Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Dash, 5.9.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Portland face a Houston Dash side inching forward after hitting the reset button

Portland Thorns FC have never had to go through this; at least, not at this level. The feeling of looking around your locker room, realizing nothing is working, knowing you need to fully reset your approach.

The club made drastic changes after a failed 2015 season, but there was still a foundation to build on. Players like Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath ensured as much. Through five years of Thorns soccer, the club hasn’t had to break the emergency glass over its proverbial reset button.

The Houston Dash haven’t been as fortunate. Early last season, the team parted ways with the only head coach it had known, Notre Dame legend Randy Waldrum. Soon after, the team lost captain Kealia Ohai to a season-ending knee injury. What followed was a swoon that sent Houston to 7-14-3 campaign, a year which, on a points-per-game basis, was the team’s worst season since its expansion year of 2014.

Those results demanded a change, and as Houston’s president of soccer, Chris Canetti, has said, instituting a new culture around the Dash was his top offseason priority. To do so, he brought in Dutch head coach Vera Pauw, whose authoritative style is notably different than Waldrum’s. Months later, the club was part of a trade that sent its most famous player, U.S. international Carli Lloyd, back to her hometown team in New Jersey (Sky Blue FC). With a slew of new college talents, international signings and players acquired from other clubs, Houston returned to the field this preseason with a drastically different look.

Houston Dash Top 10 in minutes, 2017 vs. 2018 (bold - with team both seasons)
Players, 2017 Minutes Players, 2018 Minutes
Amber Brooks 2160 Jane Campbell 540
Rachel Daly 2023 Rachel Daly 540
Cami Levin 1980 Kristie Mewis 540
Janine Beckie 1829 Haley Hanson 540
Poliana 1564 Amber Brooks 540
Andressinha 1554 Janine van Wyk 536
Nichelle Prince 1540 Linda Motlhalo 423
Cari Roccaro 1500 Mana Shim 416
Janine van Wyk 1472 Kimberly Keever 376
Jane Campell 1440 Nichelle Prince 337

We’ve talked about the importance of culture through the season, bringing it explicitly to the forefront two weeks ago, when highlighting Utah Royals FC. For as talented as the Royals are, you can’t craft a team’s ethos overnight. It takes time, and for Houston team which, unlike Utah, lack talents like Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Amy Rodriguez, Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott – all U.S. or Canadian internationals – those timelines could prove more prolonged.

That’s where the Dash finds itself, now. In U.S. internationals Ohai and goalkeeper Jane Campbell, they have some names that have appeared on bigger stages, and with players like central defender Amber Brooks, midfielder/fullback Kristie Mewis, and fullback/forward Rachel Daly, an English international, the team has some more intriguing pieces. The signings for South Africans Linda Mothalo and Thembi Kgatlana, joining fellow South African Janine van Wyk, give Pauw a number of players she’s familiar with from her previous job, while a college draft that delivered new U.S. international Hayley Hanson and forwards Kimberly Keever and Veronica Latsko has already yielded three valuable parts.

The one thing an offseason can’t deliver, though, is time, and in the season’s early going, we’ve only been able to see Pauw’s process start. At the beginning, the former Scotland, Netherlands, Russia, and South Africa coach was intent on solidifying her defense first, explaining why she moved experienced players like Mewis and Daly into defense to begin the season. The move helped a team that conceded 39 times in 24 games last season, emphasizing accountability while limiting opponents to seven goals in the Dash’s first five games.

Last week, though, we saw Houston take a step forward in their approach. Mewis came out of defense and took up her more natural position, next to Hanson in the team’s midfield. At the same time, Daly was moved back to forward, with the Dash having scored only once in their first five outings. With Keever and Canadian international Lindsay Agnew assuming the fullback spots, Houston snared their first victory of the season, quadrupling their 2018 goal total with a 3-2 win on the road at Sky Blue.

As impressive as the win, though, was the team’s attitude, something that could have began waning in the face of a slow, 0-3-2 start. With two points and one goal headed into last Saturday’s game, the Dash would have had reason to doubt whether this season would be better than the last. To the extent those doubts exist, though, they weren’t evident on the field, with Kgatlana’s lung-busting run late to set up Latsko’s game-winning goal evidence of a team that’s still willing to fight on.

That’s what makes this trip so dangerous for Portland for Wednesday's match (5pm PT, NWSLsoccer.com/go90). On paper, few would doubt the Thorns have the more talented team. Such are the virtues of not having to hit that reset button. But short rest with each team losing a day to travel invites the unpredictable, and while Portland has enough experience to navigate these channels, the effort the Dash showed on Saturday could make for rough waters. And with Houston’s temperatures expected to be 86 degrees at kickoff – and humidity forecast to be at 43 percent – the Thorns will be battling more than their opponents.

They’re conditions that could be Houston’s friend, as the season goes on. If effort and organization are going to be the Dash’s prime virtues, then teams unprepared for BBVA Compass Stadium’s demands will prove susceptible, just as a Sky Blue team going through their own reset became the first team to fall to Pauw’s new corps.

There are no truly easy games in the NWSL. Midweek trips into humid confines are an example why. But in a newly confident Dash, Portland will be facing more than a team leveraging their conditions. They’ll be facing a team that may be seeing their reset pay off.

What to watch for on Wednesday:

  • The Thorns continue to be without three major pieces, all of whom were listed as “OUT” on this week’s NWSL injury report: Adrianna Franch is recovering from right knee surgery; Emily Menges is making her way back from her own right-leg injury; while Hayley Raso’s right knee sidelines her, as well.
  • Houston has their own right knee problem, with teenage midfielder Motlhalo listed as “OUT.” The 19-year-old had already racked up 423 minutes this season, with Pauw lauding her passing out of the team’s No. 10 position. Without Motlhalo, Australian Kyah Simon could start behind Daly in Houston’s 4-2-3-1.
  • Houston has largely stuck to that 4-2-3-1 this year, though with some noticeable personal changes of late. Not only have Daly and Mewis’ seen new positions, but the return of Ohai has brought another shift. The three-time U.S. international has taken up one of Houston’s wide attacking roles since returning to the lineup on April 22 against Orlando.
  • Four players with Portland connections are part of Pauw’s squad. Brooks, Mana Shim and Savannah Jordan should all be in the Dash’s 18 on Wednesday, with University of Portland product Allison Wetherington also on the team’s roster.
  • For the Thorns, Wednesday is their second game in eight days, with the team finishing a three-game stretch at home on Saturday against the Orlando Pride. The team is currently scheduled to travel home on Thursday morning and fully train on Friday ahead of Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff.
  • Should she appear against Houston, Ellie Carpenter will become the youngest player in NWSL history. The current record belongs Caitlin Foord, who debuted with Sky Blue FC in 2013 at 18 years and five months. Foord is expected to join her new team, Portland, this summer.
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