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Preview: Portland travel to Houston to close group play in Challenge Cup

Portland Thorns FC travel to Houston Sunday to take on the Dash. Kick-off is slated for 4:30 p.m. (Pacific) at BBVA Stadium. The Thorns enter the match having already secured a berth to the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Final, but Houston will have a point to prove as the current Challenge Cup holders.

“Houston is going to provide a massive challenge,” said coach Mark Parsons in the pre-match press conference. “We have to be improved because this is a really good team we’re playing in a tough stadium and tough conditions.”

The Dash and Thorns were two of the teams stripped of the most players during the international break. During the first two matches of the Challenge Cup, both teams were without key contributors. Portland fared much better than their counterparts, securing two wins while the Dash played to two 0-0 draws.

When the international players returned for each teams’ third match of the Challenge Cup, all of the players slotted into the starting lineup. Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Christine Sinclair, and Sophia Smith all started for the Thorns. The Dash returned Jane Campell, Allysha Chapman, Rachel Daly, Kristie Mewis, Nichelle Prince, and Sophie Schmidt to the starting eleven.

Portland were clinical without their U.S. and Canadian internationals and scored three goals in two matches, winning both. The Dash were relatively toothless in attack without their internationals. They go into a lot of transition opportunities — where they thrived last year — but were unable to create goal-scoring opportunities in the first two matches, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

In the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and Fall Series, the Dash scored 20 goals off 13 assists. Eleven of those goals and nine assists came from Daly, Mewis, Schmidt and Prince. Veronica Latsko and Shea Groom combined for the rest of the goals and assists.

Throughout the first two matches of the 2021 Challenge Cup, the Dash created 12 shots, only three of which were on goal. They returned all six of their internationals to the starting lineup and created 18 shots, put five on goal, and scored three.

The internationals not only provide the Dash with more control and more potency in the final third, but they also take some of the attention and pressure off of quality players like Groom.

Obviously, the Dash is a different team with the inclusion of some of their star players and a lot of their game plan and tactics revolve around the strengths of these players. A full-strength Dash may be the best test of the season for the Thorns. But there are still ways for the Thorns to get the upper hand and dictate the match.

Photo by Trask Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Dash lined up in a 4-3-3 in their 3-1 win over Kansas City NWSL on Monday. The front three was composed of Daly, Bri Visalli, and Prince. But the midfielders — Mewis and Groom — often made forward runs or drifted wide. When they drifted wide, the winger would occasionally drop deeper to maintain the midfield structure.

Houston’s offense thrives on transition and quick interchanges. They look to win the ball back quickly high up the pitch and play quick one-twos between the midfield and forward lines to get through the defense.

When the Dash build from the back they do something similar. Daly usually drops to receive an entry pass from midfield between the lines. She then looks to link up with the on-rushing wingers or Mewis/Groom from midfield.

Houston’s first two goals of the match came from transition opportunities. In the 25th minute, the Dash won the ball back around the center circle. They passed to Visalli on the left-wing and she found Chapman, who made an underlapping run. Chapman squared the ball into the box and it was deflected out to Mewis. Mewis took a touch and fired the ball into the bottom corner.

In the lead-up to the second goal, the Dash recovered a Kansas City long ball. Mewis got it and flicked a pass to Schmidt. The Canadian found Prince over the top in space, who played a perfect lay-off to Daly. The Lioness was fouled in the box and subsequently scored from the penalty spot.

The third goal stemmed from building out of the back and Kansas City’s inability to put pressure on the ball and getting beat one versus one and the number of forwards and midfielders making unique runs into the box.

Houston Dash v OL Reign

Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Houston, because of their transition-based style, press high up the pitch at times or situationally press as the opposition ball carriers come closer to midfield. The Dash press in somewhat of a 4-4-2. Daly and one of Mewis, Visalli or Prince usually lead the line. They look to close down ball carriers and put them under pressure.

One of either Mewis or Groom situates themselves behind the front two in an attempt to recover outlet passes. The other wingers and advanced midfielders do something similar on the flank while Schmidt serves as the defensive presence behind the first lines of pressure.

When this press is successful it can work wonders and the Dash can strike in transition. But when a team can play through the first few lines of pressure the Dash are caught upfield. The opposition will have space to run at Schmidt and the back line because the rest of the forwards and midfielders have been eliminated from the play.

Houston didn’t always press high up the pitch. They also sat in a mid-block at times and lured Kansas City to try and play through the defense. Houston’s defensive structure morphed between a 4-5-1 and a 4-1-4-1.

Daly would press the ball carrier and the Dash would stay compact between the midfield and defensive lines. Kansas City would attempt entry passes into the midfield and various midfielders would jump forward in an attempt to win the ball. The player receiving the pass would either play it back to the center backs, lose the ball and spark a transition opportunity or get through the midfield line and Houston dropped deeper.

“I think it will be our toughest challenge,” said Parsons. “I have a lot of respect. I think they’re a very well organized team and the work that they do — the staff over there, and the players, they have a good identity. They know how to execute their identity. So it’s a big challenge. One that we’ve been excited for, we’ve been looking forward to for a while.”

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars

Photo by DANIEL BARTEL/ISI Photos/Getty Images

It is in Portland’s DNA and ‘culture’ to play through the Dash’s pressure. They have the players and the quality to do so. The Thorns will most likely dominate possession and create the better of the opportunities, but the Dash won’t care. Houston will believe that they can get enough transition opportunities through their pressing and their forwards will be clinical. Ultimately, this will be a test for the Thorns in how clean and quick they are on the ball and will serve as the best litmus test in the Challenge Cup so far to judge where the Thorns are at right now.

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