Portland Thorns 3 Sinclair 12’, Purce 24’, 56’
Playing Portland in Providence Park is always a struggle for the Red Stars, and certainly seemed like to be so on Sunday on short rest - Chicago’s fourth game in 15 days. The Red Stars also arrived on a two-game losing skid to two of the worst teams in the league, so getting a surprise turnaround against the league leaders seemed like a tall order, especially at the famed home of the Thorns.
But the emblem of influence the Thorns carry over the entire league has taken an interesting avenue in the past few weeks. Recently, Portland’s supporters have been taking an increasingly vocal stance against the Thorns front office’s insistence in carrying the MLS ban on political banners (specifically those of the anti-fascist Iron Front) into the space of NWSL games, which has no such policy. The Thorns and Timbers front office have said they agree with this ban; the Rose City Riveters do not.
This friction has played out in demonstrations of silence at Timber’s games, and on Sunday the Riveters presented no lack of clear anti-fascist and anti-racist imagery leading up to and throughout this game. The message was clear, and easy to see on ESPNews - racism isn’t allowed in Providence Park, and the Riveters want you to know what they stand for.
But this ongoing discussion has also opened a lot of questions about the function and power structure of all the major players in the ecosystem of American soccer. It perhaps shows the perils of placing a personal sense of morality on what, at its core, is a corporate entity. It also presents a dilemma as to what a moral fanbase should do in the face of pushback from the team they support.
For in times like these, who exactly does raucous support serve? Does it belong to the team’s owner? Is it a relationship with a team’s players? Or does it take a larger stance in pride in a city and in a community? One has to think the latter is the thing that makes supporters feel so passionately about 11 adults shoving a ball around with their feet. The symbolism of victory belongs to the city, and the city is their home. Even I fall into this sometimes - I want to tell a balanced story of this team, but I occasionally have trouble separating what I see on the field with how deeply I care about my city.
Ultimately, in lieu of action from Portland’s front office, an answer to what to do about all of this is a complicated one, and it seems the Riveters are still in the middle of figuring that out. On this particular Sunday, it seemed that the energy of the crowd was one that was making its case with confidence, but they also expected the Portland Thorns to play good soccer, and they were going to support that.
And the Portland Thorns played some pretty good soccer. I think if I were to focus on the Red Stars’ performance at Providence Park, I’d end up repeating a lot of what I’ve said in recent weeks. Chicago looks tired and they look stretched. They’re vulnerable in central defense and got caught ball-watching on all three of Portland’s goals (one of which was a give-and-go shot from Christine Sinclair. Midge Purce scored on two very good deflections). They’ve struggled to cultivate a second attacker to draw defenders off Sam Kerr, and Kerr can’t execute when she’s being triple-teamed. The midfield isn’t fully healthy, and they’re unlikely to be for the rest of the season.
On their bad days, the Red Stars still have a look of a team that wants to possess and build from the back, but are still a little bit confused as to what that means. Chicago had a shot at the beginning of the match, before the weight in their legs completely took over. But they still have trouble moving the ball with purpose in front of their opponents’ goal, and despite coming in strong, Chicago didn’t look any more likely to score against the Thorns than they did against Sky Blue or Orlando.
Some of this is on Chicago - things are not improving enough. They’ve shown they can make the system work when everyone is feeling good, but the way the NWSL season works no one is going to feel all that good until the season is over. If they get a semi-final shot, they can’t let that opportunity go because they’re tired. They have to figure out a way to manage the way they’re feeling right now, and do the basic things well.
But also, just doing the basic things well was unlikely to get them a result today. The Thorns are very good, and they’re flying. The scheduling of this match (like the last one against the Thorns) left Chicago at a deficit, and that’s also kind of what this game looked like. The Thorns are really clicking right now, coming up with even more weapons up top than last year, and defending with a staunch attitude in the back that gave the Red Stars very little space. This game was normal; the previous two make it look much worse.
There was a time this season where it seemed like Chicago might be ready for more than what they have achieved in previous seasons. Now it looks like they’re right where they usually are. The question is whether or not that’s good enough.
The Chicago Red Stars (9W 2D 8L, 29pts, 3rd place) are off next weekend. They’ll be back in action on Sept. 8th at home against Houston.