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Playoff Storylines: Portland Thorns at Chicago Red Stars

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Chicago’s a team that the Thorns have historically been successful against. Can they take advantage of this match up?

Nikita Taparia

After closing out the 2019 regular season with a scoreless draw to the Washington Spirit, the Portland Thorns travel to the second-seeded Chicago Red Stars to battle for their spot in the championship match. The game marks first time that the Thorns haven’t hosted a semifinal under the tenure of coach Mark Parsons, a reflection of the up-and-down performances we’ve seen this year.

Despite a dominant run of form during the World Cup and a handful of noteworthy victories in the months following, Portland closed out their season on a lower note, winning one of their final five games and only scoring a single goal (thanks Tobin Heath) during that period. It’s their worst end to the season since 2015 — a year where the Thorns famously did not make playoffs — a run of form that isn’t particularly encouraging against a Red Stars team who rounded out the season 5-0-0.

Portland’s attitude ahead of the match has been positive despite recent scorelines. “We’re really excited, we’re in a good place, and we’re working hard for this semifinal,” Lindsey Horan said, a sentiment that seems to mirror the atmosphere around the team.

Part of this optimism could be due to the match up: the Thorns have only lost to Chicago once in series history, with the single blemish back in the NWSL’s inaugural season. While the Red Stars’ recent record doesn’t inspire confidence in the minds of Portland supporters, Chicago’s last loss was to the Thorns — a decisive 3-0 scoreline when the sides met in August — and Portland holds the edge in the 2-0-1 record against the Red Stars this season. Additionally, Chicago have never won a playoff game.

Projected XI

The Thorns have been tinkering with their lineup in the last couple games, switching to a three-back against Reign FC and trying out a two-striker system against Washington. “We have two/three tactical shapes to play this game,” Parsons said at training this week, expressing his confidence that “a lot of players on this group and this team can get the job done and perform at their best for this big occasion.”

Even with the multitude of options that Parsons is alluding to, it seems likely Portland will return to the 4-2-3-1 that’s been the go-to formation for their full strength squad; it’s gotten them results, and it worked against the Red Stars last time around.

Game Plan

“I think it’s always just a really intense game,” Horan said of playing the Red Stars. “It’s not necessarily a rivalry, but the way that we play is kind of like that. It’s always a high scoring game, a battle back-and-forth. I hope we can just go out there and play the Thorns way and get some early goals and kind of just bring it in the first half.” The Thorns have been able to do just that against Chicago; every time they’ve faced the Red Stars this season, they’ve broken onto the score sheet within the opening 30 minutes of the match.

Portland’s attacking success against the Red Stars — and over most of the season — has been headlined by Midge Purce and Christine Sinclair, both of who have recorded four goals against Chicago this year. Neither Purce nor Sinclair have scored for the Thorns since their last game against the Red Stars, but if there’s a time for that to change, this is it.

Portland will hope to stretch Chicago’s defensive line and find pockets of space, as they’ve done against the Red Stars all season. It’ll require more fluidity, creativity, and sharpness than we’ve seen in the attack as of late: Purce, Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Hayley Raso will have to spark the connection that’s been missing in the last handful of games.

That’s not to mention the width that Portland can add through Meghan Klingenberg and Ellie Carpenter, and Horan’s runs out of midfield that have been a fundamental element of the Thorns attack over the past couple years.

Horan has had a somewhat quiet season by her standards — she’s scored only one goal on the year and has looked to be sitting back more during games. While not playing poorly by any means, Horan hasn’t been near her 2018 NWSL MVP-winning form, something she’ll try to find to help her team through playoffs.

“I’m hoping I hit my stride in these next two games,” she said this week. Whether or not this comes in the form of goals, she asserted her aim to “do whatever I can to help the team ... If it’s a goal, it’s a goal. If it’s an assist, it’s an assist. If it’s in build up, if it’s winning a ball, if it’s tackles, whatever — I just want to help the team win and get the best Lindsey out there as I can.”

Led by Horan or otherwise, the veteran experience of Portland’s attacking players gives Parsons confidence in his team, despite the recent lack of results. “We’ve got some real winners here,” he pointed out, “and we’ve got players who know how to score goals.”

As players who know how to score goals go, Chicago’s Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato will be the focal points of the Thorns defense. The duo lead the league in goals and assists, respectively, with Kerr’s 18 goals breaking her own record for goals in a single season. On shutting down Kerr specifically, Parsons said:

“She’s obviously a very dangerous and exciting player and it’s tough. It’s not going to be a one person, three person [job], it’s going to be a team [job]. It’s about cutting as much off her source as possible, and then when she gets her moments, trying to keep her as quiet as possible. And then there’s the moments you cross your fingers and close your eyes for a split second and hope that she misses — that’s the reality of it, because she’s class.”

Parsons explained that defensively, “it’s about every player doing their role and doing their job.” If the Thorns can limit Chicago’s service up the field and reduce the balls that find players like Kerr and Nagasato, they’ll be able to minimize Kerr’s impact.

This team-first focus was echoed by Horan. “We can do this thing if we all work hard together,” she said, adding that “we’re doing this for each other.”

“We have a chip on our shoulder because we haven’t been the best version of ourselves over the last four, five games,” Parsons pointed out. “Now we get to draw a line under that and go into tournament mode and knockout mode and fly into these semifinals.” He praised Portland’s mentality in training this week, something only bolstered by circumstance and the upcoming competition.

“It’s an exciting period,” Parsons said. While the Thorns haven’t played an away semifinal since they faced FC Kansas City in 2014, he expressed that he’s looking forward to “embracing those challenges and being the best version of ourselves possible and putting in a performance we can be proud of.”

Of course, the Thorns are hoping that performance will be enough to carry them to the final, too.