Portland Thorns FC met their first loss of the National Women’s Soccer League season in much the same way they met their two victories, as well as their two draws. After each result, there’s been focus on how things could have been better: be it in attack, where the team was leaving goals on the field; or in defense, where preseason focus has yet to yield progress on the scoreboard.
In the wake of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Washington Spirit, the prescriptions have been the same, only this time, they weren’t delivered with the sense of relief you earn with a result.
“We scrutinize, critique and praise just like we did the week before, when we won against Orlando,” head coach Mark Parsons explained during his Tuesday media availability. “The same process is in place. It’s harder to remove emotion when you’ve lost, and you have to, to stay focused on the details. It was the small, small details that probably had a big impact in the result, in the end.”
An own goal from a corner kick. An olimpico to give the Spirit breathing room. There are errors to find in not only breaking down that corner-kick defending but on how those corners were conceded in the first place. Still, these are the small, small details Parsons is talking about. Sometimes solutions don’t require the biggest changes. Sometimes, it’s the small bits of execution that take three points to one, and one point to none.
Portland experienced the same thing three weeks ago, when two goals conceded early in Piscataway, New Jersey, gave Sky Blue FC an edge too large to surmount. The Thorns fought back for a 2-2 draw that day, but in the early errors that dug their hole, the details cost them.
On Saturday, Portland gets another crack at Sky Blue (3pm PT, Yahoo! Sports), looking to close their season-opening, six-game road spell with an improved result. Here are three areas to watch ahead of this weekend’s kickoff:
The last set of departures
The five players who left for World Cup duty three weeks ago were spread throughout the field: Adrianna Franch in goal; Emily Sonnett in defense; Lindsey Horan in central midfield; Christine Sinclair higher; Tobin Heath wide. With their latest set of departures, though, the Thorns are being hit hard in one area. Three of the four players who make up Portland’s last set of absentees all play attacking roles.
That’s not to say Australian fullback Ellie Carpenter won’t be missed, but up top, forward Caitlin Foord, creator Andressinha and winger Hayley Raso represented a significant part of the team’s remaining attacking depth chart. Who’s left to fill a number 10’s role? Will the team have to continue playing without wingers, as its 5-3-2 formation has done over the last two weeks?
Perhaps most importantly, though, who is going to score goals? Foord was tied for the team lead in scores with three, but she joined Australia’s national team this week. The team’s other co-leader, Sinclair, left long before. Of the team’s seven goal scorers this season, only Dagny Brynjarsdóttir and Ana Crnogorčević remain, and they have combined for two goals.
Just like everywhere else on the field during this World Cup stretch, new people are going to have to step up, only in attack, those steps may have to come from new sources. Because while players like Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds lend a wealth of experience to the defense, some more inexperienced talents may be asked to contribute up front.
Urgency in the boxes
The analysis Parsons offered in the minutes after Saturday’s loss was echoed throughout the week in Beaverton, where coaches and players offered few qualms with how the team performed between the two penalty boxes. It was within the 18s, though, that the Thorns had problems. Not enough cutting edge on one end of the field, Parsons felt. Lack of defensive execution at the other.
There’s a different perspective required for each of those problems. On the attacking side, the team spent the four previous games consistently finding goals, even if Parsons felt they could have had more. Saturday provided the first hint that the team’s production could be slowing down, but after 90 minutes, that’s only a hint. Improvement on that end means their one-goal performance could prove a momentary downturn.
The defensive side of the field, however, is a more pressing issue. The Thorns have now gone four games without keeping a clean sheet, and that result came against a struggling team in Orlando. Since, Portland’s conceded four, two, one, and three goals, making it difficult for their attack to keep up. The offensive is providing 2.25 goals per game. The defense is giving up 2.5.
During a World Cup stretch where goals could be scarce, that’s doesn’t seem sustainable. With Klingenberg, Menges and Reynolds at the back, Portland has reason to think defending could be a strength over the next two months. The only way to prove that, though, is to take that thinking to the field.
Ending on the right note
June 2 is so close, but before the Thorns can finally take their season’s first home bow, they have to finish out life on the road.
To date, that life hasn’t treated them that badly, allowing the team to claim eight points through five games and stay within touching distance of the top of the standings. Should the team improve on their last trip to Yurack Field, they’ll return home with a 3-1-2 record and a justified feeling that they overcame the season’s first significant obstacle.
Other results will require more rationalizing. A draw against Sky Blue with the team’s depleted corps would be a valuable point, but it also wouldn’t signify progress from the team’s last trip to Rutgers. And the potential of a loss? Well, a 2-2-2 road trip would not be that bad, but ending on back-to-back defeats would close the chapter on a sour note.
How the team performs beyond the final result is always going to be the most important thing at this time of the season. Five games in, a season is as much about what you want to become as what you are. But the feeling around teams is always better when numbers are escalating in the wins column, and after seven weeks without a home game, the Thorns will want to close enter their next phase on a positive note.