The Portland Thorns hit the halfway mark on their extended early season road trip to visit the campus of Rutgers University, where, for some reason, Sky Blue FC play. Thanks to their primary tenants, Yurcak Field is looking significantly better than last season, where it looked at times a bit like the surface of the moon. This is the send-off game for the USWNT players: Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Emily Sonnett will be departing the club for the extended national team camp before this summer’s World Cup.
Sky Blue FC were one of the worst teams in league history last year, they’ve lost key personnel since then, they haven’t scored a goal this season so far, and haven’t looked significantly improved in recent weeks. Easy road points, right? Not so fast: Sky Blue have played some of their best games of the last two years against the Thorns, only losing by a goal twice and even coming back to split the points in Providence Park. A lot of teams raise their games against the Thorns — such is the peril of being the most prominent and popular team in the league — but Sky Blue have taken the matchup especially seriously. Yes, it’s a trap game for the Thorns, but given their recent history, it’s absolutely not one the squad will be taking for granted.
Hayley Raso appears to finally be catching a plane back to the States with her visa in hand, but as she was absent from training on Thursday, it seems unlikely that she will be making the trip to the East Coast on such short notice. Lindsey Horan is a late scratch, being unexpectedly marked down as out with a hip problem that was unapparent through the week. Emily Menges participated in full training and was initially announced as out for the weekend but was moved to questionable when Horan’s injury was listed, so it appears she will be traveling, though she isn’t expected to start.
Dagny Brynjarsdottir has appeared in both of the Thorns’ two games off the bench and should be in line to make her first start of the season: it’ll be an important game for her and Celeste Boureille to get some playing time together under their belts, as they’ll be critical players for the Thorns for the next few months with everyone else away.
One of the features of the Chicago game that really vexed the Thorns was Sam Kerr’s movement off the back line into midfield. As dangerous as Kerr has been running at opposing defenders, she’s also a fantastic creator and her relentless energy put a lot of pressure on Portland midfielders. Thorns coach Mark Parsons thinks other teams are taking notes. “We’re gonna deal with something similar from Sky Blue,” he said in training on Thursday. “Unless they change things, one of their forwards will be looking to do that [drop deep], and the other will be looking to stretch play ... Unfortunately, [Kerr] was turning and bringing others into the game who were getting past her.” The numbers up situation in midfield at the end of the game put the Thorns under a lot of pressure on the ball. Can Sky Blue really muster something similar?
Sky Blue’s midfield is chock full of players with a ton of potential whose progress has stalled out due to the training environment they’ve been unceremoniously dumped in. Raquel Rodriguez — former #2 NWSL pick and college teammates with Britt Eckerstrom, Mallory Weber, and Elizabeth Ball — has struggled with injury in her time at Sky Blue but appears to be putting together a stretch of consistent play. The question is whether or not she’ll be able to reach anything like what she showed as the best player on a talented team in college. Sarah Killion, another #2 NWSL draft pick, has made USWNT squads in the past but her stock has fallen pretty far since then. She scored a screamer from the corner of the box in Providence Park last year but at times hasn’t looked capable of keeping up with NWSL midfielders. Up against a physically dominant Thorns midfield, a Sky Blue midfield two with those in a pairing would appear to be paper thin.
Sky Blue will be attempting to make up for the physicality in midfield by pulling in additional numbers from the forward line. Nahomi Kawasumi, recently acquired from Reign FC, will be dropping in from the right wing, and Carli Lloyd loves nothing more than to wander around below the primary striker. Christine Sinclair has been excellent in the first two games for the Thorns, kicking off the sequences for both goals in the first game and walking off with a hat trick in the second, and her odds to continue finding space to operate against Sky Blue are pretty high. The onus is on Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Celeste Boureille to handle the other three.
As for Portland’s front line, Caitlin Foord and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic didn’t have their best games against Chicago. Foord had trouble turning against Chicago’s defenders, but Parsons didn’t sound too worried about her performance just because of how the game went: “I’ve seen this with Foord, with Nadia Nadim and with [Christine] Sinclair in 2016. It’s really, really tough for a number 9 when the game is direct, very [transitional] and messy.”
So far this season the Thorns haven’t really been able to settle a game down in midfield, except for a few minutes against Orlando. If the Thorns can get on the ball and play the game they want to, the Sky Blue defense is prone to getting very far out of position. One-on-one, Estelle Johnson and Dominique Richardson are very talented defenders, but they can get dragged around, and against a Thorns offense capable of some truly beautiful off-ball movement and attacking sequences, they shouldn’t have much of a chance.