Thorns need scoring touch for semifinals
Are the Portland Thorns about to awaken from a late-summer slumber, ravenous to make a serious push for a championship?
Or are they rummy with fatigue, worn down by the challenges of a long season, lacking the energy to be at their best for the National Women's Soccer League semifinals?
We will find out at 12:30 p.m. PT Sunday, when the Thorns visit the Chicago Red Stars. A win would advance the Thorns to the championship game for the third consecutive season. But Portland has been a long way from championship form late in the season, scoring only once in its final five games.
The Thorns were good in possession last Saturday against the Washington Spirit. They tried hard to give a crowd of 24,521 — the second-largest in club history — a goal to celebrate. The game wound up 0-0.
No one should question the want-to of these Thorns, who exceeded expectations while nine players were busy with World Cup preparation and participation. But they lost their "it" factor late in the year, with some stars showing signs of fatigue and with revolving lineups disrupting the chemistry and the confidence that coach Mark Parsons' teams usually build by the end of the season.
He rightly points to the challenges with players coming in and out of the lineup right up to last week's conclusion of the U.S. victory tour and international obligations for others. But the Thorns struggled badly at times in a 1-3 September, a month culminated by a disheartening performance in a 2-0 loss in Tacoma, Washington.
Which is why it would have been nice — even with their playoff matchup determined before kickoff last week — to see the Thorns score a few goals against Washington. Instead, Parsons was left to point out other highlights.
"In a way, the perfect performance because we gain lots of confidence," Parsons said. "We really did well on both sides of the ball. We know we need to work on scoring goals. Getting in the box and scoring goals was the only piece missing from a perfect night here at Providence Park."
Perhaps Chicago is the ideal opponent for the Thorns. Portland scored 10 goals in three regular-season games (two 3-0 wins and a 4-4 draw) with the Red Stars and has had Chicago's number in recent seasons.
Since Parsons became coach in the 2016 season, Portland is 7-0-4 against Chicago. And the last time the Thorns scored multiple goals was Aug. 25 in a 3-0 win over the Red Stars at Providence Park.
That hardly means this will be business as usual for the Thorns. When a team has only one goal in five games, more than tactics and technical skill are in question. So is the confidence of attackers.
Making sure players don't overthink scoring chances or try to be too precise around the goal is one of the tricks Parsons called "probably the biggest challenge to manage" when a team is struggling to score.
Come Sunday, the Thorns' other big task will be managing a player who seldom struggles to put away chances — Sam Kerr, the Australian striker who scored a league-record 18 goals in 21 games, six more than anyone else in the league.
The Red Stars also feature four members of the U.S. national team, including key starters in goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and midfielder/defender Julie Ertz.
So this playoff game — the second of two carried by ESPN2 on Sunday — has the potential to be a classic battle, one that can help boost the NWSL brand beyond the Pacific Northwest. But for that to happen, the Thorns will need to find their scoring touch.
nThe Rose City Riveters recognized Midge Purce as the Thorns Supporters' Player of the Year after Saturday's match. Purce had a breakout year with eight goals, second only to nine from Christine Sinclair.
Purce was surprised and pleased by the honor, and her improved play in her third pro season is one of the nice stories of this 2019 season
My pick for Thorns Player of the Year? Left back/wing back Meghan Klingenberg. The former U.S. national team defender led Portland with four assists and was the lone Thorn to play more than 2,000 minutes, starting 23 of the 24 matches.
n No matter the outcome this weekend, 2019 is a winner for Portland — thanks to supporters. Saturday's crowd ensured the club averaged more than 20,000 fans (20,098) for the first time. Portland helped the leaguewide average eclipse 7,000 per game for the first time — a modest improvement helped by a World Cup bump.
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