If you spot me this week and I've got an extra spring in my step, well, part of it is the weather. But I'd be whistling and skipping regardless: this weekend, Portland hosts the first leg of the NWSL's only real rivalry match against the gutless fish from the north.
As reported earlier this week, the Thorns will still have some holes in their best XI, most notably a Tobin Heath-shaped one on the left wing. Katherine Reynolds is also still out, reportedly, for another two to three weeks, as are Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Mana Shim. Meghan Klingenberg, however, is expected to play.
That gives us Kling, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Celeste Boureille in the back, Amandine Henry, Allie Long, and Lindsey Horan in the midfield, and Christine Sinclair and Nadia Nadim up top—the only potential question mark is whether we'll see Haley Raso or Mallory Weber start on the left.
Raso, who got the start last week, might be the better player—it's probably fair to say she has a bigger upside, at least—but both have yet to prove themselves. Raso has speed to burn, but has just as much of a propensity as Weber for getting in dangerous positions for shooting or crossing only to hit a poor shot or pass to someone who isn't there. I'm also not convinced she isn't most valuable off the bench, where she's shown she can add some juice to a sagging offense.
Speaking of a sagging offense...
The Thorns have three goals in three games, two of them penalty kicks. Needless to say, going forward, they can't expect to draw a penalty every other game. North Carolina and Chicago both figured out that pressing the Thorns in the central midfield is the key to shutting them down. Absent Tobin Heath's playmaking ability, Portland's left wing has been a dead zone. They do need more out of Nadim—although, to be fair, she still isn't completely fit.
If there's a genuine concern about how slowly the attack is gelling, it's in the midfield. Aside from a few moments of brilliance from Long in the season opener, this trio, which, on paper, should be world-class, has yet to start clicking the way they should. Horan has been a nonfactor. Henry has had some shots from distance, but nothing really threatening, yet. Long still looks to be figuring out where she fits in this setup.
It may be that getting Heath back will unlock everything, but it's not an encouraging sign that they can't get things together without her. Any team with Sinc, Long, Henry, and Horan should be terrifying to behold; four-week preseason notwithstanding, this team needs to figure out how to build a convincing offense with the pieces they have.
The Reign are 1-1-1 for the season, falling 3-0 last week on the road against Boston—a result not entirely thanks to Seattle playing badly. Boston controlled the midfield throughout most of the match, and Adriana Leon was named player of the week for her efforts. However, two of Boston's goals were due to serious defensive flubs by the Reign, one when Merritt Mathias had a hard touch in the box, and one where Natasha Dowie found herself totally unmarked in Seattle's defensive third and was one-on-one with Haley Kopmeyer.
Don't expect the same mistakes this week. Portland is a known quantity for this team, and I expect their defense to have tightened up after getting exposed like that. Lineup-wise, we should see the same 4-3-3 Seattle has used the last two weeks: Carson Pickett, Lauren Barnes, Kristen McNabb, and Merritt Mathias in the back, Christine Nairn, Rumi Utsugi, and Jess Fishlock in the midfield, and Megan Rapinoe, Beverly Yanez, and Nahomi Kawasumi at forward.
Look for the Reign to press high to try and shut down Portland's midfield the same way North Carolina did. Look, also, for things to get chippy, between the nature of the rivalry and personalities like Fishlock and Horan. Pinoe and Kawasumi are dangerous on the wings, both in putting in crosses and with the ball at their feet. The matchup between Boureille and Pinoe, in particular, will be something to look out for.
The Thorns need, this week as much as any, to get more comfortable booting the ball forward and switching the play when it's called for. They can do that, if they decide to. Nadim has been known, at times, to drop pinpoint crosses; she just needs somebody running forward to get on the end of them.
Watch it on: go90.com (US); NWSL.com (international)
Where: Providence Park in Portland, OR
When: Saturday, May 6th at 7:00 p.m. PT
Portland Thorns: 2-1-0, 3rd in the league, won 1-0 vs. Chicago Red Stars
Seattle Reign: 1-1-1, 5th in the league, lost 3-0 vs. Boston Breakers