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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs Sky Blue FC

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The Thorns look to carry the momentum of their commanding 5-0 victory into the matchup with Sky Blue, a team with no head coach and only two wins on the season.

Matthew Ralph / Brotherly Game

New week, new game. After a blowout 5-0 victory over the Houston Dash, the Portland Thorns (7-2-5) have over a week to reset before they’ll face off against Sky Blue FC (2-10-2). During that time, Portland’s World Cup champion USWNT players left the Thorns yet again ⁠— this time for U.S. Soccer’s victory tour.

Sky Blue, too, are without a couple of their big names; Carli Lloyd has also rejoined the USWNT for their matchup with the Republic of Ireland this Saturday, and Raquel Rodriguez is representing Costa Rica in the Pan American Games.

Projected XI

If the World Cup has taught us anything, it’s that Portland has no shortage of talent on their roster, even without Adrianna Franch, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, and Tobin Heath. Ellie Carpenter will also sit this one out due to an injury she picked up against the Utah Royals FC.

That leaves Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds to anchor the Thorns defensive line. Elizabeth Ball has positioned herself as Portland’s first defensive depth piece, and she’ll feature on the right side of the pitch, with Meghan Klingenberg taking on her usual wing-back role on the left. The center of the field seems similarly locked down; Celeste Boureille seems to have dropped off the Thorns midfield depth chart, leaving Dagny Brynjarsdottir as the clear choice to step in while Horan is absent.

Portland’s front three is the area that’s most up in the air but, even there, Hayley Raso and Midge Purce are — at least for the moment — locked into the Thorns starting lineup. It’s likely we’ll see Caitlin Foord play alongside them, with her link-up play making a case for her continued role in Portland’s XI.

Game Plan

Since the last time the Thorns and Sky Blue have met, New Jersey have traded away two players — including 2018’s No. 2 overall draft pick Savannah McCaskill — and fired coach Denise Reddy. In return, they have Elizabeth Eddy, a couple of picks for the 2020 college draft, and an open head coach position.

With all those turnovers come changes to both lineups and style of play. It’s clear that Sky Blue are still finding their identity under the leadership of their assistant coaching staff — what we’ll see from them on Saturday is unclear. “To predict and say, ‘This is where, how they will attack these spaces,’ or, ‘This is how they’ll defend,’ is a bit of a trap because they could change,” said Thorns coach Mark Parsons, pointing to player absences and the possibility of Sky Blue announcing a head coach before the match kicks off. He emphasized his focus on “mak[ing] sure we’re prepared and respectful of [Sky Blue’s] individual qualities rather than what they’re going to collectively do.”

Parsons explained that he’s directing his attention to the Thorns and — as has been one of his consistent talking points this season — bringing out the individual strengths of the players on Portland’s side of the pitch.

That means Reynolds and Menges holding down the back, Klingenberg pushing up and getting dangerous crosses into Sky Blue’s box, and Ball continuing to grow her play out of the back and showcasing her fantastic one-on-one defending — whether it be building on her earlier season success against Imani Dorsey, taking on Paige Monaghan, or tracking someone else entirely.

Recently named to the July NWSL team of the month, Gabby Seiler has become a staple in the Thorns midfield. “She’s a thinker, a decision-maker, a footballer — a real footballer in the sense of understanding, reading, anticipating the game, and knowing where spaces are,” said Parsons. He praised Seiler’s off the ball work: her ability to smother their opponents’ attack as “the spark is just lighting” and then spring Portland’s offense with her next pass.

After spending the last two games partnered with Horan, Seiler will likely shift back to working alongside Brynjarsdottir against Sky Blue. Seiler explained that her role in the Thorns midfield remains relatively constant, even as the players around her shift from game to game. “Every time I step on the field ... I just want to make it as easy as possible for them [whoever she’s playing with in the midfield] and let them playmake and me just do the dirty work,” she said.

Seiler’s talent was in full display against Houston — it was her read to strip the ball off Sofia Huerta and her ball forward that led to Portland’s first goal of the evening — and she’ll look to carry that form into Saturday.

Also coming off an outstanding performance against the Dash, Raso will be another key factor in the Thorns attack this weekend. “I think she’s got this freshness, and she’s got this Raso-ness about her,” said Parsons of her recent performances. “She’s playing with intelligence and good technique and providing us good tactical work, but she’s [also] playing like Raso, and I don’t think there’s a player in the league that plays with the tenacity and energy that she has.”

Raso’s willingness to press high and take the ball at pace, paired with an incredible defensive work rate and stellar finishing, has added a new dimension to Portland’s attack in recent weeks (and she has three goals in as many games to show for it). The Thorns will rely on her sharpness and energy, along with the scoring threats provided by Purce and Foord, to draw in Sky Blue’s backline, play the ball into space, and put themselves in positions to find the back of the net.

Ahead of this weekend’s game, Raso reflected on the excitement of Portland’s last match, but also pointed to the need “to put that past us a little bit, look forward to the team we’re playing now — their strengths, their weaknesses, what we can do to exploit them ... hopefully we can score a few more goals in [the Sky Blue] game, too.”