The Portland Thorns currently sit in third place in the NWSL standings behind the North Carolina Courage and the Orlando Pride. The Thorns are tied at 15 points with the Pride and have a game in hand. The Thorns are in a decent position and should continue to succeed during the Olympic period thanks to their quality depth.
Throughout the Challenge Cup and the regular season, the Thorns have won eight matches, keeping clean sheets in seven of those victories. They drew their final two matches in the Challenge Cup and won the final via a penalty shootout.
The Thorns have also lost three regular season matches. Despite the Thorns’ success and offensive firepower, they have only come back from a goal down to tie the match twice. Sinclair equalized in the 77th minute against the Houston Dash in the Challenge Cup and the match ended in a draw. Simone Charley scored in the 42nd minute against Orlando to make it 1-1, but the Thorns went on to lose that match 2-1.
Portland is still one of the most dangerous teams in the league, but they have shown that they struggle to get results if they don’t score first. Teams bunker down and force Portland to try to break down a low block if they take the lead against the Thorns.
The U.S. Women’s National Team coach, Vlatko Andonovski, came up with a scheme that could be used by the Thorns when they are in need of a goal. Andonovski wanted to train certain scenarios in the U.S.’s final Send Off Series match against Mexico. The team started the match like they were losing at the end of an important game and needed a goal. Andonovski referred to this as the ‘Goal Down Scenario.’
Christen Press kicked off the match by passing the ball to Rose Lavelle as the forwards and Lindsey Horan sprinted forward into the opposition’s final third. Lavelle played the ball to Becky Sauerbrunn, who lofted a ball to the head of Sam Mewis in midfield. Mewis flicked her header to Carli Lloyd as Horan made a central run into the box between the left back and the center back. Lloyd tried to find Horan, leading to shouts for a penalty kick within 12 seconds of kickoff that were waved off.
As play became more fluid, it was clear that having Horan so far up the pitch was not coincidental. The USWNT lined up in a 3-3-4 formation. The back line was composed of Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Abby Dahlkemper. Crystal Dunn, Rose Lavelle, and Mewis were in midfield and Press, Tobin Heath, Lloyd, and Horan were in the attacking line. Lloyd and Horan operated as dual forwards in an attempt to feed each other through on goal and score quickly.
Andonovski’s plan worked to perfection. In the sixth minute, Horan scored. Alyssa Naeher passed to Dahlkemper, who had an interchange with Sauerbrunn before sweeping a pass to Heath on the right touchline near midfield. Heath played the ball back to O’Hara. The USWNT was pulling Mexico around the pitch and loosening the Mexican lines before exploiting them.
Meanwhile, the USWNT had Lloyd and Horan occupying the center backs which is a tall task for any back line considering the players’ technical prowess and physical ability. O’Hara launched the ball forward to Lloyd and Horan sprinted behind two defenders. One center back was attempting to deal with Lloyd while the other center back and left back were caught out of position and didn’t know whether they should try to mark Lloyd or the run of Horan. The right back was spread wide to try and deal with the threat of Press down the flank.
Lloyd won the header and looped it into the path of Horan, who struck the volley with exquisite technique past the Mexican keeper. Immediately, Horan dropped back into her role as the holding midfielder and the experiment had run its course.
The Thorns could benefit from this experiment at the start of games or when they are in dire need of a goal. Obviously, the Thorns are without Sauerbrunn, Horan, Dunn, and Sinclair during the Olympics but this is a tactic or experiment that could prove crucial down the stretch as the race for the NWSL Shield heats up and the playoffs start.
Portland could take this experiment directly from Andonovski’s playbook or they could tweak it. The USWNT plays in a 4-3-3 and the Thorns use the 4-4-2 diamond. The Thorns could play it safe and move Horan up the pitch to make their formation more of a 4-3-3 with Horan and two forwards making up the front line. But they could also adjust to the 3-3-4 that the USWNT used in the first few minutes against Mexico.
Sauerbrunn, Emily Menges and Natalia Kuikka could make up the back three, which might be able to operate with more ease and a better understanding than that of the USWNT because all three of these players are naturally center backs despite the fact that Kuikka has gotten most of her minutes with the Thorns at right back. O’Hara is an out-and-out right back and may be more unfamiliar and out of place in a back three than Kuikka.
In midfield, Horan usually plays as one of the eights and could be pushed forward. Sinclair could also move forward from her traditional attacking midfield role. Sinclair and Horan would then operate as Lloyd and Horan did against Mexico — as dual forwards that occupy the back line and can play off one another.
Angela Salem/Rocky Rodriguez, Dunn and Meghan Klingenberg, who would slide up from left back, would be the three midfielders. Another advantage the Thorns have over the USWNT in running this system is Salem is the deepest lying midfielder rather than Horan which leaves Portland less vulnerable to the counter attack because they are not playing their No. 6 out of position.
This system will still allow the opposition chances through direct play, but the Thorns have already ingrained this high pressing style into their identity as a team and have much more time to train and perfect this system than the national team. Also, the Thorns have three USWNT players that are integral to this system in Horan, Sauerbrunn, and Dunn.
It will be a while until the Thorns would be able to adopt Andonovski’s scheme but it may prove to be important as Portland has struggled to get back into matches after conceding the lead early in the season. This may be a way to not only get back in matches but to get goals early in the match by making use of Horan’s past experience as a striker and overloads in the final third.