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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Transition attack comes alive; first place now in sight

In the immediate aftermath of their well-earned win over Houston on Saturday, the Portland Thorns gathered on the toasty Providence Park turf to take on fluids and congratulate themselves.

But before the huddle broke up, the subject quickly turned to the next challenge — a trip to Chicago this weekend that starts a stretch of three games in eight days.

"We've already started talking about Chicago in the huddle," coach Mark Parsons said shortly after a pleasing 2-1 victory over Houston in front of 18,243 fans. "This is the next big game against a really good opposition that are flying right now."

No team in the National Women's Soccer League is hotter than Portland. The win against Houston capped a critical three-match home stretch that produced three wins and carried the Thorns near the top of the standings.SINCLAIR

"It's massive for us," forward Christine Sinclair says. "Before this homestand, we had a busy schedule, a lot of travel. The results weren't necessarily going our way, and we knew coming home we needed to get some wins."

With 28 points, the Thorns trail league-leading North Carolina by two points and Chicago by one.

Portland is in this position in large part to Sinclair's leadership. Since Parsons tweaked his formation to push Tyler Lussi and Hayley Raso forward and have Sinclair roam as an attacking midfielder, the Thorns have become especially dangerous on quick transition opportunities.

Sinclair's ball-winning instincts and offensive savvy create a unique headache for defenders who must also deal with the speed and tenacity of Lussi and Raso.

Parsons says his formation change — which includes giving left back back Meghan Klingenberg freedom to go forward, essentially playing with only three defenders when in the offensive half and asking Ashleigh Sykes to provide cover against opposing left wings — was made to best use his player's individual strengths.

Sinclair agrees that playing as a deep forward/attacking midfielder is her best position — the one she often plays for Canada's national team.

"I think that's my strength," Sinclair says. "Earlier in the year, playing as an isolated (forward), you sometimes get left out and these past couple weeks, getting to play as (attacking central midfielder), you're definitely more involved (and) get to have more impact on the game. It's nice. It's fun."

Parsons calls Sinclair the player of the game against Houston for her work to disrupt the Dash and turn takeaways into Thorns chances.

"What Christine Sinclair did (against Houston) was such a complete performance and I told her straight after the game —  how many times she won the ball back and started threading balls, how many times she won it back and broke at their back line and making runs that caused the opposition problems," Parsons says.

While Sinclair was impacting the game in the attacking third, Lindsey Horan was happy to team with the defenders and Dagny Brynjarsdottir to limit opportunities for Houston attackers, particularly Carli Lloyd.

After she played a total of 88 minutes in two appearances for the United States at the Tournament of Nations, Horan returned ready to work for the Thorns.

"I felt great, and I wanted to come back and help my team so I was going to play whatever (Parsons) needed of me. It ended up being 90 minutes and I'm very tired but it was good," Horan said after the Houston match. 

Horan can impact a game in so many ways, it can be difficult for Parsons to decide how best to deploy her. Against Houston, her presence playing in front of the back line allowed Parsons to rest Amandine Henry and Allie Long. Henry came on in the 60th minute, Long in the 75th — when Horan shifted to forward.

"We knew who was a little fresher and who had (played) a lot of minutes," Parsons explained after the win over Houston, adding that "You're not always in a position to bring players like that off the bench."

The Thorns are getting healthy — though Tobin Heath, Meg Morris and newly-signed Savannah Jordan remain on the disabled list. The competition for playing time, especially in attacking positions, is heating up.

"I've got a lot of hard decisions to make, especially when we play in this shape and with (Sinclair in a deeper position) getting the performance we got out of her," Parsons says.

Thorns notes

• Tyler Lussi is one of the players giving Parsons much to think about. The rookie has provided plenty of energy in her first month with the Thorns, and against Houston she had her first goal and an assist.

"When I first got here, I wanted to bring my energy and work hard when I got on the field and in training," Lussi says. "So that's what I bring. When you play with world-class players, the speed of play is so fast, but I like that. I like the competitiveness."

• After scoring her second professional goal — off a headed cross from Lussi — Thorns center back Emily Sonnett leaped into the arms of Sinclair.

Says Sonnett: "It's not every day a center back is slamming home a toe poke. Doing it for all the center backs worldwide — I'm kidding. It was great to score."

Sinclair was thrilled, too.

"I always get pumped when I see center backs score," Sinclair says. "They do all the dirty work for our team, and it's nice to see them get rewarded every once in a while."

• Next match: Portland at Chicago, 5 p.m. Saturday.

This is the first of three games over eight days, including a visit to Kansas City.

Parsons on the challenge of playing Chicago: "We've got things to build on because we created a lot of opportunities (against Houston). If we can create half of those opportunities but (convert) a couple more next week, it'll be good. But it's going to be a huge test for us defensively (with) the weapons they have."

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