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Match Preview - Thorns at Chicago Red Stars (Round 3)

The Thorns and Red Stars meet for a final time in the regular season.

Stacey Neve - Stumptown Footy

The Portland Thorns (7-6-4, 25pts) make a return trip to Lisle, Illinois to take on Karina LeBlanc, Christen Press, and the Chicago Red Stars (7-6-4, 25pts) from Benedictine University Stadium.

Both sides come off impressive victories following their home and home series which produced 2-2 and 1-1 draws in Portland and Chicago, respectively, over the past week and a half.  On Saturday, the Red Stars handed the Seattle Reign their first loss of the season in a 1-0 victory in Lisle, while the Thorns ended FC Kansas City's 7 match winning streak with a 7-1 victory that featured braces by Vero Boquete and Allie Long, in addition to goals by Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Amber Brooks.

Portland Thorns

Vero parlayed her 2 goal, 2 assist performance Sunday into a second NWSL Player of the Week Award in 8 starts, while contributing the highest single match scoring record (6 points), surpassing the mark they set June 21 in their 6-1 victory over the Spirit, while Long's brace put her at 8 goals on the season, matching the mark set last season by Morgan and Sinclair, and currently ranks 5th, one goal behind teammate Jessica McDonald.

While Riley would surely prefer to run out the same lineup against the Red Stars as he did Sunday, schedule congestion will simply make that impossible, with another match back in Portland on Sunday against the Boston Breakers.  With Sarah Huffman, Sinead Farrelly, Jessica McDonald, Mana Shim, Angie Kerr, and Rachel Van Hollebeke all not starting or playing in reserve, the Thorns have ample talented players in reserve that can step into more minutes, while Brooks, Emily Menges, and Rebecca Moros all made starts Sunday, after playing minimally in recent matches.

This match is vitally important for the Thorns, as are all their remaining matches.  The Thorns and Red Stars both find themselves battling for the final two playoff spots, with the Spirit a point ahead of them and the Flash two points behind, they are still potentially within striking distance of FC Kansas City, and currently hold the first tiebreaker (goal differential) by a +12 margin over the Spirit, +2 over the Red Stars, but are -1 behind the Flash.

The Thorns controlled the match against KC by striking two early blows against KC, the previous owners of the second best statical defense in the league, and then put a dagger in their hearts just before halftime, as Long restored their two goals lead in the 43rd minutes, which had to have had a psychological impact on them heading to the locker room.  If they can have a similar start to against the Red Stars, they should be able to put on yet another strong performance, as they are 6-0-1 when netting the first goal.

Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars pulled off what no one had previously been able to do this season: defeat the Seattle Reign., as Melissa Tancredi finally found the back of the net, giving them the 1-0 lead in the 8th minute, and they simply never looked back.

As with the previous two meetings, the Red Stars find themselves taking on the squad that is level with them in the standings, only this time the Thorns own the tiebreakers by virtue of their suddenly greater goal differential.

The greatest difference for the Red Stars is their strong defense, though the Thorns have shown they can break through it since they know LeBlanc's tendencies so well, but this was all wasted as Press found her first two goals of the season to steal two points from the Thorns in their first meeting.  If the Red Stars are able to keep the Thorns off the board and create chances of their own, they will be able to leave the match with a point.  If they score first, the Thorns are likely to let them score again, especially early in the match, a flaw in the team's psychology that seems to have plagued them all season.

Final Thoughts

The Thorns and Red Stars should know each other pretty well by this point, having played each other so often recently, though with neither side truly taking command of a full match, it will be interesting to see not only the lineups, but what strategies are used in this match, especially with Riley already alluding to the fact that they can't use the same plan as they did Sunday against KC.

The first goal scored always sets the tenor of the match, but especially for the Thorns.  They are undefeated (7-0-2) when they score first, but winless (0-6-2) when they concede first.  The solution for the Thorns should be to go all out on the offensive to start the match as they did against KC and in their first meeting with Chicago on July 4, but they need to not become complacent and give up the lead as they did in that match.  As Vero said after the match Sunday, "...It's a final.  For us, it's a final.  For Chicago, it's a final.  We know that not all the games will be like a final, but this is a real one..."

Thorns Keys to the Match

Keep Long at CAM, Brooks at CDM - Long admitted on Sunday that she's been asked to not play an attacking style when she starts  at CDM, but this significantly hinders her creativity, which is what she brings most to the field and showed this when she was allowed to roam free at CAM against KC.  While Riley prefers Vero in the CAM role, she had a record-setting day at the wide position, just showing how versatile of a player she truly is.  Brooks probably had her best match with the Thorns starting at CDM, getting forward into the attack as needed, but generally sitting back and providing that extra defensive line that is vital to stopping the opponents attack, especially when the outside backs push into the attack.

Open Up the Field - Chicago plays on a small field, but that doesn't mean the attack needs to be compact.  The field at Benedictine is just as long as at Providence Park, but narrower by a few yards on either side, which means the Thorns will need to adjust slightly to play an open game.  They will  need it to beat Chicago's defense, and the three-pronged attack out of the midfield from Vero, Heath, and Long should be able to spread the field and find advantageous matchups.

Find the Cracks in the Red Stars Defense - The Thorns have found success through a relentless attack that keeps the opponent on their heels, breaking down KC's defense by early, devastating strikes and kept on going.  This is the Thorns everyone expected to see, and against a solid defense, the Thorns will need to probe to find flaws and capitalize when they do.