PORTLAND, Ore. – The day belonged to the Chicago Red Stars, and we’ll be sure to get into that (a lot) below, but when a team that was expected to win the league drops their second in three at home, questions about that club’s performance will overshadow their 6-2-1 record, the fact they sit second in the league, or the international break that deprived Thorns FC of four valuable pieces.
The truth is Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Chicago was a very typical Thorns performance, one that makes you realize how valuable Christine Sinclair’s become. As Portland waned in Saturday’s second half, you couldn’t help but think of the numerous times this season Sinclair’s done something subtly remarkable, breaking her team out of their typical drudgery and given them an edge that their talent alone could preserve. But without Canada’s captain, the league favorites were victimized by a Chicago team that came into the day as one of the NWSL’s two winless teams.
Had Sinclair, Alex Morgan, Rachel Buehler and Karina LeBlanc been at JELD-WEN, Portland still would have lost. Probably. Sonia Fuss (and, to a lesser extent, Inka Grings) made Chicago into a different team. But even if the Thorns did get another result, it would only paper over the problems that we saw in Kansas City and Seattle, issues that were also manifest at home against Sky Blue and Chicago.
For all their talent in attack, Portland is just not generating enough decent chances. Their inability to do so allows teams to play off them, stay compact and tight at the back, and wait for their lack of solutions to produce a turnover. Having yet to show any variations that offsets their opponents’ plans (i.e., a willingness to play around, not through their opposition), Portland’s an easy riddle to solve. Yu don’t have to be a master tactician to stop the Thorns FC.
The rub is Sinclair, who can defy Portland’s lack of solutions and get results. The rub is Morgan, who (as she showed on Sunday) can be anonymous for 70 minutes then steal a game.
But for Portland, the rub is also team like Sky Blue. Or Kansas City. Or Western New York. There are a lot of rubs! All of those teams are capable of doing what Chicago did Saturday while being much more dangerous going forward.
That’s why, even though their stars were gone, Portland took a big hit in PST’s rankings (below). Saturday’s game was just too emblematic of bigger problems – issues taht transcend personnel. Until we see something different, there’s every reason to expect their struggles will continue.
Here’s what else happened in this weekend in the NWSL:
TEAM THAT STOOD OUT
Boston was without their national team players, too, but not at the back, and not in the middle of the park. So when you see Sky Blue put up a league-record five goals against the previously once-beaten Breakers, don’t throw shade at Jim Gabarra’s team. Saturday’s result should be seen as a break out.
Danesha Adams had two goals. So did Lisa De Vanna. Taylor Lytle got her second of the year. A team that has no elite threat in attack, against a back seven (keeper, defense, two holders) that wasn’t missing any of their starters to the international break managed five goals. Five!
It’s time to stop being so sanguine about Sky Blue. That’s me talking to myself and everybody else that looked at the first place team and signed a collective ‘meh, this team isn’t as good as the four below it.’
True, at the beginning they seemed to be getting some irreplaceable breaks. And when they sprung their upsets of Portland, it appeared to be Thorn ineptitude. When Sky Blue won in Kansas City, they played with an extra player for an hour.
But on Saturday? The team showed signs that the cohesion that has fused one of the league’s best defenses may now be moving into the attack. And this was without Christie Rampone and Sophie Schmidt in the team.
It’s time to give it up to Sky Blue.
MVP … OF THE WEEK
So Lisa De Vanna did this against Boston:
She also added another goal while being her typical all-energy self.
But let’s try to let that finish speak for itself. She was our Week 8 MVP.
ROUND’S BIG STORY
No more asking which team will win first. Chicago and Seattle came into the weekend as the N’s only winless sides, but after the Red Stars’ victory in Portland, the Reign get to walk that road alone. Chicago has their first win, and with it, they have hope they can salvage their season.
The Red Stars are still five points and three teams back of a playoff spot, but with 15 games left in their season, there’s plenty of time to catch up. So although three points against Portland were important and symbolic, Chicago’s underlying form was more important. Had they played poorly and got an aberrational result, there’d be little true reason to be so excited. But while out-playing the Thorns – showing a quality that could win games going forward – the Red Stars took a huge step in the right diretion.
Perhaps surprisingly, the key wasn’t Grings – the goalscorer expected to augment an attack that’d only scored four times in six games. She didn’t even register a shot on goal. The difference was Sonja Fuss, the other former German international who joined the Red Stars last week.
Fuss, like Grings, is 34, and is also joining Chicago from FC Zurich, but without 64 international goals to her resume, her arrival was somewhat overlooked. On Saturday, though, her leadership was crucial to organizing a Chicago defense that had looked suspect the previous week in Rochester.
“Our team has a lot of good players, and soccer’s not that difficult,” Fuss said after the game, talking about organizing new teammates. “Everybody can stop a ball and can play it. It’s just about knowing where the right spot is.”
The Thorns had one meaningful chance on Saturday, a ball knocked down by Angie Kerr, send over the bar by Danielle Foxhoven in the first half. From then on, it was a serious of half-chances and empty threats, Fuss’s organization and timely clearances the major part of the Red Stars’ awakening.
Grings is bound to score goals, but if Fuss continues to play as she did on Saturday, the defender’s arrival will prove as important.
Like fellow two-time “Unsungee” Desiree Scott, Chicago’s Lori Chalupny is probably overqualified for this position, but on a weekend when the U.S. national team assembled without her, it’s appropriate to note: Chalupny still has all the quality of an international player.
Her one-on-one battle with Becky Edwards was one of the most compelling parts of Saturday’s game. Playing behind Grings in what functioned as a 4-2-3-1, Chalupny was constantly in Edwards’ pocket as the Thorns pivot tried to manage play. And with Portland’s midfield not providing a player to allow Edwards to make a positive pass, Chalupny was often forcing negative balls, allowing her defense to consolidate behind her.
But more than pressuring the ball, Chalupny was a pest winning it. She was fouled a game high five times as her combativeness defined the day’s midfield battle, one Chicago ultimately won. By the hour mark, a Portland midfield that’s used to controlling tempo was sharing the ball with the Red Stars, a implicit accomplishment for Chicago’s midfield.
With the U.S. winning comfortably over a strong Canada squad, it’s impossible to say the States need Lori Chalupny. But when she plays like she has over the last month, it’s difficult to say she doesn’t deserve a chance at a 93rd cap. Two ships passing in the night.
Did Sky Blue save any goals for Saturday? … What has to happen before Portland makes a change? … Was that the sound of Boston coming back to earth? … How strong will Chicago be after Leslie Osborne and Shannon Boxx return? … Can we learn anything from this weekend’s games? … And will the off week help or hurt the four teams that didn’t play?
Two mid-week games ahead of a three-match weekend give us one of the busier weeks on the NWSL calendar. We’ll have something quick on Wednesday about the matches in Boston and Portland, but for the weekend’s games, Sky Blue’s match against the Western New York Flash will be our PST Game of the Week.
Wednesday, June 5
Boston Breakers vs. Western New York Flash
Thursday, June 6
Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City
Saturday, June 8
Sky Blue FC vs. Western New York Flash
Sunday, June 9
Chicago Red Stars vs. Boston Breakers
Seattle Reign FC vs. FC Kansas City