Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Spirit, 5.18.19

For the second time this season, Portland Thorns FC have elected to stay out on the road, spending their time between games in the Washington, D.C., area after Saturday’s win in Orlando. The last time they did this, the team was drawn into a 4-4 shootout during the season’s second round in Chicago. On Saturday against the Spirit, the Thorns will be hoping for something more.

Four games into their season-opening, six-game road run, the Thorns are in a good place, sitting 2-0-2 as their first home game approaches. But at this point, the team’s four games could be separated into two, contrasting groups: games against last-place Orlando; and, games against the rest of the world. Versus the Pride, Portland have taken two victories. The rest of the schedule is responsible for the team’s draws.

For the Thorns, that makes Saturday’s game against the Washington Spirit into an opportunity (4pm PT, Yahoo! Sports). Although the rebuilt Spirit are hinting they’ll be a far more difficult team to beat than last year, these are the types of games teams like Portland, the Chicago Red Stars and the North Carolina Courage will need to take three points from if they’re going to keep pace at the top of the standings. Last year, thanks to early injuries and absences, Chicago and Portland lost pace early, paving the road to North Carolina’s second-straight NWSL Shield. This year, the league has yet to break up.

The Houston Dash are at the top of the circuit, their 10 points in five games edging out second-place Utah. One level lower, all with eight points, the three favorites lie, with Chicago, the Courage and Portland all within reach of the top.

With a win this week, Portland will keep pushing their title rivals. Any slip, and the resurgent Spirit, only one point back of that big three, can further their strong start.

Here’s this week’s Thorns NWSL Preview:

Attacking at high levels

Let’s start with what we’ve been seeing from the Thorn’s attack, which, through four games, has yet to be held to fewer than two goals. The team ranks in the NWSL’s top half, on a per-game basis, in …

  • goals (first),
  • shots (third),
  • shots on target (third), and
  • big chances created (second).

Like, the important stuff. No big whoop.

True, half of Portland’s games have been against last-place Orlando, but the Thorns have also yet to play a game at home, and for a team that has consciously taken a quality-over-quantity approach to chance creation, the rankings are encouraging. Things are definitely clicking, so far.

“If we had scored that penalty,” head coach Mark Parsons said, referring to Saturday’s second half in Orlando, “we would be saying we scored three goals a game. We’re one goal away from saying that. Three goals a game, away from home, at the beginning of the season when every team thinks they’re good and believes they’re good, that’s not a bad outing.

“We’ve been hit more or as much as any other team with players coming in and out, and had two-and-a-half weeks with everyone available during preseason. I’m finding it hard to complain about where we’re at.”

Parsons has been pressed for criticisms of his attack over the last few weeks – asked what, if anything, he would improve. Each time, his feedback has been reluctant, always coming down to the goals the Thorns left on the field:

“If I want to nitpick without getting hung up on it, in every single game, so far, we’ve left chances in that game. We’re almost scoring three goals per game, but we’re walking away going we should have scored two or three. We left two or three really big goals, out there.”

One thing everybody can agree on, thus far: The attack hasn’t been a problem. That’s modest enough, right? On Saturday, with the same attacking options as last week, Portland will try to keep its multi-goal streak alive in Washington.

New spirit in Washington

Since coming within seconds of claiming the 2016 NWSL title, the Spirit have been among the worst teams in the league, finishing last (2017) and next-to-last (2018) in successive seasons. Sky Blue FC’s long winless run to start last year made them the avatar for league futility, but beyond the record, Washington was quietly the worst team in the league for most of the season. They needed a shakeup.

In comes Richie Burke, the fifth coach in the team’s NWSL history and the person who was in charge of this winter’s overhaul. Gone are fullbacks Caprice Dydasco and Taylor Smith, team leaders in appearances in 2018. Estelle Johnson is gone, too, traded to Sky Blue in the offseason, as is Rebecca Quinn, who is now playing in France. Add in the departures of Whitney Church (waived) and Francisca Ordega (playing in China), and six of the team’s nine most-featured players last season have left the club.

In their place, the Spirit have brought in a series of promising talents. Defenders Sam Staab and Tegan McGrady joined midfielder Jordan DiBiasi as some of the most sought-after talents in this year’s college draft. Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison added two Australian internationals to the team’s ranks, Cheyna Matthews has two goals early after a season away, while Paige Nielsen has claimed a starting spot on her return to the NWSL.

As with the Thorns’ attack, the early returns have been positive. One year after claiming only 11 points in 24 games, the Spirit have seven through four, with the different looks they’ve offered leaving teams uncertain what they’ll get from Washington’s new-look squad.

“It will be interesting what shape they play,” Parsons said, “because they changed shape, or they adapted their shape, for Sky Blue.

“For us, in our preparation, with the players available, we’re going to have the same idea that we had against Orlando. We just might not be able to prepare for their potential weaknesses like we did against Orlando, because it’s a bit unclear on what they can do with shape and system. What we don’t want to do is get too hooked up on them being a different shape than we thought.

“We have to double-down on our strengths, and our players’ strengths, where our principles have led to success so far.”

Early on, Washington has the potential to be one of the pleasant surprises of the 2019 season. But it’s early on, and four games tells us very little about what, in the long run, a team will become. Still, for the first time since 2016, Spirit fans may have reason to hope.

The next set of departures

Orlando was a good start, with Portland putting up three goals on Saturday despite five World Cup departures. The game went so well, Parsons must have called the Australian and Brazilian federations and asked, “Could you take four more of my most talented players?”

Not really. Still, that’s what’s happening. After Saturday’s game, Matildas Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso depart, as does Seleçao midfielder Andressinha. One scan of the Thorns’ roster, and you see the team will be in a pretty good position, talent-wise, compared to most, but a second bout of massive changes will still present a challenge.

One on hand, the Thorns have known about these departures since the bulk of their roster was assembled last season, giving them plenty of time to prepare for this obstacle. At the same time, the limited time players have had in Portland, this season, may make it difficult to bring order to some of the depth chart’s chaos. Especially if players like Midge Purce, Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Ana Crnogorcevic perform well over the next nine weeks, what position battles await upon the World Cup players’ return?

“The cool thing on the pitch, when players are missing, is people have to step up,” Parsons said. “And it’s the same thing off the field. What we are seeing is a bit more personality from players who maybe have not shown it before, because they need to, now.

“You have roles off the field. You have roles on the field. You need leaders. You need your personalities. You need your person who makes everyone laugh. You need your person who’s keeping people in shape, on the straight and narrow.

“We’ve lost some key people who help us with that off the field, and it’s really cool to see some personalities step up and be heard, and spread joy across the group.”

The best-case scenario will put Parsons in a tough position. After all, if the players staying in Portland take advantage of their new roles, it’s only fair to give them a shot at maintaining their influence. First things first, though: players have to force Parsons’ hand, starting with Saturday against Washington.