After a tough home loss to Seattle, the Thorns flew straight to Houston for a midweek game against the much-beleaguered Dash. Portland is currently in fourth place with an even 2-2-2 record, while eighth-place Houston picked up their first win of the season this weekend against an impressively bad Sky Blue side. Portland can and should pick up points on the road against this Houston team.
Projected Starting XI
Predicting the lineup for this game is a little more of a crapshoot than it typically is, both because there were no post-training media availabilities between Saturday and tomorrow, and because playing three games in a week is going to require a little finagling on Mark Parsons’s part. I’m going to err on the side of caution and predict that he’ll once again start Celeste Boureille and Mallory Weber, and bring on Andressinha and Tobin Heath in the second half.
Emily Menges is still listed as “out” on the injury report, although I’d wager that’s largely down to the quick turnaround between this game and the Orlando game on Saturday, when she has a real chance of seeing the field. AD Franch and Bella Geist are also both still out, so we’ll get Britt Eckerstrom in goal with Adelaide Gay on the bench.
In text format: Eckerstrom in goal, Kelli Hubly, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds at center back, Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce at wingback, Boureille, Christine Sinclair, and Lindsey Horan in the midfield, and Weber and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic up top.
Portland is 2-1-2 all-time on the road in Houston and are unbeaten in their last four matches against the Dash. Their most recent regular-season meeting was last season’s ugly 1-1 draw at BBVA, which saw Horan score on a direct free kick in the 91st minute, the second goal by Horan in her last three matches against the Dash.
Scouting the Opposition
The opposition, too, is more of a challenge to write about than usual. Typically, we try to give a brief description of the style the opposing team plays and who some of their key players are. Houston, unfortunately, hasn’t been playing in any consistent style. If it looked in preseason like Vera Pauw had a chance of taking the roster she’d been able to piece together and surprising us with a certain level of tactical flexibility and sophistication, a little over a month into the season it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead of adjusting to individual game situations, Houston has simply looked confused, their game plans more Jackson Pollock than Piet Mondriaan.
They were catastrophic against North Carolina two weeks ago, when Pauw trotted out a 3-4-3 that shifted to a four-back in the second half when it became clear the defense wasn’t working—but that shift couldn’t fix that the Courage’s press was squeezing the Houston midfield to a pulp. This weekend against Sky Blue, the Dash’s biggest competition for the title of worst team in the league, they were somewhat less shambolic and managed to pull out a 3-2 win. That victory, though, comes with the major caveat that two of Houston’s goals were courtesy of disastrous errors by Sky Blue’s defense and keeper.
Beyond the lack of cohesion, Houston’s bigger problem is that their roster simply isn’t very good. A game plan is of little use if all your players are outmatched by all your opponents’ players. That’s not to say there are no bright spots—Nichelle Prince made some big plays in both games, Kealia Ohai is much the same player she was before her ACL injury, and both young South Africans, Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Motlhalo, have shown promise. But overall, and especially when it comes to their defense (such as it is), any lineup Houston can put forward matches up poorly against the starting eleven of pretty much every other team.
In short: if there’s any team Portland has to be able to get a result against, it’s Houston.
Lineup-wise, everyone except Motlhalo, the only listing on Houston’s injury report, is available. Kyah Simon, Ohai, and Prince are locks to start up front, while Janine Van Wyk and Amber Brooks should be in the mix at center back. Kristie Mewis and Rachel Daly will also be on the field, although where they’ll play is anybody’s guess—Mewis has played in the midfield and (poorly, for the most part) at outside back, while Daly could be in the midfield or the front line. Other than that, it’s hard to say who we’ll see. Wayward Thorn Mana Shim has started this season, not to detrimental effect, but not to any particularly great effect, either.
Players to Watch
On the Dash side, keep an eye out for Prince. She’s been one of Houston’s few unqualified successes these last few weeks, putting in good work for the Dash on both the offensive and defensive sides of the field. She and Ohai can both pose real threats to the Thorns—with the huge grain of salt that Houston’s midfield will first have to figure out how to get them the ball.
For the Thorns, I’m still on Andressinha-watch. The Brazilian clearly hasn’t settled in with the team yet, but buckle up for when she does. Portland has never had a player quite like her—a true playmaker who can create chance after chance from the central midfield—and when she and Horan are finally finding each other on a regular basis, magic is going to happen.