Route Two Soccer – North Carolina 1-0 Portland: A Comprehensive Pressing Performance

It ended up a low-scoring affair—a bit of a disappointment after last year’s epic 4-3 semifinal—but this early match between two of the league’s title challengers offered plenty of excitement in its own right. It was defined by a virtuoso team defensive performance from North Carolina, whose comprehensive pressing game put Portland under pressure in every inch of the field, and set up their attack to pounce whenever the opportunity arose. In the end, it won them a late goal, three points, and sole possession of first place.

North Carolina switched to a back three for the game, bringing Abby Erceg into the center of the defense and pushing Kawamura and Dahlkemper to the left and right, respectively. That shift was risky, giving Portland the chance to try and isolate each of Carolina’s defenders, but it more than paid off. Despite a shaky day’s work from Kawamura, Portland was never able to find a way through. That was thanks largely to the swarming efforts of the upfield players, who shut down most attacks long before they had a chance to build.

It was a performance entirely appropriate to the new digs for the team—with this sort of athletic, tireless, hassling game being the longtime legacy of Anson Dorrance’s UNC. Not much flair or fancy passing moves; just brutal pace, aggressive play, and an attacking trio that was out for blood.

The three-back was key to the plans. By shifting the balance of the team forward, it let Paul Riley’s side engage a comprehensive and swarming counterpress. Portland’s backs spent the whole game under intense pressure, which severely limited outlet opportunities to even get the ball up to the midfield trio of Henry, Long, and Horan.

All too many times, Portland was denied passing lanes and ultimately forced into a speculative ball over the top, or into a risky sideways or backward pass. The former generally resulted in losing the ball upfield, while the latter produced more than a few turnovers in dangerous locations.

Amandine Henry is very good, but this sort of pressure is tough for anyone to deal with

And that’s precisely what led to the only goal of the match. Lacking a clear forward option, Portland passed all the way back to the keeper, allowing more NC players to enter their attacking half and further clog up the lanes. A poor pass was almost taken by Mewis, recovered by Long, who then found Sinclair near the center circle. Sinclair then dribbled backward through traffic, returned the ball to Long, who again passed backward into a space that ought to have been safe. Instead it was occupied by a waiting Lynn Williams, who passed to Zerboni, who sent it forward to McDonald, who found the arriving head of Debinha crashing into the box. It was a classic counterpress, executed with brute efficiency, against an exhausted Portland team.

Here is Long’s misplaced pass:

Quite clearly, Long did have options, but none were good. And the error is understandable, given the amount of pressure placed on her to that point. Constant play under stressful conditions leads to sloppiness, and it only takes one errant pass to turn the tide of the game.

Press high and foul aggressively

The pressing game is difficult to handle, particularly when used by a team with such physical and quick players, but it’s hardly foolproof. So North Carolina needed a Plan B for when Portland did wriggle free. And while part of that plan was to rely on the strength and skill of their defenders to avoid getting caught out when the press broke down, the heart of their approach was far simpler: commit fouls, early and often.

The ‘professional foul’ is named that way for a reason, and North Carolina was not shy about employing the tactic where necessary, to avert a dangerous breakaway. But the strategy works even better in the NWSL, where referees tend to call the games quite loosely, and are extremely hesitant to pull out their cards. As it was, North Carolina earned two bookings—one by Kawamura in the first half and another by Mewis in the second—both for precisely this sort of foul. But they will surely be perfectly happy to concede that modest cost in exchange for significantly limiting Portland’s run of play on the counterattack.

The problem of Adrianna Franch

Compounding Portland’s problems on the night was a severe lack of confidence in their keeper. Franch has looked shaky through the preseason and into the opening match, and that was no different in week 2. While she clearly has skill at controlling her box, at the moment she’s a trap waiting to go off with the ball at her feet. In the 24th minute, a weak kick put the ball right at the feet of Sam Mewis, and on a number of other occasions she looked shaky in her clearances.

Against a high press, the option to put the ball back to the keeper is vitally important. Without that ability, the range of play closes down radically, leaving at best a 180 degree field in which to work. With Portland clearly concerned about putting Franch under any sort of pressure, they were often left with an even more tightly constrained set of choices.

Franch is a talented keeper, and has never exhibited quite this range of problems with playing out of the back, so it’s possible this is something she’ll be able to work through. In the meantime, however, Portland is uniquely susceptible to this sort of approach.

