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Match Preview: Portland Thorns vs. Chicago

It's Death Star vs. Red Stars in the Thorns' return to the Windy City

Match Information
Portland Thorns FC at. Chicago Red Stars
Date: Sunday, May 12, 2013
Kickoff: 3:00 p.m. (Pacific)
Location: Benedictine Sports Complex (Lisle, Ill.)
Forecast: Sunny, 58 degrees

This past week, some soccer pundit or other referred to the Portland Thorns FC as "The Death Star." While the negative connotations of the analogy might be unfair (I mean, really, who's Darth Vader in this scenario?), the concept of Portland as a dominant juggernaut is beginning to look more and more like a reality.

We needn't jump the gun too much here --after all, the Thorns have yet to take on some of the better teams in the league-- but this much is true: Much like last week, this Sunday the Thorns face a side on a different trajectory than their own. Unbeaten despite playing three of the last four games away, Portland is coming off a 2-1 road win over the Washington Spirit and sits atop the NWSL standings with 10 points. Chicago, on the other hand, has yet to win, and with only two points, the team has settled at seventh out of the eight teams in the league. The Thorns also come in having beaten the Red Stars in Chicago a mere two weeks ago by a score of 2-0.

A clean sheet, a pair of goals, and a road victory --Portland's short history with Chicago bodes well for the upcoming match, but the Red Stars remain dangerous. With the Chicago forwards still struggling to find their footing, midfielder Lori Chalupny could prove a special threat. The 29-year-old, who has 92 caps and eight goals with the USWNT, certainly ain't afraid to pull the trigger: She's tied with Thorn Alex Morgan for most number of shots taken in the league (14), seven of which have been on-goal, one of which has gone in. (Chalupny isn't afraid of much at all, frankly, as she's tied with Thorn Allie Long for the dubious distinction of having racked up the most fouls --eleven, to be exact.)

This offense, in fact, holds a number of different weapons; they simply haven't found a way to put the pieces together. Should Red Stars coach Rory Dames manage to get his attack to play more cohesively, the Thorns defense will have its hands full. One thing to watch for is the play of defender Rachel Quon, an offense-minded outside back whose forte is making overlapping runs and crossing the ball into the box, a la Marian Dougherty. Quon already is tied with teammate Ella Masar for the third-most crosses in the NWSL, with four apiece. If we start hearing those two names a lot over this match, it means the Thorns defense isn't disrupting the Red Stars offensive game plan.

Of course, it's tough to get an offense going when your defense is back on its heels, and this Thorns attack comes in bearing a lot of confidence and, dare I say it, swagger. The Thorns have peppered other teams' backlines with 43 shots, scoring seven goals from five different players. Many of the on-frame goals have been absolute rockets, especially from Morgan and Christine Sinclair. The delivery from midfielder Nikki Washington has continued to improve, especially on set pieces. With defenses focussed on Morgan and Sinclair, other players have stepped up with confidence --Washington, Dougherty, and Danielle Foxhoven have all scored a goal apiece.

What's scary for the Red Stars and exciting for the Thorns is the fact that this Portland offense hasn't even reached its full potential. It seems like Parlow Cone has been focussed on shoring up the backline and improving the midfield play and connecting passes. The finishing she seems to have left up to the attacking players to sort out for themselves. Many of the Thorns goals have come less off of an offensive shape and more off of rebounds and taking advantage of other teams' mistakes, after a slow and steady buildup from the Thorns backline and midfield.

Which, of course, is fine --it's good-- but once this attack adds the same kind of refinement and subtlety Parlow Cone has emphasized in the midfield, I can't imagine many defenses withstanding that kind of pressure.
If we see even a little of that in this game, the Red Stars will be toast. Chicago will have its hands full nonetheless, especially if the disappointing play of their backline continues. It doesn't help the Red Stars' cause that standout midfielder Shannon Boxx --the USWNT player so adept at serving the ball forward-- is out with an injury.

The Thorns biggest challenge on offense might be facing goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who comes into the match with 18 saves. As the starting keeper for the Canadian National Team, she's at the apex of her career and has so far kept the Red Stars within reach of a win in all their games, with the exception of a mortifying 4-1 loss to Boston.

Still, if we judge from the goings-on of this first part of the season, Portland should come away from the Windy City with three points in tow. And, fine, if we wanna play around with nerdy themes and consider the Portland to be the Death Star, so be it: Only in this version, the Dark Side should win.


Guessing Game: What are Parlow Cone's plans for newly acquired midfielder Elizabeth Guess? Last week, with Angie Kerr losing her starting role as a midfield distributor, Parlow Cone shuffled the deck and replaced Kerr with Meleana Shim playing up top with Morgan, placing the onus of offensive facilitation even more on Sinclair's shoulders. The setup with Sinclair in that role has worked well, but it's tempting to put her back on the front line and dropping Guess into Sinclair's midfield spot. Parlow Cone has noted that Guess can play any position on the field (the coach had her playing right back at one point during training), and the former UNC player has the chops to be a starter, so we could even see her on the front line where Shim played last week and Sinclair remaining in that 10 spot. Or we might see Guess as a sub. Or we might not see her play at all.

Quick Turnarounds: This match will be the Thorns' third road game in a row, and the Red Stars second game in five days.