The Thorns went on the road for what feels like the thousandth time this season, and, despite mostly outplaying the Chicago Red Stars, settled for yet another draw. Our three takeaways:
Portland dominated the first half, but Chicago got back in the game in the second.
Throughout the first half on Sunday, Portland was by far the better team. Chicago simply couldn’t maintain possession, with the Thorns midfield—the most talented in the league, playing as well as they have all season—forcing turnover after turnover. Portland was far from perfect; with the majority of the starting lineup back for the first game after two weeks away, at times they fell prey to the same kind of miscues and slightly-off timing that plagued them early in the season. But they showed an impressive ability to recover almost immediately from those mistakes. Meanwhile, they made Chicago pay for every bad pass and every second of hesitation.
After the half, the momentum shifted substantially; the Thorns weren’t exactly outplayed, but they were far from dominant. Chicago started to move the ball more effectively through midfield, cutting down substantially on the harried-looking errors that plagued them throughout the first half.
An uncharacteristic defensive slip-up on Portland’s part enabled Chicago’s goal: left back Meghan Klingenberg was AWOL when the Red Stars’ Casey Short played a long ball in to Alyssa Mautz, leaving Emily Menges to mark both Mautz and Christen Press. Kling sprinted back, but not in time to stop Mautz from tapping a nice header to Press’s feet in a dangerous spot just outside the box. She hammered a shot in, and Adrianna Franch couldn’t quite get a grip on the ball.
The Thorns are still a little thin up front.
Despite maintaining possession for what seemed like almost the entire first half (one day, maybe the NWSL will start releasing statistics for time of possession, like other top-tier professional leagues, and we’ll have numbers to back up observations like that), the Thorns only took five shots. Nadia Nadim and Dagny Brynjarsdottir were, for the most part, nowhere to be found, and Christine Sinclair’s first-half goal—a nice birthday gift, no doubt—was basically handed to her by Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher, who slipped up on a clearance, kicking the ball straight into Sinclair and letting her shepherd it handily into the net.
It’s worth bringing up, at this point, French international Amandine Henry’s recent arrival in Portland. Why?
Henry is among the best in the world, if not the best, at her position. The issue is that she’s a holding midfielder, a role already very capably filled by Allie Long and Lindsey Horan, Henry’s onetime rival in the French league. While it’s impossible to see Henry as a bad signing, is possible, looking at Sunday’s game, to imagine it would have been nice for Portland to find a world-class striker, instead.
What to do? One option would be benching Nadim or Brynjarsdottir and moving Horan up. Horan, with her smart, unflinchingly physical play and her near-psychic link with Tobin Heath, has been a tremendous asset at center midfield, but she played forward for Paris Saint-Germain. She’s also Portland’s top scorer. Sticking Henry into Horan’s current spot to give her a chance to join the attack might give the Thorns the offensive consistency they’ve lacked.
This result is a mixed bag.
The Red Stars lean heavily on Christen Press, their ridiculously prolific forward, for offensive power. Press is fast and accurate, leading the league by far in shots on goal. Yesterday, Portland’s midfield power trio—Horan, Long, and Heath—kept Press in check by denying Chicago the chance to get her the ball. She only managed one shot on goal yesterday, when she’s been averaging close to four. It has to hurt a little that the Red Stars’ one real chance yesterday led to a goal.
Still, the Thorns can expect good teams to punish them for mistakes, and things aren’t going to be easier later this week against Western New York. The periodic mass exodus of national team players is clearly hurting Portland: the starting squad can be very, very good, but this game showed the cracks that appear when they have to leave for two weeks.
On the other hand, the shift when the national team players go away is from great to good, when last year it was fairly catastrophic. The Thorns are still unbeaten, and their on-the-road record is a drastic improvement over past seasons. With another week to practice together, they have a chance at a win in Western New York this Friday—and if nothing else, it looks likely we’ll get to see Henry in action.
The Thorns take on the Western New York Flash 4 p.m. on Friday, June 10. Their next home game is 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 22.