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2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Final Mega-Preview: Portland Thorns vs. NJ/NY Gotham FC

Everything — and we mean everything — you need to know ahead of tomorrow’s Challenge Cup final.

SOCCER: APR 21 NWSL Challenge Cup - OL Reign at Portland Thorns FC

Portland Thorns FC will host NJ/NY Gotham FC tomorrow for the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Final. The Thorns have the opportunity to lift a trophy for the first time since winning the 2017 NWSL Championship.

“It’s gonna be a great challenge,” said Thorns Head Coach Mark Parsons in the pre-match media availability. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Gotham. I love that they are a team that want the ball and that’s going to provide a big challenge. A team that’s brave and has the ball against us can cause us problems…

“I think the key is the connection in the midfield for us and the discipline, the positioning, the tactical discipline. I think we always want to be able to be successful in the attack when we have the ball and the better we attack the better we will defend … For me that that will be crucial for us tomorrow. We’ve been working on that throughout this week.”

Typically every team in the NWSL is a familiar foe, but Portland and Gotham (formerly Sky Blue FC) haven’t met since Aug. 3, 2019. That match ended in a 1-1 draw at Providence Park with goals from Christine Sinclair and Imani Dorsey, who both still play for the Thorns and Gotham respectively.

A lot has changed for both sides since their last meeting. One of the most notable things is that Midge Purce started for the Thorns in 2019 and will now be starting for Gotham. Rocky Rodriguez made a similar switch, going from Gotham to Portland.

Sky Blue FC rebranded to NJ/NY Gotham FC before the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and the management has tried to change the culture of the club. The change is working and Gotham has become a team for which players want to play. The rebrand has also brought about a change in mentality that can be seen in their performance in the 2021 Challenge Cup with their advancing to the final.

Gotham won their opening two matches and drew their final two. In three of the four matches, they kept clean sheets and only allowed three goals. All three of those goals came in in a 4-3 win over the North Carolina Courage.

Gotham scored five goals, but again, the majority of the goals they scored came in the shootout with North Carolina. They were unable to find the back of the net against the Washington Spirit or Racing Louisville FC in their last two matches.

The Diamond

NJ/NY Gotham FC v Washington Spirit Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Gotham had their internationals for three of the four matches. In their first match without the internationals, they overcame the Orlando Pride with a 79th-minute winner from Paige Monaghan after a cutback cross from Ifeoma Onumonu.

Freya Coombe was pretty consistent with her lineup selection in the last three matches of the group stage. But there was one major difference: against North Carolina and Washington, Carli Lloyd played as the withdrawn striker or point of the diamond. She played more as an out-and-out No. 9 against Racing Louisville.

Coombe’s diamond midfield battled Paul Riley’s box midfield in arguably the most entertaining match of the tournament because both teams struggled defensively. The box midfield was narrow and Gotham took advantage of the space of the flanks. Purce and Monaghan drifted wide and the fullbacks and wide midfielders provided overlapping runs. Midfielders Nahomi Kawasumi and Sodam Lee got especially wide to serve as options for the two forwards. At times Dorsey and Caprice Dydasco would become inverted fullbacks, making runs in the midfield channels vacated by Lee and Kawasumi.

Gotham’s third goal against North Carolina stemmed from Dorsey taking up a midfield position. Lee, who was wide left, found Dorsey in midfield and the Courage back line wasn’t synchronized because of the movement. Lloyd was able to make a slashing run between the fractured line and score.

The rest of Gotham’s goals have come from individual quality, usually by the boots of Purce or from circulating the ball wide in transition and playing the ball across goal to runners in the box.

This is something the Thorns should expect to deal with because of the narrow nature of their diamond midfield. The Houston Dash did something similar with Kristie Mewis, which caused the Thorns fullbacks some difficulties.

