PORTLAND, Ore. – You can give chronology part of the blame for casting the bulk of this week’s attention on the Portland Timbers’ home opener. After all, Major League Soccer takes the field on Saturday for the full debut of the new Providence Park, one day before the stage is handed over to the NWSL. If the remodeled venue is the story of the weekend, you can understand while so much is focused on June 1.
June 2 is also a thing, though. So are Portland Thorns FC, whose Sunday home opener against Chicago Red Stars, presented by 2 Towns Ciderhouse, will bear a number of parallels to the day before (3pm PT, TICKETS, Yahoo! Sports). Like their MLS counterparts, the Thorns’ weekend match will conclude a drawn-out spell on the road; each team returns to host one of the most talented teams in their league; while both squads will get their first glimpse of life at their new, expanded home.
But whereas the Timbers had to overcome a slump to start the season, the Thorns have maintained a steady course, with 11 points through their first six rounds helping them claim third place after their road spell. With half their away games done, Mark Parsons’ team can start leveraging the more advantageous part of their schedule. Even after their season’s most trying spell, the Thorns are only two points from the top.
With a win this weekend and help around the league (specifically, in Boyds, Maryland), Portland could find itself tied at the head of the NWSL come Sunday’s final whistle. Here are three areas of focus about the part they control – their season’s second meeting with the Red Stars.
Mid-season changes in Portland’s shape have been a feature of the last two campaigns, but in both 2017 and 2018, when Parsons made his switch, he generally stuck with the new approach. In `17, moving to a three-center-back look helped steer the Thorns to the club’s second title, while last year’s move to a 4-2-3-1 allowed the team to make its second-straight final.
This year, Portland started in a 4-2-3-1, moved to a five-defender shape after its first World Cup departures, then switched back last week against Sky Blue. Either Parsons saw something he didn’t like from his 5-3-2 (or, 3-4-3, as he’s identified it, before) or the Thorns are adopting a nimbler approach.
This may also just be the reality of managing the World Cup. Last week, the Thorns experienced their final set of departures, losing four more players to national team camps. What works with one set of options may not, in the coaches’ minds, be the right approach, now.
Regardless, there is a new level of mystery around the Thorns, one we’re not used to experiencing often during a season. Will Portland start their 4-2-3-1, or will they go back to their three-center-back approach? You’d imagine Chicago would like to know.
Building on Sky Blue
One thing the Thorns will want to carry over from last week is the team’s effort. In their first game with the roster that has to manage the World Cup, Portland were able to pin Sky Blue in their host’s end for most of the first half, and while Sky Blue eventually found solutions in the second half, the Thorns ultimately claimed a valuable three points on the road. The 1-0 victory was, at a minimum, a decent start to this spell.
Another way to look at it, though, is as a first step. Last Saturday represented forward Simone Charley’s first professional start. Same for defender Elizabeth Ball. For rookie defender/midfielder Gabby Seiler, it was only her third time in the lineup, while Tyler Lussi made a starting XI for only seventh time in her career. For a group someone from the outside might call experimental, three points was a very good start.
In that vein, Sunday will be about progress as much as results. On top of the effort the group showed in New Jersey, the chance creation has to improve, while the close calls in front of Britt Eckerstrom’s goal need to be cut out. All of that can come with time, both in terms of experience and minutes playing with each other.
The debuts are out of the way. Now it’s time to see how this group can grow.
The talent of Chicago
Chicago, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about that challenge, because although the Red Stars are missing five major talents (Sam Kerr, Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson, Alyssa Naeher and Morgan Brian) their lineup is still filled with a number of established NWSL stars.
Attacking midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo has been one of the NWSL’s best at her position since joining the league in 2014. Same can be said for Danielle Colaprico, although she joined the league a year later. Fullback Casey Short is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league, Arin Wright provides a ranging and dangerous threat on the other flank, while center back Katie Naughton is still not getting the recognition she deserves. Add in Yuki Nagasato and Katie Johnson in attack and the Red Stars’ World Cup look is littered with international-caliber talents.
Rory Dames has done an excellent job of building this squad. He’s been aggressive about it, too, with Chicago being one of the most active teams in recent years on the NWSL trade market. This summer, he’ll get to enjoy more fruits of those labors. It’s up to the Thorns to make sure that enjoyment doesn’t extend to Providence Park.