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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Houston Dash

The Thorns are top of the table, feeling like they need to be better. Can they hit another level before things start getting really tight?

Kris Lattimore

The Portland Thorns (6-3-4) return home, improbably, at the top of the table once again. Thanks to results elsewhere in yet another wild week of NWSL action, a point away at Utah was the only thing required to sneak above the North Carolina Courage. Meanwhile, the Houston Dash (4-5-4) come into town having just snapped a seven game winless streak away at the Washington Spirit. They’re looking to potentially put themselves back in playoff contention after threatening to drop permanently among the bottom dwellers in the past few weeks.

Both teams come into this game on short rest; however, while the Thorns played in Utah on Friday, the Dash played on the other side of the country on Saturday, so it’s an extra-short turnaround for them. The Thorns, after conceding only two goals during the World Cup period, have now conceded six in their last three. It’s not a spectacular trend for a team that had seemed to have rediscovered their defensive identity, but it isn’t too late for the team to correct course.

Projected XI

Tobin Heath and Emily Sonnett saw time off the bench in Houston and seemed raring to go, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them start in the first game back home for the USWNT players. Elizabeth Ball ended up on SportsCenter last weekend, which could be the excuse the team needs to give her a game on the bench — she’s otherwise been a solid option for the Thorns during the past few weeks.

Ellie Carpenter is out with the injury she picked up in last Friday’s trip to Utah after being on the other end of Kelley O’Hara’s ankles. Katherine Reynolds also got a little beaten up and was doing lighter training work midweek, but is still probable to play. Meanwhile, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic has been recovering from the thigh injury she picked up midway through the World Cup break and is in contention to step in at right back. Another intriguing option there is Dagny Brynjarsdottir: After taking a weekend off to get married, the midfielder is back in town and might get the chance to shine in the position where she first made a name for herself at the club back in 2017. With Gabby Seiler seeming to be the primary option in midfield alongside Lindsey Horan for now, opportunities to shine are going to be hard to come by for the other people fighting for the spot, and motivation will be high for whoever ends up playing at right back to make an impact.

Game Plan

The Thorns are in a bit of a strange place at the moment: They’re in decent form on the table and, again, are top of the league, but they’re largely unhappy with their past three performances. Thorns head coach, Mark Parsons, said in training on Monday that, “Our results and our points are ahead of where we thought we would be, but our performance is behind.” The team looks a little unsettled defensively and unsure of itself creatively at the moment, and although the quality in the team is guiding them through relatively well, the team is honest about their need to improve.

Parsons freely admitted that his team didn’t create as many scoring opportunities as they would have liked on Friday: “We were in the driving seat in all areas, but we weren’t creating chances in the first half. We had a lot of set pieces, which made us feel like we were in the final third, and Utah did a much better job in the second half. They made us look more like a back three than we have all season.”

Portland’s backline since Carpenter returned from the World Cup has generally been more attacking, and with her out of the team, they stand to lose significantly width going forward. At the same time, without a more aggressively attacking right back, it’s possible the team will settle down a little defensively. It’s also possible that Meghan Klingenberg, who has been very good holding up play down the left wing in Tobin Heath’s absence, will play a little more conservatively for the rest of the season, as her talents are more needed defensively.

Houston picked up a big win this weekend against a backsliding Washington Spirit (who were top of the league not long ago and now find themselves on the outside of the playoff booths looking in), but just narrowly escaped after conceding a late penalty that Jane Campbell saved. They’re excellent at set pieces: Amber Brooks is one of the better headers of the ball in the league, and she has a great sense of attacking timing. She nearly punished the Thorns in their last meeting on a corner and scored her first goal of the season in the same situation on Saturday. At the same time, they can look very disorganized, conceding some silly fouls and getting caught out of position pretty badly at times. It should be a good opportunity for the Thorns to recover some of their creative mojo.

Parsons emphasized that crunch time season is already here, and said the team’s performances had to improve: “It’s hard, but we have to be unemotional and not be personal about growing and improving, because we haven’t got time”.

“This game Wednesday night is an absolutely huge game for us. We’ve lost the period where we can learn slowly. We all look and identify where we can improve — including me — and we get better and we don’t waste time”.