Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Chicago, 10.20.19

NWSL Preview | Thorns open playoffs against peak Chicago

BEAVERTON, Ore. – For four straight years, Portland Thorns FC have been in the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs, but whereas the first three years of head coach Mark Parsons’ tenure have seen preparations for the postseason take place in Goose Hollow, in the team’s normal home at Providence Park, the run-in to Sunday’s semifinal in Chicago (12:30pm PT, ESPN2) finds the team training out in Beaverton, Oregon, a site usually dominated by the Portland Timbers’ day-to-day concerns.

This week, though – as is the case whenever the Thorns are preparing to go on the road and play on a grass field – the two-time NWSL champions are at the Timbers Training Center, using the week’s gap between regular season and playoffs to prepare for a relative rarity. On Sunday, the Thorns will visit the Red Stars for the what will only be the second road playoff game of the Parsons era. The other was the 2017 league final in Orlando, Florida – a game that was predetermined to be held at the Orlando Pride’s neutral field.

Portland’s return to the road can be partially explained by their play, partially explained by Chicago’s. While the Thorns closed the season with four points in their last five games, the Red Stars claimed 15 points over the same stretch, matching their highest finish in league history with their second-place spot and finishing four points clear of the Thorns. Looking to reach their first NWSL final, Chicago is as hot as any team in the league, and while history says Portland should have the edge in Sunday’s matchup, the Red Stars’ 2019 is threatening to add a different chapter to the team’s history book.

The best version of themselves: Chicago’s form

Record: 14-8-2 (44 points, second in the NWSL)
Goals for: 41 (second out of nine)
Goals against: 28 (fifth-fewest)
Goal difference: +13 (second)

The Red Stars have had one of the NWSL’s best collections of talent for some time, but over the last two years, the team entered the postseason amid questions instead of confidence. In 2017, a team beset by injuries and fatigue succumbed to a deflected goal in the 89th minute at the NWSL Shield winners, the North Carolina Courage. Last year, in a semifinal matchup against the same opponent, a bad bounce from an early Julie Ertz challenge allowed the Courage to take a fifth-minute lead, and despite largely outplaying the eventual champions before intermission, Chicago would eventually fall, 2-0.

As opposed to last year, when the team had slipped to fourth before their semifinal, the Red Stars enter the postseason on a high, having won five in a row to close the season. And as opposed to 2017, when the team felt depleted ahead of their trip to North Carolina, Chicago comes in rested, with the NWSL’s schedule handing them a bye over the last weekend of the season.

Together, those circumstances create a no-excuses scenario for the Red Stars, and the team seems to know it. Since losing in Portland on August 25, Chicago has outscored their opponents 12-2, climbing from the fringes of the playoff picture to their first playoff home game in four seasons. If the universe was handing Chicago obstacles, before, it’s paving roads, now.

With eventual league MVP Sam Kerr coming off an 18-goal season, the 2019 Red Stars are more poised than ever to do damage in the postseason. If it’s not now, it may be never for this version of Chicago.

Recent history: You’ve probably heard this by now

Last game: 3-0 Portland win at Providence Park on August 25
All-time: Thorns are 10-1-9 against the Red Stars

Only two players from the 2013 Red Stars team that last beat the Portland Thorns are still active in the NWSL. One, Alyssa Mautz, had her season cut short by injury. She is still with Chicago. The other, Jessica McDonald, is not. She’s gone on to become one of the league’s best players for the North Carolina Courage.

That 2-0 Chicago victory at Providence Park may as well be ancient history. The intervening time, though, is not, with this year’s results proving especially telling. Though the Red Stars managed a 4-4 draw with the Thorns this spring in Bridgeview, the team went on to suffer two 3-0 losses to Portland at Providence Park. One of those defeats happened amid the teams’ World Cup absences. The last happened with the teams’ full squads.

No matter the years, squads, context or stakes, Chicago has struggled with Portland, and although the teams have never met in the playoffs before, the questions defining the Red Stars’ fate are how and why the next meeting will be different.

