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Match Preview: Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash

Jeremiah Mitchell Braeback/Stumptown Footy

The Portland Thorns (1-0-0, 3pts.) continue their season-opening homestand, as Syndey Leroux and the Western New York Flash (0-1-0, 0pts.) come to Providence Park on Saturday, the first of three meeting between the sides in 2015.  The other two matches will be played at Shalen's Stadium in Rochester, New York on July 29 and September 4

The Thorns and Flash have met 5 times previously in the regular season, with an even 1-1-3 record.  Additionally, the sides met in the 2013 NWSL Final in Rochester, a 2-0 victory for the Thorns.

Western New York Flash

No team had a busier off-season than the Flash.  After last season's 7th place finish, the lowest finish in franchise history and first time outside a final since 2009, Aaran Lines and the Flash Front Office went for wholesale changes, including the surprising announcement that Abby Wambach would not be participating in the NWSL this season.  Of the 19 players on the roster this season, only three players are returning from 2014: defenders Brittany Taylor and Kristen Edmonds, and forward Jasmyne Spencer.

Headlining the newcomers are U.S. internationals Whitney Engen and Sydney Leroux, first round draft choices defenders Abby Dahlkemper (UCLA) Jaelene Hinkle (Texas Tech), midfielder Samantha Mewis (UCLA), and forward Lynn Williams, international forwards Camilla Kur (Denmark) and Ajara Nchout Njoya (Cameroon), former Thorns and Dash midfielder Becky Edwards, and former Spirit goalkeeper Chantel Jones and midfielder Jordan Angeli.  Additionally, former Portland Pilot Amanda Frisbie was acquired alongside Leroux from the Reign.

Facing last season's shield-winners in their opener last weekend, the newly-rebuilt Flash found themselves over-matched by the Reign in the latter stages of the match, as Megan Rapinoe's hattrick led the Reign to a 5-1 victory.  The Flash were in the match through the half, allowing a lone goal in the first half and Angeli brought the match back within one in the 68th minute, but the Reign were simply too much, as Rapinoe rampaged over the Flash, netting her goals between the 71st and 86th minutes.

While it is too early to tell whether their play from their opener will be an indicator of who the Flash really are, it is also important to note that Leroux had only trained with the squad for a few days.  Even an extra week of training could allow the Flash to make marked improvements in getting the ball to her in dangerous spaces on the pitch as the team continues to get on the same page.

Portland Thorns

The Thorns came out looking like a team that was finally buying into the system that Riley has put in place.  For the first time in an match, Riley brought out the 3-2-4-1 to take advantage of an abundance of midfielders and it not only worked,  it worked beautifully, with the midfield core of Kendall Johnson, Mana Shim, Allie Long, and McCall Zerboni dominant throughout the match, killing off nearly every attack Boston tried to throw at them before Michelle Betos ever really felt any pressure on goal, with Johnson off to the races on the left flank at every opportunity, looking to break through a notoriously weak defense.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of how the Thorns performed was not the four goals they did score, but their reaction to the one that wasn't called a goal.  Instead of getting frustrated after Long's 21st attempt was ruled to be cleared off the line, Long whipped the ensuing corner kick in, which found Sinead Farrelly, who netted her first goal as a Thorn, while in the past we may have seen sequences of listless play.

The most impressive tandem on the night came from Long and Shim, who scored or assisted on three of the four goals and looked dangerous throughout the night, a partnership that has grown over the past few seasons and will become even more important come May, when the internationals leave for their respective World Cup squads.  Without defensive responsibility to keep her back, Long can freely roam and looks to be more dangerous than ever, while Shim has regained her 2013 for and then some, and was constantly looking to create attacking opportunities .

Unlike previous season openers, where the Thorns appeared to struggle for a result and looked to be developing their chemistry as a squad, this team looks to be well on their way to playing Riley-ball.  Their ability to move the ball up and down the field and put their opponents in their heels, even with Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan only spending a few days in training and Christine Sinclair not even with the team, showed a distinct movement away from being wholly reliant on the availability and form of their international superstars to spark their attack.  Of the players who started or appeared in last week's match, only Heath, Morgan, and Jodie Taylor will not be available during international training camps or breaks.

Their Last Meeting

Meetings between the Thorns and Flash have almost always been memorable in one way or another, with perhaps their most recent one sticking in players' and fans' memories for the scoreline, a 5-0 victory to the Flash at Providence Park last June in a match that was supposed to be the turning point for the Thorns, with Vero, Steph Catley, Alex Morgan, and Rachel Van Hollebeke all making the season debuts, only to see Nadine Angerer red-carded in the 28th minute, the Flash quickly netting 3 goals before the break, then capping off the scoring in the 50th minute.

Final Thoughts

The Thorns and Flash find themselves in very different positions coming into their season.  While the Thorns looked to fill needs in specific positions ahead of the mass exodus that will occur in June, the Flash decided to blow up the roster and start over.  The Thorns were able to take advantage of this by picking up Zerboni and defender Kat Williamson for Amber Brooks, players who have already established themselves as vital pieces on the pitch.  With all the changes though, the Flash are unpredictable until they find their groove, which they clearly missed last Sunday.  Riley spoke about the new flexibility the Thorns have been working on in training, and this could be pressed against a solid coach like Lines, especially if their attack comes out strong.

Another question is whether Riley is willing to disrupt he consistency of the squad be put out last week.  While Nadine Angerer and Kaylyn Kyle dressed for the match and were available, Christine Sinclair and Rhian Wilkinson have also returned from international duty and will be available, so Riley will have much to consider in preparation for this match.