The Portland Thorns head to Cary, North Carolina this weekend to take on the North Carolina Courage (formerly the Western New York Flash) in their first-ever home game. The last time these teams met, of course, was in last year's playoff semifinals, when the Thorns suffered a heart-wrenching loss at home in extra time. The Courage have a new home and a new name, but make no mistake: this isn’t just a rematch, but a grudge match. As Emily Menges said today, “we think we got shortchanged that game, we think we should have won that game, and that’s fueling us.”
Portland should be starting the same group they used last week. To review: a 4-3-3 with Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Celeste Boureille on defense, Allie Long, Amandine Henry, and Lindsey Horan in midfield, Mallory Weber and Nadia Nadim attacking from the flanks, and Christine Sinclair at center forward. Mark Parsons said today that Tobin Heath won’t travel to North Carolina, but is expected to be back in training next week, as is Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Katherine Reynolds is a little further out, likely “a couple more weeks.”
Expect that midfield trio to be playing in a more fluid style. That’s what Parsons has said the team has been working on, meaning Long won't spend the game as a de facto third center back the way she played during the first half of the Orlando game. As discussed previously in this space, Long is both a constant scoring threat and the team’s best playmaker, and she has to be free to get forward to combine with Sinc. It also continues to be interesting seeing Amandine Henry push forward and join the attack; I remain agnostic on her value there for the Thorns, but as anybody who watched the 2015 World Cup knows, she’s plenty capable of scoring ridiculous goals.
North Carolina, based on their first game, is shaping up a lot like last year's Western New York squad. I expect to see the same starting lineup they used last week: a 4-4-2 with Jaelene Hinkle, Yuri Kawamura, Abby Dahlkemper, and Sam Witteman in the back, McCall Zerboni, Debinha, Sam Mewis, and Makenzy Doniak in the midfield, and the infamous Lynn Williams-Jessica McDonald strike pair up front.
Williams and McDonald, of course, are still a duo to be reckoned with: Williams had a league-leading 8 shots on opening weekend, with McDonald continuing to feed her passes in dangerous areas and throw the ball really far from the sideline. They're not, however, the big story, Courage-wise, out of last weekend.
That distinction belongs to Brazilian international Debinha, who made an eye-popping debut against Washington. She's excellent with the ball at her feet, provides a creative spark in the midfield that was lacking last season, and isn't afraid to shoot from distance—on that last point, check out this shot where she puts a bullet on frame as four Spirit players are closing her down. It should be fun to see how she matches up against Long/Henry/Horan.
Defensively, aside from one slip-up in the 63rd minute where Katie Stengel got one-on-one with Sabrina D’Angelo (only to whiff the ball way right of the open goal), the Courage looked fine. On the other hand, Washington didn't give their back line much of a test, as they struggled to put anything resembling an attack together for most of the match.
At training, Parsons offered an update on the Mallory Pugh situation, for those following along, although it was (perhaps predictably) anti-climactic. “The interest last year was very strong and we did the trade to try to bring Mal in,” he said. “Since that time last year, we’ve had no contact with the player... We were reading and seeing that news at the same time as everyone else. Right now, if she comes to the NWSL, there’s another club who has her rights... But I’m not in the loop, and I’m not aware of what her plans or thinking are.”
Watch it on: go90 (US), http://www.nwslsoccer.com/ (international)
Where: WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, NC
When: Saturday, April 22nd at 4:30 p.m. PT
Portland Thorns: 1-0-0, 3rd in the league, won 2-0 vs. Orlando Pride
North Carolina Courage: 1-0-0, 4th in the league, won 1-0 at Washington Spirit