At the end of last month’s Thorns Preseason Invitational, when his team had only scored two times in three games, Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons brushed off questions about his team’s attack. “Get [the missing] players in,” he prescribed as the solution, just over two weeks ago. “I’m sure things will be fine.”
Fifteen days later, and the coach looks like a fortune teller. With goals from Caitlin Foord -- her first in the NWSL -- and Tobin Heath, Portland claimed their first three points of the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season, with the team’s 2-0 victory in Orlando, Florida, leaving fans with a healthy debate to conduct over the next week.
"(I'm) proud with the professional performance ...," Parsons said, after the match. "First half was a very controlling performance from us. So many good things, except for we probably should have put them to bed. Second half, to get that second goal was crucial, and we came out strong again."
On one side of the debate, the Thorns controlled almost the entire game, with only a stretch of a few minutes after their second goal seeing them lose focus. Early on, the organization with which the team pressed seemed destined to give their hosts trouble, with the turnovers Portland forced high up the field quickly converted into opportunities near goal. At times, it was the whiteboard version of Parsons’ approach, executed with the focus of a team looking to redeem last year’s near misses.
On the other hand, Portland was facing a team in flux. And it showed. The speed with which Orlando moved the ball along the back. Their lack of ideas when trying to break lines. They made some progress in the middle of the first half by going long and leveraging the speed of Alex Morgan, but that’s less of an idea than an obvious virtue of having a striker with her talents. Unable to pass through pressure, the Pride let Portland dominate the middle of the field.
The weight of Portland’s pressure was evident on the first goal, when Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris’ errant pass went straight to the feet of Christine Sinclair, who quickly moved the ball from Portland’s right flank back toward goal. It was evident in the second half, when Sinclair was able to find a seam toward the Thorns’ right side, and it was evident in the myriad of moments where Orlando gave the ball away in their own third, or hadn’t controlled enough play higher up the field to truly set their defensive line.
"It thought we were able to do everything we wanted to be able to do," in the first half, Parsons admitted.
The Pride are going to be better. They’ll adjust. Just as with any change to a team’s personnel, a coaching change can come with costs. Tom Sermanni was somebody who’d developed a deep knowledge of the NWSL, and while the Pride may yet have somebody who can take their team to a new level, Marc Skinner is going to need time to learn about his new challenges. Today, the Pride didn’t appear to know how to play the Thorns.
That shouldn’t necessarily detract from what Portland was able to accomplish. So many obstacles teams face on the road go beyond tactics. Today, the Thorns’ victory was as much about mentality as matchups. Player for player, there was intent in how Portland played. There was an ambition in how the team executed, as well as a modesty to stay within the system. Heath, Sinclair, Foord and Lindsey Horan all had room to play as individuals, but in the way the team scored their goals, as well as in the way the players approached the match’s other moments, there was comfort from each cog in the system.
"It was a very mature performance," Parsons said. "It’s an important three points. It’s an important start. But I think it’s exciting that we showed that much maturity. There’s loads of positives. There’s more lessons. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to be even better at."
In that respect, it’s unclear the Thorns put their best foot forward, either. After a 2-0 road victory against a talented Orlando team, it’d feel ungrateful to dwell on any undotted I’s or uncrossed T’s. Yet there may be a time, later in the season, that those first-half near misses will be converted into goals. The team may grow even more aggressive in their pressing, and the spaces Orlando gave them amid a game which, in the first half, became very stretched could be more ruthlessly exploited.
That’s where the cohesion we saw on Sunday will matter most. When you win games out of individual brilliance, you just shrug, be thankful, and say, “that’s what happens with great talent.” When your team dynamic produces results, though, you wonder what happens when the understanding improves. When the new patterns, rotations, principles from preseason have more time to truly settle, how strong will the team look? When understanding becomes mastery, how much will the team have grown?
There are, however, details to worry about. Once the team went up 2-0, Orlando was able to generate chances. In the 58th and 62nd minutes, the Pride tested Adrianna Franch’s woodwork. In the 92nd minute, Kristen Edmonds skied a shot over an open goal. Plus, in the absence of Alanna Kennedy, Orlando was missing their most-influential defensive talent. So early in the season, results have to be seen for their highs and their lows.
"We can’t [make the same mistakes] when we’re playing Chicago next week," Parsons conceded, alluding to the coming trip to face the Red Stars. "We know that."
But no doubt, there were more highs than lows for Portland, today. To ask for a better result after Week 1 would have been too much. Unlike last season, the Thorns have three points from their first 90 minutes, and with a clean sheet complementing multiple goals, the team has much to be happy about at both ends of the field.