2019 NWSL season review: Portland Thorns
Portland Thorns at Providence Park (credit: Portland Mercury)

Portland Thorns 2019 season will certainly be one every fan will remember. Starting with the 6 games on the road at the beginning of the season, following with the rookies that rocked the middle of the year and sustained the team during the absence of the big names due to the World Cup duties to the free fall the team experimented when everyone thought this was going to be the year Portland could claim the Shield and the Championship again in a potential final against last season rival, the North Carolina Courage… but the team surprised us again and not in a good way.

  • Memorable games

The Thorns delivered many dramatic and great games this season. How can we forget about the 4-4 draw against Chicago where captain Christine Sinclair got a hat trick and even a goal in the 87th minute but let scape the win when in the 90th minute Yuki Nagasato buried the equaliser from the penalty spot?

Or what about the big result they got against the Red Stars by 3-0 the day Providence Park reopened after the expansion where they added 4.000 more seats? That day people showed up at the stadium and established a new record for a Thorns’ home opener with 19,461 people.

And who can really forget about the 4-3 win against Orlando Pride on July? That match at Providence Park started great for Portland with Hayley Raso scoring just three minutes into the match but the visitors found the equaliser at the 90th minute (3-3). Nonetheless, in what it was the most dramatic way possible, Tyler Lussi found the winning goal through a header in the 90+4’ minute.

We have to add the big win against the North Carolina Courage in front of a league attendance record of 25.218 fans on August 11th that left a 2-1 score in a very curious and peculiar match. That day the Thorns started losing early but they would later find the equaliser and the winning goal through two North Carolina’s own goals. That day Portland broke their own previous record of attendance and won without scoring a single goal.

  • Midge Purce and the rookies

If we have to name a player that was outstanding this season for the Thorns that would definitely be Midge Purce. She made a good habit of scoring against the Red Stars and paired up greatly with one of Portland’s rookies, Simone Charley, to bring trouble to other teams defences. The connection and chemistry was there and Portland took advantage of it. Her good performance throughout most part of the season made her the recepient of the Supporter Player of the Year, the award granted annually to one player chosen by the team’s fanbase. Her new position, outright striker, proved to be the best for her and produced six goals in seven games and a total of eight goals throughout the season. Purce was a totally game changer

What about the midfield? After Amandine Henry left, the Thorns were struggling to have some stability in the midfield. In 2018, Lindsey Horan (the MVP that year) tried to cover up for that big absence and gave the team what it needed in the middle of the park while she scored goal after goal with her head. Nonetheless, this world cup year was completely different. Horan was a pale reflection of what she was in 2018 even after winning all in France. The “absence” of the number 10 in the midfield made necessary for someone else to step up and that someone ended up being the “rookie” Gabby Seiler.

Despite this being her maiden year in the league, Seiler showed the confidence and security the team so desperately needed in the midfield. Many thought she was going to be chosen as “Rookie of the Year” even after a cruel injury finished her season too early (she torn her ACL). But she couldn’t be chosen as such because the league considered 2018 as her rookie season despite being injured that year and therefore not playing a single match.

  • The Cascadia rivalry

Even though the former Seattle Reign moved to Tacoma in 2019 and they were rebranded as Reign FC and played at a different stadium, the rivalry continued. But unlike other seasons, Portland couldn’t break them, not even once. They collected three losses against a team that struggled all year long with too many injured players to count but managed somehow to get the results they needed. Someone else will talk more about Vladko Andonovski and his magic tricks to get nine points in those three matches, leaving the Thorns empty handed in the road and at home.

  • The foe

After a 1-1 draw at Cary and the 2-1 victory at Providence Park, the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns met for one last time before playoffs duties.

On September 11th Portland’s foe visited them at Providence Park. It was a crucial match at that point of the season with a lot on the line. Among those things were the first place at the table, the Shield and a demonstration of character in front of the team that has been monopolizing the league in these last years and that has become something more than a rival for Portland.

