Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons and veteran defender Emily Menges struck one common note during their training Q-and-As on Friday, and if that note is any indication, managing the Houston Dash’s transition opportunities is a key for Saturday’s game at BBVA Stadium.
“We've got to be very aware that [Houston] love the transition moments,” Parsons said. “They're dangerous and effective in those moments. For me, the best way to be able to see less of those is to be effective going forward, ourselves.”
Houston will be missing some key elements of that transition game with the absence of forward Rachel Daly and midfielder Kristie Mewis. Both are with their Olympic teams in Tokyo. But the Dash are still coming off an impressive 2-1 win in their last game at the North Carolina Courage, with midfielder Shea Groom and former Thorn Gabby Seiler showing a shorthanded Houston are still capable of scoring goals.
“Just kind of locking them in their half, [that is] something we're really focusing on,” Menges said, conceding “I don't think [it’s] a secret” managing Houston’s counter attack is one of Saturday’s main focus.
That task ties into something Menges labeled the team’s “ultimate goal,” something that goes beyond three points in Houston. Last Sunday, in the 95th minute against the Orlando Pride at Providence Park, Portland allowed a late goal, costing them a shutout in their 2-1 victory. The goal was the first the team’s conceded since the Thorns’ five Olympians left for international duty at the end of June.
“We've spent so much time defending the 18[-yard box], taking pride in our zones, our man marking,” Menges explained, when asked about the defense’s success. “I think holding ourselves, holding each other accountable and having that pride within the six-yard box.
“Our standards are higher than even letting one goal in. Even if we score six, we don't want to let one in. That is the ultimate goal.”
Portland has visited Houston 10 times since the Dash’s 2014 debut. The first three times, Portland kept cleansheets, going 2-0-1 through their first two years’ games at BBVA Stadium. Since, the Thorns are 2-2-3 in Texas and haven’t posted a shutout.
“It's about us imposing our identity in a difficult stadium, in a difficult situation,” Parsons explained, when asked about Saturday’s matchup.
“We have a lot of respect for Houston,” he said. “They know who they are. They know how to be who they are and play to their strengths, especially at home. So, we have to be at our best.”
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“Best” is a relative term during the Olympic period. For the fourth-straight game, the Thorns will be missing five starters. All of goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, defender Becky Sauerbrunn, midfielders Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan, and forward Christine Sinclair remain with their teams in Tokyo. For the Dash, the Olympics demands have been more taxing, at least when you look at the raw numbers. Houston are missing seven players to international duty: Canada’s Allysha Chapman, Nichelle Prince and Sophie Schmidt; England’s Daly; Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie; and the United States’ Jane Campbell and Mewis.
“I think both teams are very similar,” Parsons said, when asked about the challenges of preparing for a changed Houston. “We've lost a huge number of players. They've lost a huge number of players. Both teams are a long-term strategy. They are who they are, and they're investing in that in each week, is what I can see. It's exactly the same here. We know who we are, and we're absolutely just trying to build off that and improve and grow.”
So far, the Thorns have had no problem showing that growth despite their absences, going 2-0-1 in July to capture first place in the NWSL. With a game in hand on the standings’ next teams, Portland sits two points clear of Chicago and North Carolina, leading the league in goals scored (16) and goal difference (plus-nine) in addition to points (19, through 10 games).
Saturday’s latest challenge will be a new absence, this one unanticipated. Forward Morgan Weaver has been one of Portland’s best players in July but had to leave Sunday’s game early with an ankle injury. That injury has her listened as “out” on the team’s latest injury report. With fellow forward Tyler Lussi still weeks away from a return, Portland’s forward corps have been significantly thinned ahead of tonight’s kickoff.
“It's a shame that we don’t have every available forward, but it doesn't change much,” Parsons said. “We believe in all of our players. We believe in the versatility and the thinking and knowledge of our group.”
A win would increase Portland’s lead over the rest of the NWSL to five points. A win, however, is not the team’s only benchmark.
“Getting back to a clean sheet, that would be nice,” Menges admitted. “I know last game, even though we won it, it felt like a loss … We're trying to keep our standards higher than that.”