High-energy Pressing in the Midfield

NJ/NY Gotham FC v Washington Spirit Photo by Tony Quinn/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Gotham, whether in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond, defended in the same way. They set up in a 4-4-2 that morphs depending on where the ball is. The front line is composed of Lloyd and either Purce or Monaghan depending on which side of the pitch the ball is on.

The Gotham defensive structure aims to limit the opposition’s ability to play through the lines. Typically, the No. 8’s — Lee and Kawasumi — push higher up the pitch to plug the gaps between Lloyd and the other winger pressing while the winger not pressing slides into the midfield with Kawasumi and Lee. Jennifer Cudjoe is the deepest-lying midfielder and attempts to clean up anything that gets past the front two lines of pressure.

If the opposition gets through the midfield, Gotham adjusts well by getting their three midfielders behind the ball, staying compact defensively.

Their midfield pressure is extremely high energy. They attempt to swarm the ball carriers if they are able to break the first line of pressure. Gotham almost always has three pressing players around the opposition ball carrier in midfield, limiting time, space, and passing channels. This helps the midfield win the ball quickly and go forward in transition through Purce, Monaghan and Lloyd.

Allie Long and the 4-3-3

Coombe wasn’t on the touchline against Racing Louisville due to a family emergency. The team lined up in more of a 4-3-3 with Lloyd at the point of attack. At halftime, Gotham’s new signing Allie Long was introduced.

Long provides Gotham with more fluidity in midfield and may be the reason behind the formation switch. She came on for Monaghan and Kawasumi was pushed into the forward line. Long and Lee were the No. 8’s and Cudjoe sat in the six on paper. But Long’s introduction gave Gotham another good ball carrier as well as a player who can dictate play from deep and break up attacks.

Racing then had to cope with a less structured and more interchangeable midfield. That saw Cudjoe making forward runs while Long dropped deep and Cudjoe stayed deep as Long got forward into the attack.

Philosophy of Play vs. Effectiveness of Play

NJ/NY Gotham FC v Washington Spirit Photo by Tony Quinn/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Coombe’s Gotham FC has a similar possession-based ideology as Parsons’s Thorns that they implement. They want to build from the back and impose their style on other teams. But throughout the 2021 Challenge Cup, they looked more dangerous and comfortable in transition than they did building from the back.

In all of Gotham’s matches, they had repeated giveaways out of the back. The back line played out of pressure well at times and sparked dangerous attacks, but far too often they looked shaky under pressure.

Gotham also created the most danger in transition by winning the ball back with their midfield press or playing quickly from one flank to Lloyd, who held the ball up and then switched the point of attack to the forward running into space.

Both teams will come into this match and look to possess the ball. The Thorns should be able to win this battle. But this is a double-edged sword because although the Thorns like to possess and dominate the ball, Gotham is far more dangerous in transition than they are building from the back.

A Warm-up for the Final?

Houston pressed the Thorns well in the first half and their midfielders limited the space and time Portland had on the ball, much like Gotham will try to do on Saturday. The Dash forced the Thorns long with some of their pressure, which allowed Houston to regain possession and attack in transition.

The Dash forced Portland direct by pressing and by situating their midfielders and wingers between the Thorns’ diamond midfield. The midfield was stretched horizontally and vertically because they were struggling to deal with the width of Houston.

Because the Dash had numbers in between Lindsey Horan, Angela Salem, Crystal Dunn, and Christine Sinclair, it became really difficult to play through the middle of the field. When the Thorns went direct or played longer passes to members of the midfield, the Dash had the time to jump passing lanes and put pressure on the ball receiver.

Portland remedied this at various points in the match, especially in the second half. The Thorns did much better with their in midfield rotation to get numbers around the ball. This allowed them to play quick one-twos through pressure and find the space vacated by the pressing midfielders.

Exploiting Gotham FC

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Thorns midfield rotation — along with having clean, sharp passes and good touches — will be crucial to exploiting the Gotham defense.

“Gotham is a very good team and it's going to be a tough opponent for us,” said Horan in the pre-match media availability. “I think they do like to play [in the midfield] and they like to try and limit us from playing [in the midfield], which is our game.”

