When the allocation was finished for the NWSL teams, the prognosticators and talking heads seemed to have a general consensus. That common thought was that the Portland Thorns received a bevy of attacking talent and with both Sinclair and Morgan, would be an attacking force.
However, something that has become very clear eight games into the season is that the entirety of the success for the Portland Thorns this season has come from the back four and goalkeeper Karina Leblanc who have provided the reliable base that the Thorns have all too often relied upon.
When writing recaps and stories on the Thorns, it is very easy to fall into the trap of talking about Sinclair and Morgan, but the reality is that while they have been (at times) very good this season that, with the problems the Thorns have had possessing the ball, they would be in very bad shape without the alert playing of Buehler, Williamson, Dougherty, Marshall, and Leblanc.
In the recent Reign v. Thorns game, this defense was primarily why the Thorns weren’t down a goal within the first 20 minutes of the game as the Reign had multiple chances which were either snuffed out and stopped by Leblanc or stopped by Buehler and company. The Thorns vacillated between link up play followed by a dangerous shot to can’t-get-out-of-each-others-way to turnover and break on goal.
As frustrating as it can be to watch a team that features Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, Allie Long and Becky Edwards aimlessly spray the ball around the field, we must look at why this would be the case. The Reign consistently pressured up through the middle of the field thinking (correctly it would seem) that Portland were jittery connecting passes from the defensive midfielder position and forcing them to make what were often the wrong decision. Many of the dangerous pickups and attempts came from Rachel Buehler challenging for the ball and picking a good pass from the back to put Morgan into a good position as is what happened in the 26th minute.
As bad as the Thorns were at connecting in the first half, they were almost that much better at the beginning of the second. Cone seemed to ask the fullbacks to push up a bit more especially on the right side providing width to a very narrow Thorns attack. This pulled some of the Reign players outside and expanded the amount of room they had to cover to press and try to recapture the ball.
Many of the issues that the Thorns have had come from the lack of width in their formation set up. With the fullbacks staying further back, the narrowness of the midfield makes it so that there isn’t a lot of room with which to operate their passing game. As we discussed last week this could be by design. A quick note on Mana Shim: the first year player had an up and down game showing some good interplay but also some not so great touches. While she is a promising player who is getting on the ball, she will go through some different phases in her rookie year.
Now to speak to the first penalty shot controversy. In the 67th minute, Morgan and Sinclair combined with Sinclair chipping a pass that very clearly (to my own eyes) ricocheted off Winters arm and out for an awarded corner. This was as blatant a handball as you are going to see but the ref waived the handball shout off and Portland found their complaints gone.
Then at 82:20 Becky Edwards tackled the ball away from Jess Fishlock, the Thorns came back at the Reign defense and the referee called a penalty. The incident was not seemingly clear-cut, the replay seemed to show, at most, a very small moment of obstruction. Of course given the incident missed above there is a decent chance that this call was a make up call. Either way, Winters and Solo argued with the referee and Sinclair dispatched the ball into the corner of the net for a 1-0 Thorns lead.
The Reign had a few more half-chances but the writing was on the wall and the Thorns defense managed to record another clean-sheet on the year. A win kept the Thorns tied up at the top of the league with Sky Blue FC. While the play was very disjointed in the first half, the adjustments made by Portland in the second half and the interplay of Marion Daugherty with the midfield allowed the Thorns to reverse the momentum of the game ultimately giving them dangerous chances and the ability to press, which in turn created situations in which a referee has to make a call. While the refereeing on the evening was not something to hang ones hat upon, the Thorns were able to battle through this and came out on top. Coming up next will be a very large test of the depth and system of the Thorns as they will lose a virtual raft of first team players to international games. The called up will be Leblanc, Morgan, Sinclair, Buehler. I suspect that the biggest area of concern for the Thorns will be who steps in to fill the solid and dynamic shoes of Rachel Buehler at center back and who will be tasked as a creative midfielder with Sinclair gone. This will prove a very illuminating and interesting time to those fans who want to see what the Thorns can do when they no longer can rely upon the other-worldly offensive talents of their two forwards.