The Portland Thorns lead the NWSL in most offensive categories despite their problems finishing. The Thorns are creating chances at an astounding rate, which should be no surprise considering the attacking talent they have at their disposal.
Crystal Dunn is finding her feet in Portland, Lindsey Horan is playing at an elite level, and Christine Sinclair is the greatest international goalscorer of all time, not to mention the likes of Rocky Rodriguez, Simone Charley, Morgan Weaver, and Sophia Smith. Despite all of this attacking talent, the player that leads not only the Thorns, but the league, in chance creation is a left back.
Meghan Klingenberg is creating chances with incredible consistency, and she’s doing it all as a member of the back line. Klingenberg has always been an offensive-minded left back. The 2015 World Cup winner is a creative defender that has the ability to find a defense’s weakness and exploit it. But she may be in the best form of her life at the moment.
In the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, Klingenberg notched one assist in Portland’s 2-1 win over Kansas City NWSL. The left back provided a pin-point free kick to the head of Rodriguez, who opened the scoring at Providence Park.
It was Klingenberg’s only assist of the Challenge Cup, but she continued to cut open defenses with her visionary passing. Portland’s road to the 2021 Challenge Cup Championship was made up of five matches. Klingenberg was the sole leader in chances in three of those matches.
Against Kansas City, she created two chances as a midfielder, which tied her with three other players for most in the match. One of those chances resulted in Rodriguez’s set-piece goal. Klingenberg created four chances in each of the other four matches of the Challenge Cup. Christine Sinclair was the only player to create more chances (seven) than Klingenberg in a Challenge Cup match, which came against NJ/NY Gotham FC in the final.
Klingenberg finished the Challenge Cup with 18 chances created from three matches at left back and two as a midfielder, which seems absurd, but the sample size was small. Yet Klingenberg has not slowed down. In fact, she has created more than four chances in four of the Thorns’ six matches. She created five chances against OL Reign, Racing Louisville, and Kansas City. All five of the chances she created against Kansas City came in the first half of the match.
Klingenberg created six chances against Gotham in their regular-season meeting, which is her season-high. She also added an assist in that match. Klingenberg has registered the most chances created in half of the team’s regular-season matches. Horan created seven chances in her dominant performance against Racing Louisville. Christen Westphal (four versus the Chicago Red Stars) and Natalia Kuikka (five versus the Orlando Pride) also created more chances than Klingenberg, who created one and zero chances in those matches, respectively.
Klingenberg has now created 40 chances in 11 matches across all competitions, adding two assists, 39 key passes and 15 successful crosses. She has completed 79.9% of her 303 regular season passes and 79.1% of her 220 Challenge Cup passes.
Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons has used his signature 4-4-2 diamond formation in every 2021 Thorns match. A signature of this formation is the freedom that it allows the fullbacks to get forward and provide width in the attack which is evident because a fullback was created the most/tied for most chances nine of the Thorns’ 11 matches.
Another characteristic of Portland’s style of play is the overloads on the flanks, especially on the left. Klingenberg is given license to get forward. She can combine with Horan, who loves to drift to the left, the No. 6, the No. 10, and occasionally the left-sided forward. These overloads allow players to play quick interchanges and players like Klingeberg can sprint unmarked into space.
Klingenberg also offers a variety of variations to the traditional left back role. She is able to operate as a traditional fullback, providing overlapping and underlapping runs into the final third. But Klingenberg is very skilled on the ball and has a great understanding of her teammates’ movements as well as how she can move to manipulate space and create passing lanes for herself and the midfielders. Klingenberg also has the ability to drive into the center of the pitch and turn out of pressure.
She uses this to, at times, operate as an inverted fullback in midfield. Horan drifts to the touchline and Klingenberg drifts into midfield where she can play penetrative passes through the center of the pitch.
Klingenberg is difficult to game-plan for because she has so many attributes she can use to unlock a defense. She is able to play an early ball behind the backline, get to the end line, hit pin-point service first time, beat players off the dribble and use a shoulder feint and change of pace to create the space she needs to play dangerous passes.
There are a myriad of names that come to mind when people think of the attacking talent the Thorns have at their disposal. But the player that has created the most chances and needs to be accounted for if the Thorns offense is to be slowed is Klingeberg because she is slicing open defenses with ease and teams have struggled to slow her staggering production levels.
Stats retrieved from nwslsoccer.com and Portland Thorns FC.