A “heated affair”: why Portland Thorns’ “surprising” tactics edged them past Kansas City
After the success of last year’s NWSL Challenge Cup, which replaced the regular season due to the ongoing pandemic, many were excited by the tournament’s return this year, with new teams and players to watch. All 10 teams have been split into two groups, depending on their geographical location in the USA. Portland Thorns’ opening game at Providence Park last Friday night was against Kansas City, known last season as Utah Royals, and this tactical analysis will look in closer detail at both teams’ tactics and approaches to the game. Both had good and bad parts in their performances, and things to take away and work on.
Portland Thorns were missing several key players, with Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn currently with the USA national side, whilst captain Christine Sinclair has linked up with Canada for their games. Head coach Mark Parsons therefore started some players out of their normal positions, going with a 4-3-1-2 formation. Meghan Klingenberg played in midfield instead of left-back, whilst Costa Rica international Rocky Rodriguez was deployed in a deeper midfield role, instead of her usual one further forward. Christen Westphal and Madison Pogarch played at right and left-back respectively, whilst Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi played upfront, with Marissa Everett supporting them from the attacking tip of the midfield.
Kansas City, meanwhile, opted for a 4-1-4-1 starting formation, with Welsh head coach Huw Williams starting many of his first-choice players. Scotland captain Rachel Corsie, who spent September to December on loan at WSL side Birmingham City Women, played alongside Kate Del Fava in central defence. Gaby Vincent played in the hole between defence and attack, whilst Canadian midfielder Victoria Pickett, who joined the team in the 2021 NWSL draft, partnered Maddie Nolf in the centre of the pitch. Captain and star forward Amy Rodriguez led their attack from the front.
Kansas City’s defence
Kansas City played with a wide defensive setup from the early stages of the game, aiming to build from the back as much as they could. This helped them to keep the ball whenever they had possession, searching for gaps in Portland’s ranks to start attacks through.
Here, we see how the two full-backs are close to the sidelines, allowing Kansas to move the ball across the pitch as necessary. Left-back Christen Edmonds has it here, trying to find a teammate further up the pitch to transfer it to. Kansas didn’t play many long balls in the opening parts of the game, preferring to keep possession in these situations and wait patiently for the right opportunity to move it forward, so as not to risk it being intercepted easily by Portland.
From an attacking point of view, this setup allowed Kansas to push their full-backs higher up the field, and you can see how Edmonds and right-back Michelle Maemone are further up the pitch than some of the midfielders at this point. This resulted in the whole team playing higher up, so it demonstrates again how their focus was on building from the back and moving from defence to attack as efficiently as possible.
For Portland Thorns, this structure made it really hard for them to win the ball, because Kansas simply passed along the line whenever they pressed one of the defenders. The other issue is that, if Portland’s forwards advanced too far forward in their hunt for the ball, they risked leaving a gap that Kansas could have exploited, so we again see how this defensive setup gave Kansas the advantage early on.
Kansas’ defensive focus was also on preventing Portland getting too close to their goal. Portland carried a lot of threat in attack, with three players in their forward line working together to get into the final third. Kansas therefore needed to close them down at every opportunity, as we can see happening in this image. Kansas pressed when in Portland’s half as well as their own, so it was a clear tactic of theirs to force Portland into making decisions earlier and moving the ball quicker, which led to Portland making mistakes in possession. Therefore, we can see how Kansas’ defensive tactics caused problems for their hosts throughout the game.
Kansas City’s attack
In attack, Amy Rodriguez started on her own at the top, so Kansas City needed to play as high up the field as possible, ensuring she didn’t become isolated and easily marked by the Portland Thorns defenders. As we see in the image below, Rodriguez looked to get between the defenders as often as possible, which also helped prevent them surrounding her.
Rodriguez’s movement has opened up the space behind Portland’s line, giving her teammate, in the yellow circle, a target to aim for with her cross into the middle. We mentioned in the previous section how Kansas got their full-backs high up the pitch, and this was the effect of that. Once their defenders pushed up, the midfielders did too, meaning Rodriguez always had support from players around her, making it easier for Kansas to create good chances. It also meant that Portland’s defenders had to be wary at the back, knowing that any space they left open would be exploited by their opponents.
However, at half-time, Kansas still hadn’t scored, so made a tactical alteration in the second half to give them even more threat in attack. Gaby Vincent, in the red circle here, was asked to stay back and protect the defence in the first half, but moved higher up the field in the second, acting almost as a pivot for the rest of the team to play off. This allowed her to move the ball around the pitch as needed, finding teammates and starting attacks in dangerous areas. She became arguably Kansas’ most important player after half-time, and was central to them finally breaking down Portland’s defence, with Rodriguez’ eventual goal beginning from one of Vincent’s forward passes, so it shows how this small change made the difference for the visitors.
However, the reason Kansas didn’t win the game was that they lacked a goalscoring threat in the box. Aside from Rodriguez, we never felt any of their players would get on the scoresheet in this game, because, whenever the ball was put into a dangerous area, Portland had a greater desire to meet it. Kansas need to improve this, increasing their central threat ahead of their next game, because, whilst they might score a few goals here and there, they will not score enough to win games like this unless they have a regular scorer to support Rodriguez and share the burden in the goal area.
