PORTLAND, Ore. – Preseason is never a good time to dwell on final scores. If you did so after Thorns FC’s 1-0 preseason-opening loss on Sunday to the Chicago Red Stars, you probably missed the bigger picture around Mark Parsons’ squad, one that left the Portland head coach effusive about his team’s performance in the wake of their Thorns Spring Invitational presented by Tillamook Yogurt opener.
“The message to the team afterwards was, we asked just a couple of things from you tonight, and I thought you exceeded that,” said Parsons. “You gave a lot more in return from what we asked for, and I think that, hopefully, we can do that always.”
How can a coach be that unequivocal in his praise? His team just got shutout.
Context, friends. Context is everything in the preseason, and in the context of a squad that is still coming together, Sunday was a subtly amazing performance.
Like Chicago, Portland had trained throughout the preseason without its international stars, who were away with their countries for the SheBelieves and Algarve Cups. But unlike the Red Stars, the Thorns didn’t have their internationals in uniform for Sunday’s game. So as Australia’s Sam Kerr and the U.S.’s Sofia Huerta came into the match late, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair and Emily Sonnett were left watching their less renown teammates play through the final whistle.
And that play nearly produced a result. Former Vanderbilt standout Simone Charley had a good chance from the middle of the Chicago penalty area in the second half, while former Boston Breaker Midge Purce, moved up to right wing from her starting right wing back position, nearly created a goal late after she beat the Red Stars’ defense after chances to go one-on-one.
Ultimately, Arin Gilliand’s second-half goal held up for the visitors, but around that score, Parsons saw nothing but positives.
“We kept it simple,” he explained. “We wanted to make sure that the Thorns mentality and attitude toward doing the right things were there, and there were a lot of players putting on the jersey for the first time – a lot of players playing against an NWSL team for the first time, and then a lot of players at the end playing against an even better NWSL team, as they continued to make subs at the other end.”
That divide between NWSL reality and potential has been the theme of the Thorns’ first stage of training camp. Although the new and young players who have been with the team since mid-February have been exposed to some of the team’s core (Adrianna Franch, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, and Katherine Reynolds are here, after all), the arrivals of the team’s internationals have loomed. Some of those players arrived this weekend, but others, like Brazilian Andressinha and Australians Ellie Carpenter and Hayley Raso, are still not with the team, and won’t be soon.
Add in fellow Australian Caitlin Foord’s injury, and that means a number of these newer, more inexperienced faces will see real playing time come March 24 in Cary, North Carolina. And for at least a month beyond that NWSL Championship-game rematch against the Courage, those lesser-knowns who got significant playing time against Chicago will have to carry the load.
“The whole collective group look like they have been here for a while,” Parsons said, “in the way that they went about their business and the way that they stepped up to work hard to be brave, with and without the ball.”
Weber and Onumonu’s performances may have been most important, because in the upcoming absences of Foord and Raso, the team’s forward corps are particularly thin.
“We need one, two, if not three of the four or five who play up there to step up,” Parsons admitted. “I thought Ify and Mal led the line unbelievable well in the first half.”
And unbelievable in a way that the scoresheet won’t show. In switching to a 3-4-1-2 formation last year, Parsons went to an approach that will always be demanding of his forwards. They are going to have to work. They are going to have to run. They are going to have to be relentless to keep teams from exploiting the space behind them.
During the team’s transition last year, the effectiveness of that work came and went, and although the team eventually claimed its second NWSL title, the group arrives in 2018 with room to grow. A half-season does not a system make.
This preseason, players like Weber, Onumonu, Morris, Tyler Lussi (out Sunday with an injury) and Charley have been training almost exclusively in the new system. They’re learning when to press and when to fall into their base shape. They’re learning how to recover when lines get broken and, when the Thorns win the ball, where to move to make the team as potent as possible.
Much of that was performed to perfection on Sunday. The pressure Weber and Onumonu provided high against the Red Stars set the tone, helped Morris provide cover in the middle, and allowed wing backs Klingenberg and Purce to get high and force lower percentage passes from the Red Stars’ fullbacks.
That all led to a standout day from Celeste Boureille, an improvised right back for most of last year who, this offseason in Australia, took another step forward in her natural position, central midfield. Against the Red Stars, the 23-year-old made the most of her teammates’ work, winning many of the balls the Thorns’ press forced out of Chicago’s end, and ensuring the game’s first half was played almost entirely in the opponents’ half of the field.
“I haven’t seen Celeste play like that since she’s been at the Thorns,” Parsons said. “That’s a credit to what she did in the offseason, again. She was a real physical force and a great ball-winner; like a technically clean, good ball-winner. She wasn’t just charging in.”
She played like a player ready to take a step forward this season, and she wasn’t the only one. Mal Weber, entering her third year in the league, played with the confidence of somebody who not only knew her job but knew, physically, she was up to the challenge. Onumonu, another former Breaker, responded to the challenge of her new, highly competitive environment by earning Sunday’s start, while Purce showed her shift from attack to right wing back could be a promising one.
It's exactly where Parsons wants his team to be at this, the turning point of the preseason. Gone are the three weeks’ of measured buildup, leaving a place where most of his squad is finally together. Those players like Weber, Onumonu, Boureille and Lussi who still have battles ahead of them? They’ve put themselves in position to continue winning time, something that should pay dividends for the Thorns when they start the actual season.
Now, with the Courage looming, it’s time to reintegrate the stars, having these last two tournament games to do so. That’s when the potential of the young, inexperienced group can meet the reality of Portland’s regular-season potential.
“We’re in a good place,” Parsons admitted. “We could have been a lot worse after this game, building toward Wednesday. The players put in some great minutes, and so far, everyone is good to be ready for Wednesday and Saturday.”