There is no better evidence of the heightened, sometimes excessive standard we’ve developed for Portland Thorns FC than the first impressions we have of their games.
Think about how most people felt after watching the 2-1 loss at North Carolina two weeks ago; or, more recently, the reaction to this Saturday’s 2-2 draw against the Chicago Red Stars. The sky was practically falling, for some, but those opponents comprise two of the three most talented teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (the Thorns being the third). The Thorns came close to beating each, but because they are the Thorns, people expect more.
That’s understandable. The Thorns are, after all, the league’s defending champions. The billing of one of the biggest women’s clubs in the world reasonably comes with expectations. You’re not supposed to get outshot 31-9 by any team (as they did against North Carolina), no matter the tactical considerations behind those numbers. And, when you’re playing at home against a playoff contender – in a game you’ve identified as a clear three-points scenario – people will judge you when you fall short.
The reality of those expectations, however, comes out when you take a second look. Embrace your disappointment and acknowledge your expectations, but once you do, go back to the North Carolina game and you’ll see: The Thorns weren’t that far off. Similarly, forget the context around Saturday’s game (context which, in the big picture, absolutely matters) and, when you look at the 90 minutes themselves, Portland was not so bad.
The team drew, 2-2, at home, against one of the most talented teams in the NWSL. Is that the standard they set for themselves? No. But nobody should act like the performance was that far off. Nor should they use that as an indication of how the team’s likely to performance against less-prolific teams, Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit, coming up.
Less context, more breakdown
That said, there were obvious parts of Portland’s performance against Chicago that need to be improved, if for no other reason than Red Stars showing that, should the teams meet again this season, they appear to be just as potent as their Saturday hosts. As the competition increases and the stakes get higher over the season’s final month, the Thorns won’t be able to waste 55, 60 minutes of play without being seen out of the playoffs.
“Fifty-five minutes of not being happy,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons said, in the moments after his team’s draw, “and then 35, we were good.”
“Flat” was the term he used multiple times, explaining the Thorns’ lack of “work” influenced how he saw the team’s defending, attacking, as well as the broader tactical battle.
“Tonight, I don’t know if we got to see what the tactics were going to look like,” he said, when asked about the teams’ approaches. “Chicago obviously got theirs right. For us, if we don’t get pressure on the ball, and you’re working hard and making life difficult, then you’re not sure what [the tactical matchup] looks like. Some of our challenge was when we don’t work hard, we lose a bit of intensity to go forward.”
Product of the work
That, ultimately, was what separated the teams over on Saturday, and although Parsons identified Portland’s bad stretch as the game’s first 55 minutes, the window was actually smaller. For the first 10 or 15 minutes of the game, the Thorns were pressing and working at their expected, high levels. But the Red Stars were matching their effort, seemingly beating Portland to every 50/50 ball, and generally preventing the Thorns from playing in Chicago’s half of the field.
Chicago was just better. It happens. As Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola explained in the recent docuseries “All of Nothing,” every team goes through those stretches. Sometimes, you have to slow the game down. Others’ you have to play long. Somehow, some way, though, you have to see those phases out.
At some point after that initial quarter hour, though, Portland’s level dipped. They stopped putting themselves in position to contest as many battles. Instead of trying to win more 50/50s, they stopped creating them, entirely. And that’s where the Red Stars took control.
There are a couple of different places where we can see that develop, though as always, screenshots are never as good as watching the whole match (curious minds can mark the timestamps on the clock to watch the entire sequence). But in these scenarios – or, better put, sequence of scenarios – you can see how the team’s initial work slips, slightly, and how that slip eventually evolves into a Chicago chance. These instances aren’t a straight, linear, one-to-one sequence, but they do show you why the team’s effort mattered, as well as why that lack of effort gave the first half to Chicago.
Pressing, less pressing, and not pressing at all
First, let’s look at what the Thorns pressing game looks like when everybody is working at their highest level. Here, a ball has been dumped in deep behind the Chicago line, with the Red Stars eventually moving it to left-center back Julie Ertz. Unwilling to chance a pass past Tobin Heath, who is practically covering two passing lanes, Ertz eventually plays the ball into touch. Portland has their high turnover. The press has worked to its full potential.
