Thorns FC @ FC Kansas City
Saturday, April 13
5:35 p.m. PDT
Match will be streamed online.
This Saturday's match between the Thorns and FC Kansas City isn't, of course, just the inaugural match of a brand new league. It's all sorts of things: The last ditch effort for a pro women's league in this country; a referendum on the sustainability of women's sports; a statement about Portland culture.
The temptation here is to wax poetic about its import, what it means for women's football, for the sport as a whole, for women's sports as a whole, for Portland, and on and on.
Perhaps the best way to pay tribute to these things, however, is just to stick to the damn footy. Once we boil off the swirl of issues related to this match (important as they are), we can distill this thing to its very essence: The X's and O's, the Us vs. Them, and the identity of this team. So here we go:
First, our roster. It has shaken out like this (asterisks indicate probable starters):
Emilee O'Neil (M/D)
Courtney Wetzel (D/M)
What to Expect from the Thorns
Let's note here that Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone's preseason comments and persona have been marked by two things:
1. She has emphasized versatility from Day One.
2. She plays things close to her Nike-swooshed vest.
Given #2, any attempt to try and pin down strategy risks imprecision, especially since the bulk of training sessions the week before this match were closed to media. But given #1, plus observations culled from earlier sessions and the team's one public preseason game (a 2-1 victory over the University of Portland on March 30), we can make some educated guesses.
I'm guessing we'll see the Thorns start out in a 4-4-2, modified for Angie Kerr to play a sort of trequartista role in the middle of the field, acting as a supple liaison between the midfield and forwards.
Sinclair and Morgan will form the frontline attack, naturally. Kerr should be flanked on the left by the sharp-footed Allie Long, on the right by the solid Nikki Washington, and braced from behind by Becky Edwards, who has looked simply stellar so far this year.
It should be noted, though, that forward Danielle Foxhoven has looked good in training and even better against the Pilots, when she scored the equalizer after some tenacious play. So could we see a 4-3-3? Yep, we could. It would be tempting to put another bullet in the gun, and while FCKC's defense is preoccupied with Morgan and Sinclair, Foxhoven could reap the benefits.
But given the surfeit of talent in the midfield, it seems more tempting to keep the two stars up top and play as many middies as possible.
I'm tempted to call this group a steel curtain when it comes to stopping opponents' attacks, but that metaphor doesn't fully convey the line's elasticity --they can swing the direction of play in the blink of an eye. It's a straight-up joy to witness Kerr's calm ball distribution, her quick eye, her field intelligence. Long, meanwhile, is a long-range assassin (She ripped off an absolute banger into the left side of the net against the Pilots for the go-ahead goal in the teams' friendly.). Sharp-eyed and intense, Edwards blockades the center and Washington, who might be the weakest link here, patrols the pitch with speed and power.
Individually they prove formidable, but this group's cohesion benefits from the fact that -- as the one line not beset with the in-and-out cycle of national team players -- it's remained fairly stable throughout preseason. All told, if this line plays up to its potential, it can utilize offensive possession and defensive grit to guard a backline that has held the most questions of all for this team.
Ah yes, this back line. It looked a little choppy against the Pilots, with most of the college team's scoring chances running through the left side, the domain of the speedy Jazmyne Avant and the usually solid Kathryn Williamson.
Since the preseason match, Parlow Cone has made shoring things up a priority. She's mentioned video sessions and certain on-field adjustments as tools for righting the ship, but is a personnel change also part of the package? Conventional wisdom before the season had Williamson as the best bet to play next to Rachel Buehler. Lately, though, Emilee O'Neil has earned some second looks, so don't be surprised to find her there come Saturday. Fewer questions plague the right side, where Marian Dougherty has been holding down the fort.
This all assuming, of course, that things go as they have been going. CPC's reliance on adaptability means that, even if the starting XI goes as many think it will, there will still be a constant re-arrangement of the puzzle pieces: Overlapping runs and position switching shouldn't be surprising. If it works, it will be a cool little Tetris game; but considering the lack of training time for some of the team's key players, it will probably break down at times.
What to expect from FC Kansas City
Then there's that other team that will be on the pitch: FC Kansas City. Many footy fiends have pegged this team as one that could give the Thorns a run for their money in the quest for the NWSL title. This is a squad with fewer "stars" than some teams, but one that is more evenly constructed. The three US allocated players -- Lauren Cheney (F/M), Becky Sauerbrunn (D), and Nicole Barnhart (GK) -- are a quietly good crew. Canadian workhorses Lauren Sesselmann (D) and Desiree Scott (M) add to the stability (Scott in particular possesses some serious shutdown ability).
Three of the biggest factors here are Barnhart, FCKC's breakout player Renae Cuellar, and head coach Vlatko Andonovski.
If anyone is going to put a stopper on the Thorns offense, it's Barnie. She's extremely athletic, and is familiar with both Morgan and Sinclair's tendencies, and although she is stuck behind Hope Solo in the USWNT goalkeeping order, she possess the skills of a top-tier starter.
Meantime, Cuellar has been absolutely ripping defenses to shreds in the preseason, scoring six goals in the team's 8-0 preseason win over the University of Nebraska alone. Her dominance has been such that FCKC recently has stuck with her as the only forward in a 4-5-1 formation. Despite Cuellar's dominance, that formation is a little curious, considering the prowess of fellow forwards Cheney and Melissa Henderson, but one would assume that Cheney will be pushing hard from the middle, along with the rest of a midfield laden with talent (keep an eye out for Kristie Mewis, especially).
Finally, Andonovski: He's not exactly a known quantity, with no head coaching experience and little experience within the women's professional game. His last stint was as an assistant for the Missouri Comets of the MISL. Andonovski has stated he'll be pushing a very aggressive attacking style. We'll see if it can crack the Thorns backline. If it does, Morgan and Sinclair will have a lot of work to do. If not, and if the Thorns' midfield plays to form, we'll have ourselves a winner.
Leigh Ann Robinson