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Portland Thorns exit the playoffs to the Chicago Red Stars, 1-0

The 2019 season ends on a run of poor form for a Thorns team that only a month ago looked like they might top the league

Nikita Taparia

The Portland Thorns couldn’t shake their poor late season form in the NWSL playoffs and got their reward by being sent out at the semifinals by the Chicago Red Stars, a team that hadn’t beaten them outright since 2013. Portland pressured the ball through much of the second half and kept the ball in Chicago’s half for a large part of the game but their scoring woes continued as they couldn’t find the net even with five players on the back line to close the game out. It took the Thorns 15 minutes to settle the play down and start to play their game, and that turned out to be too long for a Chicago team eager to correct a historically imbalanced record.

The Thorns chose to stick with the starting formation they first tested out only a week ago, with Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair starting as the strikers and Andressinha underneath as the 10. Elizabeth Ball started at right back, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir combined with Lindsey Horan deeper in midfield. The team had been playing in a back three off and on all season, but never with Tobin Heath in the team. As a formation it is designed to keep the play tight, but that plan quickly went out the window as the Red Stars took less than ten minutes to open the scoring.

Chicago came out of the blocks frantic with a flurry of pressure, opening with a Sam Kerr goal in the 8th minute after Emily Menges got caught upfield trying to build up the Thorns attack. Yuki Nagasato picked up the ball and immediately looked upfield, hitting a crossfield pass onto Sam Kerr’s path just out of the reach of a closing Emily Sonnett for the earliest ever postseason goal scored against the Thorns.

Portland settled down a few minutes after but the damage was done. The team very obviously lacked attacking movement behind the Red Stars defense with Raso and Purce out of the team and left Tobin Heath more or less on her own trying to generate offense in the first half. The Thorns would finish the first half without a shot on target and without a corner.

Parsons made one change at halftime, but a significant one: Elizabeth Ball came off for Hayley Raso, changing the Thorns attacking shape back into a front three with Katherine Reynolds swinging out to right back. Immediately the Thorns looked much better, with Klingenberg progressing much further down the left wing and space opening up for them in the center.

Raso quickly became a big problem for Chicago’s defense, forcing them to shift over Casey Short to her side to cope. Even still she was able to produce offense, managing to beat her to the endline in the 52nd minute and produce a cross that Naeher could only parry away.

Chicago remained dangerous on the break, with Sam Kerr laying off a pass for Savannah McCaskill that she could only put wide, but those opportunities started to come a little bit slower as the game progressed and Kerr was forced to come up with offense on her own.

Midge Purce came on for Andressinha in the 67th minute and moved up top, pushing Sinclair down to the 10. Purce hasn’t hit her midseason heights for a few games now but her movement still added pressure up top as the Thorns pushed for an equalizer.

Caitlin Foord came on for Klingenberg in the 81st minute as the Thorns went to an all offense set. The pressure nearly produced a breakthrough: Purce slipped away from her defenders after Brynjardottir recovered the ball high upfield and played her in but could only fire right at Naeher.

With the team visibly frustrated, the Red Stars seized the opportunity to steal some lazy passes out of the back to keep them from generating any more attacks, even nearly scoring on one breakaway after Sam Kerr was teed up inside the box in stoppage time. Only Franch’s outstretched legs kept the difference at one, but the clock was run down at that point, and all that remained was for Chicago to kill off the rest of the time in the corner to secure the victory.