Portland Thorns Midseason NWSL Review – What’s Working, What’s Not Working?

Apr 19, 2023; San Diego, California, USA; Portland Thorns FC defender Emily Menges (5) looks on against San Diego Wave FC during the second half at Snapdragon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The NWSL has hit its halfway mark in the 2023 season, and the standings couldn’t be any closer. Just four points separate the top seven teams as clubs race for the NWSL Shield. The league will feature four more rounds before the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup break, as the NWSL action pauses from July 10 until August 18.  

There will be no rest for the wicked, however. Players not competing in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will play for their NWSL club in the league’s Challenge Cup tournament. The Challenge Cup tournament – Portland Thorns won the 2021 edition – will continue its group stage portion, with the knockout phase beginning following the Women’s World Cup’s conclusion.  

Can the Thorns win the NWSL Shield?

The Portland Thorns are one team at the halfway mark with their eyes on the NWSL Shield. The Thorns reached the halfway mark in third place and one point off first-place teams San Diego Wave FC and the Washington Spirit. Portland’s strong start to the campaign saw them take 19 points from the opening 33 points on offer.  

Portland suffered just two defeats in its opening 11 fixtures, losing to the Houston Dynamo on May 12 and the Orlando Pride on June 11. Both losses came on the road, where Portland has posted a 2W-2L-2T record. The Thorns have been far better at home this season, recording three wins from five games alongside two ties. The club averages 1.73 points per game, while league leaders San Diego and Washington have averaged 1.81 points per match. 

The team’s inability to turn ties into wins has dropped eight points. Those eight points differentiate between Portland sitting in first place and third place midway through the regular season. Portland was forced to come from behind to earn draws in three of their four stalemates. The team can certainly be accused of slow starts.  

What’s Not Working In Portland?

Yet, it isn’t just slow starts that can be leveled at manager Mike Norris and the team. In Portland’s two defeats this season, the team conceded the lead. Raquel Rodriguez opened the scoring against Houston in round 7, only for the team to concede two second-half goals and lose 2-1. 

Round No 11 saw the Thorns score just 20 minutes into the match. The ladies conceded three goals from there to drop all three points to Orlando Pride, 3-1.

The parity in the NWSL is keeping the league standings close. After 11 matchdays, two teams in the NWSL standings look unlikely to finish in the playoff places – Angel FC and the Kansas City Current. The league’s remaining ten teams are in the hunt for the playoffs, which means all ten teams have a shot at winning the NWSL Championship.  

Just a season ago, the Thorns emerged victorious from the NWSL Playoffs as champions with a win over the Kansas City Current. Portland finished second in the league’s regular season standings, one point behind NWSL Shield winners OL Reign. Norris and company are in a similar position halfway through the current campaign.  

What Is Working In Portland?

No team in the NWSL has scored as many goals as the Thorns’ 26. Portland scored 2.0 or more goals in seven of their 11 games this season. They are yet to be shut out by an NWSL opponent. Portland leads the NWSL in shots per game with 19.91, according to Fbref. 

The Thorns also top the league in shots on target per 90 minutes with 7.82. The team has 26 goals and a 23.9 expected goals number (xG). The Thorns are on target with xG, showing that they are putting chances away.  

Forward Sophia Smith leads the team in goals with six, while Crystal Dunn has chipped in with five. Smith has been the team’s most valuable player, adding five assists to her six goals, which leads the league.  

The American forward contributed to 11 of Portland’s 26 goals, which is 42.3% of Portland’s goals. She is vital to Portland winning either the NWSL Shield or playoff championship – or both. Smith is expected to play at the Women’s World Cup alongside teammates Becky Sauerbrunn and Dunn. There could also be call-ups for Bella Bixby and Sam Coffey.  

What’s Not Working In Portland Part 2?

Norris cannot ask much more from the team’s attack, although the defense could sometimes be questioned. Sure, the defense has kept four shutouts, but on four occasions, Portland has allowed opponents to score 2.0 or more goals in a league match. Portland allowed the fifth-most goals in the league after 11 fixtures – Chicago Red Stars, Angel City, Kansas City Current, and Orlando Pride allowed more. 

Portland gave up 24 goals in the NWSL regular season in 2022. Although they are currently ten goals below that mark, the club is halfway through the campaign and on pace to concede 28 times. Only two teams qualified for the NWSL Playoffs in 2022 after allowing 28 or more goals to opponents.  

The NWSL Challenge Cup has been a different story for the Portland Thorns compared to the NWSL regular season. The Thorns are second in the four-team West Division, with three points from two matches. OL Reign leads the group with seven points, but the Seattle-based club has played one more game.  

Conceding goals is an issue for Portland in the cup tournament, just like in the league. The team conceded three times in its two opening cup matches. Defensive issues may be the problem that ultimately prevents Portland Thorns from winning silverware in 2023.  

Norris will have most of the squad available during the Women’s World Cup break. It will be the ideal time for Norris to sort out the Thorns’ defensive issues. There will come a time when the Thorns cannot outscore its opponents. The old saying goes, “Defense wins championships.” Sure, the Thorns conceded 24 times last season and still won the NWSL Championship. But Portland got the defense right under former coach Rhian Wilkinson, conceding just one goal across the semifinals and final.  

Norris is in his first season as head coach of the Thorns. Although Norris was Wilkinson’s assistant last season, he is now in the hot seat and must find answers to the team’s defensive problems.