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Match preview: Thorns vs Houston Dash

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Thorns fan

The Thorns head on the road tomorrow to brutally-hot, possibly stormy Houston to take on the Dash. With a home win and two hard road losses in the rearview mirror, here’s what to expect:

Starting XI

With Nadia Nadim, Amandine Henry, and the only recently-healthy Dagny Brynjarsdottir no longer with us (until the beginning of August, at the earliest, anyway), Mark Parsons has some shuffling to do.

If he sticks with the 4-2-3-1, I expect we’ll see Mana Shim slotting into the second defensive midfield spot next to Allie Long, and Ashleigh Sykes and Hayley Raso starting on opposite wings. He could also switch back to a 4-3-3, with Long, Horan, and Shim in midfield, and Sykes, Christine Sinclair, and Raso up top. In theory, a 4-3-3 gives a team more width—and for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, that might be the way to go right now.

In any case, we should see Franch in goal, with Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Celeste Boureille in front of her. The midfield will be either Shim, Long, and Horan (in a 4-3-3), or Shim and Long in a double-pivot, with Sykes, Horan, and Raso, from left to right, in front of them (in a 4-2-3-1). Sinc will be either the lone forward or the center forward between Sykes and Raso.

One difference between the two formations is, as already noted, that a 4-3-3 allows for more of an overload on the wings, with midfielders playing behind two wide forwards, and attackers on both flanks, potentially, backed up by an attacking fullback. Conversely, in a 4-2-3-1, the central attacking midfielder carries a bigger burden as a playmaker. For the Thorns, that’s Horan—and since she went Super Saiyin against Sky Blue at the beginning of June, she hasn’t looked up for that role (Allie Long, in an alternate universe, might be, but that’s another story).

Portland, last weekend, strung together most of their convincing attacks in wide areas, with several decent chances going through Raso. And, crucially this week, Houston plays with a right back—Poliana—whose Klingenberg-like tendency to attack more than she defends often leaves them exposed out wide.

Lessons learned?

Frustratingly, as demoralizing as last Saturday’s Seattle match was, there’s not all that much to be learned from it. Well, for Emily Sonnett, there’s a big lesson—namely, to stop messing around when in possession in front of your own goal—that she should’ve learned a long time ago. A way of looking at that situation optimistically is to hope that actually conceding a goal because of a mistake she’s been making all season might shake some sense into her.

Otherwise, this is one of the times when I actually agree with Parsons when he insists a result came down to details. The first-half defensive performance, up until the final minute of added time, was, for the most part, as solid as defensive performances come. Everyone, including Dagny, who looked a little shaky defensively against Kansas City, kept their shape, and Megan Rapinoe and Merritt Mathias’s tricky runs around the outside were kept in check by good tracking and organization. It’s both heartening and maddening that the first goal, which changed the tone of the game completely, came down not to a systemic issue but to one crucial individual mistake.

There is something to be learned from the second goal, beyond the reminder that an in-form Rapinoe is one of the best wide players on the planet. The assist on that goal came from Christine Nairn, who looked like this, just before she played a perfect long pass into the Thorns’ defensive third:

This is bad to look at, for many reasons. One of them is how Horan is frantically rushing in from fifteen yards away to put any pressure on Nairn, instead of, you know, already being there. Another is that at this moment, to the right of the frame, Long is sitting back doing CB-type things instead of anything to begin to counteract the Reign’s numerical advantage in the midfield. Simultaneously, Dagny is so wide out right you almost lose her in the red NWSL banner on the sideline.

Maybe the more telling screenshot is this one, from moments before, just after Horan has passed to Henry (who then gave the ball away on an uncharacteristically inaccurate pass):

After passing to Henry, Horan just stops. This gets back to the formation issue: the one where, on paper, she should be making plays centrally. She has to keep moving here, not just to close the gaping hole Nairn had to sit in, but to actually contribute to the buildup in the event the Thorns don’t give the ball away.

Coincidentally, do you know who Portland can’t afford to give that much breathing room in the central midfield?

Carli Lloyd.

Scouting Houston

Officially, Houston lined up in their last match, a 2-1 win against Kansas City, in a 4-3-3. In reality, Lloyd, as is her wont, sat deeper than a true center forward, making them look more like a 4-4-2 diamond. Houston’s back line is Camille Levin, Janine Van Wyk, Amber Brooks, and Poliana, backed up by either Jane Campbell or Lydia Williams in goal (why “either” Campbell or Williams? I don’t know. It’s one of the deeper mysteries in the league). Morgan Brian, if she’s healthy enough to start, will sit in the #6 role; she’s currently listed as “questionable.” Otherwise, we’ll get Cami Privett there. Janine Beckie and Andressinha will be in the central midfield, with Lloyd drifting box-to-box. Nichelle Prince and Rachel Daly should start at forward.

Houston’s win at Kansas City wasn’t a resounding one. They had a couple decent stretches of possession, but both their goals were moments of individual brilliance, not collective achievements. The first was thanks to a vintage Lloyd moment where she dribbled through traffic and struck a beautiful long pass to Daly. The second came off a free kick into the box, when Prince was marked ever so slightly too loosely by Becky Sauerbrunn and managed to get around her.

The story with the Dash, at the moment, is very much Lloyd’s story. She elevates an all-around mediocre team, and the fact that she provides most of their scoring threats doesn’t make those threats any less real. When she’s in form, she’s dangerous everywhere: she can solve tight pressure, provide brilliant assists like the one on Daly’s goal, and score eye-popping goals from distance.

That means the Thorns can’t give her any space. They’ve got to funnel Houston’s attack out wide, where they’re weaker.

Once they’re done pressing, they’ve got to figure out how to counterattack on a more consistent basis, and Horan has to step up, especially absent the firepower Dagny provides on the right.

Match Information

Watch it on: go90 (US), NWSLsoccer.com (international)

When: Saturday, July 8th at 5:30 p.m. PT

Where: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, TX

Portland Thorns: 5-4-3 (W-L-T), 5th place in the NWSL, 2-0 loss at Seattle Reign

Houston Dash: 4-7-1, 7th place in the NWSL, 2-1 win at FC Kansas City