Tobin Heath, Playoffs, 10.16.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

"It matters:" Thorns history with Red Stars a source of confidence

BEAVERTON, Ore. – “We like our matchup against Chicago.” Tobin Heath wasn’t asked about the Red Stars, specifically, though she broke no news by conceding the obvious. 

Portland Thorns FC are right to see positives in their 2019 NWSL Playoffs semifinal matchup. It’s been six years since the Red Stars, this year’s second seed in their league’s postseason, last defeated the Thorns, with allusions to their drought now taking on an apocryphal feel, as if from Ken Burns’ Civil War

“My dearest Maggie,

“For six years we’ve been saddled with life’s enduring burden, and our company’s hopes of returning to the life we left have faded with every battle …”

Ahead of Sunday’s kickoff at Bridgeview, Illinois’ SeatGeek Stadium (12:30pm PT, ESPN2), though, it’s worth asking how much of that burden endures. Based on 2019 results, the answer may be “most of it,” with the Red Stars having dropped consecutive 3-0 results to the Thorns. But both of those games came at Providence Park, and with Chicago set to enjoy a home playoff game for the first time since 2015, the next meeting between NWSL originals might take on a different feel. 

“I feel like they’re very different,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said on Tuesday, after his team’s first practice of the week. “Even though we only played a month, six weeks ago, they’ll be very different. We could be similar, but in regards to how we played on that day, I thought we managed the game well and were smart, and professional.”

That day was the Red Stars’ last loss. In the five games since, Chicago’s gone 5-0-0, outscoring their opponents 12-2 along the way. Granted, none of those five opponents qualified for the NWSL postseason, but in terms of Sunday’s matchup in Bridgeview, the Red Stars will be the in-form side. 

“We didn’t finish the season how we wanted,” Parsons conceded, his team having gone 1-3-1 since their last meeting with Chicago. That lone draw came on Saturday against the Washington Spirit, a game in which Portland outshot their guests 21-5.

“We really found our personality in the Washington game,” Parsons continued, “and to build off that with that type of mentality is key. And then, we have to get the details and the game plan right, playing against a really talented, dangerous team.”

Chicago’s danger and talent have been established for some time, with Rory Dames’ team holding the league’s longest streak of playoff-qualifying seasons (five). Throughout that time, though, Portland’s results against the Red Stars have remained consistent.

Since Parsons joined Portland before the 2016 season, the Thorns have gone 7-0-4 against Sunday’s hosts – success that’s endured despite the arrival of new stars (Sam Kerr, for Chicago), changes in both teams’ approaches, and even instances of radical roster upheaval, as was the case when the Red Stars lost to Portland 3-0 this June during the World Cup.

Something endemic must be underscoring these teams’ results, even if nobody from Portland can put their finger on what.

“No, I don’t,” Heath said, when asked if she has any “theories” for Portland’s continued success against Chicago. “I think it’s football, certain matchups, personalities, styles that kind of make a big difference, and then football kind of has a funny way to writing its own story.”

“For me,” Parsons said, “I believe in more coincidence than something that can happen in the future. This is a semifinal, a playoff, and for us and for them it’s the team that, one, turns up and is willing to commit to the work that it takes for a semifinal in the NWSL playoffs; and then two, gets things right, and gets the details right and executes.”

All of which brings us back Sunday’s most important question: Does the past matter? Among the Thorns, the general consensus seems to be yes, it does … but only so much.

“I think it matters in the fact that it should give us confidence going into the game,” defender Katherine Reynolds said on Tuesday. “But they’re going to bring their best game. We’ve got to bring our best game. 

“Anything can happen in soccer, so while we can have the confidence that we match up well against them, you can’t take that for granted.