“A team accustomed to winning”: Why Portland Thorns’ self-belief helped defeat Kansas City Current in the NWSL Championship – tactical analysis
For many players, coaches and others involved in the NWSL, 2022 will not provide many fond memories, with it being remembered as the year when a dark shadow was cast on the league as the investigation into player abuse and its cover-up reached its conclusion.
However, whilst Portland Thorns and Kansas City Current share in that sadness, they will also look back on this year with some happiness, as both made it through the league’s play-off rounds and reached the NWSL Championship. History would be made at Washington DC’s Audi Field at the weekend, with Portland, who had seen off former Manchester United Women boss Casey Stoney’s San Diego Wave in the semi-finals, looking to become the first team ever to win three Championship titles, whilst Kansas, who had overcome Shield winners OL Reign, were hoping to lift the trophy in only their second season in existence.
Only one could win though, and this tactical analysis will look at why it was the Thorns who got their hands on the trophy after 90 minutes. The analysis will specifically examine how they maintained control of the game throughout the match, as well as how Kansas’ tactics let them down in the first half and why the changes that they made did have some effect even though they ended up as runners-up.
Portland Thorns made just one change from the team that got the better of San Diego, with Japan international Hina Sugita dropping to the bench and Canada legend Christine Sinclair returning to the starting eleven after being a replacement in that game. Former Chelsea Women player Crystal Dunn, who scored the winning goal against the Wave, was once again named on the bench as she continued her return from maternity leave, whilst newly-crowned 2022 Most Valuable Player Sophia Smith, the league’s second top-scorer this season with 13 goals (before this game), was hoping to end what has been a breakthrough season for her on a high note.
Kansas City Current, meanwhile, fielded the same side that had knocked OL out at Lumen Field, with head coach Matt Potter aiming for consistency in order to give his team the best possible chance of getting their hands on the trophy. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and defender Elizabeth Ball both played for Portland at one time or another and lined up against their former club, whilst forward Cece Kizer and defender Addisyn Merrick, who both joined the team halfway through the season from Racing Louisville, were once again included.
Portland Thorns’ dominant play
When Portland Thorns look back at their performance in this match, what they will be most pleased about is the way that they were able to remain in control for the full 90 minutes, even with Kansas City Current improving after the break. The main reason that they were able to play with such dominance was because of their clever tactics throughout the game, with head coach and former England assistant Rhian Wilkinson deserving a lot of credit for the way that she kept adapting to what was happening on the field.
Their game plan was simple but effective, with one of the key elements to it being to maintain width when in possession, and the fact that the two full-backs, Meghan Klingenberg and Finland international Natalia Kuikka, are making the pitch as big as possible here shows how they want to give themselves the ability to keep the ball and wait for the right opportunity to move it forwards.
However, getting wide also means that the Thorns can push their full-backs up the field to create numerical overloads, which proved highly effective in breaking Kansas down. To explain, the Current set-up in this game with a back five, aiming to make themselves difficult to beat. Therefore, Portland needed to get more players into the wide channels to tempt their opponents out of position, which would create avenues for their forwards to exploit, and this happened on plenty of occasions through the full-backs moving up to work with the wide forwards.
They also looked to stretch their opponents out and play through the gaps that they left open, meaning that they could exploit the spaces that Kansas were leaving open behind their high back line, and the key element to making this work was the speed and precision of their counterattacks once they won the ball.
However, they also needed the right player at the top of the field to lead the line in order to ensure that they took their opportunities. Fortunately for them, they have Smith, who likes to play on the shoulder of opponents and has shown this season that she has a deadly accuracy when allowed to run towards opposing goals. Therefore, with her on the field, Portland can play the ball forwards and know that their chances will be taken.
Kansas will look back on this as one mistake after another, given the ease with which they lost the ball and then the error by Ball here when trying to intercept Yazmeen Ryan’s pass, but Portland deserve a lot of credit for the way that they took advantage of the spaces available to them and constantly kept their opponents on the back foot.
