Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. Dash, 9.21.19
(ThornsFC.com)

NWSL Preview | Thorns' home stretch starts Saturday against visiting Houston

PORTLAND, Ore. – “We actually really haven’t talked a lot about it.”

Christine Sinclair offered no long explanations about how Portland Thorns FC reacted to their last game, a 6-0 loss at home to the North Carolina Courage. There were no stories about emboldened locker room rallies; no romantic tales of quiet huddles through the team's dressing room. 

According to the team’s captain, the team addressed the situation among themselves – something that will stay in the locker room, she said. Head coach Mark Parsons confirmed as much from his end, describing a series of meetings to talk about expectations.

Beyond that, it was time to “move on.”

“We have three important games coming up,” she explained, “and if we win, we get a home playoff game.”

They may need to win them all. As of this week, the Thorns have dropped to third place in the National Women's Soccer League, albeit with a game-in-hand on second-place Chicago. But if the Red Stars win out, Portland will have to, too: Houston on Saturday (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, Yahoo! Sports); at Reign FC next week; hosting the Washington Spirit to close the season.

At this point, the difficulty of that run-in is inconsequential. The team can still make the playoffs with a slip over their final month, but the real goal in the short-term is a home playoff game, and it’s unclear that can happen unless they win out. Whether the Houston, Tacoma or Washington matchup is most difficult doesn’t matter. At this point in the season, in order for the Thorns to meet their goals, the team needs to plan on winning them all.

That process starts tomorrow at Providence Park. Here’s your breakdown of the 22nd match of Portland’s NWSL season:

Fighting until the end: Houston’s form

Record:  7-10-4 (25 points, seventh place out of nine)
Goals for:  20 (eighth)
Goals against:  33 (eighth)
Goal difference:  -13 (seventh)

Like most teams in the NWSL, Houston has the talent to beat any team on a given day. Their last two games say as much. After an impressive, 2-1 victory over the visiting Utah Royals last week in Houston, the Dash battled league-leading North Carolina into the final minutes on Tuesday night. Amid some controversy, the result went against the Dash, but in pushing the Courage through the final minutes at WakeMed Soccer Park, Houston reminded the league that, over any 90 minutes, they can be a handful.

Recent history: All red and black

Last game:  Portland 5-0 win at Providence Park (July 24, 2019)
All-time:  Portland is 10-2-3 versus Houston
 
July 16, 2016. That was the last time the Dash defeated the Thorns, one of only two occasions Houston has bested Portland in the six-year history of their team. Around those games, the Thorns have taken 10 of 13 all-time meetings, including a 7-0-2 mark since the Dash last broke through.

For Houston, the details are even more discouraging. Four times in that stretch, Portland won by two-or-more goals. On aggregate, the Thorns have outscored the Dash over those nine games by 16 goals. And in the teams’ last meeting, Portland scored four times in the first 24 minutes en route to a 5-0 margin.
 
To judge Houston by that game would be as naïve as judging the Thorns by their most recent result. There’s a reason that five-goal win felt special. But even with a wide lens, the Dash have struggled against the Thorns. Despite the arrival of a new coach this season, Houston’s yet to figure out how to keep up with Portland.

Focus player: Rachel Daly

Season:  14 games (all starts), 1,260 minutes, five goals
All-time:  24 goals in 77 appearances

The balance in Houston’s lineup makes it difficult to single out one player. From another point of view, any of Sofia Huerta, Kristie Mewis, Christine Nairn, Amber Brooks or Jane Campbell would be worth this section’s attention. But Rachel Daly is tied for the Dash’s team lead in goals despite being with England throughout her country's World Cup’s semifinal run. And in her constant effort from the forward’s position, she forces herself to be accounted for.

Consider the raw opportunities she creates. In terms of shots per minute (minimum 1,000 minutes played, this year), only four players are testing goalkeepers more often: North Carolina’s Lynn Williams and Debinha, standout within an overwhelming attack; Chicago’s Sam Kerr, possibly the best player in the world; and the Thorns’ own Midge Purce, who has demanded attentions with a breakout season.

After that, it’s Daly, who is testing goalkeepers once every 23 minutes and 26 seconds:

Minutes-per-shot leaders, 2019 NWSL season (min. 1000 minutes played)
Rank Player Minutes Shots Min/Sh
1 Williams, Lynn (NCC) 1644 93 17.7
2 Debinha (NCC) 1276 69 18.5
3 Kerr, Sam (CRS) 1682 85 19.8
4 Purce, Midge (POR) 1185 46 25.8
5 Daly, Rachel (HOU) 1259 48 26.2

Daly’s only averaging a goal every 276 minutes in her NWSL career, a rate skewed not only by a transition from college but early uncertainty as to whether she would be an attacker or fullback. Over the last two seasons, that rate has dropped to a goal every 214, a number augmented by her possibly unmatched tenacity up top.

Focus matchup: Houston’s fullbacks versus Portland’s wingers

As for goal rates, Purce is scoring once every 148 minutes this year, far better than the old, cliched standard for forwards: getting a goal in every two games. With that in mind, it would make sense to look at the matchup between the second-year Thorn and Houston’s center backs.

The key to slowing down Purce, though, could lie deeper in Portland’s buildup. If Portland’s number nine can get Brooks and her fellow center back, Ally Prisock, into space (or otherwise get them chasing her around the penalty area), Houston will be in trouble. But if the Dash can cut off access to Purce higher up the field, they offset a potential lineup problem.

That’s why the matchup of Thorns left winger Tobin Heath versus Houston right back Haley Hanson will be so important. Hanson, a second-year midfielder being converted to fullback, has the unenviable task of containing the most skilled player in the world. Players like Huerta, from her attacking spot on the right, or University of Portland alumna Sophie Schmidt, often Houston’s deepest midfielder, may need to help.

The battle on the other side may be just as interesting, albeit for entirely different reasons. If you were to list the strengths of Portland attacker Hayley Raso and Houston left back Allysha Chapman, there would be a lot of crossover. Mentality, tenacity, physicality are all pluses for two players who’ve often been among the smaller players on the field. Still, they’re among the most willing to sacrifice, go into challenges without inhibitions, and leave their opponents as bruised as they are bothered.

As for the Thorns …

Emily Sonnett should be back in central defense, having served her one-game suspension after a red card two weeks ago in Utah. Other than that, Portland’s lineup could be the same. Though the team endured two unfortunate, season-ending knee injuries earlier in the season, Portland’s health has been a positive of late, with even the fitness of midfielders Andressinha (knee) and Celeste Boureille (ankle) moving them closer to the field.

Instead of health, the bigger issue for Portland will be mentality. Coming off a 6-0 defeat, the team needs to bounce back strong, something that will be as important to their confidence as their place in the standings. True, the Thorns find themselves in a battle for second place, now, leaving a home playoff game in doubt. But unless the team can rebuild their confidence before the postseason, it won’t matter where game 25 is held.

Between now and the playoffs, Portland has to climb out of this trough, reestablish their mentality, and create a mental image of how they can win a title. In that sense, Saturday's game may feel especially important, but in reality, every game will be vital from here forward.

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