We made it, folks: the interminable, albeit never boring, NWSL offseason ends tomorrow when the Thorns travel to Cary, North Carolina to take on the thrice-damned Courage in the first Lifetime game of 2018, a rematch of what Mark Parsons called “the worst game of soccer I’ve ever seen” in a media conference call this week. Hold on tight; it’s going to be a wild ride.
Projected Starting XI
Look for the Thorns to come out in the 3-/5-back formation they used in the latter half of 2017. Our own Tyler Nguyen wrote a great analysis of how that system works here; but broadly speaking this formation is the one that makes the most sense with the current pool of healthy players. In the absence of a true number nine, it allows Midge Purce and Meghan Klingenberg to push forward and feed balls to the wingers (Ifeoma Onumonu and Mallory Weber), who cut inside when the wingbacks get forward, and Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair, who crash the box from the midfield. The three centerbacks behind them give them the freedom to do this without getting too exposed defensively, which plays into Kling’s strengths, especially.
The likely starting lineup, then, looks like this:
Elizabeth Ball split time with Hubly during preseason, so she could get the start there; Angela Salem, who will travel with the team before heading back to grad school, could also start instead of Celeste Boureille.
Scouting the Opposition
North Carolina has made fewer offseason changes than anyone else in the league, with the exception of adding yet another athletic forward in Crystal Dunn. That said, they do have a key absence in Samantha Mewis this week. Here’s a guess as to what their lineup might look like:
Abby Erceg is listed as questionable on the injury report, and if she can’t start I’m honestly stumped as to who will take her place. Purely by process of elimination, we might be looking at Meredith Speck, since none of the other healthy defenders are natural centerbacks.
Playing the prediction game before a single match has been played in the season is always a fool’s errand, but there’s no reason to expect North Carolina to approach this game any differently than they’ve approached every game, historically, dating back to their start as the Western New York Flash. They’re fast and athletic and will press Portland in all areas of the pitch, trying to force a turnover and score on the counter. Paul Riley’s repeated insistence that it’s actually the Thorns who are the aggressive, physical team in this matchup notwithstanding, it’s also not unlikely this game will get rough. The memory of last year’s ugly final is undoubtedly still fresh in everyone’s minds; it’s probably fortuitous that Tobin Heath will be on the bench for this game.
How can the Thorns win this?
Make no mistake: this match pits a North Carolina side that’s expected to be dominant again this season against a Portland team that’s missing several key players. One of those key players, Emily Menges, is better described as “crucial”; there’s simply no replacing her as a defender. The back line is undoubtedly going to suffer for her absence. Adding Dunn to an already potent attacking corps isn’t going to make things any easier.
Defensively, the other area of the pitch that makes me nervous is the central midfield. Amandine Henry is another player with no replacement—not just on this Thorns roster, but anywhere in the world. Boureille struggled against the high press of the USA U-23s, the team in the preseason tournament who deployed tactics most similar to what Portland is likely to face in Cary. Lindsey Horan is imposing and physical, and can play the wrecking-ball role the Thorns need in that area, but that means she’ll find it harder to get into the attack.
That brings me to the other big concern, which is that Portland is probably going to struggle to score. They never found their footing in the final third during preseason (“we lacked the final ball, lacked the final cross, and when we got the final ball, the final cross, we lacked the final finish,” said Parsons after the Houston match), and the Courage aren’t likely to be the team they find it against.
On the other hand, North Carolina also have a couple of key holes in their lineup. Mewis’s absence puts that much more pressure on McCall Zerboni to manage the center of the pitch, and if Erceg doesn’t play, their back line suddenly looks a lot thinner. The attacking-minded Merritt Mathias may also be a liability at right back, as she often was for Seattle last season.
Ultimately, if Portland can keep the Courage from scoring early on, they have a chance to stay in the game and maybe put one home on a set piece. Much like the championship, I don’t expect a blowout here, but it’s crucial that the Thorns keep their defensive shape and don’t wilt under North Carolina’s pressure.