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How the Thorns share the offensive load

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The Thorns continue to create more chances than their opponents, in part due to the number of players that can punish the opposition.

Racing Louisville FC v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The NWSL has reached the first international break of the season. Portland Thorns FC sit in second place, two points behind the Orlando Pride. They have won three matches and lost two tight ones in which they had chances to win.

Through the first five matches of the season, the Thorns have created more than any team offensively. They lead the league in goals (11) and assists (seven) and also lead in shots (91) and shots on goal (47). The Washington Spirit are in second place in the two latter categories with 65 shots and 32 shots on target.

This is no surprise because the Thorns were almost everyone’s favorite to be the best team in the league at the start of 2021 NWSL play, especially after Portland conquered the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and drummed Chicago Red Stars 5-0 in the opening match of the regular season.

Portland has arguably the most attacking talent in the league. International stars Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rocky Rodriguez, and Christine Sinclair occupy the midfield and the forward line is made up of promising attacking talent led by the first and second overall picks of the 2020 NWSL College Draft: Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver.

Perhaps what is surprising about the Thorns’ offensive success is the number of players, across all lines of the pitch, who consistently contribute to the attacking prowess the Thorns possess.

Only six outfield players on the Thorns roster have not scored, assisted, played a key pass, or completed a successful cross. Two of those players are recent signings Yazmeen Ryan and Hannah Betfort, who have not played yet. Marissa Everett and Meaghan Nally have also not recorded any of the stats above in the regular season, but they have combined to play only 12 minutes. The final two outfield players who have not scored, assisted, played a key pass, or completed a successful cross are center backs Emily Menges and Kelli Hubly.

These players are sure to contribute to these offensive categories as they get minutes during the international break. Everett displayed her ability in the final third during the Challenge Cup and Ryan will be introduced slowly as she adjusts to the league, but she has shown her attacking potential with the TCU Horned Frogs.

Defense to Offense

Racing Louisville v Portland Thorns Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

The rest of the players have had at least one of these contributions, including Becky Sauerbrunn, who has made one key pass. But the defense, especially the fullbacks, have been crucial to moving the team forward in the attack.

The Thorns’ eight defenders have combined to make 32 key passes, 15 successful crosses, and two assists. The statistics of the defenders demonstrate Portland’s reliance on the fullbacks to provide width and play early crosses into the 18-yard box.

Meghan Klingenberg is, to no one’s surprise, one of the Thorns’ most creative players in the 2021 regular-season. She leads the team in both successful crosses (seven) and key passes (16) and has provided one assist.

Natalia Kuikka has also been dangerous going forward. The Finnish international has one assist and has completed three successful crosses and seven key passes.

Christen Westphal demonstrated her ability to deliver killer passes in the Challenge Cup with her assist to Tyler Lussi against Kansas City NWSL and has continued to find creative passing lanes, completing one successful cross and making six key passes.

Madison Pogarch has only played 82 minutes but has also provided exceptional service. She has completed four crosses and added two key passes.

Midfield Magic

Racing Louisville v Portland Thorns Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

The diamond midfield is Mark Parsons’ specialty, so it is not surprising that it’s where the majority of the offense stems from, especially when you consider the number of touches they get combined with their international class. The Thorns’ midfield leads the team in key passes (43), goals (six) and assists (three). The midfielders have also completed eight successful crosses.

These statistics were definitely boosted by the 3-0 win against Racing Louisville FC where the midfield dominated proceedings. In the match, midfielders Horan, Rodriguez and Angela Salem each scored and assisted.

Horan’s masterful display proved how dangerous she can be going forward, and her regular-season stats back it up. She is the Thorns’ most dangerous midfielder, having scored and assisted, completed two successful crosses and dished out 14 key passes.

Dunn is not far behind Horan, which is a testament to how quickly she has adapted to a new team and new system. She is the midfield’s best crosser of the ball with four successful crosses and has made 11 key passes. Dunn also reminded us all how good she can be in front of goal with her wonder-strike against NJ/NY Gotham FC.

Rodriguez has maybe had less of an offensive impact than fans would’ve hoped. That’s mostly because she has spent the majority of the season in the defensive midfield as she and Salem work toward 90-minute fitness. Rodriguez was given more license to roam as a No. 8 against Racing Louisville and showed she is still able to pick apart a defense when going forward. She has completed one successful cross and three key passes and added a goal and an assist. Rodriguez scored, assisted, and made one key pass in her 80 minutes against Louisville, showing the impact she can make in a more attacking midfield role.

Salem was in her usual deep-lying defensive midfield role against Racing Louisville, but was still able to score her first goal since 2016 and first assist since 2015. She has also contributed six key passes in the first five matches of the regular season.

Sinclair was with the Canadian Women’s National Team during the Racing Louisville match but has still managed to have her usual impact. She is tied for the team lead with two goals, has completed one cross, and has made eight key passes.

Celeste Boureille has found that minutes are hard to come by so far in the regular season. She has contributed one key pass over 40 minutes across three matches, but expect that tally to increase exponentially when she is given more time during international breaks and the Olympics. Boureille made three successful crosses and five key passes in 310 minutes in last year’s Challenge Cup and had a terrific loan spell in France where she became an integral part of FC Fleury 91.

Pushing Forward(s)

Racing Louisville FC v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The forwards are by far the least experienced of the Thorns’ three lines, but they have almost all gotten on the scoresheet. They have combined for 17 key passes, four successful crosses, two assists, and four goals. Everett has only notched nine minutes, but will become an important piece in the forward line and attacking midfield as Portland continues league play through the Olympics.

Morgan Weaver has become quite the playmaker in the forward line. She has only completed one cross but has made six key passes and is tied for most assists in the league with two. Those two assists were delivered to Sophia Smith.

Smith is tied as the Thorns’ top goalscorer with two goals and has proven that she is a shot-creating machine and more goals are soon to come. She has also tried to play provider in the final third, making three key passes and one successful cross.

Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi both have scored a headed goal and completed one cross. Lussi has made four key passes and Charley has contributed three.

The Portland Thorns have created a lot of chances in the young regular-season. In both of their losses, they outperformed their opponents in expected goals but failed to be clinical in front of goal. But the Thorns have shown that they can harm defenses from every part of the field.

It also shows a lack of reliance on one or two superstars, which will be crucial during the international breaks and the Olympics. During these periods we will see the introduction of talented players like Everett, Boureille, Ryan, and others who will have more opportunities to show their quality.

Obviously, the team will be worse off when they lose the quality and quantity of players the Thorns are sure to be without. But Portland has performed well without these stars and shares the offensive load among many players and across all lines of the pitch which makes them very difficult to defend against regardless of who is on the pitch.


Statistics retrieved from nwslsoccer.com.