The Portland Thorns drew on Friday with Cascadia rivals OL Reign 1-1 in their first match of the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup. Sofia Huerta opened the scoring in the 19th minute and Christine Sinclair equalized in the 28th minute as the teams shared the points. Here are my five takeaways from the first match of the season.
Sinc is Eternal
This isn’t really a takeaway because everyone should know this but my word it is amazing that Christine Sinclair has been with the Portland Thorns for so long. Prior to the Thorns’ first match this year, I put out a Tweet asking who would score Portland’s first official goal of 2022. A lot of people responded with Sophia Smith and Sam Coffey, who both scored in the preseason.
Only one person responded with Christine Sinclair. I think it is easy to underappreciate the brilliance of a player that is familiar to fans. We get desensitized to her greatness because we have seen it over and over and we come to expect it. But it is important that we fight against this and make sure to recognize these world-class players because what they are doing is extraordinary.
We all should have known that Christine Sinclair would score Portland’s first goal in the NWSL’s (and the club’s) tenth year. She scored nine goals in the NWSL’s inaugural season with the Thorns as she helped lead the team to an NWSL Championship. She has since scored 66 goals in the league and racked up countless individual and team awards for club and country.
6⃣6⃣— Canada Soccer's Women's National Team (@CANWNT) March 19, 2022
Christine Sinclair has scored goals in each of her seasons with Portland Thorns FC
2013 - 9
2014 - 7
2015 - 2
2016 - 7
2017 - 9
2018 - 9
2019 - 9
2020 - 6
2021 - 7
2022* - 1st of the season#BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/yHVDngbc6K
Sinclair scored the first goal of the season against the Thorns’ Cascadia rivals OL Reign in the 28th minute. The goal would ensure that the teams shared the points on the day. It was a good move as the Thorns built their way into the match. Coffey switched the point of the attack, finding Natalia Kuikka. The Finnish wing-back played a beautiful first-time ball to Sophia Smith, who made an intelligent run behind the defense. Smith was denied by Phallon Tullis-Joyce. The ball fell to Sinclair at the top of the box and at that moment I think we all knew the game was going to be tied.
Sinclair took a curled route to the ball, positioning herself well to side-foot the ball into the bottom corner of the goal. It wasn’t the flashiest finish and many will point to Sofia Huerta’s banger when speaking about this game, but Sinclair’s finish was top class as well. The technique it takes to hit that ball first-time, keep it low, and curl it into the corner is exceptional and something that Sinclair made look so simple.
I hope Sinc never retires. She is a joy to watch and has done so much for the Portland Thorns, Canada, and soccer as a whole. She is the classiest player on and off the pitch, and one of the greatest role models, sporting or otherwise, in the world. No one except Sinclair knows how long the 38 year-old will continue to grace the game with her excellence but we should all recognize how lucky we are to watch her play.
Long may the Goat reign in Providence Park!
Experience vs. Inexperience in Midfield
I don’t think anyone will argue that the Thorns won the midfield battle. They didn’t. But I do think the midfield performed well given the circumstances. Rocky Rodriguez’s injury was a huge blow to what was already going to be an inexperienced midfield.
The Thorns midfield that started against OL Reign had a total of 11 appearances across all NWSL competitions. All 11 of those appearances were made by Yazmeen Ryan. Both Sam Coffey and Hina Sugita made their NWSL debuts in the match.
On the other hand, the Reign’s most inexperienced midfielder, Angelina, made her 20th NWSL appearance across all competitions. Quinn has played 41 NWSL games and Jess Fishlock has played well over 100.
Quinn had an exceptional match. They dictated the pace of play and were a dominant force in defense throughout the game. Quinn, Angelina and Fishlock initiated the Reign’s most dominant spell of the match in the first 20 minutes. The Reign pinned the Thorns back and capitalized on their dominance through Sofia Huerta’s opener.
Despite the fact that the Reign won the midfield battle, I thought there were positives to take away from this match based on the midfield’s performance. The Thorns made adjustments after the goal and put together sustained spells of possession to close out the half.
I was especially optimistic about the performances of the debutants, who adapted well in their debuts to the speed and physicality of play. Coffey registered 67 touches, completed 74% of her 50 passes, and played the crossfield ball that initiated the Thorns’ goal-scoring sequence. Sinclair had nothing but great things to say about Coffey post-match and I expect to see the Penn State alumna continue to grow in confidence and influence as she gets more NWSL matches under her belt.
