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How Defensive Are the Thorns, Really?

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Celeste Boureille loses Julia Ashley of the US U23s.
Kris Lattimore

In the NWSL preseason previews over at the Equalizer, “members of NWSL coaching staff” were asked to anonymously say whatever they liked about opposing teams. Naturally, most coaches were very respectful in their comments, except for whoever was asked about Portland. That person says, “I think the Thorns will not be as good as everybody thinks... For the quality of players that Portland has, to play in a 5-3-2 and be as direct as they are, I find disappointing”.

It could, of course, have been anyone who gave that quote, but it sounded a lot like a Paul Riley sentiment. In any case, the anonymity ended up being unnecessary, because Riley himself decided to openly question the Thorns’ playing style on a conference call he shared with Mark Parsons. Riley insisted in the call that Portland are a defensive team and said that he hoped the game didn’t just involve the Thorns “parking the bus and kicking us.”

I have a lot of appreciation for Riley contributing to what has become a great rivalry between Portland and North Carolina over the past two years. It’s good for the league, even if it isn’t always good for everyone’s ankles. The disappointing thing is hearing Portland fans agreeing with someone who is trolling the team to try and gain an advantage. The Thorns had difficulty generating offense in the preseason, but anyone who was there would be able to tell you that the Thorns were not exactly parking the bus against offensive onslaughts. In the times when starters were playing, the Thorns dominated the ball in possession and won it back quickly.

Mark Parsons has won renown for his ability to manage players in his two years in charge of the Thorns, but hasn’t received similar praise for his tactical nous, which feels like an oversight. It seems to be based on the assumption that Portland are consistently a team of such high-level players that they only need to be motivated correctly and put out on the field, and they’ll beat anything put in front of them. This was, of course, Paul Riley’s mentality when managing the team, and it’s a view that persists in the media—despite the team winning a championship last season primarily because of their coherence as a unit, not through individual brilliance.

Riley Training 6/3/14
Paul Riley at Thorns training in 2014.

It’s not helped by the fact that Parsons, by his own admission, does not have an easily identifiable style of play. He is a manager who sets his team up in a way that maximizes its strengths against the opponents they play on the day, and if a particular style isn’t generating results, he has no sentimentality about switching things up. It was this flexibility (among other things) that produced the switch halfway through last season that clicked the Thorns into a nearly-undefeated late-season run, securing the title and nearly the shield after languishing outside the playoff spots early on.

Parsons noted after the final preseason game that the Thorns have two basic shapes. Both got tested in the invitational tournament, and have different situational uses. Broadly speaking, they can be described as a a 3-5-2 and a 4-2-3-1 in possession. The first system got the most time during preseason, most likely because it fits the players the team has on hand.

Riley calls this formation a 5-3-2, but this is a misrepresentation of where the wingbacks play: high up the field, pinning opposition wingers back. They tend to get a lot of time on the ball in this situation, and wield a lot of influence in the attack. Meghan Klingenberg and Midge Purce were regularly two of the best players in preseason—Kling for her crossing from all ranges, and Purce for ability to turn opposing wingers and fullbacks inside out and drive to the byline.

Meghan Klingenberg

Most of the longer balls Portland plays under this system are to these players, in the space that results from them dragging opposing back lines out of shape. The system doesn’t require a central striker; the two up top are effectively wingers who move inside when the wingbacks make aggressive overlapping runs. Hayley Raso is perfect for this role when she returns. She got into the W-League team of the season for her work on the left wing cutting inside and either shooting or creating opportunities. In preseason, Mallory Weber and Ifeoma Onumonu played those roles and will likely continue until the rest of the team can join up.

The most important position on the field, though, is the central defender in the back three. That player will be Emily Sonnett this season, and it would seem to be a role that plays to her strengths, as it frees her up to be aggressive in defending and gives her the ability to help in midfield. Parsons wanted Allie Long to be this player early last season, but Sonnett is both a better defender and arguably more comfortable on the ball in deep positions, though she is still adjusting to the new responsibility. Sonnett won plaudits for her attacking displays in the W-League, and her support in starting attacks and holding the ball will be crucial for freeing up the other midfielders to make forward runs.

This is an essential feature of the system, because part of the the risk with the 3-5-2 is not getting effective runners into the box to finish chances. This was evident in preseason: Purce and Onumonu ran the right wing and got a few decent crosses in, but Christine Sinclair and Lindsay Horan didn’t offer enough attacking support from midfield due to the fact that Sonnett, playing alongside younger defenders in Emily Menges’ absence, didn’t feel comfortable enough pushing up. As Sonnett settles into the system and becomes more aggressive, expect the whole system to open up and look completely different.

The back-four system, tested in the second half of the the game against the U23s and played mostly with trialists, isn’t really complete yet, and perhaps doesn’t really make any sense in the absence of Caitlin Foord and reported new signing Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. A 4-2-3-1 actually gives less players attacking roles: the wingbacks become fullbacks and stay home more, Sonnett becomes a pure defender, the inside wingers push wider. The consequence is that the central striker becomes the most important figure in attack. The options in that spot are currently Tyler Lussi and possibly trialist Simone Charley, who will not travel to North Carolina, but is in contention to travel away to Chicago on a short-term contract. Christine Sinclair could arguably play in this position still, but losing her influence in midfield when Andressinha and Tobin Heath aren’t back yet doesn’t seem like something the team wants to do.

Christine Sinclair
Kris Lattimore

The 3-5-2 seems likely to be the the system that gets the Thorns through the early part of the year, and with players settling into new roles, the team might default to keeping the ball safe and focusing attacks on the flanks. It may not be heart-pumping, high-press action all the time. Portland’s attack is a delicately balanced team system that is still coming together, but don’t rule out the team looking more attacking as they become more comfortable in their roles or even the team switching shape completely as players demonstrate more ability in different positions. As Parsons said in the conference call, “I’m sure you will see lots of different kinds of soccer from the Portland Thorns.”