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Preview: Portland Thorns FC @ Chicago Red Stars

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The Thorns are looking to go 2-0 in Challenge Cup play.

Kansas City v Portland Thorns Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Portland Thorns take on the Chicago Red Stars on Thursday at Seat Geek Stadium in Chicago. Kick-off is slated for 4:30 p.m. (Pacific) and can be streamed on Paramount+. The Thorns currently lead the West group after their 2-1 win against Kansas City NWSL.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” said coach Mark Parsons in his pre-match press conference on April 14. “Great test for us. I think Chicago is probably one of the groups that have the most NWSL experience throughout this FIFA date ... and we have a lot of respect for them. Especially when they’re playing at home.

“So it’s a great challenge and something that I think we’re excited about. We’re excited to be in this position where we got to come into this place and look to impose ourselves and cause problems. And we’ve been built to really thrive and look at opportunity and challenges. And there’s opportunity to be to be better and grow. And this is a great one.”

Chicago drew the Houston Dash 0-0 at BBVA Stadium with each team securing a point. The Red Stars displayed one of the team’s overarching issues in the match against Houston — who produces goals for the Red Stars?

Chicago Red Stars’ 2020

Throughout the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and Fall Series, Chicago won four matches (one of which was a 0-0 draw vs. OL Reign in which Chicago advanced on penalties). They drew twice and lost five times. During both competitions Chicago struggled to get consistent production from their forwards. The Red Stars were shut out four times and only scored more than one goal in a match twice.

Despite the scoring problems, Chicago’s defense was solid. They advanced to the Challenge Cup Final where they lost 2-0 to Houston. The Red Stars did not fare as well in the Fall Series. They finished sixth with a goal differential of zero.

Chicago protected their roster in the 2021 NWSL Expansion Draft by trading Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato to Racing Louisville FC. They acquired Sarah Woldmoe and Mallory Pugh.

Last Match: Chicago’s Defense

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 3 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Chicago back line featured fullbacks Arin Wright and Casey Krueger and center backs Sarah Gorden and Kayla Sharples. Morgan Gautrat, Danielle Colaprico, and Vanessa DiBernardo made up the midfield. The front line included wingers Kelia Watt and Sarah Luebbert and striker Katie Johnson.

Chicago set up defensively in a 4-1-4-1. They set up in a mid block, almost completely in their own half. They looked to lure Houston out and then hit them on the counter. The Red Stars were content to let Houston’s center backs and fullbacks play out of the back. As soon as the ball reached midfield, some combination of the midfielders, fullbacks and/or center backs would aggressively step to cut out line-breaking service.

The Red Stars also picked their moments to counter press. The forwards, midfielder, and/or fullbacks pressed immediately to turn when Chicago turned the ball over in their attacking third. They looked to turn Houston over and create transition opportunities.

In the second half, Chicago switched to a 4-2-3-1 to press the Dash higher in their own half. This helped the Red Stars win the ball higher up the pitch which allowed more Chicago midfielders and more attackers to get forward in transition.

Last Match: Chicago’s Offense

A major part of Chicago’s chance creation stemmed from the counter press and press. The Red Stars looked the most dangerous in transition and on set-pieces. Chicago were by far the most dangerous going down the left.

The Red Stars built out of the back through their backline. Sharples was good in possession. But Chicago relied on Colaprico to get the ball from the back line and then find Gautrat.

Gautrat was Chicago’s best player by far. Almost everything that the Red Stars created came from her boots. Gautrat made a lot of dangerous midfield runs with and without the ball. She made these runs centrally and to the right side in the space typically occupied by Watt.

Watt had Gautrat as an advance option if Watt was carrying the ball. She also offered support on the left if Gautrat had the ball. Similarly, with and without the ball, Gautrat would drift wide. Then Watt would cut inside to operate in the space vacated by Gautrat, keeping the opposition guessing.

Despite the good movement for Gautrat and Watt, Chicago didn’t create much. They finished the match with an xG of 0.81. Their best chance came from a recycled corner. Watt delivered a perfect cross to Sharples, who couldn’t finish.

How the Thorns could limit Gautrat’s impact and Chicago’s build-up

Chicago Red Stars v Washington Spirit

Houston adjusted well to stifle Gautrat’s involvement. The Dash tried to surround Gautrat in build-up to limit the amount of times she could get on the ball. Brianna Visalli, Shea Groom and Gabby Seiler positioned themselves around Gautrat to keep the ball from her.

