The names on the back of the jerseys had a big-time feel, with the likes of Sinclair, Kerr, Horan, Ertz and Heath making Sunday’s match at Merlo Field, for the day, one of the most talent-laden displays in world soccer. If there was ever a time to be thankful for the options we have here, in Portland, it was then, where a perfect evening on The Bluff saw a near-packed house enjoy a collection of the best players in the world.
The actual play between Portland Thorns FC and Chicago Red Stars, however, had a very preseason feel. Both teams were very organized and meticulous about how they approached their play, but the fluidity you would normally see from teams with such talents was lacking. This was, after all, the first time either side had played a competitive match in five months, and with each team undoubtedly building their players toward NWSL openers that are still two weeks away, the play – measured as it was – as what we should have expected.
Portland ended up winning, 2-1, with goals by Tyler Lussi and Christine Sinclair besting a corner kick conversation from Kayla Sharples, but as with everything in preseason, process is more important than results. And from that process, here are the three things that stood out most:
Returns and debuts
Dagny Brynjarsdóttir may have only joined the team last week – and she may have spent the entirety of the 2018 season back home, in Iceland, as she welcomed her first child – but the 30 minutes of action she saw at Merlo Field portrayed somebody who is ready to pick up where she left off. There was no sense that she was a step behind, or limited in any way, in what she could do. And while, like the rest of her teammates, she may be in preseason mode, that she’s on the same track as the rest of the Thorns was notable by itself.
The same could also be said for Katherine Reynolds. Reynolds’ 2018 was cut short last summer after a knee injury, with surgery keeping her from fully training with her team until last week. On Sunday, the veteran fullback saw 15-plus minutes of action, marking her full return to the field after coming on for Kelli Hubly in the 75th minute. Her health could prove valuable over the course of a trying 2019 season.
Then there were the debuts, perhaps most impressive of which was that of Gabby Seiler, who started next to Emily Sonnett in central defense. A first-round pick in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Seiler missed last season while finishing school at the University of Florida and recovering from injury. Classified as a midfielder then, Seiler’s debut in central defense on Sunday hints at a versatility which will be needed in a World Cup year.
Then there was Madison Pogarch, somebody few Thorns fans had likely heard of before she came on for Meghan Klingenberg in the 61st minute. A trialist invited to train with Portland this preseason, the Rutgers product flashed all the physical potential to compete at the NWSL level, and while a couple of her passes were played with a bit too much haste, Pogarch’s first half-hour against NWSL competition was clearly a positive one.
Crnogorčević’s head on a swivel
By the end of the 2018 season, it was easy to forget the virtues Ana Crnogorčević brought to the striker position, mostly because Caitlin Foord had become the team’s starter. Once the Australian international was fully healthy, Crnogovcevic’s versatility saw her cast out wide, in midfield for small stretch of one second half, and at fullback, once. Versatility is always going to be one of the Swiss international’s strengths.
On Sunday, though, we were reminded why she can play a valuable part as a lone striker. Helping Portland enact that coaching cliché of defending from the front, Crnogorcevic’s head was one a swivel throughout, constantly checking that she wasn’t leaving too much space between herself and the next lines of defense, making sure the rest of her team was ready for her to start pushing play to one side and trap Chicago in one part of the field.
The Red Stars usually have a ton of talents to deal with this, with players like Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Brian able to connect short, quick passes with the likes of Danielle Colaprico and Yuki Nagasato. But DiBernardo and Brian weren’t on the field on Sunday, so as Chicago tried to break though Portland’s defense, they were often left playing negative balls, or having to play longer than they would want.
That’s not all on Crnogorčević. Everybody behind her has to execute, too. But Crnogorčević’s discipline allowed Portland to execute a game plan that didn’t concede from open play. The only goal they allowed came from a second-half corner.
Tobin Heath versus Casey Short
On any day, against any competition, Tobin Heath can be a match’s dominant force, leaving every moment she gets the ball as a potential game-defining play. Whether it’s her trademark acceleration cutting in front of or away from opponents, or those seconds where she slows down, sets her defender up, and leaves your imagination open to the myriad possibilities we’ve seen her explore on the ball, there is no player in the world like Heath. By forcing an early corner and, late, setting up Sinclair, Heath generated both of Portland’s Sunday goals.
That she didn’t do more, however, is a testament to Casey Short, the Chicago fullback who was tasked with containing Heath. Early in the match, as Heath seemed intent on bullying the Red Stars in transition, containment seemed an impossible task, yet Short showed why she is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the NWSL. Between her intelligence, athleticism and experience, there may be no better player to try and contain a player like Heath.
Heath did create both of Portland’s goals, but interestingly, neither were Short’s fault. Portland’s early corner kick that led to Lussi’s goal was proceeded by Heath matching up against Katie Naughton, with Short eventually coming to help. Both did a good job to only concede a corner. On the second goal, Heath was played behind the left side of Chicago’s defense – the side opposite of where Short started.
Sunday’s game may have had a very preseason feel, but there was something about Heath versus Short that felt real – like a main event of what was, in light of the coming regular season, actually an undercard. With each on their way to U.S. national team camp, both Heath and Short showed why they’ve become acclaimed internationals.