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The road goes through Portland, but it may detour through Houston

The budding of a new NWSL rivalry: Portland Thorns vs. Houston Dash

Portland Thorns FC v Houston Dash

The Portland Thorns drew with the Houston Dash 1-1 on Sunday in BBVA Stadium. There was nothing on the line for either team except pride. The Thorns had booked their place in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Final already and presumably will host the final at Providence Park after finishing with the most points out of either group.

The Houston Dash drew their first two matches without their U.S. and Canadian internationals, which kept them out of contention for the final. Despite nothing being “on the line,” this still felt like a big test for both teams.

Additionally, the pride part may have been a big factor. The Dash are the reigning Challenge Cup champions and came into the match knowing that they had been dethroned. The Thorns, meanwhile, were knocked out in the semifinals of the 2020 Challenge Cup by the Houston Dash in part of their Cinderella run to the club’s first-ever title.

“We came into this game, the ones that were in the Challenge Cup to play them in the semifinals, like we had a little bit of history and we wanted to play well against them,” Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn said.

This all goes without mentioned that these were the two teams that won silverware in 2020 going head-to-head: The victors of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup versus the victors of the 2020 Fall Series.

The Thorns’ and Dash’s success in 2020 set up the hottest women’s soccer tournament of the summer at Providence Park, where the two reigning champions of NWSL competitions will play perennial powerhouses Olympique Lyonnais and FC Barcelona in the Women’s International Champions Cup.

This cup, along with the Challenge Cup, the NWSL regular season, and potentially the playoffs could see Portland and Houston meet six times. They have already played once. Houston will host the Thorns again on July 24 and Oct. 17 at BBVA Stadium. Portland will welcome the Dash to Providence Park during the WICC and on Oct. 6. And they may meet again in the NWSL playoffs in November if things work out.

This should be tantalizing to the neutral NWSL fans, and scary and exciting for supporters of both the Thorns and Dash, because fans already have seen the quality this matchup can produce — and coaches Mark Parsons and James Clarkson have too.

The two coaches shook hands after the match, exchanged pleasantries, and Parsons told Clarkson that this was the best game of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup. He reiterated this in the post-match press conference.

“It was a fun soccer game,” said Parsons. “Good quality. It showed the good quality of NWSL. Two really organized teams. I have a lot of respect for Houston and the great job that they’ve done. I think they’re going to be a very, very good team this year and also a very difficult team to play against.

“I love the battle. I said to James [Clarkson] at the end. This was probably the best game I’ve seen in the league for a month or so.”

The match produced 25 shots, nine shots on goal, big saves, moments of brilliant skill, international quality, 19 fouls, two goals, and two distinct styles of play.

Portland Thorns FC prides itself on its high-intensity, possession-based style, backed by the international quality of the likes of Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Christine Sinclair.

Houston has reconstructed their identity after a rebrand and ditching the stigma of “The Same Old Dash” after winning the 2020 Challenge Cup with a compact defense and deadly counterattacks led by Shea Groom, Rachel Daly, Kristie Mewis, and Nichelle Prince.

The teams have contrasting styles but a similar goal — to win every competition they participate in. According to The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf, Clarkson echoed Parsons’ sentiment about the overall quality of the teams’ first meeting and claimed that, basically, all roads lead through Portland for the NWSL this season.

The Thorns have a chance to get their hands on the first trophy of the season, robbing the Dash of a chance at the title while giving themselves a shot this Saturday at Providence Park against NJ/NY Gotham FC.

The Dash showed that they are up to the task of stopping — or slowing down — the Portland Thorns. This may not be one of the traditional rivalries Thorns fans think of. OL Reign and North Carolina Courage are the first that come to mind. But familiarity breeds contempt, especially when titles are on the line. For Portland, there are still four trophies up for grabs. The Dash have been eliminated from Challenge Cup contention, but they are sure to be fighting for the Women’s International Champions Cup, the NWSL Shield, and the NWSL Cup.

Portland Thorns are surely one of the favorites for each of the competitions, but the Dash should be considered contenders as well, and on Sunday we got our first glimpse at what may be the budding of a new NWSL rivalry between two top teams.

Clarkson may be right: The road may go through Portland, but it may detour through Houston. How each team performs against one another could decide how their seasons go.