Despite major strides in 2016, Thorns left with empty feeling after semifinal loss

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

Arguably the best team in NWSL history succumbed to the reality of playoff soccer on Sunday, Richard Farley writes.

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

PORTLAND, Ore. – Streak, pattern or curse, it all means the same when it comes to the National Women’s Soccer League’s regular-season champions. Every year since the league started play in 2013, the team which claimed the NWSL Shield after finishing first in the regular season has failed to win the overall title.

That continued Sunday with the Portland Thorns’ 4-3 extra-time semifinal loss to the Western New York Flash, marking the first time the Shield winner didn’t make the final. Though the Thorns’ league-best defense faltered against Western New York, the Flash performed at a level that even its head coach Paul Riley had to admit “showed a little bit more than anybody could have expected.” Credit where credit is due.

“I thought they were at their absolute best tonight …,” Thorns’ head coach Mark Parsons said. “In a very emotional, fast exciting game …They deserve to be moving on, because when you’re at your very best, you put yourself in a place to win a game.”

The implication, though, is the Thorns weren’t at their best. The Flash’s speed and athleticism give the team an unparalleled ability to pressure its opponents. Portland had successfully dealt with that approach in two regular-season triumphs, but on Sunday, the playoffs’ top seed was unable to match the Flash’s level.

“There are other times where even good organization and great individual ability from our players happen, and [the Flash] still get half a chance,” Parson lamented. “That’s what happens when you put the ball in the box. It’s tough to deal with. When you concede the goals we did tonight, it shows how dangerous they can be.”

It also highlights the precarious nature of single-elimination tournaments. Over the 21 games each we’ve seen Portland and Western New York play, it’s difficult to conclude that the Flash is the better team. Sure, the Flash scored a league-high 40 goals in 20 games, but the Thorns conceded only 19, collecting nine more points with a tougher schedule thanks to the imbalanced regional rivalry games.

But that also isn’t the point. Coming into each campaign, every team knows that, come season’s end, it will need to win two 90- or 120-minute one-offs. Fall short, and you can’t call yourself a champion.

“Everywhere else in the world with soccer, you win the league, you win the league,” said Thorns captain Christine Sinclair, who helped the Thorns win the inaugural title after they finished third in the regular season. “Whereas I think it’s unique in North America that playoffs are the big thing.

“It makes it interesting, because soccer is funny game. Anybody can beat anyone on any given day. I think you saw that today. We beat Western New York twice during the season, and they come into our house and beat us.”

It’s an elementary point, but it’s an important one when evaluating Portland’s season. The team made massive strides, improving on 2015’s sixth-place finish to claim the NWSL Shield. The team earned its first playoff home game in franchise history, though that honor also entails an expectation. Beyond the club’s unmatched talent and enviable resources, it was the No. 1 seed in this three-game tournament. And ultimately, the team ended the season without fulfilling its potential.

Parsons, 30, remains optimistic about the team’s turnaround.

“It’s been a great season,” he explained, confidently if with a note of dejection. “If I could have dreamt about what a great season looked like, I probably wouldn’t have dreamt it looked this good. It’s been fantastic.”

And in light of the problems Portland was plagued by in the past, the 2016 team made at least one obvious, undeniable improvement.

“I think the group has set the standard for what a team looks like,” Parsons said, “and there are a lot of players here, (as) a whole roster, who’ve played a major role in making sure we move forward every day. And that’s what good teams do. Good teams move forward.”

On the field, moving forward may be a matter of continuity. Having overhauled its roster last offseason, and with seven players away with their national teams during the Olympics this season, Portland faces a 2017 campaign in which the bulk of its roster will remain in tact. Forward Nadia Nadim and midfielder Dagny Brynjardottir will miss time at the European Championships, but for the first time since 2013, most of Portland’s core will stay together throughout season.

That’s all Parsons could ask for from an offseason, but on the back of three straight semifinal losses (two at his previous club, the Washington Spirit), the first-year coach has yet to show he can get a team over the postseason hump. But just as he cautioned the Thorns this preseason not to dwell on the past, Parsons plans to focus on what he can control.

“I don’t believe those things are anything our mind or energy can spend time on,” he said when asked about his playoff record. It’s a version of the message he’s preached to his players, one that he now gets to remind himself. Attitude, energy and focus are what you can control, and they’re the qualities that have been written on the board all season.

“We’ve got to focus on doing the things that can get us there,” he said. In this case, “there” means getting back to the top of the league.

More features from FourFourTwo USA

Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.