Thorns preview at Houston

Diehard NWSL fans will look forward to Friday’s game because of the new faces on the Houston Dash, but it’s really the changes to the Portland Thorns that are likely to turn the week’s first game, even with one of the defending champions’ most important players set to miss the matchup.

It’s a game that could see the Houston debut of Sofia Huerta, the U.S. international who was traded to the Dash in a three-team megadeal on Monday. That swap could make life difficult for the fifth-place Thorns throughout the second-half of the 2018 season, with each team around Portland in the standings having improved ahead of a wide-open chase of the league’s last playoff spot.

Utah Royals FC
Portland Thorns FC
Chicago Red Stars
Houston Dash

Huerta could prove a major boon for the Dash. A productive attacker throughout her four-plus years in Chicago, the former Santa Clara Bronco has been angling for a move to fullback, one that should help boost her national team hopes.

That switch could prove an ideal fit for Houston, a team that has had to cycle through a series of improvised fullbacks throughout the season. In one way, Huerta may prove more of the same, having seen very little professional action at that outside back’s spot. But with her national team prospects potentially in the balance, Huerta has every incentive to become a breakthrough player in one of the Dash’s weakest spots.

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Expect changes on both sides as Portland returns to Houston -

And yet, her presence on the field at BBVA Compass Stadium won’t even be the night’s most important arrival; at least, not in terms of determining the game’s result. That’s because, for the first time in months (if not all season), the Thorns have a relatively manageable injury report.

Meg Morris is still on that list, as is Midge Purce -- who will be out with an ankle injury -- but beyond their ailments, every other regular could play. Even Tobin Heath, who (like Purce) picked up an ankle injury on international duty, might see time against the Dash.

Heath, Tobin
Right ankle sprain
Morris, Meg
Left hip pain
Purce, Midge
Right ankle sprain

That means reigning goalkeeper of the year Adrianna Franch, out since April 15, could see her first start in two months. Defender Emily Sonnett, who made the bench last Saturday in Chicago, could also get time, having been sidelined with a back injury since May 19. Hayley Raso should see more than the 14 minutes of time she got in last weekend’s season debut, while, officially listed as questionable, Heath could yet suit up in Houston.

The big loss here will be Lindsey Horan, whose fifth yellow card of the season in Chicago came with a one-game suspension. Purce, of course, is out, too, but in the options head coach Mark Parsons has at each position, you see the depth Portland has accumulated. All of Katherine Reynolds, Ellie Carpenter and Kelli Hubly have put in time in Purge’s right back position, so far this season, while the likes of Ana Crnogorčević and Celeste Boureille have experience in that spot. And while Horan may be more difficult to replace, Boureille and Angela Salem give Parsons two quality options, beyond Heath’s potential return.

There’s no doubt Houston got much better with the acquisition of Huerta, and compared to where their squad was six months ago, the Dash front office has done a great job of both strengthening and bringing clarity to their roster. Like the Chicago Red Stars and Utah Royals, they’re destined to be formidable over the season’s last three months, giving the Thorns no guarantees that they’ll be able to reach a third-straight postseason.

But as we talked about on Wednesday, Portland’s destiny doesn’t have to be defined by the teams around them. As talent returns and the team’s plans can play out, we’ll see glimpses of the Thorns’ potential - a potential that, in theory, goes beyond a fight for the last playoff spot.

Whether that theory becomes reality, we’ll see over the next three months. But that three months starts in Houston.

What to watch for on Friday (5:30 p.m. PT, and

  • Though eyes will be on Huerta’s likely Dash debut, Houston’s biggest threat will be the league’s reigning player of the month. Consistently one of the league’s hardest workers up top, England international Rachel Daly has four goals this season, including three in her last five stars.
  • That statline puts what Christine Sinclair has done, so far this season, into perspective. With six goals and three assists so far, Sinclair is on track for her best statistical season since Women’s Professional Soccer. Her goal total currently leads the NWSL, while her assist mark puts her one behind the league’s leader (Orlando’s Christine Nairn).
  • If it doesn’t seem like so long since the Thorns were in Houston, don’t worry. You’re not delusional. Portland was at BBVA Compass Stadium last month, on May 9, when a second-half goal from Kyah Simon equalized Crnogorčević’s first-half opener, leaving the teams drawn, 1-1.
  • Houston is traditionally a place with the Thorns have enjoyed some success, posting a 2-1-3 all-time record on the Dash’s home ground. Conversely, Portland has never scored more than one goal in a game at BBVA Compass, having been shutout twice since first visit Texas in April 2014.
  • And finally, a number of former Thorns should be in uniform for the Dash on Friday, from defender/midfielder Amber Brooks, to midfielder Mana Shim, to forward Savannah Jordan. Added to that list, as of Monday, is Taylor Comeau, who was part of the deal that sent Huerta to Houston. She is expected to add depth to the Dash’s midfield and defense corps.