Analysis

Phew!

The Thorns survived a scare on Sunday in one of the more exciting and tense nil-nil draws you could ask to see. The team lost half its starters to national team duty yet managed to fight the nearly full-strength Seattle Reign to a stalemate at Providence Park. It is clear that Mark Parsons has brought the Thorns to a different level than past versions of this squad.

The Thorns were missing Horan, Heath, Long, Franch, Sonnett and Klingenberg to a pre-friendly USWNT camp of dubious necessity. In past callups, involving fewer starters, the Thorns pretty routinely collapsed like a cheap tent in a high wind. When Jill Ellis announced the early callup date, she replaced Laura Harvey as the least-admired woman in soccer for Thorns fans. And when Jessica Fishlock somehow recovered from a broken leg in one month and was ready to play 90 minutes against us, our unbeaten streak looked about to end.

Harvey trotted out a nearly-first choice starting eleven lacking only Rapinoe (out with a long term injury) and Solo (replaced by the very capable Kopmeyer). Parsons fielded five regular starters, the not-100% healthy Michelle Betos in net, three regular subs and two barely used players. The combined single-game payroll for the entire substitutes bench was $379.

Seattle took the game to Portland from nearly the opening whistle. The Reign had 19 attacks in the first half to the Thorns’ twelve. The second half saw the pressure increase with Seattle launching 27 attacks versus the home side’s fifteen. Shots on target were four to two, but all six were tame efforts directly to the keeper. Each team’s best chances came without a shot being registered – three for Seattle and one for Portland.

As is their wont, Seattle played the ball on the ground through the midfield, patiently probing for openings in the center of the Thorns defense. When no opening was evident, they switched the ball out wide and played down the wings, again looking for short passes to the box. Harvey’s scouting must have convinced her that her team were not likely to win aerial battles against the likes of Brynjarsdottir, Reynolds and Menges. The wide attack by the Reign was mostly to their right, facing Meg Morris and Emily Menges. In the last 30 minutes they began working a bit more to their left, running at Mallory Weber and Kat Reynolds.

Parsons set up the Thorns to disrupt and counter-attack. Dagny started as the lone striker with Sinclair behind her and Raso and Nadim on the wings. The speedy Morris, who stood in for Tobin Heath in the prior Seattle match was moved to left back replacing Klingenberg. Reynolds moved to center back and Weber in only her second start was right back. Shim and newcomer Celeste Bourielle rounded out the midfield.

It seems that Parsons’ plan was for Shim or Sinclair to possess the ball and then spring Dagny, Nadim or Raso for a run at the Seattle goal. In the first half this rarely worked as the Thorns midfield was unable to maintain possession. Sequences of more than four completed passes were few, by which I mean one. In the second half, Sinclair was subbed off for McKenzie Berryhill’s first-ever appearance. In a move rarely seen without a player injury, Parsons then subbed Berryhill out after about 30 minutes. Betos was struggling with a nagging shoulder injury, which saw her get treatment twice. As a precaution, Parsons kept his last substitute, amateur goalkeeper Emily Kruger, available to the end. This meant that all the starters except Sinclair played the full ninety.

The two most dangerous moments in the game came late. Seattle had a corner kick in the 75th minute that Betos was unable to clear cleanly. The ball fell in front of goal and Dagny cleared it off the line with Reynolds blocking Yanez’ path to the ball.

Dagny off the lineThe freeze-frame is blurry, but trust me – Dagny booted it well clear.

The key was Dagny’s anticipation. In the screenshot below, you can see that Dagny (11) has taken up a position behind Betos even before the failed punch. Reynolds (2) is glued to Yanez (17) as she should be on set-piece defense. Ball watching by these two would have gifted the Reign a goal.

Dagny ready to clearDagny and Kat doing the right thing

The other big moment was in stoppage time. In the 72nd minute, Parsons had decided to throw some Shade at the Reign as he removed halftime sub Berryhill for Pratt (before you write a nasty comment, I know it’s pronounced Sha-DAY – but I couldn’t resist). It almost paid off twenty minutes later in the form of the Thorns’ best opportunity of the match. Pratt made a nifty poke and got behind the Reign defense for the only clean breakaway for either side in the entire game.

Pratt1Look at all that empty space!

