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Thorns adopting tactical flexibility as a strength after painful lesson

Kris Lattimore

September 22, 2018.

A simple date, yes, but it could be much more to the Portland Thorns organization: It was the day that the North Carolina Courage ran rampant on the Thorns’ own pitch — even celebrated on it. A day the Courage seemed to have every answer, while the Thorns had none. Though many fans may prefer to forget, maybe -- just maybe -- that date shaped the Thorns’ future for the better.

Sometimes the difference between a shield and championship contender versus a really good team is the ability to adapt. There’s a reason the Thorns and Courage have faced off in the NWSL championship game the past two years while a team like the Chicago Red Stars struggle to make it past that first playoff game.

Both the Courage and Thorns have proven that they can out-talent every other team in the league; with players such as Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, and Adrianna Franch playing against a team with Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams, it’s hard not to. The difference comes down to coach Paul Riley’s ability to react to a game quicker than Mark Parsons.

On paper, one might argue that the Thorns have the more talented roster. Going player by player and position by position, the Thorns might come out ahead, but the results over the past few years don’t reflect that. Ever since the Thorns fell 4-3 to the Western New York Flash (the previous iteration of the Courage) in the 2016 semifinals, they’ve gone 3-1-5 against the Carolina side. Out of 63 non-Carolina matches, the Thorns have lost just ten. You can point to Carolina’s grit and grind mentality and aggressive play style all you want, but that’s not the biggest difference between the two sides: That comes down to how well Riley adjusts in-game.

Take one of the most glaring defeats to the Courage: that 3-0 defeat at home in the NWSL championship game on September 22nd, 2018. Carolina was willing to sit back early and let the Thorns control much of the early stages of the game, at least in terms of possession. Then the first goal came in transition, when Williams received a direct ball over the top and sent a shot off the post and into the path of Debinha. The second goal came from a set piece awarded to the Courage after some build-up play. For the third, McDonald headed in a cross after a short corner.

These three different goals show how versatile the Courage is. When they have possession, the players are lethal with their opportunities; when they need to sit back and dare the opposition to break them down, they can dominate in transition as well. Carolina can counter-press, find line-breaking final passes out of possession, and get numbers forward for plenty of opportunities on crosses.

The Thorns were able to out-talent most of the league’s other teams, but that championship game must have been a wake-up call for Parsons and Co. Sure, what the Thorns have been doing has been effective, and the talent they have promises shield contention every season, but the Courage have proven to have Portland’s number over the past few years.

Throughout the 2019 season, there seem to be signs that the Thorns are a much more tactically malleable team now than in the past. Look no further than the Thorn’s two most recent games to see the progress. In a perfect world, Parsons has shown that he likes his teams to be able to play with possession out of the back while employing a high-press to win the ball high in the attacking third. In that approach, Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg are free to run the flanks while connecting play with the talented midfield triangle. When it comes to counter-pressing, players like Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso are willing and able to both track back and win the ball back quickly in dangerous areas. When the Thorns are able to play this way, they often spend the entire game on the front foot, which makes them difficult to beat.

That’s a sound strategy at times, but what if they come up against a team where it is too risky to play that way and open up? Against both the Courage and Red Stars, the Thorns were comfortable enough to sit back and use a low block to concede possession at home to both sides. In those matches, the Thorns turned precious transition opportunities into game-winning goals.

By giving up possession in dangerous areas, the Thorns opened themselves to a lot of shots (outshot 20-10 by Carolina and 17-12 by Chicago). The thing is, Portland excels at not giving up quality shots. So while the Thorns give up a lot of chances against talented teams, they are from farther away and are lower-percentage opportunities. Of course, it does help to have AD Franch between the sticks.

An additional example: When the Thorns put five goals past the Houston Dash, it -- shows that they can still play their preferred style. In that game, the Thorns kept 56.5 percent of possession, crossed the ball 24 times, and outshot the Dash 20-9. The heat map below shows the Thorns’ dominance, and that much of the possession came in some of the most dangerous areas of the field.

Those are just three examples of games where the Thorns have adjusted tactically. If they want to continue pressing on the front foot, they are capable. If they need to concede possession and sit on the back foot at home, they are willing to do that as well.

In the past, Parsons has been stubborn with his game-to-game strategies. He was just as likely to press and try and dominate a team like Carolina as he was Sky Blue. The regular season may be a different beast, but if the team cannot adjust in the playoffs, finding a way to grind out that knock-out win becomes much more difficult. But this season’s Thorns team? They’re more adaptable; they don’t over-rely on any set of players. And who knows? Maybe that flexibility started after that demoralizing loss to the Courage last September.