The Thorns take on the Chicago Red Stars on the road tomorrow. It’s a top-of-the-table-type matchup that will bump Portland into second place if they get the win. It’s also, unlike the last time these teams met, way back in April, a fixture between two squads that have legitimately proven they belong in the top four positions. Here’s a rundown of what the weekend could hold.
Portland is still a little thin headed into Saturday, with no removals from the D45 list, Nadia Nadim not likely to play the full 90 (Mark Parsons said this week that she would meet the team from Chicago, after some well-deserved celebrating back home in Denmark), and Allie Long on an “excused absence.”
Based on talking to Parsons earlier this week, I expect him to return to a 4-back, at least to start. That means we’ll see Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds in the back. Without Long, I expect we’ll get Lindsey Horan and Amandine Henry in a double-pivot, trading off between holding and getting forward. Christine Sinclair should reprise her role as a #10, flanked by Ashleigh Sykes and Hayley Raso, with either Nadim or Tyler Lussi as the lone striker—I expect they’ll both get a shift, it’s just a question of who Parsons wants to bring in off the bench.
Barring a late scratch, the Red Stars look to have their full roster available for tomorrow. They’ve started a few lineups this year, but the four-woman defense—backed up by Alyssa Naeher—is set: Arin Gilliland, Samantha Johnson, Katie Naughton, and Casey Short, from left to right. From there, they tend to look something like a 4-4-2 diamond, with Julie Ertz as the lone defensive midfielder, Danielle Colaprico and Sofia Huerta as wide midfielders, Vanessa DiBernardo as an attacking midfielder, and Christen Press and Jen Hoy up top. We could also see Huerta as Press’s strike partner, and either Alyssa Mautz or Taylor Comeau opposite Colaprico.
Chicago also recently activated Japanese international Yuki Nagasato from the disabled list. Nagasato was signed in May, but ended up having to return to Japan to tend to a knee injury. She’s a real threat, with 58 goals in 132 appearances for Japan—the most of any player in the current pool. It remains to be seen what her current fitness level is, and how she’ll integrate with this Chicago side.
The last time these two teams met was in Portland in week three of the season. The Thorns came out on top, thanks to a Nadim penalty kick resulting from a handball in the box by Press, and you may recall that the Thorns otherwise looked pretty toothless offensively in that game. They put a measly three shots on frame, and the few occasions they got into the box were largely on transition plays or long lofted balls from the defensive third. There was often a giant gap between the forwards and the central midfielders, two of whom—Long and Henry—were pretty content to sit back and hope for help to arrive from above, which it often didn’t.
The defense mostly held strong in that game, but there were some nervy moments where various Thorns were caught ball-watching and let Press or Hoy slip through-passes in to each other.
Of course, this isn’t the same Thorns team. Horan is playing to her potential, Sinc has settled into a deeper-lying role that’s suited her well, and players like Raso, Lussi, and Mallory Weber have proven they can score. The Sinc-Raso pathway proved especially effective last week against Houston.
That doesn’t mean Portland can’t fall into trouble here. If Parsons does go back to a four-back, this match will be an interesting test case for that formation, and the claim he keeps making that the Thorns’ recent successes have been less about shape and more about nebulous notions like grit and determination. In particular, the team’s use of width is in question: the three-back leaves an extra player as a pure defender, but has the advantage of letting Kling and Sykes focus more on attacking. That, in turn, spreads the opposition thinner and leaves central space for people like Sinc to exploit.
The Thorns also have to watch the Press-Huerta connection. Or, really, they have to watch Ertz, who’s going to try to feed them passes from deep areas. Chicago is a great counterattacking team, and Portland can’t afford to be sloppy in the midfield.
Watch it on: go90, NWSL website
When: Saturday, August 12th at 5 p.m. PT
Where: Toyota Park in Chicago, IL
Portland Thorns: 8-4-4 (W-L-T, 3rd place in the NWSL, 2-1 win vs Houston Dash
Chicago Red Stars: 8-3-5, 2nd place in the NWSL, 1-1 draw at Orlando Pride