1 draw against Seattle, but the trio of Lori Chalupny (M/F), Lauren Fowlkes (D/F), and Jessica McDonald (F) went absolutely bonkers in preseason, scoring a total of 12 goals between them. Chalupny, in fact, lead the league in the first week with four shots on goal, one of which eluded Reign keeper Michelle Betos for the Red Stars' only tally on the day.
In short, this a team with the potential to score a lot of goals, despite the lack of a "star" name on the front line.
With an as-yet-unproven backline, the Thorns most likely will be facing a more dangerous set of attackers, which could have the effect of tamping down Portland's overlapping runs and aggressive play on the outer flanks. Those runs from the defensive wings proved essential to the Thorns' success last weekend, as defender Marian Dougherty played a large role in feeding the offense (as well as scoring, of course, on a set piece).
Indeed, Dougherty will be key in this game. Her role is similar to that of the Portland Timbers' Michael Harrington (FIRST EVER Thorns/Timbers comparison! I'll try to keep them to a minimum, I promise.), as she holds the essential responsibilities of a fullback: stop the opposing team's attack cold in its tracks, while also looking for openings to zoom up the flank, stretching the defense deep in their own zone, and providing quality crosses, then hustling back to defend potential counter-attacks.
Success will require both good decision-making and some serious fitness. Dougherty was up to the task last Sunday; if she continues that trend against the Red Stars, the Thorns will have established ownership over a huge chunk of the field.
Playing the midfield in front of Dougherty, Nikki Washington also will be a factor. Washington and Dougherty showed pretty good chemistry in the last match, with the midfielder occasionally dropping back to cover Dougherty's area when the latter chose to make a run.
This pair will need to continue to back each other up in a similar manner. It was a challenge they met against Seattle, but the Red Stars have to potential to press more offensively, which could prove disruptive to the Washington/Dougherty chemistry.
Keys to Winning
Shutting down Chalupny.
The Red Stars other scoring options boast skill, to be sure, but their attack should be containable if their number-one target is rendered ineffective.
Red Stars goalkeeper Erin McLeod wrested the CanWNT Number One keeper spot away from Thorns keeper Karina LeBlanc. LeBlanc has something to prove; will her fiery, competitive nature propel her to a stellar game? It might. But even if it doesn't her always solid net-minding versus McLeod's top form should be a fun battle to watch.
I couldn't tell from the Red Stars' crappy stream of the team's first home match whether the pitch was as speedy and skippy as the one the Thorns played on in their first match against FC Kansas City. But even the worst Internet feed couldn't hide the fact that once again Portland will be contending with a field cross-hatched with lacrosse lines, American football lines, and who knows what else. Having one game under those conditions under their belt, however, the Thorns should have fewer problems adjusting.