The Portland Thorns have garnered four points through their first two 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup matches. They drew at OL Reign 1-1 in a match in which the Thorns’ offense looked disjointed and Sophia Smith looked isolated from the rest of the team. In Portland’s second match, they traveled to San Diego and defeated the Wave 1-0 thanks to S. Smith’s early goal.
The Thorns only made one change to their starting XI heading into Torero Stadium, as Abby Smith came in for Bella Bixby in goal. Portland only scored one goal in the match but the team’s cohesion going forward looked much improved for the majority of the match and attacking principles became far more evident.
In Rhian Wilkinson’s preferred 3-5-2, emphasis is placed on the role of the wing-backs Natalia Kuikka and Meghan Klingenberg both in overloads and attacking partnerships as well as in build-up. Kuikka led the team in touches (78) and Klingenberg (74) had the second most. The Thorns’ left wing-back led the team with 15 passes into the final third and Kuikka was tied for second-most with 12, and added an assist.
The Thorns’ three center backs, Kelli Hubly, Emily Menges and Meaghan Nally, look to do two things: play through the first two lines of pressure with their on-ball ability and passing or quickly move the ball side to side, finding the wing-backs in space.
San Diego only pressed the center backs with a front two so it was easy for the central defenders to quickly pass the ball between themselves before playing a sweeping ball to the weak side wing-back, who would drive into the space, moving the team past the halfway line and even into the final third.
Portland could opt to do this when playing out of the back or when a midfielder or forward won the ball back in midfield and a forward pass wasn’t on. These moves also incorporated the deepest-lying midfielder, Sam Coffey, who served as a fulcrum that facilitated movement across the pitch.
The center backs also identified space well and carried the ball forward or played through the Wave’s initial line of confrontation with penetrative balls into the midfield. The midfielders and forwards would then combine to create numerical advantages, which is how Smith eventually scored the early winner.
Menges played a line-splitting ball through two lines of pressure to Hina Sugita in midfield. Yazmeen Ryan and Christine Sinclair positioned themselves near the Japanese international, forming a potential passing triangle with her. Sugita played it to Sinclair, who flicked it to Ryan making a forward run.
Ryan chipped the ball to S. Smith. The forward held it up which allowed Sinclair and Sugita to form a passing triangle with S. Smith. Sinclair got the ball back and linked up with Sugita before spraying it wide to Kuikka, who made a run in behind off the back shoulder of Sofia Jakobsson.
As Sinclair and Sugita combined, S. Smith made a vertical run into the area. Kuikka drove into the space afforded to her before picking her head up and playing a pinpoint low cross that S. Smith tapped into the back of the net.
The goal was a great example of what the Thorns tried to do throughout the match, which was break the initial line of pressure, create numerical advantages in midfield, play quick combinations between two-thirds of the player triangle while the third player makes off-ball runs into dangerous areas, and exploit the overloads on the flanks.
The goal was a great team move that highlighted the Thorns’ budding offensive identity. The team unsettled the defense and exploited space well in transition.
Overloads & Partnerships
There were also moments when San Diego were forced to defend deep and the Thorns had to try and pick the compact defense apart with much less space and time in the final third.
In these moments when Portland had the Wave pinned back, the Thorns relied on overloads and partnerships to create numerical advantages and one-versus-one opportunities.
“We talk a lot about partnerships, and they animate differently on the right and the left,” said Wilkinson in the post-match media availability. “Just different technical tactical skill sets.”
“And what was fun is, it is still early, and you’re seeing those starting to develop, especially out wide creating those triangles, those combinations with the midfield, wing-backs, forwards, nines,” she continued. “I thought we saw some really good combinations with off the front, in behind, making sure that we’ve got opposite movements working together. And again, it really is early in the process. And so seeing those real connections starting to bed down has been exciting for us.”
Often when the ball went to the right side, Kuikka would bomb up the flank and could stay as a right wing-back or continue forward to join the midfield or attacking line. If Kuikka decided to really get forward, Hubly would step up from right center back and offer as an option in more of a traditional right back position, even providing overlapping runs sporadically throughout the match.
Sugita got forward much more than she did in the first match and drifted into wide areas. The Japanese midfielder would link with Kuikka and either S. Smith or Sinclair, who also drifted over when the ball was on the right.
Coffey was situated as the deepest central midfielder and was in a more central area. Ryan pinched into central areas as well but was farther left and farther forward. The forward that didn’t drift over operated as a traditional center forward near the top of the box, centrally. Klingenberg was wide left but not as far forward as her counterpart Kuikka, and Menges and Nally formed a two-back.
By overloading the flank, the Thorns were able to keep possession and play through tight areas, putting their creative forces in optimal positions. Portland were able to create 12 shots, eight of which were from inside the box and five of which were on targets. Right-sided players Hubly and Kuikka created a joint team-high two chances.
The other player who created two chances for the Thorns was Sugita, who was given license to find the game and occupy dangerous spaces. Sugita was also tied for second on the team with 12 passes into the final third, demonstrating her importance to the creativity of the side.
Sugita drifted wide right and wide left while also popping up centrally and driving at the defense. When Sugita and the ball went left, Nally stepped up as a traditional left back, and Klingenberg linked with Sugita and whichever forward drifted over. Ryan and Coffey occupied similar positions with the former TCU midfielder now toward the right side. Kuikka operated more like a traditional right back and Menges and Hubly made up the two back.
Perhaps the most impressive thing, other than the link-up play on the wings, was the use of wide areas while not being over-reliant on crosses. The Thorns picked their crosses well, finding Sinclair twice for chances and finding S. Smith for the goal.
The final wrinkle that the Thorns relied on was the relationship between S. Smith and Christine Sinclair. S. Smith continued to strike fear into back lines as she ran at defenses and made intelligent runs in behind. S. Smith amassed three shots, all of which were on target, for a game-leading 1.25 xG.
S. Smith scored a great goal from an impressive ball from Kuikka and nearly had another as the Finnish wing-back provided a beautifully flighted ball to S. Smith, who was denied by a great save.
S. Smith continued to test the back line with her ability and pace but was far more connected with the rest of the team when she went forward than she was in the first game when she was basically tasked with doing it all herself.
Throughout the match, S. Smith and Sinclair would rotate who was the highest forward and who played in a more withdrawn role. Typically, Sinclair is the deeper forward but she got higher up the pitch and made more runs in behind. S. Smith dropped into a false-ish nine role that allowed her to pick up possession and run at defenses with more help to both sides of her as well as in front of her.
The forwards traded these responsibilities throughout the match, keeping the San Diego defense on its toes. Both strikers were also aided by the higher position taken up by Sugita, who offered as another option going forward.
As the second half progressed and substitutes were introduced, the Wave took over the match and the Thorns struggled to replicate the patterns with which they found success in the first half and the start of the second. Portland struggled to find outlets and often bombed aimless balls into space. Despite this, there were very promising signs of a team that is starting to get a handle on their offensive identity and like Wilkinson said, “it really is early in the process.”
Statistics via Thorns FC and Stats Perform