In the second half, once Portland had scored their second goal, their attention turned towards containing the Current and limiting the effectiveness of their tactical changes. Kansas by this stage had introduced striker Elyse Bennett for Merrick and had switched to a 4-3-3 setup, with their aim being to have more balance around the pitch, and this was something that Wilkinson recognised. Therefore, she introduced Dunn, Sugita and former Manchester City Women winger Janine Beckie in the second half, with Sinclair, Costa Rica international Raquel “Rocky” Rodríguez and forward Morgan Weaver making way, changing the Thorns’ shape to a 4-2-3-1.
This gave them extra players in all areas of the pitch, with two midfielders supporting the back four and preventing Kansas’ front three from having too much space, whilst there were now five players who could work together in the central third to stifle their transitions.
However, despite these changes, it was crucial that Portland still carried a significant threat in attack and didn’t sit back to protect their lead. The additions of Dunn and Canada international Beckie were particularly important to this, as both added more pace and energy in the final third in the closing stages and helped to keep the ball moving around and to ensure that Kansas remained on the back foot as much as possible.
The way that they did this was clever because they used the fact that Smith had been the key threat to manipulate the Kansas players into leaving spaces open. Here, Beckie passes into the USA striker, but Smith has no intention of moving forwards and instead holds her position, with the Current’s players instantly attracted towards her. As a result, a gap opens up for Dunn to run through, with Smith then sending the ball in her direction, and moments like this proved highly effective in the closing stages as Portland looked to seal the win.
However, what this situation most showed was that, even when there were new faces on the pitch, the whole Portland squad was on the same page and knew what each other was thinking, once again demonstrating that teamwork and belief that has been on show throughout the 2022 campaign and which has made them such a difficult side to play against.
Kansas City Current’s tactical issues
Whilst there is no doubt that Portland Thorns’ clever play was a major factor in them winning a third Championship title, Kansas City Current will know on reflection that they gave their opponents a significant amount of help with the way that they played in the first half, with their tactics leading to mistakes and players not looking comfortable with what they were being asked to do.
Against most opponents, sitting back in the way that Kansas did in the first half can be highly effective, with many teams finding it tough to break down low blocks like this.
However, the problem that the Current had, which meant that they played into Portland’s hands with this style of play, was that they had the wrong players in the wrong positions. As a result, individual players didn’t know whether to press or sit back, with Kizer and Kristen Hamilton moving forwards here and the rest of the team holding their positions, which opens up this vast space in between. As a result, Rodríguez was able to get into this space and receive a pass from defender Kelli Hubly, before having time to turn and then find a gap ahead of her to exploit.
One of those players who looked most lost with these tactics was Lo’eau LaBonta, who is in the yellow circle here. She is a naturally attacking player who started in the hole behind the front two, which meant that many expected her to push forward and work closely with them to create goalscoring opportunities.
However, as this graphic demonstrates, she actually sat really deep and operated alongside those behind her, which is not where her strengths lie, and she was never going to be a problem for Portland whilst staying back in her own half. Her ineffectiveness in this role is highlighted by the fact that she rarely touched the ball before the break and struggled to get into the game, and it was clear throughout the first half that the role that she had been tasked with was not something that she was comfortable with.
The fact that she finished the season with the most goals and assists for Kansas in all league games, with seven and four respectively (Kizer also had seven goals but played for two teams in 2022) demonstrates how she is at her best when allowed to get on the ball higher up the field than she had been in this game. However, as this graphic indicates, she only made five penetrating carries into the goal area throughout the entirety of this match, demonstrating once again just how much her attacking threat was limited.
In the second half, this and her average defensive position did get better, with her having more freedom to move into advanced areas of the pitch, but the fact that many expected her to have a big impact on the game after her recent performances and yet she didn’t was indicative of how Kansas will not see this game as one of their best tactical performances.
As well as having players in the wrong areas of the pitch, Kansas also persevered with playing long balls up the field, aiming to find their two forwards as soon as they won possession. However, again, this played into Portland’s hands and again made life too easy for them, as the Thorns’ back four looked organised and all worked together whenever the ball entered their third, with Kansas never keeping the ball for long when they moved it up the pitch.