Below, though, is a similar situation. The ball has been played in behind the defense. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher is the one in possession, now, but the situation is similar. Ultimately, though, Naeher is able to find Casey Short on Chicago’s right flank, and although the Red Star’s subsequent header leads to in a turnover, it’s the quality of the pass – a looping ball from Naeher that allowed Portland to catch up to the play – not the Thorns’ press that created the turnover. Had she not elected to play the ball long, Naeher would still have two other options.
That’s an innocuous enough scenario, but consider this one, with play in the middle of the field, albeit with Ertz still on the ball. When it comes to pressing, sometimes a team has to pick and choose their spot. We’ve talked about triggers and traps, before. But here, Ertz is ultimately allowed to carry the ball to the center line before finding a teammate at the next level. The lack of pressure gives Chicago all the time they need to find their next ball.
At times when Chicago was in this situation, they were able to break down their left side, usually with left back Arin Gilliland, and hit the Thorns’ block with momentum. Here, Ertz plays a pass to the next level of attack that, after the Red Stars circulate the ball, a little, eventually leaving Chicago four-on-three advantage at the edge of the attacking third. Once they find a player with space (Yuki Nagasato), they are able to face up to the defense and, with time to execute, get the ball to their most dangerous player, Sam Kerr.
It’s worth noting, here, that all this begins with a lack pressure higher up the field. It helps Chicago maintain possession. It allows them to get the ball forward. It keeps the Thorns off the ball. In addition to winning more than their fair share of 50/50s in the match’s first half, the Red Stars were, at some point past the quarter-hour mark, given license to control the game.
That license means Chicago is going to try to find Kerr. Two times before this in the first half, the world’s most dangerous player had gotten a look on goal in similar spots: right at the edge of the 18-yard box. Neither try proved particularly dangerous, but when Parsons was coming up with his gameplan for Saturday’s game, it’s highly unlikely he wrote down “let Sam Kerr have what she wants from 18 yards out.”
Just before halftime, the Australian international would open the scoring from a similar spot, but here, the Thorns close her down reasonably quickly, ultimately leading to a shot that Adrianna Franch saves at her right post.
The real danger here, though, was to the right of Kerr. You can see the incredible amount of space the defense’s collapse creates, but fortunately for Portland, only Vanessa DiBernardo is making herself dangerous in it. Usually a right back, too, would be streaking toward that area, but on Saturday, Short wasn’t getting forward very often, instead staying back to account for Heath. Other players like Nagasato or midfielder Morgan Brian could have also raced into that zone, but in this sequence, they were still on the left side of the field, having been involved in creating the four-on-three that helped spring Kerr.
Why (and how much) it matters
This sequence didn’t lead to anything for Chicago, but it was emblematic of what Parsons was alluding to. There was a lack of pressure high, an inability to contest in midfield, and scurrying at the back which, ultimately, opened holes for the Red Stars, and even though Chicago’s goals came from different situations, these sequences are part of the reason many thought the Red Stars controlled the first half.
Oh, and in large part, they did. Perhaps it wasn’t a full 55-minute stretch, as Parsons defined in his initial postgame thoughts, but it was enough that the Thorns should have been worried going into halftime. That worry, though, was born less out of tactical mishaps or even poor play, broadly, than something the Red Stars deserve a ton of credit for. Chicago – as would be implied by names like Kerr, Ertz, Brian, Short, Gilliland, DiBernardo and Naeher – is very good at soccer.
Those names helped the Thorns, for the second time in three games, get a glimpse of what life will be like in this year’s playoffs. And, just as Portland did in Cary, North Carolina, over two weeks ago, they were given a rebuke. But within that rebuke are still reasons to think the situation’s better than the initial, postgame mood implied.
As evidenced by Saturday’s 2-2 and the 2-1 at the Courage, Portland is just not that far off. They were, just, well … off.