Analysis

Full Strength

(in which the Thorns make good with their last full roster until nearly September)

TobinThe Thorns played the first-place Chicago Red Stars at home on June 22 and then flew across the country to play mid-table Orlando on the 26th. The results were a nervous 2-0 win in the first match and a dramatic come-from-behind 2-1 victory in Florida. The unbeaten season continues.

Portland now sits alone in first place in the table, the only NWSL team that can win the league without regard to the results of any other teams’ matches. The points from these two games are very important as we enter a sequence of four matches without our main stars. Amandine Henry is off to France for Olympics preparation camp. Christine Sinclair leaves July 1 as do the USA squad members: Klingenberg, Long, Horan, Sonnett, and (“We’ve Got Freaking Tobin”) Heath.

Chicago Red Stars

We had played Chicago to a draw at their barn ten days earlier. In my match report, I noted that the Thorns played very well and should be confident of a win in the Providence Park rematch. So it turned out, although it certainly was not easy. The match was played on a beautiful evening in front of nearly 17,000 red-clad happy maniacs.

Portland jumped out to an early lead, compliments of constant high pressure. Julie Johnston was working the ball out of the Chicago six-yard box under duress from Heath. She turned away from the press right in front of her own goal, unaware that Christine Sinclair was lurking. Johnston’s touch fell directly to our captain for a brisk one-time shot from close range and the early 1-0 lead.

With the house rocking, Amandine Henry tried to deliver the coup de grace (see that French phrase?) immediately, just missing a headed shot over the crossbar.

Thirty seconds later came the scariest moment of the match as Huerta pounded a hard shot off the inside of the north-end goal’s infamous west post. The bounce barely cleared the east post and the bullet was dodged.

Chicago continued to force the issue with Huerta and Press attacking on both flanks, but it was Portland who got the joy as the second goal was scored from a corner kick earned and taken by Heath. Henry got a firm header on the ball, which then flicked off Nadim’s forehead into the roof of the net from very close range. Seeing it live, it appeared that Nadim had accidentally stolen Henry’s goal. But watching the replay you can see that Naeher was likely getting a hand to Henry’s shot but was helpless after the deflection. It’s also clear that Nadim played the ball intentionally. Regardless, the Thorns led by what would be the final 2-0 score and Amandine had her first point as a Thorn.

Nadim redirects away from Naeher (behind her in the screencap)
Nadim preparing to redirect Henry’s header away from Naeher behind her.

As the match wore on, it became obvious that the Red Stars were not the first-place team by luck. They continued to force the issue all over the pitch. Huerta missed the post just wide on another first-half attempt. In spite of mostly excellent defense by the backline, Michelle Betos had to make several big stops. In the 50th minute, she took out the ball and Julie Johnston with a strong punch; in the 74th she mopped up a mad scramble in the box; again a punch in the 84th on a well-taken CRS corner kick; and finally in the 92nd her only real mistake of the game as a moment of indecisiveness nearly cost the clean sheet.

Hayley Raso came into the match late and promptly delivered a perfect cross which Dagny was unable to touch into the net in the 89th minute. The match was closed out by another spot-on Raso cross, this time to the far post for Weber who is probably still waking up at 2:00 am wondering how she missed such a sitter.

Dagny can't tap it in.
Dagny can’t tap it in.
Neither can Weber
Neither can Weber

Orlando Pride

Four days later, the Thorns were on the other side of the country to play the Orlando Pride. Aside from the brutal travel – recall the team had flown cross-country for the Flash only ten days earlier – conditions were not pleasant in Florida with 90% humidity and a forecast of 90+ degrees. A storm rolled through just before the match and the temperatures never quite matched the forecast, but water breaks were still taken in each half.

The first half was a back-and-forth affair with both teams struggling to connect cleanly in a very congested midfield. In the 23rd minute, Portland finally broke through with a lovely passing sequence leading to Heath burying the ball in the Pride net. But she was called offside, correctly, and the goal did not stand. It was, however, a wake-up call for Orlando who mounted a response within a minute. Betos had her first of two great moments in the match as she blocked a close range shot by Weatherholt and immediately bounced up to push away the put-back attempt from the top of the box by Jasmyne Spencer.

Slightly more than 7,100 sweaty purple-clad maniacs got their reward in the 66th minute as Betos again made a fine punch save, only for Spencer to blast the rebound from distance into the top corner of the Portland goal.

Just a few minutes before then, Tobin Heath had been replaced by Hayley Raso. Heath had her wrist or hand stomped in the first half and then her hamstring tightened up in the second. After the Orlando tally, Parsons sent in Dagny in place of Nadim. The Thorns now had two fresh attackers on the pitch and it soon paid off, but not before Betos came through with her second big moment, stoning Alex Morgan one-on-one.