The other debutant was Japan international Sugita. She got involved in the match quickly and was active throughout the 90 minutes. Just look at these action maps.
Sugita was extremely safe on the ball, completing 92.9% of her passes. She also won a foul and put a shot on target but the Japanese midfielder was most impressive in defense. Sugita completed one tackle, two interceptions, two clearances and ten recoveries.
Overall, I doubt the Thorns will be happy with their 41.6% possession but the young midfielders showed promising signs against one of the strongest midfields in the league. As they gain chemistry and experience and welcome Rodriguez back into the fold, this midfield could prove to be one of the many strengths of this team. That being said, the midfield must do better at connecting with and providing support to the attack, which brings me to my next takeaway.
Smith on an Island
Sophia Smith was a menace against OL Reign when she got on the ball. Her well-timed run in behind the Reign defense, and Kuikka’s wonderful pass, produced one of the best chances of the game. She was denied by Tullis-Joyce and Sinclair finished the chance for the Thorns’ only goal of the night.
Smith and substitute Olivia Moultrie combined for the Thorns’ other big chance in the match. Moultrie played a line-splitting ball into the gap between defenders Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt. Smith curled her run around Hiatt and zoomed past her to get the ball. Tullis-Joyce came out to narrow the angle and Smith did well to get by her before shooting wide of the goal.
The Thorns forward did well to create opportunities for herself with her limited touches and limited help. As demonstrated by the Thorns’ pass map, Smith was all by herself in attack for the majority of her 87 minutes on the pitch. To further demonstrate this, only three of her 13 attempted passes were horizontal or forward. When Smith received the ball she was the only outlet and had no one to link up with. She was constantly outnumbered and put in very difficult positions.
Wilkinson and the Thorns will need to figure out how to provide Smith with help in the attack in the upcoming matches. Smith has the quality to score goals by herself. We have seen her do it, but it is not a reliable plan of attack regardless of her skill level. If the Thorns are to challenge for titles this season they need to get more numbers up the pitch to combine with Smith.
The 2021 Portland Thorns, under Mark Parsons, were a dominant defensive force. Defense helped propel them to the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup title, the Women’s International Champions Cup title and the NWSL Shield. They set a league record with 13 regular-season clean sheets.
The Thorns have a new coach in Rhian Wilkinson and a new formation but defensive solidity still seems to be the foundation that could lead to Portland’s success. Under Wilkinson, the Thorns have ditched Parsons’ preferred 4-4-2 diamond for a 3-5-2.
Against the Reign, Kelli Hubly, Emily Menges and Meaghan Nally started in the three center back positions. They were flanked by wing-backs Kuikka and Meghan Klingenberg. Coffey sat in the No. 6 with Sugita and Ryan in front of her in midfield. Sinclair and Smith made up the attacking duo.
The Thorns struggled a bit in the first 20 minutes of the match as the Reign established dominance. Portland tightened their lines defensively and were more organized after Huerta’s golazo which, granted, did stem from a defensive breakdown on the top of the 18-yard box. Overall, the Thorns only allowed eight shots and three shots on target for 0.54 expected goals.
There were some communication errors and defensive slip-ups but that is to be expected in the team’s first official match of the season, especially considering the Thorns are adjusting to a new formation. But Kelli Hubly and Emily Menges performed well and Meaghan Nally stepped up in a big way in the absence of Becky Sauerbrunn, who is sidelined with a knee injury.
I imagine that the Thorns offense may start the season inconsistently as players adapt to the new formation and tactics, and the influx of new players. But I think Portland can continue to rely heavily on their defensive solidity, especially in the early stages of the season.
We Have To Be Better
My final takeaway isn’t about anything that happened on the pitch. It’s that we as fans of the NWSL, and sports in general, need to be better. After the match, Smith posted a thread of two tweets, reminding people that athletes are humans too and they see and hear the abuse hurled at them from the stands and on social media. It’s not ok and it needs to stop. Have a little compassion. Put yourselves in their shoes. And take a moment to think before you spew negative comments at people. There is no place for it in the game.
often times not as strong as we may make it seem on the field. the things you yell at us during the game, we hear it. The things you comment on social media, we see it. We are strong, but we are people just like you, and sometimes I think people forget that.— Sophia Smith (@sophsssmith) March 19, 2022