The Portland response: long-delayed and mostly inadequate

North Carolina’s choice to employ a back three was slightly surprising, but it was a change more of degree than of kind. The overall setup was precisely what we’d expect from this team: athletic, tough, and aggressive. As such, you would expect Portland to have been prepared for a difficult midfield battle. The addition of an extra body in those channels might well have been surprising, but it shouldn’t have changed the game plan significantly.

And yet Portland seemed bewildered for most of the game, sticking with the same 4-3-3 right until the death. It was well into the second half before Henry began regularly dropping back into the backline to help maintain possession, but even then there was no meaningful shift in the overall setup. It meant that they got far too little mileage out of a world class midfield trio which, for all their skill in possession, was no match for the five or six bodies North Carolina regularly used to block and disrupt. 

There certainly are potential advantages to the 4-3-3 in this case. With three attackers and three defenders, a quick pass upfield creates the potential to isolate each defender and beat them with skill and/or pace. However, Portland made very little progress on this front, with a few notable exceptions down the right flank where Nadim was able to brush off Kawamura and find a good deal of space. None of those attacks ended up bearing fruit, but they suggested a strategy with potential.

Kawamura had a poor game, but Portland didn’t do enough to capitalize

The problem there was quite simple: for all her many talents, Nadim does not possess the sort of violent acceleration or the inclination to hang on her defender’s shoulder waiting to spring into action. Indeed, this is the great weakness of Portland’s whole attack. It’s not a slow group, but none of them are lightning attackers capable of exploiting an isolated defender left covering acres of space. They depend on buildup through the midfield to generate opportunities and unlock space for them to attack. And that’s precisely what North Carolina was denying on the night.

As such, it’s surprising that Portland didn’t shift gears. The 4-3-3 is a close cousin of the 4-2-3-1, and Portland could certainly have dropped back a bit, let Long and Henry settle into a double pivot, and bring the wingers back to the midfield to create a wider range of options in possession. Sinclair is arguably their most skillful player on the ball in tight quarters (at least until Tobin Heath returns), and could have worked very well as a target forward—drifting into the pocket between the back three and Carolina’s central midfield, holding up play, and creating space for the wingers to run into. She certainly was attempting to play that role, but no one else in the Portland side ever seemed to quite realize it.

Abby Dahlkemper is very good

It’s worth taking a moment to note just how good Dahlkemper was on the night. Virtually every meaningful Portland attack went down the other side—where Kawamura was shaky at times and could easily have set up a goal. On the left, though, Portland’s well ran almost completely dry.  That’s particularly surprising given that North Carolina’s right wingback (playing in front of Dahlkemper) was Makenzy Doniak, hardly a noted defender. But Dahlkemper was immense, keeping Mallory Weber and Hayley Raso in her pocket the whole night and even regularly stepping forward to clean up messes in the midfield before they could turn into full-blown crises. Erceg had a solid game as the central defender, but Dahlkemper was the star of the backline on the day.

The puzzle of Debinha

The North Carolina setup has been called a 3-5-2 by some, but in practice it played far closer to a 3-4-3, or perhaps a 3-4-1-2, with Debinha playing as something of an inside forward.

The Brazilian scored the goal, and has widely been hailed as a crucial addition to the North Carolina side. And she provides a useful change of pace from the rest of the squad. But she is certainly not a ‘Number 10’ as many have described her. For fans of the US Women’s National Team, she’s a very similar player to the late-period Carli Lloyd. While she is theoretically playing an attacking midfield role, she frequently wanders all over the pitch. This can create difficulties for a defense seeking to mark her, but also creates problem for a team depending on a defined organizational structure. Her play is mercurial and explosive, but also undisciplined and frustrating. 

For now, it seems, North Carolina has been able to use her as a luxury player, a roving attacker constantly keeping an eye on goal, who is ready to step into the space created after Williams and McDonald have torn a defensive line apart. And in that role, she certainly should be able to thrive. But it remains to be seen whether North Carolina will always be able to afford that luxury.

On Saturday, the exhaustive work from Zerboni and Mewis was enough to hold the central midfield line, allowing Debinha to venture off on her excursions. Against another opponent (or a Portland side armed with Tobin Heath), that might prove insufficient, and Debinha’s roving movement—not to mention her profligacy with possession—could prove quite damaging.

She is an important player, and a strong pickup for North Carolina, something made perfectly clear this weekend. But for all her strengths, there are important weaknesses here, too. It will be interesting to watch how future sides seek to exploit them, and how Paul Riley responds.

About Charles Olney

Charles teaches constitutional law and judicial politics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley