Sophia Smith gains possession before scoring; August 26, 2021; Portland, OR, USA;  Thorns vs Gotham at Providence Park. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns

PORTLAND, Ore. — It may sound patronizing in the face of their loss, but Gotham FC genuinely deserve a lot of credit for how they managed Wednesday night at Providence Park.

For a majority of the match, they were outplayed on the road by a more talented opponent, yet in the game’s final moments, they were forcing a series of corner kicks which, had one been converted, would have earned them a result. Despite how most of the match was played, the final on the venue’s scoreboards was 2-1, leaving the Portland Thorns one executed set piece away from dropping points at home.

For much of Wednesday’s match, though, it was all Thorns. Portland scored twice in the first half and went into intermission having outshot their guests, 15-1. Over the second half, their intensity waned, but until the 78th minute, they kept Gotham at arm’s length. It was only after Carli Lloyd pulled her team within one that Portland’s control slipped, Gotham seized the momentum, and dropping points became possible.

“Our attacking play was really important to create chances but also helped us defend,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said, speaking of Portland’s team’s first half. “Second half, it ended up being quite professional.”

That Portland is four days removed from an intense victory over Olympique Lyon in the Women’s International Champions Cup framed Parsons’ diagnosis. The win leaves the team unbeaten in eight and five points clear that the top of the NWSL; the finish leaves Portland processing a close call.

“It's been a tough period,” he said, “and we've still got a game in a few days' time. I thought the players, naturally [their] energy just dropped, and soon as you give a possession team like Gotham time on the ball, they're going to be effective.”

Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn called it “a little bit of a tale of two halves.” Given when Gotham scored, that feels like a simplification, but in terms of Portland’s approach, it’s probably right. The Thorns surged into halftime playing near perfect soccer. After intermission, they swapped endeavor for control, restraint and, eventually, containment.

“I thought we really took it to them in the first half,” Sauerbrunn said, “and then we kind of lost our way in the second; then kind of shifted into more of a professional shift and just making sure that we preserved the lead.

“It got a little exciting near the end, which tends to happen sometimes when you're sitting back, but I'm really proud of the group. It was tough coming from the ICC into this. [It was] a short turnaround. I thought the team did a really professional job getting a win tonight.”

As Parsons and Sauerbrunn alluded, there were minus and pluses to take from the game. We can start with the negatives, first. Gotham broke through in last part of the match, but they did so with a tactic they’d been trying since the game’s initial moments. Then, they’d break the Thorns’ pressure, work the ball across midfield, and eventually find their right back, Caprice Dydasco, in space on the right flank. From there, it was targeting Gotham’s forwards in front of goal:

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Dydasco would play 11 crosses from the right on the night, most targeting the penalty area or beyond. Eventually, she connected with Lloyd for a goal.

How much of an issue this actually is, Parsons and his team will have to decide. In terms of things defenses can give up, crosses hit at a set defenses aren’t an especially effective strategy, but when they become a quantity play, a goal will eventually come. Should the Thorns be doing more to prevent those opportunities, and if so, what else might they be giving up? Parsons will have to make that decision after reviewing film.

That Gotham head coach Freya Coombe chose that approach is interesting, too. Perhaps Gotham crossed from the right so much because it’s what they felt they could get against the Thorns defense. And perhaps they were fine with that approach because they like Dydasco’s service. But even though Dydasco has been one of her team’s most prolific chance creators this season (30 key passes, four assists this season), she’d only had 13 successful crosses in 14 games coming into Wednesday’s match. She connected one four (three from the right flank) against the Thorns.

In terms of Portland’s positives, there was the entire first half. Gotham coming out with a three-centerback formation forced the Thorns into an adjustment period, just as different formations challenged Portland in their last regular-season game, on August 14 in Orlando. Parsons expects “a lot of opponents will keep changing [formations] fast” going forward, and coming out of halftime, Gotham switched back to their regular, four-defender look.

In the first half, though, the Thorns seemed to have fully adjusted by the 27th minute, when a near interception from Christine Sinclair preceded a ball given away to Meghan Klingenberg. Moments later, Sophia Smith pounced on a defensive mistake, and Portland had their first goal.

“We were really aggressive,” Parsons said of his team’s first half. “Playing against a 3-5-2 [formation], it took us five, six minutes just to understand the spacing and the pressure angles. And then we got there. We took over the first half.”

After Smith’s opening goal, Portland’s intensity persisted, with Gotham’s Estelle Johnson forced into a penalty late in the half. Sinclair’s conversion made it 2-0 and capped one of the most impressive halves of Thorns soccer this season.

“We've been talking a lot about solving issues on the field in real time, as opposed to waiting until halftime,” Sauerbrunn explained. “It took us a little bit of time, but it was really figuring out the shape they were playing out of, if we could roll our defenders up a little bit higher and make it harder for their outside backs to play ... It was finding the right times to go, leave the line, and feel brave, comfortable doing that, to force them to play backwards. Then, it was a little harder [for Gotham] to play out.”

Unfortunately, Portland wasn’t in a position to sustain that pressure thought the final whistle. Smith, coming off a huge physical effort on Saturday against Lyon, was subbed off at halftime. Neither Sinclair nor Crystal Dunn would make it the full 90. Klingenberg and Angela Salem were brought off, too, and in the wake of her week in the Women’s International Champions Cup, Natalia Kuikka didn’t even see the field. To the extent the Thorns merely managed the second half, it was a situation they were forced into.

That’s why Sauerbrunn’s “tale of two halves” makes so much sense. For 45 minutes, the Thorns’ full team was together, clicking in way that implied their post-Olympic period will build on the successes of July and August. But once the some of realities of that Olympic strain set in — and once some of the price of Portland’s WICC began to be paid — the game changed. The second half was a different tale.

The goal going forward will be making the first half the norm. Sunday in Seattle will be the next test, with a road game against OL Reign offering a heightened obstacle. But it’s also just the next step in process that extends over the rest of the season.

By the playoffs, the goal will be 90 minutes of the first half’s oppressive performance. Come the postseason, Parsons will want only one version of the Thorns.

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