Adrianna Franch, Thorns at Chicago Red Stars, 04.20.19
Dan Bartel / ISI Photos

Defense concerns resurface as Thorns earn valuable point in Chicago

All the obstacles that there were missing from last week’s season opener against the Orlando Pride surfaced on Saturday in Bridgeview, Illinois. Coming off their 2-0 victory in Florida, Portland Thorns FC conceded their first goals, overcome their first deficit, and dropped their first points of the season today against the Chicago Red Stars. The 4-4 draw improved the Thorns’ all-time record against Chicago to 8-1-9, but amid a day of defensive mistakes and, in the 94th minute, a final Red Stars chance hitting the cross bar, the result could have been worse.

“The positives from the game were that we were the team trying to take charge, trying to get on the front foot and stay on the front foot by scoring and taking the lead,” head coach Mark Parsons said, after the match. Portland did open the scoring early through Christine Sinclair, the first of a three-goal day that concluded with a converted penalty in the 87th minute. Three minutes after, Chicago had their fourth through Yuki Nagasato.

“Of course, like last week against Orlando, I felt we left Orlando with a lot of lessons, as well as good things,” Parsons conceded. “We left with a lot of lessons, and we have a lot of lessons today.”

It was, without a doubt, a good point for Portland, who got a result on the road against one of the league’s title contenders. And in the four goals the Thorns scored, they showed an ability to create against one of the NWSL’s most talented defenses, deftly attacking the space behind the Red Stars’ defensive line to generate the team’s first, third and fourth goals.

But when you concede four times, much of your focus has to be devoted to the other end of the field. There, the Thorns saw a penalty call go against them, a bad on-the-ball mistake lead to a second, Chicago play the ball around and through them for a third, and the team succumb to similar pressure for a fourth. Come the game’s final minutes, it felt as if only two things could possibly happen: the referee’s final whistle would blow; or, Chicago would score a final goal.

“I think a lot of the lessons today are more about our decision making,” Parsons confessed, referring to the defensive side of the field.

“Our defending is a journey. That’s something we’ve talked about a lot. The basics of defending weren’t done as well as they could be, today, and that shows us that we need to continue working. And it’s going to be a journey to get those things right. Get them right enough week to week, in order to win games, of course. And get them right when they need to be, in the most important part of the season.”

In time, today’s result will have a different context. When you get points at Chicago, or you get points at North Carolina, you shouldn’t get greedy about it. But going back to something we talked about before the game – the idea of keeping the season’s 24-game arc in mind, no matter the 90-minute result – today’s game against brought up new questions, albeit familiar ones.

In the mistakes that were made at the back, the defense gave the same impression it did early last season, when goal prevention developed into a major concern. That concern was harped upon all preseason, with the team’s focus apparently paying off against the Pride, six days ago. This week, the team took a step backward, not only in conceding four times but in the way those goals were allowed.

“Throughout the game, just the basics of defending were off,” Parsons said. “That gives us more ammunition to continue that work. I can look at their passing and how we were doing this or that, but something we did last week was be good at the basics of defending. We weren’t good this week. You have to do that in this league, because there are world-class players on every team you play. We could have done those basics a bit better.”

“We saw glimpses of what last year’s defending looked like, today. We look forward to learning from that, working on that, growing from that.”

It’s a process over results concern – the type of thing coaches get paid to scrutinize. In the bigger picture, though, the team is in good shape. Two games into their season-opening, six-game road trip, Portland’s secured four points, got a result from what is going to be one of their season’s most difficult games, and have six goals from four different scorers.

Yes, there were negatives from the performance. The scoreboard says as much. But against one of the league’s most talented teams, the Thorns also showed that, in terms of their 24-game arc, they’re in a relatively good spot.

“We showed character, we showed grit, we showed heart to continue to find a way to be effective in the game,” Parsons said. “Those were the positives.”