At 4pm EST on Saturday, the Chicago Red Stars took on the Portland Thorns at Providence Park as part of the third week of NWSL action. This would prove to be a contest between two very well-constructed teams that both made semi-final appearances at the end of the 2016 season. For the third week, the Thorns were still missing their great playmaker Tobin Heath in midfield due to injury, and regular Portland starting defender Meghan Klingenberg started the game on the bench after leaving the field around half-time last week. Chicago’s starting lineup featured a bit of an experiment that found them success in their win against FC Kansas City in Week 2.
Who is Julie Ertz?
Julie Ertz, usually one of Chicago's starting center backs, started against Portland in her second game in the number 10 position, after scoring from that spot last week. Sam Johnson and Katie Naughton resumed their roles as the starting center back pair from last week. Ertz’s presence in the midfield gave a connecting presence to the squad, allowing Christen Press to push farther forward into her natural striker position. This also posed a very interesting battle between Ertz and her Portland counterpart in Allie Long, who has found quite a bit of success at attacking midfield for her club squad. This also left the Chicago backline somewhat vulnerable, with the team conceding defensive consistency for the ability to put numbers forward to look for an early lead.
Back and Forth
The game started somewhat slowly, with both teams trying to possess out of the back, and working hard not give up too much space to the opposing squad. Chicago in particular did a fine job of controlling the run of play in the midfield (in no small part to Ertz in her new role). However, that did leave the Red Stars vulnerable to Portland counter-attacks, asking a lot of the relatively inexperienced centerback pairing of Noughton and Johnson.
Regardless of these weak spots, the scoring didn’t commence until the 26th minute when Christen Press was called for a handball in the box, and Nadia Nadim calmly sent Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher going the wrong way to place the ball into the back of the net from the penalty spot. Chicago’s response to conceding the goal was furious and immediate, with a number of quality chances in front of the Portland goal as the first half went on. Even before the penalty (and certainly after), one had the feeling that Chicago really needed to capitalize on their possession before the half was over, as Portland was surely going to grow into this game. However, the Thorns were able to weather the storm from the Red Stars, and the score-line at the half remained 1-0.
Finishing it off
The game started to open up at the beginning of the second half, with Chicago pushing numbers forward to look for the equalizer, and Portland putting together solid counters. It seemed at times that the Red Stars didn’t have a great answer for the Thorns’ fluidity in attack, though the stellar play of Naeher kept the score-line stable. Additionally, and perhaps in response to this momentum from Portland, around the 64th minute Julie Ertz went back into her regular center back spot for the Red Stars, with Taylor Comeau coming into the midfield and Sam Johnson tapping out for the game.
Even with a fairly open second half, neither team could truly put together a coherent attack that finished with quality shots on goal. Chicago in particular continued to fair well in the midfield against the Thorns, but then they would stall in the final third. Ultimately the game would end without any goals from the run of play, with Portland taking the win 1-0.
Both teams would have to be frustrated with the lack of quality finishing in the final third, particularly Chicago, who’s formation changes were set up to give them more striking firepower. It looks like the Red Stars are still looking for that killer instinct in front of goal, and the Thorns are still sorely missing the cohesive play of Heath in their midfield. One also has to look at the quality play of both Adrianna Franch and Naeher, keeping their teams in the game until the final whistle. After this week, Portland improves to 2-1-0 while Chicago falls to 1-2-0.