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Roses and Thorns: So Far, So Good

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Katherine Reynolds takes on Alex Morgan in the Thorns’ 2018 home opener.
Nikita Taparia

The Thorns remained perfect in home openers and undefeated against the Orlando Pride this weekend, notching a 2-1 win over the Pride for the third year running. Just like the last two home openers against the team she-who-shall-not-be-named left Portland for, this one was at times nervy, and however much Mark Parsons wanted to deflect the issue in the post-game presser—which was a lot—Portland’s defense still needs work. Here are some of my takeaways from the game:

A rose to whatever Tom Sermanni was thinking.

The Pride boss made the unexpected move of deploying a new formation against the Thorns on Sunday, using three center backs in Toni Pressley, Shelina Zadorsky, and Ali Krieger, with Carson Pickett and Kristen Edmonds as left and right wingbacks. All that should look familiar to Thorns fans, but things get weirder from there; in the first half, Chioma Ubogagu, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux played as a front three, with Christine Nairn and Dani Weatherholt the only central midfielders.

What exactly Sermanni was thinking in relying on a two-woman midfield to shut down a team whose best player, Lindsey Horan, plays in the central midfield is unclear. Matters were made even worse for Orlando by the fact that Pickett was woefully outmatched by Midge Purce. That allowed the Thorns to go wide, shifting the Pride’s attention to the wing, and creating a huge hole in the center of the pitch.

The Thorns weren’t always able to exploit this space, but the Purce-Pickett matchup wasn’t the only unequal one on display—the Nairn-Horan contest was also over before it even started, and the fact that Nairn alone seems to have been tasked with stopping Horan is what ultimately did Orlando in. On Portland’s equalizer, watch Nairn sheepishly try to track back as Horan drives up the center of the pitch, cutting off exactly none of the available passes.

After a quick exchange with Weber and Sinclair, Horan has an almost comical amount of space to get her shot off.

Offensively, for Orlando, this formation also led to a lot of moments like this, where an outmanned Nairn (just above Sinclair in this shot) had no outlets going forward and was forced to just bypass the midfield.

Sermanni shifted things in the second half, dropping Ubogagu into the midfield, but by then Portland was firmly in control of the game and the Pride couldn’t consistently create chances. After a year and change with Marta on the roster, Orlando is still completely reliant on her to win games. Speaking of over-reliance on specific players:

A thorn to Portland’s dependence on Horan.

A lot of things have changed with the Thorns since 2016, but one troublesome similarity has appeared over the course of the three games so far: Horan and Sinclair are singlehandedly (doublehandedly?) generating pretty much everything for the Thorns. I bring up 2016 because that was the last time the Thorns relied this much on a single player (starts with a T, rhymes with Hobin Teeth). It’s Sinclair and Horan together, this time—they’re the only two players who have either a goal or an assist this season—but if one had to sit, would the other be able to get the job done?

To stick just to Horan, the 23-year-old has been the Thorns’ best player in all three games so far. As Parsons said, “the last two years, when we’re really under pressure, Linds has stepped up... what she’s doing now, she’s stepping up every single game.” Obviously, it’s good to see her continuing to build a case for herself as one of the best midfielders in the world. On the other hand, at the moment, she looks like the kind of talismanic player without whom the Thorns wouldn’t be able to win. Never mind the two eye-popping goals she’s scored—her influence through the central midfield, both creating and destroying, is irreplaceable right now. Not in the sense that Portland has no other players like her (duh), but in the sense that players elsewhere on the field haven’t produced consistent quality going forward.

The question is, how big of a problem is that?

I’m going to go with “let’s wait and see.” With the list of absent and injured players comes a long list of unknowns, at least some of which need to go right for Portland: If Andressinha shows up in form and takes control of the offense the way she often did in Houston, if Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic turns out to be as good as advertised, if Hayley Raso and/or Tobin Heath get healthy and pick up where they left off, if Midge Purce starts getting her final service right, the Thorns will be fine. The key word for the coaching staff this year is “flexibility”; Parsons is both trying not to replicate the get-so-and-so-the-ball game plan that almost burned him in 2017, and do better at adapting to individual matchups throughout the season. If all goes well, the whole setup is going to look very different in a month or so.

On the other hand, all those ifs might not materialize. Realistically, some of them probably won’t—or if they do, something else, inevitably, will go wrong. In any case, cross your fingers that enough unknowns go the right way, otherwise Portland’s Horan backup plan may not appear.

A rose to Kelli Hubly.

If you’d had told me a month ago that in week three the Thorns’ most consistent center back would be Kelli Hubly, I wouldn’t have believed you, but here we are. In a week that saw some uncharacteristically sloppy passing from Katherine Reynolds, and some all-too-familiar, uh, inconsistencies from Emily Sonnett, Hubly came up big. She had several big clearances and did well matched up against both Sydney Leroux and Chioma Ubogagu.

It’s persistently lame that players like Hubly are relegated to the bubble in the NWSL, but it’s also great to see a player like her making the most of the opportunity she’s been given and working her way up, game by game, through the depth chart. It’ll still be a relief when Emily Menges is healthy, but Hubly is stepping up admirably in her absence.

A bucket of popcorn to the ongoing Leroux-Paulson feud: