20210924 sophia smith versus gotham

Does it feel like we’ve reached the endgame of the Portland Thorns 2021 season? If that question seems abrupt, let me explain.

When we last saw Thorns FC in action two weeks ago, the team was knocking off the North Carolina Courage on the road for the first time in team history. Head coach Mark Parsons called the performance “unbelievable,” and said his team was “two or three games away” from being at “our best.” Since then, Portland has been awarded an additional three points after a game was canceled and now sits six points clear at the top of the National Women’s Soccer League standings.

On top of all that, there’s the potential of Saturday’s game at the Chicago Red Stars. With a victory, the Thorns will clinch an eighth playoff appearance in nine seasons, an NWSL high. They can clinch a postseason spot with a draw, too, but other results around the league would have to break in their favor. Either way, the more important takeaway will be the point Portland’s at in their process. After Chicago, the Thorns will still have five games left in their regular season, yet postseason goals are already coming into view.

If you ask Parsons or his team about those goals, they’ll say their outlook is still on one game at a time, that the process is most important, as well as all the other things you need to say to when you’re still trying to improve. And those are more than talking points. That’s the type of spell you cast on yourself to avoid your worst fears: taking your success for granted; looking too far in front of you; forgetting the process that’s fostered those gains. There is this fine line all successful teams walk between awareness and arrogance. The Thorns have to stay focused.

Beyond that witchcraft, we can look at the Thorns' current state as a chess match, albeit one where one side has gained an advantage. The Thorns’ first 18 games have given the team an edge. The benefits of that can be clinching a postseason spot early, locking down a home game in the league’s semifinals and, along the way, claiming the team’s second NWSL Shield. At this point, anything short of first place from the team’s regular season will be a disappointment, though not because second is bad. Finishing second will mean the team went off course, making a mistake that gave pieces back to recovering opponents.

There are limits to this chess metaphor, though. In chess, once you’ve earned your advantage, the endgame often comes down to playing out an inevitable. If you don’t see that inevitable — if you go off a script you never realize existed — your endgame is ruined. But for the most part, when you gain an advantage in chess, a path to victory is there to be found. For the Thorns, though, nothing’s given. They still have tomorrow in Chicago, where they need to recapture the momentum from their win over the Courage. After that, they’ll be home to face an OL Reign team they’ve failed to take a point from this season. Then, at the end of October, they’ll need to prove their success at North Carolina is replicable when the Courage come to Portland. The Thorns have advantages, now, but nothing is inevitable.

That’s part of the reason why tomorrow’s game is so important. Chicago is a good team with enough talent to beat anybody. Forward Mallory Pugh’s bounceback season (three goals, three assists – both team highs) is part of that. But they also have a team whose track record speaks to their level. The Red Stars have qualified for every postseason since 2014, and the last time the NWSL had playoffs (2019), Chicago reached the team’s first NWSL final. Their team has a slew of starters that have established themselves as consistent, positive contributors to good teams: defenders Tierna Davidson, Sarah Gorden, Casey Krueger and Arin Wright; midfielders Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat; as well as Kealia Watt in attack. In some ways, losing to on the road to Chicago should be every team’s expected result.

But at this point, what’s expected of other teams doesn’t feel applicable to the Thorns. Currently averaging 2.11 points per game, Portland is on pace for one of the most successful regular seasons in NWSL history. Their focus is less on how they compare to other teams’ standards than how they compare to their own potential. Parsons says his group is two or three games away from being at their best. Saturday against the Red Stars could be game number one.

That is where the idea of endgame comes into play. At the moment, the Thorns should be less concerned about losing a pawn or trading knights than what the board is going to look like six, eight, 10 turns from now. Sure, Portland needs to clinch their playoff spot, but more than anything, they need to do what’s best to compete for a third title. They need to continue their process, which undoubtedly involves getting results, but there are scenarios where the Thorns don’t get three points on Saturday yet still move closer to their ultimate goal. If they swap rooks in Chicago but play closer to their potential, they’ll increase their chances of succeeding on November 20, when two teams will battle for this year’s title.

Weekly results. Securing a home game in the semifinals. Winning an NWSL Shield. They matter. They matter a lot. But at this point of their process, Thorns FC’s biggest goals have come into focus. Everything Portland does from here forward comes in the context of one question: How does this impact the team’s chances at a title?