The Portland Thorns (6-6-2, 20pts) return to Providence Park, as they host Karina LeBlanc, Christen Press, and the Chicago Red Stars (6-6-2, 20pts) on Friday at 11:00am PDT for their only meeting of the season in Portland.
This is the first time the Thorns and Red Stars have met this season, and the first of three meetings over the next two weeks between these sides. They meet again next Wednesday and July 17 in at Benedictine University Stadium in Lisle, Illinois. The Thorns lead the overall series 2-1-1, with a 0-1-1 record at home.
The big news coming from Thorns camp was midfielder Tobin Heath finally arriving, after missing more than half the season between her time with Paris Saint-Germain in France and the United States Women's National Team. For the second season in a row, she will be looked at to provide whatever spark of creativity that the Thorns seems to once again be missing.
The Thorns as a whole continue to baffle fans and themselves alike, despite being loaded with some of the best attacking players in the world. They routinely are unable to generate and finish and currently sit on 19 goals on the season, with 8 of those coming in a home-and-home series in June against the Washington Spirit, while Christine Sinclair struggles to regain her form as a striker, leading-scorer Jessica McDonald finds herself in a reserve role, and midfielder Vero Boquete occasionally looking like the only player on the pitch with a winning desire.
Defensively, the Thorns have seemed to have lost their early defensive strength, allowing 14 goals over their last 7 matches after only allowing 5 goals in their first 7. The experiment of playing Emily Menges at right back has had very mixed results, while Stephanie Catley continues to adjust to the much bigger stage of the NWSL. Rachel Van Hollebeke finally returned from injury, and the Thorns have seen some stability return to their defense, but often they have not been able to do enough to get their side a result and simple mistakes have cost the matches.
The Thorns come in with nearly a week off after playing 3 matches in a week, so fatigue will not be a factor in the match, but adding yet another piece to the puzzle will be. The Thorns have constantly changed lineups in recent weeks, either by adding players, squad rotation, international call ups, or injuries, and very much continue to look like a work in progress. While it reached "no-excuses" time a while ago, the arrival of Heath gives the Thorns that final piece and will tell us what kind of team has truly been assembled in Portland.
Chicago Red Stars
In some ways, the similarities between the Thorns and Red Stars go beyond just the identical 6-6-2 records. Like the Thorns, the Red Stars had to wait until midseason for the arrival of Press, Canadian forward Melissa Tancredi, Australian midfielder Emily Van Egmond, and Kiwi defender Abby Erceg, while also adding former Thorns goalkeeper LeBlanc and US international defender Julie Johnston and US U23 international midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo in the offseason, though defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx has yet to make an appearance after the birth of her daughter at the end of February, but has been training with the team.
The Red Stars struggled to start the season, then went on a 6 match unbeaten streak, which included 5 straight victories, but have faltered recently and are winless in five, only earning one point in the month of June, a 2-2 draw with Sky Blue FC on June 15.
The strength of the Red Stars lies in their defense and grind it out work ethic, while LeBlanc hasn't missed a beat this season and Johnston looks more like a veteran than fresh out of college rookie. Their attack is still a work in progress, with paperwork issues hampering the arrival of Erceg and Press, while Tancredi has split her time between the Red Stars and completing her chiropractic studies.
The Red Stars have looked flat recently, but like the Thorns, they played a compacted schedule that saw them play 5 matches in 17 days, both with and without their internationals and dealing with injuries and suspensions. They come in well-rested, having not played in nearly two weeks, and finally are training together as a complete unit, which makes a dangerous and unpredictable opponent.
Both teams are in essentially the same position: needing to gain as many points as possible over the remainder of the season, while trying to get all the pieces working together. They are both technically in 4th place, with the Flash, only behind in goal differential (+5 for Flash, +3 for Red Stars, and even for the Thorns) and are within striking distance of taking control of 3rd place, with the Spirit ahead of both with 23 points, but also from playing two more matches.
This match will likely be wildly unpredictable, since both sides finally find themselves will all their pieces and time to training together, though this advantage goes to the Red Stars as Heath has only been with the Thorns since Tuesday. The Thorns have had more opportunities to see what their mostly-finished product will look like, though to this point it has been less than impressive.
Thorns Keys to the Match
Finish - This key seemed to have solved itself in the matches against the Spirit, but against both Sky Blue and FC Kansas City, opportunities in front of goal were squandered once again and the Thorns found themselves on the losing end, despite outshooting their opponents by a total of 27 to 16 over two matches (18-7 vs. SBFC, 9-9 vs. KC).
Play Though the Midfield - Enough with the long ball approach. With the weapons the Thorns possess, this is an ineffective strategy, especially with the addition of Heath and her playmaking abilities and the attacking midfield trio of her, Long, and Vero. Having the ball brought up in such an uncontrolled manner only leads to turnovers and counterattacks, and with some of the Thorns' recent struggles on defense, leads to soft opportunities and goals allowed.
Contain the Red Stars Forwards - The Red Stars bring several attacking possibilities in Press, Tancredi, team leading goal scorer Jen Hoy, all bringing different approaches into the attack. It's not that simple though, as midfielders Zakiya Bywaters, Lori Chalupny, and DiBernardo sitting behind them and creating opportunities for them to finish, while also creating opportunities for themselves.
Portland Thorns vs. Chicago Red Stars
Friday, July 4th, 2014 at 11:00am PDT
Providence Park - Portland, OR