Quite a bit went wrong for the Portland Thorns in their 2-1 loss to their Cascadia rivals, OL Reign, on Sunday. Most of what went wrong for the Thorns happened in the first 15 minutes. That quarter of an hour defined the match, leaving the Thorns disappointed — and the Reign ecstatic.
The Portland Thorns scored early, courtesy of Christine Sinclair’s sumptuous chipped volley, but the Reign started the match on the front foot — and it was a mistake that led to the Thorns’ goal in addition to an outrageous finish.
The Reign’s press
The Thorns, as usual, tried to build out of the back: Adrianna Franch passed to Kelli Hubly, who would then find Christen Westphal. The Reign pressed whenever the ball went to the fullback. OL pinched up defensively, sometimes pushing five players to the left flank to pin in Westphal and the Thorns.
OL Reign pressed the flank with two lines of two. On the left side, Megan Rapinoe and Leah Pruitt ran to put pressure on the ball carrier and cut off passing lanes. Jess Fishlock and Shirley Cruz formed a line of two behind Rapinoe and Pruitt, swarming the midfield outlets close to the ball carrier.
Dani Weatherholt and Sofia Huerta sat deeper to shield the back line and eliminate passes into the midfield. The Reign’s press limited the Thorns’ time on the ball and their forward options. The only simple passing option was to go back to Becky Sauerbrunn or Franch. Klingenberg was usually open on the weak side of the defense, but the lack of space and time made it difficult to find the cross-field switch.
When Portland dropped the ball back or was able to play through the pressure, the Reign pressed in a 4-2-3-1. Pruitt led the line, and three players pushed up behind her. The central player in the line of three was Shirley Cruz, and the two wide players changed depending on where the Thorns had the ball on the field. Cruz did well to limit service to her fellow countrywoman, Rocky Rodriguez, which made it difficult for the Thorns to get things going in the midfield.
At times, Portland tried to bypass Rodriguez and the Reign’s first two lines of pressure by finding Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, or Christine Sinclair in between the lines. Fishlock and Weatherholt were positioned well, however, and jumped these passing lanes or forced the Thorns midfielders to receive under pressure with their backs to goal.
The Thorns’ lack of precision on the ball
The Reign’s press, combined with their high-energy and physical start, stifled the Thorns. Portland looked sluggish for large portions of the first half. The team’s touches and passes weren’t crisp enough to play out of pressure consistently and establish dominance on the ball.
The Thorns' inability to dominate the ball and possess in the final third limited the effectiveness of their counterpress, which has been a staple of Portland’s early season success. This is because the Reign weren’t pinned in their own half when the Thorns lost the ball, creating more space to play through them, and Portland didn’t have sufficient numbers around the ball when it was lost.
The Thorns were able to play out of pressure by dropping one of their No. 8s, who would play a pass to the backline. The defender would switch the point of attack, and the fullback could play a quick one-two with the other No. 8 or Sinclair, who dropped from her advanced midfield role. This created transition opportunities when the Thorns could run into space and the Reign were momentarily out of position.
Portland wasn’t properly able to take advantage of these moments in the first fifteen minutes, and ultimately throughout the match. The crispness of the passes and the touches let players down, and it allowed the Reign to put in challenges or get numbers back in defense.
Transition, set-pieces and goals conceded
The Thorns repeatedly gave the ball away in transition and, thus, Portland was out of position when the Reign recovered possession. Fishlock caused the Thorns all kinds of problems by winning the ball and breaking lines with the ball at her feet.
Then came the goals. Where the Thorns were imprecise and a step off, the Reign were pin-point and ruthless. Hubly played the ball out of the back to Dunn, who dropped to receive. Her touch let her down, and Fishlock dispossessed her and ran at goal. Dunn chopped her down, and Rapinoe had a dangerous free kick opportunity.
The wall was made up of Hubly, Morgan Weaver, Rodriguez, and Sophia Smith. There was no one behind the wall to prevent an attempt under the wall, and the wall didn’t jump when Rapinoe struck. If the wall would’ve jumped, it does not look as if the free kick would’ve made it over. But instead, it bounced in front of the keeper and Franch couldn’t push it wide.
The second goal also came from a set piece, and Rapinoe and Fishlock were involved again. The Reign pressed down the left, as they did throughout this 15-minute space, and Westphal gave away a foul after the Thorns couldn’t play out of pressure. The Reign pressed well, and the Thorns had opportunities to play through, but they were too sloppy on the ball.
Fishlock offered as a more central option to play the ball into the box, and Rapinoe found her. Dunn couldn’t close down fast enough, and the Welshwoman lofted a ball to the back post. Weatherholt headed it across goal, and Hubly headed it back to Weatherholt, who found Cruz unmarked in the box.
Westphal and Horan turned out of their challenges against Weatherholt and Cruz, respectively, in an attempt at self-preservation, which allowed the pass and shot to find its target.
Almost immediately after taking the lead, the Reign stopped pressing high. They stayed in their 4-2-3-1 and sat in a midblock, using all of their energy to get behind the ball and swarm the Thorns in midfield.
After the disastrous 15 minutes, the Thorns grew into the match, but the Reign had a lead they could defend. Portland searched for an equalizer, and the Reign looked for the dagger on the counter or through rare moments of sustained possession. Neither found another goal, but Portland created the better of the opportunities. As they piled on the pressure, the Reign’s 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 4-5-1 and then a 4-4-2 to get numbers behind the ball and stifle the Thorns.
The result was disappointing, but the Thorns didn’t play badly for the majority of the match. They struggled to make the most of their opportunities, while the Reign were clinical with their far fewer opportunities, working their game plan to perfection off of the back of some very solid defensive performances.
The lack of precision in the first quarter-hour improved throughout the match, but it never got to where it needed to be to break down the Reign. The Thorns will need to make better use of their opportunities, because these types of defensive performances from the opposition will be something they face all season.
Also, the Thorns have a target on their back. Every team wants to play well against the Thorns, especially in Providence Park, and they will strive to break up Portland’s possession play as the Reign did on Sunday. The Thorns need to be switched on from minute one to prevent a repeat of the game plan the Reign constructed to beat them and be more clinical in front of goal.