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Thorns’ lackluster performance against Chicago was likely a one-off

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The Thorns’ loss to the Chicago Red Stars looked like a one-off poor performance - it will need to be with a Cascadia clash looming.

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

The Portland Thorns lost their fifth match of the season Saturday night against the Chicago Red Stars in Bridgeview. It was the first time since 2013 that the Thorns lost to the Red Stars and may have been Portland’s worst match of the season.

The Thorns have lost to OL Reign twice and the Orlando Pride, North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars once this season. In the majority of these games, it could be argued that the Thorns outplayed their opponents for large stretches of the match or the match was relatively even. Obviously, that doesn’t matter in the standings and all of these matches resulted in losses.

Portland has been the most consistent team in the NWSL all season which is why the team is still in first place with a three-point lead (and a game in hand) over OL Reign in second. Regardless of who was available or who was away the Thorns have played in the same 4-4-2 diamond and played their possession-based game. There have been ups and downs but the form of the team has remained relatively constant.

This was not the case against the Chicago Red Stars. The Thorns didn’t come out strong enough and didn’t play to their normal standard. Portland was uncharacteristically unable to create chances and registered a mere 1.04 xG.

“Yeah, I don’t think it was a final third problem,” captain Christine Sinclair said in the post-match media availability. “I just think we came out flat. And you know, Chicago brought energy that we didn’t match and as a result, it was a struggle for us for 90 minutes. Got a little bit better in the second half, but yeah, I mean in this league you have to match energy with your opposition. We didn’t do that tonight.”

The loss to the Red Stars may have been one of the worst Thorns’ performances this season but that doesn’t mean it is indicative of anything more than one bad game - and all in all it wasn’t that poor of a performance.

There were a lot of factors that led to this result and performance. Firstly, Sinclair is right. Portland came out flat and took too long to find their footing in the match. Chicago came out guns blazing and were extra motivated to prove a point after losing 5-0 to the Thorns at the start of the regular season. Also, the Thorns have had a tough time right after the international break. Portland rotated heavily against Chicago which no doubt had an effect on the team’s chemistry and ability to play through the Red Stars. Finally, Chicago played well and presented an unfamiliar challenge with their three-back formation. Portland is usually able to manufacture a free player in midfield easily because they typically have an extra player in midfield but that wasn’t the case in this match.

“We didn’t come out very well, unfortunately,” said coach Mark Parsons after the match. “This is always tough, coming back from an international break [and] being on the road. We were on the road before it. We were on the road after it. It’s hard. We felt that this probably will be the hardest game of the next few. Chicago getting that extra day, I thought they came out extremely strong - the pace, the energy - I think they were finding their free player in attack very well. And then for us just the opposite and when you’re not sharp and you’re not on it, you still need to be able to squeeze momentum and squeeze your way into the game. We did it a few times and we got some chances. Sinc scored a great goal, could have had another goal I think. It’s just disappointing to concede a goal so soon, but it was that game.”

The Red Stars tactical set-up stumped the Thorns in the early stages of the match. It was hard for Portland to progress centrally because of Chicago’s defensive structure and the Red Stars stifled progression in wide areas with well organized pressing.

Eventually, the Thorns were able to find more success. Portland was able to more easily find a free player and switch the point of attack which shifted the Red Stars’ defense and stretched their lines. The Thorns opening goal was a perfect example of how to play through Chicago’s defensive structure.

Meghan Klingenberg took a throw-in to Angela Salem, who played a wall pass back to Klingenberg. The left back hit a cross field switch to Emily Menges. The center back dribbled forward, taking her space while the Red Stars defense reorganized and shifted. Menges played wide to Celeste Boureille, who dropped it back to Christen Westphal and Westphal passed back to Menges.

At this point, the fluidity and interchangeability of the Thorns in possession had stretched the defensive lines of Chicago and Menges was able to spot and execute a great line-breaking pass to Sinclair. Sinclair flicked it to Boureille who made a darting run inside before playing Crystal Dunn into the box. This caused the Red Stars defense to collapse inward leaving exploitable space on the weak side but instead, Dunn played a cutback to Sinclair. The Canadian then scored with an insane strike.

The strike is not something that a team can consistently rely upon. It is a very low xG chance that Sinclair capitalized on in a moment of brilliance. But the shifting of the Red Stars’ defensive structure to create exploitable gaps is the Thorns’ bread and butter. This was the only real time it came off in the match but it is the foundation of Portland’s possession-based game.

As the match progressed the Thorns were able to create more of these moments, especially in the second half. But Chicago were able to score off a mistake in the first half to equalize and, after a sustained spell of possession, took the lead in the second half.

“So I honestly want to say well done Chicago,” said Parsons. “[I] thought they were very, very good. I’m more frustrated… we didn’t play well. It was a really tough game. Collectively we weren’t good. Individually we weren’t good but we still could have gotten a point out of this. We absolutely could have. We had chances in the second half… It’s disappointing to see how that second goal came with multiple opportunities to deal with the problem.”

After the goal, the Red Stars were content to sit in a midblock, pick their moments to press, and counter attack as the Thorns threw numbers forward in search of a goal. As time ticked off the clock the Red Stars sat deeper and deeper but were still very organized. The Thorns resorted to early crosses and had a difficult time finding space and time around the area. Not to mention, Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger had very good matches. They were great in their one versus one battles and were happy to let the Thorns have the ball and repel crosses as the clock approached full time.

“But [these are] the ups and downs of competing in the best league in the world and Chicago is a very good team,” said Parsons. “It’s really hard to play away at Chicago. [I] almost want to say well done, just well done to them. And for us, we regroup this week and get quality training in and we know when we train and we have everyone together good things happen.”

For the Thorns, there were a lot of factors that contributed to this result. It wasn’t ideal and, when looking at the game as a whole, they were outplayed. It was one of the poorest performances of the season but what made the performance lackluster is easily remedied.

Portland will now have about a week to train at home before welcoming OL Reign to Providence Park. The Thorns need to refocus and put this game behind them. OL Reign are hot on their heels in the race for the NWSL Shield and are in good form. The Thorns don’t just need to match the energy of the Reign but they need to outmatch it. OL has outmatched the Thorns’ energy in both previous regular season meetings this season and the Thorns have lost both.

I think the signs point to the match against the Red Stars being a one-off and it ultimately needs to be. A win against the Reign would not only delight Thorns fans, but it would also do a world of wonder when it comes to Portland securing their third trophy of the season, the NWSL Shield.