FARLEY | Finishing back in focus after Thorns' scoreless draw

20210711 morgan weaver

PORTLAND, Ore. — At some point, the issue will have to be addressed and solved. It’s been lingering over Portland Thorns FC since this time last summer, when the team’s inability to finish their chances on goal was the biggest thing that kept them from 2020’s Challenge Cup title.

On Sunday at Providence Park, the issue resurfaced saved one-on-one chances, two first-half balls cleared off the NY/NJ Gotham FC goalline, and a second-half strike by Morgan Weaver that tested the integrity of the North End’s right post. On the full return of fans to Portland home, the Thorns posted a massive advantage in shots, but no edge on the scoreboard in the teams’ 0-0 draw.

“I think performance has to be the focus,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons said after the match. “First half obviously was very dominant but lacked quality in key moments. Second half, momentum kind of snuck away from us, and we didn’t have as much control.”

The Thorns outshot Gotham 12-4 in the second half. In the first, that ratio was 10-6. In the middle of the second period, though, Gotham took more control of the game than they’d ever had before. Overall, Gotham had 53.3 percent of the game’s possession after halftime and 52.7 percent overall.

“The effort, the tenacity, the work rate, the personality really, really high,” Parsons said. “But we weren’t ourselves in quality, today, and we know that. I think we have a lot of work to do this week to get back to that level that we need."

Thorns fans have seen this game before, and not only in last year’s Challenge Cup. Though the team seemed to improve its goal production in last year’s Fall Series, the disparity between chances and goals has reemerged. It was present at times in spring’s Challenge Cup and in games like at home to OL Reign, at the Orlando Pride and at the North Carolina Courage. As Portland’s 2021 season has evolved, it’s been defined as much as the Thorns versus the league as the Thorns versus themselves.

On Sunday, that dichotomy was at its most pronounced. Against a Gotham team that was, through parts of the game, being bypassed in midfield, Portland was consistently creating good chances. Fifteen of the team’s 22 shots come within the penalty area, with 10 of those 15 coming within the width of goalkeeper Didi Haracic’s six-yard box. Yet only six of those chances made their way to target, and although Haracic had to perform heroically on multiple occasions where she was left without support, the “0” under “Portland” on the scoreboard went unchanged. For the second time this season, the Thorns were shutout.

For Parsons, the ease with which the Thorns played through Gotham became a double-edged sword.

“Even when we created some of those big chances — which you have to be happy with, some of the ways of getting there were good and effective, to help us defend those moments, the counterpressing moments — we also created those chances from being very direct, where our shape behind them wasn’t as good. It meant it was a one-and-[done] chance. We weren’t able to press, get it back, and stay in that area of the field.”

That tone combined with the focus, here, hints Portland’s finishing was the day’s only story. That’s not true. On Sunday, a defense led by goalkeeper Bella Bixby in her Providence Park debut kept its second straight clean sheet, while the midfield connected with the day’s standout, Weaver, to constantly stress Haracic’s goal. The midfield weathered knocks to Marissa Everett and Angela Salem through the depth of Yazmeen Ryan, Olivia Moultrie and, when she pushed right back Natalia Kuikka into the middle, Christen Westphal. Add in the huge expected goals edge Portland will have when the game is analyzed and there were far more positives than negatives against Gotham.

In addition, Portland has scored goals in games this season. That may seem like an obvious thing, but given the extent the team’s finishing will be in focus, it’s important to note: The finishing has been there at times this season. Five goals against Chicago on May 16. Three against Racing Louisville on June 5, as well as two on the road at Racing last week. Multi-goal games should be the rule, not the exception, but at its important to note those exceptions are there. The Thorns have only been shutout twice in 14 all-competition games this season.

Plus, there are some obvious solutions. Just based on a type of law of averages, alone — a regression to the mean, if that’s your view of these things — the Thorns’ chance creation should win out. How many times will the Didi Haracic’s of the world come up big on all of her one-on-ones? Even if she does, there’s natural improvement the Thorns came make, as well as the eventual arrival of reinforcements. At some point, the chances the team created on Sunday will start finding the feet of a returned Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn.

To even evoke those names, though, feels like a cop out. The Thorns didn’t lack for talent against Gotham. If anything, they lacked for a little bit of luck and a little bit of experience. As players like Weaver and Simone Charley keep seeing those types of chances, they’ll develop new ways to befuddle the Haracics of the world.

That day wasn’t Sunday. Instead, Sunday was a reminder the Thorns have room to improve. Even there, there’s reason for optimism. This was game nine of a 24-game regular season; a 26- or 27-game path, once you include the playoffs. There are months left for Parsons to consider problems and find solutions, and while there’s a natural frustration after performances like Sunday’s, those solutions don’t have to be in place now. July 12 should be less about worry than work.

If, come October, the Thorns are still on the wrong end of their high shots-to-goals ratios, bottom lines will be more important. In the playoffs, all that matters is the scoreboard. Until then, the process is as important as the results, and in that sense, Sunday provided some reason for disappointment, some reason for optimism.

Full matchday round-up on draw vs Gotham FC: