Emily Sonnett, Tillamook, 9.20.18
Photo by Sam Ortega

Defensive principles intact, more potent Thorns take aim at second-straight title

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC have come from behind to win each of their last two games, no mere footnote considering, over that time that straddled the end of the National Women’s Soccer League’s regular season, they were facing one of the league’s best defenses. But in those games against Seattle Reign FC, as well as the team’s Aug. 18, come-from-behind draw with the Chicago Red Stars, a slightly different mentality is emerging, if one that’s not entirely surprising given the reigning NWSL champions’ collection of talent.

“That was the key game, by the way,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said on Wednesday, discussing his team's evolving identity with reference to the that 2-2, August draw with the Red Stars. It was a game in which Portland, given the stakes of facing a fellow playoff contender, played one of their most disappointing initial 60 minutes of the season. The two goals that followed, though, allowing the team to preserve a draw against Chicago, helped set a tone.

“That was the game that gave me the opportunity to let them know they can always come back,” Parsons explained, “and me the opportunity to know that they can. I’ve used it. I’ve used it in these games (against Seattle).”

It's an element that the team can draw on come Saturday when they'll face the North Carolina Courage in the 2018 NWSL Championship at Providence Park (1:30pm PT, Lifetime | NWSL Playoffs presented by Tillamook Yogurt).

Last season, though, the team was different. A defensive juggernaut, allowing the circuit’s fewest goals (20 in 24 games), the Thorns were able to take leads and sit on them, using direct play into attack as their threat against teams that pushed too hard. The 2017 NWSL Championship was a good example, with Lindsey Horan's second-half goal against North Carolina in Orlando giving the team a 1-0, title-winning result.

This year, though, the defense has taken more time to come together, with each of the five mainstays in the team’s preseason core (goalkeeper Adrianna Franch; centerbacks Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges; fullbacks Meghan Klingenberg and Katherine Reynolds) missing significant time via injury. The result is a defense which, while still talented (particularly with the addition of Australian international Ellie Carpenter) conceded eight more goals.

“[In] ’17, we got to a point where we were very, very positive, forward and direct with everything that we did," Parsons said. "And then same without the ball. So, everything had to be pass forward, look forward, and can we finish the attack fast and quick. And then defensively, can we go and get pressure on the ball. Can we press all over the pitch?

“The evolution this year is, because we’ve got time to build the balance, I think we’ve broken teams down by being very different,” he said. “Can we have the ability to build when we need to? [In the 2018 NWSL Playoffs semifinals against North Carolina], Chicago had space to build. If we’re given that space, we need to be ready to do that. We’ve shown that in Seattle in game 1 and then Seattle in game 2.”

It’s a freedom that’s fed into the team’s defensive identity, something defender Emily Sonnett notes can’t be separated from their attacking play – something that may explain why, while the team’s principles haven’t changed, they have survived while conceding more goals.

“There’s a lot of trust and a lot of purposeful execution in training,” the third-year defender explains, “and then taken into games, attacking-wise, we’re very confident in what the ability we can do in the box, or in the final third. So, there is kind of a trust. There is this type of caliber to perform and be able to finish.

“If you have good defensive pressure and shape, it should lead into great attacking pressure going forward, in your shape. Obviously, concentrating on not wanting to concede, but concentrating on your job and individual role, that will lead into a better attacking role.”

That last part is still crucial to understanding the Thorns. Sonnett says it’s “accurate” to think Portland, to an extent, sees itself with more of an attacking-centric identity than it had before. Having players like Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Horan and Caitlin Foord dictates as much and explains why, despite attacking talents like Heath, Foord, Ana Crnogorcevic, Hayley Raso missing significant time, the team's attacking production went up (from 37 to 40 goals).

But large part of the identity Parsons brought to Portland when he arrived from the Washington Spirit was how the team defends. And no matter how many options the team feels like it has going forward – how many new risks they’re willing to take to leverage their goal-scoring prowess – Thorns soccer will always be able preventing goals.

“It’s been part of our DNA since I’ve been here,” Parsons says. “We’re very, very proud of denying quality opportunities or big chances for the opposition. Winning the last few weeks might exceed (that feeling), but when we get to celebrate a clean sheet, it means a lot, to us.

“That’s always the end,” he concedes. “If it’s not possible, we know we have the mental strength and the toughness to be able to bounce back from goals”