If one looks at the tape of the Portland Thorns versus Chicago Red Stars, one could be confused into thinking that there was no viewer left side of the field and that the right back and attacking left midfielder just disappeared into a black hole as the video for the NWSL game was shot on what appeared to be a tripod through a window.
Such is life for the fan of the NWSL in the early days of the league as Portland took on Chicago at the Benedictine University Sports Complex April 27th. Beggars cannot be choosers though, and the ability to stream the feed is far better than not being able to watch the games. I can only hope that this league performs well enough that all fans of women’s soccer in North America can eventually make light of the field conditions and the video from the early games of the NWSL as they do now with the older days of MLS.
Coming off an inspired win against the Reign, Portland looked to ride the momentum from the brief home stand into three additional points away from home. The Thorns continued their experimentation into the weird world of narrow formations as they focused their attack through the center of midfield. Seemingly giving up the outside while keeping their fullbacks back, the Thorns showed their impetus in combination play, groupings, and attempted one touch passing. They also have been dangerous from set pieces as a “How on earth did that not go in?” header attempt by Alex Morgan in the 13th minute was palmed away by goalkeeper Erin McLeod.
Despite the Thorns’ good forward play and great results (so far), there is still an issue in the midfield as several times Chicago was able to pick up second chance balls and counter attack out to the wings to generate chances in the box.
Let’s just have a chat about the field for a second as the “primary use for American football gridiron line and bouncy castle surface” jumped the ball up in the air like a basketball on a hardwood floor. At one point I thought Karina Leblanc would pull a Brittney Griner and slam the ball down for an “and-one” jam. Both teams decided to play soccer instead and pushed ahead as the Red Stars tried to pressure the ball when it was played into the Thorns players.
As we are now into game three for the Thorns, we have started to see the pattern of play for the team. The fullbacks typically advance when the opportunity presents itself to advance but as a general rule they play defensively. Becky Edwards and Allie Long see-saw in the midfield to attempt to win the ball back (with Edwards staying relatively deep) and Nikki Washington and Angie Kerr both pinch in and play combinations up to Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair (that is, when Kerr isn’t playing up top next to Morgan and Sinclair isn’t in the midfield but more on that twist later).
On the whole, the Thorns play a very narrow formation, even when they have the ball out on the wing the play collapses to that side leaving vast tracts of field open for the switch. With this available space, Chicago was able to intercept and push the ball up but was lacking the ability to find a final ball and this manifested itself in goal kicks and skipping through balls picked up by Karina Leblanc.
While the Thorns had some very dangerous chances (and one fantastic save kept the game even) they certainly didn’t have much sustained pressure in the Chicago end. Head coach Cindy Parlow Cone, over the course of the first half, moved Christine Sinclair back into the midfield in an attempt to fix the issues with the connection in midfield/service and as the second half started, the Thorns had Angie Kerr further up the field playing as a second forward with Alex Morgan.
With the Thorns still playing quite narrow, and pushing players up to the top of the field, there was still a sizable gap in the midfield that Chicago was able to exploit as they had two good chances in the second half that the Red Stars were unable to capitalize upon. As the game moved towards the 60th minute, the balance of a win, loss, or draw appeared to up for grabs, that is until the substitution of Danielle Foxhoven for Angie Kerr. With the dangerous Foxhoven playing up top, the Thorns went back to the effective and morphing 4-4-2/4-3-2-1 with Foxhoven up top playing off of and in front of Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. This move began to reap dividends as the Thorns started to get on the front foot and nearly capitalized off a set piece header down for a one time strike at the 62nd minute that was hit off target.
As the announcers for Chicago gently mocked the Chicago Red Star supporters group “The Core”, the Thorns took a corner kick that resulted in a mad scramble and another shot hit wide of goal. With the pressure mounting, the Thorns finally capitalized after a uncharacteristically bad pass from Chicago Red Stars back line. Morgan intercepted the aforementioned pass, fired at the keeper who deflected the ball into Danielle Foxhoven’s path and Foxhoven struck the ball home for the opening goal. After that, the Red Stars began pushing every available player into the attack presenting an opportunity for the Thorns forwards and attacking players to go directly at the back line of Chicago. That approach ended up costing Chicago a second goal as a beautiful counter attack by the Thorns ended up with Christine Sinclair hitting a hooked ball into the corner of the net from roughly 19 yards out. The goal surely would have been replayed quite a bit on Ye-Ole-Internets had the game not been streamed through a 1998 JVC Hi-8 video camera.
Finally Chicago ran out of steam and the game was over with an important Thorns win 2-0. While Chicago certainly had their chances, the insertion of Danielle Foxhoven into the lineup and the progression of the lineup to allow Morgan and Sinclair to play off of the former Pilot gave a spark to the team. It has to be said that Foxhoven has been fantastic when given the opportunity to play and it might be only a matter of time before she starts a regular season Thorns game.
The Thorns next game is on the road against the Washington Spirit at the Maryland SoccerPlex May 4th. With the Spirit coming off a 2-1 loss to Sky Blue FC, they will be gunning for a home win and it will be important to see how the Thorns lineup progresses with the play of Foxhoven at the forward position.