NWSL Final: What to know about Portland Thorns FC

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On Saturday, the NWSL crowns its first champion, with preseason favorites Portland Thorns traveling to Rochester to face the Western New York Flash. Led by Abby Wambach, the Flash finished the regular season in first place, defeating Sky Blue FC 2-0 in their Saturday semifinal. After beating second place finishers FC Kansas City 3-2 in Overland Park, Portland will hope Alex Morgan, out for the last three games with a knee injury, will be back for this Saturday’s final.

Having broken down Western New York earlier today, here is a look at Portland Thorns FC:

Defending: After Portland received a talent-rich attack in allocation, defending was supposed to be the relative problem, aside from Rachel Buehler. Though the U.S. international was expected to be one of the more competent central defenders in the league, the backline’s other three spots needed to be filled, and although Canadian international Karina LeBlanc was a popular figure, she hadn’t held down a team’s number one spot since her 2009. Portland seemed to have enough talent to out-gun opponents; unfortunately, some suspected they would have to.

source:  Over the season’s first half, the opposite turned out to be true. As Portland’s midfield struggled to supply the team’s talented forwards, the defense that kept Portland in games. LeBlanc turned out to be one of the league’s better goalkeepers, while Kathryn Williamson (right), a rookie out of Florida, often out-shined her national team partner in central defense. With Marian Dougherty and Nikki Marshall, Portland had one of the league’s better fullback tandems, while defensive midfielder Becky Edwards protected the entire group.

Come mid-season, though, the whole dynamic changed, Cindy Parlow Cone losing Edwards for the year with a torn ACL. Without another starting-caliber defensive midfielder in the squad, Portland not only lost the league’s best pivot player but became susceptible in transition. Before Edwards’ injury, Portland gave up 0.70 goals per game. After: 1.50. Come late in the season, while Portland was losing their chance to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs, the team was finally conceding the defense was being left exposed.

Allie Long’s been asked to fill Edwards’ role, but naturally suited to a more attacking roles, it’s been a difficult adjustment.  The Thorns have been a much different team without a destroyer to protect their defense.

Attacking: They were allocated Alex Morgan, thought to be among the best players in the world. The same description applies to Canada captain Christine Sinclair, the Portland resident playing at home for the first time since starring at the University of Portland. With taht firepower up top, the Thorns’ biggest problem seemed to be forging a connection to their forwards. With Edwards and Long in midfield and Tobin Heath set to join the team mid-season, they seemed to have the talent to do so.

source:  But that connection never hapened. At least, progress was slow before Heath’s July arrival. Not only did Edwards go down, but Long, Nikki Washington, and Angie Kerr were never productive as a unit. Though Meleana Shim (right) stepped up and became one of the season’s better rookies, Portland’s high-powered attack finished with 32 goals, tied for fourth in the NWSL.

The problem’s more nuanced than merely “the midfield.” For much of the season, Shim (a midfielder) was played as a forward. She didn’t start a scoring until she was moved back to midfield (she finished with five goals). That switch allowed Sinclair, played as an attacking midfielder for much of the season, to move back to her natural position, with a late surge pushing her to eight goals. Morgan, in the mean time, finished fourth in the league in goals despite leading the circuit in shots and shots on goal. Noticeably worn down before her early-August injury, the superstar’s first season as a full-time starter has been a learning experience.

Without her over the last three games, Portland hasn’t had the route one outlet she provides, something that’s actually helped the team. Forced to rely on building play rather than Morgan’s athleticism, the Thorns seemed to be more cohesive, with a reinforced midfield also helping the team’s defensive issues. It’s an approach that better suits Sinclair, allowing her creativity to thrive as a focal point of the attack, yet it’s also unclear how that style suits Morgan’s. Over the team’s first 20 games, Portland averaged 1.5 goals per 90 minutes, the exact same rate they’ve scored at over the last three games, with Morgan on the sidelines.

Overall: It’s been a difficult year. The defense was strong but suffered after the loss of one of the team’s most valuable players. The attack remains potent but defined by potential, with the team never meeting preseason expectations. Even as they enter the season’s final game, one that could see them crowned champions, it’s unclear what we can expect from the Thorns.

If, however, Portland plays like they did over the last 60 minutes of their semifinal, they’ll likely end the season on top. Coming back from a 2-0 deficit, the Thorns played their best soccer of the year, a reminder that the potential we saw in preseason still exists. As FC Kansas City found out, Portland has the talent to ruin seasons.

We’ve seen enough of Thorns FC to know they’re underdogs on Saturday. We’ve also seen enough to know they’re capable of anything: from being run out of Rochester; grinding out a win; being disappointed by a late breakdown; or exploding in for a rout of Western New York .

Nothing should surprise us when it comes to the Thorns.

Looking back at Week 8 of the NWSL season

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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.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Sat. June 1 Portland 0-2 Chicago
Sat. June 1 Sky Blue 5-1 Boston

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

source:  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.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 2 Sky Blue 9 22 +12
2 5 Portland 9 19 +6
3 4 Boston 7 11 +1
4 3 W. New York 6 10 +1
5 1 Kansas City 6 10 +3
6 7 Washington 8 6 -5
7 6 Chicago 7 5 -6
8 8 Seattle 8 1 -12

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.

UNSUNG HERO
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.

source:  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.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

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?

LOOKING FORWARD

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sophie Schmidt (SBFC) 5 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 6
7 tied at 4 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 3
7 tied with 2

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

Morgan scores, Thorns win, but Portland’s crowd steals the show

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC came good on their home debut, dominating Cascadia neighbors Seattle Reign FC during a 2-1 win Saturday afternoon. Goals from Marian Dougherty and Alex Morgan gave the home team their first NWSL victory, but amid the post-match reflections the same, transcending theme kept emerging: The atmosphere made the match.

An NWSL record 16,479 people came out to what’s normally the Portland Timbers’ home field, and while record attendance in a two-week old league deserves a skeptical context, broader descriptions prove even more laudatory of the Portland’s support.

Saturday’s crowd out-drew any match from the three years of Women’s Professional Soccer, the professional league that preceded the NWSL. You have to go back to the Women’s United Soccer Association to find a women’s professional match that drew more people, and while a handful of crowds in WUSA bested the Thorns’ support, it’s been 10 years since that league played its final game.

“This was awesome,” was Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone’s reaction after her first professional victory. A veteran of 158 caps during her time with the U.S. Women’s National Team, Parlow Cone has perspective on big games, experience that came in handy while trying to describe Sunday’s environment.

“I was walking around the field with Rachel Buehler and we looked at each other and she’s like, ‘This is like the World Cup.’ That’s what it felt like … It was an unbelievable atmosphere.”

Packed into seats normally occupied by the Timbers’ Army, the Rose City Riveters were able to replicate most of the environment that makes JELD-WEN Field one of the more notable destinations in MLS. The crowd was noticeably different – a bit smaller, and more skewed toward a family demographic that’s stronger in the women’s game – but outdrawing the combined attendance for the league’s four opening weekend matches, Portland still created a landmark event.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve heard about the number of tickets being sold, but I don’t think any of us expected that,” Thorns captain Christine Sinclair said after the match. “It was just incredible.”

The numbers alone were impressive, but for the few international stars on the field – U.S. internationals Alex Morgan and Rachel Buehler, in particular – they’re numbers they’d see multiple times each year playing for their national team. What made Sunday different was the type (and depth) of supporter culture that’s been hard to come by in the women’s game.

“It was a great Portland vibe,” was how Morgan described it. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but right from when we went out (for) warmups until game time, you hear the fans loud. I think every team that comes to Portland will not want to play us because they will be intimidated by the atmosphere.”

Sinclair echoed the sentiment. If the Rose City Riveters can replicate Sunday’s performance, Thorns FC will have a distinct home field advantage.

“This is going to be the only city that gets this type of crowd,” Sinclair explained. “When you haven’t been here before, it can be intimidating. Hopefully you can punish teams in the first half before they get used to it.”

