Portland Thorns FC did not live up to their lofty standards in the NWSL Challenge Cup. Yes, they eliminated the North Carolina Courage in their first knockout game, but that was the only game they won. They only scored three goals in their six matches.
Fans were not impressed. The Thorns had the majority of the possession in almost all of their matches but struggled to create dangerous opportunities. Despite this, coach Mark Parsons was confident in his team and the improvements they were making. He emphasized the hard work that the team put in before the Challenge Cup and getting back to their identity.
Mark Parsons often uses the phrase “Thorns soccer” to describe how he wants his team to play, a term used to describe their brand of possession based soccer. “Thorns soccer” does not mean huge changes from game to game. They force the opposition to adapt to them.
It was evident that the Thorns were trying to implement this style of play throughout the tournament in Utah, but injuries, lack of preparation time in between matches and, potentially, a lack of complete understanding of the system was evident.
But something has clicked for the Thorns in the Fall Series. They are the only team to have won both of their first two matches and have scored seven goals. Now, both the Utah and OL Reign are in somewhat of a transition period and the Royals’ defending against the Thorns was questionable at best. But the Thorns are creating danger and finishing chances, which they did not do in the Challenge Cup.
When the Thorns took on OL Reign at Providence Park they also showed they could break down a team that was set up well defensively, another thing they struggled with in Utah.
In Utah these teams played to a 0-0 draw, but this would not be the case the second time around. OL Reign set up in a really solid defensive structure that shifted from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-3-2. Allie Long and Shirely Cruz were the two holding midfielders who looked to plug gaps and push the forward lines up to press the Thorns in their half.
The Thorns rolled out their usual 4-4-2 diamond with Angela Salem as the holding midfielder, Sinclair in the number 10 position just behind the forwards, Rocky Rodriguez as a central midfielder, and Lindsey Horan in a free midfield role. The Thorns midfield was extremely technical and good on the ball. They looked to create transition opportunities by eliminating the two initial lines of pressure led by Sofia Huerta, Bethany Balcer, Rosie White and Jasmyne Spencer.
The Thorns were able to do this with some success because their center backs — Christen Westphal and Salem — were comfortable and patient with possession. They didn’t force passes into difficult areas. The Thorns moved the ball side to side and forced the Reign to adjust. The diamond midfield allowed a lot of movement from the creative midfielder, who popped up between the lines and off the back shoulder of defenders.
The interchangeability and movement allowed the Portland defenders to find the likes of Rodriguez, Horan, Megan Klingenberg or Christine Sinclair in space with only Long, Cruz and the back line in front of them. The Thorns were also able to create these opportunities when Rodriguez or Horan were pressed because they have the ability to spray a cross-field pass into the space vacated by those pressing.
OL Reign adjusted as the half wore on, but the Thorns looked the better team and seemed to have a much better understanding of each others’ movement than they did in Utah. They clearly had a better of idea how to impose themselves during the match. Overall, the Thorns looked more confident of themselves and of their teammates. This was best illustrated by Simone Charley.
In Utah, Charley made runs off the ball and tried to get behind defenders. Recently she has looked like one of the most confident players on the pitch. She has been receiving the ball, taking on defenders individually and creating her own danger.
Portland was playing high octane “Thorns soccer,” but was just lacking that finishing touch in the first half until a moment of brilliance on the left flank started the scoring. Then the flood gates opened.
In the 40th minute, Horan and Klingenberg combined for a quick one-two that sent Horan off and running into the opposition’s box. Horan made for the end line before cutting the ball back to the on-rushing Sinclair, who made no mistake. This goal was the embodiment of “Thorns soccer.”
Sinclair was involved in the creation and finish of another goal just before the break. She fed the ball to Charley, who took her defender and was fouled in the box. Sinclair stepped up to the spot and the Thorns were up 2-0 in the blink of an eye.
The Thorns opened the second half smelling blood in the water. They added pressure as the match went on. Rodriguez got her first Thorns goal with a thunderous volley. Sinclair completed her third NWSL hat trick with a couple of immaculate touches that freed herself from defenders in the box.
The match ended 4-1 and the Thorns looked impressive. The midfield of Salem, Rodriguez, Horan and Sinclair was firing on all cylinders, the left flank produced moments of pure brilliance and the substitutes looked hungry and dangerous as well. It looked like a completely different team than the one we saw in Utah. They are finally playing the possession-based attacking soccer that Parsons was working to establish throughout the Challenge Cup.
The performance was not perfect. Britt Eckerstrom was forced into some great saves and the Thorns defended very narrowly. A team with more clinical wide players may be able to better exploit this defensive structure. But the Thorns had control over the match and an urgency that we have not seen recently. When they were up 4-1 the team was still pushing for more. Horan was taking corners and free kicks quickly to catch the Reign out of position.
Overall, it was a dominant display of “Thorns soccer,” and as they train and play more — and implement Morgan Weaver and Sophia Smith — the team will become more and more dangerous. Parsons has made his preferred style of play very clear, and it looks as though the team has bought in and they have the personnel to make the Thorns one of the dominant forces in NWSL again.