Semifinal Match Preview: Thorns @ FCKC

USA TODAY Sports Images

What can we expect? God only knows.

Portland Thorns FC (11-6-5, 38 pts, 3rd seed) @ FC Kansas City (11-6-5, 38 pts, 2nd seed)

Saturday, August 24

11 a.m. PT

Verizon Wireless Field, Shawnee Mission District Stadium, Overland Park, KS

REFEREE: CHRISTINA UNKEL
ASST 1: Felisha Mariscal
ASST 2: Jennifer Jones
4TH: Kara Honthumb

Forecast: 91 degrees, chance of thunderstorms

TV: Fox Sports 2 (Note: Many Portland cable customers do not get this channel. Check the viewing guide for details.)

Online: http://www.foxsoccer2go.com/

Official viewing guide with viewing parties, TV, and streaming info here

Some Nuts and Bolts

Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath is listed as Probable with a sore left foot.

Portland's Alex Morgan traveled with the team, but she is day-to-day and her availability is a gametime decision.

KC defender Leigh Ann Robinson has been out with an injured knee, but head coach Vlatko Andonovski says she will most likely play in the game.

Thorns forward Christine Sinclair has four goals in the past six games.

Portland is 1-2-1 against FCKC.

The last game between the two was Portland's 3-2 home loss on August 4.

Portland is 1-0-1 at Verizon Wireless Field.

Portland's road record is 6-2-3

FCKC's home record is 6-3-2

Portland has conceded eight goals in 11 road games

FCKC has conceded seven goals in 11 home games

In the past five games, Portland is 2-2-1

In the past five games, FCKC is 3-2-0

FCKC's Lauren Holiday lead the league with 12 goals and nine assists.

Some Thoughts

It's been an awkward inaugural year for the Portland Thorns. Being blessed by a providential hand with a very generous allocation --the holy trinity of Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath- brought forth breathtaking benefits, of course, but also wrought the curse of heavenly expectations.

Since the first days of the Thorns season, results have been mixed. Although it eventually enjoyed some early season success, the team stumbled out of the gate, barely escaping its first match with a draw, having given up the first ever goal in NWSL history...in the third minute. That match came against FCKC, and although the Blues had their share of troubles as well, you could see that the woodwork of then-unknown head coach Vlatko Andonovski's game plan already had been hammered together and only needed to be raised. It took FCKC a while to find form after that, but soon enough Lauren Holiday (nee Cheney) established herself as the class of the league, and the Blues eventually rattled off a 10-game win streak.

The last of those 10 came against the Thorns, Andonovski was quick to point out in a media conference call on Tuesday, when the Blues coldly spooned out the Thorns' guts in a 3-2 win in Portland's home season finale on August 4.

That game was a toughie, and in many ways was emblematic of the Thorns entire season. It was nationally televised (attracting about 100,000 viewers), and was preceded by a stunning tifo, a handpainted banner over which the Rose City Riveters supporters group had toiled for days, which proclaimed "You are SUPER; you are our HEROES." There were 17,000 people in the stands.

And so when the Thorns laid an egg -the game really wasn't as close as the score indicated-it was, well, embarrassing. FCKC was almost clinical in its execution; PTFC scrambled and strained. FCKC strolled out confidently; the Thorns thanked their fans, some of the players in tears.

Of course, all season, it's been an uneven ride: Dramatic wins, gut-wrenching losses. Offensive doldrums, defensive derps, then offensive fireworks and defensive lockdown. Consistency has been the hobgoblin. And really there's no clearer example of this than the season series between these two, which reads:

April 13: Thorns 1, FCKC 1

June 6: Thorns 4, FCKC 3

June 30: Thorns 0, FCKC 2

August 4: Thorns 2, FCKC 3

The Blues' nine goals in four games are more than any other team has mustered against the Thorns this season. (Granted, Portland has played four games against FCKC and fewer against some other teams, but of those team, only Boston has come even slightly close, with five goals against Portland in three games.) Holiday has torched Portland for five of those. Andonovski's players have bought into his system, executing a true possession-style offense, and it has given Portland fits. Portland's talented offense can put lesser teams back on their heels, but FCKC rarely breaks shape. On top of that, the Blues are anchored by the top defender in the league, Becky Sauerbrunn, who has routinely brought Thorns' attacks to a screeching halt, sending them slinking back to their own side of the field.

FCKC's manhandling hasn't been restricted to just Portland. After starting a bit slow, the team's double-digit tear of wins lifted the Blues to the top of the table, where they established themselves as the very best, and most consistent, team in the league, while Portland's form has lurched from good to abysmal and back again.

And yet, Portland, oddly, has found moments of success against Kansas City. The 4-3 win on June 6 is a good place to start. Four goals against a backline of Sauerbrunn, Lauren Sesselmann, Leigh Ann Robinson. Jen Buczkowski, and Merritt Mathias is a formidable achievement. The Thorns did it with hustle and focus: four goals from four different players, including the usually quiet Courtney Wetzel, three of which came off waves of organized runs, one of which came from over the top play to Alex Morgan.

That match displayed the Thorns offense at its best, and the Thorns defense at its worst, and the latter faltered again in the August 4 match. A main issue has been marking. Somehow, Holiday has repeatedly found herself open at close range; somehow Blues players have been allowed room to carry while defenders stand and watch, or race futilely to catch up. Somehow, FCKC outside backs are given ample room to execute their overlapping runs, and Thorns defenders only make it halfway there before said defenders have crossed the ball to the aforementioned inexplicably open Holiday.

So while there are bright spots (let's not forget that the Thorns have managed seven goals against this usually stingy defense), the nerdly and/or pessimistic among us would compute the algorithms of these four regular season games and conclude that things don't look so great for Portland.

Only, the thing is, it's difficult to say whether the measures of the Thorns' season even matter. Because all the patterns that have lead both Portland and Kansas City to this point have reversed course in the past few weeks. The Thorns' defense has stiffened, having given up only one goal in its last two games and, more importantly, clamping down on the last-minute backbreakers that have heretofore doomed them. Portland won its final game, a 2-1 affair at Seattle, in a match where captain Christine Sinclair finally picked up the mantle that's been lying at her feet. Meantime, Kansas City seemed destined to coast to winning the regular season, only to find itself losing its final two games. The Blues finale proved especially disheartening, when they gave up a 92' goal that turned a draw into a 2-1 loss and pushed them off the top of the table. The late goals have nipped at FCKC's rep of late: On June 26, they took a 2-0 lead into 85' against Sky Blue and ended up drawing 2-2. Against Chicago on July 14, they lost a 3-1, 87' lead, ending with a 3-3 draw. In other words, they do exhibit a small window of vulnerability.

And so here we are, the first game of the postseason, and it's fitting the Thorns would be facing their initial foe, and the one that has drawn the most blood over the year, and no real conclusions can be drawn. This semifinal matchup was a product of seeding, not fate, but it's still tempting to believe that the soccer gods conspired to give the Thorns a last shot at redemption. After all, for this entire season, they've had opportunities to make up for past derps, when perhaps they didn't deserve them. They still haven't proven that they can deliver when it counts, but there's always a first time, and a crapshoot of a postseason is as good an arena as any to make it happen.

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