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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars

Nikita Taparia, Stepover FC

After the Tournament of Nations break and a two-week road trip, Portland is finally back at home this weekend to take on the Chicago Red Stars in the second leg of their Pacific Northwest tour.

The Thorns (9-6-5) come into the game feeling confident after a 2-0 thumping of the Orlando Pride last weekend, while Chicago (7-4-9) is coming off a somewhat demoralizing 0-0 draw midweek in Seattle. Both teams have a game in hand over the other playoff contenders, and both have been picking up steam late in the season after struggling with injuries to key players early on.

Projected Starting XI

With the end of the regular season rapidly closing in, don’t expect to see changes to the lineup this weekend. Ellie Carpenter looks to have locked down the starting right back slot, while Ana Crnogorcevic is still the likely starter up top, with Caitlin Foord gradually building her minutes off the bench.

In text format: AD Franch in goal, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Ellie Carpenter in the back, Celeste Boureille, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair in midfield, Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso out wide, and Ana Crnogorcevic at striker.

Scouting the Opposition

Chicago comes into this, their third game in eight days, off two consecutive draws of very different character. Last weekend, after going down a goal in the first half against North Carolina, Sam Kerr equalized in the 64th minute, on a service from Vanessa DiBernardo. Wednesday in Seattle, despite dominating the first half and creating a number of good chances, they didn’t manage to score; after the break, Seattle regained control, but also failed to find the back of the net. Despite picking up the point on the road, this looked like Chicago’s game to win, and they should feel a bit hard done by the result.

This is a Chicago team that’s dealt with many of the same struggles as the Thorns have in 2018; early in the season, they, like Portland, couldn’t field a full 18 on several occasions, with Casey Short, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Yuki Nagasato all among the injured. Sam Kerr didn’t arrive until after the Asian Cup, further slowing Chicago’s start to the season.

Now, with their injury report nearly blank—only Stephanie McCaffrey remains in the “out” column, due to illness—the Red Stars are playing with three in the midfield, optimally Morgan Brian, Danny Colaprico, and Yuki Nagasato, with Nagasato sitting right below Kerr. DiBernardo and Mautz will probably play out wide; in the back, look to see Casey Short, Julie Ertz, Katie Naughton, and Arin Gilliland.

Heading into the home stretch of the season, especially following the disappointing draw in Seattle, the Red Stars will be coming into this game hungry. Although Chicago has a poor record against Portland—they’re winless in the last 13 against the Thorns, including a loss and a draw this season—one player, Sam Kerr, has a very good record at Providence. She’s only played two games here, but she scored a brace in each. The first one, in 2014, was Portland’s worst-ever home loss, a 5-0 drubbing by Western New York. Her 2017 appearance in Portland was in a miserable 3-1 loss to Sky Blue, where she assisted a first-minute Raquel Rodriguez goal, then scored two of her own late in the second half to seal the deal.

“I personally love going to Portland,” she said after the game in Seattle. “The last time I went there I had fun, scored two goals... They have the best crowds in the league, so any time you get to play in front of their fans, credit to them, is an amazing experience.”

Game plan

Kerr didn’t have her best game Wednesday, but she’s the kind of transcendent talent who often seems to be able to score at will, and she should be Portland’s biggest worry going into this game. She’s currently tied with Lynn Williams for second place in the golden boot race, with 10 goals—in 15 games. One can never overlook the possibility that Kerr will figure out how to score when it’s called for, especially given her past form in Portland.

With that said, Chicago hasn’t always used Kerr in the most effective way. She’s been spending a lot of time swinging out wide, where she’s less effective than she is centrally; that was especially true in Seattle, with Yuki Nagasato, whose service into the box gives Kerr some of her best looks, coming in off the bench. If the same dynamic plays out in Portland, it should be interesting to see how Ellie Carpenter does closing down any service from wide by her Matildas teammate. Klingenberg will also need to have a good game on the left, and if I was Parsons, I’d task Menges with stepping assertively to Kerr any time she’s in that area of the field.

Nagasato, assuming she starts (resting her in Seattle was likely just squad rotation for the three-game week), will be another key factor for Chicago. Boureille will have her hands full there, although recent form indicates she’s probably up to the job.

Defensively, Arin Gilliland has looked shaky on Chicago’s right—which, of course, is where Tobin Heath, Portland’s most dangerous creative player, tends to hang out. That should have one of two effects: either Heath spends the night shredding Gilliland, or, like we saw in Orlando, players like Naughton or Brian get drawn over to help shut Heath down, and that opens up space for Horan, Sinclair, Raso, Foord, and whoever else to operate in.