At some point, it was going to happen. The Thorns were living on their luck for the last week and while a 2-0 win over Chicago seemingly papered over the cracks, the team had been playing on talent rather than cohesiveness for the last few weeks. The empty bucket midfield and the lack of the ability to posses the ball would cause issues eventually with the midfield unable to find the cohesion.
Then at the 80th minute Taylor Lytle struck and the winning streak was over as the Thorns seemingly couldn’t get out of their own way to effectively create a dangerous chance in the final third. Really it was the tale of a vast majority of their game and a worrying concern for the fans of the Portland Thorns. While the team is exceptionally talented and has won games on talent alone, far too often they concede possession in the midfield and lack the ability to create dangerous chances. Too often this season they have relied on that switch, that one long ball, that one connection that allows Morgan, Sinclair or Foxhoven to find a dangerous channel and pounce. However, with Sky Blue FC playing stout defense, closing down passing lanes, and generally out working the Thorns, the time on the undefeated season ticked down to a close.
Certainly in an undefeated season (like Arsenal, Juventus, or the U-23 Portland Timbers), you need hard work, determination and a fair amount of luck. The team has to find a presence that allows them to believe, work and be able to find that extra gear even when they are tired. However talented this Thorns team is, and they undoubtedly are very talented, they lacked the ability to work tonight against Sky Blue FC. Perhaps it was the weeks on the road, perhaps it was the attention of a very disciplined team, but the Thorns ran out of answers tonight and resorted to long ball play and bypassed the midfield.
Cindy Parlow Cone ran out another lineup featuring Meleana Shim and Alex Morgan working up top and she tasked the rest of the team to somehow make the connections with a dropping into midfield Christine Sinclair. Far too often though the ball would be lofted up top to nowhere or given away in the midfield to a pressing Sky Blue FC who managed to find the soft underbelly of the Thorns. Basically the Thorns are playing a bizzaro 4-4-2, in which they almost want to play a diamond formation midfield but they don’t have a true attacking midfielder who can’t collect and distribute the ball into dangerous situations. In this particular case they task Sinclair (as we have spoken about) to try to create. However, this robs Sinclair of her true strength of going at goal and being a dangerous presence challenging the back line. The problem for Cone is that she currently doesn’t seem to have a player who fits this characteristic of a player who can create until Tobin Heath is available for potential selection this summer. Sinclair is a stop-gap at best and the play between the midfield and the forwards has created a gap that results in long lofted balls into nowhere.
However, having spent these last few hundred words describing why you watched a loss, let me now describe why you should (as well) be happy about this.
See, this team isn’t talented beyond the rest of the league, it doesn’t possess that ability to run the table in the NWSL. In the end this is a mortal team of talented players who haven’t entirely found their way. This is a good thing, as we want to see growth and we want to see the team come together. In the end, the journey of the team will be the story to watch and how they fit in the players going forward. Hopefully, as the season progresses, we can see Sinclair return to more of her rightful role challenging the back line and linking up with Alex Morgan rather than having to drop deep to pick up the play. At some point, the team needs to figure out a formation (whether a 4-3-3 with Foxhoven up top and Sinclair/Morgan linking off of her or a 4-4-2 with Tobin Heath in the midfield) that will allow them to retain a bit more possession without having to resort to long ball route 1 tactics.
That is something worth looking forward to as the team turns around quickly for another dangerous game against the Washington Spirit. Hopefully the passion, the pressure and the ability to control the ball is something that the common Portland Thorns fan will watch return, and with that the return to wins and goals.
Onward, Rose City.