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Portland Thorns embrace unfamiliar underdog role for NWSL semifinal in Chicago

For the first time, the Thorns enter the playoffs in poor form with no momentum.

Momentum is a bit of a funny concept in sports.

Maybe it’s a real thing — maybe performances and results start to accumulate like a snowball rolling down a hill. But just as often, it’s something that flips out of the blue — a team that has been struggling surges back into form — and that’s no more true than in a parity league like the NWSL.

What’s unusual, however, is that the Portland Thorns are the team hoping their fortunes turn quickly. Under coach Mark Parsons, the Thorns have usually ended their regular seasons peaking before playoffs, and the talk of momentum was encouraging.

But heading into Saturday’s semifinal against the Chicago Red Stars, the Thorns are practically limping into playoffs while the Red Stars have won their last five straight. The Thorns, despite weapons like Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair, have scored just once in their last five games.

If momentum is real, the Red Stars have all of it and the Thorns have none. But Parsons is ready to embrace a new mental approach — momentum is out and being underdogs is in.

“Up until game 19, we could look at the regular season and say we exceeded all expectations,” Parsons said. “Things took a turn and we finished the season not in a place that’s normal to us, but it’s a new and exciting challenge because we’ve got winners here and competitors.”

There is, however, another sports truism at play. The historical trend of the Red Stars-Thorns matchup heavily favors Portland.

Chicago hasn’t beaten the Thorns since 2013, a sample size so large that Red Stars coach Rory Dames said it probably can’t be chalk up as a coincidence. In 20 all-time NWSL meetings, the Thorns have lost just once, and that might mean more than any other narrative. In fact, Dames said it might be what the Thorns need to swing momentum back their way in a first postseason meeting between the two sides.

“I can’t imagine Portland’s not feeling good about drawing us as the opponent with the success they’ve had against us,” Dames said. “If there’s a way to get out of their slump in finishing, they probably feel good about who they have coming up on the weekend.”

Sports platitudes and cliches aside, there’s no obvious favorite given the quality of each roster. The Red Stars have Samantha Kerr, who broke her own record as the NWSL’s best single-season goal-scorer. The Thorns, meanwhile, have the likes of Heath and Horan, who are also arguably a couple of the best players in the world.

But the Thorns haven’t quite looked themselves since the World Cup ended and all the international players returned. The team has looked disjointed, making sloppy mistakes in defense and playing with a direct anxiousness in the attack.

Horan, who was the MVP of the league last year, especially hasn’t had the same impact, and the NWSL semifinal may hinge on which version of the well-rounded midfielder shows up to play.

Part of the problem, Parsons said, is that teams now target her and try to keep her off the ball, where she can serve as the engine of the Thorns attack. But the other issue is that Horan, like other World Cup players, has been unable to maintain the intensity and performance level she had going into what was the biggest tournament of her life.

“In a World Cup year, you can ask that question about every player that’s been away,” Parsons said of Horan’s less successful 2019 for the Thorns. “I don’t think what a single player has done is come back to the league and been superb after the World Cup. Those players have gone up and down.”

Either way, the Thorns do need to improve their finishing. Despite having the highest shot-to-goal conversion in the league at 16.2%, according to Opta, that stat seems heavily skewed by Portland’s early-season scoring prowess. In their last five games, they took a total of 83 shots but scored just one goal.

Parsons, however, dismisses the finishing as worth worrying about too much — the Thorns are creating plenty of chances, and if they keep doing that, eventually some will go into the net.

“We haven’t been the best version of ourselves over the last four or five games, and now we get to draw a line under that and go into tournament mode,” he said.

Despite the lackluster Thorns’ performances of late, the semifinal figures to start fast and frenetically.

The Red Stars have been better than any other team in the league at scoring within the first 15 minutes of games, and they have never lost when scoring first this year. The Thorns are the best team in the NWSL at waging comebacks after conceding first, although they have still only won about a third of the time when conceding first.

More stats, more narratives, more platitudes — but, then again, the postseason is a different animal than the regular season.

“I don’t think any of that stuff really matters,” Dames said. “The intensity level in this game is higher. The concentration level is higher. The atmosphere is different and you can’t really explain it unless you’ve been in it. If Portland has anything, it’s veteran experienced players who know how to win these kinds of games.”

The Red Stars host the Thorns on Sunday at 3:30pm ET, live on ESPN2.

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