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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Houston Dash

Anya Button

The Thorns (4-4-4) continue their road trip in Houston tonight, with a 5:30 game against the eighth-place Houston Dash (3-4-5). With a win and a little help from the fourth-place Utah Royals in the form of a win or draw in their game against Chicago, Portland, who are currently fifth in the league, would move back into playoff position.

Both teams will have key lineup changes from the last time they faced off, when they played to a 1-1 draw in May—the Thorns due to some players returning from injury and others newly injured, and the Dash due to recent signings.

Projected Starting XI

For the first time this season, the Thorns’ full starting defensive line, plus AD Franch, is available. This is huge for Portland, who have dealt with a rotating selection of suboptimal defensive setups since week one, first missing Emily Menges, then Franch, then Franch and Emily Sonnett. Accordingly, a lot of the goals they’ve conceded—and the results they’ve dropped—have been on sloppy individual mistakes by defenders and/or backup keeper Britt Eckerstrom. Ironically, although the defense has returned to full health, the front six is now short two players, Tobin Heath and Midge Purce, who were available when these two teams met in May.

Additionally, Lindsey Horan will sit this game out due to yellow card accumulation. Given that she was inevitably going to have to sit out at some point, this is pretty good timing, looking ahead to some of their upcoming games—away at Seattle next weekend, then home against the Royals July 6.

In text format: Franch in goal, Meghan Klingenberg, Menges, Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds in a back four, Andressinha, Celeste Boureille, and Christine Sinclair in midfield, Mallory Weber and Ellie Carpenter out wide, and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic up top.

Look for Hayley Raso to sub in for Weber after the half. Heath is listed as questionable in the injury report, but I’d expect Parsons to err on the side of caution with her.

Scouting the Opposition

The Dash are potentially short one of their key players in Kyah Simon, who is listed as questionable. Adding Simon, an attacking midfielder with great vision and passing accuracy, was in retrospect one of the best moves Houston made in the offseason, and their midfield is going to suffer if she isn’t available.

On the other hand, the club finally got some value out of the rights to Christen Press in the latest NWSL megatrade, which brought Sofia Huerta and Taylor Comeau to Houston. The Dash have started various players in both fullback positions at different times, many of them not defenders. The most recent setup has been Allysha Chapman on the right and forward Lindsay Agnew on the left, so having an Actual Right Back joining the team in Comeau is pretty big. Houston also recently acquired Australian centerback Clare Polkinghorne. You may remember that she didn’t exactly thrive in her time in Portland under Paul Riley back in 2015—but that probably wasn’t a great test of her readiness for the NWSL, because, well, who did thrive under Riley?

If I had to guess how these players all fit together, I’d say Amber Brooks probably moves into the midfield, with Polkinghorne starting alongside Janine Van Wyk, and Comeau and Chapman at right and left back, respectively.

Where Huerta fits in, I’m not sure. I don’t think Pauw will kowtow to Jill Ellis to the point that she plays her at fullback. On the other hand, she might kowtow to Ellis to the point that she plays Huerta as a wide forward. On the other other hand, Pauw has three perfectly good forwards in Rachel Daly, Kealia Ohai, and Nichelle Prince, so she might stick Huerta in the central midfield in the role Simon would normally occupy. If she did go that route, look for Linda Motlhalo to start along with her and Brooks in the midfield.

Gameplan

Horan sitting out is going to be interesting for another reason: if Boureille plays in more of a dedicated holding role than Horan typically does, as I would expect her to, will that make for a more cohesive midfield?

The issue with the current starting midfield of Sinclair, Horan, and Andressinha is that these are three players whose best position is pretty similar. Of the three, Horan is the one best suited to the number six role, but that’s not her best position—and the Thorns really need her to be able to get forward and score. If you stuck Horan in the six, Sinclair would probably be better than Andressinha in the eight, but that’s definitely not her best position; Andressinha, finally, should be playing as a ten, but you also can’t really take Sinc out of that role.

Throwing Boureille into the mix, playing her as a true holding midfielder, thus alleviating Andressinha of some of her defensive duties just might solve that puzzle. On the other hand, Boureille is a depth player who’s had both good games and bad games this season, and she’s been prone to some of the same kinds of sloppy giveaways that have plagued Portland recently.

In any case, with the addition of Hayley Raso, Portland finally has a dedicated forward who scores once in a while. The Dash midfield—at least, earlier iterations of it—can be pressured off the ball by physical teams. It’s easy to see the Thorns squeezing them throughout the game, forcing a turnover, and sending a ball up and over to Carpenter or a fresh-off-the-bench Raso to beat Houston’s defense.