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Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns

NWSL viewing guide: Thorns fans' need-to-knows ahead of Portland's match in Houston

The last time Portland Thorns FC lost a match, it was to the Houston Dash.

It was last year’s NWSL Challenge Cup, the venue was Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, and the stakes were a place in the tournament’s final. The Thorns were coming off a quarterfinal victory over the North Carolina Courage but couldn’t carry that momentum forward. A second-half goal from Rachel Daly propelled the eventual Challenge Cup champions to a 1-0 victory and sent the Thorns home to Portland.

The Thorns remember that match, but they’re also a new team. Significant offseason additions like Crystal Dunn and Natalia Kuikka have move helped push Portland forward in their process, while expectations from last year’s Fall Series, where Portland claimed the league’s Community Shield, have been met with a 3-0-0 start. The Thorns are already in May 8’s Challenge Cup final, but how their revenge match against Houston ends could determine where that final is held

For Thorns fans, Sunday’s game at BBVA Stadium (4:30 p.m. PT, Paramount+) will be their weekend’s main focus, but it won’t be the only match of importance. How matches in New Jersey and North Carolina end will also determine against who, and potentially where, Portland’s next chance at silverware takes place.

Here’s what you need to know about each of this weekend’s important NWSL battles.

Game 1: North Carolina Courage (2-1-0) vs. Orlando Pride FC (1-1-1) – Saturday, 4:30 p.m. PT, CBS Sports Network

The preseason questions surrounding the North Carolina Courage were perhaps larger than any other teams', with the NWSL’s 2018 and 2019 champions suffering significant losses this offseason. Not only did Dunn move to Portland, but the Courage also lost Samantha Mewis (to Manchester City), Abby Dahlkemper (City, too) and Jaelene Daniels (retirement). With captain and defensive linchpin Abby Erceg hampered by injury this during Challenge Cup, the Courage’s starting XIs looked significantly different.

Despite all those changes, North Carolina’s won two of their three Challenge Cup games, and as with any Paul Riley team, they have not been afraid to trade goals. The Courage have averaged three goals per game through their season’s first month, by far the highest mark in the league. Across from them on Saturday, the Orlando Pride have one of Challenge Cup’s best defensive marks, conceding only three times in as many games while going 1-1-1.

Both teams will have a chance to face Portland in the May 8 final, but both will be at Gotham FC’s mercy. The Pride need a win by at least two goals while the Courage could advance with a draw, but both teams will need help to secure first place in the East Division.

Game 2: NJ/NY Gotham FC (2-0-1) vs. Racing Louisville FC (0-2-1) — Sunday, 9:30 a.m. PT, Paramount+

This is where we’re supposed to say Gotham is the surprise team of Challenge Cup. The team hasn’t made an NWSL postseason since 2013, and although they reached last summer’s Challenge Cup semifinals, there will still questions about how head coach Freya Coombe’s squad would fair in this, a more-normal season. Without a playoff pedigree, we’re supposed to be surprised at this type of performance.

In reality, though, there isn’t much surprise about Gotham’s performance. Ever since general manager Alyse LaHue joined the club three years ago, the squad has steadily improved, stopping the drain of talent that left the team barren in previous offseasons while making the club an attractive destination. The result is a team which, when they earn seven points in three games, isn’t met with surprise. This is what Gotham is now.

Their opponent is at a different part of that timeline, at the moment. Racing Louisville is new, is a team with a nice stadium that’s providing new opportunities, but also needs to slowly build. As their record hints, Racing is at the early stage of their process, leaving Gotham as the favorite to hold on to first place in the East Division.

Game 3: Houston Dash (1-0-2) vs. Portland Thorns FC (3-0-0) — Sunday, 4:30 p.m. PT, Paramount+

If neither North Carolina nor Gotham win, Portland will confirm home field for the May 8 final before their match kicks off against Houston. Short of that, there are a number of complex scenarios that could leave the final elsewhere, though there is a straight-forward possibility: If the Thorns beat Houston, the final will be in Portland.

Given the Dash’s last performance, Sunday should be the Thorns’ most difficult divisional game, yet. The Dash, after opening their Cup defense with scoreless draws again Chicago and OL Reign, broke through with three goals in their last match against Kansas City NWSL. Perhaps more important those goals was the Dash’s underlying performance. For the first time in Challenge Cup, Houston played like the team that won last year’s competition. In the process, they reminded the NWSL why they’re a strong contender for one of this year’s playoff spots.

For the Thorns, a match with Houston is coming at the perfect time. Over their first three Challenge Cup games, Portland overcame three different types of obstacles, going from their home opener to a grind-it-out affair in Chicago before their most recent, most convincing victory: a 2-0 win over OL Reign at Providence Park. For the first time this season, the Thorns had almost their entire team available for that match, which their five previously absent internationals returning to their club world. On Sunday, on the road against last year’s Challenge Cup winners, that reunited squad will have a chance to step up to a new level.

This is what sports seasons are all about, and although the context of Challenge Cup means there’s more than progress on the line in Houston, progress should still be a top priority. It’s time to see if the group is ready for the next challenge. If they are, they’ll earn home field for Challenge Cup’s final.

The NWSL has a fourth game this “weekend,” Monday’s match between Kansas City and OL Reign. Kickoff is at 5:00 p.m. on Paramount+.

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