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Six takeaways from the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup

Grant Little highlights his takeaways from the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Champion Portland Thorns’ cup performance.

NY/NJ Gotham FC v Portland Thorns: Championship - 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Portland Thorns FC were crowned 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Champions on Saturday. Christine Sinclair opened the scoring in the eighth minute as the Thorns utterly dominated NJ/NY Gotham FC throughout the first half.

In the second half the game opened up and Portland would rue all of their missed chances. Gotham’s Carli Lloyd rose above Becky Sauerbrunn to head in an equalizer. The match was decided from the penalty spot.

Both teams stepped to the spot with confidence. Through six rounds there were only two misses, both of which hit the post. Adrianna Franch made a one-handed stop in the seventh round and Morgan Weaver converted to give the Portland the title.

The Thorns played five matches in this competition. They won their first three, drew their fourth and won the title from the 12-yards out. Throughout the tournament, we saw the introduction of new signings, players returning from injury, young players given a more prominent role, and a variety of other things.

The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup has served as an appetizer of what is to come for the Thorns during the regular season, and although there are always things to improve upon, there are a lot of positives to take away from the cup.

NY/NJ Gotham FC v Portland Thorns: Championship - 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Defense is Imperious and Versatile

NY/NJ Gotham FC v Portland Thorns: Championship - 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

A good defense all starts with the leader in goal. Franch deserves a special shout-out. She had a long road back from her knee injury, missing out on both the 2020 Challenge Cup and Fall Series.

Franch was back between the sticks for all five matches of the 2021 Challenge Cup and looked solid. Despite not making a save throughout the entire 90 minutes of the final, she came up big in the shootout. The Thorns’ No. 24 extended her right hand and denied Nahomi Kawasumi with an exquisite save to give Portland the chance to win it.

Franch and the defense only allowed three goals in five matches, never giving up more than one in a match. Coach Mark Parsons’ first-choice back line was composed of Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelli Hubly, and Natalia Kuikka.

The center back pairings were very strong throughout the tournament, whether it was Hubly and Kuikka (in her natural position) or Hubly and Sauerbrunn. We should know what to expect by now from Hubly and Sauerbrunn, but they still impressed throughout the tournament.

The back line was given the most trouble against the Houston Dash, but Sauerbrunn was world-class, cutting out what looked to be clear chances on goal. Hubly was possibly the most consistent performer for the Thorns in the Challenge Cup.

Veteran Emily Menges only made one substitute appearance due to an injury to her right foot. She may find it hard to slide back into the XI with Hubly’s form, a testament to the Thorns’ defensive depth.

The defensive depth extends to the fullback positions as well. Both Christen Westphal and Madison Pogarch were impressive. Westphal started the first two matches at right back, defending well and getting forward. She also displayed her pin-point service ability with an assist to Tyler Lussi against Kansas City.

Pogarch was similarly impressive, proving to be a difficult defender to beat one-on-one. She was also dangerous with the ball at her feet. Pogarch broke lines by dribbling through the midfield and evading challenges.

The Thorns defensive depth will continue to improve as Meaghan Nally is given more minutes and when Hannah Betfort arrives in Portland from Wake Forest. Nally made her Thorns’ debut against Chicago after a successful spell in Germany with Turbine Potsdam.

The Thorns Have an Extra Gear

NY/NJ Gotham FC v Portland Thorns: Championship - 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The first half of the Challenge Cup final was the Thorns’ most dominant moments of the tournament. Portland suffocated Gotham and pinned them in their own half. The defense shut down counter attacks and played out of pressure well.

The midfield found a gear that we have not previously seen with Crystal Dunn, Angela Salem, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair demonstrating a great understanding of one another’s movements.

Horan and Sinclair were almost unstoppable. Gotham couldn’t get the ball off of the two midfielders. If the NJ/NY side did get the ball, Sinclair tracked back well and Horan consistently recovered possession.

In the second half, the Thorns didn’t have the control they had in the first, but they were still the more dominant team and continued to create chances. Portland found that extra gear in this match. Parsons said he rated the first four performances a 6.5 to seven out of 10, and the Thorns surpassed that in the final. They were not at their best and they will continue to improve, but the Thorns showed they could find another gear when a prize was on the line.

The Press Continues to Impress

NY/NJ Gotham FC v Portland Thorns: Championship - 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Thorns’ dominance was solidified in part due to their quality on the ball, but also due to their suffocating press. Portland had pressed to various extents throughout the Challenge Cup but the pressure in the first half was by far the best of the tournament.

