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In need of more space? Raso and Purce may be at the heart of the solution

After scoring just one goal in its past three games, the question begs to be asked: How can the Thorns create — and take advantage of — more space?

Kris Lattimore

The Portland Thorns controlled 60.7 percent of possession, sent in nine corner kicks, crossed the ball 25 times, and out-shot the Houston Dash 12-3 in the first half of Saturday night’s 1-0 win, — yet Jane Campbell wasn’t tested at all.

Just over ten minutes into the game, the ball fell to Midge Purce in the box, who turned and attempted a shot that was ultimately deflected. In the 32nd mintue, Christine Sinclair flicked a ball to an unmarked Horan at the far post, who couldn’t hit the target with a header. Minutes after that, Dagny Brynarsdottir’s shot barely skimmed past the near post. Time and time again, the Thorns had the opportunity to break the game open, but they couldn’t take advantage of their biggest chances.

Saturday night, the Thorns came out pressing, looking to dominate the Dash much like they did in July when they claimed a 5-0 victory. Portland ultimately found success with that strategy and played a majority of the game in Houston’s half of the field, but they just couldn’t find that final ball. While it’s nice to have the ball and maintain control of possession, the Thorns performance begs the question: Would Portland find more success in sitting back?

With players such as Hayley Raso and Purce leading the front line, that is a legitimate question. Both players have a relentless work ethic and are tireless in pressing the opposing defense, but that doesn’t play to their biggest strength: speed.

With most of the Thorns’ possession coming in the attacking half, they had to play against a set-and-compact defense — one which looked a lot more composed and disciplined than it did the last time it visited Providence Park. With the lack of space available to exploit, Raso and Purce couldn’t make the runs in behind the defense that stretch the field and ultimately benefit the Thorns’ other attackers.

The way to create the necessary space is by sitting back and inviting pressure before attacking into it in transition. Realistically, Parsons won’t want his team to concede that much of possession at home, especially against a team like Houston, who have proven in the past to be defensively fragile. Playing counterattacking soccer isn’t as attractive and has the stigma of being done by the “underdog,” but that isn’t entirely the case: The Thorns don’t need to play like that throughout the entirety of the game, but being able to make that adjustment when required can be pivotal in building momentum. After going two and a half games without scoring, it was evident that the Thorns needed to change something up.

One of the luxuries that Portland has is its depth. Parsons can throw out multitudes of different looks and formations that most other teams cannot rival. Don’t get me wrong: The Thorns still excel as a possession team, but is that really taking advantage of what Raso and Purce can do? If the Thorns want to play that way, maybe it’s worth revisiting bringing Caitlin Foord into the game. While she hasn’t had many opportunities lately, she’s a player that can hold the ball up, combine well with midfield, and play the ball to the Thorns’ variety of pacy wingers; certainly an asset to have in possession play. While Purce has improved her hold-up play, it is not what she is on the field to do.

Did the Thorns’ strategy of controlling possession and crossing the ball into the box work? Eventually, yes, but Portland often seems to be at its best when mercilessly attacking the opponent’s backline with plenty of space.

While it won’t be as pretty as building up play from the back and dominating possession, looking to create space in behind to run into could go a long way towards helping the Thorns have many more dangerous attacking opportunities. And yes, they broke through against Houston thanks to a lovely worked Heath goal right after halftime, but it will be trickier against a team like the Reign. If the Thorns can’t find space in behind, and if they concede first, it could be another long night filled with crosses and limited opportunities.