Preview, Thorns @ Chicago, 4.20.19

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Portland tasked with responding to the challenge of Chicago

It was probably the best start to a season since he’s been in Portland, Mark Parsons said on Wednesday. On his team’s final day in Orlando, Florida – where Portland has trained between games, this week – the Thorns FC boss took a final moment to reflect on a convincing Sunday opener. “Controlling,” he called it at the time, with Portland claiming a 2-0 result which, from the pressure they exerted in the match’s opening moments, never felt in serious doubt.

It’s unlikely that feeling will be replicated on Saturday. That’s when Portland will see a steep upgrade in competition, facing a Chicago Red Stars team that’s recognized as one of the three most talented in the National Women’s Soccer League (12:30pm PT, Yahoo! Sports). Having taken a point from the league’s defending champions, the North Carolina Courage, in week one, head coach Rory Dames’ team has already shown a certain level of resolve. Now, they’ll be ready show they can move forward.

Win, lose or draw on Saturday, that’s Portland’s ultimate goal, too. As Parsons noted, the team “had lots of lessons that we want to improve fast” on coming out of Orlando. The Pride created too many near chances in the second half, even if it didn’t show up in the numbers. And the attack could have put the game away earlier, giving the team a greater margin. Those same situations are unlikely to come up again, against a team like Chicago, but in the underlying processes that we saw against the Pride, there’s plenty of room to move forward.

Whether that progress will be enough to claim three points in Bridgeview, Illinois, is Saturday’s defining question. Chicago has made the playoffs in four straight seasons and have pushed their opponents to the limit in each of their last three semifinals. In players like forward Sam Kerr, midfielder Julie Ertz and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, they have talents capable of being the best players in the league, at their positions, on any given week. Others like midfielders Vanessa DiBernardo and Danielle Colaprico, as well as fullbacks Casey Short and Arin Wright, could be added to that list, too. Player for player, Dames has a crew whose talents are comparable to the Thorns and the Courage.

It's entirely possible Portland plays a better game on Saturday yet gets a worse result. Such is the step up in competition that they’ll see tomorrow. If history is any indication, though, The Thorns will be ready for the challenge.

Here are three areas of focus for tomorrow’s game at SeatGeek Stadium:

Having the Red Stars’ number

It’s not that the Red Stars have never had success against the Thorns. There was that one time. In 2013. The third time the teams ever faced each other. Zakiya Bywaters scored. So did Jackie Santacaterina. We didn’t know it then, but that turned out to be a historic June day at what was then known as JELD-WEN Field. Since, the Thorns have gone 14 games without a loss to the Red Stars, and while eight draws in that span speak to the true divide between the two teams, something about this matchup has kept Chicago from getting over the top.

Looking all the way back at 2013, though, doesn’t make much sense given the myriad changes both clubs and squads have undergone. Last year, though, the Thorns took five points from three games against Chicago, including a 3-2 win in Bridgeview on March 31, when both teams were playing with hamstrung squads. The year before, the Thorns swept the season series, winning all three times they faced the Red Stars.

Over the last few seasons, the Red Stars have drastically changed their formation, multiple times. They’ve changed some of the key parts of their roster. They’ve even changed their expectations, going from a maturing team three years ago to one that expects to compete for titles. Along the way, though, there have been two obstacles that haven’t been surmounted: getting a playoff victory; and, beating the current version of the Thorns.

Given Chicago’s talent, that can change at any time. A Red Stars victory on Saturday would surprise no one. Still, what is it about this matchup that has swung so heavily toward Portland?

The need to progress

Before the Orlando game, Parsons was asked about the difficulties of preparing for an opponent with so many unknowns. The Pride had changed coaches and, having yet to play a competitive game under Marc Skinner, didn’t have a backlog film that other coaches could rely on. How do you tailor a plan when you can’t know the challenge?

“For us,” Parsons explained, “if we can be 80 percent Thorns and 10, 15, 20 percent adjusting for either the occasion or the opposition, that’s a good target for us.”

The Red Stars are far better known than Orlando was, but there’s still a balance to be struck. Although Parsons is not shying away from Saturday’s challenge, for any coach at this stage of the season, the goals have to be defined by 24 games, not 90 minutes. There’s a path each coach imagines their team traveling over the next five months, one where short-term needs have to be balanced with long-term goals. Like every other team, the progress the Thorns try to make this weekend not only has to have Chicago in mind. It has to be mindful of where Portland needs to be come the end of the season.

In that way, there will be a broader context to Saturday’s result; at least, it will be broader than whether the points column adds three, one, or none. The defending that looked so good in Orlando? It needs to be stingier against Chicago. The attacking cohesion that we saw in the moments after high turnovers? It needs to be more ruthless, and more efficient. And the control Lindsey Horan and Celeste Boureille showed over every confrontation in the middle? The results need to stay the same, even as the challenge gets tougher.

Progress can always be seen in the points column, but this early in the season, it can be measured in other ways, too. In the big picture, the Thorns’ underlying performance may prove as important as the scoreboard’s surface-level results.

The level of the test

All of that perspective is necessary because of what Chicago’s become. From a team which, during their building phase of 2014-2017, became adept at grinding out results, strangling play with their midfield diamond, and dictating how opponents were allowed to play, the Red Stars have become a flexible team, capable of playing a couple of different ways. In the talent they’ve stockpiled during their ascent, Chicago has collected a number of highly technical players able to control play and use the movement of the game to their advantage. Yet in players like Kerr, Ertz and others, the Red Stars can also flip a switch, play physical and direct, and have a completely different way to beat you.

That paradigm was evident throughout last season, when the Red Stars’ staff had to make compromises as injuries and new arrivals changed their season, but it was most striking in their campaign’s final game. In their semifinal matchup with North Carolina, the technical mastery Chicago can bring to the field left the Courage chasing the game early, with only an unfortunate goal off a challenge and deflection sending them into halftime down. In the second half, the team went direct to Kerr – perhaps unduly so – showing that they aren’t tied to any approach. The Red Stars season ended that night, but nobody should have left Providence Park thinking Chicago was that far off.

Their trophy case may not say it, but on their day, Chicago is as good as any team in the NWSL, which makes Portland’s historic success against them even more remarkable. That success, however, can end at a moment’s notice. As Parsons said on Wednesday, this is one of the two or three games this year that hands the Thorns their greatest challenge.