Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. Pride, 7.14.19

NWSL Preview | Thorns look to get back onto the scoresheet against Orlando

Portland Thorns FC left Providence Park last Friday in a state of frustration, losing a derby to Reign FC while being shutout for a second home game in a row. It’s not often a stat like “185 minutes without a goal” can be applied to Portland’s home form, but after clean sheets by Utah and the Reign, here we are.

Into that dynamic comes the Orlando Pride, a team with the worst defense in the National Women’s Soccer League. Through 12 games this season, Orlando has conceded 27 goals, and while recent results have allowed the Pride to climb out of the NWSL’s cellar, Marc Skinner’s team is still engaging in their fair share of shootouts.

From one point of view, the Pride’s Sunday visit gives Portland the perfect chance to right their course (12pm PT, TICKETS, ESPNews). From another, though, it adds to the urgency of the moment. No matter the next opponent, Portland would be in search of a breakthrough. That the league’s most generous defense is next on the schedule creates an “if not now, when” moment.

That urgency has been with the Thorns all week, with their Tuesday return to training giving the team extra time to digest what happened last week. The conclusion the team’s echoed in unison: the last performance was not good enough; it’s time to start moving forward.

Sunday’s their next chance. Here are three areas of interest as Portland tries to get back on the scoresheet … and into the win column.

First place in view

Portland gave up the top spot in the league to Reign FC after last week’s loss, but they remain one of four teams within three points of first. Should the Reign draw on Saturday at North Carolina, the Thorns will be able to go first with a win over Orlando.

Things like that don’t matter much this early in the season, but come Sunday’s final whistle, the 2019 campaign will be at its half-way mark, bringing the team’s end-of-season goals closer to view. Part of those goals is being at their best come game 25. Part is earning a playoff game at home. But part of that, also, is winning another NWSL Shield.

There’s also the view from the other end. Though they’re only one point from the top of the standings, Portland is also only two points from fifth place. The Thorns may be sitting first after Sunday’s game, if things go right, but if things go wrong, they could be passed by Washington and Utah and find themselves out of the top four. Things are just that close at the top of the NWSL.

There’s still a long way to go in the season, but at some point, they’ll be no margin for error. Wins now put those make-or-break moments off for as long as possible.

Getting the attack back on track

It was one of the first things Mark Parsons said after last week’s loss, that not only had the team dropped points at home twice in a row but they’d also, for the second time in as many games, been shutout. Utah kept Portland off the board three weeks ago. The Reign repeated the trick last Friday.

Prior to that, the Thorns had the best attack in the NWSL, and while the team has still scored the second-most goals in the league, there’s a sense that the attack needs to get back on track. The defensive work and in the middle third has been fine over the last two home games, but going toward the opponent’s goal, decent chances aren’t being made into good ones, good ones never become great, and the execution that’s so crucial to scoring goals hasn’t surfaced.

Part of this may be the reintegration of players, with Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso and Christine Sinclair returning from the World Cup over the last two weeks. No matter the reason, Portland has to find a way to break through. They can’t make it so easy to get results at Providence Park.

Forget what you thought about Orlando

The Thorns are already 2-0-0 this year against Sunday’s opponent, winning twice in Orlando over their season-opening road run. Since, however, the Pride have become a different team, responding to first-year head coach Mark Skinner with two wins in the team’s last three games. There’s a long way to go for the Pride, who sit eighth out of nine teams going into the weekend, but compared to what they were in April, Orlando’s much improved.

“Their growth has been continuous …,” Parsons said this week. “They’ve grown a lot despite losing a lot of players, and now they’ve got those players back … It’s a good storm for a team to be better, and they are.”

Last week, Orlando scored four times against a Washington team that had only conceded seven times all season. The week before, they nearly got a result against one of the league’s most talented teams, the Chicago Red Stars, while the week before that, they broke through for their first win of the season, defeating Sky Blue.

This is not the team Portland beat 2-0 to open the season. It’s not the team that lost to the Thorns 3-1 a few weeks later. Months after they last saw Portland, the Pride are playing closer to their talent level. The Thorns have to be prepared for a stiffer challenge.