Why Portland will (or will not) win the NWSL title

Portland goes into the playoffs as favorite to claim a second crown. Richard Farley explains why the Thorns will, or won't, win this year's NWSL title.

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The Portland Thorns were perennial favorites in the NWSL over its first three seasons, but failures of the past two years, plus a massive turnover in the squad and on the sidelines, made people more skeptical. The talent was still there, if not even more so than before, but years of declining results said talent wasn’t enough.

Fast-forward 20 games, and Portland is finally living up to the hype. With Sunday’s 3-1 win in New Jersey over Sky Blue FC, the Thorns secured the club’s first-ever NWSL Shield, awarded annually to the team with the league’s best regular-season record. With elite talents like Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath and Amandine Henry playing in front of the league’s best defense, Portland has established itself as the favorite to claim this year’s title.

In the NWSL’s single-elimination playoff, though, it only takes one slip to fall. The Seattle Reign, winners of the last two NWSL Shields, learned that the hard way, losing the last two finals. Can Portland become the first team to complete a Shield-NWSL title double?

Here’s why the Thorns can … and, potentially won’t:

Why Portland will win the NWSL title

This is, by any reasonable account, the most talented team in the league. It may be the most talented team in the world.

Just consider standouts in the starting XI. Heath is a favorite to win Most Valuable Player, central defender Emily Menges is garnering votes for Defender of the Year, while goalkeeper Michelle Betos is nominated for the league’s top goalkeeping honor. Midfielder Allie Long is among the finalists for the MVP award, while the starting lineup features five other players that traveled with their national teams this summer to Rio: Sinclair (Canada); Henry (France); Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett (United States). Portland has above-average to elite talent at every position on the field.

In the past, talent hasn’t been enough, but unlike his predecessors, first-year head coach Mark Parsons has gotten his team to buy in. Inter-squad dynamics that were greatly simplified with the offseason trade of Alex Morgan delivered a clean slate to the incoming boss. With that canvas, the former Washington Spirit coach instilled an ethos of effort and accountability, one to which the squad responded.

Even more than Portland’s talent, that difference in attitude has been this team’s defining characteristic. The frustrations that laced the club’s first three seasons have given way to a cohesion that would be inexplicable if it hadn't unfolded before our eyes. This is no longer a side of isolated talents playing through a détente. This is an actual, enviable team; the NWSL’s best, right now.

Why Portland won’t win the NWSL title

The flaws are few and far between, but if there’s one thing Parsons should be concerned about, it’s how his “back four” deals with pressure.

The case for ...

Normally when somebody says back four, they’re talking about the team’s defenders. Not here. The back four in question are the four deepest players when the Thorns play out of their end: Betos, Menges, Sonnett and Long. At times, those four have either lacked ingenuity or have been slow on the ball, making them sitting ducks for pressing forwards willing to put in the work.

Two weeks ago against Western New York (Portland’s opponent in Sunday’s semifinal), pressure from forwards Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald kept the Thorns from moving the ball out of their own half for the first 20 minutes. Portland’s centerbacks couldn’t find vertical balls into the Flash midfield, and anytime they tried to get ambitious, Samantha Mewis or Abby Erceg made the pass into a 50-50 ball.

The Flash is an aberration, in that it’s the most athletic team in the NWSL, yet Paul Riley’s team isn’t the only one that’s found success hounding the Thorns’ defense. Last month, in Portland’s last game of the season against rival Seattle, a ball to Sonnett from right back Katherine Reynolds turned into a goal when Manon Melis created a turnover. She ended up going in alone on goal. Two weeks ago, Sonnett nearly made an identical mistake only to be bailed out when Betos made the right read on a dangerous cross.

Eventually, the Flash stretched themselves too far and allowed the Thorns to find Horan in midfield. One Fara Williams-esque ball later, Portland had a penalty kick, as well as a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

Still, that first half-hour of pressure, as well as a final spell that saw the Flash turn a 3-0 deficit into a 3-2 loss, showed how susceptible Portland can be. Without any plus distributors at the back, Portland needs to be very clean in its buildup. Else, teams with athletic forwards -- like Western New York -- might press them into the ground.

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