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Match Preview: Portland Thorns FC vs. Boston Breakers

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Portland opens their 2015 NWSL season at home for the first time, looking to get an early foothold in an unusual season

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Previous Meeting: 2-0 Loss @ Boston

Overall Record Against Boston: 2-4-0

The 2015 NWSL season will open for Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park Saturday evening. Their opponents are a tricky test as the Boston Breakers have had recent success against the Portland side, despite finishing last season in eighth place (20pts, 6-16-2). The Thorns finished five spots above them in third (36pts, 10-8-6), making the playoffs for the second consecutive year. It was a 2-0 loss against the Breakers towards the end of last season that almost derailed a return to the postseason, as Portland lost two of three encounters with Boston in 2014. But a new season with significant player moves at both clubs will make this an interesting match as players settle into their squads. Still, history points to goals, with the two teams scoring 26 in six matches combined.

Portland will be boosted by the return of key U.S. internationals Alex Morgan, Rachel Van Hollebeke, and Tobin Heath, who were both able to spend a few days with the squad in the buildup to the season opener, as well as Nadine Angerer and Jodie Taylor who are expected to be back from international call-ups for the game. Working these players back into the fold will have an influence on how Portland will click offensively. Taylor was been in and out of preseason with the England National Team, while Morgan just arrived in Portland this week. The rest of the squad has been training diligently and posted three wins in three preseason friendlies. Midfielders Kendall Johnson, Sarah Robbins, and McCall Zerboni have been building their understanding of the team and tactics. Kat Williamson has refamiliarized herself to the Thorns defense with Emily Menges, helping to earn three-straight shutouts. Midfielder Allie Long scored in Portland’s first three matches last season and may need to be the focal point tomorrow as the squad settles in around her.

The Boston Breakers have been a difficult side for the Thorns to handle in the NWSL. With just two wins in six matches against the east coast club, Portland will take inspiration from their last meeting a Providence Park, where the Thorns opened up offensively in a 6-3 win on July 20. However, even in that result, Boston’s habit of scoring against Portland was apparent. Boston has scored two or more goals in all but one match against the Thorns, racking up a combined 15 goals all-time. Boston may struggle early on due to the offseason departure of Heather O’Reilly to FC Kansas City and Lianne Sanderson’s decision to remain in England ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer. However, fourth round college draft pick Stephanie Verdoia shone in preseason, leading the team with three assists in three wins. 2014 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year Alyssa Naeher returns to the squad after enjoying time with the U.S. Women’s National Team and defender Cat Whitehill will be at the center of a freshly organized defense.

As the opening game of the season for both clubs, this may be more of a chess match than the free-flowing goals-fest the Rose City enjoyed last time Boston came to town. But it will be an opportunity for a team to take confidence early in the season, solidify plans and strategies practiced in preseason and certainly for new faces to make a mark on their new club.

Key Factors: Defense will be critical for both teams. While neither offense will be clicking over 100%, chances will come and it will be up to the defenders to keep their goals safe. Two high-calibers keepers will be on display just in case. How the internationals acclimate back into the Thorns squad will greatly affect the Thorns’ potency in attack. Boston’s offseason losses leave a big gap for the new signings to fill.

Players to Watch: It will be exciting to see how Williamson reacts to being back in the Rose City. With the Riveters behind her, she’ll be especially motivated to make her first home game back a memorable one, ideally with a clean sheet. Zerboni and Johnson should provide some flair moments to get the Portland faithful cheering.

Cat Whitehill will have a job to do organizing Boston’s defense against the attacking threat that Portland promises. Amy Barczuk will pull the strings for Boston in midfield and forward Stephanie McCaffrey poses a threat up front after spending time with the U.S. Women’s National team in January.

Thorns Potential Lineup: Angerer, Menges, Williamson, Van Hollebeke, Robbins, Johnson, Long, Heath, Zerboni, Morgan, Taylor

Despite playing with their national teams in midweek, I expect Taylor and Angerer to both play, having made it clear that they would be back in time for the opener. Taylor probably won’t go the full 90 minutes. I could easily see Sinead Farrelly starting in the midfield with Morgan alone up top to start, with Taylor coming on in the second half.

Alex Morgan speaks with the media ahead of the 2015 NWSL season opener for Portland Thorns FC

Tobin Heath speaks to the media ahead of Portland's 2015 NWSL season opener at home