This is similar to how Portland pressed, especially near the touchline. The Thorns created a defensive overload on the wings vs. Kansas City to regain possession quickly. A forward, two midfielders and a fullback collapsed on the ball carrier near the touchline, offering them almost no passing lanes.

The Thorns’ press could be an effective way to deal with the threat of Gautrat. It could also stifle Colaprico and Sharples, who were key to moving Chicago up the field. But it does leave Portland vulnerable on the weak side. Chicago could exploit Portland’s opposite side if they can play through the press or find a crossfield pass.

How Chicago can find goals against Portland

The Red Stars will most likely attack the Thorns’ wings. They have quality wingers and they will have space on the flanks due to the Thorns’ diamond formation, which is very narrow. Watt showed versus Houston that she can deliver a killer pass and Gautrat will cause even more problems drifting into that space.

Portland struggled to clear second balls against Kansas City. This is what happened in the lead up to Amy Rodriguez’s goal and was an issue for the Thorns throughout the match.

Chicago has quality set-piece service from DiBernardo and if they are first to second balls they could punish Portland.

How Portland can find success against Chicago

Switching the Point of Attack

Kansas City v Portland Thorns Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

If Chicago chooses to run a 4-2-3-1 formation, Portland may be able to find space on the weak side. The Thorns have a variety of players who have the passing range to exploit the space on the weak side of the defense.

The issue with exploiting the weak side of the defense is getting players on the flank there. It seems as though Parsons is sticking with the 4-4-2 diamond we saw last season. Either one of the strikers, midfielders, or fullbacks need to operate in that space. If one of the strikers pulls wide, the Thorns could limit their options centrally. Also, Portland may not have numbers in the box to take advantage when the striker receives it on the weak side.

Midfield Runs

Houston looked most dangerous against Chicago when they were able to evade pressure and play quick one-twos. This got the Dash midfielders in behind Colaprico, DiBernardo, and Gautrat. The compact diamond midfield lends itself to being able to do this. The diamond provides a numerical advantage in midfield. Because of the Thorns’ quality and fluidity in the center of the pitch they could better exploit this space than Houston.

The key will be freeing Raquel Rodriguez, Celeste Boureille and Marissa Everett behind the Red Stars’ midfield. If the Thorns can do this they will find more space in transition and will be able to get at Chicago’s back line with numbers.

Set-pieces

Kansas City v Portland Thorns Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Portland Thorns have always been a dangerous team from set-pieces, especially with the likes of Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan in the 18-yard box. But the Thorns proved against Kansas City that they can still wreak havoc from free-kicks and corners due to quality service and aerial threats.

“I think we’re always set out to be very, very effective both offensively and defensively off of set pieces,” said Parsons. “You could go since 2016 and look at our crossing free kicks and our attacking corners and say, well, we are a constant threat. Whether it’s been Tobin Heath or Allie Long, or whether it’s been [Meghan] Klingenberg or Rocky Rodriguez, we always look to invest a lot of time and and we really believe in that area of the game, in wanting to be effective.”

Both of the Thorns’ goals against Kansas City came from headers. Rodriguez’s goal came from a set-piece. Klingenberg almost always provides dangerous service and Christen Westphal showed she could pick out a player’s forehead with precision as well. And it seems as though the Thorns have focused on creating from set-piece routines. During their first match, the Thorns took five corners. Two were launched straight into the danger area while the other three were taken short to pull the defense out and find a better angle for the cross.

“Whether we’re playing short, medium, long, delivering right away, or playing combinations, it always depends on the opponent’s structure,” said Parsons. “We’re built to be able to take advantage of space, or gaps, or weaknesses in the opponent’s structure. The way that our system, Rich Gunney, who runs our attacking set pieces, is rather than having specific ‘this is what we do and how we do it.’ It’s coaching the players to be able to be aware of the opponent, why there’s spaces — and make decisions based on that, which are two things that hopefully makes us effective and makes it hard to predict because we’re going to try to find a solution.

“It’s no different in open play, we’re going to try to find a solution that is specific to that moment, and what the opponent or the space on the field is. And I love the way that we care about this part. But where we’ve gone with it over the last two years and the work that Rich on the attacking and Sophie Clough on the defending side of that.”