The Thorns will face FC Kansas City at home tomorrow night, in the second match of a grueling three-game week. Portland gutted out an uninspiring 0-0 draw the last time these two teams met, in May, and with both squads still struggling to find the back of the net reliably, this match looks likely to be a slog in a similar mold.
With the addition of Ashleigh Sykes, and the removal of Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Mana Shim from the injury list, Portland has—gasp!—the tiniest bit of leeway in terms of lineup this week. Mark Parsons seems to have switched from the 4-3-3 formation he deployed earlier in the season to a 4-2-3-1 with Allie Long and Amandine Henry in the defensive midfield double-pivot, and Lindsey Horan ahead of them as a central attacking midfielder. The back line, consisting of Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Celeste Boureille, and backed up by AD Franch in goal, won’t change, either.
The rest of the squad could shape up in several different ways, however, with the big question being who, between Sykes, Hayley Raso, and Nadia Nadim, will get the start. At Canberra United, Sykes was a goal-scoring machine, but she noted after training on Monday that she’s still working up to match fitness. Raso has been playing better and better, but has yet to score, in part because of a reluctance to shoot. Nadim has been crucial this year, but it’s not clear if she’s completely fit, either, and the Thorns will need her as fresh as possible when they go to Seattle on Saturday.
The other question it’s time to address is where on earth Christine Sinclair’s been. I fully expect her to get the start tomorrow, but she’s been lagging this season, with two goals—one a rebound off a saved penalty—and an apparent hex that’s kept her from shooting convincingly. I’d be curious to see what benching Sinc in favor of Sykes or Nadim would look like; the Thorns have been in dire need of some pace up front, and Sinc hasn’t been providing it.
Scouting the opposition
Kansas City has played several different formations this season. Their back line is Christina Gibbons, Yael Averbuch, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Brittany Taylor, and the legendary Nicole Barnhart in goal. The 4-3-3 they deployed Saturday against the Reign puts Desiree Scott, Alexa Newfield, and Lo’eau LaBonta in the midfield, and Brittany Ratcliffe, Sydney Leroux, and Shea Groom up top. That formation has the advantage of getting both Leroux and Groom involved in the build-up; when Leroux has played as the lone striker, she’s looked isolated up top.
On Saturday, the Blues managed a 1-1 draw against Seattle on the road. Normally, that might look like a pretty good result, but it came after Seattle defender Lauren Barnes was sent off in the fourth minute for dragging Shea Groom to the ground by the arm, leaving her with an elbow sprain in the process. The Blues held onto a one-goal lead—courtesy of Brittany Ratcliffe, who scored in the 16th minute—until the second half, when Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi equalized.
It was, in short, a demoralizing draw for a team whose whole Thing is defensive stability. So, what can Portland capitalize on here?
Seattle’s goal was the result of a defensive mistake the Thorns shouldn’t count on Kansas City to make twice. As Megan Rapinoe received the ball on the left edge of the penalty area, Sauerbrunn pointed to Kawasumi, who was camped out on the right side of the 18. Gibbons saw Kawasumi, then promptly forgot about her as Christine Nairn crashed into the center of the area. Kawasumi was wide open to tap home a ball that Barnhart couldn’t quite get a grip on.
If Vlatko Andonovski does play the 4-3-3, look for Taylor to spend a lot of time pushing forward on the right flank; throughout the second half against Seattle, that’s where most of Kansas City’s attacks were coming from. If Portland can get in gear fast enough, that could leave the Blues’ normally-impenetrable defense exposed in transition. Unfortunately, getting in gear fast enough has been precisely the Thorns’ problem over their last couple games.
As a general note, I’d still love to see Long get more involved in the attack. She’s been playing as a number 6, and seems to see herself as a 6, but here we are, nearly halfway through the season, and I’m not convinced that’s where she should be. She’s a brilliant playmaker and a prolific scorer, when she deigns to take those roles on. Portland’s not in quite as much trouble as the doomsayers would have us believe—they’re still in a playoff position, after all, and are tied with Chicago for the best defensive record in the league—but the clock is ticking, and before long, something is going to have to give with this sluggish offense.
Watch it on: go90 (US), NWSLsoccer.com (international)
When: Wednesday, June 28th at 7:00 p.m. PT
Where: Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Thorns: 4-3-3 (W-L-T), 4th place in the NWSL, 1-0 loss at Washington SpiritF
FC Kansas City: 3-3-4, 6th place in the NWSL, 1-1 draw at Seattle Reign