How Christine Sinclair and the Portland Thorns got their groove back

Craig Mitchelldyer-ISI Photos

The NWSL's most dominant side in 2016 went missing for long stretches this season. Then a new wrinkle unleashed an attacking legend.

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The Portland Thorns came into 2017 with sky-high expectations. Winners of the NWSL Shield in 2016, this year’s Thorns returned functionally the same team that ran roughshod over the league the previous year.

Through the first half of the season, however, the Thorns were a disappointment. With 15 points in their first 10 games, the question for the Thorns after a late-June loss to the Mallory Pugh-less Washington Spirit was not whether they would defend the Shield, but whether they would make the playoffs at all.

Through the first 10 games of the season, the Thorns scored a meager 1.2 goals per game and created a well-below-average 7.8 chances per game. Christine Sinclair, for her part, looked lost.

Deployed primarily as a lone striker, Sinclair struggled to find games and was starved for service.

As a result, the all-world forward played for much of the spring like a borderline starter.

To make matters worse, in the wake of that loss to the Spirit the Thorns faced the loss of Amandine Henry, Nadia Nadim and Dagny Brynjarsdottir to international duty at the European Championship, in addition to a consistent stream of injuries led by Tobin Heath’s season-long back problems.

Just when the Thorns looked their most vulnerable, however, something changed: They got Sinclair the ball.

With player availability forcing his hand as the summer heated up, Thorns manager Mark Parsons got creative. Alternating between a four- and five-player backline, Parsons was forced to abandon the primary 4-2-3-1 setup that worked so well in 2016, but struggled to create and finish chances early in 2017.

Regardless whether Parsons played four or five at the back, he consistently pulled Sinclair deeper, with Hayley Raso and a rotating cast of Mallory Weber, Tyler Lussi, and Ashleigh Sykes above her. By bringing Sinclair into midfield, Parsons got her more involved in the buildup, increasing her passes attempted from 31.7 per game to 41.9, and nearly doubling the rate at which Sinclair created chances.

Sinclair is hardly a traditional playmaker. Unlike the typical technique-and-vision-driven 10, Sinclair uses her striker’s frame and devastatingly soft feet to pick up the ball, shake off challenges and turn the Thorns’ attack toward goal. Most central midfielders can’t match up with Sinclair physically, and with the Canadian international checking between the lines, most center backs won’t dare follow her into midfield.

Without an optimal approach for dealing with a deeper-lying Sinclair, opponents have had to simply throw numbers at the forward-turned-playmaker. And when Sinclair’s gravity pulls defenders toward her, the Thorns’ other attackers have let loose.

Over the course of the second half of 2017, Raso has turned from energetic youngster into one of the most potent wingers in the NWSL. Meghan Klingenberg has exploited the wide space created by Sinclair’s gravity to the tune of a team-leading and career-high five assists.

Team-wide, the Thorns have doubled their assist numbers from the first 10 games, created 25 percent more chances, and averaged 1.7 goals per game to go along with a still-stingy defense.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Thorns’ slow start has given way to winning seven of their last 10 and putting an apparent stranglehold on the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, which would earn them another semifinal at Providence Park.

This success, however, will not spell any more rest for Mark Parsons. With the Euro contingent back from international duty and Heath nearing a return to action, the Thorns’ second-year coach still has some big decisions ahead of him.

Early indications, however, are that Sinclair isn’t going anywhere, and in order to make that happen Parsons has shown a willingness to go so far as to move Allie Long out of the starting XI.

Craig Mitchelldyer-ISI Photos

Craig Mitchelldyer-ISI Photos

Rather than move Sinclair back up top and return to the central-midfield triangle of Long, Henry, and Lindsey Horan, Parsons has elected at least for now to bring Long off the bench and to keep Sinclair tucked in underneath Ashleigh Sykes, Raso or Nadim. It was exactly this approach that Parsons employed when the Thorns earned their first-ever win over the Seattle Reign at Memorial Stadium last week.

We may yet see more changes to Parsons’ setup if and when Heath returns to full fitness. But regardless how Parsons tweaks his approach as the Thorns steam toward the playoffs, it very much appears keeping Sinclair on the ball will remain a central pillar of the Portland’s attack.

And why wouldn’t it? After all, getting Sinclair the ball finally has the Thorns playing up to those lofty expectations.

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