Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. Dash, 7.24.19
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NWSL Preview | First place? That's where Portland sits ahead of Wednesday's visit from Houston

PORTLAND, Ore. – If you’re coming to Providence Park on Wednesday, cherish your time with the Thorns. Because it’s going to be a while before they’re back on the field.

After Wednesday’s visit from the Houston Dash (7:30pm PT, TICKETSYahoo! Sports), Portland will have eight days off, eventually returning to the field on Saturday, August 3, when Sky Blue FC arrives in Goose Hollow. Some players will be summoned to Southern California to start the United States’ World Cup victory tour that weekend. Others? Who knows.

The run up to that Saturday’s game will approximate a normal week. The days before that, though? There may be time to catch up on that book? Perhaps the one you started in March, but haven’t touched since game one? Maybe you should re-download Duolingo. Keep that lie going a little bit longer. Or maybe you could use your downtime to in, binge that new season of Orange Is The New Black, and make yourself some homemade tacos? How hard could it be to make … tacos?

Before that, though, earn yourself the reward. Thanks to last Friday’s draw in Sandy, Utah, the Thorns return home in sole possession of first in the National Women’s Soccer League. They’ve climbed there despite nine player absences during the World Cup and a six-game road trip to start their season. Only three of the team’s final 11 games will be played away from home – none of which will require travel east of Utah. And yet …

… it doesn’t quite feel like the Thorns are in first place, does it? That may be the nature of this NWSL season, one where we inhaled guarded breaths until the World Cup was over. But it also may be the result of the Thorns themselves, whose recent results against Reign FC, the Orlando Pride and, Friday, against Utah have been more competitive than dominant. Is this what first place in the NWSL feels like?

That’s where we start with this week’s NWSL preview – three things to watch as Portland welcomes Houston on Wednesday at Providence Park.

The feeling of first place … ?

Somebody asked me that earlier,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said, when asked whether it feels like his team was in first place. It was the start of a minor dodge.

“This lesson, I’ve learnt thus far – this season and every year – the split second I sit there and go, ‘oh, we’re OK. We’re doing alright,’ I’m not thinking about the next training session, the next conversation, or the next game, the next day. Then suddenly you get kicked in the backside.”

It’s not about whether Portland feels like they’re in first place. It’s about whether they should be paying attention to the feeling.

“If we’re fourth or fifth, what would I say?” Parsons asked, rhetorically. “If we’re first or second, what would I say? It’s that we’ve done so much good stuff already, and we’ve built a foundation of grit, and character, and resilience, and toughness. However, we’re in the middle of a period which is our toughest yet, after all this transition.

“Every single team can beat every single team in this league, more than ever,” he reminded. “It’s getting close.”

The original question, at the beginning of all this, was “does it feel like you’re in first place?” The answer is clearly no, even if Parsons couldn’t say as much. After two months of World Cup absences no team was going to feel like a front runner. Every team with the talent to feel like a favorite would be trying to regain its favorite status at this point of the season.

That’s where the Thorns are. As are North Carolina. As are Chicago. Portland may be on top of the NWSL, one point above the Courage and three ahead of Chicago, but after 13 games, each contender is focusing on where they want to be after game 24. This year more than most, first place isn’t a feel. It’s just a location, right now.

That’s why Parsons’ assessment of this team’s place is more valuable than anything we can learn from the league’s standings.

“We’re a long, long way from getting our team in the place that we’re in when we hit the final stretch of the season,” he explained. “We’re not there, yet. We’re going to be there in two, three weeks. If we didn’t have this Sky Blue game with people missing, I think it’d be closer. But we’re two, three games away from being in full swing here.”

Turning the defense around

The Thorns gave up 13 goals in their first 11 NWSL games, this season. Out of context, that total is nothing remarkable. For a team that has the talent to outscore opponents, you could even claim it’s fine. Perfectly fine. Limiting opponents to 1.18 goals per game is, for a team with the Thorns’ talents, a totally acceptable option.

Then the team gave up three goals at home to the Orlando Pride, a number that looks worse when you point out that Orlando had scored only 12 goals in as many games before that June 13 kickoff. Oops.

Then, at Utah on Friday, the team conceded two goals against a team that had scored eight times in 11 games. Oops, times two.

“We’ve lost our period where we can learn slowly and we can sugar-coat things – be nice and friendly,” Parsons said. “Everyone here, in this team is trusted. Everyone here, is (here) for a reason …

“Including me, because I think I’ve made more mistakes than anyone else, over the last few weeks. There were so many things we were trying to get right. We all look, identify where we can improve. And we get better. We don’t waste time.”

Restoring the benefits of home

The Thorns are 2-1-1 this season at home. That’s decent – that really is decent – except the last three games have been a bit too ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ for the Thorns.

A 0-0 draw against the Royals. A 1-0 loss to Tacoma. A 4-3 win over Orlando, where the team needed a 94th-minute goal to take full points. This isn’t what we expect from Thorns FC. This is what we’d expect from, well, teams that have to host the Thorns.

Those results play into a duality that’s begun to emerge around Portland, one we talked about in our last preview. When the team is on the road, they can play spoiler, less concerned about how to impose their will than how opponents would want to impose theirs. When they’re at home, though? The other teams become the spoilers, with the Thorns, to date, unable to play from a favorite’s pose.

How much of a problem this is right now, when the Thorns are still building toward the team they want to be in the final stages of the season? That can stay open to debate. Although every team wants their home ground to be a proverbial fortress, that label only matters if, at a season’s end, you can deliver in an all-or-nothing scenario.

Until then, winning at home doesn’t matter much; at least, not when it compares to winning on the road. Over the course of 24 rounds, you want the maximum amount of points possible. Still, when those final games come around, and you need every advantage to matter most, have you proven your home can be a fortress?

That’s where the Thorns are, ahead of Wednesday’s game. Drop points right now, at home, and yes, the team and still make them up on the road. But live that life for too long and at some point, when the season’s last games come around, they’ll fail to show teams they should be worried about Providence Park.

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