Portland Thorns FC went into SeatGeek Stadium Thursday night and beat the Chicago Red Stars 1-0. Despite the solid result that saw Portland maintain their position at the top of the West group, the performance wasn’t flawless.
The Thorns were put under a lot of pressure in the first half and required solid defensive performances from the whole team to not concede. Chicago set up in a 4-1-4-1 mid-block but pressed the Thorns high up the pitch throughout the first half. Makenzy Doniak and Kelia Watt served as the first line of pressure in a 4-4-2. The Red Stars pushed high into the Portland half, leaving only center backs Casey Krueger and Sarah Gorden back around the halfway line. The fullbacks — Tatumn Milazzo and Arin Wright — joined the midfield to pin the Thorns in their own half.
Watt and Doniak’s pressure limited the Thorns’ forward options and forced them wide, usually to Christen Westphal. The Red Stars would collapse on the flank with multiple midfielders, one forward and one fullback. Typically, Sarah Woldmoe would patrol the middle of the pitch to cut out outlet passes in the center of the park. The Red Stars pressed similarly on throw-ins.
Chicago’s pressure and high line stifled Portland and the Thorns struggled to get out of their own half. The Thorns’ narrow midfield allowed Chicago space on the wings. Forwards, midfielders and fullbacks would occupy the channel to create an overload. This overload forced at least one, sometimes two, Thorns’ midfielders to come over and cover. Tyler Lussi or Morgan Weaver also dropped to help out defensively.
The threat posed by the overloads on the wings and wingers Watt and DiBernardo forced Westphal and Madison Pogarch to stay back, which kept the Thorns from having the wide options they normally rely on.
This left the Thorns’ with only one or two outlets forward when they were able to recover possession. But Chicago still had numbers forward and were able to counter-press to win the ball back quickly.
The compactness of the Red Stars’ midfield and the lack of passing options for the Thorns ball carrier resulted in Portland going direct. Because the Thorns needed numbers to deal with Chicago’s wide play, the Thorns almost always had a numerical disadvantage when playing direct. The Thorns’ aerial balls allowed the Red Stars midfielders to surround and pressure the Thorns’ intended target or the Thorns were forced long and Gorden and Krueger had the aerial ability to prevent danger.
There were ways through this pressure for the Thorns. The first way was by beating the initial line of pressure with individual quality. Raquel Rodriguez was able to turn through the Red Stars’ pressure multiple times. This allowed her to run at the backline and play through balls behind the defense or slow the play and possess in Chicago’s half. Pogarch showed a similar ability to evade pressure by dribbling past defenders, and the Red Stars had to foul her to keep her from creating.
Beating players 1v1 was the Thorns’ primary way of evading pressure and creating opportunities in the first half. In the second half, Portland adjusted and offered ball carriers more options going forward. After breaking the initial line of pressure they looked to create quick one-twos before seeking the killer pass in behind the defense.
In the second half, the Thorns had success against the Chicago pressure by getting numbers around the ball and creating passing lanes. The Thorns offered the ball carrier quick and easy passing options by dropping a forward back near the ball. The forward would then receive the ball and play a quick one-two with Marissa Everett (or another midfielder), who made runs out of midfield. She then looked to find the other forward in space. This is how the Thorns created the few chances they had.
The Thorns adjusted well in the second half and were better able to play through the Chicago pressure. They created more transition opportunities and were able to possess the ball more.
More possession led to the Thorns forcing Chicago to play out of pressure and the Thorns were able to pin the Red Stars back and possess more in the second half.
Portland struggled in the first half due to Chicago’s game plan but they were able to adjust and create the few chances they needed to go on the road and secure the three points.