PORTLAND, Ore. – As Portland Thorns FC concluded Thursday’s practice in Beaverton, Oregon, memories of last weekend were still close to their thoughts. Following a Saturday afternoon game against the Chicago Red Stars, the team endured a travel nightmare that saw them lose a day to the road, spending an extra day in Illinois as Sunday’s delayed and cancelled flights kept them on the road.
This is the type of thing that’s supposed to happen to us, normal people. Not the Thorns. Increasingly, when we go to airports, we’ve come to expect something, anything can go wrong. But in this regard, Thorns’ lives aren’t so different than ours. They have to deal with airports. They have to deal with flying. They have to deal with in-flight announcements that interrupt our movies, and they have to deal with a part of their life which, the moment you book your ticket, escapes your control.
It’s something the team could take in stride, if lament, any other season. Most of the time, they would be coming back to a home game. Time spent on the road could be offset by time recharging at home. This year, though, the Thorns spend their first month-and-a-half dealing with road games before 2019’s debut at Providence Park. With their home stadium undergoing renovations, time on the road is offset by time on the road.
Three days after their travel debacle ended, the Thorns were still joking a little about the road, knowing that with the next morning, another early wakeup call would arrive. The third of six trips east to open the season will be a reality, and the flight for Sunday’s game against Sky Blue FC, in Piscataway, New Jersey (3pm PT, Yahoo! Sports), will be here. Once again, it would be time to brave the road.
The weekend’s biggest obstacle will be at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field, where Sky Blue, despite their finishes in recent seasons, have always played Portland tough. It will be like every other game in the NWSL. Across the center line, there will be established internationals, players who starred for their college teams, and athletes capable of replicating any physical challenge the Thorns’ stars see for club or country.
But there are other obstacles, too. Players and coaches talk about the challenges of the road for a reason. This week, Portland’s obstacles may have been more annoying than usual, but they were still emblematic of life on the road.
Getting beyond the flights, here is this week’s Thorns FC preview:
Keep the attack working
Six goals through two games ties Portland for the most prolific attacking output over this season’s short sample, but the breadth of that attack is almost as important as its magnitude. Four players have goals. Five have assists. Six different players have gotten on the scoresheet. This isn’t a matter of one player getting hot, becoming the rising tide that lifts all boats. Across all their attacking parts, the Thorns are getting contributions.
Within the details, there may be more reason for optimism. In the goals the team’s scored so far, you don’t see luck, aberrations, or anything that makes you think “that won’t happen, again.” Perhaps you can put Tobin Heath’s backheel goal in Orlando in that category, but even if, instead, she traps, aims, and shoots Caitlin Foord’s pass, that ball is going into the goal. Just like the Thorns’ other scores, that goal came from basic play, well executed, made possible by a balance of threats overloading opponent approaches.
It’s only the second weekend of the season, so the attack is bound to evolve. But after this weekend’s game, parts are going to start leaving for their international haunts. Other Thorns are going to have to step up.
Regardless, through two games, the Thorns have scored more goals than any season, before. Something sure is going right, so far.
Back to basics in defense
On the opposite end of the field, it’s been a tale of two games. The 2-0 win in Orlando to open the season put to action all the team’s talk of getting back to their stingy, 2017 selves. Last week in Chicago? Not so much.
The reaction to Saturday has been a worry about the team’s goal prevention – found worry, of course. But to pick up on a word Mark Parsons used post-game, it may have been unreasonable to expect the “journey” back to 2017’s form to be non-stop. As the Thorns found out last week, it’s too much to assume any trip will go as planned. Challenges are part of the process.
It is fair to ask, though, whether the Thorns defense is up to this challenge. Clearly, over the preseason, they felt they needed to prove it, and for 90 minutes this season, they were on the right track. Now, they’ve gone a little off course.
Perhaps the lesson for us, looking at the situation from various distances, is that all possibilities remain open. Is the 2017 Thorns defense still in there, somewhere? Yes, it seems so, but so is 2018’s, and while that version may be a little scarier for Portland fans, the evidence suggests we should keep our minds open to both worlds.
Don’t overlook the challenge
The record says one thing, particularly since Parsons’ arrival. Prior to the 2016 season, Portland had a 2-5-2 record all-time against Sky Blue – a mark that seems almost inexplicable, in hindsight. Sky Blue had some very tough teams during those years, but the idea that Portland was 2-5-2 against any single team almost defies explanation. How did that happen?
Once Parsons arrived, that script flipped. Over the last three-plus seasons, the Thorns have a 5-1-1 record against the New Jersey-based club, though it hasn’t been as easy as those results imply. Over the teams’ last four meetings, Portland and Sky Blue have scored the same number of goals. The Thorns haven’t posted a multi-goal win over them since June 2017 (five games ago), and both of Portland’s victories last year were 2-1 results.
There is something about this Sky Blue team that always plays Portland tough, and over large parts of 2018’s second half, Denise Reddy’s team was much better than their 1-17-6 record suggests. Seven of their last nine games were decided by one goal or less, a pattern that’s continues into this season, where two close games have failed to yield a result.
As recent history hints, the Thorns should be considered favorites in this game. But there is a huge gap between seeing a team as favored and thinking a game will be easy. In players like internationals Carli Lloyd, Nahomi Kawasumi, Raquel Rodriguez and Kailen Sheridan, Sky Blue has talents who can beat you. As with every other team in the NWSL, if you’re going to claim victory, you have to do your part.