Portland Thorns (1-0-0, 3pts.) vs. Sky Blue FC (0-0-1, 1pt.)
Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 4:00pm PST
Yurcak Field - Piscataway, New Jersey
While the Thorns got the victory last weekend, the Dash were the aggressor from the start, pushing the Thorns back and challenging a rebuilt backline that featured one player from last year’s squad, Nikki Marshall. The defense proved to more than up for the challenge, as they grew throughout the match, but the midfield play was lackluster and the absence of Alex Morgan due to injury put more pressure on Christine Sinclair, who was constantly marked throughout the match, rarely touching the ball in a dangerous part of the pitch.
Defensively, the Thorns played spectacularly given the amount of pressure they were under, with the Dash only getting a few chances on goal and Nadine Angerer cleaning up any mess that came her way. Marshall was joined by rookies Emily Menges and Courtney Niemiec, who got over their early jitters to put in a solid match, and Rebecca Moros, who played more of a wingback role, pushing further up into the attack, which gave midfielder Allie Long freedom in the attack, which they will need once again this match.
Given the play of midfield for the Thorns against Houston, it would not be surprising to see changes in the midfield, with possibly Mana Shim moving into her familiar attacking midfield role replacing either Angie Kerr or Sinead Farrelly, neither of whom showed well last weekend, as the linking play was non-exist for much of the match. If Thorns head coach Paul Riley is going to keep his 3-5-2 formation, Sarah Huffman is another option at holding midfielder, which would free up Amber Brooks to play a more attacking role.
Up top, the Thorns are down one of the world’s best in Morgan, but Sinclair is world class and more than formidable by herself. Unfortunately, this is no secret, as teams constantly mark her where ever she is on the pitch, so whomever she is paired with is going to need to relieve some of this pressure by being a constant threat, whether it is Jessica McDonald, who showed well in Houston, or Jackie Acevedo, who came in as a late-game substitution. We saw this last week when McDonald connected with Long on more than one occasion, including the decisive goal.
Sky Blue FC
Sky Blue comes in after a hard fought draw at FC Kansas City that saw them go down a goal just before halftime, only to respond with a goal of their own just after the break, as Katy Freels was able to score off a broken defensive play. With last year’s leading scorer Monica Ocampo starting on the bench, Australian international Caitlin Foord brought much of the attack out of the back, finding herself with several runs in the first half, but was significantly quieter in the 2nd half, as KC took control of the match, though they were never able to find the go-ahead goal.
In reviewing their match last weekend, Sky Blue looked no less formidable on defense as they did last season, even without team captain Christie Rampone, but their attack was sporadic, especially in the second half, when Foord was pushed back into a more defensive role as KC sustained their pressure in the attack.
Rampone’s availability for this match has to be the biggest question mark of all for either side. Last season she proved more than capable of shutting down the Thorns’ attack, especially in the first two matches, but a toe injury may keep her from appearing. If the Thorns are to get their midfield clicking, her loss could be a game changer.
Even without generating much of an attack, Sky Blue still looked dangerous when they got their opportunities, especially when Foord roamed free, but she looked like their only option for much of the match. While Freels netted the goal, it was from a defense lapse rather than creating the opportunity, and when Ocampo was subbed on, she didn’t make much of an impact.
If last season’s matches are any indication, we are in for defensive standoff. Aside from a 3-1 victory for the Thorns on July 31, which came as Sky Blue saw themselves fall from first in the league to final seed of the playoffs, no team was able to score more than a goal, with Sky Blue winning 1-0 on May 16, the Thorns first loss of the season, and a scoreless draw on June 22.
Both sides will need to find their offense to get more than a point, and that will be an incredibly tough task. In many ways they face the same problem: a lack of an attack. In the Thorns’ case, it is from a lack of playing together as a team; with only 4 players from last year’s team starting, and Angerer and Menges not training prior to last week’s match. Even without the incoming cast of creative midfielders in Vero Boquete and Tobin Heath, the Thorns have the personnel to hold their own without forcing Sinclair to play out of position this year, but once again we saw this happen last week, a disappointing revelation for a side that boasts so many weapons.
Perhaps the familiarity of playing Sky Blue will be beneficial for the Thorns. One of the problems with playing an expansion side like Houston is that you don’t know what you’re getting, which makes it hard to plan for. Sky Blue is a known commodity, reliant on their defense to hold off opponents while, while having the occasional offensive outburst against last year’s weaker sides, but only one multi-goal games against playoff-bound teams last season.
Thorns Keys to the Match
Take Control of the Match – One of the biggest problems for the Thorns last weekend was that they let Houston take control early, forcing the Thorns to throw their game plan out the window. While the Dash didn’t generate many threats, they did enough to disrupt the buildup and flow by making them chase the game.
Build on the McDonald-Long Partnership – With teams keying in on Sinclair, this allows others to get into the attack, which we saw last week when McDonald and Long were able to open in the attacking third. With Morgan’s return unknown, they will need other attackers to draw the attention of the opponent’s defense and take advantage of the opportunities given, while also making defenders think about more than simply covering Sinclair, opening up the attack.