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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Chicago Red Stars

Nikita Taparia, Stepover FC

The Thorns return to league play after the international break to head on a quick middle America road trip to the Chicago Red Stars. The Thorns squad has had two weeks to dwell on their 1-4 loss at home to the North Carolina Courage, rest up, get healthy and prepare. Despite winning their last game against the second-bottom Washington Spirit, the Red Stars are on a run of eight games with only one win. However most of their squad is returning to full health and they will be eager to get back at the Thorns after losing to them 2-3 in the second game of the season where they were missing a significant portion of their squad.

The Thorns and the Red Stars are in quite similar places: they’re on an identical point total, are very close on goal difference, and both teams feel that they’re probably underachieving relative to the talent in their squad. Both really should be in the playoffs by the end of the year but this game will go a long way toward determining which team will nose their way in front.

Projected Starting XI

The good news on the injury front is that Hayley Raso is completely cleared and is in line to play her first minutes of the 2018 season. Perfect timing too, as the Chicago Red Stars have officially designated the game “Australian Night”.

Emily Sonnett is listed as questionable after missing two games before the international break and is likely to see time. Adrianna Franch is still out but will travel with the squad and could be in contention to play in the second game of the road trip at Houston. The bad news the US Women’s National Team has returned two Thorns players injured: Midge Purce, getting her second ever call up to the camp, left early with an ankle sprain and could be out for a few weeks. Tobin Heath played only a few minutes in the second game against China and scored to give the US the victory but also picked up an ankle sprain and is also listed as out.

Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic played 45 minutes in Switzerland’s 5-0 win over Belarus, scoring a penalty kick five minutes in. The game was away in Belarus, so the turnaround may be tight and she may not complete the full 90 in Chicago but she should start.

With Purce out, the backline should look like the modified back three from last year, with Katherine Reynolds drifting centrally in defense and only pushing forward slightly in attack, allowing Meghan Klingenberg the freedom to push forward as high as she can.

Scouting the Opposition

The Chicago Red Stars are almost at full health (missing only Stephanie McCaffrey to illness) and Sam Kerr has had a few games to adjust to her new surroundings: on paper, they should be putting it together after their up and down start and sneaking back into the playoffs. The Thorns game seems to be particularly vulnerable to Sam Kerr fast breaks: the tendency to rely on defensive speed to prevent fast breaks from other teams can run into trouble against a player who shreds teams on the counter for fun. Teams have had success in keeping the Red Stars midfield from getting good balls to Kerr and forcing her to come looking for the ball deeper. Unfortunately the Red Stars midfield is getting back to full strength as well: Julie Ertz is working her way back to top form but still looks a little off her best, and Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico and Sofia Huerta are in line to all start together for the first time this season.

How the Thorns can win

The Thorns midfield are going to have to up their game in order to get a result. Julie Ertz is a great player making runs into the box and scoring but she can be pressured off the ball in possession: Christine Sinclair will have to assert herself, and she’s proven more than capable of doing that against USWNT level midfielders this season so far. On the flanks, Arin Gilliland is typically a top player going forward but seems to have drifted out of form in part due to being played out of position for most of the start of the year. Klingenberg’s running will be essential to pinning her back and drawing Chicago’s defender’s out of position on the overlap, and her service into the box (still the best in the team) should help bring Raso into play in her first game of the season.