“I think it's just our job to be better than we have in these past four games and I do think our midfield and backline do a really good job at finding each other and finding the spaces but it's just to build off what we did in the last four games and see how we can exploit them.”

Along with being clean on the ball, the Thorns will need to be patient in the final third. Houston’s defense was really compact and solid during the match against Portland. The Thorns routinely pinned the Dash in the final third throughout the second half. Too often Portland lofted vertical crosses into the box and Megan Oyster and Katie Naughton dealt with these crosses easily.

The Thorns will need to be more patient in possession against Gotham. If Gotham is pinned in their own final third there are a few ways to break them down. First, the Thorns need to move the ball side to side, switching the point of the attack to make the Gotham defense move laterally. The more they move laterally, the harder it will be to stay compact and Portland will be able to poke and prod to find gaps in the defense.

Although the Gotham defense has kept three clean sheets, there are still gaps to be exploited. The Thorns can quickly play one-touch balls through the midfield to break pressure. They can also win individual duels and break the press. North Carolina’s Debinha and Lynn Williams and Washinton’s Ashley Sanchez and Andi Sullivan created opportunities by breaking through the press with individual quality and were then able to run at the back line.

When Gotham resets their defense, they have a tendency to collapse in on themselves. This is especially true when players dribble at the defense. The combination of getting through the press, driving at the backline and then passing into wide spaces was exploited by the Spirit, North Carolina and Racing Louisville.

“I think Gotham’s defense is really good,” said Smith. “I think the biggest thing we can do is just be ourselves. Our attack is fast. It’s intense and I think as long as we bring that and do what we’ve been doing, I think we should have a lot of success.”

The Thorns have the quality to break pressure, dribble at the defense and find their forwards and fullbacks in wide areas. The key will then be finding the final ball in the box. Sinclair spoke about teams in the NWSL struggling to cover runs to the penalty spot and Portland’s wide players should look to find midfield runners at the spot. This was on display with Shea Groom’s goal against the Thorns and Sinclair’s equalizer.

The NWSL Challenge Cup Final is hosted by the Thorns and Providence Park will have fans, which has always been an advantage for the Thorns. Gotham have shown good things on offense and defense, but the attack has slowed considerably in their final two matches.

The Gotham defense will be tough to break down, but the Thorns have the quality to score goals in every match they play. Houston also provided the perfect warm up before the final. Obviously, Gotham will be dangerous and has big-time players that can make a difference like Lloyd, Purce, Kawasumi, Long and more.

Portland’s ability to control a match may prove too much for Gotham at this point in the season. The key for Portland defensively will be limiting the space afforded to the forwards, fullbacks and midfielders who occupy the wide spaces as well as cutting out crosses into the box.

“I’m so excited,” said Smith. “It would mean everything to me [to win] because this team [has] just been amazing [in] just the short amount of time that I’ve been playing for the Thorns. So to win a championship would just be the best thing ever. We’re all preparing. We have our minds set on tomorrow and nothing else. So it’s a big day tomorrow.”

Predicted Starting XIs

Portland Thorns FC:

SOCCER: APR 21 NWSL Challenge Cup - OL Reign at Portland Thorns FC

Goalkeeper: Adrianna Franch

Backline: Christen Westphal, Kelli Hubly, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg

Midfield: Angela Salem, Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair

Forwards: Sophia Smith, Simone Charley

NJ/NY Gotham FC:

NJ/NY Gotham FC v Washington Spirit Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Goalkeeper: Didi Haricic

Backline: Caprice Dydasco, Gina Lewandowski, Mandy Freeman, Imani Dorsey

Midfield: Nahomi Kawasumi, Jennifer Cudjoe, Sodam Lee (listed as questionable)

Forward: Midge Purce, Carli Lloyd, Paige Monaghan

Prediction: Portland Thorns 2-0 Gotham FC