On Sunday, Thorns FC took their first lead of the season, a late first half goal that did the punishing Sinclair described. With momentum coming out of halftime, Portland put the game away with an early second half goal.

If that becomes a formula for success, the value of Portland’s crowd will transcend these opening day headlines. It will become something that matters on the field.

2013 NWSL team preview: Portland Thorns FC

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Over the next two days, ProSoccerTalk will be providing quick capsules of the eight teams participating in the new National Women’s Soccer League. We continue with the favorites: Portland Thorns FC.

Many of us have come to accept that having a dominant team like the New York Yankees or Jordan-era Chicago Bulls can be good for a league. For casual fans who aren’t apt to entangle themselves in a circuit’s day-to-day, a marquee team provides both a focal point and the foundation for some underdog stories. Though there are aspects of dynasties that conflict with our want of level playing fields, that type of idealism is actually pretty rare. Teams like a 1980s Edmonton Oilers or early-MLS D.C. United help focus disparate attention. Particularly for growing leagues, it’s often an ideal situation.

Try selling that idea to Thorns FC’s opposition. Portland’s star-laden franchise has assumed the favorite’s mantle, with their fortunate allocation and ability to lure quality free agents making them the league’s early favorites. Having the best facilities and most resources in the league (thanks to the Timbers’ ownership group) only adds to expectations. What the Miami Heat are to this year’s NBA, the Thorns are to the NWSL, and although head coach Cindy Parlow Cone has spent preseason reiterating games aren’t done on paper, her debut season is expected to be an exceedingly successful one.

Who you know: There’s this up-and-comer named Alex Morgan you may have heard of. She’s the player celebrating in the picture, above. Smart, fast, good on the ball, and a clinical finisher, this Cal alum will be going places if …

Who am I kidding? Of course, you’ve heard Alex Morgan. And you’ve probably heard of Christine Sinclair, Canada’s captain who many consider the best player in the world. Together, they form an ideal striking tandem: Two elite talents who, with Morgan’s presence along the line and Sinclair’s playmaking skills, fit perfectly with each other.

Portland also has Rachel Buehler, a regular defensive starter on the national team, and midfielder Tobin Heath, who will join the team in June after finishing her short-term stay with Paris Saint-Germain.

Who you should know: Becky Edwards is an elite defensive midfielder who was part of two title teams in WPS. Her ball-winning ability is as good as any in the league, with her distribution set to act as a fulcrum at the base of Portland’s midfield. Expected to sit in front of the defense in a 4-4-2, Edwards can also protect what’s expected to be one of the few week points on the Thorns’ formation.

What it means: Anything short of a title would be a disappointment for Portland, but they’re not so clear of their opposition that the 2013 season won’t be a challenge. Still, there’s a natural tendency to see this team as the NWSL’s Lyon Feminine or Arsenal Ladies. If Portland play to their potential, they’ll be just as dominant.

Portland begins their season Saturday against another of the league’s preseason favorites: FC Kansas City.

More NWSL previews:

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Highlights: Buehler, Boxx and Wambach lead the U.S. past Iceland

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Let’s take a moment to acknowledge Rachel Buehler, now with 100 caps to her senior national team resumé. Three minutes into the second half of today’s match against Iceland, the 27-year-old central defender headed home her fourth international goal, one made all the more special but the yellow band on her arm. While the tally’s unlikely to rival the goal Buehler scored in the 2011 World Cup, her celebration speaks to the special nature of a 100th cap goal.

The Americans converted on another corner 14 minutes later, albeit on the fourth header of the sequence. Shannon Boxx got the final touch, putting a ball back across goal from the right post to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead.

Abby Wambach may have scored the final goal, but as with so many of her (and her teammates) goals during the last year, Alex Morgan was at the heart. Her effort to beat the defense through the left channel brought the keeper out of goal. When Morgan was able to get her pass back across the six, Wambach had one of the easiest of her 154 career goals.

Here are the highlights, courtesy of U.S. Soccer. The team now waits for their Friday match against China, a team that drew Sweden 1-1 on Wednesday.