The forwards, midfielders and defense were all on the same page and worked in unison to deny Gotham space and time on the ball. They forced Gotham into turnovers that resulted in chances and made Gotham play much more direct than they would’ve preferred.

Gotham has an extremely dynamic midfield with tremendous on-ball quality, but the Thorns forced them to abandon their possession-based ideology in the first half.

Morgan Weaver Has *That* Clutch Gene

The city of Portland knows all about the clutch gene. One only needs to reference Damian Lillard’s “Dame Time” or the countless clutch goals that Christine Sinclair has scored during her time at the University of Portland and with the Thorns.

It is early in her young career, but Morgan Weaver seems to have that ability to step up when the team needs a little something extra with the pressure on. Weaver’s ability to come up clutch for her team shouldn’t be a surprise to those who followed her career at Washington State University. She scored 13 game-winners at Wazzu.

Weaver has put together quite the resume of clutch moments in her young Thorns career. She scored the winner when the No. 8 seeded Thorns upset the top-seeded North Carolina Courage in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals.

The Wazzu alumna also scored the winner in Chicago in this year’s Challenge Cup. The goal set Portland up to secure a spot in the Challenge Cup Final, despite missing their international players, in what felt like the first big moment of the tournament.

Weaver made a 14-minute cameo at the end of the final. She looked the most dangerous she had in a Thorns’ kit in her substitute appearance, creating what looked like the game-winner and wreaking havoc down the left flank. Then she stepped up with a chance to give Portland the title and calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net.

Finishing and Fluidity is the Final Touch

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-NY/NJ Gotham FC at Portland Thorns FC Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When a new season starts, fitness, touch, passing, and all of the other attributes of a soccer player sharpen with time. It’s often said that finishing is the last piece of the puzzle and takes the longest to come back to a player.

This looks true for the Thorns, and is especially relevant after the Challenge Cup Final. The Thorns had plenty of opportunities to put the game out of reach in the first half. After Gotham equalized, Portland had ample opportunity to find a winner in regular time, but they didn’t.

The team combined for a total of 26 shots. Seven of those shots were blocked and another seven were on target. Sinclair put two of her three shots on target, scored one, and was denied a second by an outstanding save late in the match.

Charley, Horan, and Smith put 2-of-4, 2-of-12, and 1-of-5 on target respectively. The Thorns were denied by a goal line clearance, a tight offside call and a keeper in great form, but Portland still should have scored more goals.

Despite being unable to finish many chances, Portland scored seven goals in five matches. The good thing is the Thorns are creating chances. It would be an issue if they weren’t getting into these positions, but they are and the finishing is going to come as players find their form and gain a better understanding of each other.

Portland created 19 chances against Gotham while Gotham created six chances. Sinclair created seven chances alone with Klingenberg (four), Horan (two), Charley (two) Kuikka (two), Westphal (one), and Weaver (one) all creating chances as well. The service is there and will continue to get better. The finishing will come, but it’s the Thorns’ most notable weakness at the moment.

Valuable Experience for the Team

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-NY/NJ Gotham FC at Portland Thorns FC Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Thorns’ ultimate goal is to win the NWSL’s three competitions — the Challenge Cup, the NWSL Shield, and the NWSL Championship. They have already bagged the first title of the year and this team has gained valuable experience as they look toward the regular season.

Portland showed that they have the depth to compete during the Olympics and international breaks. The Thorns showed grit and were lethal in their first two matches of the Challenge Cup which ultimately allowed them to qualify for the final.

The Thorns did this without their U.S. and Canadian internationals. Despite missing their superstars, a variety of players stepped up. They maintained the “Thorns’ style of play” and came away with two wins.

How NWSL teams perform without their international stars will be a major factor in deciding the NWSL Shield winner and seeding for the playoffs. The Thorns should have tremendous confidence in their ability to perform at a high level with or without the internationals.

Portland Thorns also gained penalty shootout experience and confidence. Almost all soccer players have participated in a shootout at some point in their career, but the Portland Thorns as a club was part of their first-ever penalty shootout on Saturday. Hopefully, the Thorns don’t get involved in too many more because they are agonizing for everyone. This shootout does give the team experience and confidence in these situations that could be important at the end of the season.

Portland Thorns FC hosts the Chicago Red Stars in their first match of the 2021 NWSL regular season on May 16. Kick-off is slated for 4:00 p.m. (Pacific) at Providence Park.