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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Orlando Pride

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Nikita Taparia

The Thorns are finally home this week, for the first time since September 30, 2017. While their season-opening road trip hasn’t been nearly as long or brutal as the Timbers’ five-week winless slog, starting the season on the road two weeks in a row wasn’t easy, either, especially combined with key absences in multiple positions. Portland will be eager to get in front of their home crowd in what feels like the official start of the season.

Projected Starting XI

The Thorns have roughly two more games—depending on the exact timelines of when their wayward internationals get back, and what shape they’re in when they arrive—to get through with essentially the same group they’ve had to start the season. Tobin Heath won’t dress this weekend, and Emily Menges is likely “a little behind” her, injury-wise, according to Mark Parsons. It turns out that Lindsey Horan, following a brief injury scare over the international break, will play; that’s a relief, because despite what I’ve written in recent weeks about this Thorns roster being the deepest ever, if she was to get crossed off the list, suddenly the midfield starts to look pretty thin.

In short, we should be looking at the same starting lineup we saw against Chicago:

In text form, this is Adrianna Franch in goal, Kelli Hubly, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds at center back, and Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce at wingback. Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, and Celeste Boureille will start in the midfield, with (probably) Tyler Lussi and Mallory Weber up top. Ifeoma Onumonu could also get the start in Lussi’s place.

Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, the Thorns’ new Swiss forward, has been in training this week, and if all goes well, should get some minutes off the bench.

Scouting the Opposition

Like a lot of teams around the league, Orlando is at partial strength right now, thanks to the two World Cup qualifying tournaments in progress right now—they’re missing a combined five players from their Brazilian and Australian contingents for the Copa America and the Asian Cup, plus Camila, who’s on the 45-day disabled list.

Their defensive corps should look the same as it did two weeks ago against Washington: Carson Pickett and Ali Krieger on the outside, Toni Pressley and Shelina Zadorsky at center back, Ashlynn Harris in goal.

With Alex Morgan back in the mix, the rest of the lineup undergoes some shuffling. It’s week three, so I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what that was going to look like. One possible iteration is Christine Nairn as a lone holding midfielder, with Chioma Ubogagu, Dani Weatherholt, and Rachel Hill ahead of her, and Sydney Leroux and Morgan up top.

History

Orlando has been the Thorns’ opponent in their home opener three years running, and Portland came away on top of both of the last two matchups. Zooming out, the Thorns are 4-0-1 in five all-time games against Orlando in both the regular season and the playoffs.

The Pride made the playoffs last year after a rocky start to the season, the result of a midseason turnaround led by Morgan and Marta. The pair proved truly talismanic for Orlando; Marta was everything the Pride bargained for when they signed her, while Morgan had her best season in years playing alongside the Brazilian superstar.

Speaking of Marta, one increasingly big elephant sits in the room when it comes to the Pride: since her signing, the team has yet to win a game without her. Looking at their record since the beginning of 2017, she’s had a hand in at least one goal in all but one of the team’s 11 wins in that period. Without her, Orlando is essentially a team with one great forward, a mediocre midfield, and a pretty poor defense.

Players to Watch

For the Thorns, the big one has to be Crnogorcevic. With Caitlin Foord likely out virtually the entire season, Crnogorcevic starts to look like a hugely important acquisition for Portland. She’s a versatile player—she’s done stints at winger, right back, and even center back—but according to Parsons, she’ll play as a forward here. For now, at least, look for her to take on the same high-pressing role Onumonu, Weber, and Purce have been playing, pressuring opposing back lines constantly to try to force turnovers.

Take note, though, that as the season goes on and players like Andressinha and Tobin Heath get into the mix, that game plan is likely to change. “Ana is mobile, she’ll work, she’ll run forever,” said Parsons, “but she brings a lot of quality in just being clean, in the way Sinc has loads of quality, being very technically clean and having a purpose in everything she’s doing. She’s technically clean, she’s smart, and I think in this league if you have a brain and you’re thinking about where the next opportunity is, you can be really successful.”

For Orlando, keep an eye on the weakened back line as a whole, but Shelina Zadorsky in particular. On Washington’s first goal against the Pride two weeks ago, Zadorsky got badly exposed against Mallory Pugh; with Ali Krieger pushing high up the field, Pugh had miles of space on the left side of the pitch to drive into, and Zadorsky, at right center back, noncommittally tracked back, kind-of-sort-of marking her, looking more or less resigned to letting her get her shot off the entire time.

Gameplan

Parsons said earlier this week that he expects to press somewhat less than the Thorns have in the previous two games. That first goal Washington scored, from start to finish, was an object lesson not just in lazy defending, but how Portland expects to be able to hurt the Pride. With Krieger and Nairn both pushing forward, the Pride were exposed in the back, and from there, it was quick, efficient play by the Spirit that sealed the deal. Off an aimless clearance by Nairn, Ashley Hatch, sitting near the center circle in Orlando’s half, perfectly directed a header to Pugh, and the young forward did the rest of the work.

“They’re going to press us and we have to be aware of that, and not take risks in the back line,” Parsons said. “If we do beat that press, the reward will be there, because they’ll have less numbers closer to their goal... our forwards have to give us movement and continue to make us dangerous and give us the option to hurt the back line when theres space. Our center mids have to move the ball quick, and our back line has to move the ball quick. We’re going to try and come in with some good energy with and without the ball—play fast, play simple, that’s how we can hurt Orlando.”