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NWSL Semifinal Preview: Portland Thorns vs. Chicago Red Stars

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The Thorns host the Chicago Red Stars in an NWSL semifinal on Sunday. Here is what you need to know.

Chicago Red Stars v Portland Thorns Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The top-seeded Portland Thorns take on the fourth-seeded Chicago Red Stars in Providence Park in the 2021 NWSL semifinals. Kick off is slated for 2:30 p.m. PST on Sunday and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network. The Red Stars advanced through the NWSL’s first-ever quarterfinal with a 1-0 win over NJ/NY Gotham FC in Bridgeview, Illinois.

Chicago has been ruthless at home this season. Eight of the Red Stars’ 11 regular season wins have come at home - a franchise-best. They have also scored 18 of their 28 regular season goals at home. Chicago added another home win and another home goal with the result in the first round of the playoffs.

The Red Stars will travel to Portland for this semifinal and will not be at their stronghold but will enter Providence Park a team in form. Chicago has won their previous four matches, allowing only one goal in that stretch. The Red Stars’ last loss came on Oct. 10 in Tacoma, WA against OL Reign.

The Thorns come into the match with a target on their back. They have won the NWSL Challenge Cup, the Women’s International Champions Cup and the NWSL Shield. In all competitions, the Thorns defeated Chicago twice. Morgan Weaver scored a second-half goal to give Portland the away win in the Challenge Cup and the Thorns opened the regular season with a 5-0 hammering of Chicago in Portland.

Chicago have talked about the impact of that drumming and how it inspired the team to get a 2-1 win over Portland in Bridgeview on September 25 and Morgan Gautrat recently brought it up again on CBS’s podcast Attacking Third. The Red Stars don’t need more motivation with a spot in the final on the line but have plenty extra to fuel them.

The Thorns were awarded a bye into the semifinals because of their first-place finish in the league. They have not played since Oct. 30 when they drew 0-0 with the North Carolina Courage in their last match of the regular season. Portland earned some much-needed rest and recovery as well as some time to focus on training.

What to expect?

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Chicago will be focused on disrupting the Thorns’ possession game. The Red Stars are extremely hard to break down and play through. Their primary focus is to plug midfield channels throughout and to force teams wide. When teams take the space wide, the Red Stars press them and look to force turnovers. Chicago also looks to create turnovers by baiting teams into dangerous passes centrally. The midfielders and forwards are typically well positioned and entice the opposition to make an entry pass. The Red Stars look to jump those passing lanes and turn the opposition over so Chicago can attack quickly in transition.

This game plan stifled Gotham and led directly to Mallory Pugh’s decisive goal. Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan looked to start an attack quickly with a long throw to McCall Zerboni, who dropped centrally to help facilitate possession. Sarah Woldmoe read it perfectly and picked Zerboni’s pocket. Caprice Daydasco was caught way upfield, leaving plenty of space for Pugh to exploit and Gina Lewandoski was caught in between Pugh and Woldmoe. Woldmoe did well to make Lewandoski commit to stepping to the ball. As soon as the center back stepped Woldmoe played Pugh through and the forward finished expertly.

It was one of Chicago’s few chances and they made it count. The Red Stars were only able to muster a meager three shots on target at an xG of 0.49 but they kept a clean sheet and limited Gotham to 0.51 xG. The Red Stars are not concerned with playing attractive soccer. Chicago only attempted 313 passes at 58.5% accuracy and saw 40.8% of the ball.

The Red Stars are not a team that strings a bunch of passes together but they do a good job at winning the ball back in dangerous areas and getting their most impactful offensive players lots of touches in those areas. In fact, these two players had the most touches for the Red Stars in their playoff quarterfinal. Gautrat had 66 touches and Pugh had 50 touches. Both added a team-high two key passes each.

If the Thorns are to have success against the Red Stars they will need to limit the involvement of Gautrat and Pugh, which is much easier said than done. Pugh and Gautrat both have a lot of freedom to drift into spaces which not only creates space for themselves and makes them hard to track, it creates more space and time in which other Red Stars can benefit.

Four-back or Three-back?

Portland will also prepare for the Red Stars high-intensity disruptive defensive approach but will not be sure of how it will be executed. In Chicago’s playoff match, they rolled out a four-back system. When the two teams met on September 25, the Red Stars shocked the Thorns with a three-back system that caused Portland a lot of problems.

“I think they traditionally, historically have been a very hard-to-beat team,” said coach Mark Parsons in the prematch media availability. “Always defensively strong and opportunistic in the attack. It’s been interesting to see how they’ve evolved through this year being very aware of what their identity is and how they’ve played against most teams, but also for us, they were quite unique, away from home. So being prepared for different spaces with and without the ball being available.

Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson and (the currently injured/questionable) Casey Krueger formed a back three and Arin Wright, who is typically a full back, pushed very high and joined midfield. Chicago kept a very high line (as they typically do) and left Gorden and Davidson to deal with counter attacks which they dispelled expertly. This allowed Chicago to have the numerical advantage whenever they were going forward or pressing and the Thorns struggled to clear their lines and play through the pressure.

