Mark Parsons, Thorns vs. Reign, 3.30.19
Photo by Sam Ortega

Spring Invitational Review | Defending earns Parsons' praise as Thorns FC inch toward regular season

PORTLAND, Ore. – And now comes the pause – a two-week international break that threatens to blunt the momentum Portland Thorns FC built over the last month

Over that time, the team assembled for preseason, got its international contingent into the fold, played three exhibitions games at Harry A. Merlo Field, and built the foundations for April 14 – the start of their 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season. Hopefully this latest loss of international talent won’t undermine the team’s momentum.

That momentum was on display over the course of seven days at the University of Portland, where a choppy but 2-1 victorious display on night one, against the Chicago Red Stars, progressed to a high-intensity 0-0 effort against Reign FC, on the tournament’s final night. With a game against the United States’ U-23 national team in between, Portland finished the tournament with a 1-1-1 record, but within those results, Thorns head coach Mark Parsons found a number of positives.

“A big, big thing for us has been trying to improve defensively …,” Parson said Saturday night, after the final day of the tournament. “We have to make sure we’re improving how we don’t give up chances.

“We’ve conceded from a throw-in, this tournament, which led to a penalty. We’ve conceded off a corner that led to a goal. Nothing in open play. It’s a massive, massive improvement that we’re proud of.”

The response came after Parsons was asked about his team’s attack, which failed to score over the last two matches of the week. Was he concerned, the question wondered, to which he said no. “We have great players. I think we’re always going to be creating and scoring goals when everyone is available.” Great players like Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath were not available over those final 180 minutes.

The defense, though, has been the team’s primary focus throughout the preseason. Left back Meghan Klingenberg said as much, explaining on the first day of preseason, “We need to get back to our rock-solid defense.” Having fallen from the NWSL’s best defense in 2016 and 2017 to third-best last season, the Thorns have made preventing goals their primary focus.

In that sense, Saturday night was a success, as was the rest of the week, with the team only conceding twice in 270 minutes. After three games, though – and with less than two weeks separating Portland from their season opener in Orlando – it’s worth pausing, looking at the team as a whole, and asking what’s left to be done before the games actually count.

Absences in attack make progress hard to judge

It wasn’t just that Heath and Horan missed two-thirds of the tournament. So did Caitlin Foord, who only saw action in the week’s final game. Hayley Raso was out, Midge Purce was out, and those regulars who were healthy couldn’t log 270 minutes.

On one hand, two goals scored in three games seems like something to consider; on the other, there is only so much you should read into any preseason result.

“I don’t think we ever score many goals in preseason,” Parsons said. “To get two in the first game was a good start.”

That’s when Portland’s attack looked its best, constantly threatening the space behind Chicago’s defense and creating chances that could have silenced the game’s early doubts. Given that was the closest the Thorns came to playing with full-strength personnel, last Sunday’s 90 minutes could be seen as the team’s most informative stretch of the tournament. Alas, it was still preseason, and the Red Stars looked little like their true selves.

As for the rest of the week, new combinations throughout the lineup meant cohesion was going to be lacking, and in the tactical plan Parsons installed for each match, he left open the possibility that, “maybe I forced an idea down them a little bit too much, and they could have looked at a different type of cross, or a different type of attack.” “Things were just off …,” he conceded, while suggesting we “give credit to the players that have worked really hard, and are showing improvement.”

“(It’s) good to see Simone (Charley) get an opportunity in a game like this,” Parsons said, Sunday. “Great to get Caitlin back. Ana (Crnogorcevic) has just been growing and growing and growing. Missing Raso. Missing Midge. Missing others. Missing Andressinha, numbers all over the pitch, right now. The work, right now, that everyone else has done has been really good.”

Same state, different conclusions in defense

The team’s back five hasn’t been immune to the preseason carousel. Adrianna Franch has yet to see a minute in goal. Same for Emily Menges in central defense. Emily Sonnett made one appearance before joining the U.S. Women’s National Team, while Elizabeth Ball, Katherine Reynolds and Purce are all working their way back to full fitness. Both Gabby Seiler and Madison Pogarch, new to the team this season, saw major minutes at the back during the tournament.

Again, this is where preseason caveats apply. The results have been good, with the Thorns limiting chances and holding teams to only two goals through three games – none of which came from open play. But, it’s still preseason.

“What has been very consistent on the three tournament games, we’re not giving up massive chances,” Parsons said. “Last year was a bad year on giving up big chances, giving up goals. And silly goals. This was an important and first clean sheet of preseason. We wanted to do things better in those areas.”

In that way, the improvement is notable, even if this is only preseason. Portland has made it a top-line priority to improve at the back, and that improvement has to start somewhere. While results before games matter are certainly less important than the performances that sway real results, the building blocks are being laid now. And, instead of forging a foundation the team should worry about, Portland’s overcome the rotation they’ve had at the back to accomplish some early, basic goals.

“Even though there’s constant change, we, as a team, have been giving up less quality chances, less big looks at goal, and it’s been a goal of ours,” Parsons said. “It’s one that’s maybe in the first stage of 10 big steps we’re going to make.”

Inching toward full options

As Parsons noted, a number of players are still trying to build toward their fully-fit selves, be it those players who have yet to see action (Menges, Purce, Raso) or those who we have seen on the field, who are ramping up toward that magical 90-minute mark.

Reynolds is one of the latter. Having undergone knee surgery toward the end of last season, the veteran defender is adding minutes to her workload, seeing 45 in the second half against Reign FC. Likewise, Ball is returning from her own fitness concerns and will need the coming break to get her back to full fitness – and, in full contention for a starting spot in the season opener against Orlando.

“EBall’s missed two or three weeks of preseason,” Parsons explained. “Kath’s missed two or three weeks of preseason. Menges, obviously, hasn’t been in yet. These players that are on the firing line with the high press from the Reign, they handled the physical, the emotional and the mental well. Now we keep improving technical, tactical.”

A lot of the pressure from that Reign approach was felt by the midfielders on Saturday, with Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Celeste Boureille closed down almost immediately after receiving passes from defenders. For Brynjarsdottir, it was her first start since returning to the Thorns, yielding a performance that drew applause from teammates at halftime.

“At halftime, I was just kind of rumbling along, rambling along,” Parsons relayed, “and I said, ‘Whoa,’ I just stumbled on Dagny. I said ‘Dagny, ‘what a [expletive] half!’ And then the whole changing room just started clapping. I think it was a big, big first half for her, and a good second half.”

She’s not at her full self, yet, Parsons explained. Neither is Ball. Neither is Reynolds. But all three are on track. With almost two weeks before the season starts, each is on track to play a part in Orlando.