Portland Thorns FC will be without U.S. internationals Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Sophia Smith. Christine Sinclair will also miss the match against Kansas City due to her international call-up from Canada. Kansas City will be without forward Mariana Larroquette (with Argentina National Team), Jordyn Listro (Canadian National Team), and Desiree Scott (Canadian National Team).
Utah to Kansas City: A Team in Flux
The Thorns will host a Kansas City team in flux. The Utah Royals were relocated to Kansas City and went through an ownership transfer this offseason. Dell Loy Hansen, the previous owner of Utah Soccer LLC (which included the Utah Royals, an MLS and USL team and academy programs), was forced to transfer ownership to MLS after reports of racist language and a toxic work environment.
Angie and Chris Long of Palmer Square Capital Management became the new owners and an NWSL team returned to Kansas City.
Huw Williams was a founder, assistant coach and general manager of former NWSL team FC Kansas City and is now the manager of Kansas City NWSL. The Welshman prefers an attacking possession-based style of play.
Many of Utah’s core players and NWSL veterans made the transition to Kansas City, but the rest of the roster is relatively new or young. Kansas City will rely on captain Amy Rodriguez and Lo’eau LaBonta as the main goal-scoring and creative threats, especially when Larroquette is on international duty with Argentina. But it was evident in the two competitions in 2020 that Utah struggled to score goals. Their struggles may be exacerbated in 2021 due to the loss of attacking threats Tziarra King and Vero Boquete, who joined OL Reign and AC Milan, respectively.
The Utah Royals’ 2020
The Utah Royals only won one match in 2020, beating Sky Blue FC 1-0 in the Challenge Cup, and lost four matches. The Royals drew four matches, one of which was against the Portland Thorns and one of which came against the Houston Dash when Utah was eventually eliminated from the Challenge Cup via a penalty shootout.
The Royals' largest loss of 2020 came against the Portland Thorns at Providence Park. The Thorns started with a back line composed of Christen Westphal, Kelli Hubly, Emily Menges and Meghan Klingenberg. The Thorns will most likely go with a similar back four on Friday with Natalia Kuikka potentially sliding in.
Angela Salem, Raquel Rodriguez, Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair started in midfield. Obviously, the Thorns will be without Horan and Sinclair and it will be interesting to see if Mark Parsons elects a four-player or three-player midfield. But Salem will probably serve as a single pivot with Celeste Boureille and Rodriguez joining her in the midfield.
How the Thorns Found Success vs. Utah in the Fall Series
Finding Forwards in Transition
Portland had a lot of success getting Simone Charley behind the Royals’ back line in the 3-0 victory last season. She and Tyler Lussi worked well off the ball, turning Utah over in their own half repeatedly. Regardless of the number of midfielders deployed, Morgan Weaver and Simone Charley are likely to start in the attacking line. Weaver said that she has developed a good understanding with Charley and these two players could really exploit the Kansas City back line.
Charley scored a wonderful solo goal against Utah in the 3-0 win and caused the defense a lot of trouble by drifting off the back shoulder of the defense. In the teams’ 1-1 draw in the teams’ second meeting of the Fall Series, Weaver had a similar impact but was unable to capitalize.
Salem, alongside Horan, was key in progressing possession in the win over the Royals. Horan’s contributions in possession will need to be replaced, so expect Rodriguez to have more license to run at the back line and look to deliver the final ball on the run to Charley and Weaver.
Packing the Center of the Field and Pressing
Portland also did a good job of limiting the impact of Amy Rodriguez and LaBonta. The Thorns’ diamond midfield created a numerical advantage in the center of the park which made it difficult for the two Royals to operate in the central channels. Despite the Thorns' good defensive work, Utah created a few quality chances by finding A. Rodriguez in behind through LaBonta and Vero Boquete when the defense switched off or the fullbacks were caught upfield.
