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Tactical Preview: Portland Thorns vs. Chicago Red Stars

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Chicago will look to dominate the midfield but the Thorns can exploit defensive holes in transition.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 1 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

After falling 2-1 to the North Carolina Courage, the Portland Thorns will try to bounce back against the Chicago Red Stars.

The Red Stars dropped their first match 2-1 to the Washington Spirit. Chicago struggled for the first 50 minutes of the match and the team was clearly emotionally drained after the National Anthem locker room debate and protest.

The Red Stars’ greatest asset is their midfield. They will look to dictate the pace of the game with Morgan Gautrat (formerly Brian) running the show. She was Chicago’s most influential player and hopped on a deflected ball and slotted a perfect finish into the bottom corner of the net for Chicago’s consolation goal.

Offensive Set-up

When the Red Stars are on the offensive their fullbacks Casey Short and Bianca St. Georges would push forward leaving only the two center backs in defense. In the first half, Chicago’s most consistent form of attack was overlaps between Short and winger Kealia Watt. Watt cut inside to drive at defenders and Short would overlap to swing in crosses. During the second half, Short overlapped less and drifted more central joining the midfield and the attack.

The Thorns should be wary on set pieces. On almost every corner kick Julie Ertz would make a near-post run and try to flick the ball on to another runner or onto goal.

Throughout the match, Chicago gave the ball away cheaply and were ineffective attacking through the central channels. The Red Stars looked most dangerous when Watt and Rachel Hill had the ball on the wings. Chicago repeatedly tried to pull fullback Tori Huster out of position to get Watt and Hill one on one with the Spirit centerbacks. They would cut inside and shoot or drive to the end line to provide crosses. Another tactical wrinkle used by the wingers was Watt and Hill swapping flanks.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 1

The Thorns’ defense will have to be on their ‘A’ game. Chicago will look to get defenders in one on one situations and either shoot or swing crosses in. These are both things the Thorns’ defense struggled with against the Courage, although North Carolina is a different beast than Chicago.

Because the primary threat posed by Chicago was on the wings they often became congested, leaving a lot of space and fewer numbers in the center of the park. This is one of the things the Thorns can take advantage of. Chicago’s overloads on the flanks may allow Lindsey Horan and Rocky Rodriguez to link up with Christine Sinclair dropping deep, to exploit the space in midfield.

Defensive Transition

The Washington Spirit were most successful in transition. Rose Lavelle and Jordan DiBiasi were able to carry the ball through the midfield and release Ashley Hatch behind the Red Stars’ center backs. Again, the Thorns midfield should be able to be successful in transition, where Chicago struggled the most, if they can break the opposition’s initial high press. The Spirit were consistently able to pass in between the lines and behind the center backs to create good goalscoring opportunities. Horan could cause Chicago a lot of damage if she is able to play balls in behind to any of the Thorns’ strikers. If Weaver starts she could be very effective against the Red Stars if she times her runs well and links up with the midfield.

The Red Stars’ center backs also struggled dealing with deep runs from the Spirits’ midfielders. This is another area that the Thorns could exploit with runs from the likes of Horan and Rodriguez.

In both matches on Saturday, teams tired as the game progressed. It is impossible to know how both coaches will rotate and how they will use their substitutes. All eight teams advance to the knock out round so it will be interesting to see how the coaches and players go into the match. One thing is for sure, no matter who is on the pitch the Red Stars and the Thorns are looking to bounce back from defeats on the first match day. Both teams looked exploitable in defense and struggled to get the ball in the back of the net so Portland and Chicago will both see this as a winnable match.

The Thorns take on the Red Stars Wednesday July 1 at 9:30 am (PT). The match will be available on CBS All Access.