The stakes were high and the stadium was full but nothing prevented the Thorns to free fall that day. The Courage showed them who’s boss by scoring six goals against them, in what has become the worst result for the team at home since its inception. It was a demonstration of quality and force from the machine the Courage has become that left the host knocked out.

That result was a punch in the gut for the team that couldn’t recover ever since and influenced to some degree what would later happened in the last weeks of the season and at the playoffs.

  • The beginning of the end

Before the FIFA window took place in late August things look pretty good for the Thorns, having beaten the Red Stars, the Spirit and the Courage with the already mentioned 2-1 win. Nonetheless, after the that everything went South.

The team looked as if they would time traveled to pre season: Out of sync, disconnected, with no firepower in the final third, they weren’t taking advantage of the set pieces they're so good at... it was a disjointed team, out of gas and ideas. Those problems brought a loss to Utah Royals for the first time ever and the historic slaughter against the Courage. Portland bounced back a little with a win against the Houston Dash but every Thorns’ fan knew the performance in that game wasn’t going to be enough at that critical time when every team was hungry for points. They didn’t peak at the right time and they paid a high price for it.

On September 29th, Portland went to Cheney stadium to face the Reign. With a win the team could still host a playoff semifinal but with a loss the semi final would go to Chicago. The Reign, in the other hand, needed three points to secure a spot in playoff before Utah could do it so it wasn’t going to be an easy game. And the ghosts that surrounded Portland since the beginning of September appeared at Tacoma. Before half an hour the former Thorns player, Jodie Taylor, scored a goal and Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer put the nail in the coffin in the last ten minutes.

It was done: The Thorns handed over the win to its Cascadia rivals and with that, helped them secure a spot in playoffs while handing over the privilege to host a playoff semifinals to Chicago.

Portland finished third and therefore they were set to play Chicago at the playoffs semifinal. And history said the Red Stars couldn’t get a win against the Thorns in six long years. And history matters, right?

Well, it does. Except this time history didn’t matter and it didn’t repeat itself. Portland put six years of history behind and lost against the Red Stars who managed to score just one goal through Sam Kerr before the tenth minute of the match. Again, the Thorns’ attack looked lukewarm and only put just 2 shots on frame out of 11 shots. Not enough when the stakes were so high.

  • But why?

Portland received 10 goals in their last 6 matches while they only managed to scored 1 goal in those six (against Houston). Not only that, they looked like a completely different team since the beginning of September.

But what everybody wants to know is why?

Maybe Gabby Seiler tearing her ACL and getting surgery in August was a factor, maybe it was poor management, maybe the players were very tired from a long year full of international duties, maybe a lack of cohesiveness in the last part of the year was key…

If we go through the numbers and statistics one thing will call our attention: Three big players the team depends on did not showed up this year. And although this is not about pointing out who’s guilty but to try to figure it out what happened.

Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan were not even near to their 2018 version. In the case of captain Christine Sinclair her World Cup was pretty dissapointing and could've influenced the way she play when she came back from France. We don't know what's her game plan for the next year but it is most likely that France 2019 was her last World Cup. And if we're correct, this tournament was a major dissapointment for her.

Heath, who dealt with serious injuries in 2017, hasn't been the same as 2016 Heath. She had a decent 2018 at a club level but in 2019 her season was not good, not even in her services to the box. If we talk about about Horan, the 2018 MVP was benched at the World Cup and therefore she had a dissapointing tournament. Maybe that contributed to her inconsistent season from the beginning of the year.

This season was divided into three parts: Pre World Cup, Word Cup and Post World Cup. Coach Mark Parsons managed to get the team successfully through the first two but fail at the last one, when it mattered the most. And it is the first time in four years, since the coach arrived in Portland, the team ends up the season with a big, red, question mark.

Is it the end of a successful Thorns era? Or is it the beginning of something new and better? There are too many unknown factors right now to give an answer but we can already foresee a new beginning where tough decisions will be made in order to put the team in track again.