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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Utah Royals

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Cindy Lara - RSL Soapbox

After picking up their first win in their last six games against the Washington Spirit on the road last weekend, the Portland Thorns return for a quick two game stretch before the international break. They host the Utah Royals at Providence Park for the first ever time after drawing at Rio Tinto 1-1 back in April. The Thorns improved to 3-3-3 last week, putting them in third place in the NWSL table, while the Utah Royals’ labored victory over the Houston Dash took them to 2-5-1 and put them in sixth place. Only two points separate third place and seventh in an increasingly crowded NWSL playoff race.

Projected Starting XI

The late news this week is that Emily Sonnett has a minor back injury and is not expected to be available for selection for either of the next two games. This doesn’t really cause selection issues at centerback—Katherine Reynolds should slide over to cover—so the real question mark is now at right back. Short a centerback and in the middle of transitioning to a 4-2-3-1, it seems unlikely that the team will return to three at the back in order to put Midge Purce in the wingback role she had so much success in during the early season. It remains to be seen whether Purce is a good enough defender to play in the back line in a flat four.

Mark Parsons said after the Orlando game, where Ellie Carpenter played as a winger, that he didn’t want to throw her into the defense immediately, especially since the defense was working hard to solidify itself in the midst of multiple absences. Carpenter could still get her first start in the position she plays for her national team, but Parsons may prefer a more seasoned face there. Celeste Boureille might be an option; she has played well defensively in midfield recently and put in good shifts at right back last season.

In text format: Britt Eckerstrom in goal, Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds at centerback, Meghan Klingenberg and Celeste Boureille at fullback. Andressinha, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair will start in the midfield, Tobin Heath and Midge Purce start on the wings and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic will be up top.

Doubts remain about whether Ana-Maria Crnogorecvic is fully adjusted to the harsh demands of the NWSL schedule yet after missing the Orlando game due to fitness. She should start against the Royals but may miss one of the next two games.

Scouting the Opposition

Kelley O’Hara, who tormented the Portland backline when the two teams met last, has been suffering the effects of a right hamstring strain and is officially out for the match. Amy Rodriguez, whose constant pressure forced the Thorns defense to cough up a goal in their last meeting, continues her journey back to full fitness, looking more dangerous every game.

Katrina Gorry, Gunny Jónsdóttir and Desiree Scott make up a physical and high-pressing midfield that the Thorns will have to play their way around in order to be effective. Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Corsie have become one of the steadiest centerback partnerships around in what is the best defense in the league so far. Their fullbacks, Becca Moros and Brooke Elby, have been playing well above their expected ability: Elby went 23rd in the Boston dispersal draft and has more than justified her value. She’s the lowest picked player in that draft to get regular minutes in the NWSL.

How the Thorns can Win

The Spirit did a very effective job last weekend of denying the Thorns midfield the opportunity to face forward and play balls up to the front line. Utah’s midfield is arguably even better and will be attempting to replicate this. The Thorns may need Tobin Heath and an extra forward to drop into midfield if they want to win the battle there. Alternatively, they can try to stretch play down the wings: Purce or Carpenter would be effective doing that down the right but the team still lacks a left-sided forward who they really want to be running the lines for 90 minutes. The Thorns must be successful in their duels against the Utah fullbacks if they want to win, as drawing Sauerbrunn or Corsie out of position out wide is probably the only chance they will have to open up enough space to get a shot off inside the box.

Players to Watch

Whoever starts on the right wing must win the battle against Becca Moros and put decent crosses in. On the other side of the field, Utah will be uncomfortable with Brooke Elby isolated against Tobin Heath, and will likely draw over either Desiree Scott or Rachel Corsie to help. Christine Sinclair found success drifting between the lines in the last game against the Royals. If she is on the same page as Heath, she could find herself in the position to create goal-scoring opportunities for the other forwards.