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Match Preview: Thorns vs North Carolina Courage

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Match Gallery: Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash

The Thorns take on the top-of-the-table North Carolina Courage tomorrow at Providence Park, in what promises to be either a very good match, a very tense and heated match, or both. With three of Portland’s starters away at the Euros, it’s do-or-die time for the rest of the squad. Let’s see what the afternoon could have in store:

Starting XI

I expect Mark Parsons to start the same 4-2-3-1 as last week: AD Franch in goal, and the usual back line of Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Celeste Boureille. Mana Shim and Allie Long will start as dual holding mids, with Ashleigh Sykes, Lindsey Horan, and Hayley Raso ahead of them, and Christine Sinclair as the lone forward.

Needless to say, the Thorns need to scrape themselves off the floor after last week’s painful road game against Houston. Sykes, who clearly has yet to integrate with the team, was all but invisible last week. She’s clearly capable of more, based on her W-League performance. Long, who was in peak pass-the-ball-backwards-under-any-amount-of-pressure form, had her worst game in a long time—and that’s the exact kind of bad form North Carolina will punish you for. She also made an outrageous defensive flub that led to Houston’s goal in letting a backwars pass roll right by her in the box. She needs to keep her nose pointed goalward in possession, and actually defend when she’s supposed to be defending.

Scouting North Carolina

Paul Riley has shuffled his starting lineup around a little in recent weeks in the wake of some fitness and recovery issues. Their best starting defense, in front of Katelyn Rowland in goal, is Jaelene “Personal Reasons” Hinkle, Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper, and Taylor Smith—but Smith took a bit of a knock last week against Seattle, so Riley may have to start Stephanie Ochs or Sam Witteman at right back, instead. The midfield, on paper, can be drawn a number of ways, but basically consists of four players: Sam Mewis as a defensive midfielder, McCall Zerboni and Makenzy Doniak as box-to-box players, and Debinha as a #10. Depending on fitness, some combination of Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, and Ashley Hatch will start as dual forwards.

In the past, many (myself included) have often disparagingly thought of this team as “just” a direct team. Last season, to some extent, that’s what Western New York was—recall that the Thorns generally outplayed them, until, in the seconds it mattered most, they didn’t. The Flash was a young, rough-around-the-edges squad that found success basically by being faster than everyone else when they had to be.

With some time and the addition of a few key pieces, that team has coalesced into a terrifyingly efficient offensive machine. To say the Courage have threats all over the field is to put it mildly. A better way of summarizing them, as a team, is that there’s really no area from which they can’t hurt you, and they do it head-spinningly fast. They routinely push both fullbacks forward to overwhelm you on the wings, but they’re just as adept at funneling attacks through Zerboni and Debinha in the midfield, often getting the ball into the box in two or three pinpoint passes. Williams is Williams—I don’t think there’s anybody in the league she can’t outrun.

Yet despite all that, they’re not invincible. Portland, the way they keep saying they want to play, should be well-positioned to beat this team. The conventional wisdom holds that the way you beat a direct team, even a very good direct team like North Carolina, is by out-possessing them. As Allie Long said last year, quoting Arsène Wenger, “how can they score if they don’t have the ball?”

Of course, the Thorns aren’t playing the way they want to play. They looked flat and tired last week in Houston, and even if they have a good record defensively, that’s occasionally been down to luck, as teams haven’t quite been able to punish them for mistakes in their own defensive third.

North Carolina’s beatdown of Seattle last week was an object lesson in what happens when you make those kinds of mistakes against the Courage. The Reign tried to beat the Courage at their own game, moving the ball up the field on the counter as fast as they could, but kept giving it away with thoughtless passes in the process. Portland has to play at their own tempo, and they also have to be smarter and more precise in possession than they have been.

Closing Thoughts

This is the biggest game the Thorns have played all season. They’re sitting one point behind Seattle in fifth place, so picking up points at home is becoming crucial. This is also the first of a three-game stretch at home that could be a chance for Portland to turn their thus-far lackluster season around. Tomorrow’s performance is going to set the tone for the next two games.

Parsons said something interesting, and potentially very telling this week in training:

"We've got to know that an attacking system and model has to be built around individuals. That's where I feel as a coach I've had success before, is bringing out the best in those individuals first and then bringing that together as a group."

This might be one of the most unintentionally informative tidbits we’ve heard from him. He’s had two huge years in the NWSL, with Washington in 2015 and Portland last season. But both of those seasons turned, in large part, around insane performances by individual players: first Crystal Dunn, then Tobin Heath. It’s not that either team was bad without those players, but early in the 2016 campaign, Heath very much carried the Thorns. She was there to create something out of nothing while the rest of the team was still figuring things out.

Heath isn’t going to swoop in to rescue this campaign. The time for the rest of the 2017 Thorns to figure things out is now.

Match Information

Watch it on: Lifetime

When: Saturday, July 15th at 12:30 p.m. PT

Where: Providence Park in Portland, OR

Portland Thorns: 5-4-4, 5th place in the NWSL, 1-1 draw at Houston Dash

North Carolina Courage: 9-4-0, 1st place in the NWSL, 2-0 win vs Seattle Reign