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Kassouf: Is it time to worry about the Thorns?

We’re one-third of the way through the season, and we’re at that point where team’s results can start to stray. The defending champs are in the thick of it. Will they right the ship?

Photo Copyright Troy Taormina for USA TODAY Sports

What’s gone wrong?

In short, Portland has been poor defensively in individual moments. The Thorns’ expected goals against average (xGA) of 7.6 is the second-best in the NWSL, but they’ve given up 10 goals this season, eight of which were conceded in the last three games.

It is no coincidence that this defensive skid coincides with the absence of central defender Becky Sauerbrunn due to a foot injury. Emily Menges filled in for Sauerbrunn in the 3-3 home draw against Angel City on April 29, and again in the 3-3 away draw against the North Carolina Courage on May 6. Friday brought change, with Meaghan Nally starting at center back alongside Kelli Hubly.

Portland is particularly feeling the loss of Sauerbrunn’s guidance and decision-making in central areas, and the Thorns will need to contend with her absence throughout the summer as well, when she is expected to join the United States for the World Cup. The Thorns will also lose most of their midfield to international duty.

Yes, the number of regular-season games during the World Cup window is limited, with mostly Challenge Cup games scheduled for late July and early August. Still, the Thorns will face significant depth issues during that time, and recent defensive hiccups are not setting them up to manage the summer period from the top. They need better performances defensively from everyone in their back five — defenders and goalkeeper Bella Bixby included.

This is the precarious time of the NWSL season when teams start to drift. The grind of the season sets in alongside the summer heat, and momentum feels like it can either carry a team forward, into the Shield race, or pin it down below the playoff line. Portland has mostly only ever known the former option as a franchise.

Now, the Thorns are facing some unfamiliar adversity.

“We’re in a bit of a run where we seem to be lacking confidence, lacking belief,” Thorns head coach Mike Norris said. “So, yeah, I think it’s how I take that and start to work on how to build more belief and confidence in the players.”

The good news

Goal-scoring remains abundant for Portland, as it was last year. The Thorns’ 18 goals scored in seven matches is six more than the next-closest team, and there have been some beautiful team tallies that suggest cohesion and confidence are not lacking on that side of the ball.

There was the second equalizer against North Carolina earlier this month when Meghan Klingenberg got forward in a one-touch sequence, Sophia Smith backheeled a through ball, and Crystal Dunn finished the play. Against Angel City, the Thorns strung together 18 passes over a 60-second period before Morgan Weaver finished the final pass to put Portland ahead, 2-1.

Dunn and Smith have four goals each this season, and Olivia Moultrie continues to produce game-changing moments, including the assist to Weaver on the aforementioned play. As was the case last year, scoring is not a problem for the Thorns.

Norris suggested on Friday that being better (“cleaner”) on the ball would help solve some individual defensive errors.

Up next is a trap game: a home match against the last-place Chicago Red Stars, who have conceded 11 goals in a four-game winless skid. The Red Stars are reeling, and the Thorns are better player for player. It’s a game Portland should and must win, but that means little in the NWSL.

Portland’s loss on Friday broke a 57-game unbeaten streak for the team when leading at halftime (all competitions), per Opta, a record that stretched back to 2017.

Framed like that, it’s easy enough to view Friday as a fluke, and that might be best for the psyche of the Thorns internally, even if the preceding draws add evidence to the concerns. This isn’t so much a personnel issue for Portland as it is a time for self-reflection and course correction.

In the NWSL, sometimes the month of May is just about getting by.

Eye-catchers: Courage blank Reign

OL Reign entered the weekend atop the NWSL table, but a 1-0 road loss to the North Carolina Courage has them looking up to the unbeaten Washington Spirit. The victory alone is significant for the Courage, but so too is the shutout. North Carolina needed that defensively, period, and that it came against a high-powered Reign team should be a huge boost of confidence for a Courage team still looking to solidify its identity.

Eyebrow-raisers: Michele Kang shows up in Lyon

Look, nothing is official until it’s official. Sports remind us of this all the time.

That said, there is a ludicrous dissonance between Olympique Lyonnais owner John Textor publicly discussing Michele Kang’s takeover of Lyon’s women’s team, Kang then showing up at Saturday’s Coupe de France final and joining the team in formal trophy presentations, and the complete silence from this side of the Atlantic. Kang’s takeover of Lyon has significant implications on the Spirit in ways that we will only start to decipher in the coming weeks, and a big question looms over Seattle. What will become of the Reign as the OL Groupe offloads the NWSL franchise to a new owner? And until that happens, the complicated ownership web is an uncomfortable one that sees Kang, the owner of the Spirit, involved as new majority owner of Lyon women, whose co-owner is also the primary owner of the Reign. Confused? That’s exactly the issue. More information might bring more clarity.

Tactical trends to watch

How should the Houston Dash best utilize Maria Sanchez? Multiple head coaches have played her in a variety of roles, including as a wing back. On Friday, in the 2-1 win over Portland, Sanchez was in a slightly more advanced and traditional position that still required significant defensive responsibilities.

Dash head coach Sam Laity praised Sanchez postgame as a talented pro capable of doing anything asked of her. Ideally, Sanchez would be free to roam high and wide against opposing back lines, whipping in crosses from deep areas or getting around defenders at the endline. She still does that — which is a testament to her work rate — but she does so while providing significant defensive cover. Is that the long-term answer? It’s working right now in Houston and it largely was the answer last year. It is worth continuing to ask whether there are ways to better free her up offensively.

Surveying stadiums

The tally in Harrison, N.J., on Sunday, was 3,488. Yes, it was a Sunday afternoon kickoff. Yes, it was Mother’s Day. Yes, there is youth soccer and PATH issues and it was a beautiful day that had people flocking for green space. As a quasi-local to this market for my entire life, I get all the challenges. We can all still agree that attendance at Gotham FC games has not been and is not good enough, and there have not been signs of significant outward progress. What now?

What VAR we talking about?

Angel City, again. This team will feel hard done by the NWSL’s new video review system, and the gripe is not unwarranted. The calls against Angel City on opening weekend went against anything that felt it cleared the threshold of “clear and obvious.” VAR struck again on Saturday, again at home, and this time in a cruel way.

MA Vignola was called for a handball in second-half stoppage time as she jumped to block the shot of the Washington Spirit’s Marissa Sheva. Ashley Hatch then stepped up and buried the penalty kick to give the Spirit a 1-0 victory.

Referee JC Griggs provided the following response to the pool reporter’s question: “Although the ball struck the body of the defender first, there was a secondary motion of the arm, this movement of the warm was at/above the shoulder making the body unnaturally bigger, blocking the path of the ball.”

They said that

Expansion is coming to the NWSL again. Commissioner Jessica Berman confirmed that the league plans to add two more teams for the 2026 season, which would bring them to 16 total. Ostensibly, that will be Boston plus one. Will Boston be ready for that round of expansion? TBD from the conversations I’ve had across the landscape. There is a lot of work to be done. Berman knows this, though: there is plenty of demand for teams right now. Her full quote to the Washington Post is in the clip below:

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