Written by Alok Dadhekar
The Portland Thorns won the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup after defeating NJ/NY Gotham FC 6-5 in the penalty shootout, after the final ended in a thrilling 1-1 draw after 93 minutes of regulation time, on May 8 at the Thorn’s home ground at Providence Park.
The starting lineups and formations were mostly as predicted. Angela Salem started over Rocky Rodríguez for the Thorns in midfield. For Gotham, Mandy Freeman started over Estelle Johnson in central defence, and Sodam Lee missed out in midfield because of an injury. As expected, the Thorns went with their midfield diamond (4-1-2-1-2). But Gotham surprised everyone with a slight but important variation of that by choosing a 4-2 (Jennifer Cudjoe, Allie Long) -1(Kawasumi)-3 formation, which affected how the 1st half panned out.
It was good to see fans in the stadium, even if limited in numbers because of Covid-19 restrictions, making themselves heard which added to the Cup Final vibe. The Thorns were fast out of the blocks - closing down spaces, not allowing Gotham players too much time on the ball, and creating many chances to score goals. Gotham, on the other hand, looked shaky - not being able to keep the ball long enough, not being able to connect with each other, giving the ball away too easily. One such giveaway by Carli Lloyd resulted in a goal by Christine Sinclair, who hit an unstoppable left footer from outside the penalty box. This nervy start could be a combination of things. Maybe the big occasion got to them. We saw something similar in their semifinal against the Chicago Red Stars in last year’s Challenge Cup semifinal, when they uncharacteristically started poorly going 2 goals down, but became better as the match went on. Another factor could be changed formation as mentioned above. Maybe they should have gone with the regular diamond midfield which worked for them so well in their famous win against the North Carolina Courage in the group stage. Gotham did become a bit more composed as the half wore on, but couldn’t create many chances. One of them was promising when Midge Purce stole the ball higher up the pitch on the right, ran forward, and squared it centrally, but Lloyd couldn’t reach it in time. Thorns didn’t slow down a bit. DiDi Haracic produced a great diving save to deny Sophia Smith. And Lindsey Horan’s free-kick just missed its mark and hit the post. Gotham were lucky to go into half time just 1 goal down.
For the second half, Gotham changed their formation to the regular midfield diamond with Lloyd dropping into the free roaming central attacking midfield role. And we could see the impact immediately. There was a lot more cohesion. Twice we saw Lloyd coming deep and sending raking through balls for Paige Monaghan to run onto which almost resulted in goals. Even though they were trailing, Gotham did not panic, kept the ball well, were patient in the build-up, probing for openings, and trying to pull Thorns players out of position. It led to the equalizer in the 60th minute. This team goal involving 9 players and 13 passes shows that when Gotham get their possession style of play right, they are a joy to watch. (Here is another beautiful Gotham team goal with 8 players and 11 passes against the Orlando Pride in the group stage.) The match was more even after this and a lot more end-to-end. Sinclair almost won it for the Thorns in the 85th minute with another left (her weaker foot) footed shot that was destined to reach the bottom-right corner of the goal, were it not for the save of the match by Haracic. Then in the final minute of regulation time, Gotham had a clear cut chance to win the match. In the 93rd minute, Dorsey crossed perfectly from the left, but Ifeoma Onumonu couldn’t direct her free header on target from close range. It was edge of the seat stuff.
In the penalty shootout, Gotham had the initial advantage, when Meghan Klingenberg missed the Thorn’s second penalty. But it didn’t last long, as Cudjoe also hit the bar with Gotham’s third. At the start of sudden death, in the 6th round, Haricic correctly dived left to get fingertips to Becky Sauerbunn’s effort, but couldn’t stop it from going in goal. Finally, in the 7th round, Naho Kawasumi missed, and Morgan Weaver scored to win it for the Thorns. It was really crushing as a Gotham fan; we had opportunities to win it - both in regulation time and in the shootout. But really proud of the team of how they came back from a disappointing first half and competed well against a superior opponent, and at times even outplayed them as could be seen from the plays leading up to the goal, and the last minute miss.
Looking forward to the regular NWSL season, the Thorns have got most things right. The quality of the entire squad, not just the starting 11 is immense. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch is fit again after last year’s injury worries, and in good form. The defence and midfield looks sorted and clicking. The only area of concern could be goal scoring. For the huge number of chances they create, they haven’t got enough goals. Besides, Sinclair, who plays more like a number 10 or a withdrawn striker, the other forwards like Simone Charley, Smith and Weaver while super talented, are still inexperienced. They’ll be hoping they get better as the season progresses.
While Gotham must be hoping first choice goalkeeper Kailen Sheriden recovers fully to start again, that is not an area to be concerned about after DiDi Haricic’s superb display during the Challenge Cup. There is some worry as to how to get the best out of the extremely explosive forwards, with Purce, Monaghan and Lloyd putting in decent performances to justify their starting places. But, when we see either them misfiring, or certain match situations, or particular opponents, that makes one wonder whether it’d have been much better if the other 2 equally good strikers, Onumonu and Évelyne Viens, were on the pitch. While good on both wings, Onumonu really came into her own during last year’s Challenge Cup and more so later in the Fall Series as the central striker, striking up a nice partnership with Purce and Monaghan on either wings. Viens has the potential to be the next Sam Kerr-like Striker. She was drafted last year by Gotham from the University of South Florida where she scored 73 goals and recorded 23 assists in 77 appearances. After the Challenge Cup, where she scored once in mostly substitute appearances, she went on loan to Paris FC in the French 1st division, where she set the league on fire with 11 goals and 2 assists in 14 matches, before being recalled by Gotham for the Challenge Cup. One of her highlights while in France, was taking on world-class Spanish defender and PSG captain, Irene Paredes, and scoring past one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Christiane Endler.
Viens recently made her debut for Canada in the She Believes tournament, and scored in each of the friendlies against Wales and England in the recent FIFA window. She is a complete forward, pressing and harassing opposition goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders, knows how to be in the right place at the right time, makes intelligent runs, is good aerially, and has a sixth sense when it comes to scoring all kinds of goals. Gotham’s midfield and defense needs quality depth to challenge the players in the starting 11. Many fans hope they can invest wisely and strengthen the squad not just for this season, but for many years to come.