After a tough draw against the North Carolina Courage, the Portland Thorns (4-1-3) are ready to pick up a win as they host the Utah Royals FC (5-2-1). Coach Mark Parsons emphasized his players’ frustration at last weekend’s result, despite the number of positives he’d taken out of the match. “People are saying, ‘If we’d done this, if we’d done that, we wouldn’t have conceded. If we’d done this, we’d done that, we would’ve scored our second goal or our third goal,’” he said at practice this week, attributing the Thorns’ disappointment to the mentality his squad has fostered over the years.
Portland will try to take that mindset into this weekend and find success against a Utah side that have only allowed five goals in their first eight games and look like one of the teams to beat in this World Cup mini-season.
The Thorns will likely return to the three-and-a-half-back we last saw against Sky Blue after utilizing a four-and-a-half-back in their last two games. Unlike North Carolina or Chicago, the Royals aren’t looking to pressure Portland’s backline with numbers for a full 90 minutes; this match will be more of a tactical battle. Still sans Emily Menges, Gabby Seiler has positioned herself as a solid option at centerback for the Thorns. She’ll fit in alongside Katherine Reynolds, with Elizabeth Ball and Meghan Klingenberg rounding out the defensive line.
After missing last weekend for international duty, Dagny Brynjarsdottir is available again and will likely join Celeste Boureille in the center of the park, with Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic as a ten. That leaves the duo of Simone Charley and Midge Purce up top, accompanied by Tyler Lussi, a player whose lone goal last year came against the Royals.
“When we played Sky Blue... we had to be patient; we had to wait for our moments,” Parsons explained. “Utah and Sky Blue are similar in the way they try to play. I think we’ve got to be disciplined and patient and wait for the right opportunities.” For the Thorns, that means absorbing the Royals’ offensive pressure, holding possession, and strategically picking moments to find the space in Utah’s backline and strike.
While not a particularly high scoring team, the Royals attack hinges on buildup play and connecting with Amy Rodriguez on the counterattack. Rodriguez notched a long range goal against Sky Blue last weekend — her fifth of the season — and is a player the Thorns defense will have to keep an eye on. “She’s the striker that provides their team everything,” Parsons declared, praising her ability to find space behind and between centerbacks. In an attempt to minimize her chances, Portland will likely leave a defender — probably Katherine Reynolds — marking Rodriguez throughout the match, leaving Ball and Seiler to step to the ball and cover Katie Stengel or Erika Tymrak.
When Portland and Utah met in 2018, the Thorns had the advantage in midfield on height and speed of play alone. Looking far improved from last year, the Royals will have to line up without Vero Boquete, who will sit this game out due to a right ankle injury. Gunny Jonsdottir and Mandy Laddish have both been constants in Utah’s midfield, with Jonsdottir’s physicality proving especially valuable to the Royals. Lo’eau LaBonta is available for selection after serving a two match suspension and will likely feature in this game, adding scrappiness and playmaking ability going forward. Assuming they stick with their diamond midfield formation, it’ll be interesting to see how Portland responds to Utah’s numbers-up advantage in the center of the park.
Defensively, the Royals are one of the best teams this year; they’re tied with the Washington Spirit for the least goals allowed. Utah’s last two goals conceded came against the Spirit, both generated by moments of individual brilliance from Ashley Hatch as she exploited small pockets of space on the dribble. Fortunately, Portland has a player who can do the same in Charley.
Parsons has been nothing but complimentary of Charley in recent weeks, and the partnership between her and Purce has headlined the Thorns attack. The two were significantly quieter against the Courage than we’ve seen in previous weeks — less a reflection of their individual skills than a result of North Carolina’s high press that allowed Portland less opportunities going forward overall. Charley found her moments in the first half, picking up the ball and breaking from the Courage’s defense on a couple different occasions; she’ll look to replicate that against the Royals. Unfortunately, there wasn’t usually a player for her to connect with up top, and her shots were hesitant slow balls that rolled directly to Sam Leshnak.
Despite not having a ton of time on the ball, Purce found her own success; a brilliant finish off a long ball from Boureille went in the books as her fourth goal in her last three games. “They had some great looks, but just had less involvement,” Parsons said about Charley and Purce’s performance against the Courage. Going forward against Utah, he stressed the need to “be patient, pick our moments, and let’s hope that not just those two, but other players can show their attacking qualities.”