The Portland Thorns (10-3-6) come back from the international break to take on the surging Utah Royals (8-6-4) in their second to last road game of the year and their third and final game against each other this year. The teams have drawn both of their previous meetings this year, both of which came in the broad World Cup period. Their last meeting, a wild 2-2 game with two goals in the last three minutes of play, was the last time this season that the Thorns played five at the back, and the last before Tobin Heath returned to full time starting duty after coming back from the World Cup.
Not too long ago the Royals were on the outside of the playoff race looking in, but they’re now undefeated in four and in fourth place after some impressive performances from Christen Press in recent weeks. However, other than a 3-1 dismantling of a Reign FC team at the end of a rough schedule patch, their big wins in this period have come against Orlando and Sky Blue, so they still have much to prove as they attempt to demonstrate their playoff credentials.
Last time they played the Thorns put no central midfielders on their bench, having lost four to injury. Angela Salem and Gabby Seiler aren’t coming back from their ACL recoveries anytime soon, and Celeste Boureille and Andressinha are still listed as out, so don’t expect much to change this week.
Indeed, all of the starting XI looks pretty set in stone here at this point in the season. Barring injury, a dramatic change in form or some midweek rotation in the next match there isn’t much chance of anything getting shuffled from until the season wraps.
The Thorns have been spectacular in the attack in their past few games, scoring six, four of which were scored in the opening 25 minutes. This has allowed them the luxury of sitting back and waiting for the game to come to them, which should be decent practice for playing a Royals team that have been most comfortable sitting back hitting teams on the break. They’ve even ceded possession to the Reign, a team that gave the Thorns 59% of the ball the last time they played.
So Portland will probably see most of the ball. The team’s defense on the counterattack has improved significantly in recent weeks and much of that improvement is down to holding position in midfield. With much of the attacking impetus flowing through Meghan Klingenberg, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Dagny Brynjarsdottir have had more license to drop back and cover the space in behind. Where last year, Horan took almost every single opportunity to crash the box, she’s been more judicious in attack this year, understanding the threat she brings when she steps up, but also covering in behind more often as well. Mark Parsons was keen to note that Horan’s attacks have opened up space for the rest of the team: “We have more ways to stop teams, we have more ways to attack teams [...] she has more support now, and she’s getting double and triple teamed”, but there’s no doubt that she is in some sense stepping back to allow her teammates to shine.
In that loss to the Reign a month ago, the Thorns had trouble breaking down Tacoma’s set defense, and ended up feeding the ball to Hayley Raso to get their only attacking penetration. The Reign were able to pull this off by cutting off the aforementioned attacking flow. Utah have proven they can be destructive from the front, and their central defensive pairing might be the best in the league. It’s the right side that is going to cause them issues: Heath and Sinclair have had no problem getting around Desiree Scott and whoever Utah shift over to cover that side. It’s Utah’s success that is putting them at disadvantage: with Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press both in hot form, it makes sense for them to pair up top, but unfortunately means that neither get the chance much covering work on the wings. Someone in their defensive formation is likely to get sucked over, which opens up space on the Thorns right wing.
From there, Hayley Raso is going to spend a lot of time isolated on her former teammate Mallory Weber, who the Royals have moved to a left back full time since being released by the Thorns early in the year. Raso has a strong track record of punishing teams who have left her with space this year, so expect her to thrive in the matchup. Becky Sauerbrunn is going to have her hands full shepherding her defense against a Thorns team hitting its full flow.