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Thorns show that they have the grit to take on stifling defenses

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Last Saturday, the Thorns displayed the ability to create opportunities despite facing a stubborn defense, another sign of improvement since the Challenge Cup.

OL Reign v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Portland Thorns FC started the Fall Series on fire, winning their first match 3-0 against Utah and their second 4-1 against OL Reign. After a draw against Utah Royals FC last Saturday, Portland can clinch the Fall Series title with a win or a draw (depending on Houston Dash’s result).

The Thorns are confident that they can wrap up this title against the Reign, but they will likely have to play better than they did in their second match against the Royals. The Thorns were playing their second match in four days and did not roll out their best eleven, but Utah prepared well for Portland. The Royals pressed the Thorns in a way that stunted Portland offensively by limiting the influence of the Thorns midfield.

In the first match against Utah, Portland’s midfield was the creative spark that dominated the pitch. But in their second match, Utah adjusted. Lindsey Horan had a goal, 63 passes, four key passes and 90 touches in the first match. She was held to one shot, one key pass, and 50 passes in the second match, despite having 90 touches.

The same pattern was evident with the Thorns’ other midfielders. Rocky Rodriguez had 46 passes, two key passes and 69 touches in the first match and had 33 passes, one key pass and only 48 touches in the second. Sinclair had six more touches and 12 more passes in their first meeting than in the match last Saturday.

Angela Salem started in the win against Utah and made 63 passes and two key passes on 71 touches. She dictated the midfield and was influential in establishing the pace at which the Thorns played. Salem was rested in the second match and was replaced by Emily Ogle.

Ogle made two key passes but only had 45 touches and 37 passes. This was not because Ogle or any of the other midfielders had a bad individual performance. They were just limited by Utah’s game plan.

Utah opened the match pressing about halfway into the Thorns’ defensive half. Veronica Boquete led the press with Brittany Ratcliffe and Amy Rodriguez on either side of the Spaniard. Ratcliffe or Rodriguez would pressure the fullbacks if the ball went to their side of the pitch, forcing the Thorns to pass it backwards.

The midfield was also crucial to the press. Tziarra King slotted in as the left-sided central midfielder and Aminata Diallo shifted around the center of the park, at times tracking Sinclair. Lo’eau LaBonta was a sort of right-sided central midfielder who was tasked with tracking midfielders (specifically Horan) when dropping back.

The Royals forced the center backs and keeper to either pass to the full backs or get a long ball to Morgan Weaver or Sophia Smith. They limited the availability of Horan and Ogle and the Thorns to struggle to break the first line of pressure. When the ball went wide to Christen Westphal or Madison Pogarch the defense would shift to pressure the ball carrier.

For example, when Westphal had the ball on the right flank, the Utah defense would shift. Diallo and King crashed onto Westphal, limiting her passing options. Mallory Webber stepped up to defend the ball down the wing, each center back marked a forward and Amy Rodriguez covered the back pass. Boquete would pressure Ogle or Rodriguez if they received the ball and Ratcliffe and LaBonta marked Horan and Sinclair. Westphal was eventually forced to pass to Sauerbrunn and Utah reset.

The press was ultimately what helped lead to Utah’s goal. LaBonta followed Horan as the Thorns midfielder dropped deep to receive the ball. The forward line of pressure stepped up and was able to pick off a less-than-stellar Horan pass. Utah had numbers forward because of their press and Rodriguez tapped in LaBonta’s saved shot.

Boquete, Diallo, and Labonta were key for Utah’s defense. Horan and Sinclair often drift around the defense, drop deep to receive the ball and turn and create. LaBonta and Diallo did well limiting their influence in the midfield. Boquete and Amy Rodriguez cut off passing lanes to Ogle. Ogle struggled to get the ball and circulate it around the midfield and kick-start the fluid, interchangeable movement between Rocky Rodriguez, Horan and Sinclair. She struggled to do this because she rarely was able to receive the ball in good positions, and when she did the Royals were so compact that she was unable to find her creative midfielders.

Utah did not press the entire match because that would’ve left them physically and mentally drained. When Utah sat back, LaBonta and Diallo were still wary of Horan and Sinclair. Their defensive structure was extremely compact and limited space in the midfield.

Despite Utah’s solid defensive game plan they were unable to keep the Thorns out. Sinclair scored after a great Horan run down the left side. Charley’s shot was saved, but Sinclair’s was not. In fact, the Thorns created more than the 1-1 draw suggests. Sinclair and the Thorns thought they scored after Horan headed a ball back across goal and Sinclair’s shot was saved off the line. Pogarch and Westphal adjusted to the press and played quality balls to the on-rushing Weaver and Smith, who almost combined for a tap-in. Horan, as always, was still a danger on set-pieces and crosses despite the pressure.

The Thorns have looked impressive throughout their first two matches, showing their grace with the ball. But in their third last Saturday, they showed their grit. Portland went down early due to a mistake but responded well. They struggled to carve up Utah’s midfield, but were still able to create enough opportunities to win the match. The Thorns did not convert all of their opportunities, but they showed that even if it’s not their day and they’re rotating their squad, the bench can step up and battle through a difficult tactical battle.

This is not something they did in the Challenge Cup, and this match should give them confidence. Portland will be heading into the last Fall Series match fully rested with the full squad to choose from. They will have the chance to be rewarded with a title for all their hard work and improvement throughout this strange season (even if it’s just the Verizon Community Shield).