It may not be fair, but nothing short of first place and a league championship will be enough to consider this year a success for the Portland Thorns FC. With a trio of playmakers--Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and (at some point), Tobin Heath--the buzz around this team much resembles that of the first season of the LeBron James-Dwayne Wade-Chris Bosh triad for the Miami Heat. Regular season dominance topped with a trophy are not wished for; they are expected. Never mind the intricacies of a short season and its aberrant scheduling; never mind that on-field chemistry can take a while to gel; never mind a rookie coach with an impressive pedigree but facing a precipitous learning curve.
With tomorrow's game against FC Kansas City in hand, the Thorns (8-2-2, 26 pts.) find themselves in second place behind Sky Blue FC (8-2-3, 27 pts.), but Portland can do much to help its cause with a road win over the Blues. Sky Blue and Portland have kept pace with each other throughout the season--the pair played to a draw last week in New Jersey, giving SBFC the head-to-head advantage between the two--but Sky Blue allowed the slightest of openings with a one-point result against FCKC last Thursday. If the Thorns can top that same squad Saturday, they will leap into first with 29 points.
It may still seem early in the season to worry about such jockeying, but these are the opportunities that the Thorns have to make count if they want to top the table and win the championship as well.
This is the second time Portland and Kansas City have faced off this month, and the third of four matches between the two squads this season. The Blues are coming off a disheartening 2-2 result against the same SBFC team that continues to vex the Thorns. The Blues led that game 2-0 well into the second half, and gave up the tying goal in second half penalty time.
This will be the second match in five days for the Blues, who have already played six matches this month. They will most likely be a little tired, but the attack still has plenty of firepower. Kansas City's Lauren Cheney has been on a tear the past few weeks and leads the league with seven goals. Renee Cuellar stung Portland with a quickie goal in the team's first matchup, and, with five goals so far this season, remains dangerous.
Solid defender Becky Sauerbrunn made a crucial error the last time her team took on the Thorns, and it led to an Alex Morgan goal. That won't happen again. In fact, she leads a defense that has shut out opponents five times, and boasts a fantastic goalkeeper in her USWNT teammate Nicole Barnhart. Barnhart's 37 saves this year rank fifth in the league.
Portland will counter with an attack with a new wrinkle --recently acquired forward Tiffany Weimer. In Weimer's first match last week, she and Christine Sinclair showed some chemistry, even though Weimer hadn't trained with the national team players at that point. After that match, Alex Morgan said "A lot of times, I felt alone up top. I felt like when I got the ball up top, there weren't options for me." The team has since enjoyed an entire week of training, so a Weimer-Morgan frontline should have more fluidity, and more options for Morgan, and more connection from the midfield.
An important piece of the Thorns defense will return as well. Starting right back Marian Dougherty missed last week's game due to her sister's wedding. Doughtery will be a key element of this game; she has been one of the team's most consistent defenders all year, and when she chooses to make overlapping runs, she stretches opponents' shape, often leading to goals.
Still defense remains confoundingly bipolar. One minute they'll look out of shape and/or get beaten; the next they'll be in pure shutdown mode. You never know which line will come out when, but the following things are certain:
On the road, the Thorns have held opponents scoreless in the last 274 minutes.
The Thorns have only allowed two goals in away matches all season.
The Thorns defense boasts a league-high six shutouts, behind goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who has 45 saves on the season.
Of course, the last time these two met, on June 6 at Jeld-Wen, Kansas City scored three goals --the most the Thorns have allowed all season-- in a wild 4-3 Thorns win. In that match, the Thorns played more aggressively than usual, with more overlapping runs from the two out backs --which allowed Portland to score, of course, but also contributed to Kansas City's ability to stay in the game due to the fatigue factor it caused. But that strategy of taking the match to the Blues may be the key to defeating this team. If Kansas City is allowed to possess the ball and pinch Portland's shape, the Thorns will struggle to find their own possession, and will be forced to contend with Cheney. But if Portland can assert a robust offensive gameplan while tightening up the defense, even just a little, the Thorns will be sitting alone at the top of the table.