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The Subtle Brilliance of Angela Salem

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Angela Salem is in the form of her life and put in an incredible shift against Lyon. Salem is not just one of the most underrated players in the NWSL, she’s a genius with and without the ball and has been one of the best midfielders in the league this year.

Kansas City v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Mark Parsons’ face lit up when he was asked about Angela Salem’s performance in the Women’s International Champions Cup final. Portland Thorns FC defeated Olympique Lyonnais 1-0 to lift the club’s second trophy of the season in Providence Park.

“[Amel] Majri, Amandine Henry, [Danielle] van de Donk... Ang[ela] Salem was the most dominant midfielder on the pitch and… she’s been doing this for months, months,” said Parsons in his post-match media availability.

“She impacts every part of the game,” said Parsons. “In possession, what she was doing in the first half to get us around their number nine on the weak side, defensively, you know, I think everyone kicked her, including the referee in the second half...”

Parsons wasn’t the only person that had positive things to say about Salem after the match. The NWSL’s Twitter account sparked conversation throughout the league with its tweet that read “Who is the most underrated player in the NWSL and why?”

Fans across the world flooded the league’s mentions with players from all NWSL teams. Some players got involved as well. Kayla Knapp, Director, Social Content and Strategy for the Portland Thorns, quote-tweeted the tweet and mentioned Salem. Salem’s teammate Lindsey Horan was quick to quote-tweet Knapp with “Agreed x5000.”

In Possession

The Ohio-born midfielder has been patrolling midfield longer than the NWSL has been around and seems to have a serious claim to the title of the league’s most underrated player. Salem has been a key cog in the midfield and the ‘glue’ for the Challenge Cup and WICC-winning Portland Thorns.

Salem doesn’t score a lot of goals and she doesn’t assist much. She registered her first Thorns’ goal and assist this season against Racing Louisville FC on June 5. It was her first goal since 2016. But Salem does so much that contributes to her teammates scoring and assisting goals.

Against Lyon, Salem had the fourth most touches (tied with Natalia Kuikka) of any player and made the second-most passes. She attempted 49 passes with an 81.6% completion rate and added five tackles. She was replaced in the 82nd minute after picking up a knock.

These are great numbers but they are unable to tell the full story of Salem’s influence because the parts of the game that she excels in the most are hard to quantify with statistics.

Salem is the deepest-lying midfielder in Parsons’ 4-4-2 diamond. She is a defensive midfielder who is also crucial to the Thorns’ progression offensively. What makes Salem so good is her positioning and understanding of space and how to manipulate it to benefit herself and her teammates.

Salem is crucial to recovering and retaining possession for the Thorns. If she is not the one winning the ball back, she is almost always positioned near the ball winner to offer herself as a short passing option out of the opposition’s counter-press.

Players can find Salem to relieve themselves of pressure and Salem can then play another short pass, turn, or play a cross-field switch. This helps the Thorns keep possession when they win it back. Salem has the ability to slow the game down when she wants the Thorns to put their foot on the ball and build from the back. She can also spring the Thorns forward in transition if she sees an exploitable gap with her passing ability.

In the 62nd minute against Lyon, Salem displayed her ability to spot a run under pressure and play a line-breaking through ball. The Thorns worked together to play through Lyon’s press. Meghan Klingenberg quickly played it to Salem. The Akron-born midfielder took one touch to turn and, in a split second, identified the run of Sophia Smith. Her next touch was weighted to perfection and she played a long ball into stride for Smith. The forward ran onto it and was taken down in the box. The referee waved for the teams to play on, much to the chagrin of the Thorns and their fans.

Salem’s press resistance was also key for when Portland built out of the back. She understood where she needed to drop to receive from the center backs and how she could serve as an outlet before she facilitated forward progression.

Becky Sauerbrunn was put under pressure as she dribbled out of the back in the 40th minute. Salem dropped to help as the Lyon forward closed in on Sauerbrunn. Salem received the ball with her back to goal and Majri followed her to try to pick her pocket. Salem, ever aware, noticed where Majri would pressure her. She turned quickly and sprayed a pass wide to Klingenberg in midfield. Salem had broken the Lyon press and now the Thorns could dictate possession.

When the Thorns progress through the midfield and into the final third, Salem serves as the fulcrum of the offense, hence her number of touches and passes against the French side. She is always rotating to create a numerical superiority for the Thorns wherever they have the ball and facilitates side-to-side movement while also possessing the ability to break lines.

Salem is very good at identifying how she can create space for a player or space for a pass by dragging defenders out of their positions with her runs. In the 13th minute, the Thorns won a free kick. The majority of Lyon’s defense composed a high line as they prepared for service into the box. The free kick was played short and Natalia Kuikka, who was near the touch line, came back into midfield and slightly inside. Salem’s movement pulled Delphine Cascarino out of the space she was occupying which opened a passing lane for Kuikka. The Finnish international played the ball in the gap created by Salem between her defender and Cascarino. Emily Menges made a rare foray forward and ran onto the pass in acres of space and swung a cross into the box.