In this case, Hamilton has controlled a long pass from midfielder Alex Loera, but Kuikka has tracked the ball to perfection and has quickly moved to dislodge it from the forward, and the fact that this happened time and time again showed how the Current didn’t learn from their mistakes and only seemed to have one way of playing.
Poor tactics were not their only issue though, as there were also plenty of examples of playing making poor decisions with the ball and wasting opportunities. Here, Loera has received the ball in a promising area of the pitch and has time and space to assess which of the three Current players ahead of her is in the best position to receive a pass.
However, rather than considering any of these players, she instead takes one touch and then decides to shoot at goal straight away. The problem with this is that she is a good distance out from the goal, so her effort needs to travel through the air in order to clear the Portland defenders, and that makes it easier for Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby to claim the ball and end the attack.
This was not the only time that Kansas made the wrong decision, but the fact that they rarely found themselves in these areas of the pitch meant that they needed to make the most of these situations. Unfortunately, they never did.
Kansas City Current’s changes
With all of those mistakes in mind, it was obvious that Kansas City Current needed to make changes as the match went on, because there is no doubt that Portland Thorns found it far too easy in the first half to control the flow of the game.
Before analysing their second-half performance, it should be noted that they did look to alter a few areas of their game in the first half, with the number of long balls decreasing as they tried to keep it on the ground and not risk losing possession as often. This meant that they could engage in more attacking duels and put Portland under more pressure, with Hailie Mace moving the ball around Rodríguez and taking her out of the game here before sending the ball forwards to Hamilton, who has identified a gap between Klingenberg and Becky Sauerbrunn and a way into the space behind Portland’s defence.
Whenever the ball was taken into these areas before being released forwards, the Thorns never looked as comfortable, with Klingenberg and Sauerbrunn almost conceding a penalty as they attempted to stop Hamilton from running between them. Therefore, keeping the ball on the ground was something that Kansas needed to keep doing as they looked to get back into the game, and it is one thing that they might look back on in their post-match analysis as something that worked for them and that could have been implemented earlier in the game.
One change that they made that has already been mentioned is that they gave their key attacking players more freedom to push forward in the second half, and the substitution of Bennett for Merrick showed Potter’s intent to give his team more quality in attack.
The main thing from getting the right players pushing forwards was that their decision-making improved, with LaBonta making an interception here and finding herself in a similar situation to Loera in the first half. However, rather than shooting at goal, LaBonta looks to send the ball through the gap that has opened up in Portland’s line, giving Hamilton something to run onto and enabling her team to get behind their opponents.
On this occasion, Portland did manage to deal with the threat, as Sauerbrunn controlled the ball and played it forwards and out of danger, but the contrast between this and Loera’s pass in the previous section highlights again how the Current did work in the second half to correct what had let them down beforehand.
When they were out of possession in the first half, Kansas had tended to not make challenges and had instead allowed the likes of Smith and Weaver to cut inside and get shots away at goal. However, in the second half, they looked to apply more pressure on their opponents and to take time away from them, with Loera moving towards Weaver here and forcing her to make an earlier pass than she might have perhaps been prepared for. As a result, she overhit the ball, as the black arrow shows, and Ryan was unable to get on the end of it.
Therefore, again, Kansas’ changes made a huge difference to their play and helped them to show more intensity and to make life more difficult for Portland in the second half. What will frustrate them about all of this is that, had they played this way before the break, they would have been able to compete with the Thorns more and the result might have been different.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the 2022 NWSL Championship, contested between Portland Thorns and Kansas City Current. Portland will obviously be the happier of the two, having secured their third Championship title, but what they will be most delighted about was how they were able to adapt tactically as the game went on.
Kansas, meanwhile, will know that, whilst they were the underdogs in this contest, there were things that they could have done differently in order to be more competitive, and there were areas where their tactics let them down and made it too easy for the Thorns to break them down.
However, it should be remembered that they are only in their second year as a club and they did finish bottom of the league in 2021. Therefore, they have made an enormous amount of improvement in only one year and have now established themselves as a team capable of challenging for silverware. For Portland, while they have become a team accustomed to winning this season, as one analyst put it, the hard work ahead of next season starts here, because 2022 on the field was exhilarating and 2023 promises to be better than ever.