Two minutes and seventeen seconds after the ball was put into play in the inaugural game of the National Women’s Soccer League, the players for FC Kansas city celebrated together just outside the 18 yard box. Two minutes and seventeen seconds into their first game and the Portland Thorns nose was bloodied.
Coming into the first game of the year many pundits declared the Thorns championship contenders, but all it took was a ball played into a dangerous area, Rachel Buehler making a mistake and suddenly Renae Cuellar slotted the ball past Karina Leblanc for the first goal in NWSL history.
Suddenly all the prognostications, ideals and guesses went out the window and the Portland Thorns reached that point of realization that they were indeed playing competitive soccer against a very good team and they indeed had to work at this. However, the reality is that this is a team (right now) in name only.
This Thorns 2013 season will be a work in progress as evidenced by the issues with passing, connection and positioning on the field. During the first half, possession was squandered repeatedly with long hopeful balls up the field as the Thorns seemingly intended to bypass their midfield and get the ball into the feet of their two most dangerous players, Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair.
When they did have the ball in the midfield, several times Allie Long and Angie Kerr had problems linking up and finding the ability to switch the field to open up the play.
Certainly one must give credit to FC Kansas city as they pressed through the midfield with the wind of a opening game, a sold out crowd, and the intent of disrupting the time that the Thorns had on the ball. The tactic worked as frequently the Thorns were turned back at connecting through the midfield or launched hopeless balls up-field Seemingly the Thorns were trying to “get up” at FC Kansas City quickly through the air, but the back two pairing for Kansas City were able to blanket and neutralize Sinclair and Morgan leaving them isolated up top.
However, at the start of the second half, the Thorns started showing their qualities with better link up play and better pressing. While still missing that complete telepathic connection necessary to really be able to play with trust, the Thorns started connecting passes through the midfield a bit more than they had in the first half.
The introduction of Danielle Foxhoven at the 64th minute and the small shift of the Thorns to a quasi 4-3-2-1 with Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair (at times) settling in behind Foxhoven seemed to provide a better attacking formation that allowed the Thorns to begin testing the FC Kansas City back line. Foxhoven became the tip of the spear and the move paid off almost immediately as Foxhoven was bundled over by Lauren Sesselmann in the box and the Thorns were awarded a penalty kick. Now this wasn’t the most stonewall penalty that you are going to see, but the intent of Foxhoven and the pass from Allie Long forced Kari Seitz to make a call and make a call she did. Thorns captain Christine Sinclair stepped up to the ball and dispatched the very first goal in Thorns NWSL history.
There were times in both the second and first half where the brilliance would shine, the Thorns would keep position, they would pass, move, connect and threaten, but this style was few and far between and the ability of FC Kansas City to press, recover and hit on the counter attack disrupted the flow of the Thorns. Truth be told, the play was very scrappy at times for both teams as they looked like two groups that were still feeling out how to play with their new teammates. Given the high number of international players on both teams, the plain fact is that many of the players (like Morgan, Sinclair, Leblanc, Cuellar, Cheney) were playing with their National Teams these past few weeks rather than solely working on the bond with their new club teammates. I would posit that the real shape of both Portland and Kansas City will not be known until much farther along in the season.
Going forward into the home opener against that fishing village to the north, the Thorns will hopefully be able to use the next week to work on the communication, spacing and positioning issues with the back four and the midfield. Given that the full team only had roughly two full games together in the pre-season (minus of course the absent-til-summer Tobin Heath), it makes sense that the Thorns would look choppy. Fans can look forward to the gelling of the starting 11 and a better representation of the Thorns playing style in the future. Next week at Jeld Wen Field I expect a raucous crowd of (potentially) over 15,000 pushing the Thorns on to a great performance.