The Portland Thorns (5-5-5) host the Utah Royals (5-3-6) for the last time this regular season after drawing the Royals 1-1 away in Sandy and beating them 2-0 at home. All of a sudden, however, the teams find themselves travelling in different directions. The Thorns dropped points in both games last week and will be missing key players again on Friday. Meanwhile, Utah is keeping mostly healthy and adding more weapons. The addition of Christen Press added a serious goal threat to the team who already had the best defensive record in the league. The playoff race is still tight as we approach final stages of the season. The margin of error gets smaller and smaller as each game goes by. Now is the time to find out what the team is made of.
Projected Starting XI
The good news first: Tobin Heath, Emily Menges, and Emily Sonnett are all off the injury report. The bad news: Andressinha is out with the right-ankle sprain she picked up away at Seattle, and Katherine Reynolds is gone with an excused absence. On top of that, Meghan Klingenberg has been suspended for a game by the NWSL disciplinary committee. This game could see both Midge Purce and Ellie Carpenter start at fullback: Carpenter has proven a capable defender in the last few Thorns games and has appeared at left back for her country before, and Purce saw her first minutes since her ill-fated USWNT camp experience away at Seattle. Boureille should continue alongside Lindsay Horan deeper in midfield, and the forward line will likely see Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso start together for the first time this season alongside Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic.
Scouting the Opposition
Christen Press had her first goal for the Utah Royals last weekend in their 3-1 demolition of Sky Blue and will make her first appearance at Portland since leaving the Chicago Red Stars. The midfield base of Desiree Scott and Gunnhildur Jonsdottir is a solid one, and Katrina Gorry and Diana Matheson are both creative and flexible midfielders who can cover a lot of ground and are comfortable moving laterally around the field. Katie Bowen has slid in to replace Brooke Elby fairly seamlessly. But you can’t mention why Utah are succeeding without talking about their centerback partnership: Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Corsie are some of the toughest and smartest defenders in the league, fully willing to put their bodies on the line to defend the goal, as the Thorns found out last game when Sauerbrunn blocked a Tobin Heath shot from close range with her face.
When Utah played in Portland a few weeks ago, they collapsed quickly on the ball wherever it was played in the hopes of trapping Portland’s midfielders on the ball and moving quickly into attack. It only took a few moments of clever play for the Thorns to break Utah’s traps open just wide enough to score twice. Tobin Heath’s combinations with Christine Sinclair were a big part of that of course, but equally important was the ability of role players to get rid of the ball quickly under pressure. In the buildup to the first Thorns goal, Ellie Carpenter is trapped by three Utah midfielders when she receives a pass out of defense. She spots Sinclair open in midfield and one touches the ball to her to allow Sinclair to run at the defense and play the one-two with Tobin Heath that would open the scoring. If the Thorns can quickly identify the pressure that Utah brings and get out of it, they can make their offense work. If Crnogorcevic can play as well as she did against Utah the last time they came into town, occupying Corsie and Sauerbrunn with her movement up top, then it’ll work even better.