Overall, Kansas will be happy with their performance in defence and attack, because Portland are a tough team to play against, having had some talented players on their books over the years. These have included Australia forward Caitlin Foord, now at Arsenal Women, USA legend Alex Morgan, who recently spent time on loan at Tottenham Hotspur Women, and another USA star, Tobin Heath, who moved to Manchester United Women last summer. Kansas had some really good tactical ideas in this game, but needed to be more potent at the top of the pitch, converting a few more of the chances they did create.
Portland Thorns’ first half setup
Portland Thorns started the first half well, with all players knowing their roles and where to be on the pitch. However, tactically, their setup actually played into Kansas City’s hands a little bit too well.
Here, we see Portland’s 4-3-1-2 formation laid out on the pitch. The defence is nicely spread out, but the midfield is too narrow, with all four players having come inside to help keep possession. This has exposed them to being surrounded by Kansas players, preventing them from breaking out and attacking as they ordinarily like to. To demonstrate this point, we can see how Kansas have got into the spaces between the three areas of Portland’s team, meaning that any pass Portland now make is risky, especially with Kansas pushing all of their players up the pitch, as already mentioned in this analysis.
A wider midfield structure from Portland here would have forced Kansas to spread out much more, making it harder for them to close the ball down. It would also have given Portland more passing options around the pitch, helping them to find space and potentially a gap in Kansas’ defence.
This did change, with the full-backs coming up the field, occupying the wide channels, whilst the rest of the Portland players have positioned themselves around the pitch, making it as big as possible, with Kansas’ players also more spread out as a result. Midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, in the yellow circle, now has space to move the ball to either side of the pitch. Rodriguez is normally an attacking midfielder, but one of her key qualities is her ball distribution and vision, enabling her to move the ball forward for her team. This helped Portland to transfer the ball from defence to attack much quicker, and is one possible reason why Mark Parsons decided to play her in this role.
The other tactical feature of Portland’s first half play was in attack. They named two strikers, Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi, in their starting XI, but asked them to play almost as wide forwards, with Marissa Everett then running between them, acting almost as a false nine. This image shows how this worked. Playing with this attacking setup gave Portland an extra player in the final third, meaning they could put more pressure on Kansas’ defence, especially as Kansas were looking to stretch the play out at the back as much as possible; this went some way to nullifying that tactic.
It also gave Portland options in attack, with Everett making runs behind the Kansas defenders, whilst Charley and Lussi would then work to get the ball into her. One chance saw Everett almost score, but she was marginally offside in the build-up. However, her pace was a constant threat to Kansas, and the two strikers worked well with her to create opportunities in the final third. When we compare this to Kansas’ attack, we can see how Portland had more of a threat, and that was one reason why they won this encounter.
Portland Thorns’ second half changes
In the second half, Portland Thorns focused more on staying back and counter-attacking, looking to protect their lead.
Here, we see how Portland’s forward line is inside their own half. They were happy for Kansas City to have most of the possession in the second half, instead looking to limit the areas the away side could move it into. This meant Kansas had to risk more when passing forwards, increasing the chances of loose passes happening and interceptions being made. This image comes from the last ten minutes of the game, but this happened throughout, with Kansas constantly sending balls forward, Portland winning it and counter-attacking, before then reverting back to this setup. Kansas had scored their goal shortly after Portland had got their second through Lussi, so this was Portland’s way of protecting their hard-fought lead in the match.
To help with their counter-attacking approach, Portland took off captain Meghan Klingenberg and brought on Angela Salem, allowing Rocky Rodriguez to move further forward into her natural attacking midfield role. This gave Portland pace in defence-to-attack transitions, with the ball moving forward quicker. As we can see in this image, Salem stayed back and filled the deeper role, meaning Rodriguez had more freedom to move around, giving Portland added creativity in attack.
However, the negative in Portland’s performance was that they struggled to convert their chances, and could have scored a lot more goals than they did. Here, they have launched one of their counter-attacks, with forward Morgan Weaver, who replaced Everett in the second half, in possession. However, Weaver makes a poor touch whilst dribbling forwards, meaning the angle for her to shoot from is tighter, and she misses the opportunity. This happened a few times, so is something they will no doubt want to work on ahead of their next game.
In conclusion, both Portland Thorns and Kansas City can take positives and negatives from the game. Kansas will be pleased with their overall performance, but need more potency in attack to get their first win under their new name sooner rather than later. However, their tactics were well-thought-out and ensured that they stayed in the game, which is a big plus for them. Portland, meanwhile, will know that they need to finish off more chances, putting games to bed, but will be relieved to have navigated their way through a difficult and heated tie, as they lost Charley, Weaver and manager Mark Parsons to red cards (as well as Kansas’ Christen Edmonds) before the game had ended, showing the intensity of the game felt by both sides. However, there is no doubting that Parsons’ perhaps surprising tactics were a big factor in their win, with players able to use their qualities in different ways, giving the team new opportunities for future games.
Portland’s next game in the tournament is on Thursday, when they travel to Chicago Red Stars, whilst Kansas City sit out the next round. They are back in action on 20 April when they also travel to Chicago in the third round.