In the two competitions of the 2020 NWSL season, Simone Charley and Sophia Smith were only on the pitch together for 13 minutes. Smith missed out entirely on the NWSL Challenge Cup, and during the Fall Series the two forwards only played one match together, a 4-1 win over OL Reign last September where they shared the pitch from the 53rd to the 66th minute.
Smith missed the first two matches of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup because she was in camp with the U.S. Women’s National Team, but she and Charley were finally able to start together against OL Reign on Wednesday. Coach Mark Parsons had all of his attacking players at his disposal and selected Charley and Smith in the Cascadia rivalry match with a berth to the Challenge Cup Final on the line for the Thorns.
Despite not sharing much time on the pitch yet, Charley and Smith worked well together against the Reign on both sides of the ball.
“So me and Soph[ia Smith] have been able to work together throughout preseason,” Charley said in the Thorns vs. Reign post-match press conference. “I think that’s a relationship that’s just going to continue to grow.
“Soph’s a great young player. Great on the ball loves to attack and I think for us just having that attacking mindset and wanting to get after it and attack the goal is something that we both like to do. So I think for us it’s just about building that partnership and continuing to just learn how we play and play off of each other.”
Charley and Smith have a good understanding of each other’s movement. They showed an interchangeability and fluidity that kept the Reign back line guessing. Throughout the first half, Charley was positioned centrally and stayed higher up the pitch.
Smith would check back into a more withdrawn position in-between the lines and look to receive the ball with her back to goal. The center backs and midfielders routinely found Smith and the first pick of the 2020 NWSL College Draft held the ball up well. Smith showed great strength and awareness to shield the ball, winning four fouls in the process.
Smith won the foul that led to Horan’s first goal. She quickly positioned herself in front of Amber Brooks at the top of the 18-yard box and Brooks took her down.
When Smith received the ball she was able to turn quickly or play quick interchanges with Christine Sinclair, who was operating as an advanced midfielder. This was evident early in the match. Once when Sinclair burst up the pitch, Smith took a controlled first touch to settle, and while surrounded by Bethany Balcer, Madison Hammond and Quinn, split the defense with a back-heel pass to the on-rushing Canadian. Sinclair then tried to find Charley with a through ball but the pass was too heavy.
The entry pass to Smith — and a lay off to Sinclair to find Charley in behind — was a consistent pattern of play that the Thorns attempted. It worked well at times. At other times, touches and timing were a little bit off, which is to be expected early in the season.
When Smith dropped a little deeper or drifted to the left or right Charley stayed higher up the pitch and offered a more direct option than Portland’s typical measured build-up. Meghan Klingenberg tried this as early as the fifth minute and it created issues for the Reign throughout the entire time Charley was on the pitch.
Klingenberg lofted a pass over the top to Charley. The forward brought it down, cut back toward goal. Her shot was blocked and her second shot was saved.
Charley served as a direct option even when the Thorns weren’t in transition. Lindsey Horan was in midfield and spotted Charley hanging on the back shoulder of the defense. Horan lofted the ball to Charley, whose header was caught by goalkeeper Karen Bardsley.
In the 35th minute, Smith and Charley combined well in their two forward roles. Horan played it to Smith, who battled to keep the ball, turned and found Charley on the run. Charley cut back past Hammond and her shot was blocked again.
During the second half, Charley’s and Smith’s roles were reversed at times. Smith occupied the center backs as the direct option and Charley dropped to receive the ball in between the lines.
Sinclair played a lofted ball to Smith, who took an incredible touch past Brooks. She battled down the right with Hammond and cut past her. Smith tried to find Dunn in the penalty area but the pass was cut out by Quinn.
Charley offered something different with her hold-up play. Charley played quick one-twos with the midfielders and looked to receive a forward pass on the run to run at the backline. Charley was dangerous receiving on the half-turn or in space in the midfield because she was able to dribble past defenders and force defenders to vacate space to try and stop her.
In the 56th minute, Rocky Rodriguez played a leading pass to Charley in the center of the pitch. Charley ran at the defense and cut past Brooks. Smith made a great run into the space vacated by Brooks and kept herself onside well. Smith was open in space at the top of the 18 but Charley elected to shoot.
“I think [Charley’s] been consistently the most dangerous player in our team for the last 10 to 11 weeks,” said Parsons. “So she didn’t just find it, she’s kept it [and] maintained consistency.”
The forward duo wreaked havoc on the Reign backline. Smith had two successful dribbles and Charley completed four of her six attempted dribbles. Smith also contributed a key pass and was denied a goal after a great run by a Bardsley save. Charley scored one goal at the beginning of the second half and had six shots on goal (most by any NWSL player since 2019, most by a Thorns player in the Opta era 2017-present).
On top of her goal, Simone Charley’s six shots on target were the most by any NWSL player in a competitive match since the beginning of 2020.— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) April 22, 2021
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Even when Charley and Smith didn’t have the ball they caused the Reign back line problems with their pressure.
Charley, Smith and Sinclair initiated the press for the Portland Thorns and the two forwards had a good understanding of when they would initiate a pressing action together. They repeatedly forced the OL Reign defenders into giveaways which sometimes led to transition opportunities.
“I think the biggest area of improvement for [Charley] is her awareness and knowledge on how to defend,” said Parsons, “and use her qualities to really put the opponent under pressure and attach to that with her awareness in her positioning and movement in attack.”
Charley almost created a goal when she read Kristen McNabb’s back pass and Bardsley was just able to clear it off of Charley.
Smith also put in an important defensive shift, apart from her work pressing. She registered one clearance, two interceptions, one tackle and won seven duels. Eight of her defensive actions were in the offensive half and Smith turned defense to offense rapidly.
Smith repeatedly tracked back into her own half to win the ball back and read passing lanes well, which almost got her a goal. In the 50th minute, Smith jumped a passing lane, took a touch to set her through between two defenders and dribbled in front of one of the defenders to eliminate her from the play. Her shot forced Bardsley into a good save.
There were many moments throughout the 68 minutes that the two forwards were on the pitch together when they created dangerous opportunities. Charley and Smith worked well together and linked up with Sinclair and the rest of the midfielders well to get at the back line. Both forwards have the ability to create space with the ball at their feet and with their intelligent movement.
This was the first time Charley and Smith played more than 13 minutes together and there is a dangerous connection forming between them that could cause NWSL defenses loads of trouble. As Charley and Smith continue to work together they could not only cement themselves as the go-to partnership for the Thorns but have the potential to be one of the most dangerous strike-partnerships in the league.
Stats retrieved at nwslsoccer.com via Opta.