Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Utah, 9.6.19

NWSL Preview | Thorns looking for breakthrough against Utah, return to pre-break form

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC have enjoyed a change of scenery this week, customary ahead of a game on the road on a grass field. In those circumstances, the team leaves their normal training ground, Providence Park, and takes up their second home at the Timbers’ Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, enjoying the virtues of their club’s multiple options.

This week’s preparation is for the team’s last regular-season meeting with Utah Royals FC, a team that’s neither won against nor lost to Portland in two meetings this year. A 0-0 draw at Providence Park in June, when the Royals tested their hosts' ability to craft a final ball. A 2-2 result at Rio Tinto Stadium a month later, when Utah nearly came back from two deficits to claim full points. The Royals have been as much of an obstacle for the Thorns as any team in the league, this season. Both games fully-earned draws.

“We know they’re a tough team with some really quality players,” Thorns attacker Hayley Raso admits, “but we just stick to our game plan. We just focus ourselves, what our role is, and hopefully we can go out there and get a win in their home.”

The twist on the teams’ 2019 results is the Thorns’ current form. Going into the just-ended international break, Portland had won three games in a row, a streak that included victories over the second- (North Carolina Courage) and third-place (Chicago Red Stars) teams in the National Women’s Soccer League. With 36 points in 19 games, the Thorns have opened a five-point gap at the top of the league standings, and while the Courage can overtake them if they win their two games in hand, Portland returns from their near-two-week layoff with the best points-per-game rate in the NWSL.

That the team hasn’t played in two weeks, though, will test whether August’s results were progress or momentum. That’s our first of three areas of focus ahead of Friday night’s kickoff (6:30pm PT, Yahoo! Sports).

Break at the wrong time?

It’s not only that the Thorns’ season hit pause after beating Chicago 3-0 on August 25, producing one of the team’s most convincing results of the season. It’s that many of the team’s players didn’t get to experience that pause. The team’s four U.S. internationals (Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett) joined their national team for two games against Portugal. Dagný Brynjarsdóttir (Iceland) and Ana Crnogorcevic (Switzerland) joined their teams in Europe, as did U.S. U-23 call-ups Simone Charley and Madison Pogarch, who spent the last week-plus in England. 

“Obviously, (the international break) is probably not the ideal timing,” team captain Christine Sinclair admits. “It’s given some players an excellent opportunity to get some training in, but we were flying, and we’ve had some players have to play some extra games. It’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before.”

How the travel impacts those players and the team, we’ll deal with in the next section, but in terms of the broader impact, the international break was more than a band on the calendar, or a series of miles logged by some of the team’s most important talents. It was also a break in the routine, for both those who were called up and those who, with many of their teammates gone, stayed in Portland. With five games left in their regular season, the Thorns need to rediscover their groove.

Who’ll be ready to go?

Ah, that question we put off. Four players coming back from Europe. Four more who played in Minnesota on Tuesday night. Though a rare Friday night game gives Portland less time to manage the challenge, everybody will still be able to join up with the team before the game in Utah. The more prescient question: Who will actually be ready to go?

We saw head coach Mark Parsons manage a less-strenuous situation earlier this year when, ahead of another game in Utah, he incorporated his four World-Cup winning Americans. Two ended up starting (Franch and Horan) while another two (Heath and Sonnett) were used off the bench. With even less time to integrate his players, will Parsons use the same approach?

In midfield, there aren’t many options, as injuries to Andressinha, Celeste Boureille, Angela Salem and Gabby Seiler have severely limited the team’s options. Surely, other players have trained in midfield besides Brynjarsdottir and Horan, but who? It’s hard to imagine a world in which those two internationals don’t start.

Toward the same end, the demands on a goalkeeper are different than those on a field player. Franch went right into the team for the last trip to Utah. Would she be held out now?

Given the team’s options in attack and central defense, the story is different for Heath and Sonnett, but Portland’s also at a different point in their campaign. Entering the regular season’s final stretch, knowing there is another international break before the playoffs, does Parsons decide to push two of his team’s most important parts? By now, he's likely decided. We still have time to wonder.

Six days to assert control

With two good performances between now and September 11, the Thorns can almost answer to their regular season’s final questions. Between a visit to Utah and, next Wednesday, a visit from North Carolina, four points would be a solid week, but should Portland continue their pre-break form and take six points from these games, they will be no fewer than seven points up on the field with three games to go. Additionally, they will have claimed the season series against the Courage, giving them a tiebreaker’s edge in the standings, and left last year’s champions at least eight points behind them in the table.

None of those scenarios will clinch first place. A playoff spot wouldn’t necessarily be locked up, either. But from the perspective of the rest of the league, that gap might be too much to surmount. The attentions of teams vying for the other postseason spots could turn to positioning in lieu of a charge toward the top.

Almost all of that, though, is highly assumptive. On Friday, Portland visits a team they haven’t defeated all season, one that left their last meeting at Rio Tinto Stadium on the verge of claiming a 3-2 result. Getting over the hump and defeating Utah on the road would be an accomplishment of its own. It would also reclaim the team’s momentum ahead of a huge match on Wednesday at Providence Park.