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The Portland Thorns look like a team with something to prove

The group that beat Sky Blue 1-0 aren’t perfect and aren’t the most talented team in the league, but they’re hungry and ready for the challenge. Look out, NWSL!

Nikita Taparia

In mentally preparing for the World Cup season, Thorns fans and watchers have had to run through several scenarios about how this part of the season is going to go. We’ve been tabulating up the number of points available during the time without the internationals, wondering how bad the team can afford to be while still remaining in playoff contention, and thinking about how the Thorns can keep games tight and rediscover their defensive identity. Of all the outcomes of losing all their internationals, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thought the Thorns would actually perform better.

It’s only been one game with the new squad, but it looks like that’s exactly what they’ve done. To be clear, this group of Thorns is in no universe more talented than they are at full strength. Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Caitlin Foord have already had stellar performances this season, and everyone else gone for the World Cup has had major impacts on the field. A fully loaded Thorns team labored to a draw against Sky Blue FC last month, while this fresh new team — with three players making their professional debuts — were able to hang on to beat them.

Sky Blue, despite not having a win yet in 2019, look like a significantly more dangerous team than they did all of last year. The headline in the first meeting between the two teams was Carli Lloyd, who had two goals and a shot off the post, but the player who really ripped the Thorns apart in that game was Raquel Rodriguez. Rodriguez played all of 910 minutes last season while dealing with injury trouble, but she’s already had 618 this season. She’s been a massive influence on Sky Blue’s improvement, with two goals in her last two games before this weekend. She also had three key passes, three shots, seven successful dribbles, and an assist in her first game against the Thorns this year. Last Saturday, she had no shots, no key passes, and only one dribble.

Raquel Rodriguez and Nahomi Kawasumi closing down Tobin Heath.
Matthew Ralph / Brotherly Game

Containing Rodriguez to that extent required a significantly upgraded defensive scheme and coordinated pressure in midfield. We know how much more coordinated the Thorns were in part because head coach Mark Parsons told us on the broadcast. Yurcak Field is a cozy college venue, and whoever runs production there has a nice habit of placing the field microphones not too far away from the away benches. It’s also how we learned how badly centerback Whitney Church’s teammates on the Washington Spirit wanted her to do a bicycle kick last year. This time, it ensured fans were treated to a running commentary of the match by the coach himself, who spent much of the game bellowing instructions to players at the top of his lungs. It dissolved into expressing his displeasure at the referee’s performance late in the game. For much of the game, however, his shouts were an insight into how the team intends to operate without its superstars.

The front line of Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, Tyler Lussi, and Simone Charley were being constantly encouraged to hunt the ball when out of possession — and for the first 40 minutes, the pressure stifled any attempted Sky Blue attacks before they began. In the first half especially, when the pressure was most effective, Rodriguez could hardly get past the midfield line. You can see her attacking game pretty clearly in the charts below: Rodriguez helps deep when the team is under pressure and drives forward to create in possession. Because of how well the Thorns were pressuring in the first half, however, Rodriguez was forced to spend almost her entire time supporting her defense, trying and failing to unlock the first line of defense.

Left: Raquel Rodriguez’s passes in the first 45 minutes against the Thorns on May 25th. Right: Raquel Rodriguez’s passes in the whole game on April 28th. Sky Blue attack down in both maps.

Sky Blue would eventually snap out of the shellshock they started the game with, largely due to the running of Imani Dorsey. Dorsey and Savannah McCaskill have proven to be a strong attacking partnership for Sky Blue, with both capable of dribbling with the ball at their feet. Dorsey was matched up against Elizabeth Ball, making her season debut at fullback, while McCaskill was guarded by Katherine Reynolds. Except for a few times where Dorsey beat her one-on-one, Ball was able to track Dorsey’s runs down the wing and keep her from cutting inside. Reynolds meanwhile batted a perfect record against McCaskill, immediately blocking her from making progress whenever she turned to try to create some offense. Altogether, the defense was so effective that Sky Blue was only able to get one shot on target.

Dorsey, marked by Ball, delivers an early pass up to McCaskill, who has gotten ahead of Reynolds; Reynolds makes a recovery run to get in front of her and block her shot.

Offensively, the team looks to be putting together some kind of solution to what on paper has looked like a lack of both shot-creation and attacking width. The team went with a three-and-a-half back formation, a switch from the more conventional back three plus wingbacks that they rolled out last week. The latter is really built for Ellie Carpenter, someone comfortable with charging up and down the wing all game long; the former is more suited for allowing Meghan Klingenberg and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic to essentially both play as midfielders, spending most of their time dropping centrally to help out in midfield. Klingenberg, in particular, is starting to assert herself as a player who can contribute in a big way during this time, finishing the game with seven key passes and several excellent deliveries from wide positions, while Crnogorcevic would occasionally drift into attacking midfield positions and show off her range of passing and build-up play.

Gabby Seiler, after getting her first two starts of the season in central defense, was shifted up to midfield and immediately looked the part, generating quality opportunities from below the front line and showing comfort in making space. It’s amazing how quickly Seiler has gotten up to speed in these past couple of games. She’s a serious threat to hold onto the much-contested third midfield spot for the Thorns — even after the World Cup season if she continues to impress.

Seiler holds up play and waits for a run from Elizabeth Ball, who splits both of her defenders to find Charley on the back post, who is unfortunately offside.

Debutant Simone Charley has some things to work on in attack. Her hold-up play was impressive: She brought down the ball and took a shot that would lead to Midge Purce’s goal. However, she isn’t quite on the same page as her teammates and reacted a little late to through balls. Charley’s passing also needs work, and — oh, who are we kidding, she nutmegged two players. Just watch it!!

It’s not a guarantee that teams will be up and ready to go automatically in the World Cup season: Look at the North Carolina Courage, who are on a four-match stretch without a win since losing their internationals. We still don’t know if this team is going to be able to sustain the level of energy they showed in this game for the next few months. What we do know is that this team isn’t going to lie down and accept being bad. The games get tougher soon, but with other teams looking more affected by World Cup absences than we thought they might be, there’s no reason this team can’t continue to improve.