Teammates, like Horan, love to play with Salem because of these types of movements and spatial manipulations. She unlocks space and optimizes her teammates’ ability to succeed with her knowledge of the game.

Without the Ball

“She just covers so much ground,” said Parsons after the match. “Look what she did, how she got hurt tracking, covering someone else, and putting as much pressure on the ball. She’s been our glue with quality on the ball. She’s been our glue with brains, she’s been our glue with defensive work and she’s a critical piece to our team.”

Salem was everywhere defensively against Lyon which was exemplified by her incredible effort in the 80th minute. Klingenberg lost the ball and van de Donk took over possession. Salem turned on a dime a few yards in front of Lyon’s box and sprinted back to cover for Klingenberg, who was still challenging for the ball.

The Dutch midfielder eventually got past Klingenberg as she entered the Thorns’ penalty area. That’s when Salem hit a whole new gear to track van de Donk down, and got her body on the Lyon midfielder to put off the cross.

Salem was substituted after this heroic effort but this was just one example of the extensive amount of ground Salem covered defensively throughout the match. The Thorns midfielder normally does a lot of running and covering in defense and was everywhere against Lyon.

Salem sits behind the other three midfielders in the diamond but instead of serving as just a central sweeper, she gets involved on both sides of the pitch and never stops running. When one of the number eights and the number ten pressed and looked to pin Lyon on the flank Salem was there.

The eights, the ten, the forwards and sometimes the fullback do most of the challenging for the ball and closing down when the Thorns press. Salem positions herself to plug the space behind them so the ball carrier is unable to dribble through the press or pass through it. Salem does this on both flanks, sprinting from side to side to plug the holes in Portland’s press.

The defensive midfielder has great recognition of when to poke the ball free and when to go to ground and make a crunching but controlled tackle. This is crucial when the Thorns are caught out in defensive transition. Salem serves as the last bit of cover for the back line.

When she isn’t forced into making challenges in transition, she is always scanning the field to identify potential space that could be exploited and fills it. Salem is key in transition and is often the one who tracks back and covers the space at the top of the 18-yard box, or the penalty spot, where dangerous cutbacks leave back lines vulnerable.

Similar to her offensive contributions, Salem’s understanding of space is crucial defensively. The midfielder defends players well. She is good one vs. one. But she also defends space well. When a ball carrier has their back to goal, she leaves just enough space between her and the player so the ball carrier is unable to turn without Salem closing the ball and forcing the opposition backward. She also knows that she doesn’t need to step to a player to successfully defend. Sometimes it’s more beneficial to the team to defend by eliminating the opposition’s options and space rather than stepping to a player and leaving a gap for them to exploit.

Salem also played an important role in slowing Lyon’s tricky forward Cascarino. In the 19th minute, the French winger got by Kuikka by playing a one-two with Majri. Salem saw the danger of this while it was unfolding. As Cascarino passed to Majri and started to sprint into space Salem left Majri to slow Cascarino, who received the return ball and drove into space. Salem was completely outpaced but grabbed Cascarino and got a body to her to slow the winger down. Eventually, with the help of Kuikka, Cascarino was hounded off the ball in the penalty area.

The Thorns midfielder did something similar in the 50th minute. Cascarino was awarded a foul but Salem slowed the French attacker while haulting the play in a potential moment of vulnerability for Portland.

Salem has been crucial on both sides of the ball throughout her career. She is a midfielder who has a remarkable influence and this season she has somehow found a new gear. Salem is playing some of the best soccer of her career and has been integral to the Thorns’ success in the league.

“Oh man, I could speak to you about her for hours,” said Horan in the Thorns’ media availability on Tuesday. “I mean Ang is a good friend of mine, but I’ve been playing with her for a few years now and I think even this past year and a half or so I’ve really seen the best part of Ang come out. I think she’s a true footballer. She knows the game so well. So it makes it even more enjoyable for me to play with her.”

Salem put in a masterclass against some of the best midfielders in the world vs. Lyon, and perhaps what is most telling is the smile that comes across the faces of Parsons and Horan when they describe Salem’s impact on the pitch as well as the person she is off it.

“But besides her doing that, and having that part of her game,” said Horan. “You know, she works her ass off. I think she always talks about her age and how old she is and whatnot but she does not seem that way. The mentality that she has every single game, no matter who she’s going up against, no matter who we’re playing against, she takes on that challenge, and she wants to win so badly. And I don’t know, it’s just a really cool thing to see for me as a friend [and as] a teammate and she just keeps getting better and better which is incredible. But yeah, I think [she’s] by far the most underrated player here.”

Often what Salem does on the pitch isn’t quantifiable with statistics. It can be easy to miss her intricate movements and how they initiate the movement of the whole Thorns machine. But if you want to learn about the game of soccer, the manipulation of space, and the subtle ways a player can make an immeasurable impact, spend 90 minutes watching Angela Salem because she is a genius with and without the ball.