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Semifinal Preview: Portland Thorns vs. Houston Dash

The Thorns face-off with the Houston Dash for a place in the NWSL Challenge Cup Final.

Portland Thorns FC v North Carolina Courage

After knocking off top-seeded North Carolina Courage 1-0 in their quarterfinal matchup, the Thorns will face the Houston Dash. The Dash are the four seed and the highest seed left in the NWSL Challenge Cup. Houston faced the Utah Royals in their quarterfinal matchup. The game ended 0-0 and went to penalties. Houston’s Jane Campbell came up big making two saves and sending the Dash to the semifinals.

In the group stage, the Dash played to a 3-3 draw against the Royals, a 2-0 win against OL Reign, a 2-0 loss to Sky Blue and a 1-0 loss against the Washington Spirit. Houston looked to be the revelation of the tournament after their first two matches. The team that had struggled in the past looked revamped and exciting. They scored five goals in their first two matches but in their last three they were unable to find the back of the net.

Dash Go Direct

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinals Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Dash’s main threats are forward Rachel Daly (2 goals and 1 assist) and midfielders Shea Groom (2 goals and 1 assist) and Kristie Mewis (1 goal). Generally, the Dash are best when counterattacking. Houston play a high pressing style. They try to recover the ball in their offensive half so Mewis and Groom can run with the ball and release Daly in behind the opposition’s backline. Highlighting their reliance on balls in behind, Daly has been the player who has been caught offside the most in the Challenge Cup. But Daly and the Dash have also benefitted from their direct play. Veronica Latsko was released down the left and played the ball square to Daly who redirected it for the Dash’s first goal of the tournament. Katie Stengel also got in behind the backline to square a ball for Groom, who finished neatly.

Houston had a bit of success getting behind the Royals’ wingers. There was a lot of space on the wings for Houston because Utah was playing a three-back system and failed to provide the proper defensive cover on the wings. Because of this the Dash looked to exploit the space on the left side with overloads led by Nichelle Prince, who looked dangerous.

The Dash are also dangerous in the air. Daly has scored from a Mewis corner and Daly and Groom both have scored from open-play crosses. The Thorns have the personnel to deal with the aerial threat but will have to be well-organized in transition to prevent Groom and Daly from capitalizing.

Defensive Set-up

Defensively, the Dash set up in a 4-3-3 with Daly being the player farthest up the pitch. They used their high-intensity pressure throughout the majority of the first few matches of the tournament. The tactic has yielded results. Both of the Dash goals against the Reign originated from midfield turnovers. Groom won the ball, played a one-two, and released Mewis who fired home the first Dash goal in their second match. A turnover scooped up by Sophie Schmidt allowed her to play Daly in behind. Daly crossed the ball to Groom who added the insurance goal with her headed effort.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 4 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Pressing like this is not practical during the whole tournament because it takes a lot of energy. As the tournament has progressed, the Dash have picked when and where to press the opposition. They usually press at the beginning of the match to catch the opposition off guard. As the match wears on, the Dash sit in a medium block and press situationally. In their quarterfinal match, they began pressing again toward the end of the first half and carved out some of their best opportunities.

The Dash also did a good job limiting the effectiveness of Utah’s forward Amy Rodriguez and midfielders Kelley O’Hara and Vero Boquete. This was in part due to their solid defensive set up but also due to the match becoming very heated. Early in the match, both teams committed a lot of fouls and as the match progressed the game became chippy and the ref lost control.

Opportunities for the Thorns

The defensive commitment from the Thorns has been impressive throughout the Challenge Cup and was epitomized by the performance against North Carolina. The Thorns were pinned back for large portions of the quarterfinal but defended really well and were backed up by a stellar goalkeeping performance from Eckerstrom. If the Thorns can continue to defend as they did against North Carolina, it does not seem likely that any of the teams left in the tournament will be able to score. Portland has shut out teams in three matches and only allowed goals to the Courage and the Washington Spirit, who are both eliminated.

Portland Thorns FC v North Carolina Courage

Portland will likely hold the majority of possession regardless of what midfield Parsons decides to go with. The midfield should be able to draw Dash defenders out as they press. The Thorns did this successfully toward the end of the match against the Courage and created some of their best opportunities and played some of their best soccer of the Challenge Cup.

Overall, the Thorns have struggled to put the ball in the back of the net throughout the tournament, but they were the only team capable of doing so in the quarterfinals. It looks as though the other teams have tired and Portland is coming into form. The goal against the Courage should give Morgan Weaver and Rocky Rodriguez the confidence to take over the offense in the semifinal, especially because the Dash have struggled with balls in behind. Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi and Weaver could all take advantage of this if they are able to time their runs well. The Houston backline was exposed against Utah in the group stage and Amy Rodriguez made them pay the price.

The Thorns also have much more experience in knockout tournaments compared to the Dash, who played in their first knockout game in team history on Friday. This could prove decisive down the stretch. But the Thorns should be wary if the match is creeping toward penalties. Houston’s Jane Campbell saved nine of 13 penalties she faced in the NWSL and added two more saves in the penalty shootout against the Royals.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinals Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Hopefully, the match will be decided by goals in regulation, but for those of you who wish to over-analyze the Dash penalty kick takers were Schmidt, Christine Nairn, Daly and Bri Visalli. Schmidt shot to the right, Nairn to the left, Daly to the left and Visalli to the left. Visalli’s penalty was saved, but the rest of the Houston penalties were converted.

The semifinal match is available on CBS All Access and is scheduled to kickoff at 9:30 am (PT) as both teams look to advance to the NWSL Challenge Cup Final.