Fans of Women’s soccer were given a proper show of dominant performances if they watched the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final and the Portland Thorns regular-season opener. The Thorns thrashed the Chicago Red Stars 5-0 and FC Barcelona Femení downed Chelsea 4-0.
It is too early to draw really meaningful comparisons between Barcelona and Portland. The Thorns have just started their season and Barcelona have already won Primera Iberdrola and the Champions League, and will look to complete their treble in the Copa de la Reina. But it is hard to not get excited about these two teams considering reports that they will play in the 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup.
When people talk about the best soccer teams in the world, attacking dominance is almost always the first thing people look at and it’s hard to blame them. The Thorns and Barcelona both put on wonderful attacking displays on Sunday.
In 26 league matches, Barcelona has scored 126 goals, which is absolutely outrageous. The Thorns have just started the season, and despite their early struggles converting chances, they have not been shutout in their six matches and seem to have found their finishing boots.
Becoming a dominant, world-beating team requires more than just a stellar attack, although that is a piece of the puzzle. The Catalan giants have only allowed five goals all season, displaying their commitment on both sides of the ball.
The Thorns have allowed three goals in six matches and have kept three clean sheets. Their dismantling of Chicago stemmed from their ability to completely shut down everything that the Red Stars attempted.
If Portland Thorns are to reach the same level as Barcelona this season, it will not only be because of the number of goals they score, but because of their commitment to defending from the forwards, midfield and backline.
The thing that makes a team the best in their league or in the world is dominating every facet of the game with and without the ball. Though they have different styles of play and different styles of pressing, that is what the Thorns and Barcelona aim to do.
The Portland Thorns absolutely dominated Chicago with their press and defensive stability. The Thorns only allowed the Red Stars four shots, and only one was on target. They also limited Chicago to four corners and a meager 41.6% possession.
The Thorns were all over the ball. They had 58.4% possession and 22 shots, 10 of which were on target. Portland also won 42 duels and 10 tackles and blocked 4 shots. They didn’t allow Chicago any time on the ball and turned them over quickly whenever there was a dead ball situation.
“The Thorns pride ourselves in our defensive effort,” Sophia Smith said in the post-match press conference. “We’re always going to give everything that we have on the defensive side of the field to make life easier for everyone, and especially as forwards, our job is to just press, press, press, and work hard. So that’s kind of been ingrained in us and at this point it’s almost just like muscle memory that’s just natural, that’s just how we play.”
Portland defends and presses as a unit. The forwards — Morgan Weaver and Smith — initiated the press on goal kicks and kick-off, chasing down backward passes and putting ball carriers under pressure.
The Thorns’ pressing triggers seemed to be whenever the ball was passed backward or in any dead ball situations. There was rarely a time in the match that Chicago didn’t give the ball away from their own goal kick or throw-in.
Weaver and Smith were well positioned to keep goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher from playing to her center back pairing off of goal kicks. Christine Sinclair was a few yards behind the young forwards and eliminated the passing options to the Red Stars’ dropping midfielders.
Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn stayed near enough to the fullbacks and other midfielders to be able to quickly close them down and intercept lofted goal kicks. Rocky Rodriguez was just behind them, shielding the backline and helping Horan and Dunn pick off goal kicks.
The Thorns similarly stifled Chicago on the Red Stars’ throw-ins by creating overloads. For example, if the Red Stars had a throw-in down their left hand side, Smith, Sinclair, and Dunn positioned themselves near the touchline to cut out the original throw-in and swarm any ball receivers.
Christen Westphal would pinch up and eliminate options directly down the line and Kelli Hubly would follow behind her, often pressuring the receiver whose back was to goal. Becky Sauerbrunn and Klingenberg were positioned around the halfway line and Weaver was behind the initial line of pressure to intercept long throws and serve as an outlet.