Focus player: Sam Kerr, forward, Chicago

This season: 21 games, 18 goals (first in the NWSL), 0 goals from penalty kicks
All-time: 122 games (regular season and playoffs),  77 goals

Let’s not get cute about this. There is a reason why Chicago’s best player has become one of the most famous athletes in Australia. Although she seems perpetually overlooked for international awards by a voting base that’s become ever more Euro-centric, Kerr has one of the strongest claims to being the best player in the world. And, with 18 goals this season – six more than Lynn Williams, the NWSL’s second-most prolific scorer – Kerr has positioned herself to claim a second Most Valuable Player award in three seasons.

As with any prolific scorer, Kerr presents a question to the opposing coach, one which always takes on the same, generic form: How much do you plan for stopping what the player does, and how much do you try to prevent the player from getting the ball?

For Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, there are preferences, even if his answer amounts to all of the above:

“If you cut off the source,” of Kerr’s access to the ball, Parsons explains, “you’ll have to do a little bit less (defending against her), but it doesn’t matter how good you are at cutting the source off. The people who’ll be wanting to get her in the game, they will, at some point, get her in the game. And, she’s special. If that delivery and service gets cut off, she’ll find a way to still impact the game, especially at this stage of the season.”

Take Kerr away from Chicago, and team goes from second-most goals in the league (41) to the middle of the pack – an unfair way of looking at it, since somebody like Mexico international Katie Johnson would have stepped in and provide a number of goals in her place. With that look, Chicago would still have a dangerous attack. With Kerr, though, the Red Stars are explosive.

Focus matchup: Chicago’s defense vs. big-game experience

One of the most interesting parts of Chicago’s late-season surge is the evolution the team’s experienced along the back, where, arguably, three players are starting in different positions than were projected a few months ago: U.S. international Julie Ertz has shifted from defensive midfield into central defense; rookie Tierna Davidson has become a fixture next to Ertz; while Sarah Gorden’s seized a well-earned place in the starting XI.

The talent in the group is less of a question than the experience. Davidson has already seen time with the U.S. national team, but Sunday will make her first minutes in an NWSL postseason. And although Gorden is in her fourth professional season, this will be the first time she’s asked to play a major role in the playoffs.

It’s entirely possible that both players will carry their excellent regular-season play into the postseason. It’s also possible that the whole notion of “big-game experience” is overblown, even if most coaches seem to consider it an asset. Still, there is a reason why coaches revere the lessons that come with having to perform under circumstances like Sunday’s, and while those lessons may be best called something other than the vague, somewhat mystical “big-game experience,” there will always be questions of players when, for lack of execution or experience, they’ve yet to deliver a playoff-level performance.

As for the Thorns …

Three questions, perhaps all related, surround the Thorns ahead of their chance to make a third-straight NWSL final:

  • How much of their form can be left in the regular season? Portland is 1-3-1 since they last faced Chicago, with losses in important games to North Carolina and Reign FC prompting questions about how the Thorns stack up against the rest of the playoff field. If the team can flip a switch and elevate their play, those regular-season concerns won’t matter. Right now, though, that’s all we have to go on.
  • What shape will the Thorns play? For much of the post-World Cup season, the Thorns played what’s become their usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation, but in closing the season against the Washington Spirit, the team shifted back to the 5-3-2 look that helped deliver their 2017 title. This week, Parsons confirmed what he hinted after Saturday’s game: that part of the logic behind switching formations came down to who, in the wake of an international break, the team had at its disposal. This weekend, Parsons expects his full team (minus their long-term injuries) to be available.
  • When will the confidence return? The Thorns haven’t been the same since their losing 6-0 at home to North Carolina, going 1-1-1 over that time while scoring only once. Since the team last faced the Red Stars, they’ve scored one goal in 450 minutes. Some of the reason for that slide may be tactical, and in the moments the team has created chances in front of net, their lack of goals has come down to execution. But the throughline that’s defined the group in the wake of the Carolina loss is not playing with the same confidence they had before. Portland will need to recapture some of that belief if they’re to prevail in Chicago.