Sinclair flicks to Dagny. Note the headstart that Alleway (5) has on Dagny (11).
Sinclair flicks forward for Dagny to chase. Note Alleway’s (5) head start.

In the 79th, Dagny scored the equalizer on a fantastic sequence. The play started with a pinpoint 60-yard ball from Emily Sonnett to Sinclair who flicked it on into the path of Dagny. After three bounces, Brynjarsdottir caught up to the ball at the top of the “D” and with her first touch of the game poked it past Harris. The defender Alleway could not match pace with the fresh Dagny. Even though she got to the ball first, the Icelander still had to make a very difficult 20-yard shot.

Dagny finishes from 20 yards on her first touch.
Dagny finishes from 20 yards on her first touch.

Ten minutes later the Thorns twisted the dagger as a long diagonal ball from Christine sent Raso charging behind the Orlando defense. Hayley reached the ball just before the goal line and cut it back toward the penalty spot. In spite of 90 minutes of working in a sauna, Lindsey Horan had made the run and kicked the ball into the far side netting for the game winner.

Raso cuts back for the Horan finish.
Raso cuts back for the Horan finish.

Thumbs Up!

Watching managerial shenanigans in English football, I’ve often wondered if the coach really makes that big of a difference. Is Jose Mourinho truly more likely to return Manchester United to past glories than some other reasonably competent manager? That is yet to be determined, but watching Mark Parsons operate in Portland answers the existential part of the question. Yes, a good manager makes a huge difference!

Parsons has proven to be a brilliant hire. He’s attracted top talent to the Thorns, yet hasn’t alienated the peons making less than minimum wage. He’s got a batch of unpaid amateurs (unpaid interns–Ed.) playing hard when they get their chances, while a superstar like Tobin Heath collects the team’s baggage at the airport. They have fun together. They win together and sometime, almost inevitably, they will lose together. This is not a coincidental alignment of personalities – Parsons knows how to make the magic sauce.

Chicago Red Stars: Picking a WOTM for the Chicago game is a challenge. Do you pick Sinclair, with her third goal in three and second game-winner in a row? Henry for her first assist and an excellent ninety-minute performance with a good-to-bad touches ratio of 25:6? Nadim, with her best ever performance in a Thorns kit, especially on the defensive side of the ball (23:3 ratio)? How about Long with 36:4 or Heath with 38:9 or Horan with 26:12? Maybe Emily Menges, who made Christen Press invisible for 90 minutes?

I’m going with Nadim on this one, but feel free to disagree in the comments below.

Orlando Pride: If ever there was a gutsy team effort and a serious fitness test, it was this match. My WOTM was Tobin Heath even though she didn’t make it past the hour mark. Her touches ratio was 28:4 and she “scored” a disallowed goal early that put Orlando on notice. The Pride didn’t find the net until she was off the pitch. Had she been able to go the full ninety, you have to believe she’d have contributed to the comeback in some fashion or maybe prevented the need for one at all.

Other candidates could be Henry (20:4) who was everywhere, Allie Long being her normal rock-steady self (26:4), Emily Sonnett who marked Alex Morgan out of the match, and of course Lindsey Horan with a ratio of 15:5 and the game-winning goal. You could certainly nominate Michelle Betos who will surely be up for save-of-the-week.

Thumbs Down!

The longer the Thorns keep winning, the harder it is to find things to criticize about the team and players. So let’s criticize the referee instead. In Orlando, we had Ekaterina Koroleva who we’ve seen before. She’s usually a “let ‘em play” style referee, which is not a bad thing. But the 25th was not her best outing. This was called a foul and it cost us a three-on-two breakaway:

thorns-foul

On the other hand, this was not a foul and nearly cost us a star player:

morgan.04

Furthering the non-Thorns criticism, what the heck was Alex Morgan doing? That’s a nasty, NFL-style tackle. Committed out of bounds. On a routine play. Against her national team teammate. Who had done nothing to her to remotely deserve it. Did the star-power of Morgan save her from the red-card she deserved for that? Will it continue to protect her from the multiple-game suspension the league would surely hand to a lesser player making a tackle like that? It’s ugly stuff that lowers my already low opinion of Morgan.

There are, however, a couple of questions about the Thorns. For some reason, Meghan Klingenberg was not in the lineup for the Western New York Flash match. She then was back for the Chicago and Orlando games and played the full ninety. Hopefully she wasn’t benched for attitude adjustment. Maybe she got a little knock, or had personal business to attend.

