There may be two silver linings to Portland Thorns FC's 1-1 draw on Sunday with the Washington Spirit, a result that will likely disappoint fans eager for a breakout.
It’s true that these NWSL Challenge Cup Preliminary Round matches don’t really matter, and that all eight teams in the tournament will qualify for the Knockout Round. That’s the first silver lining. At 0-1-2, the Thorns sit in fifth place and look destined to avoid a matchup with the first-place North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals. That’s silver lining number two.
But after Sunday’s game, fans have invested 270 minutes in the team. You can’t blame them for asking questions. You can’t blame them for wanting a payoff.
For much of Sunday’s first half, that payoff looked destined to come, with Thorns pinning the fourth-place Spirit in Washington’s defensive half for most of the period. But as much as Portland showed they were capable of controlling play against one of the league’s more talented teams, they also showed an early trend from their tournament’s first two matches – performances against North Carolina and the Chicago Red Stars that produced only one goal – may be more than a sample-size phenomenon.
Last Saturday against North Carolina, Portland scored once thanks to a Lindsey Horan header that, ricocheting off the crossbar, fell to Simone Charley in front of goal. That day’s chance generation was decent, considering the level of the opponent. Four days later, there was no lack of opportunities against the Red Stars, but Portland couldn’t push the ball over the line, rekindling memories of the dry spell that marked the end of the 2019 season. Then tonight, despite being able to dominate the game in the middle of the field over the match’s first 45 minutes, the Thorns couldn’t create clear changes. They didn’t break through until the second half, and there, again, it was a result of a ball for Horan in the penalty area.
“I think everything we wanted to show tonight, apart from the final third, was there,” head coach Mark Parsons said after the draw. “Here we are, game three, [the attack] hasn’t clicked in the final third, which is disappointing. At the same time, no team comes to a tournament, catches fire, and stays alight for the whole thing. So for us, it’s a massive step up from the last two performances.”
Relying on crosses targeting Horan is not supposed to be the Thorns’ bread and butter. Sure, having a player with the former NWSL MVP’s penalty-area presence is an asset, and in the way Portland builds play to create chances for United States international to get forward from midfield, the Thorns clearly want to utilize that option. But that’s not supposed to be the only option. Yet three matches into the tournament, that’s the only way the team has scored goals.
This was the fear when people looked at the Thorns roster heading into the Challenge Cup. It was the fear that began to manifest at the end of last season. Who is providing a consistent penalty area threat? Who is going to be the person who augments Horan and Christine Sinclair’s goals? How are better, clearer chances going to be created, and how consistent will that creation be? True, some of the players who departed at the end of last season were also struggling going into those playoffs. Talents like Midge Purce, Hayley Raso, and Caitlin Foord weren’t cracking the team’s starting XI come the semifinals. But who on this summer’s team would solve that problem? Who was going to step up in Utah?
The answers were Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, the top two picks in January’s College Draft. But they are young. They need NWSL experience. And Smith’s hurt. A knee problem will likely keep her sidelined for this tournament. As promising as they are, they were never meant to be 2020 panaceas. Weaver’s promise is already shining through, but it would have been too much to expect her to carry the scoring load.
So the answers also involved Charley. And Tyler Lussi. And Marissa Everett and potentially Tobin Heath, as well as a prominent acquisition from Europe. Yet here we are, three matches into the Challenge Cup, with no Heath or European arrival, asking the same questions we did last October. Where are the Thorns going to get goals?
This seems like the place to pull back a little on the negativity and note the obvious. The Thorns are very early in the process of defining how they play. Three games is nothing in the bigger picture, even if they’re all we have right now. The team didn’t have a typical preseason. They trained in isolation, then came back to Providence Park for roughly a month, with only a couple of weeks of that span spent in full-team training. Other sqauds had those limitations, too, but other teams didn’t come into 2020 with such a unique combination of expectations and question marks. The Thorns’ context is special.
And amid that context, there have been positives. Big, unambiguous positives. Bella Bixby might be a starting caliber goalkeeper. The save she made on Ashley Hatch in Sunday’s second half reminded us as much. The midfield of Horan and Rocky Rodríguez has yet to be outplayed despite matching up against the three best non-Thorns middles in the league. Horan has been one of the tournament’s best players. That’s not nothing. Portland has been competitive in every game thus far, including their opener against the North Carolina juggernaut, and each of those opponents would have to admit that the Thorns have yet to fire on all cylinders. That context is important.
Then there are the returns, as well as the progress we’re seeing from individuals. Angela Salem is back and playing in that standout midfield. Gabby Seiler returned to the field tonight. Both suffered season-ending ACL tears midway through last season. Both are back contributing to the Thorns. Players like Bixby, Everett, Madison Pogarch and Emily Ogle are displaying their progress, while Kelli Hubly has come in and won playing time few would have forecast a month ago. Sunday may have been her best performance as a Thorns player.
Those positives shouldn’t be ignored. But the negatives shouldn’t be brushed aside, either. The Thorns are three-quarters of the way through their Preliminary Round without an attacking breakthrough. From 2019, the theme has carried forward. With 90 minutes left before their Challenge Cup’s must-win game, Portland remains in search of solutions.
“The final third isn’t there,” Parsons concedes, “so when [the] switch goes on, I think it’s going to be fun. This team has grown an incredible amount [in] six, seven weeks, missing some important players and everyone keeps stepping up.”
Portland has two more games in Utah. At least. They may have four. The growth Parsons is talking about? It will have time to continue. But in terms of the Challenge Cup, those solutions need to come. Time is starting to run out.
“Just missing a goal or two and three points,” Parsons lamented. “Otherwise, it’d be a fantastic evening.”