Ah, springtime in Portland. The cherry trees are in bloom. The weather has changed from persistent rain to bursts of sun interspersed with more rain. Best of all, the NWSL's annual six-month drought is over, and the girls in red are back in town.
Before the regular season gets underway April 15 against Orlando, we get a four-team preseason tournament this week, with Portland hosting the Houston Dash, the Chicago Red Stars, and the USWNT U-23s.
While much of the league landscape has been flipped upside down, largely in the wake of a mass exodus from the Washington Spirit, Portland's roster remains almost identical to the last year's. They've lost Kat Williamson to retirement and fan hero Michelle Betos to Norwegian side Vålerenga, but the crew that brought home the Supporters' Shield last season is otherwise intact. Having this level of continuity from one season to the next is new for the Thorns, and getting, for once, to not start from scratch is a very good feeling.
For preseason, Portland has brought on five trialists, most of them for added depth on defense. Forward Ashleigh Sykes, an Australian international signed earlier this month, won’t be available until June 10, and draftee Tyler Lussi is still in college.
So: what of the opposition? The Thorns look to be facing three very different sides this week.
The Red Stars, like the Thorns, have undergone minimal turnover during the offseason. Their midfield engine room—driven by Vanessa DiBernardo and Danielle Colaprico—is intact, they retain Christen Press and Sofia Huerta, and their back line, which conceded the second-fewest goals in the league last year, is unchanged. With longtime manager Rory Dames also returning, there's no reason to think Chicago won't be playoff contenders once again this year.
Houston is a different story. While the Dash’s roster has also undergone relatively little change, they’re starting from a very different place than Chicago. It’s true that in the latter half of the 2016 season, they started to turn things around after a six-game losing streak by handing the Thorns their most embarrassing thumping of the year, a 3-0 loss in Houston. Kealia Ohai went on a tear, netting a league-leading 11 goals for the season and earning what seems to be a consistent spot on the national team roster. Despite finishing their season in eighth place, Dash had the best offense in the league over the last 10 matches.
We’d be remiss, however, in not noting that Houston is without Carli Lloyd until she wraps up her season with Manchester City—and for everything that’s been said about Lloyd’s perceived commitment to league play, she remains an important contributor to the Houston offense whenever she shows up. In short, it’s going to be interesting to see where the Dash starts this year.
The inclusion of the U-23s in this tournament gives it something of a different look both from last year’s edition and from the preparations the rest of the league undertakes this time of year—which often take the form of lopsided matchups between NWSL sides and local college teams. It’s a nice chance for the college players to take a swing at some higher-level competition, but it doesn’t offer much to their professional opponents, especially given that the NWSL’s preseason is during the college offseason.
This U-23 roster, which is essentially a college all-star team, should offer a notch more mettle than OSU did in last year’s tournament. For USWNT fans, it’s also a sweet opportunity to catch a glimpse of some young players who are on the rise in the national team system. 16-year-old Brianna Pinto was on the senior roster for the SheBelieves Cup (although she didn’t see playing time), and Ashley Sanchez, who captained the U-17s at the World Cup in Jordan last year, has also been called up to the full national team.
The tournament kicks off Sunday, March 26 at 2:30 with Houston playing the U-23s at 2:30, followed by a Thorns-Red Stars matchup at 5. You can check the full schedule here.