Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Orlando, 4.14.19

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Defense's goals, cohesion, life on the road highlight season-opener in Orlando

BEAVERTON, Ore. – A process that began in earnest six weeks ago gets its season’s first reward this Sunday, when Portland Thorns FC open their 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season against the Orlando Pride. While a victory would certainly get the team’s seventh season off to a desired start, the mere act of getting to a real game, having navigated more than a month-long preseason, provides something positive. These weekend games, serving as the culmination to days of patience and work? It’s what these athletes live for.

Once the first result is in, roughly two hours after Sunday’s initial kickoff in Central Florida, the realities of the season will set in. Highs, lows, expectations and surprises will follow. The same rhythms that we’ve felt for most of the NWSL’s existence will set in. On Sunday, win or lose, the challenges of a season will start presenting themselves.

Right now, though, it’s all anticipation. The love of having real soccer back gets to be in focus. Hopes and goals, along with fears of failures, can be set aside for a few days as we live in a moment to be elated about. The NWSL is back. A new season is about to begin. The players that dedicate their professional lives to this game? They’ll get another chance to take the field, start this journey, anew.

Of course, it’s more than the Thorns who’ll start that journey this weekend. There are eight other teams in the NWSL, the most important of which this week, from Portland’s point of view, is Orlando. Having missed the playoffs last season after a 2017 postseason berth, a team that features a living legend (Marta), one of the world’s elite strikers (Alex Morgan) and an oft-dominant presence in the middle of the field (Alanna Kennedy) still has the talent to reach their former heights. And as much as the Thorns want to get a redemptive season off to a strong start, Orlando will be motivated to rebound after 2018’s setback.

Sunday’s game kicks off at 2 p.m. PT, and can be watched on the league’s new streaming partner, Yahoo! Sports. Here are three things that will matter come kickoff:

Defense tries to show improvement

From day one of the preseason, coaches have joined players along the backline in repeating the mantras: the defense needs to get better; it needs to return to its 2016 and 2017 levels; 2018 was not acceptable.

“I was really happy in regards to the amount of goals that we gave up, that we did a good job defensively,” left back Meghan Klingenberg said, this week, about the Thorns’ preseason performance. “We need to work from there because – we talked about this earlier – we want to get back to being the best defense in the league … this was the first step toward that.”

In 2016, Portland conceded only 19 times in 20 games, a rate the team improved on in 2017, when opponents only mustered 20 goals in 24 games. Last year’s returns of 28 goals in 24 games were still a strong total, but it was a marked uptick from the team’s first two years under head coach Mark Parsons.

“No matter how you dress it up, talent is a main ingredient,” Parsons explained on Tuesday, about his defense, “and when you look at `16 and `17, we have the best defense in the league. It felt like that every day we were out there playing, competing.

“Of course, we had changes, but the same talent level was available in `18, and we didn’t produce the same results. When we analyze that, I think, yeah, the way that we trained and the way that we dealt with all the change wasn’t as good as it could have been, and to remind ourselves of who we are every single day when we’re defending – and when we’re attacking – is important.”

The issue around the Thorns’ defense is about identity as much as production. After all, being the fourth-best defense in the league, as they were last year, isn’t a bad ranking, and it’s certainly not so bad that the attack couldn’t compensate with more goals. But with this current core of Thorns players, things don’t feel right when the team’s conceding. The group doesn’t feel like itself, so while, yes, the attack could conceivably compensate by making up the slack, that would involve the team changing how they see themselves.

There are a lot of things that define Thorns soccer, but since Parsons’ arrival in 2016, one of those has been preventing goals – preventing them like few other teams in the NWSL can. That’s the identity Portland’s trying to get back to.

Gang’s back together

Speaking of identity, Saturday’s training in Orlando will mark the first time this weekend’s squad will be together since 2018. Between the U.S. internationals’ early departure from the preseason Spring Invitational, presented by Tillamook, to Caitlin Foord’s late arrival this winter, to Christine Sinclair and Ana Crnogorčević going directly to Florida from their recent international commitments, the expected XI and 18 who will suit up against the Pride have not been together, all season. Saturday’s training session will be the first time in 2019 those players share the field.

That’s no exception in the NWSL. That’s life – possibly a life the Thorns are particularly well-suited to manage. During an offseason that saw relatively little player movement among the league’s top teams, Portland’s roster was even more staid than most, with the team electing to return 2018’s core rather than undergo a major shakeup. Unless Gabby Seiler gets the call in central defense, this weekend – where the team will be dealing with the absence of Emily Menges – all 11 starters should be players who made major contributions last season.

This has been a point of criticism of the Thorns’ offseason: that they didn’t make enough moves. Or, phrased a different way, what did Portland do to close the gap between themselves and last year’s champions, the North Carolina Courage?

In terms of talent, there may not be a true gap, just like there may not be a meaningful gap between Portland and the Chicago Red Stars, or the Red Stars and Reign FC. Instead, what separates the teams will likely come down to approach, mindset, commitment and execution.

Bringing back 2018’s core, the Thorns are eliminating one possible, confounding variable. Cohesion shouldn’t be a problem.

The long and winding road

Stop me if you’re heard this one before: Portland is going to have to start this one on the road.

Beginning Sunday, the Thorns open their season with six straight games away from home. From Orlando to Chicago, then New Jersey, back to Orlando, then a Washington, D.C.-New Jersey swing, the Thorns will play all six of their opening games in the Eastern Time Zone, with no trips to Sandy, Utah, or Tacoma, Washington, included for comfort.

Like the Timbers, Thorns FC will receive their rewards on the back half, playing six of their last eight at home and, after June 29, never traveling east of the Mountain Time Zone. Still, also like the Timbers, the road offers no margin for error. Any poor habits, misfortune, or unexpected downturns won’t be assuaged by the comforts of home.

There’s a lesson in what the Timbers are going through, and while MLS and the NWSL are drastically different worlds, those lessons can still be applied to the Thorns. This initial stretch will feel long, regardless, but any chance of slipping into a rut will only make it worse.

Every game has to be approached with urgency and intent, because a moment’s weakness gives your season’s first month a chance to be defined by the road.