Thorns seek to defend title in NWSL’s 2nd year

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Paul Riley is in a rare position for a new coach: He has inherited a championship team.

Riley is taking over the defending NWSL champion Portland Thorns, who open their second season Saturday night against the expansion Houston Dash.

The Thorns’ former coach, former U.S. national team midfielder Cindy Parlow Cone, unexpectedly stepped down to spend more time with her family a few months after Portland’s 2-0 victory over the Western New York Flash in the league’s inaugural title game.

Parlow Cone is a tough act to follow, Riley said.

”Cindy won it last year so you’ve got to take your hat off to her. It makes for a difficult job for anybody coming in,” Riley said. ”We’ve tried to change a couple of the goals as a team. No. 1 is to do better at home – our home record wasn’t really very good, we only won five games at home – so we definitely want to improve that. Obviously one of our goals is to make the playoffs and try to get the playoff games at home, which we didn’t get last year.”

Riley has a long coaching resume but most recently he led the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league. The Independence reached the WPS championship in each of its two seasons and he was the coach of the year in 2010 and 2011.

Riley’s Thorns will be attack-oriented, much like the team’s male counterparts, Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. But he’ll be out one of the team’s biggest stars on Saturday night: forward Alex Morgan is healing from an injured left ankle that has also kept her away from the national team.

Morgan led the Thorns last season with eight goals and five assists, while Canadian national team striker Christine Sinclair had eight goals and two assists for Portland, which finished the regular season with an 11-6-5 overall record.

”Obviously a lot has changed in Portland since this time last year,” Sinclair said. ”With the addition of Paul, it’s been an incredible preseason. He’s brought this new energy to our team, a new style of play.”

Riley’s debut as the Thorns’ head coach also comes at a time when speculation is swirling about the top job with the U.S. women. Coach Tom Sermanni was unexpectedly dismissed from the national team last weekend

”The U.S. job is the No. 1 job in the world, if anybody said they weren’t interested they’d be lying. It’s a great job to have. Great players. " Riley said during an NWSL teleconference earlier this week. ”I’ve got a two-year contract in Portland. I’m very happy in Portland.”

Sermanni led the U.S. women to a 13-0-3 record last year, but the Americans went 1-2-1 at the Algarve Cup, the last major tournament before World Cup qualifying. The seventh-place finish included a 1-0 loss to Sweden and former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, ending a two-year, 43-game unbeaten streak.

Dash coach Randy Waldrum, who led Notre Dame’s women to two national championships before joining Houston at the start of the year, said he believes it could be possible to coach both a club team and the national team.

”In our sport, probably unlike any other sport, many of our coaches have worn a lot of hats over the years,” Waldrum said. ”So I think it’s a doable thing. I think it’s just one of those that would take a lot of work to make it a reality.”

Both Riley and Waldrum were considered possible candidates before Sermanni was named the U.S. coach in 2012.

The Dash will be tested in the opener against the Thorns. Named as an expansion team in December, Houston has had just four months to pull together. The club has already taken a hit with the loss of defender Laura Sesselmann to a season-ending knee injury.

The addition of the Dash brings the NWSL to nine teams, which will play a 24-game schedule in the league’s second season. The NWSL is the nation’s top women’s pro league, backed by the United States, Canadian and Mexican soccer federations.

Other NWSL matches this weekend include Sky Blue at Kansas City on Saturday, followed by Western New York at Washington and Boston at Seattle on Sunday.

Kansas City returns the league’s most valuable player, Lauren Holiday, as well as goalkeeper of the year Nicole Barnhart and rookie of the year Erika Tymrak.

The Flash, which won the Supporter’s Shield, also figure to again be among the league’s top teams, anchored by forward Abby Wambach and midfielder Carli Lloyd. The Seattle Reign added forward Sydney Leroux to a roster that already included midfielder Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Hope Solo.

The Thorns were the league’s biggest hit last season attendance-wise, with an average of more than 13,300 fans per match. Portland’s numbers skewed the average attendance for the league, but the median attendance was just over 3,000 fans a game.