Path to the Playoffs: How Portland Thorns FC made it to the NWSL postseason
As the Portland Thorns turn their focus towards the NWSL playoffs which kick off this Saturday against FC Kansas City (11am PT, FOX Sports 2), we take a look back at how Cindy Parlow Cone’s team got there.
After a bright start to the regular season, the Thorns handled every bump along the road to stay on course for the postseason as they finished up with the joint fourth-best attack and third-best defense in the league.
Even though their stats were quite impressive, they don’t tell the full story of how the Thorns managed to make it to the NWSL playoffs.
Here are seven steps to how the Thorns reached the playoffs:
Saturday, April 13 is a day that will long be remembered in Thorns and NWSL history as they played out the league’s first ever game in Shawnee Mission District Stadium against FC Kansas City. In front of a sold-out crowd of 6,784 fans, the Thorns fell behind in the 3rd minute to a Renae Cuellar goal, but then showed the type of character that would stand to them throughout the season by leveling the score when Christine Sinclair converted a penalty kick on 67 minutes. That first game was the first glimpse at what the Thorns would become – a team that never gives up.
Having tied their first game, the Thorns didn’t have to wait long to celebrate a victory as they overcame Seattle Reign 2-1 at JELD-WEN Field in their very next outing. A goal in each half from Marian Doughtery and Alex Morgan proved to be enough despite Jessica Fishlock pulling one back for the visitors. In a game where they registered 11 shots at goal, the Thorns showed attacking flair, organization and an ability to control the tempo, which allowed them to link play with their passing and get in behind their opponents. In short, they discovered what was required to win.
First Big Lesson
Coaches often say that they learn more from defeats than from wins and that was certainly the case for Cone following the Thorns’ 1-0 loss at home to Sky Blue FC on May 16. Confidence was high as they had been unbeaten for five games and they played with their usual swagger – dominating possession and creating plenty of chances on goal. Yet, each time they tried to find that breakthrough, they were shut out as goalkeeper Brittany Cameron made five saves, the Sky Blue defense stood firm and substitute Taylor Lytle scored the winner on a shot from distance in the 80th minute.
First Comeback Win
It is one thing learning from a defeat, but it is quote another reacting to situations during a game. It requires true resolve to fight back when a game is beginning to slip away from a team and that is exactly what the Thorns came up with in the 2-1 win over Boston Breakers on July 21. Trailing early on the road as Lianne Sanderson scored goal, Portland turned up the pressure and got back level when Alex Morgan found the back of the net. From there, they shifted up another gear as Meleana Shim scored late on to seal the win and show that this team will rise up when knocked down.
Style of Play
For many teams, winning at all costs is their sole focus, but the Thorns are who they are because they try to win in style. With such talented players on their roster, it was almost inevitable that they would play a quick, attacking game. But it took the skills of coach Parlow Cone to provide a team shape that suited them best and brought the right amount of discipline and organization to compliment the team’s flair and power. And it is that style of play that kept them in with a chance of winning almost every game and staying within the top spots on the league table.
In order to stay amongst the contenders at the top of the table, a team must keep its squad fresh and players fighting for their places. So it was the right time when Cone made some moves during the season to further bolster her squad and those new arrivals gave the team a huge lift. Tina Ellertson, Casey Ramirez, Elizabeth Guess and Tiffany Weimer all came in and had different impacts in specific areas. Weimer, for example, added some punch to the Thorns attack with her movement, physicality and knack for making space for others to get in on goal.
Women’s soccer has long been popular in the Pacific Northwest, but nobody knew just how big or small the crowds would be once the NWSL kicked off. The people of Oregon responded to the creation of a new team with unrivalled support as 16,279 packed into JELD-WEN Field for their home opener. The attendances stayed high throughout the regular season – peaking at 17,619 for the loss to FC Kansas City on August 4 – but it was the atmosphere created throughout the whole campaign that made such a difference. Whenever they needed a lift, the passionate, loud and one-of-a-kind Portland crowd encouraged their Thorns.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandThornsFC.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.