PORTLAND, Ore. — Sunday offers the Portland Thorns another chance at progress. The question is: progress from what?
In sports, every game allows teams an opportunity to improve on what they’ve built. Sunday’s visit to Providence Park from the Orlando Pride gives the Thorns another chance to do so. But as far as something more specific to the Thorns’ situation, there are two points of reference for Portland: last weekend’s disappointing 0-0, home draw against NJ/NY Gotham FC, or May 26’s 2-1 road loss to the Pride in the teams’ first meeting of the season.
“Two average references,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said sarcastically when asked about those two games. Which of the two would be the better “reference point” for the team’s coming performance?
“We were happy with 90, 95 percent of the game in Orlando and unhappy with five, 10 percent,” he explained. “And Gotham, we weren’t that happy. We were super effective and created loads of chances but clearly unhappy in how we did that.”
Portland outshot Gotham 22-10 on Sunday but left the field tied. It was a disappointing outcome, but in terms of how the game played out, it wasn’t unique for the Thorns’ 2021. During that May visit to Orlando, Portland outshot the Pride 21-12 and still lost.
“Orlando away probably is better reference,” Parsons explained on Friday, a distinction that comes down to how those shot totals were put up. Against Gotham, Parsons noted postgame that many of the team’s opportunities came from direct play. That’s not how the team normally wants to create its chances. Though they saw openings to do so against Gotham, there weren’t enough players following the initial chance to capitalize on the team’s big moments.
“We paid a toll for that in the end of the game, where I think we were more tired than we normally are,” he confesses, now.
For Thorns midfielder Angela Salem, there’s one clear “reference point” from the Gotham and Orlando games, but both are useful.
“Last week is definitely the reference point,” Salem says, “but there’s a lot to take away from when we played [Orlando] the time before, since they set up similarly to how Gotham set up against us.”
Both Gotham and Orlando play a 4-3-3. As the player at the base of Portland’s diamond midfield (a 4-3-1-2 formation), Salem finds the middle’s numbers and shapes particularly important.
“I don’t know if that [formation] is what they’ll come out in,” she hedged, “but the three in the midfield is what they seem to be playing …
“But we have seen some clips from when we played Orlando last, and it’s important to look back on those clips, too, and it’s important for us to see where we can improve, just in case we see a similar picture. [We need] to be more prepared on like, if this scenario happens, then where is the next best option?”
In that last thought, Salem alludes to the balance teams strike in their preparation, especially this early in a season. The NWSL campaign feels far along because of spring’s Challenge Cup, which added four or five games to each teams’ schedule. But in terms of the regular season, the NWSL Shield, and the battles teams are waging to make the playoffs, the season hasn’t reached its halfway mark. Portland has played nine of its 24 regular-season games; Orlando, 10.
Still in the first half of their campaigns, both teams will striving to improve on what they want to do well. Parsons said as much on Friday. While last week’s game against Gotham was his team’s last performance, and May’s trip to Orlando was their last meeting with the Pride, Parsons has a vision for his team that extends beyond their next game. All NWSL coaches do, and when it comes to Parsons’ for the Thorns, he has the rest of the 2021 season to look back on:
“I think how we played throughout the Challenge Cup, throughout the games so far, looking at all the games and the progression and how the team’s continued to evolve is an important reference,” he said. I wanted to reduce the reference to one game, maybe two. He wanted all 14 games in view.
“I think it’s very, very clear we’re team that can defend in various ways with one intention: to be aggressive and put pressure on the ball,” he said. “You can see the same about us in possession. We can attack in many different ways with one intention: be positive, eliminating players, creating great chances, scoring goals and keep the opponent in their area of the field.”
Sunday’s game will not be about improving on last week or making progress on the loss in Orlando. At least, it won’t be about those things along. The more important reference will be how the Thorns want to play, and how much closer Sunday’s performance gets the Thorns to that ideal.