The majority of the Thorns’ chances stemmed from their press and counter-press. Both Lussi and Charley did well to pressure the opposition center backs and tracked back well to win the ball from the Utah midfielders. Portland had the majority of the possession and thus had both fullbacks high up the pitch. As soon as the Thorns lost the ball they usually had the numerical advantage and counter-pressed Utah, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas.
In the lead-up to the first goal, Horan turned Utah over and played a quick pass to Charley. Klingenberg won possession back in the final third and crossed to Sophia Smith, who scored the second goal. Finally, Horan pressed Utah and goalkeeper Abby Smith attempted to clear a back pass but instead hit Horan and the ball deflected into the back of the net.
In Utah and Portland’s 1-1 draw, semi-transition opportunities led to most of the chances for both teams but the lack of a killer instinct in the final third and good saves prevented either team from coming out on top. King caused Portland trouble with her close control in the 18-yard box.
Utah’s goal stemmed from a transition opportunity after a cheap giveaway in midfield from Horan. LaBonta forced Britt Eckerstom into a good save but A. Rodriguez was there to tap it in.
How Portland Can Succeed vs. KC in the 2021 Challenge Cup
There has been a lot of change for Kansas City and for the Portland Thorns this offseason and there is a lot that is unknown with it being their first match of the season. The Thorns will be without multiple starters, but still have the quality to start the 2021 Challenge Cup with a win. The Thorns should look to press Kansas City high up the pitch and turn them over in their own half. This will lead to transition opportunities when the likes of Boureille, Salem, and R. Rodriguez can find Weaver and Charley in space.
Defensively, Portland may try to stay compact centrally and limit the opportunities for LaBonta and A. Rodriguez in the central channels and in transition.
Regardless of the way Kansas City lines up, expect the Thorns to come out with high energy looking to attack in every part of the game.
“I think we’ve got this this hunger and drive about us to better represent our identity,” said coach Mark Parsons earlier this week. “And high energy and being together — two massive ingredients, and if we asked our team to describe ourselves I think we’d say we’re an attacking team in every form yes, on the field, off the field we just want to be on the front for an attack opportunity or attack challenges, attack the opposition with and without the ball. I want us to show this identity.”
“This is maybe more important [than winning] because it’s the pathway to a result,” Parsons continued. “It’s the pathway to three points. Can we be together? Can we have high energy? Those two things are what this stadium and this atmosphere is all about. Then also the identity is wrapped around being an attacking team and I’m excited for us to be able to put that out there Friday night.”
Questionable: Shelby Hogan (left hand), Emily Menges (right foot)
Goalkeepers (3): Bella Bixby, Adrianna Franch (ALL), Shelby Hogan
Defenders (8): Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka (INTL), Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Becky Sauerbrunn (ALL), Christen Westphal
Midfielders (6): Celeste Boureille, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rocky Rodríguez, Angela Salem, Christine Sinclair (ALL)
Forwards (5): Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Sophia Smith (ALL), Morgan Weaver
Questionable: Arielle Ship (left lower leg, Jaycie Johnson (right thigh), Darian Jenkins (left thigh), Elizabeth Ball (right lower leg)
Goalkeepers (3): Nicole Barnhart, Carly Nelson, Abby Smith
Defenders (8): Elizabeth Ball, Katie Bowen, Rachel Corsie, Kate Del Fava, Taylor Leach, Michelle Maemone, Sydney Miramontez, Kristen Edmonds
Midfielder (10): Lo’eau LaBonta, Chloe Logarzo, Diana Matheson (ALL-CAN), Addie McCain (CDP), Ashley Nick, Victoria Pickett (CDP), Desiree Scott (ALL-CAN), Maddie Nolf, Gaby Vincent, Jordyn Listro
Forwards (7):, Darian Jenkins, Jaycie Johnson, Mariana Larroquette, Brittany Ratcliffe, Amy Rodriguez, Raisa Strom-Okimoto, Michele Vasconcelos
CDP – 2021 NWSL College Draft pick
ALL – 2021 Allocated Player
INTL — 2021 International Player