It’s back. The Portland Thorns kick off the their season away at the Orlando Pride on the opening weekend of the 2019 NWSL season. This trip kicks off a two week trip east for the Thorns: they’re flying directly from Orlando to Chicago for next week’s game against the Red Stars before returning home briefly to catch their breath before the next trip. With Providence Park not scheduled to be completed until June 1st, the Thorns have six away trips in total before they get the chance to have their home opener.
The Thorns opened the season away at North Carolina last year, but the opener against Orlando is almost a tradition: Portland hosted the Pride in the first game of the season in both 2016 and 2017.
Fans will be blessed with the full Thorns roster for only three games before they start shedding players for the World Cup, but the lineup is thankfully near complete at the moment. The major miss is Emily Menges, who will not travel while she recovers from the injury she suffered in preseason. Midge Purce is questionable. Bella Bixby will also not travel with a hand injury, but was not expected to make the bench.
It seems most likely the team will see few lineup changes from the full strength squad we saw in preseason (and at the end of last season). Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic will start up top but switch positions regularly with Caitlin Foord as they strive to combine more effectively.
Everyone on the Thorns has been saying they expect the unexpected in the first game of the season. Meghan Klingenberg: “It’s wild. Every single time”. Mark Parsons: “In this league, you have to be able to manage chaos [...] my prediction would be the first half is would be very different from the second half, that’s often how it is. It’s going to be 45 minutes of utter chaos.”
That’s not to say there won’t be some kind of pattern, and even with the uncertainty around how Marc Skinner will set his team up Orlando is likely to play to their strengths. Defensively, handling Alex Morgan is a task unto itself, but by far the most effective way to do this is to get effective control of the midfield and deny her service, pulling her away from goal to prevent her from making runs in behind, still the thing she does best. Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan will have to prevent Emily Van Egmond and whoever her midfield partner is (likely Dani Weatherholt) from having time on the ball, and the matchup would appear to be a favorable one. Sinclair and Van Egmond can slug it out physically leaving Horan free to hunt the ball where she needs to, including doubling on Marta when necessary.
In games expected to be as wild as this one, a winner usually emerges from an individual moment of skill. Many players are still getting themselves into form, but the internationals have been in their national team camps on and off for the past few months, and have been putting up some spectacular efforts there. Caitlin Foord and Tobin Heath both scored in the USA-Australia game earlier in the month, with Foord’s effort being particularly notable.
Thorns fans haven’t yet been treated to the sight of Heath, Horan, Foord and Sinclair—all players capable of brilliant finishing and creative assists—clicking at the same time, and maybe they won’t see it quite yet this game, but even the hint of it might be just enough to overcome an Orlando team with a lot to prove.