Coming off a tough 2-1 road win over the Houston Dash, the Thorns (5-1-4) return to Providence Park where they’ll face Reign FC (4-1-5) for the first time. After a somewhat shaky start, the newly relocated Tacoma side looked impressive following Jess Fishlock’s return from Olympique Lyonnais. However, her ACL tear last weekend leaves a lot of questions about the Reign’s midfield and attack.
Portland, on the other hand, is nearing full strength as they welcome back a number of World Cup stars. “It’s really nice to be back,” expressed Hayley Raso. “I guess it takes a bit of adjusting — getting back in with this group of girls and adjusting to the style of play — but I’m looking forward to it.”
“Being back here with the team, it’s refreshed me, and I’m excited to play again,” Caitlin Foord said. “What better way to come back in with a game against [the Reign] here at home,” she added, alluding to the rivalry between the two Pacific Northwest teams — one that goes back to Tacoma’s Seattle Reign days.
As the internationals work their way back into Portland’s lineup, it wouldn’t be surprising for Parsons to return to the 4-2-3-1 formation we saw earlier in the season, especially as it allows the Thorns to get more of their incredibly deep forward pool on the field. This means a return to the defensive four of Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Katherine Reynolds, and Ellie Carpenter.
Moving up the field, Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Gabby Seiler have both looked fantastic in their past couple matches for the Thorns; it’s hard to argue that either of them should come out of Portland’s starting XI. The duo will look to continue to build chemistry as their game time together progresses. Christine Sinclair is the obvious ten for the Thorns — it’s her usual position in Portland, and she’s not a player who the Thorns coaching staff will take off the field unless they have to.
Choosing the players ahead of Sinclair creates a number of tough choices for coach Mark Parsons. Foord, Raso, Andressinha, Midge Purce, and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic (who’s listed as questionable for this game due to a thigh injury) are all in the position to challenge for a starting spot, and Simone Charley’s developing talent demands minutes as well. Generally Parsons’ chosen striker, it makes sense for Foord start as a nine.
Purce is one of the prominent names who stepped up during the World Cup period; her five goals in her last five games — accompanied by a fantastic work rate, mentality, and newly-honed leadership skills — make it hard to justify taking her off the field. However, Purce will be battling for minutes with Raso, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them split time in this match.
A different type of attacking threat, Andressinha can add her creativity to Portland’s left wing. As we’ll go into below, the Thorns are looking to play a less direct style in this match, and Andressinha’s ability to read the game and playmake will be invaluable for Portland in doing so.
While the first ten minutes of last week’s match against the Dash showcased a style that’s become characteristic of the Thorns — building up attacks, working the ball through the midfield, being patient and waiting for the right moments to strike — the rest of the game saw a return to the more direct play that we’ve seen as of late. Trying to weather Houston’s attacking pressure, Portland ended up looking like the less dangerous team for a significant portion of the match.
“What changed the game: Tyler Lussi [who came off the bench to score Portland’s first goal and assist the second] was an unbelievable spark for us and the mentality,” Parsons said. “That’s where I think that we’ve taken big leaps and moved our team and our club to a new place, with the mentality that this group has shown.”
Mentality has been a huge focus for the Thorns this season; Parsons attributes his team’s work ethic and commitment to being the best that they possibly can to their recent success. Mindset, along with the return to a more typical Thorns-style of soccer will be among the central focuses of tonight’s match.
As mentioned earlier, Fishlock’s injury is a colossal blow for the Reign; she’s been their primary playmaker, and three of Tacoma’s four wins this season have come with her in the lineup. Without Fishlock, other players will have to step up in the Reign’s attack. Waived by Portland earlier this season, Ifeoma Onumonu has been phenomenal for Tacoma these past two weeks: can she continue that run of form in her return to Providence Park? Rookie Bethany Balcer has also impressed — she has three goals and one assist so far — and the Thorns defense will have to stay tight on her.
Like the match against the Utah Royals FC, the more direct soccer we’ve seen from the Thorns as of late won’t be nearly as effective against an extremely organized Tacoma side. Buildup play will be huge on Portland’s end; although the Reign have only allowed nine goals this season, there’s been spaces in their defensive line that the Thorns will hope to exploit. If Portland can be patient, move the ball around, and wait for those gaps to emerge, they should be able to find points in this game.