Chicago were rarely able to play out of this pressure and it often led to dangerous opportunities for the Thorns. Because of their numerical advantage when pressing, they had numbers around the ball when they won it back. This allowed the Thorns to play quick one-touch passes and spring the forwards in transition.
There was a similar outcome when the Thorns counter-pressed right after they lost the ball. The forwards, Sinclair and one of the eights (Horan or Dunn) quickly surrounded the ball and cut off passing lanes. The counter-press executed by Smith and Meghan Klingenberg resulted in the Thorns winning the ball high up the pitch and scoring the first goal of the match.
The Thorns press is suffocating. What is so impressive about it is the team’s commitment to the press and their fitness levels and tactical understanding of the system this early in the season. The Thorns seem to prefer to press and counter-press at times and they thrive off it offensively.
“We were at training yesterday and I gave the starting group a chance,” said head coach Mark Parsons. “I said ‘You can either have the ball to possess and build to start or you can press into the game and they can have it.’ This was in training. Lindsey Horan said ‘No no, we’re pressing into this game.’ And [Sophia Smith] went ‘Yeah of course we are. Here we go.’ It’s hard. It’s hard but it has its rewards and I’m proud that everyone has bought into us playing this type of football.”
Despite the consistent execution of the press, Chicago were able to get into the final third. They did this in transition and through build-up down the flanks. The Thorns are able to commit numbers to the press because of the quality of their backline. Westphal, Klingenberg, Hubly, and Sauerbrunn have all had good starts to the season and are good decision makers defensively. They know when they can win the ball and when to usher an attacker wide to eliminate their angle which helps the Thorns deal with transition.
Dunn, Horan, and Rodriguez help in the wide areas in transition. Dunn and Rodriguez or Horan and Rodriguez, depending on which side the attack is coming from, drift to the flank to help the fullbacks deal with overloads on the flanks.
“I thought the most important people in the first half were the eights,” said Parsons. “Chicago were going to be dangerous with their 1v1s. We felt that [Kealia Watt] Ohai and [Mallory] Pugh were going to be out wide and try to get after our fullbacks. I think it’s really easy to say ‘Portland play narrow. Let’s set up to take advantage. Let’s hit them on the switch.’ We’re allowing two or three attacks from the opponent unbalance us each game at the moment. We’re working really hard to make sure it’s a low number. Our eights protected our fullbacks a lot. I thought Rocky protected our fullbacks a lot in some of those early stages.”
The Thorns also get numbers behind the ball quickly when the press is broken. When Chicago entered the final third the Thorns defended in a 4-5-1 with Smith the lone outlet up top and Dunn, Horan, Sinclair, Weaver and Rodriguez all back in front of the 18-yard box defending. This commitment to defense from the entire team is why Chicago was only able to muster one shot on target.
“I felt defending the 18-yard box was probably one of the most important things, secondary to the eights helping the fullbacks,” said Parsons. “With our positioning, first contact, second contact, making sure we were getting new attacks when Chicago passed into the 18 [yard box] or crossed into the 18 [yard box]. We weren’t facing waves of attacks. We were making great defending decisions and clearing the ball and starting counter attacks.”
Like Barcelona, the Thorns dominated every facet of the match. Goals will always take the headlines, especially when teams score four in the first half, but the team-wide commitment to defense and pressing crush the opposition mentally and physically. It also affords the pressing team more transition opportunities and the Thorns have the pieces to make teams pay in transition.
If teams are going to slow the Thorns — who are unbeaten in their last ten matches going back to 2020 — they will half to figure out how to beat the Thorns’ press. But beating the press isn’t all you have to do. Teams must then break down a strong back four before the Thorns reposition and get numbers behind the ball, all while preventing the Thorns from slicing through the defense with their world class attacking talent.
It is a long season and a lot can happen, but this Thorns team has the players and the commitment on both sides of the ball to leave teams frustrated and defeated while the Thorns celebrate and hand out roses after the match.
Statistics retrieved from nwslsoccer.com.