“We found a good balance”: Why Portland Thorns’ press was key to their NWSL win over “flat” Kansas City Current – tactical analysis
With the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup nearing its conclusion, the regular league season has officially got underway, and one team widely expected to compete for the title is Portland Thorns. They are under new leadership this season, with former Canada striker and England assistant Rhian Wilkinson named as Mark Parsons’ permanent successor back in November, and her first league match saw Kansas City Current visit Providence Park. Kansas have been in good form so far this year, having topped the Challenge Cup’s Central Division with four wins from their six games, so this was a tight match to call on paper.
However, as things turned out, the Thorns’ intense pressing and strength in and out of possession proved too much for Kansas, with the visitors starting slowly and on the back foot from the first minute. This tactical analysis will look at Portland’s attacking play in more detail, as well as breaking down the Current’s tactics and changes throughout the game and the errors that led to their eventual defeat.
Portland Thorns made three changes from their narrow Cup defeat at Angel City, with a penalty from former Manchester United Women forward Christen Press deciding the outcome of that game. Full-back Madison Pogarch and midfielders Olivia Moultrie and Yazmeen Ryan all dropped to the bench, with Portland opting for a 3-4-1-2 formation that utilised wing-backs. Finland defender Natalia Kuikka came in to start on the right, whilst Meghan Klingenberg switched to her usual left-hand side of the pitch and Meaghan Nally was included alongside Emily Menges and Kelli Hubly to complete the defensive line. Sam Coffey was the other new face in the XI, partnering Costa Rica international Rocky Rodríguez in the middle of the field, whilst Christine Sinclair dropped into a playmaker role, allowing Morgan Weaver and former Manchester City Women forward Janine Beckie to form a front two.
Kansas City Current also rotated their squad from the win against Chicago Red Stars, with Thursday’s Challenge Cup semi-final against North Carolina Courage in head coach Matt Potter’s mind. Out went goalkeeper Cassie Miller, defender Taylor Leach, midfielders Desiree Scott and Victoria Pickett and forward Kristen Hamilton, with the starting formation changing to a 4-3-3 after a 3-4-1-2 was used against Chicago. Former Portland stopper Adrianna Franch was given a start against her old club, whilst Kristen Edmonds dropped into a defensive midfield role, allowing Chardonnay Curran and Kate Del Fava to partner up in the midfield. Striker Elyse Bennett kept her place as the attacking focal point, with Lo’eau LaBonta and Addie McCain providing support either side of her.
Portland Thorns’ attacking play
Since taking over at Portland Thorns, Rhian Wilkinson has implemented an attacking style of football that sees her players get on the front foot and try to force mistakes when out of possession, and this was key to them taking control of proceedings early on and applying pressure on Kansas City Current.
Using wing-backs was essential to this working, as it allowed the two forwards to stay closer together and enabled the midfielders, specifically Christine Sinclair, to work with them, helping to limit spaces for Kansas to play into and create goalscoring opportunities, and Sinclair, Janine Beckie and Morgan Weaver were never too far away from each other in the early stages of the game. As a result, when one of them had the ball, passing options could be created instantly, giving them more efficiency in the final third. Their first goal was scored because of this, with Rocky Rodríguez passing into Sinclair inside the goal area, and Weaver was in the right place to turn in the rebound after Franch had saved the Canadian’s effort.
The wing-backs were also key to this being successful, with both Natalia Kuikka and Meghan Klingenberg constantly advancing high up the field and helping to press the Kansas players, and this gave Portland five players in the final third at times. Therefore, again, they were looking to get numbers forward and limit the Current’s options, and this was one reason for Kansas starting slowly and looking flat.
The makeup of Portland’s front two in this game was also key to their positive play, and the way it has been set up is different to 2021. Under Mark Parsons, two of Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi (both of whom have moved to Angel City in the close season) and Sophia Smith started together, whilst Morgan Weaver was more of an impact player who made a difference in tighter games.
However, Wilkinson seems to want a mobile forward and a poacher in her front line, allowing for more creativity in the final third. With Beckie joining from Manchester City to be the creative attacker who can drop into holes and link up play, Weaver and Smith have been used primarily as goalscorers, playing to their strengths, and this is highlighted here, with Weaver on the shoulder of the last defender. It should also be noted that this is interchangeable, with the players able to switch roles when needed, and this also lends itself to the more unpredictable nature of the Thorns’ attacking play.
However, Kansas limited this space in the final third as the first half went on, meaning that Portland lost their creative edge and struggled to implement themselves in the same way. To address this, Smith was introduced for Beckie in the second half, giving the Thorns two out-and-out goalscorers on the pitch at the same time.
The key point to make here is that Smith is a quick striker who is particularly effective at counter-attacks. As a result, Portland could sit back more if needed and then press forwards when they gained the ball, which was what helped them to regain control of the game and see it out. She was on the bench due to a disrupted Challenge Cup campaign, due to Covid-19, but this game showed how important she will be to her side’s hopes this season.
Kansas City Current’s tactical changes
Whilst Portland Thorns had two forwards and a creative playmaker in their attacking setup, Kansas City Current opted for one central striker in Elyse Bennett, with players behind who were capable of making good supporting runs once she received the ball.
