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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Utah Royals

Nikita Taparia

The Portland Thorns are on the road against the Utah Royals this week for Utah’s second-ever home match. Portland comes into the match in third place with a 2-1-1 (W-L-T) record, having drawn 1-1 against the Washington Spirit at home last week. The Royals are in seventh with a 0-1-2 record; their last result was a 2-2 draw away at North Carolina.

Projected Starting XI

The Thorns are still thin this week, though exactly where they’re thin has shifted somewhat since last week. Andressinha and Ellie Carpenter both arrived in training this week, and both should be available to off the bench. F***ing Tobin Heath is back in the fold after getting 30-odd minutes as a sub last week.

If Mark Parsons plans to blow things up and change the basic setup he’s been using now that Heath is healthy (though still building fitness), he isn’t telling, so I’m going to predict we’ll see something like this.

In text form: Britt Eckerstrom in goal, Kelli Hubly, Emily Sonnett, Katherine Reynolds at centerback, Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce at wingback, and Celeste Boureille and Lindsey Horan in the central midfield.

With Heath and Crnogorcevic in the mix, the top three will look a little different than they have in previous weeks, where two of Tyler Lussi/Ifeoma Onumonu/Mallory Weber played as dual forwards ahead of Christine Sinclair. Instead, Heath will both drop back and drift wide, with Crnogorcevic and Sinclair also alternately dropping into the midfield and getting forward depending on the situation.

The big question mark this week is the bench, which won’t be quite as shockingly bare-bones as last week’s was, thanks to the addition of Andressinha and Carpenter, plus Kling’s recovery, but will—unless something changes between now and game time—lack keepers after Bella Geist showed up on the injury report with a quad strain.

Scouting the Opposition

Utah looked really flat the first few weeks of the season. Their matches against Orlando and Houston in weeks one and two (both draws) were almost hard to watch, each pitting two teams that couldn’t get the ball out of the midfield against each other. The team went 267 minutes without scoring after Gunnhildur Jonsdottir notched one in their 1-1 draw against Orlando.

They snapped that dry spell after two atrocious mistakes by North Carolina’s back line last week. The first came when Abby Dahlkemper decided to head a ball that should have been keeper Katelyn Rowland’s and allowed Katie Stengel to get in and put a header away. The second was a great strike by Brittany Ratcliffe from the top-right corner of the 18 yard box—made possible when Rowland passed directly to her instead of making what should have been a simple clearance. In short, those two goals were all but handed to them by the Courage.

That said, the Royals have something in common with the Thorns: they’ve had some key pieces missing in these first few weeks of the season. Amy Rodriguez is working her way back into the fold after a long injury, while Katrina Gorry just arrived after the Asian Cup wrapped up. A-Rod is, well, A-Rod. Gorry, meanwhile, is a huge acquisition for the Royals who will add loads of quality to the central midfield. However, Portland may be catching Utah at an opportune time, as Gorry, basically fresh off a plane, likely won’t see the field, while A-Rod’s minutes will still be limited.

Players to Watch

For the Thorns, keep an eye on Crnogorcevic. She was painfully close to scoring several times last week, and if I was a betting woman, I’d put money on this being the game she gets on the end of a ball from Horan or Heath or Purce and finds the back of the net.

For Utah, A-Rod is the one to watch. Utah may have lacked scoring punch through this first part of the season, but if anyone on this Royals squad can stretch Portland’s defense out of shape, it’s her.

Off the Field

Utah has been positioning itself as a potential rival to Portland in terms of attendance, facilities, and overall level of professionalism. Royals/Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen has said he wants to have the top professional women’s sports franchise in the world. Currently the Royals have around 5,000 season ticket holders—a very respectable number in the NWSL—and sold out their home opener a few weeks ago. Today, they’re expecting about 10,000, which is steep drop from the opener but again, still a good crowd in this league.

Meanwhile, several dozen Portlanders, myself and Stumptown’s own Richard Hamje included, have made the trip to Salt Lake City for the game. Keep an eye out for the Mark Parsons fathead (aka Flat Mark), whose journey to the Beehive State was chronicled under the #DrivingMarPar hashtag on Twitter: