The Portland Thorns played out a scoreless draw with the Houston Dash in the final game of their preseason tournament at Merlo Field. It was a match without much goalmouth action but with good performances in midfield and in defense from the Thorns, who largely snuffed out Houston’s attacks.
The Thorns took the field in a 5-3-2, with the wingbacks Meghan Klingenburg and Midge Purce pushing high. Mallory Weber and Ifeoma Onumonu, the wingers, cut inside and effectively played as strikers in front of Christine Sinclair. In the absence of Emily Menges and Tobin Heath, both of whom saw no time and are doubts to start in the opening game, it’s a lineup we could potentially see against North Carolina.
Kelli Hubly lined up as the left centerback, Menges’ spot, in the first half, and Elizabeth Ball came on in the second half. Hubly missed a few headers but generally looked tenacious. Hubly is more likely to start simply because of her past experience with the club but the battle for fourth centerback spot is bound to be an interesting one over the course of the first month of the season.
Houston pressed less than the U-23s did on Wednesday and as a result we got to see how Portland wants operate in possession. Celeste Boureille, Lindsay Horan and Emily Sonnett played triangles deep and took turns playmaking between themselves. Sonnett, playing as the central back in the back three, was the player given time on the ball to start attacks or to pass it off at her discretion. In the first half most of the game seemed to happen between them, as the Thorns struggled to put together attacks.
Most of the Thorns best offense came through the wingbacks picking up balls high up the field and putting in crosses. Midge Purce was one of the better players on the field, winning tackles as well as getting to the byline and putting in good crosses. More than once she sprinted down the right to receive 40-yard passes before charging back downfield to make an intervention after the corner, and her ability to start counterattacks on her own was also on display. She fizzed a ball across the face of goal in the 20th minute, but no one was on the far post to receive it.
Boureille continued to get her chance to impress in the center of the park and took her opportunity well, breaking up play and spraying passes out to the wing. She was matched up against former Thorn Mana Shim for much of the game and thoroughly got the better of her, winning two tackles in a row in one stretch.
Onumonu, also having a good preseason, had some of the Thorns’ better looks on target but failed to put any away on the night. In the 18th minute, Boureille put Ifeoma Onumonu through on goal with a lovely ball over the top of Houston’s defense but Onumonu couldn’t control the ball. Sinclair put her in on goal in the 49th minute just after halftime but she slashed just wide.
The one question is where the offense is going to come from. The Thorns had just one shot in the first half, and while they generated more shots in the second half, few were of particularly high quality. Purce and Klingenburg got in good crossing positions but largely failed to put decent balls in. The team is running the risk of looking too much like the Thorns in early part of 2017, who relied on penalties to scrape out wins. An attacker player is going to need to step up, and the pressure is on with the Thorns away to top opposition in the April.