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Match Preview: Portland Thorns FC vs. Chicago Red Stars

Hitting the road for the first time in 2015, Thorns FC looks to extend unbeaten run against a Chicago side out to change history

Midfielder Kendall Johnson gets a cross into the box during a 4-1 win over the Boston Breakers in the Portland Thorn's 2015 NWSL season opener at Providence Park on April 11, 2015
Midfielder Kendall Johnson gets a cross into the box during a 4-1 win over the Boston Breakers in the Portland Thorn's 2015 NWSL season opener at Providence Park on April 11, 2015
Jeremiah Braeback

Last Meeting: 1-1 T @ CHI

Overall Record Against Chicago: 2-1-4

It’s funny how sometimes history can repeat itself and how sometimes it can be so different. In their final meeting of 2014, the Chicago Red Stars faced Portland Thorns FC immediately following a win over the Seattle Reign, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Such is the case for the two clubs’ first matchup of 2015. However, the Thorns are off to their best start of an NWSL season, winning their first two games for the first time in their history. The last four matches have been draws as these teams are hard to separate, but history may be on the Thorns side in this one: Portland is unbeaten on the road against Chicago (2-0-2) and are unbeaten in the month of April since 2013, compiling a 6-0-2 record.

Following consecutive wins at home, Portland finds itself at the top of the NWSL table heading into its first road test of the season. Chicago plays host following a dramatic 3-2 win over Seattle in their season opener. Red Stars forward Christen Press tallied two goals, including a dramatic late winner. The Thorns juggled some unexpected personnel changes to defeat the Western New York Flash 1-0, as defender Kat Williamson left the match at halftime with a concussion. Despite that, Portland maintained a strong defensive setup to secure all three points, aided by Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson, who made her first appearance for the Thorns. With both teams coming off confidence-building performances, it’s hard to say who is in the better position in terms of form.

Chicago hasn’t taken three points from Portland since a 2-0 win at Providence Park back on June 1, 2013. That’s a run of four-straight matches in which Portland has taken at least a point, but all four of those matches have been draws. Chicago hasn’t done well against Portland when facing them early in the season. The last time Chicago hosted Portland in April, the Thorns earned a 2-0 win on April 27, 2013. Two weeks later, the Thorns earned another 2-0 win on the road over the Red Stars. All told, Portland has outscored Chicago 6-2 in their home stadium. Portland has tallied five goals in two games, second only to Seattle with seven, though the Reign have played one game more. So while Portland may have an edge statistically, Chicago has shown a never-say-die attitude to start their season.

It will be interesting to see how the Thorns and Red Stars approach the match mentally. This early in the season, pressure is a bit lighter and players may be distracted by off-the-pitch developments. Last week’s announcement of the U.S. Women’s National Team roster didn’t seem to affect the Red Stars, who have four players heading to Canada for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup as part of the U.S. contingent. Meanwhile the Thorns will send two players in forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Tobin Heath. It is likely that this will be the final match in the NWSL for the U.S. internationals before they begin preparations for the World Cup which kicks off on June 6.

All-in-all, this match will provide an opportunity for both teams to let the game flow. It may be difficult on Chicago’s notoriously small field, but the attacking flow and passing ability of both clubs should keep things lively. Both squads have exciting players, there’s no doubt and some of the fringe players will be chomping at the bit to show they’re ready to stake their claims for playing time.

Key Factors: How will the Thorns adapt to their first road match. Historically a decent side on the road, Portland is expected to be without forward Alex Morgan due to injury. This should give forward Christine Sinclair a good chance to grab her first goal of the season or Allie Long the opportunity to equal her streak from 2013 of scoring in the first three games of the season. Mana Shim’s creativity will be especially needed in the confines of Chicago’s field to spring the attack.

Players to Watch: Long is on a hot streak for the Thorns, no doubt about it. Three goals in two games puts her tied for the most goals in the NWSL and she doesn’t look like she’ll slow down anytime soon. But it will eventually and who will be there to fill the gap? Midfield partner Sinead Farrelly has also been impressive, tallying a goal and an assist in two matches. Look for her to continue to contribute for Portland.

Chicago’s Press is just behind Long in the scoring charts after her brace in Chicago’s 3-2 win over Seattle on April 18. The Thorns defense definitely needs to keep track of her, along with fellow U.S. internationals Lori Chalupny and Julie Johnston. They may play in the defense for the USWNT, but in the NWSL, they’re attacking abilities are more apparent.

Thorns Potential Lineup: Angerer, Menges, Williamson, Van Hollebeke, Johnson, Farrelly, Long, Heath, Zerboni, Shim, Sinclair

With Morgan and Taylor both listed as out for Saturday’s match, it’s likely that Christine Sinclair will lead the line. That will work well for Portland, as her holdup play will benefit Long and Shim joining the attack from midfield. Long will continue to push forward and feed off Zerboni and Farrelly.