For much of 2018, a sense of anxiety seemed to be hanging over the Thorns fandom, which has, let’s be honest, been a bit spoiled over the past two years. Two home losses for the team in the first two seasons of Mark Parsons’s tenure at the Thorns were met with three home losses this season. This is a fanbase that expects silverware, yes; but more than that, it’s a fanbase that expects to suffocate teams, to dominate, to set records. There has been a team like that in the league this year, but it hasn’t been the Thorns.
The North Carolina Courage walked into this season with the roster that won the Shield last year intact, and added to it one of the best players in the world in Crystal Dunn. They’ve been punishingly consistent, wrapping up the NWSL shield over a month before the end of the season. This Portland Thorns season, by contrast, has seen the team evolve and develop over time.
The team went into the season with major holes from transfers out, injuries and international absences, and has only had its first-choice team available for a few weeks. They started disjointed, disrupted. The first-choice backline has started very few games together as a single unit. If there aren’t many Thorns in the league Best XI this year, this disruption is almost certainly why, along with a lot of competition in midfield.
And yet, despite losing all their games against North Carolina and two against Seattle, the Thorns have once again finished in the top two and will be hosting a home semifinal for the third year in a row. Yet again, the Thorns have finished the season on high, going 9-1-1 in their last eleven games.
Why were we ever worried?
For this moment in time, the team might just be the best it’s ever been under Mark Parsons. The core of the team — Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath — provide a base level of excellence that would push nearly any team up the table. But what’s pushed them over the line to join the league’s elite is how players with something to prove have shown up and turned themselves into title contenders.
With the return of their full starting XI, the broad 4-2-3-1 system is now entrenched — after the team briefly employed a 3-4-1-2 early in the season as a stopgap with Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso injured — but how players have fit into their places in that system is changing. The left side of the Thorns attack, Heath and Meghan Klingenberg, has been stable for three years, but the right side has had to emerge and develop chemistry on an accelerated schedule. Midge Purce, Ellie Carpenter, and Caitlin Foord have had limited time together this year, but it’s their emergence as attacking threats that has taken this Thorns attack from good to great.
Midge Purce, so exciting as a wingback when she first arrived at the club, has had to change her role in order to find her way back onto the starting XI. Purce’s season started out thrillingly; at times in her first few games she looked like the best player on the field. When defenders tried to come upfield to close her down, she would blow past them with a few clever touches. As teams started to watch the tape on her, however, they realized that backing off her when she had the ball at her feet and forcing her to make decisions was a better way to defend against her. As more players made their way back, Purce found herself dropping down the depth chart, still getting minutes but out of the first XI.
That’s no longer the case now. You could argue that Ana Crnogorcevic, coming back from a long flight from European qualifying, should still be ahead of her in the rotation, but after Purce’s attacking performance against Seattle, she’s given Parsons a lot to think about. She sent in the cross that led to Horan’s first goal, and her decision to slip in Caitlin Foord on the break led to the corner that would produce Horan’s second.
Speaking after the game, Parsons noted that “those decisions that she made, she wasn’t doing at the beginning of the season. She was getting five, six, seven opportunities and she wasn’t making the decision that showed her quality. She showed her quality tonight. It’s not a fluke. It’s not her waking up. She’s putting dedicated hours to be able to do that.”
Purce has retained her ability to ruin defenders one-on-one, but she’s making quicker decisions, releasing the ball early when the situation calls for it and holding on when it doesn’t. Teams who have prepared for facing the unending physical pressure of Hayley Raso might be in for a surprise when faced with Purce’s guile. If her crossing continues to be as good as it looked on Friday night, there might be no taking the right wing spot back.
It has been interesting to watch Purce swap spots on the field with Ellie Carpenter over the course of the season. Carpenter, who primarily played as a forward early on, has definitively won the right back position through strong defensive play: she has a 78.6 percent success rate at tackles, which leads all defenders on the team.
Parsons admitted that he was hesitant to throw Carpenter into the deep end of NWSL defending right away, especially since she hardly had an opportunity to practice with the team before getting her first minutes on her 18th birthday. Once in, though, there was no doubting her commitment and energy. Carpenter has provided good defense, but what makes her a game changer is her incredible transition speed.
In recent games, when teams are attempting to cut off passing angles for Lindsay Horan and Emily Sonnett out of the back, they will find a way to switch the ball to Ellie Carpenter, seemingly sitting too deep to be a threat. In those situations, with the field in front of her, she has shown the ability to drive at opposing defenses for 40 yards and push them completely wide open. She doesn’t do anything particularly complicated, but she doesn’t have to: with the Thorns attack drawing players over to the left side of the field, Carpenter’s speed, combined with her ability to keep the ball at her feet, can tear through opposing midfields. Watch, for instance, how quickly she breaks forward when receiving a cross-field pass with space in front of her:
This wrinkle is something that teams without ten good defenders might not have an answer to. Carpenter’s battles with Megan Rapinoe, stretching back a year to the 2017 Tournament of Nations, have involved Carpenter being asked to mark Rapinoe tightly as she ran the offense. In the most recent matchup away at Seattle, however, there were a few occasions where she stole in front of Rapinoe to make a forward run and contribute to the attack. If Carpenter can force Rapinoe — a great offensive player who isn’t interested in tracking back and whose team doesn’t require her to do so — to reckon with her forward runs, then pinning Seattle back in their own half becomes even more likely.
The bow on the Thorns’ bonnet, though, is undoubtedly Caitlin Foord. Foord has yet to score a goal or record an assist since returning from a long-term injury acquired in the offseason, but her performances over the last few games have been the physical embodiment of the extent to which goals are overrated as a contribution.
Foord does everything. She provides Raso-esque pressure on the backline. She can play with her back to goal. At times on Friday, she was marked by four or five defenders and still wormed her way out of the crowd to keep the attack moving. Her persistent near-post running in the box opens up a ton of space for Horan and Sinclair arriving late to attacks. The most thrilling thing, though, happens when Foord receives a ball on the forward line and turns with the ball at her feet. All of a sudden she becomes a massive gravity well that draws in every defender around her.
All of this means the Thorns are in the somewhat strange situation of entering the playoffs with a team that plays in a completely different way than they have almost all season. How Purce, Carpenter, and Foord operate in space has given the left side of the Thorns’ attack — Klingenberg and Heath — way more space to work in, simply because they can’t be ignored.
Fans who have stuck with this team are set to be rewarded with a new level of play, and teams who have had success against previous versions of the Thorns are going to need to draw up new plans. There’s really only one team who has really seen what the new-look Thorns are capable of in person. It just so happens that the Thorns are playing them on Saturday.