As players began to depart for the World Cup, coach Mark Parsons defined his three major areas of preparation going into the 2019 NWSL season and how they would carry Portland’s rotating cast through a span of major absences. Parsons emphasized sticking to club principals, as well as looking at “the opposition and where we can either hurt them, take advantage, or slow them down,” explaining that both have been regions of focus during his time with the Thorns. This year, specifically, he spoke to the need “to build around the qualities of our players and the personalities of our players on the pitch,” something especially vital in a season where the players and personalities available are changing on a weekly basis. “Something that I think we’ve thrived off is trying to bring out the best in individuals and in developing individuals and doing it with their strengths,” Parsons said.
The fruits of Parson’s strategy are especially evident through the budding partnership between Midge Purce and Simone Charley; the duo has essentially combined to score three goals — though Charley is not technically credited with the assist on Purce’s goal against Sky Blue — in Portland’s last two games. On the other end, Parson’s willingness to adjust the Thorns backline to adapt to the strengths of the players present and counteract their opponents’ areas of strength has proved just as important; it’s worth taking a look at what each of Portland’s defensive formations bring to the team, and how they’ll likely be used as the season continues.
A close-to-full-strength Portland began the season in a four-back of Meghan Klingenberg, Katherine Reynolds, Emily Sonnett, and Ellie Carpenter, a shape that they maintained through their opening three games. With Sonnett and Reynolds holding down the center of the park, Klingenberg and Carpenter were freed up to contribute as wingbacks, providing width to the Thorns’ attack.
Allowed to roam up the left flank, Klingenberg provides technical skill and another effective point of attack. She has shown the ability to combine well with teammates — especially Tobin Heath — to work the ball up the wing and get a dangerous cross into the box. Aside from being an intelligent and composed defender, Carpenter can dribble at the opposing team with speed, either working her way to the corner and looking for a cross or driving centrally to find the easy pass that will create an opportunity.
Sonnett and Reynolds are proven defenders in the NWSL and present little concern as a centerback pairing, despite Reynolds being a natural fullback. Sonnett is a vocal leader on the backline and (usually) has fantastic positional awareness. She has displayed small mental lapses — sometimes leading to major errors — but these are few and far between; the reward of having her on the field is well worth the risk. Reynolds brings experience — she’s been playing professionally since 2010 — and stellar distribution to Portland’s defense.
The four-back allows a full strength Thorns squad to get their best players on the field, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them return to it as the internationals trickle back into the team. If they choose do so, they’ll insert Emily Menges in Reynolds’ place; Menges has worked her way back to being 90 minutes fit after an injury kept her out of the first few matches of the regular season. Menges boasts the skills of a sweeper with her speed, read of the game, and ability to cover Klingenberg — and, at times, Sonnett — when she chooses to push up the field. If Parsons decides Reynolds is too valuable to take off the field (or that he wants to get Gabby Seiler more time at centerback), Portland could also continue utilizing a three-back or four-and-a-half-back, both of which we’ll go into below.
With the American internationals — including Sonnett — gone, the Thorns shifted to a three-back in their second game against the Orlando Pride. Menges made her return to the lineup, and Seiler slotted in alongside them in her first professional start. The trio of Menges, Seiler, and Reynolds allowed for Klingenberg and Carpenter to devote more focus to the attacking side of the game. Despite a mixed bag of a couple sloppy giveaways in midfield and some brilliant cover by Menges, Portland’s only goal conceded against the Pride came off a set piece.
The following match against the Washington Spirit proved less successful; Washington’s high pressure exploited the relatively new defensive line’s lack of cohesion and an absence of sharpness that was prevalent across Portland’s entire squad. Down two goals, Parsons eventually subbed Seiler off and shifted his team to a back four, trying — unsuccessfully — to find a way back into the game.
Across the two games, Portland’s three-back showed flashes of potential, but also moments of instability. With a partial squad, the three-back could make sense against a team that doesn’t present much of an attacking threat; Reynolds and Menges don’t take the ball forward as much as Sonnett, and allowing Klingenberg and Carpenter to get forward more is always beneficial to add width to the attack. However, the back three’s shakiness cautions against this formation; unless Reynolds, Menges, and Seiler can work out their partnership, it makes much more sense for Portland to play with three-and-a-half or four-and-a-half in their defensive line.
In their second matchup against Sky Blue, Portland essentially made use of a three-and-a-half-back, a formation we’ve seen in seasons past. Klingenberg pushed up on the left side of the field as per usual, and Elizabeth Ball stayed back, sliding in to maintain a back three when Klingenberg was forward. Having Klingenberg in the attack is almost always a good thing for the Thorns; her three assists this year provide quantitative look at her offensive abilities.
Often eclipsed by the rest of Portland’s star-studded roster, Ball is a capable 1v1 defender with solid positional awareness. She had a decent amount of success holding back Imani Dorsey and working up the line to get off dangerous crosses in Portland’s attacking third. Against a team that isn’t going to execute a high press or counterattack with numbers, the three-and-a-half-back provides defensive stability without inhibiting Klingenberg’s skill going up the left side of the field.
The Thorns turned to four-and-a-half in defense in their most recent match against the Chicago Red Stars. Portland was able to find space in the attack, pushing high and exploiting the gaps in Chicago’s defense. With Klingenberg tracking further back than usual and Ball making considerably fewer runs up the wing than she had against Sky Blue, the extra bodies behind the ball allowed the Thorns to stave off a very talented Red Stars attack and take a shutout from the game.
When Portland had possession, Klingenberg pushed high and Ball held back to keep four players on the defensive line, holding space to limit the areas where a very talented Chicago side could spring a counter. A couple important defensive blocks showcased the skill of every player on the Thorns’ backline and hinted at the viability of the four-and-a-half-back as a means of shutting down dangerous offensive teams as the season progresses; having Ball and Klingenberg help back more than they would in a three-back formation seemed to settle the centerback trio of Seiler, Menges, and Reynolds, holding the Red Stars to just four shots on goal.