The Portland Thorns (9-3-6) enter the final stretch of the season comfortably atop the NWSL table (though the North Carolina Courage have two games in hand). In fact, they’re a full four points ahead of the second place Chicago Red Stars (9-7-2), who they’ll face at Providence Park this Sunday. “I think it’s going to be a really great game,” said Midge Purce, referencing the fact that both sides are “strongly considered” to be playoff contenders.
After tying their franchise record five-game winning streak, the Red Stars have lost their last two matches; they’re coming off a 2-1 defeat to the Orlando Pride. On top of that, Chicago will be playing on short rest, and all three of the players — Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico, and Vanessa DiBernardo — who started at central midfield on Wednesday are listed as questionable on the NWSL injury report, as are Tierna Davidson and Alyssa Naeher.
Save injury and matches with squad rotation (as we saw against North Carolina), it feels like the Thorns have reached the point of the season where they’re pretty locked into their starting XI. Given the players available and the full week’s recovery between this game and the last, Chicago probably isn’t a a match where coach Mark Parsons will experiment with lineups.
“Chicago [are] obviously good taking space, creating space, exploiting space,” said Parsons. “Whether it’s through possession, whether it’s through direct play with [Sam] Kerr, I think they do a good job.” On Portland’s end, that means working to minimize the areas that the Red Stars will try to exploit, finding ways to take advantage of the spaces that emerge in Chicago’s defense, as well as “continuing to develop [their] Thorns principles.”
Parsons pointed to Portland’s success against Chicago’s backline when the teams met earlier this season: The Thorns scored seven goals across the two games. Although both sides will showcase different lineups this time around, Parsons expressed confidence in his team replicating those attacking performances. “If we can ask them some very good questions and give them multiple things to have to defend, I think we can create space, and space can create chances, and chances can create goals,” he said. “It’s going to be about us asking the right questions.”
Last time, that was Purce and Simone Charley combining for two fantastic goals — and a late-game strike from Marissa Everett to find a third. The game before, Christine Sinclair pulled out a hat trick, and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic found her lone goal of the 2019 season. But the direct style of play that earned Purce her brace is something the Thorns have grown out of as their international stars have returned, and the back-and-forth nature of the 4-4 draw in April doesn’t quite match Portland’s intention of dominating at home.
While both Purce and Sinclair will likely feature — and provide scoring threats — the Thorns’ attack is coming together as a dynamic and multifaceted feature of their game. Purce has the ability to get into the right space to receive the ball and take it towards goal, or to press high against an opponent’s center-backs and open up areas for her teammates to create opportunities of their own. Sinclair has the vision to play in quick combination and slip balls past a defensive line, or try her own luck at a shot. And then there’s Hayley Raso — whose four goals on the season can be attributed to her relentless energy and nose for finding the back of the net — and Tobin Heath’s skill dribbling at defenders before getting off a cross or sending a ball on frame. Lindsey Horan’s late runs out of midfield and dominance on set pieces are just two of the elements of her game that earned her NWSL MVP last year, and Meghan Klingenberg and Ellie Carpenter never shy away from pushing up into the attack.
Defensively, Portland will have to be wary of fast breaks sprung into Kerr, joined by the attacking threats of Yuki Nagasato and Katie Johnson. “We have to keep tidying up the tiniest details,” Parsons explained. “The NWSL is the [least] forgiving league in the world and most competitive.” His statement rings especially true given the scoring prowess of Kerr, who leads the league in goals with 13 in 15 games.
Kerr’s finishing isn’t the only way the Red Stars can score; they’re a team known for their possession and build-up play through the midfield — although missing the likes of Brian, Colaprico, and DiBernardo could always push head coach Rory Dames into a different approach. With the possibility of Chicago adapting their style of play in the face of injuries, Portland will likely direct their attention to the things they can control, which — according to Parsons — means: “Can we maximize and take advantage of our training time? It’s on us to do that.”
Also under the Thorns’ control is their mental approach to the match, something Parsons pointed to as a key factor this weekend. He pointed out that, generally, “the team on short rest [is] often more mentally focused or engaged because they’ve just recently played a game, while the other team is a bit more fresh and have more in the tank.” He referenced Portland’s recent victory over North Carolina — the Thorns’ third game in nine days — as a reminder that this game is a far cry from a guaranteed three points.