Pratt was probably the fastest player on the pitch at that moment. She charged toward the net with Shim racing up in support and, trailing her, Raso. Pratt took a slightly indirect route to goal ending up by the near post with defenders closing. Shim had run to the far post rather than more central which meant there was no passing lane to her. Had Pratt run more toward the yellow circle in the photo below, and Shim more to the red area, the chance would have been more dangerous by half.

pratt3The ball on its way to the far corner of the 16 yard box, away from goal

With no other options, Pratt’s ball went to Raso at the top of the box (out of frame to the left in the above photo). With a defender on her, Hayley was unable to produce a shot or pass and the opportunity was lost. The final whistle blew moments later.

Ultimately, this was a well-earned draw. The Thorns remain undefeated and proved that they can stay with anyone even with a depleted roster. Surely Seattle came here believing they could return with three points.  But the Thorns showed their determination and executed a smart gameplan very well indeed. Obviously, we’d have all welcomed a goal. But coming into the match a draw was a hoped-for result and a loss seemed a real possibility. For the first time ever, Laura Harvey was outcoached in a Cascadia match.

Thumbs Up!

The entire team showed desire and unflagging effort in this match. Three players were especially key to the result: Dagny, Morris and my woman-of-the-match Emily Menges.

Dagny touched the ball 33 times in this match. Five of those touches were outright mistakes. About half of the other 28 were clearances to nobody in particular, especially in the second half when she had been pulled back to central midfield. To me, this was fine – there often was nobody forward to clear the ball to – and it’s safer to clear a ball upfield than get dispossessed trying something cute. Oh yes – one of those clearances was off the line and saved two points.

Morris also had 33 touches in the game. She handled all but six cleanly. Her positioning was not always perfect, but she compensated with speed. Only once did her marker get behind her but Menges was there to mop up. The worst element of her game was throw-ins. Five times she threw the ball over the target, resulting in a turnover. Meg is very strong and likely thinks she can be an offensive weapon from the touchline but shorter throws have a higher probability of success.

Emily Menges was everywhere in this match. Her positioning was excellent, nay, perfect. She showed considerable strength, several times muscling the powerful Kim Little off the ball. Of 35 touches in the match, she cleanly handled all but four. You simply cannot do much better than 88% wins!

A big honorable mention should go to Celeste Bourielle. In the preseason, she was my most-preferred trialist and I was happy when she was signed. This was her first regular season appearance and she was excellent with lots of energy and fearless play. Her game has improved since preseason; on Sunday she was under control all match and her passing among the most accurate of any Thorn.

I know this is never popular, but I’m also giving a thumbs up to the match officials. The center referee did a fine job with his positioning, calmness, and control of the match. The two shouts for handball in real time both appear much less obvious on replay. Only one card was handed out (correctly) yet there was no escalation in violence – it was a clean game by both sides. Most notably, the AR’s got every offside and out-of-bounds call correct which is something never before seen in an NWSL match.

Thumbs Down!

A couple of key players did not have their best games on Sunday or the result might have been a win. Mana Shim did a lot of running but had very few effective plays. She had only 22 touches on the ball in spite of playing center midfield initially and forward later. Seven of those 22 were misplayed. Some of this can attributed to her facing up to Fishlock for much of the match, but it has to be said that she was second-best most of the afternoon.

Once again, Nadia Nadim disappointed. Her effort has never been questioned, but her technical skills have simply not been up to standard. We see moments of brilliance but far too many simple mistakes and passes to the wrong place, or no place. She misplayed more than half her touches (16 of 30).

Hammered Rivets

There was no special display for this match, but there were some special moments in the stands. First, the crowd was huge. This was the 4th best-attended match in Thorns history at over 18,000. There were even about 50 Reign supporters in section 223 which is surely the biggest away contingent for any Thorns home match.

On a related note, the Reign support was allowed to have a drum at Providence Park. Perhaps now the Reign will feel obliged to reciprocate? Maybe Merritt can remind them ahead of the August 27th match?

Pre- and post-game Jim Serrill (Timber Jim) and friends were selling “Spread the Love” scarves outside the stadium. These support the Red Sweater Project which is improving schools in Tanzania. The sale was a big success.

Share the loveSpreading the Love

If you didn’t stick around after the match, you missed a fun moment. After the rose presentation, Nadine Angerer was serenaded with a chant of “Justin Bieber” as she walked off. [n.b. Last year, Nadine confessed that she was confused as to why the Riveters would chant “Justin Bieber” at the opposing goalkeeper during matches. Of course, she was always at the south end when we sang it and thus had trouble making out the words to “Dodgy Keeper”] Good sport that she is, Sunday’s chant brought smiles and laughter from our beloved goalkeeping coach.