Chicago did well to create sustained waves of attack by recovering or maintaining possession and pinning the Thorns in the defensive 18-yard box. Rachel Hill’s winner was created from sustained attacks and mismarking at the back post. The Red Stars’ other goal came only moments after the Thorns’ opener. Kealia Watt tapped it into an open net after Bella Bixby spilled a cross.

The Red Stars were able to give the Thorns a look that unsettled and disrupted Portland with their hyper-aggressive three-back system and could be something Chicago coach Rory Dames goes with again. But the Red Stars have also found success recently with a four-back system and could stick with that, especially if Krueger isn’t ready to go for the semifinal.

How the Thorns can get the better of the Red Stars

Offensively

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Portland did not play anywhere near their best in Bridgeview during that 2-1 loss. It was the first match after an international break and they have consistently struggled after those. The Thorns were outplayed and were under the gun for large stretches of the game but also recovered well toward the end of the match and demonstrated exactly how to dissect this Chicago team in the opening goal.

Christine Sinclair scored a worldie but the build-up demonstrated Portland’s ability to switch the point of the attack, play quick, sharp passes while rotating fluidly, and then play line-breaking passes. That is the kind of combination that will be crucial to playing out of the Chicago press and to creating opportunities in the final third.

“To talk specifically about our last match against Chicago, I thought they did a really good job of keeping us to one side,” said Becky Sauerbrunn in yesterday’s media availability. “And so they kind of invited us to play to one side of the field and then really committed numbers and kept us over there. And it was difficult to switch the play. So for us, it’s identifying open players, it’s identifying the space that we can capitalize on and how we can get the ball there. And I think if we can do that successfully and relatively risk-free, I think that will really help us in our build-up.”

Once the Thorns are able to play through the Red Stars’ initial defensive setup, Portland should be able to dominate in the middle of the park. It will be crucial for the Thorns to establish their possession game early and pin Chicago deep so Portland has numbers in the attack and limits the Red Stars’ outlets out of pressure. This will be key because both Davidson and Gorden have been exceptional in one versus one battles throughout the season. Attackers have struggled to get by them but by having numbers in and around the area the Thorns could find more success by creating numerical advantages against the center backs and decreasing the time the center backs have to react and recover.

For us throughout the last two years, we’ve been very, very clear on who we are and not just in style of play, but who we are as people and our job on Sunday is to be able to represent ourselves as a team as a group in the way that we love to play soccer, the way we love to play against anyone on any day in our home stadium,” said Parsons. “We’ve been fine-tuning. We’ve been trying to make sure that our strengths, and the things that make us who we are, are on show for as long as possible, as much as possible on Sunday, while respecting and being aware of the advantages or the opportunities but also how to limit as many threats as possible.”

The Thorns forwards (presumably Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver) will have to be on their game. As stated above, Gorden and Davidson rarely get outpaced and are excellent in one versus ones. Chicago keeps a very high defensive line and there will be plenty of space to be exploited. The wingbacks and midfielders have shown all season that they can find Weaver and Smith in behind the defense but those forwards will need to combine well like they did in the 5-0 drumming of Chicago if they are to get the better of this dominant center back duo.

Defense

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars Photo by DANIEL BARTEL/ISI Photos/Getty Images

I have raved about this Red Stars defense and their ability to disrupt teams quite a bit throughout this piece but have yet to mention that the Thorns have the league’s best defense. Portland have kept a league record 13 clean sheets and have often established their dominance in possession through their suffocating defense. The Thorns have relied less on their relentless high press down the stretch of the NWSL regular season. Injuries, international breaks and turnaround times make it difficult to execute this strategy game in and game out.

It is almost certain that Portland will look to suffocate Chicago with their high press and counterpress. The Thorns have two of the best pressing forwards in the league in Weaver and Smith (Washington Spirit’s Trinity Rodman is also in the conversation). They have the pace to close down defenders and have a great understanding of when and how to pressure by taking the right pressing angles. The press is something that the entire team participates in and it has worked wonders at times throughout the season and could prove vital against Chicago.

As mentioned before, the Red Stars struggled to string passes together against Gotham but were able to get their playmakers heavily involved through their disruptive defense. The Thorns have the ability to do the same thing to Chicago but are better on the ball.

The Red Stars struggled to build out of the back against Gotham. As demonstrated by the pass map, most of the ball-playing was done by the midfielders and forwards. When Chicago did build from the back Cassie Miller typically played the ball to Tierna Davidson and Sarah Woldmoe centrally. Miller struggled passing out of the back. Some of her passes went awry and other times she played passes that put her teammates in precarious positions. In one instance, Davidson received a pass under pressure and afterward could be seen gesticulating at Miller in an attempt to prevent another situation like that.

The Thorns should look to capitalize on this. It is likely that Chicago will have more goal kicks and will have to play out of the back more than they did against Gotham. Portland’s pressure should be able to unsettle the Red Stars and force them into turnovers or force them long. With Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair and (probably) Rocky Rodriguez in midfield, the Thorns will be well equipped to win aerial duels and spark transition or sustain waves of attack.

The Portland Thorns host the Chicago Red Stars in Providence Park at 2:30 p.m. PST in the 2021 NWSL semifinals. The winner will play either OL Reign or the Washington Spirit in the NWSL final. That match is slated to kick off at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, KY, at 9 a.m. PST on November 20.