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Roses and Thorns: One of these teams is not like the other

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Kris Lattimore

So, what did you get up to this weekend? I watched soccer.

That’s right, folks: we’re back at that magical time of year when you can wake up at god-please-no-o’clock on a weekend morning and watch people kick a ball around until the sun goes down.

If you’re a fan of that other Portland team, though, maybe you’d rather be a little more selective than that. Now that the Thorns are back, why watch anything else? The Thorns are good. The Thorns are fun. You’ll have a better quality of life if you stick to the Thorns.

The Thorns had a shutout in their season opener!

It’s the start of a long season, and I have too many thoughts in my head to get them all down, but here are a few of them. Allons-y, friends.

A Rose to the Back Line’s Vets

Katherine Reynolds is back, and she is strong, and vital, and she is not going anywhere.

Ditto to Meghan Klingenberg, possibly the most underappreciated Thorn, who showed up in Orlando with a case to make for herself.

Of everything that happened Sunday — and there are a lot of positives to pick from — the strong performances across the back line may be the most reassuring sign for the season to come. Nice as it is to see the front six already near midseason form, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the defense is likely what will have to carry the Thorns though the disruption wrought by the World Cup.

If Orlando were poor going forward (as they were in pretty much every respect), Reynolds still had moments where she showed she’s more than ready for bigger challenges. When she had to take on Marta or Alex Morgan, she had little trouble, and on the rare occasions the Pride attack managed to start pulling Portland’s defense out of shape, she was there to clean up. She looked fit, too, especially for someone who had a major knee surgery just a few months ago.

Kling, meanwhile, showed what her game is all about. Critiques of the former national team left back typically focus on the fact that she’s not particularly fast. That’s something teams will continue to try to exploit, as the Pride did this weekend, with Morgan running onto long balls into the space behind her several times.

But it’s also a facile criticism that misses the long list of things Kling does right. On Sunday, she consistently read the game a step ahead of the Pride, breaking up multiple attempted attacks down their right, and applying pressure at the right times in the right areas. She defended well one-on-one. She showed deadly accuracy on crosses, including one that Lindsey Horan put away, unfortunately from an offside position.

A Rose to Orlando’s Defense...and Midfield...and Offense

As much as the Thorns were good in this game, what proved equally important was that the Pride were, for long stretches, truly abysmal. Their midfield often seemed to vanish completely in the first half, with players like Horan and Christine Sinclair given the freedom to do as they wanted without pressure. Until the start of the second half, when they pulled things together a little and found a handful of chances, their whole plan going forward was “kick it to Alex Morgan.”

Some of that can certainly be chalked up to roster decisions Marc Skinner was forced to make; the midfield suffered severely with the loss of Emily Van Egmond and Alanna Kennedy, while the back line was hit hard by Toni Pressley’s absence.

In her place, Orlando started Joanna Boyles, a 23-year-old former Red Stars trialist. As nice as it was to see Tobin Heath and Caitlin Foord combining for Foord’s first Thorns goal, it was really a series of mistakes by the Pride that enabled it, first as Ashlyn Harris sent a sloppy goal kick to Carson Pickett that the left back had to sprint onto to keep inbounds, then as Shelina Zadorsky took too long deciding where to pass and was finally forced to go back to an under-pressure Harris. Her sliding kick ended with a turnover to the Thorns, and we all remember what happened next.

And through that whole sequence, Boyles seems to be positioned near the Pride goal, not doing much of anything — where she could have served as a second outlet for Zadorsky, or marked either Heath or Foord after they’d gotten past the other defenders.

It would be cruel to be too hard on Boyles, who had never played an NWSL game before this one, for this mistake, or for getting outrun by Heath on Portland’s second goal. For one thing, Harris and Zadorsky are both veterans and should know better. Blame also has to go to the Pride coaching staff, who, if they thought a player at Boyles’s level was ready to start against last year’s runners-up, got a rude awakening about how competitive this league is. And if Boyles really is third on the center back depth chart after Pressley and Shelina Zadorsky, Orlando’s defensive depth seems to be in pretty dire shape.

I could also point to a half-dozen other moments when Orlando’s back line seemed to have no idea of who was supposed to be doing what.

Point being: to say the Thorns were handed three points probably goes too far, but this game counts as starting the season on easy mode.

A Thorn to Orlando’s Defense?

I try not to be the kind of person who spins positives into negatives just for the sake of having something negative to say, but if there’s one reason for concern coming off this weekend, it’s that Chicago is going to present a much bigger challenge than Orlando did. The Red Stars have a defense that looked good against North Carolina, a perennially strong midfield, and a group of attacking players who are good at kicking the ball and seem to enjoy playing with each other.

North Carolina’s vaunted offense had relatively little to say against an organized Chicago side on Saturday. The Red Stars have always matched up well against the Courage (read Claire Watkins’s recap over at Hot Time in Old Town for some insight into why that is), but despite the Thorns being a very different kind of team, that doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy time in Bridgeport. They can’t expect the same defensive sloppiness they encountered in Orlando, they can’t expect Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato to be as ineffectual as Morgan and Marta were, and they certainly can’t expect a complete absence of central midfield pressure.

If Chicago has one weakness, it’s a lack of quality in wide areas, something both Kling and Heath on the left and Carpenter and Crnogorcevic/Foord on the right are well positioned to exploit. A lot will depend on whether Casey Short, who’s managed to neutralize Heath in the past, is healthy. A lot will also depend on whether the Thorns can clean up their finishing; plenty of quality chances went wasted against Orlando when players like Crnogorcevic or Foord couldn’t find their feet (or heads) from close range.

Still: Portland looked more settled in this game than they have in previous season openers, especially defensively, which is a great sign. Hope you brought some snacks and a good playlist. The road trip continues Saturday.