The Portland Thorns (6-6-3, 21pts) head to Lisle, Illinois to take on Christen Press, Karina LeBlanc, and the Chicago Red Stars (6-6-3, 21pts) for the second time in 5 days on Wednesday at 5:00pm PDT.
The Thorns and Red Stars played to a 2-2 draw in their meeting on the 4th of July, as forward Jessica McDonald and defender Sarah Huffman netted first half goals, only to have to settle for a draw as Press scored a brace in the second half.
The newly completed Thorns side didn't disappoint for 60 minutes, as they controlled the first half and opening third of the second, only to see the Red Stars make changes at the break that changed their tactics. The Thorns struggled to adjust and ended up losing the lead, the first time in 7 matches that they have scored the opening goal and then lost the lead.
As happened earlier this season, the Thorns once again play a home and home, this time against a Red Stars side that only continues to grow as their returning internationals and new signings become more acclimated, a similar state to what the Thorns are in. Tobin Heath will likely start her second match of the season, this time with a few more training under her belt and more familiarity with the Thorns system and playing with new (and old) teammates.
Squad rotation will be a theme for the Thorns in July, as they will once again play on Sunday, as they will do every match this month, with only a few days for recovery, training, and/or travel. With this in mind, Riley will need to look at not only minutes, but also team chemistry as he builds his lineup for this and every match this month to field a winning side, but with every player making at least one start this season, except for the now-departed Jackie Acevedo, the Thorns should be able to field a competitive squad for each match.
Chicago Red Stars
The Red Stars were able to fight their way back in their first meeting with the Thorns, as head coach Rory Dames made the timely substitutions of Zakilya Bywaters at halftime and Melissa Tancredi in the 71st minute, which opened up their attack and allowed Press to net the first two goals of her NWSL career, both in the final 15 minutes of the match.
The Red Stars allowed the Thorns to control most of the match, allowing McDonald to net her 9th of the season in the 24th minutes and Huffman in the 39th minute and generally seemed happy to absorb the Portland attack in the opening half, as the Thorns had 6 shots on goal to the Red Stars' 2 and continued this trend to start the second, only to pick up the pressure and eventually recover a point on the road.
Dames and the Red Stars face a similar compressed schedule as the Thorns do, as they play again on Saturday, so he may look to rotate some of his squad to keep players fresh. If this is the case, both Bywaters and Tancredi are candidates to move into the Starting XI, probably for the players they replaced, and would open up their attack more, especially with Tancredi looking to punish the Thorns' backline, both with scoring chances and with physicality.
With both sides facing pivotal matches this weekend and needing to collect as many points as possible, while also taking care of the match at hand, facing the team that is even with them on the table. In this busy stretch of the season the advantage has to go to the Thorns though, with each player on the Thorns having started, Mana Shim returning from her injury, and Kat Tarr continuing to improve. On paper, the Thorns are deeper than probably any other team in the league and have players who can play multiple positions, and staring with this match, they will need this now more than ever.
Riley has made a career of getting the most out of his players, but this season there has been mixed results, with Allie Long and McDonald, but has yet to unlock players such as Sinead Farrelly, Mana Shim, and Christine Sinclair, who for the first time this season didn't start a match that she was available for. While it seems less and less likely that anyone is going to catch the Reign and home field is getting further out of reach with FC Kansas City now12 points ahead of the Thorns and 2 points below the redline, they are still within striking distance of things falling in their favor if they get hot at the right moment.
Thorns Keys to the Match
Play a Compete Match - It has yet to happen this season, and once again came back to bite them, as the Thorns dropped 2 points after Press' brace, the 4th instance at Providence Park where they have dropped points in the second half.
Start McDonald - The Thorns have quite the problem in what to do with Christine Sinclair, who has yet to player her best this season and may be on the decline, but they don't in the player who would start in her place: McDonald. At 9 goals, she sits tied for third in the league in scoring and set the regular season Thorns scoring mark last Friday, and is a clearly in-form striker that has shown a knack for finishing.
Adapt to the Conditions - Thorns are lucky in that the weather will not be absurdly hot or humid, as can often happen this time of year in the Midwest. Unfortunately, the Red Stars still play at Benedictine University's football/soccer stadium and less than idea pitch, which the Thorns will need to compensate for, as it is much narrower than the 75 yards at Providence Park.
Portland Thorns at Chicago Red Stars
Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 5:00pm PDT
Benedictine University/Village of Lisle Stadium - Lisle, Illinois