BEAVERTON, Ore. – What do you get when you combine a small league with a team’s need to play its first two months away from home? You get a schedule that’s already circling back on itself.
On Saturday, in their fourth game of the season, Portland Thorns FC will make their second trip of 2019 to Orlando, Florida, set to take on a Pride team that’s going through one of their most challenging moments (4:30pm PT, Yahoo! Sports). Winless in five matches, head coach Marc Skinner’s squad will be without departed United States internationals Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger. They’ll look to improve on the 2-0 defeat Portland handed them four weeks ago, but without three key parts, the challenge may be tougher.
The Thorns face their own challenges, too. Five players have departed for their national team camps while the renovation of Providence Park keeps the team on the road. Starting Thursday, Portland began a 10-day trip that will see them visit Orlando and Boyds, Maryland, before returning home. Their match with the Washington Spirit will be the penultimate of a two-month road run, but it will also leave the squad desperate to return home.
Before that happens, though, Portland needs to face their rematch with Orlando, one that’s guaranteed to be different than the teams’ meeting nearly a month ago. Here are three areas of focus ahead of road game number four:
Accepting the challenge
April’s season opener wasn’t Orlando’s lowest moment. That came three days later, when the team traveled north to Cary, North Carolina. Facing the defending NWSL champions, the Pride received a reminder of the harsh realities of the league’s current competitive imbalance. The 5-0 defeat they suffered at the hands of the North Carolina Courage made Portland’s two-goal margin seem humble.
Since then, the Pride’s got their defending in order. Visiting Seattle, hosting Utah, then traveling to Houston, Orlando’s conceded precisely one goal in each game. Unfortunately for Skinner’s team, they’ve only scored once over that 270-minute run. At 0-4-1, the Pride sit bottom of the league, with their single point, one goal scored, 10 conceded and minus-nine goal difference all setting league-worst marks.
There’s no doubt this is a game that the Thorns feel they should win. Then again, they felt the same way two weeks ago, when they were drawn 2-2 by Sky Blue. Just as Denise Reddy’s team had gotten off to a slow start but had played recent opponents close, so too does Orlando’s recent run hint that, with a little help, they could break through.
The Thorns provided some of that help to Sky Blue. The goal on Saturday is to learn from game three, to make sure game four doesn’t allow another opponent to claim a similar breakthrough.
The new look, new arrivals
The team tasked with achieving that goal is going to be significantly different than the one we saw two weeks ago. Gone for World Cup duty are goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, defender Emily Sonnett, as well as attacking midfielders Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair. Lindsey Horan missed that game in New Jersey, but she’s gone, too, with all five players likely until weeks into the summer.
Those departures will mean massive changes to Saturday’s starting lineup, something augmented by a series of arrivals over the last few weeks. Australian international Hayley Raso returned to the group this week, as did Brazilian midfielder Andressinha. Both could see action this weekend, as could midfielder Angela Salem, who rejoined the team last week after spending the first part of the season at graduate school.
New players have been signed, too, with forward Simone Charley, midfielder Emily Ogle and defender Madison Pogarch reinforcing the roster against their next set of departures. Two of those happened mid-week, with the waiving of Mallory Weber and Ifeoma Onumonu, but another four will happen in the coming weeks, with Raso, Andressinha, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter expected to join their respective World Cup rosters.
How all that impacts Saturday’s game makes for a great game of play the coach. Who takes Heath and Sinclair’s spots in attack? Is Emily Menges ready to step in for Sonnett at the back? Britt Eckerstrom seems certain to take Franch’s spot in goal, but who else is in line for increased in minutes?
Dagny Brynjarsdottir went into the team against Sky Blue. On Saturday, we’ll find out who’s next up.
Making decent something more
In his weekly media availability, Mark Parsons was asked if the week off gave him new perspective on his team’s undefeated start. It didn’t. For him, missed opportunities still defined Portland’s last two results.
“It’d be much better if we had seven (points),” he said of his team’s 1-0-2 start. “Or nine. We would love to have nine.”
If feels greedy, asking his team to collect more than two points per game on the road, but within the context of the last two games, the sentiment’s not so far off. The 4-4 draw at Chicago. The 2-2 result at Sky Blue. These are games were the Thorns struggled for prolonged periods but also had large swathes where they were the better side. It was a balance, one that was reflected in the score, but swing that balance ever so slightly in the right way, and the Thorns are 3-0-0.
It’s a coach’s job to want more. Parsons can’t go into the past and reclaim lost points, but he can work to make sure future points are won. He can impress on his team how close they were to winning those games and make sure they have ways to reach their next level.
Decent is the word Parsons might use to describe the Thorns’ first month. Five points on the road may look good, but in terms of the processes, there’s room for improvement. The team is off to a decent start. Now, after two weeks to prepare, it’s time to make decent something more.