PORTLAND, Ore. – Summer trips to Houston for Portland’s professional soccer teams are usually met with adjectives like humid, wet, sticky, or oppressive – words accentuating questions about the coming challenge. For Portland Thorns FC, though, recent trips to the Lone Star state have been relatively productive.
It’s been almost three years since the Thorns last lost at BBVA Stadium, and while Houston have drawn two of the three games the teams have played in Texas since, the last meeting in the reputedly difficult conditions saw the Thorns leave the field up, 3-1. Games in Houston present obstacles, but they’re obstacles that can be overcome.
Instead, as with almost any NWSL game, the biggest obstacles will be on the field. The Dash have one of the league’s strongest squads during this World Cup stretch, with talents like Kealia Ohai, Sofia Huerta, Christine Nairn, Kristie Mewis and Amber Brooks leaving first-year head coach James Clarkson with a core capable of reaching world-class levels.
“They’ve got a number of quality players that can hurt you, specifically up front and in midfield,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said earlier this week. “They have experience and quality, so we have to be on our best.”
Houston’s sixth-place standing in the NWSL table doesn’t portray a team that’s seized on others’ World Cup losses, but having suffered only two losses in nine games this year, the Dash are proving tough to knock off. With the Thorns having lost once this season, Saturday’s game projects as a tight one – your typical Thorns, NWSL match on the road (5:30pm PT, Yahoo! Sports).
Here are three areas of focus ahead of this weekend’s kickoff:
Houston’s change in approach
The Dash have been in the NWSL for just over five seasons, and only twice have they finished within reach of the postseason: their second year, in 2015; and last season. Their 2018 success was built on a style instilled by former head coach Vera Pauw – an approach that became one of the league’s most difficult to play against.
“They sat in a medium block, sometimes a low block,” Parsons remembered, “and really wanted to counter attack and take advantage of space that you leave. It was hard to manage.”
Houston finished only five points out of the playoffs last season, but for various reasons, they decided to move on from Pauw. With the appointment of Clarkson came a new approach.
“It’s a little more balanced,” Parsons said. “They have variable ways to attack and variable ways to defend. They adapt to the opponent a little bit more than they had previously done.”
The results have been largely the same. Houston finished sixth last season. They sit sixth this season. They scored and allowed just over a goal a game in 2018. They’re doing the same now.
It’s only been nine games, though. Perhaps the team will grow into their new style. Maybe the league will figure them out. But for now, 2019 Houston is on 2018’s course.
Figuring out the Thorns
To a lesser extent, Portland is walking the same line in terms of the team’s style; at least, in terms of what the team’s style is right now. Since the team’s nine World Cup departures, Parsons has had to change his team’s approach, part of the reality of incorporating new personnel.
That new approach still hasn’t been defeated, with the Thorns going 2-0-2 since their final set of World Cup departures. But on Friday, Utah Royals FC was able to achieve a first against Portland, this season. They kept the Thorns off the scoresheet.
“I think Utah wanted to try and slow us down and wanted to keep us in front of them,” Parsons said, “and the key for us was, especially at home, we can’t slow down. We have to be quick and high tempo. The fact that we were quick and high tempo meant that we still got in the final third, and then yes, we needed a little bit more.”
Whether Portland can find that “little bit more” may be the squad’s defining question until all its World Cup talent returns. The defense has been great, conceding only once in the team’s last four games, but if teams are going to adopt Utah’s approach – slow things down and force Portland to craft an extra ball – the Thorns will have to adapt. Being challenged to make that one extra, crucial decision will mean finding a response.
“Houston will be different,” Parsons predicts, “but I don’t mind if we’re a bit slower in our approach and a bit more patient picking the moments rather than forcing the moments like we were against Utah.”
The realities of the road
In truth, that approach plays into how Portland’s wanted to play away from home. Although some coaches want their team to maintain a consistent style when on the road, Parsons has always been more pragmatic about life in the NWSL. The travel is more demanding. The changes, compared to other leagues, are starker. You can’t guarantee what works at Providence Park will have the same success in places like Boyds, Maryland; Piscataway, New Jersey; or Houston.
“For us, away from home, we’ve been very different,” Parsons explains. “How we were in Sky Blue and how we were in North Carolina were very different than the Chicago and Utah games.
“Away from home, if we want to slow things down, I think that makes sense, because [Houston is] a tough place to go. It’s a tough environment.”
The Thorns took 18 shots on Friday against Utah, but only three were on target. It’s a ratio Parsons tends to abhor. If playing on the road means mining quality instead of quantity, it will get Portland closer to the approach he wants.