Thorns FC

FARLEY | Win, halfway mark bring Thorns' big picture further into focus


PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s the halfway point of their regular season, but there’s no one version of the Portland Thorns that have pushed the group to where they are now, at the top of the NWSL. The full 2021 campaign began with stars away with their national teams and reached summer with teams playing at full strength but as August arrives, depth has again come into focus. The Olympic period has tested whether teams’ foundations are more sturdy than four months ago.

During Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Kansas City NWSL, the Thorns continued showing the strength of those foundations. In the first half, their pressure on goal produced two scores, one from an own goal and another from a deflected shot. Though they had trouble matching Kansas City’s early energy, their organization and principles helped defused those moments, while their control of the ball and aggression attacking open space eventually put KC on their heels. It wasn’t a one-sided performance, but it was a convincing one – a performance right in line with the rest of their regular-season results.

“It was a professional performance …,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons offered as his press conference’s opening remark. “We are happy with lots of things, especially scoring important goals at important times in the first half of the game, and also how we saw out the game. But also, we know we can grow.”

Portland is now 8-3-1 (W-L-T), and at the closing whistle, the Thorns had a six-point lead on the rest of the NWSL. By the time the league’s night games are final, that lead will likely be smaller, but the idea that the rest of the league is trying to keep the Thorns within reach feels very of the moment. It’s not necessarily that Portland is so much better than everybody else. It’s that they’ve been more consistent. And that consistency is creating room at the top of the table.

“I’m really happy with the team, and the team is really happy with themselves, but we’re already talking about the little things we can improve,” Parsons said when asked about the team’s consistency. “When you’re chasing growth, I think consistency is going to continue.”

After the match, the Thorns’ ability to close out games was one of the media’s foci, as it was after the team’s previous matches at Houston and, before that, home against Orlando. Portland was largely fine in that regard on Sunday in Goose Hollow, but the steadiness of that topic speaks to where the Thorns are in their process. There are no glaring holes to discuss, no alternatives to be explored. The team isn’t talking about shock losses or uncharacteristic performances. Instead, the Thorns’ greatest conflicts are in the margins, and in the wake of two straight shutouts, the subtext of game-closing critiques fees very, “have these wins been good enough?”

“I still think we slipped into little bouts of not having the confidence to build …,” midfielder Angela Salem said of the team’s late-game performance. “But I think in comparison to the weeks before — at least, that’s what it felt like on the field — I think we did that more often and I think we were smarter with our defending … I think this was a big step up from the previous weeks, especially in Houston. We still have work to do with that, but I think we took a step forward today with that.”

Being able to focus on the little things is a nice luxury to have. Portland is currently averaging 2.08 points-per-game this season. In all likelihood, that number will regress a little, but if they stay at that level, they’d be the fifth team in NWSL history to reach that mark. Only two others have reached the 50-point threshold the Thorns are currently on pace to reach. The team leads the league in goals and is second in goals allowed, while their plus-12 goal difference is five beyond the next team in that table.

All those measures suggest the Thorns have earned the right to focus on the margins, even it’s been hard to nail down exactly how good this team has been. Their record says “very good,” but given the different versions of the team that have contributed to that mark, it’s unclear who we should be evaluating: the star-laden team that bridged the gap between Challenge Cup group stage and the end of June, or that team that’s here now, putting up star-laden results.

Ultimately, neither of those groups will matter. What will determine whether the Thorns can translate this good start into postseason success if how this current group, growing by the game amid more time on the field, can translate their process once national-team players return. Can the evolution we’re seeing from the Thorns, particularly at the defensive end of the field, continue? Will the lessons of 2019, when the team reassembled after a summer World Cup, help make 2021’s transition smoother?

Here again, we’re left discussing something other than the Thorns’ latest performance. To their credit, they’ve made us look beyond. Now, with each positive result, the questions are how much the team is moving forward; and to the extent that progress is setting the NWSL’s pace, to what extent is the rest of the league keeping up? As we go into the season's second half, those questions will become more important.