Portland starts back up after the international break with a rematch at home against Sky Blue this Saturday. After shutting them out on the road two weeks ago, the Thorns look to have the upper hand coming home, much like they did against Boston in the last away-home series.
More likely than not, the Thorns will start almost the same lineup as they did in New Jersey: AD Franch in goal, Meghan Klingenberg, 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—with the only change being Hayley Raso instead of Mallory Weber as the third forward. Dagny Brynjarsdottir should be available off the bench, as will Ashleigh Sykes, the Australian forward who just arrived in Portland (more on that in a minute).
The bad news is that, in a reversal from what we expected two weeks ago, Tobin Heath was not at training on Tuesday and won't play this weekend. Mark Parsons wouldn't give a timeline, only saying, rather ominously, that the priority is to have her healthy for the playoffs. Whether we read this comment as meaning she's not expected to be fully healthy before then, or merely that he's sick of having to eat his words after giving injury timelines that turn out to be wrong, is an open question—Heath's gibe from training a couple weeks ago, that "you guys [in the media] never know anything," is turning out to be painfully prescient.
The good news is that the Thorns are getting their act together without Heath. With Horan back in form, the midfield is gelling, and gradually, the attack-from-everywhere promise of the 4-3-3 is materializing. Sykes arriving could be even better news; the Aussie international was the top scorer in the W-League this season, with 12 goals in 13 games for a table-topping Canberra United. Presumably, she'll come off the bench this weekend, but longer-term, she's likely slated to slot in where Raso and Weber have been playing.
Another complicating factor, however, is that four Thorns—Kling, Sinc, Long, and Horan—are coming back from international duty. The three Americans flew halfway around the world for a pair of (rather bad, it has to be said) matches against Sweden and Norway. Sinc went 90 minutes against Costa Rica last Thursday, then another 67 on Sunday. That’s a lot of travel, and a lot of playing time, in a very short window, and Portland’s already-gutted roster means there aren’t a lot of options for resting those players.
Sky Blue's lineup will look a little different than it did the last time these two teams met. Assuming Erica Skroski and Erin Simon are healthy, they'll be back in the starting eleven, giving us a defensive corps consisting of Kailen Sheridan in goal, and Simon, Freeman, Christie Pearce, and Skroski in front of her. The rest of the formation is less set in stone. Christy Holly has played both a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 this year. The latter formation has Sarah Killion and Nikki Stanton sitting in the double-pivot, Kelley O'Hara, Raquel Rodriguez, and Taylor Lytle in front of them, and Sam Kerr as the lone forward. Their best 4-4-2 puts O'Hara up top instead—and it's probably worth noting that that's not the setup Portland faced last time, which instead had her stuck at right back.
To my eyes, they've looked best in the 4-2-3-1. I like O'Hara as a wide player, and Killion is at her best when she can sit deep, disrupt, and distribute. Having an extra body in the midfield against Portland could help un-strand Kerr and let Sky Blue penetrate the defense better than they were able to last time.
As for Portland, if they do what they did last week, they'll be in good shape. Take away Pearce, and Sky Blue's back line is suddenly pretty green, with at least one rookie and nobody older than 23. "They gave us chance after chance," said Parsons of the June 3 game. "We hope Mills and Freeman are playing, because I think we can expose them." Remarkably, despite sitting in fourth place, the team has a goal differential of -1, tied with 7th place Orlando for the fourth-worst in the league.
Meanwhile, Portland, in third place, has conceded just five all season, leading the league. That defensive backbone is what's kept the Thorns in the running even as the attack sputtered early on—and now that the attack is starting to chug along, this is a team that's going to be hard to stop.
Watch it on: go90, NWSLsoccer.com
When: Saturday, June 17th at 7:00 p.m. PT
Where: Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Thorns: 4-1-3, 3rd place in the NWSL, 2-0 win at Sky Blue FC
Sky Blue FC: 4-4-1, 4th place in the NWSL, 2-0 loss vs Portland Thorns