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Complementary forward combinations could bolster the Thorns’ attack

Portland Thorns FC have four talented young forwards. The Thorns’ ability to convert chances has been inconsistent which is bound to happen with young players. But could certain combination of these players create a more coherent attack?

Chicago Red Stars v Portland Thorns Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Morgan Weaver and Simone Charley had moments when they could have broken the deadlock against NJ/NY Gotham FC, as well as other players. But the Portland Thorns’ finishing problems and good goalkeeping prevented Portland from securing a crucial three points at home in Providence Park.

Weaver performed well throughout the match and was the game’s most dangerous player. She took on players, made well-timed runs behind the back line, and put two shots on goal. Weaver also blasted what would have been a contender for goal of the season off the upper 90.

Charley was less involved but didn’t perform poorly. She also made threatening runs behind the back line and provided an aerial target in the 18-yard box. But rewatching the match, it became apparent that, although both players caused problems for Gotham, they rarely linked up to cause issues for the NJ/NY side.

As I wrote on Tuesday, the team was quick to try to exploit the space down the flanks. Weaver and Charley both drifted to their respective touchlines and were able to get on the ball and run into space. When they did this the fullbacks often found them, but the forwards were so far wide that they were isolated and left to do the majority of the work by themselves. Even if they were able to do that work and beat players, the other forward and Marissa Everett were unable to get into the box in time to offer as a goalscoring option.

The front three were so isolated that they didn’t even pass the ball that much. Weaver had 35 touches and attempted 16 passes, Charley had 24 touches and made 12 passes, and Everett had 25 touches and attempted 15 passes. Everett, when she was able to get on the ball, linked up with each of these players. She passed into space and let the forwards run onto the ball but the two forwards and the “front three” rarely linked up together.

They did orchestrate offensive movements together a couple of times. The Thorns opened the second half with more urgency and the strike force carved out two half-chances because of good ball movement and interchange.

In the 46th minute, Celeste Boureille passed to Everett, who drifted to the right before releasing Charley. Charley crossed to Weaver, but the cross was headed away by a defender at the vital moment.

Two minutes later, Boureille recovered the ball off Allie Long and quickly played it to Weaver. Weaver turned quickly and passed to Everett. The defender then had to step to cover the space into which Everett might drive. Everett played it into stride for Weaver, who attempted to play a first-time ball into Charley at the penalty spot. Estelle Johnson made a crucial sliding challenge to cut out the pass but these are the types of interchanges that the Thorns need to create more often.

The NWSL is a transition league and Gotham has a defense that is tough to break down. Each of these things contributed to the outcome in Portland but they are not unique to this match. The Thorns’ two forwards sometimes operate more as two wingers in need of a striker rather than dual forwards who link up and run off of each other.

One of Weaver’s greatest strengths is her ability to facilitate. She is the forward that makes the most passes. She averages 22.2 passes per 90 minutes and only attempted 16 in this match. If Weaver is in the match, the Thorns need her to be in a position where she can provide service to her teammates. She has made 10 key passes, three successful crosses and two assists this regular season, all of which are best among the Portland forwards.

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

Each of the forwards provides something different and can succeed individually but for the team to start firing on all cylinders certain striker partnerships may better facilitate these types of interactions in the final third in addition to more clinical finishing.

Weaver and Charley both like to hug the touchline. Sometimes they drift wide and then there is a lack of central presence to occupy the center backs. Coach Mark Parsons has had no choice but to start these two forwards lately because Sophia Smith has been on limited minutes and Tyler Lussi has been out with an injury. But as Smith and Lussi regain fitness the team might have more fluidity and interchange in the front line if one of Weaver/Charley is paired with one of Smith/Lussi.

Chicago Red Stars v Portland Thorns Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Smith and Lussi also get wide and make runs down the channel but they are also more accustomed to coming inside and linking with the other forward. Smith and Charley demonstrated their interchangeability and ability to link up and play off each other in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup win over OL Reign.

There was a similar understanding evident between Weaver and Smith in the regular season match against Chicago. Weaver assisted Smith twice in quick transition moments and rendered the Red Star defense useless.

All of these young forwards have the ability to link up and form a formidable strike partnership but they could be put in more optimal positions and mesh better with a forward who has different tendencies and movements than their own. Pairing forwards that complement and combine well with each other rather than forwards whose playing styles might isolate the individuals in the front line could prove important in finding the finishing form of these young strikers.

Stats retrieved from and Thorns FC.