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NWSL 2021: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars - tactical analysis tactics

How Chicago Red Stars excluded “top of the table” Portland Thorns from the NWSL semifinals – Tactical analysis

Thanks to the goals of Katie Johnson and Sarah Woldmoe against Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars guaranteed their qualification to the NWSL Championship final which will see the latter facing Washington Spirit at Lynn Family Stadium to decide the winner of the tournament.

Chicago Red Stars made a great achievement already by excluding a strong team like Portland Thorns while playing away and exactly at Providence Park. What made this win even more glorious for Chicago Red Stars and more painful for Portland Thorns is the fact that Chicago Red Stars finished fourth in the standings while Portland Thorns were at the top of the table.

But as opposed to the structure of the championships in Europe where for example teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and perhaps other teams battle until the last fixture for the top spot to win the FAWSL title, the rules for the NWSL impose a semi-final between the top four teams and the winners qualify to a final match in order to decide the winner of the NWSL trophy.

In this tactical analysis article, we will be mainly looking at how were Chicago Red Stars able to get that result from a tactical perspective. This will include the analysis of the goals as well as the identification of their playing system and ideas. At the same time, a focus on Portland Thorns’ performance will also be made in order to determine what went wrong for them in this match.


The locals started the match with the 4-3-1-2 formation relying on Bella Bixby in goal, Natalia Kuikka, Emily Menges, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg in defence, Raquel Rodríguez, Angela Salem and Yazmeen Ryan as central midfielders behind Christine Sinclair, and the two strikers were Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver.

For Chicago Red Stars, the team used the 4-1-4-1 formation with Cassie Miller as a goalkeeper, Tatumn Milazzo, Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson and Arin Wright in defence, Sarah Woldmoe playing just in front of the defensive line, Rachel Hill and Morgan Gautrat on the wings with Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo playing as advanced playmakers just behind Kealia Watt. 

NWSL 2021: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars - tactical analysis tactics

Portland Thorns’ attacking issues and loss reasons

Portland Thorns started the match with confidence and were generally better than Chicago Red Stars in terms of passing, with 78,05% of passing accuracy for the first and 67,19% for the latter. This was noticed on the pitch and what makes it clearer is the fact that in terms of possession, Portland Thorns held the ball much longer than their opponents with 60,71% against 39,28%.

Nevertheless, Portland Thorns did not exploit this possession advantage in the best of ways since they were not able to score despite shooting 20 times from which seven shots were on target. Therefore, we can’t say that Portland Thorns has playmaking issues. The team’s main issue that led to their loss was their finishing accuracy.

For instance, in this action during the first minutes of the match, Weaver had space to shoot after receiving the ball from Salem but she failed to shoot the ball on target despite being in a very suitable scoring position.

NWSL 2021: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars - tactical analysis tactics

Moreover, Smith and Weaver’s attacking power were not exploited as needed since both players were often distant from each other and therefore isolated either by Chicago Red Stars’ defenders or by distance. That’s why we saw them often taking the individual option since there are no alternatives upfront. Both strikers needed to move more and better especially without the ball in order to confuse the defence and provide dangerous passing options for each other to create clearer goalscoring chances.

In this counter-attack, Smith’s individual effort allowed her to get past her marker and come closer to the penalty box, but at the same time she was very disturbed by her opponent who didn’t give up on chasing her, which resulted in Smith losing coordination and shooting the ball out of target. In such circumstances, if Weaver was quicker and moved without the ball accurately, she would have been in a position to receive an assist from Smith who needed such support at that moment.

Such movement could have certainly resulted in a goal for Portland Thorns, however, this lack of movement and sometimes the late movement from Portland Thorns players was one of the main reasons that complicated things for the team from an attacking perspective. Nevertheless, it should be said that Chicago Red Stars defended very well against both strikers and in order to limit the threat of Sinclair too, who usually was at the heart of all Portland Thorns’ actions.

NWSL 2021: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars - tactical analysis tactics

Chicago Red Stars’ attacking performance and efficiency

Chicago Red Stars’ performance can be resumed in great defensive concentration and marking as well as in attacking realism. This means that despite having much fewer scoring chances than their opponents, Chicago Red Stars were still able to score twice from five shots overall. In other words, the only two shots that were on target were scored.

What made this win possible for Chicago Red Stars was their excellent defensive performance even though they conceded numerous scoring chances and were a bit lucky in some of them. Nevertheless, making 53 interceptions, 51 clearances and winning 66,67% of the defensive duels prove that from a defensive perspective, the team made an excellent effort to keep a clean sheet and win the match.

The first Chicago Red Stars’ was scored by Katie Johnson following a solo effort on the right wing to get rid of Klingenberg’s marking and get a room for a cross/shot. Johnson then attempted a powerful cross in a form of a shot towards the near post and it surprised Bixby who didn’t expect the ball to go towards that direction.


NWSL 2021: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars - tactical analysis tactics

Then, Woldmoe exploited Portland Thorns’ midfield confusion at the start of the second-half and aimed at shooting from long-range since she didn’t see any Portland Thorns’ player coming towards her to prevent the possible shot. It is true that a midfielder then came to attempt at countering the shot but that was too late since Woldmoe has already planned and executed her shot with success at that moment. The powerful shot was very angled and couldn’t be saved by Bixby who did her best to reach it but without success.

NWSL 2021: Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars - tactical analysis tactics

Chicago Red Stars were excellent enough afterwards in keeping the result in their favour by stopping most of Portland Thorns’ attempts in the second-half and therefore qualifying to the final deservedly.


At the end of the day, Chicago Red Stars got the result they needed out of this match by exploiting the circumstances and playing realistic football prior to knowing how to preserve their lead. The challenge will now be even more difficult for them now as they prepare to facing Washington Spirit and makes this match difficult is mainly the psychological aspect. Playing a match while knowing that it will determine the winner of the season’s trophy will certainly cause stress and anxiety among the players and that’s why the coaching staffs of both finalists will have to work a lot on the mental preparation of their players for such encounter.

On the other hand, Portland Thorns will need to learn from such results and performances as this loss will serve not only as a lesson but also as a motive for bouncing back stronger next season and the goal will be to reach the final and why not lift the trophy in the 2022 season.