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Storylines: Portland Thorns at Utah Royals FC

The Thorns are headed down to RioT where they’ll match up against the Utah Royals. Oh, and the USWNT players are back.

Kris Lattimore

The Thorns (6-2-4) are taking to the road yet again, this time traveling down to Sandy, Utah, where they’ll match up against the Utah Royals FC (5-4-2). The last meeting between Portland and Utah resulted in a 0-0 draw ⁠— one of only two games where the Thorns have been shut out all season ⁠— but this match promises something different, with both sides putting forth markedly different squads than we saw in June. In part, those changes are because ...

The US Women’s National Team players are back! After a dominant run to claim the 2019 World Cup title, Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Emily Sonnett were swept up in a whirlwind week of (well deserved) celebrations and appearances. Now that everything’s beginning to wind down, they’ve made their return to the Thorns. “It feels so good to be home,” Heath said at practice this week, a sentiment echoed by all three of her USWNT teammates.

Projected XI

The USWNT players are only back for two games before they rejoin the national team for the beginning of US Soccer’s victory tour, and Portland’s coaching staff is going to want to take advantage this window.

Putting Franch back in goal is a likely move; Britt Eckerstrom has guarded the net well — and looked miles above her shaky performances of 2018 — but Franch is ultimately the better shot-stopper, and it makes sense to put her back in the lineup. It’s a similar story defensively: While Elizabeth Ball has grown in leaps and bounds, she’s not at the level of Sonnett. Assuming coach Mark Parsons feels that she has reintegrated with the team, we should see Sonnett get the nod tonight.

With Dagny Brynjarsdottir ruled out of the match, it’s likely that we’ll see Horan make her return to the center of the park. It’ll be fascinating to see how she plays alongside Gabby Seiler — Seiler’s recent play has set her up as a holding midfield partner for Horan, and this is the first look we’ll get at how that relationship can work.

Possibly the most intriguing position for Portland right now is forward — a result of the Thorns incredible attacking depth. It’s likely that Portland will start the same front two that we saw against the Orlando Pride last weekend: Hayley Raso and Midge Purce. A member of Australia’s disappointing World Cup campaign, Raso has returned to the Thorns in incredible form. She’ll hope to replicate the energy we saw against Orlando (and earn another goal or two in the process). Throughout the season, Purce has showcased her ability to find space on the dribble, which is the area where Utah’s defense has been most vulnerable. She’s already had success doing just that against the Royals; Purce was Portland’s most prominent attacking threat when the Thorns played Utah in June, recording six shots on the night.

Game Plan

When asked what he expected of matching up against Utah, Parsons pointed to three different ways that the Royals could play. Either “they do their normal stuff, they do what they did to us here [when Utah played the Thorns in Providence Park] — they changed drastically for us — or, because of their last two results, they could go off in a different direction completely, because they feel like they need to change.” Tactical flexibility will be a major talking point for the Thorns this week, given that both Utah’s game plan and starting XI are up in the air.

If there’s one area where the Thorns have consistently struggled this season, it’s in finding ways to break down organized defenses, a dilemma that was on clear display when Portland played the Royals in June. “They didn’t want our pace and our energy and intensity to be a factor in the game,” Parsons said. Although Purce had moments of success dribbling at Utah’s back line, she was often isolated up front, and many of the chances she had were hit off-frame.

The Thorns will want to put together a more complete attacking performance this time around: finding pockets of space, capitalizing on the speed and intensity that Utah tried to nullify earlier in the season, connecting in the attacking third to play out of pressure, and being patient with their ball movement as they wait for the right moments press forward. “We have to have multiple ways to hurt the opposition,” said Parsons.

As crucial as adaptability and fluidity are to Portland’s attack, bolstering the defense is just as essential. Sure, one of the goals the Thorns allowed last week was Marta being Marta, and another can be chalked up to an extremely unfortunate deflection (and more Marta brilliance). However, Erin Greening’s late equalizer for the Pride was yet another instance of a player capitalizing off one of the small defensive lapses that have become all too common for Portland this year.

There’s a decent chance that this is the match where we’ll see Christen Press make her return to Utah’s lineup, and Amy Rodriguez is always a scoring threat for the Royals. The Thorns did well to contain Rodriguez earlier this season, finding a way to hold her in front of their defensive line and prevent her from getting a shot off. With Press potentially joining Rodriguez in the Royals XI, it will be essential for Portland’s centerbacks to remain calm, composed, and mentally present.