When Portland Thorns FC return to the field on Sunday against the Washington Spirit (7pm PT, CBS All Access), they’ll do so amid a shifted context, one that’s changed our perspective on the Preliminary Round of the NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret.
At the tournament’s onset, when we were so happy to have teams back on the field, we didn’t take enough time to consider the bigger picture. The talk around the games fell back to what we were used to: which teams seemed like they would be good; which teams seemed like they would be bad; which teams were best positioned to win the tournament.
But what we should have known then has played out over the last week. Will all eight teams who travelled to Utah qualifying for the Knockout Round, the Preliminary Round has become an extended runway. That means players’ workloads can be carefully managed. Teams can be conservative about injuries. Individuals can be ramped up to full fitness. For now.
“[There were] lots of opportunit[ies] for different players while also keeping some of some key players’ loads moving, and growing,” was Thorns’ head coach Mark Parsons’ initial assessment after Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with the Chicago Red Stars. “We’re a team that’s going to want to be physically fit and strong. I thought we got a good balance, today.”
Those thoughts were unprompted – the introduction of a press conference, before the media had its first chance to probe. Parsons would go on to talk about the result, as well as the team’s lack of goals, but in the wake of two points dropped, he wasn’t focused solely on the draw. Different players played. The capacity for minutes kept “moving, and growing.” In mentioning what his team is “going to want to be,” his focus was on the future.
Sunday’s match against the Spirit is another step into that future, and it comes against another strong opponent. Before the Challenge Cup started, Washington became a popular pick to transcend their results in 2019, when huge strides were made to finish just outside the league’s playoff spots. With a collection of young talent led by United States international midfielder Rose Lavelle, the Spirit were cast as one of the most likely to challenge the tournament favorites, the North Carolina Courage. Though Washington fell to the Courage on Wednesday night, 2-0, they defeated Chicago last Saturday, 2-1, in the tournament opener.
Those performances set up the Spirit as another litmus test for the Thorns, just as the Courage (2-1 loss, last weekend) and Red Stars were before. And although none of the Preliminary Round games will impact whether a team advances to the Knockout Round, each result impacts a team’s seeding in the quarterfinals. With one point in two games, the Thorns are currently tied at the bottom of the standings. As a potentially difficult Knockout Round draw comes into focus, so do the Thorns’ areas for improvement.
The first is the attack – the first area Parsons was asked about after Wednesday’s game. Although his team’s chance creation improved from their Challenge Cup opener, Portland’s performance against Chicago did not produce any goals. Given how the team finished its season in 2019, when a lack of goals seeded a playoff semifinal loss, one goal in 180 minutes is a natural area of concern.
“I love how we created a lot today,” Parsons said of the Chicago performance. “Great goalkeeping, great defending, not so great finishing. Luck, but you earn your own luck. For us to be able to continue creating those chances will be key, and that’s why you have to start there.”
As Parsons alluded, the areas behind the attack are less concerning. Over the first two games, the team’s new approach in midfield has been one of its most positive assets, with the idea of using one defensive midfielder (a six) behind two central midfielders (eights) helping Portland control play through the middle of the field. Though North Carolina was able to make its way around that strong middle to create two late chances last week, Chicago was rarely able to break through, leaving the Thorns’ backline relatively untested in the team’s second game.
Ahead of Washington, the question around that midfield is less about performance than selection. Lindsey Horan and Rocky Rodríguez seem to be the team’s preferred starters, but Celeste Boureille started in Rodríguez’s place against Chicago. The Thorns veteran also came on as a substitute a week ago, against North Carolina, in place of Angela Salem in the defensive midfield role. Salem saw limited minutes on Wednesday, with second-year midfielder Emily Ogle chosen against the Red Stars.
“It’s about making sure every player is ready to play maximum minutes, every opportunity,” Parsons explained, when asked about how he is managing his players. “When you come into a tournament, you want to pay the same 12, 13 players, and a lot of people aren’t prepared and ready. Also, (if) there’s players playing a lot of minutes, they’re not going to be ready when the deep rounds come.
“So, of course, you have three option: you stick to how you attacked the last game; you make loads of changes; or you hit the middle. For us, hitting the middle was key, because we’ve got a lot of cohesion – individual relationships, but also tactical cohesion – that we don’t want to lose, that we’ve worked on.”
The same philosophy has applied in defense, where seven players have played at least 72 minutes, although one major part has been ruled out for the matchup with the Spirit. Sidelined for the Chicago match with a hip injury, Becky Sauerbrunn will miss Sunday’s game against Washington, likely leaving the center back minutes to be divided among Emily Menges, Christen Westphal and Autumn Smithers.
Against Chicago, that group went relatively untested, with goalkeeper Bella Bixby and fullbacks Meghan Klingenberg, Madison Pogarch as well as Westphal, when she was moved wide, augmenting the midfield’s work. Depending on Washington’s lineup, their test could be heightened against the Spirit, just as Wednesday’s troubles scoring goals heightens the attack’s need to break through.
“If we replayed this game,” Parsons said, after Chicago, when talking about his team’s attack, “I’m sure it would be very different. I think that provides us an opportunity to want to grow, reflect, probably dig deeper more than we would if we got the result …
“If we can learn from every single game, I think we’ll be in a good spot."