The Boston Breakers lost 4-1 to the Portland Thorns in their first game of the season, something which longtime Boston fans can only find ominous based on seasons past.
The game started at a high clip with the Thorns pressuring hard in a 3-6-1, taking advantage of a glut of talented midfielders, with Alex Morgan up top. It was not Morgan, however, who threatened the most that night. Allie Long took the lead, along with Mana Shim, with backup vocals by Sinead Farrelly. All of Portland's midfielders were fairly active, but the same could not be said of Boston even after the first fifteen minutes when the game slowed to a more controllable pace.
Coach Tom Durkin opted to start the team in a 4-1-4-1, relying on Rafinha and Suzane Pires to pull strings in the middle with Kristie Mewis and Ketlen Wiggers on the wings. Wiggers was nominally listed as a forward but the team played more as though Stephanie McCaffrey was their lone striker.
Most of the attack in the first half went up the left through Mewis. The defense attempted to send a bevy long balls direct in an attempt to bypass the at-times congested midfield, but could never quite find Mewis or McCaffrey. Wiggers seemed hesitant in her role on the right, which is hopefully just some combination of opening day nerves and needing to adjust to the physicality of NWSL. Both of those things are fixable, and with time and practice, perhaps Wiggers and Maddy Evans can find their rhythm to create combination play up the right and provide service into the box.
By the end of the first half the Breakers' midfield was a non-factor and it was evident the team needed more options in the attack. Durkin attempted to spark that attack with the substitutions of Bia and Amy Barczuk for Pires and Wiggers. Both subs were being used as defensive mids in preseason but perhaps Durkin was hoping that they would use that mindset to get stuck in on the attack. Bia did manage to generate some play, but the Breakers kept getting dispossessed and sent back into their half without having managed to threaten Thorns goalkeeper Michelle Betos.
McCaffrey was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary evening. The rookie scored her first pro goal in her debut game under less-than-optimal circumstances in the 63'. With the Thorns up by two off goals by Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, McCaffrey received the ball at the top of the 18, and with three red jerseys between her and the goal and more bearing down on her, stayed calm to pick out the far corner of the net.
McCaffrey was also seen tracking back on defense several times, once coming nearly all the way back to the goal line to harry her mark. That work ethic married with a nose for goal may see another breakout rookie season a la Jazmine Reeves.
Boston didn't find any momentum from cutting the Thorns' lead in half. Instead, Long scored back-to-back goals in the 72' and 73', each time off good balls from Shim. Morgan Marlborough subbed in for Katie Schoepfer after the brace and managed to connect with McCaffrey here and there, but in the end was unable to threaten.
The scoreline could have been worse, but Alyssa Naeher was smart off her line on a couple of breakaways, doing enough to cut off the attacking player's angle and forcing them to the endline for goal kicks.
The 90' found the Breakers still sending long balls for McCaffrey. Admittedly, with six midfielders in the way and their midfielders not finding each other's feet, skipping the midfield entirely wasn't the worst idea. But it lacked in execution and seemed to be the only tool available for long stretches of time. Evans and Pathman dutifully made their runs down the flanks—looking at Evans still trucking her way into the Thorns' attacking third at the end of the game, no one can argue there was lack of effort—but there was still limited service from wide. Connectivity through the midfield dried up. Mewis was less effective in the second half, denying the Breakers even the option of trying to overload the Thorns there and hit McCaffrey or Marlborough on the switch.
Admittedly, the Breakers did test Betos in the first half. She made good saves off long-distance attempts by Schoepfer and Mewis and was quick to smother an awkward header under pressure from Rachel Van Hollebeke. SOGs show the teams nearly even, with Boston at seven and Portland at eight, but Portland's chances and finishing were better.
Boston next plays at home against the Houston Dash, who just enjoyed a 2-0 victory over the Washington Spirit. The Dash will likely come to Boston with their own troublesome midfield in the form of Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian, who combined with Kealia Ohai all night to give the Spirit fits. Thanks to a bye week, the Breakers have over two weeks to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. It was, after all, only the first game of the season, and there remains plenty of time yet to find their legs and patch up the holes.
A special mention goes to Kassey Kallman, whose heroic effort at recovering off a giveaway and making a clearance off the line in the 20' sent her sprawling face-first into the back of the net. Here's hoping you don't have to do that again for the rest of the season.