What We'll Remember, Thorns NWSL Semifinal, 10.20.19

What We'll Remember | Thorns fail to salvage season, eliminated by Chicago

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The Chicago Red Stars put six years of history behind them on Sunday afternoon. In the process, they ended the Portland Thorns season. Behind an eighth-minute goal from Sam Kerr, the second-place finishers in the NWSL’s 2019 regular season advanced to their first league final, defeating the Thorns, 1-0, and triumphing over Portland for the first time since 2013. In the process, they prevented the Thorns from reaching a third-straight final.

“I’m just hurt, disappointed, upset,” head coach Mark Parsons said, after the game. “I’m upset for this group. I know the regular season hadn’t finished the way we could have liked it, but … we felt very, very good about drawing the line and coming in here against a team we also have good history (against). I felt like we could be a much better version of ourselves.”

The game wasn’t so different than the 1-0 scoreline suggests. Over the course of 90 minutes, the teams put the same number of shots on goal, with their hour-and-a-half at SeatGeek Stadium divided almost equally into spells for both sides. Whereas the first half was played in Chicago’s vision, the second hinted Portland could find even ground.

Chicago’s half, however, was the only one to produce a goal, and they didn’t even need the full half to sway the result. From the game’s opening moments, the Red Stars attacked the Thorns defense directly, sending balls from distance toward Kerr, who was intent on breeching Portland’s channels. Her first breakthrough, in the sixth minute, ended in a close call. Her second sent Chicago to the final.

It’s a credit to the Thorns’ post that this exit feels a week too soon. Anything short of a final seems like a failure. But while Portland will certainly need an offseason to regroup, it’s worth giving some credit to the Red Stars. For five straight years, Chicago has made the postseason, and for the four years prior, the team lost in the semifinal. This year, imbued with one of the league’s most talented teams – one that earned home-field advantage on Sunday – the Red Stars finally broke through. The club deserves this moment.

Portland, however, will be left considering how a team, after sitting in first place at the end of August, ended up falling short. Here’s What We’ll Remember most about their season’s final salvo:

The Lineup

The days before Portland’s departure for Chicago left the team’s lineup in doubt, with Parsons saying that although his squad was suffering from a couple of minor knocks, all the players who featured over the season’s final month would be available for selection. What followed was a vote of confidence from the week before.

Ten of the 11 starters that played the Washington Spirit to a draw in Week 24 – that outshot their guests 21-5 in that season finale – were given the nod in the season’s first do-or-die. Clearly, Parsons thought the underlying for that 0-0 result gave his team their best chance against the Red Stars.

That meant standouts like Hayley Raso, Midge Purce and Caitlin Foord, all second-half substitutes, would start on the bench. For the second-straight match, the team would begin with five defenders, with Andressinha tabbed to be the link between the back of the team’s shape and the stars who’d have to carry the load up top: Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath.

The scoreboard was the ultimate judge of that approach’s success, with the Thorns, for the fourth-straight match, finishing without a goal. Over the team’s final six games, their September 21 goal against the Houston Dash was the only time the team reached the scoresheet, with the Thorns averaging 0.14 goals per 90 minutes after Purce’s 56th-minute goal on August 25 against Chicago.

Shock of the First 10

By the time Kerr put the Red Stars in front, Portland already seemed to be dodging the inevitable. Two minutes earlier, the likely MVP had found a seam in the Thorns defense, but pulling a shot wide from just inside the penalty box, Kerr seemed to only give Portland a wakeup call. 

Unfortunately, the Thorns hit snooze.

“The first 45 was tough,” Parsons conceded. “We struggled to deal with Chicago’s verticality, and they did a real good job of getting in behind (the defense) and then getting in, underneath [the defenders].”

“We controlled their attack at home, when we last played them, by being in a deeper block, but we gave up a lot of momentum, a lot of the ball to do that,” Parsons explained, “It’s tough to do that, especially in a knockout game, [giving] control to the other team.”

For goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, the difference between the team’s scorelines came down to how they responded to the opening kickoff.

“The way the teams started,” Franch said, when asked to explain the difference between two teams that finished a goal apart. “We started and we stayed in our half. We played the game in the wrong half.

“If you don’t start out strong, then you’re chasing the game the entire time. That’s exactly what we did. We put up a good fight, which I’m proud of, but we’ve got to be able to start better.”

Second Half of Hope

The rest of the first half played out like a message to Parsons and his staff: something had to change. And change, they did. Coming out of intermission, the team dropped one of its defenders (Elizabeth Ball), put on an attacker (Raso), and began pushing the Red Stars into their half of the field.

The difference was evident from the whistle. Despite playing with one fewer defender, the Thorns were able to keep the Red Stars from threatening, with the extra player in attack allowing Portland to play closer to Alyssa Naeher’s goal. With her team holding the ball more, Lindsey Horan was able to get into the penalty box earlier, with Portland’s forays toward goal finally starting to carry some danger.

By the end of the game, Portland had as many shots as their hosts (11), with possession showing a 53.7-46.3 percent edge for the Thorns. Unfortunately for the visitors, Chicago maintained their advantage on the scoreboard.

The End, Foreshadowed

For one week, Portland was able to bask in their history against the Red Stars and convince themselves that those seven seasons, from 2013 until 2019, mattered more than the team’s form. Results had been scarce over the year’s last five games, and goals had been scarcer, but against a team that hadn’t beaten the Thorns since 2013, what mattered more? The form or the matchup?

If you thought “matchup,” Sunday’s result will feel like a surprise; arguably, a huge one. If you chose “form,” though, the Thorns’ semifinal will feel awfully familiar, and not only for the scoreline and the lack of goals.

“We have to take a very measured approach, and reflection,” Parsons said, when asked about the coming offseason. “We now have to look at the regular season and look at what happened here after feeling fantastic and great in preparation … We have to look at this one game in playoff mode, because our goal is to always be the best, and chasing trophies.

“We’ve fallen short, and it’s going to be the responsibility of all of us – and it starts with me, as the coach, but (also) the players and the staff – to reflect and give that process the measured approach it deserves. We weren’t ourselves, toward the end.”

Something changed with the Thorns when they lost to the North Carolina Courage on September 11. Six-goal defeats to your targeted competition tend to do that to you. But given where that loss fell in the season, Portland never had time to get their season back on track. The same doubts, insecurities and disappointments that were seeded 39 days ago led to the downfall of the Thorns.

There can be no running from that, now. While the playoffs gave the Thorns a chance at redemption, that chance met its end in Bridgeview. All that’s left to move forward is to be honest, to be realistic and, as is this case with any team that’s failed to meet its expectations, be ready to make some difficult decisions, if they’re called for.