The Portland Thorns played out a goalless draw against NJ/NY Gotham FC on Sunday at Providence Park. The Thorns created plenty of opportunities to get a goal, finishing the match with an expected goals total of 2.25 and only allowing an xG of 0.49. But coach Mark Parsons made it clear in his post-match press conference that he was unhappy with how the team performed.
Portland has repeatedly underperformed their expected goal totals throughout the regular season and the NWSL Challenge Cup. The team’s lack of clinical finishing has resulted in dropped points and losses. This was the case again on Sunday. The Thorns relinquished a perfect opportunity to gain sole possession of first place after both the Orlando Pride and the North Carolina Courage dropped points.
The Thorns carved out enough opportunities to win this match by multiple goals, but poor finishing, good goalkeeping, and maybe a bit of bad luck has been present in all of the matches in which the Thorns have dropped points.
The NWSL is reaching a critical point in the season when teams could create space between themselves and the rest of the pack in the race for the NWSL Shield. The Thorns will have another chance to do this against the Pride on Sunday, but the finishing will need to be better.
One way to increase the likelihood of putting away chances is by creating one-on-ones and/or high-quality chances. The Thorns did this a few times throughout the Gotham match and one of the keys to their success in creating these chances was getting Marissa Everett on the ball in optimal positions.
Gotham did well to stifle the Thorns’ progression through central channels with their compact defensive lines as they looked to shepherd Portland wide. The Thorns are often over-reliant on wing play and neglect progression through the middle. This is exacerbated during the Olympic period because Lindsey Horan is usually the player that drops deep and facilitates build-up out of the back and Christine Sinclair drops into the center of the park to link up with the other midfielders. Obviously, the Thorns are without both of these players as well as Crystal Dunn in the midfield.
The Thorns still have the on-ball quality to break teams down through the center, but they obliged Gotham and went wide the majority of the time. There is nothing wrong with going to the left and right channels and taking the space afforded to the Thorns, especially when Portland has players of the quality of Meghan Klingenberg and Natalia Kuikka at fullback. But the forwards can become isolated on the flanks, play can become too direct and Everett doesn’t get the ball in dangerous positions.
Everett only had 25 touches in the match, the second-least of the Thorns’ starting outfield players. Most of the time she was receiving under immense pressure with her back to goal because Allie Long worked to mark her out of the match.
Everett was marked out of the match for long periods but was able to pop up in dangerous positions and had the quality and decision making to unlock the Gotham defense.
In the 27th minute, Rodriguez got the ball on the top of the Thorns’ 18-yard box. She paused and showed as if she would pass to her right. This movement attracted two defenders and moved Long out of position. Rodriguez played the ball to Everett in space, who turned and drove toward goal before playing a perfect curling ball to the on-rushing Morgan Weaver. DiDi Haracic made the save and Estelle Johnson cleared the danger, but these types of chances are high quality and bound to go in eventually with more confidence and lethality in front of goal.
This was not the only time Everett shredded Gotham’s defense. Nine minutes later, Celeste Boureille won the ball and poked it into the path of Everett. The midfielder turned and played Simone Charley into the box. Charley ran onto the ball as a defender approached. Instead of taking an aggressive touch toward goal, she safely took a touch away from goal. Charley’s shot/cross deflected off a defender and into the path of Weaver, who crashed in towards the goal. The shot sailed over and another great opportunity that stemmed from Everett and progression through the center went begging.
Everett provided Charley with a great chance of her own in the 53rd minute. Kelli Hubli cleared the ball to Everett, who turned brilliantly. She played a defense-splitting pass to Charley. Haracic closed the angle well and saved Charley’s shot.
Portland continues to struggle to put away chances but even with the lackluster finishing we have seen from the team, chances like these will go in most days. The key is creating as many of these chances as possible. During the Olympic period, that starts with getting Everett on the ball and in dangerous positions.
To do that the Thorns need to be unpredictable. They need to vary whether they attack up the flank, whether they go direct, or whether they build through the middle. But the midfield and defense need to look for those central options rather than immediately going wide and direct. Angela Salem, Rodriguez, and Boureille need to decide which midfielders will show as options in build-up out of the back and they need to vary their movement.
This will help the Thorns break through the first line of pressure centrally or down the flanks because they will have more options. Then there needs to be a fluidity and understanding of the movement in midfield that allows the Thorns to establish dominance there. The dominance will allow the Thorns to poke and prod at the defense, moving the line side to side so Everett and the forwards can pop up and exploit pockets of space. Then they can go forward centrally or find the overlaps of Klingenberg and Kuikka which will be more effective because of the variance in attack.
The finish has been a problem and needs to improve, but the Thorns were not at their best against Gotham, despite creating more than the NJ/NY side. The team has the quality of players to really take advantage of this Olympic period but it starts with finding chemistry and making the right adjustments to get the best out of those that are in Portland now.
Statistics retrieved from nwslsoccer.com and Thorns FC.