By Richard Hamje

Richard Hamje

Hander-out of Riveters chant sheets, electric car enthusiast, fan of Thorns, Timbers, Chelsea and only lately, Leicester City.

Latest posts by Richard Hamje (see all)

5 Comments

  1. fdchief218

    Interesting; the match report gives Reynolds the credit for the 74th minute clear. I thought Dagny had cleared it, as well, but changed my post at SRP because I couldn’t see the play clearly and the match report gave the credit to Reynolds.

    That said…I didn’t think that Dagny had that good a match. I agree that booting the ball away was…okay. But I would have liked to see her at least TRY and play something forward…

    And that goes for the match as a whole. I know that the story here is “protecting the goal with the US players missing” and I can see how that works. Still…as “weak” as the Thorns were without all out internationals…Seattle may have been as weak as they’ll be this season, too.

    Every passing week gets Rapinoe closer to fitness, Fishlock back into their midfield, their backline more experience working together, and Harvey more time to figure out why they’re sucking so hard right now. Remember…we had all our internationals but Heath two weeks ago in Seattle and could barely manage a draw by a fluke goal on some horrid defending.

    So while I’m…okay…with the point, I’m not “happy”. The backline was solid and Betos heroic; that’s terrific. But…I wanted to see Shim and Dagny and Nadim and Raso and Weber step up and take the match by the throat; they didn’t. I wanted to see Parsons try and take a hack at Seattle while they’re down; he didn’t. I wanted to see that we could win without the US internationals, because we’re going to be here again in July for FCKC (tho hopefully with Franch and, possibly, Long back in the eighteen…). We didn’t…even try.

    Maybe I’m too demanding. But sometimes it takes an ambitious success to define a great team. We played it safe, and got home safe. That’s good…but that’s not ambitious.

    1. Richard Hamje Author

      It was certainly disappointing not to see more coherence on the attacking end. I’m not sure what Parsons really could have done differently though. He fielded the players who need to press the attack – Sinclair, Shim, Raso, Nadim and later Pratt – and they didn’t get it done. All you can do is put them out there and be patient. Hopefully another month of games will see them round into form. Of course, had Pratt and Shim played that stoppage time chance better, we’d be having an entirely different conversation.

      But in the meantime, he wants to keep the team “up” and keeping a clean sheet against a mostly superior opponent is a good way to do it. I think Parsons is taking the season-long view here – this group needs to be confident, coherent, and think of themselves as the “mighty-mighty Thorns”. Not the “stopgap Thorns”. So in the same manner you let your child fall off her bike a few times until she learns to stay upright, Parsons is praising them for their wobbly effort that didn’t end in a skinned knee. Baby steps.

      Also, I just realized that we had no defensive subs available. This means two things: (1) we were lucky none of the back four got hurt to the point of substitution. Who would have replaced Reynolds if she hadn’t been able to shake off her knock? (2) he didn’t have the option of moving Morris forward at the end to speed up the attack because there was nobody to take her place in the back.

      Sure, he could have shuffled the lines, maybe putting Dagny at centerback and Reynolds left back, but that’s an awful risky move with a point nearly in the bag. I suspect had Seattle scored in the 2nd half he’d have made a change like that – we certainly never looked favorites to score against the Reign’s attacking formation, let alone a bunkering one.

      On the clearance, I walked through it a couple dozen times frame-by-frame and at 1/4 speed. I’m convinced it was Dagny who booted it out. Reynolds’ foot was slightly lower, which you can barely see in the freeze-frame I posted. Also her angle to the ball was such that, had it been her foot, the clearance would have been weaker and toward the east touchline.

  2. fdchief218

    Good point about the team morale. For all that I wanted more aggression, from the post-match pressers it was clear that the players were pumped from feeling that they “defended the homeland” against a stronger Seattle, executed the game plan they’d been given, and came away with the point. And in the season-long sense it’s not about me; it’s about team-building and getting to the final match in first or second position to guarantee the home semi.

    The “curse of the Thorns”, if you will, has been that we’ve often been a team of great individual players rather than a great team. I suspect that some or much of that may be due to the quality of the roster; the non-subsidized players look to the internationals to lead and win. If gutting out a home draw can change that, flatten the landscape between the different players, well, that’s a huge positive. That may well be critical to the Thorns’ success this season.

    We have two huge away matches coming up; league-leading Chicago on 6/12 followed by a visit to Rochester and our former coach the following week. I’ve been skeptical of our “undefeated” credentials until now, but…convincing wins over the Red Stars and the Flash? That will go a very, very long way to convincing me that this year’s Thorns have the Sacred Fire…

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