Bennett has been a key player for the Current in 2022, with both goals in their win over Chicago being set up by her. However, what has made Kansas such a dangerous team to play against is their ability to create options through players constantly moving around the pitch. In this game, that didn’t happen as much, with those behind staying too far back and leaving Bennett on her own, with Kansas instead trying to protect themselves against Portland’s incisive attacking play.
Therefore, whilst the theory behind this system was clear, it wasn’t working in terms of giving Kansas a platform to create goalscoring chances from, and this was one reason for their struggles early on.
As mentioned, Kansas opted to focus on being hard to beat once they realised that goals weren’t likely to come, organising their defensive line and keeping the ball in front of them. We mentioned how Portland had a period of play in the first half when they didn’t have as much space to play into, and this was why. As a result, they had to use Kuikka and Klingenberg as a way of keeping the ball moving, although they were unable to breakthrough in the wide channels due to Kansas full-backs Alex Loera, who had come on as a first half injury replacement for Mallory Weber, and Isabel Rodriguez moving out in turn, closing the ball down and then dropping back into line.
Therefore, we can see how Kansas’ focus on being solid at the back led to Portland not posing as big a threat, which was one reason that Smith was introduced after the break.
It was not only the Thorns making changes at half-time though, as Kansas introduced defensive midfielder Desiree Scott for Addie McCain at the same time. It was clear that this change was tactical, with Canada international Scott a combative central player who would add more protection for the defensive line.
However, the key point is that her wide passing range meant that those Kansas players who had been sitting back previously could now get higher up the pitch and support their attacks. The additional introductions of Victoria Pickett and Kristen Hamilton also aided this, with Hamilton arguably their most dangerous forward last season whilst Pickett gave them added energy in the central areas. Scott’s presence also enabled the full-backs to push higher up the pitch, with left-back Rodriguez especially benefitting from this, given that she is a naturally attacking player who had been forced to stay back in the first half due to Portland’s pressure.
The overall effect of this was that Hamilton, unlike Bennett, was not left at the top of the field on her own, highlighting how Kansas can see and adapt to different situations. This is a key point to take from this section of the analysis, and it will be something that will benefit them as the season goes on and they look to develop as a team.
Kansas City Current’s mistakes
However, Kansas City Current ultimately lost this game, and a big reason for that was their individual mistakes around the pitch, with Portland Thorns often not having to work too hard to create chances or regain the ball.
It has already been mentioned that their defending was too open in the early stages of the game, with Portland finding it easy to score their first two goals and take control. Here, Isabel Rodriguez has seen the ball move into Kuikka on the edge of the goal area, but has made a straight run backwards, as the white arrow shows, rather than trying to close the ball down. This means that she is giving the Finland international space and time to control the ball and make a pass into the box. Even if the game plan was for her to not close the ball down here, Rodriguez is too far out to tuck in and make a block or interception, so she can’t help her team in any way.
If anyone had got a touch on Kuikka’s cross, the Thorns would have likely scored their second goal, but the point is that these chances could have been cut out if Kansas had positioned themselves better in their own area.
Another problem was that the Current didn’t move the ball quickly enough when advancing up the pitch, meaning that they were often caught in possession and didn’t turn these opportunities into anything. Here, Chardonnay Curran has three different options available to her and has enough time to pass into one of them and keep the attack alive. One of those is Kate Del Fava, who is the furthest inside of the three players in yellow circles, and Del Fava has space to turn and set up a shot on goal if the ball comes to her. However, Curran hesitated with the ball and didn’t pass quickly enough, which allowed Sinclair to close her down and end the threat.
Kansas did eventually grow into the game, with their passing becoming cleaner and more accurate, but this wasn’t until a long way into the first half and after Portland had scored twice.
When they did pass the ball, Kansas often lacked quality and gave possession away too easily, with this just one example of when a poor pass cost them. In this case, Scott has time to get her head up and look around the pitch, but then decides to make a sideways pass, as the white arrow shows. However, she hasn’t looked at where Klingenberg is, with the Thorns left-back making an easy interception and setting up Smith, in the yellow circle, who then controls the ball and scores Portland’s third goal. However, again, this was the result of the ball being given away in a cheap manner and it could have been avoided.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the NWSL league match between Portland Thorns and Kansas City Current, looking at the reasons for Portland’s commanding victory and Kansas’ defeat. The analysis has focused on Portland’s attacking play, dissecting their game plan and identifying how they created opportunities in the first half, whilst also looking at how the Current tried to change tactically and the mistakes that prevented them from getting anything from the game.
The Thorns will be pleased with their performance, with a good balance between being solid at the back and creative in the final third, and will now have hope that they can compete for the NWSL title once again, potentially going one step further than last season’s play-off semi-final placing. For Rhian Wilkinson, it would have been important that her players showed what they can do without their current absentees, who include USA and former Chelsea Women star Crystal Dunn, so that will be a big positive for them.
Meanwhile, Kansas, who were one of 2021’s strugglers, will know that their need to rest key players will be given as a reason for their overall disappointing start to the regular league season. However, Matt Potter will not use it as an excuse, knowing that his team showed promise as the game went on but need to eradicate their individual mistakes in order to avoid another tough campaign.
Portland’s next game sees them travel to North Carolina Courage on Sunday, hoping to build on this opening round win, whilst Kansas’ home semi-final against the Courage will be followed by the visit of Houston Dash to Children’s Mercy Park next weekend.