The NWSL will crown the second Challenge Cup champion on Saturday and the two sides competing for the title are the Portland Thorns and NY/NJ Gotham FC. Before the big dance, let’s look at how Portland got to the promised land, what they need to do to lift the Cup, and a potential X-factor in their quest to do so.
How They Got Here
Portland’s journey to the Challenge Cup final arguably started when they brought in Crystal Dunn during the offseason. The addition of the US national star established Marc Parsons’ side as the one to beat before a ball was even kicked off. The defender brings pace and power to the backline and possesses a unique ability to hurt opposing teams offensively.
But what is potentially most impressive about the Thorns route to the final is how they performed without the likes of Dunn and their other stars. They opened tournament play incredibly short-staffed, with Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Christine Sinclair all away on international duty. Yet even with a thin lineup and a number of players being asked to perform out of position, Portland took all three points from their opener against Kansas City by relying on their signature consistency and team mentality.
It’s that consistency that has lead to Portland being considered a perennial powerhouse for years now, something that has been developed thanks to the longstanding tenure of head coach Parsons. 2021 marks his fifth year with the side, over which span he has worked with players from a variety of experience levels and pedigrees, giving him the magic touch when it comes to perfecting the recipe for a contender.
The coach described the 2020 season as a time of finding the right perspective and using it to prepare for the 2021 season. He went on to explain how he sees the club as having gone through a series of eras, that “the the first era [of the Thorns] was 2013 to 2015. Second era was 16′ to 19′, and 2020 was the start of the third cycle of where this club had been.”
But what will the Thorns need to do to make sure this third era includes a Challenge Cup crown?
Key to the Cup
There’s a reason the Thorns enter this game as the favourite and it’s because of the way they play their game, regardless of the opponent. Portland’s ability to seamlessly shift from offensive juggernaut to defensive stalwart makes it very hard for opponents to catch the Thorns in transition. Not impossible, as proven by Kansas City in Portland’s Challenge Cup opener, but it is a tall task.
That game against Kansas City really illustrates the strength of the squad’s complete game. KC came in with tactics deliberately designed to disrupt and break down Portland’s model, yet even with a depleted lineup, the Thorns looked no different than any game they played at full strength.
If they can hold strong to their identity, they should be able to get through Gotham FC and lift the Cup. Their offensive game plan is built on an ability to shift on a dime and the depth of talent they possess both offensively and defensively is enough to make any opponent think twice about trying anything too risky against them.
Player to Watch
It would be easy to consider any player on Portland as one to watch as an X-factor for the final matchup but someone who is critically overlooked as a game breaker is Rocky Rodriguez. The Costa Rican international was a longtime target of the Thorns, who have admitted that by the time they brought her in, they had been pursuing her for three years.
Interestingly, Rodriguez will be facing off against her former side. Her NWSL career started with Sky Blue FC (now Gotham) back in 2016 on her way to winning rookie of the year. The midfielder has shown versatility, playing right underneath the strikers as well as just above the backline throughout the tournament. Regardless of where she plays, what makes Rodriguez lethal is her field vision and distribution abilities. The ease with which she can move the ball sideline to sideline, as well as forward is critical to Portland’s transition game. With the ball at her foot she can flip the game as fast as anyone in the league, posing a real counter attack threat to opponents.
The Challenge Cup Final will kickoff at 1PM EST on May 8 and can be watched on CBS Sports Network in the United States as well as Twitch in Canada.
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Photo Credit: Portland Thorns Twitter