The Portland Thorns begin their pursuit of a second NWSL title tonight when they take on the league's newest team, the Houston Dash, in one of the first games of the 2014 season.
The 2013 NWSL Champions made a surprising number of moves in the off season and fans will surely be seeing some new faces on the field tonight. Though the Thorns played a handful of preseason matches against college teams, the games in Portland were closed, while the two open games were in Arizona. So except for any lucky fans who may have been in Tucson, the season opener will be our first look at the 2014 Portland Thorns.
Reports from the matches in Arizona, 10-0 and 5-0 wins over the University of Arizona and Arizona State University respectively, did give fans a little preview of what to expect this year. Nikki Marshall appeared as a center back in those preseason matches in spite of playing outside back last season. Now that Kat Williamson has been traded to the Western New York Flash, it seems all but certain Marshall will be appearing in the central defense today. Replacing Marshall and Miriam Dougherty (who retired after last season) at outside back in preseason were Courtney Niemiec, Rebecca Moros, and Katarina Tarr. Expect to see some combination of the three tonight.
In midfield, Amber Brooks seems like a lock to start in the center, having done so in both matches in Arizona. Allie Long and Meleana Shim both had a solid preseason, each scoring multiple goals and setting up their teammates with an assist here and there. Angie Kerr also made her case for a starting spot with a goal and an assist. Sinead Farrelly did not get on the stat sheet, but if she has impressed enough in practice she may earn the start over Shim, Kerr, or Long. Recently acquired midfielder Sarah Huffman missed preseason with the Thorns.
One of the few certainties in the Thorns' line-up is that Christine Sinclair will start up top. Assuming a 4-4-2 (though really, who knows?) there is a spot alongside her up for grabs, as Alex Morgan is still out with an injury. Jessica McDonald scored three goals in Arizona and assisted Sinclair on another, clearly impressing head coach Paul Riley who later said he "wouldn't trade her for the world." Competing with her for that spot is Mexican forward Jackie Acevedo, who also notched a goal and an assist in Arizona.
The bad news from the USWNT's 3-0 win in a friendly with China Thursday was that USA and Thorns defender Rachel Van Hollebeke left the match early with an ankle injury. The NWSL injury report lists her as doubtful with a sprain, so we'll likely see one of the new defensive signings stepping in alongside Nikki Marshall. Her absence would be a major blow to the Thorns, taking their best defender and one of only two returning defenders out of the picture.
After first declaring that the league would not add any new teams in 2014, the NWSL granted Houston an expansion franchise last December, to begin playing this season. Like the Thorns, the Dash are under the same ownership as the city's men's team, the Houston Dynamo.
The Dash received Canadian forward Melissa Tancredi, Mexican midfielder Teresa Noyola, and American defender Whitney Engen as allocated players, though they promptly traded Tancredi to acquire Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod from the Chicago Red Stars. They added three more allocated national team players thanks to the expansion draft: Meghan Klingenberg of the United States, Arianna Romero of Mexico and Lauren Sesselmann of Canada.
The Dash, led by head coach Randy Waldrum, also got a couple of promising players from the NWSL College Draft, including forward Kealia Ohai, who was the one of the Dash's biggest attacking threats in preseason, along with Ella Masar and Tiffany McCarty.
Unfortunately for the Dash, Klingenberg and Engen are both in Europe finishing out their season with Tyreso FF, while Sesselmann is out with a torn ACL, leaving them with just five defenders who will actually be available to play tonight.
A couple former Thorns have both seen a lot of preseason action and could very well see playing time against their old team tonight. The Dash took midfielder Becky Edwards in the expansion draft and received Nikki Washington as part of a trade to bring Shim back to Portland. In spite of all predictions to the contrary, the Dash have still not acquired Alex Morgan.
In their preseason, the Houston beat Rice University 4-0, Texas A&M University 1-0 and 3-1, and Texas Tech University 7-0. They also took on the Houston Dynamo U-16 Academy Team and the Houston Aces of the Women's Professional Soccer League, losing 3-1 to the former and beating the latter 7-1.
Missing half of their national team players, the Dash look a little disheveled on paper, especially on the back line. But anyone who saw the Portland Timbers play their first MLS home game knows that what's on paper doesn't matter much when a team has the home crowd and the excitement of a first-ever home game behind them. The Thorns have the ability to spoil the party if they put it all together, but it's probably not going to be an easy first match.
Kick off: 5:00 pm (PST) at BBVA Compass Stadium
Watch it on: portlandthornsfc.com or Comcast SportsNet Northwest (delay, 10 pm)
Portland Thorns: 0-0-0, 2013 NWSL Champions, finished 3rd in regular season
Houston Dash: 0-0-0, first season in NWSL