On Stumptown Footy, questions have been raised about Michelle Betos’ goal kicks. She seems to be struggling with them, so I counted. In the Chicago game, she took 22 kicks from the box. Six were punts that all were well past halfway. The other 16 were kicked off the turf and only one made it to halfway.  In the Orlando match she had four kicks get to halfway, two punts beyond halfway and the other eleven kicks short. All the kicks have had a flat trajectory, almost like a hard long pass. I didn’t count, but the Thorns retained possession in very few cases.

If this is intentional, it’s a very strange strategy. We were having no trouble passing the ball out of the back in either game. Also, Sonnett took the goal kicks twice in the Chicago game and once in Orlando. This is not the action of a goalkeeper with a booming leg, which Michelle certainly used to have. Is this a lingering effect of her nerve injury? We can only speculate, but having goal kicks routinely coming right straight back as attacks is not a good thing.

Hammered Rivets

The Chicago match featured a big, beautiful tifo with a dual message:

Photo credit: Molly Blue
Photo credit: Molly Blue

Also, there were several creative small displays on the walls (photos credit Molly Blue):

 

 

 

 

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The Riveters were their usual loud and proud selves. In the 73rd minute, the Thorns had a close-in free kick. As Tobin lined up to take it, the entire stadium echoed with the P-T-F-C chant. It was reminiscent of some special moments from past games but unfortunately this time the 17,000 were unable to will the ball into the net.

The experience of that wall of furious sound must be incredible for the players on the pitch, even those who’ve been there before. But imagine what it was like for Amandine Henry who perhaps has never heard such unified support in her life. We can hope it’s yet another reason for her to be happy with her move to Portland.

All our players will need that support for the coming matches when we’re so shorthanded. Be sure you bring it hard!

by Richard Hamje

Richard Hamje

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

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4 Comments

  1. kc

    “the only NWSL team that can win the league without regard to the results of any other teams’ matches.” Does this mean that if we lose every match now on, regardless if every other team winning every match, we still will make the playoffs?

    1. Richard Hamje Author

      I suppose that wasn’t my clearest piece of writing, was it?

      No team in NWSL can catch the Thorns at this point if we continue to win. Washington has two games in hand but even if they win both, the best they can do is tie us on points. We now hold the tiebreaker on them however, and also on Chicago and the Flash. Before these past two matches, we were not in a position where winning-out would get us the shield. Now it will.

      I don’t expect us to win every remaining match but, if we do, we’ll be in first place no matter what the rest of the league does.

      What you described would be called “clinching a playoff spot”, which no team will be able to do for at least another month. It appears that somewhere around 35 points will be the playoff threshold. That’s four wins away for the Thorns.

  2. fdchief218

    I’ve got an SRP post coming up that covers a lot of this same ground, but I don’t really come to a much different conclusion. These two matches really locked down Portland’s position as the team to beat in the regular season this year, and the first half might just have locked in a playoff spot. The Thorns would have to absolutely crater in July and September to miss out at this point.

    I need to watch the Orland replay, but from Chicago:

    1. Nadim had by far the best match; she was second only to Heath in her impact on the match – (I adopted your “significant touch” formula while including both tackles for gain as well as being tackled for loss) – and she had the highest positive balance of the Thorns players that went the full 90. She’s WOTM.
    2. I kept track of Betos’ kicks as well. Her loss ration was immense; easily 2-1 against, including an extremely dangerously short boot that Press almost immediately hammered on goal. I noted her backs taking her kicks late in the match as well, so I think she’s got a physical issue.
    3. Kat Reynolds had a hell of a good match. Her positive ratio was also among the best on the team. Other players having a good outing were Henry, Heath, Long, and Sinc. Shocking, that…
    3. A couple of players surprised me with how poorly they fared against Chicago. I thought Horan had a decent match when I watched the game live. Watching the replay, not so much. Very high negatives based on fouls committed and turnovers. Kling had a very meh outing, too.

    I’ll watch the Orlando match tonight and try and have a similar post up tomorrow or Wednesday…

    Nice writeup.

    1. Richard Hamje Author

      After I collected my stats, I found myself wishing I’d counted Thorns possession off goal kicks rather than how far the kick went. That’s what really matters, isn’t it? I’m glad you counted that, because 33% possession off goal kicks doesn’t sound very good. I wonder what the league average would be – 50%?

      The outside backs sure have different styles. Reynolds will push up constantly, yet almost never comes into the final third. Klingenberg will go all the way to the end line on occasion, but mostly sits in at halfway. I think Heath relies heavily on Kling (and Horan) to complete her triangles. Nadim doesn’t seem to have the same chemistry with Kat, and Henry as the third leg is still developing.

      Thanks for the good info! I’ll look for the SRP article.

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