PORTLAND, Ore. – “Just missing a couple of goals,” Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons said, when asked about where his team was at the end of preseason, relative to his expectations.
His team had just drawn, 0-0 with the Houston Dash to close its preseason, a performance that showed marked improvement in more levels of the field. The defense and midfield were noticeable better than three days earlier, with Portland drew, 2-2, with a United States Under-23 squad.
The attack, however, we still not clicking. Not quite, anyway, and amid the praise Parsons offered his group, he had to note the attack’s lack off end product.
“Lacked the final cross. When we got the final ball and cross, lacked the final finish,” Parsons rued. “The one we got in the second half, across the box, we slid in, we just couldn’t get a toe on it. If we got those two or three chances, I think we’d feel really, really good.”
The assessment matched the scoresheet. Over three games of the Thorns Spring Invitational presented by Tillamook Yogurt, the defending NWSL champions were held to two goals, failing to score in their 180 minutes against professional competition.
To call the last week of play a disappointment, though, would be to miss the point of the preseason. From the Thorns’ opening game against the Red Stars to Saturday’s scoreless draw with Houston, Portland was forced to deal with minor injuries as well as the reintegration of their core, international talent: Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair and Emily Sonnett. How the team responded to those challenges was, at this point of the season, more important than the final scores.
“[We had] a lot of strong positives in being better with the ball, being more assertive with the ball, and trying to get into [dangerous] areas,” Parsons said, offering his opening assessment of Saturday’s match at Merlo Field.
“On Wednesday [against the U.S. U-23s], we stopped ourselves ... Tonight, we were going to get there [in] the first 15-20 minutes. We completely controlled and played the game in their half. Houston managed their spaces and defensive areas really well to stop us from creating any good, quality chances.”
This wasn’t just preseason-positive, stay-level-in-the-press coachspeak. The patience the Thorns showed while dominating possession kept Houston from creating chances in transition, and while that also meant Portland wasn’t gambling as much in the final third, it was the exact type of approach a coach would want against a team intent on defending with numbers. Parsons was right to see Saturday as a step forward.
The reality, though – one Parsons isn’t ducking – is that the team is not producing goals, a condition that is part preseason process, part reflection of the Thorns’ roster.
This preseason has been particularly challenging for teams, with the schedule having been moved up to account for CONCACAF’s World Cup Qualifying tournament toward the end of the league schedule. That meant the season’s four-week training camp was cut in half but international duty, with the core of most teams away at the SheBelieves and Algarve Cups during the bulk of preparations.
“It’s a really tough preseason,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said, “because we have had injuries. We have had people with international duty. We just got our team back middle of last week, so being about to come together quickly and get these games is really important."
For Portland, that lack of time together is complicated by the player absences, particularly in attack. Hayley Raso won’t join the team until late April, after Australia concludes its time at the Asian Cup. Andressinha, a midfielder who could play higher up, is also away from the team, staying with Brazil to recover from an injury she picked up in her country’s last camp. Caitlin Foord has a long-term injury Tobin Heath is still weeks away from game time, and Tyler Lussi, originally expected to pick up minutes, was hampered for half of preseason with a small injury of her own.
As a result, the Thorns go into Saturday’s opener with Mallory Weber, Ifeoma Onumonu, Lussi and Meg Morris competing for time up top, and while each of those players should play pivotal roles throughout the season, the team is still trying to take its attack to another level.
“We’re in a place where this group and the attackers we’ve got have worked really hard, have really been focused to try to grow and develop and give our team the goals and the threat that we want and need,” Parsons said, “and then we’ve got to do our job on the other side, and keep our eyes open for a World Cup-, Olympic-quality, experienced forward that might be available.”
Clearly, all options are on the table – as they always are for every team, with organizations constantly trying to improve their squads. In the interim, though, the absences of Raso, Heath and others create a strange reality for Parsons, one in which the squad that’s trained throughout the preseason doesn’t match the one he should expect for most of the coming campaign.
“It’s been four weeks of quality stuff with this group, and then you suddenly start talking about [other] names,” Parsons explained. “And there’s so many people who aren’t here. We’re really good at focusing on getting the best out of each other and who’s here, but it’s also interesting to think about and see the players that could be here in the future.
That they didn’t score, though, gives the team even more motivation to solve preseason’s final, lingering problem.
“A couple of goals, and then I think it is a complete performance – a nice way to cap off the preseason,” Parsons said, about the Houston result. “If we had done that, though, I know our staff would be sitting there tonight, saying to each other, ‘I wish we didn’t score a couple, because are we going to be relaxed next week?’
“Now we feel good about things, but there are areas we’re going to be frustrated about. It keeps our magnifying glass on details that we’re trying to improve.”