Thorns ready for semifinals
There is no shortage of storylines for Saturday's National Women's Soccer League semifinal match at Providence Park.
The Portland Thorns are hungry to make amends for last season's semifinal disappointment.
The Orlando Pride are motivated by the opportunity to play for a championship at home if they advance.
The game will be broadcast on Lifetime, beginning at 12:30 p.m. The winner will advance to meet the winner of Sunday's semifinal between North Carolina and Chicago. The championship match will be played on Oct. 14 at Orlando City Stadium.
Alex Morgan returns to Portland where she helped the Thorns win the inaugural NWSL championship in 2013. Countering for the Thorns might be as many as four players who are with Portland as a result of the trade that sent Morgan to Florida: Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg and Amandine Henry.
The match features the league's top offense against its toughest defense.
Orlando, led by Marta and by Morgan, finished with a league-high 45 goals. Marta was second in the league with 13 goals and six assists. In 13 games after returning from Lyon, Morgan had nine goals and four assists.
Portland allowed only 20 goals in the 24-game regular season. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch established a league record with 11 shutouts in her first season as the Thorns starter. But defense is a focus and sense of pride for the entire team.
Portland's back line has been the most consistent in the league, whether aligned as a back four, or more recently as a back five/three. Sonnett and Emily Menges have been a sturdy center back combo for two years, flanked by Klingenberg on the left and Katherine Reynolds on the right.
Ashleigh Sykes has adjusted to a role as a wide player who both defends and attacks.
Add in the aggressiveness in midfield, especially with Horan playing deep to assist the defenders, and the Thorns have been difficult to break down.
The Thorns were clearly disappointed not to post a 12th shutout in last week's 3-1 win over Chicago.
"It's a hungry group that does not like giving any opposition any opportunity to get near our goal," Thorns coach Mark Parsons says. "It shows a strong mentality."
As frustrating as it was to see Chicago score — on a shot from outside the box by Sophia Huerta — Parsons says the silver lining was that he didn't need to convince his team to focus this week.
Another plus for the Thorns is their health. The return of the dynamic Tobin Heath, who played the second half of last week's match against Chicago, is big. What role Heath will play this week remains to be seen.
Given that this match can go two hours if it is tied at the end of 90 minutes — in last season's semifinal, Western New York scored twice in overtime to win 4-3 — it's possible Heath will again come off the bench.
While Portland is healthier than it has been all season — only Meg Morris is on the disabled list — Orlando will be without versatile Camila. The Brazilian, who played multiple positions this season, suffered an ACL tear in last week's Pride win at North Carolina.
Both teams should carry plenty of confidence into this match. The Thorns finished the season 10-1-1 at Providence Park, outscoring opponents 25-8 at home. They have won seven home games in a row.
Portland went 14-5-5 to finish second in the regular season thanks to going 8-2-2 over the last 12 matches.
Orlando was just as good in the second half of the season, going 7-1-4 to surge into the playoffs. The Pride enter the playoffs unbeaten in nine consecutive games.