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Defense wins Challenge Cups, WICCs and NWSL Shields

The Thorns’ historic defensive record has propelled them to three trophies already and will be integral if they are to win their fourth.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Thorns FC

One of the most used cliches in sports is “defense wins championships.” Generally, fans and neutrals prefer a flashy attacking style of play to an overly defensive philosophy. But it doesn’t have to be either, or. No one would describe the Portland Thorns as a ‘defensive team.’ They don’t sit back and ‘park the bus.’ If anything, the Thorns are an aggressive, attacking, possession-based team.

The Thorns have not been as offensively dominant as they could be. They have consistently underperformed their expected goal values and have struggled to take advantage of the abundance of chances they create. But they have been defensively dominant and have shown signs of this since the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and their first regular season match.

I wrote about the Thorns’ defensive principles that would prove to make them great after Portland’s 5-0 win against the Chicago Red Stars in Providence Park. It was clear from NWSL Matchday 1 that the Thorns were a team that would suck the life out of the opposition with their high-energy press, counter-press and commitment to defending as a team - not to mention the Thorns typically out-possess teams and force the opposition to chase the game without the ball, further running teams into the ground.

The clean sheet against Chicago was the first of the regular season and only the beginning for a defense that would set a team and league record for regular season shutouts. The Thorns kept Kansas City NWSL scoreless three times, the North Carolina Courage, Houston Dash, NJ/NY Gotham FC, and Racing Louisville twice each, and the Washington Spirit and the Chicago Red Stars once each, during the regular season.

Portland also shut out the Chicago Red Stars and OL Reign (who have gone through a lot of changes to make them a better team since) in the Challenge Cup, meaning the Thorns kept eight of their nine NWSL opponents off the board at least once this season throughout all competitions. The only team that was able to score in every match they played against the Thorns was the Orlando Pride.

In all competitions, Portland allowed three goals once this regular season, in their 3-2 loss to the Houston Dash. The Thorns conceded two goals in a single match five times during the regular season and similarly kept their opponents to one goal five times during the regular season.

The Thorns allowed 17 goals in 24 regular season matches for 0.708 goals per game. This statistic is a little misleading because Portland did not actually play one of these matches. They were awarded a 3-0 victory over the Washington Spirit for a violation of the league’s COVID-19 protocol. Removing that result, the Thorns conceded 17 goals in 23 matches played in the regular season for 0.739 goals per game, which is still very impressive.

Portland are also the only team to prevent Olympique Lyonnais from scoring so far in the French giant’s season. The Women’s International Championship is a friendly tournament and it was during Lyon’s preseason but it was still an impressive feat.

Lyon started their season six days after their 1-0 loss to the Thorns in the WICC. The seven-time European Champions scored three or more goals against current UWCL holders Barcelona in the WICC and in all of their league matches so far this season. Levante held Lyon to a 2-1 result twice as the French side squeaked by the Spaniards 4-2 on aggregate in the UWCL qualifiers.

Olympique Lyonnais v Portland Thorns: Championship - 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Thorns’ defensive numbers are extremely impressive and historic. Portland has amassed a Thorns and NWSL single-season record 13 regular season clean sheets and 16 shutouts across all competitions. But what is the most impressive is the number of players that have contributed to Portland’s defensive success.

The Thorns have maintained the same offensive and defensive identity no matter the opponent and no matter the Thorns players on the field. Portland played the same high-intensity style and accumulated four shutouts before the Olympic period and four shutouts after it. During the Olympic period, the team was missing Christine Sinclair, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Adrianna Franch (who was traded to Kansas City and never returned to the Thorns after the Olympics), and still went seven unbeaten and allowed two goals in six wins and one draw, keeping their opponents scoreless in five matches. Everyone on the roster has contributed to the Thorns’ defensive stability.

The likes of Marissa Everett, Olivia Moultrie, Celeste Boureille, Madison Pogarch, and others who didn’t amass consistent minutes throughout the rest of the season were integral to the Thorns’ success during the Olympics and to Portland winning the NWSL Shield and a home semifinal in the NWSL playoffs.

Goalkeeper Bella Bixby got her big break during the Olympic period and stepped up and convinced the Portland decision-makers that she could be the Thorns’ starting goalkeeper. She went on to keep nine regular season clean sheets on top of her one in the WICC, making game-changing saves the whole season.

Thorns FC general manager and former Thorns and Canadian national team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc referred to Bixby as “arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world” in her media availability on Monday. Bixby has been nothing short of sensational this season and has orchestrated the Thorns’ defense expertly since taking over as the starting goalkeeper.

The defensive effort this season has been visible throughout the team, from the energetic pressing of the forwards Morgan Weaver, Sophia Smith, Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi, to the relentlessness of the midfield led by Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, Rocky Rodriguez and Angela Salem, to the rock-solid defense.

​​“I have to give credit to the forwards,” said Emily Menges said after the 0-0 draw with the Courage. “We work a lot on defense and keeping the opponent in their half and a lot of the games, the defense hardly has to do much defending because the people in front of us are doing so much work.”

Of course, you can’t talk about defensive dominance without mentioning the backline. Meghan Klingenberg has had a wonderful season going forward and in defense at left back. She has been so hard to beat 1v1 and continues to pick attackers’ pockets and turn defense into attack. Kelli Hubly, Emily Menges and Becky Sauerbrunn have been some of the best, most consistent center backs in the league. They put out fires, break up counter-attacks, and put in last-ditch challenges while also facilitating the Thorns’ possession game from the back. Christen Westphal and Natalia Kuikka provided killer crosses and a solid defensive presence at right back. Westphal made one of the saves of the season after a long recovery run and sliding save to deny the Spirit’s Trinity Rodman and ensure a Thorns’ shut out.

Kuikka made the transition to the NWSL look easy and did so while playing at right back, which is not her preferred position. She played at right back, left back, center back and in midfield and did so at a high level the whole time.

“The defensive unit, it’s for sure special,” said Menges “We take a lot of pride in what we do. We have a good group that can sit down and look at things objectively, we look at all the goals after they’re scored on us just to see what we could do differently, what we can do better. Nobody gets defensive, it’s all very objective and we learned a lot from it. It’s a really, really cool group.”

The team has defended as a unit the entire season and will need to continue to do so if they hope to win their fourth trophy this season. The Thorns’ finishing ability has been inconsistent but the defense has made Portland tough to beat because they rarely give up more than one goal and the Thorns almost always create enough chances to score multiple goals a game.

As the saying goes - defense wins championships. The Thorns’ commitment to defending as a team has helped them win the NWSL Challenge Cup, the WICC and the NWSL Shield. Portland has their sights set on the big one next - the NWSL Championship. And if the Thorns are to make it a historic quadruple, they will need to continue their defensive dominance.