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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Sky Blue

With all their internationals now departed, the Thorns look to turn their luck around in New Jersey

Matthew Ralph / Brotherly Game

In the last game of their opening road stretch, the Portland Thorns (2-1-2) make the trek to New Jersey to take on Sky Blue FC (0-4-2). Coming off a 1-3 loss to the Washington Spirit, the Thorns are looking to remedy the defensive lapses and lack of polish in the attacking third that cost them last weekend.

When the two teams met earlier this season, Sky Blue struck early, with Carli Lloyd recording two goals in the first twenty minutes. The Thorns were able to come back from the deficit and salvage a 2-2 draw, but the game continued Portland’s trend of struggling against the New Jersey side.

The absence of international players ahead of the World Cup promises that both teams will put forward a different lineup than what we saw earlier in the season. This will be especially notable from Portland’s end, as six members of their usual starting lineup will be unavailable this weekend.

Projected XI

With the Australians and Andressinha now departed for international duty, the Thorns will lean even more heavily on their depth pieces. It makes sense for Portland to continue to use their three-back in defense, as it’s the area where they have the most options. Portland will likely put forth essentially the same formation as they have in their past two games against Washington and the Orlando Pride, but with notable personnel changes.

The loss of Caitlin Foord is a huge blow for Portland’s attack; she’s scored three goals and recorded one assist on the season. Given that Midge Purce is listed as questionable on the NWSL Injury Report, the Thorns will turn to Tyler Lussi in Foord’s absence. Lussi’s scrappiness and relentless energy will serve her well as she hopes to create and finish chances and earn significant minutes during this period of the season.

With Andressinha reported to camp for Brazil, the Thorns will have to find a third player to step up in the number ten role. (Andressinha was already replacing Christine Sinclair, who left for Canada a couple weeks earlier.) It seems likely that it will be Dagny Brynjarsdottir who takes up the task: She is the most attacking-minded of the starters in the center of the park, and head coach Mark Parsons has praised her goal-scoring abilities in recent weeks. Moving Brynjarsdottir forward leaves a space in defensive center-mid, an area where Angela Salem will be called to fill in.

In Ellie Carpenter’s absence, right fullback becomes the position most up in the air. Midge Purce matches Carpenter’s style of play most similarly, but Parsons seems to favor her in the attack (and, again, she’s still working her way back from injury). Another option is Kelli Hubly, who Parsons has referred to as a natural wingback, despite the fact that she’s appeared primarily in the center of defense in her time with the Thorns. Portland can also look to Elizabeth Ball or supplemental player Madison Pogarch — the latter of which could come in at left back and push Meghan Klingenberg to the right side of the pitch.

Game Plan

The last time the Thorns faced off against Sky Blue, both sides were at almost full strength. (A notable absence was that of Lindsey Horan, who didn’t travel to New Jersey due to a hip injury.) This weekend, Portland is down nine internationals, and Sky Blue will be missing Carli Lloyd, Estelle Johnson, and Kailen Sheridan to international duty, as well as defender Caprice Dydasco and midfielder Julie James. The loss of Johnson, Sheridan, and Dydasco is especially notable for a New Jersey side who have already conceded ten goals this season.

Looking back at the game against Washington, Mark Parsons noted that it “was the first game where I thought we looked very lethargic in the final third. I thought we lacked sharpness; I thought we lacked ruthlessness. I thought we lost an edge.”

The Thorns will look to find that edge and test Sky Blue’s backline, with Tyler Lussi putting them under pressure and Ana Maria Crnogorcevic and Dagny Brynjarsdottir sending through balls to beat the defense. Meghan Klingenberg will look to provide attacking width against rookie Paige Monaghan, who had some degree of success defending Tobin Heath last time the teams met.

On the flip side, both Parsons and Emily Menges expressed disappointment with Portland’s defensive performance against the Spirit and the three goals they allowed. “We have to get back to this mindset of ‘we don’t let up goals,’” explained Menges. Parsons pointed to “a couple of small [defensive] mistakes,” against Washington. “We’re ready to get those right and we’re going to continue to keep trying to get them right,” he said, emphasizing that the errors that led to goals — especially lapses on set pieces — were very uncharacteristic of the Thorns.

Sky Blue will look to exploit the weaknesses exposed by the Spirit, letting Imani Dorsey attack with speed and Savannah McCaskill take on a play-making role. Raquel Rodriguez has connected well with Dorsey so far this season, and will generate offense for New Jersey coming out of midfield.

And the midfield is what poses the clearest challenge to Portland: They’ve struggled to control the middle of the park without Lindsey Horan. The defensive midfield pairing of Celeste Boureille and Dagny Brynjarsdottir allowed far too much room for Washington to work, and Boureille and Angela Salem have played limited minutes together this season. In contrast, Raquel Rodriguez, Julie James, and Sarah Killion have looked mostly solid — although it’s unclear exactly how Sky Blue will look without James.

Mark Parsons also pointed to the challenging factors that come into play when traveling to Piscataway. “The New Jersey trip has been the hardest so far,” he said of the last time the Thorns played at Sky Blue. He explained that the difficulties showed up in Portland’s performance, describing it as the Thorns’ worst physical and mental performance this season. While emphasizing it wouldn’t be easy, Parsons conveyed that he hoped Portland could build upon their last road trip to Piscataway:

“Can we learn from that experience? Because the plane ride isn’t getting shorter and the the other challenges of heading there aren’t going to change. I just see clouds at the moment and us; maybe we can be the sunlight to burst through those clouds, because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be really tough, but we have a responsibility. We’ve really got to dig deep.”

If the Thorns can find cohesion in their new lineup, energy on the road, and a way to score goals, they should be able to test Sky Blue and leave New Jersey with a result.