(In which the streak ends, but not in the worst possible way)
The Thorns’ undefeated streak ended on Saturday evening, so now we have that out of the way. FC Kansas City (or just “Kansas” as coach Parsons calls them) did the deed on the back of two Shea Groom headed goals. The final score was 2-1. This was the first match of the season in which the Thorns conceded more than one goal.
The Thorns remain in first place. Both Washington and Rochester won their matches on Saturday (the latter under bizarre circumstances). Should either of them win all their remaining games, the Thorns will not win the league. Since a twelve-game winning run is even less likely than a twelve-game undefeated streak, the Thorns are still in a very good spot.
Thankfully, my biggest fear – a thugfest with multiple injuries – did not happen. For a change, Vlatko Andonovski had his team play soccer rather than rugby against the Thorns.
So what happened?
Amandine Henry was off to France, leaving the team with none of their national team players. Even though she was only the last of seven players to depart, the lack of her calm confidence was evident. You might think that only one player, and a relatively new one at that, could not make that much of a difference. But the scoreline says otherwise.
To the credit of FCKC, they did not play like a team in 8th place with only two wins on the season. They were also missing several key players to the Olympics. Yet they moved the ball around crisply and punished the Thorns for mistakes.
The first half was a dire affair for Thorns fans. The team played very meek football, retreating constantly right from the opening whistle. A couple of key matchups were very one-sided in favor of FCKC and we paid the price. FCKC scored at the midpoint of the half after several excellent chances were well saved by Betos. Shortly after their goal, FCKC nearly scored another as the Thorns could not muster the response we saw in the prior two matches. Our first shot on goal did not come until the 37th minute.
In the second half, the Thorns were much more engaged in the match. We began to possess the ball more, and stopped retreating. In spite of conceding the second goal, the Thorns were the better side. We drew one back in the 76th minute and had multiple excellent chances to draw level. Only very stout defending, especially by keeper Barnhart, kept the full three points for the visitors.
So what went wrong?
First, let’s make the primary reason for the loss clear. Yours truly forgot to wear his Thorns cap to the match.
* hangs head in shame *
For whatever reason, the team played a very defensive first half. Perhaps coach Parsons simply showed too much respect to the opponent. Or perhaps he felt a small lack of confidence in his own lineup with the absence of Henry. If the latter, we can only hope he’s gotten over it. This squad is not very good at bunkering and they’ve proven they don’t need to – we’re better when pressing and attacking. A reminder for the upcoming Houston and Seattle matches…
Overall, this match brought back memories of the preseason match against Houston. The lineup and tactics were similar, as was the result. It’s as if the intervening five months never happened.
The opening 45 minutes of near-misery, aka the first half
The Thorns played like shy rabbits from the opening whistle. As FCKC would bring the ball out of the back, the three forward Thorns (Shim, Raso, Nadim) simply retreated before them. We did not engage with a serious attempt to dispossess until the was ball was well into our half. The picture could have been taken at the start of any FCKC first-half possession.
With the line of initial defense so deep, there was no Thorn upfield to receive an outlet pass. When the midfield or defense took the ball away, they simply booted it clear. There were virtually no forward passing sequences from the Thorns. For 40 minutes, our attack consisted almost entirely of Weber kicking hopeful long balls to nobody in particular. Most of the time, it came straight back as another attack. The first shot on goal for the Thorns didn’t come until the 37th minute, via Shade Pratt. That shot, however, was a beauty. Only a full extension by the tall Barnhart kept it out.
The Thorns midfield was unable to possess the ball. There were no cross-field switches. When the Thorns did venture forward, it was almost always one player making a run with little or no support. Tactically, we looked like a team protecting a two-goal lead. It was reminiscent of the earlier short-handed Seattle match, except this time the Thorns conceded two goals.
The FCKC goal came on a scrambled sequence that started with Erika Tymrak waltzing past Boureille and blasting a shot off the post. McCarty recovered the rebound, beat Berryhill and delivered a pinpoint cross for Shea Groom to head past a helpless Betos. The defense had been in decent position prior to the cross, but Emily Menges made an unfortunate move away from goal as if to help Berryhill deal with McCarty. This left her stranded, marking nobody. Reynolds had good position on Groom but the cross was just over her head. Behind her, Mallory Weber had failed to get goalside of her mark, leaving a small sliver of space for Groom. It was enough.
It’s hardly unusual for a defense to get a bit disorganized in a scramble like that – the Thorns scored their goal in a similar blender. The real sin was letting Tymrak have an open look at the top of the box in the first place.
In spite of being just about thoroughly outplayed, the Thorns very nearly equalized at the end of the half. Nadim pressured Barnhart into an error, quite similar to the effort that Sinclair scored on versus Chicago a few weeks ago. This time the deflection didn’t have enough force to make it to the goal line before a defender arrived to sweep it clear.
So what changed at halftime?
Not the personnel, which was unchanged. But tactically, the Thorns came out aggressively pressing from the whistle. Instead of three Thorns in the FCKC half, there were six. The line of engagement moved all the way up to the edge of the FCKC box. The back four played very high, nearly at the halfway line. The picture shows the difference from the first half timidity.
The effect was immediate – this was the Thorns team we are used to seeing. But the results did not follow. A second goal was conceded – for the first time this season– again on a McCarty cross after skinning Berryhill and again with Weber and Reynolds not marking Groom tightly enough in the box.
Parsons had seen enough. Jennifer Skogerboe was brought in to replace Berryhill. [Could that change have been made at halftime? I’m lowering Parsons’ genius ranking from Albert Einstein to Max Planck.]Unfortunately, her first touch on the ball as a Thorn was a horrific one as McCarty blew past her for a half-chance. After that, Skogerboe settled down and McCarty’s joyride was over. It’s easy to see what Parsons sees in Skogerboe – she is calm on the ball, made excellent passes and knows how to stand up an attacker. I’ll not be a bit surprised to see her start in Houston.
Also in the second half, Michelle Betos basically stopped kicking the ball long. In the first half, she had launched 12 of which only seven ended with Thorns possession. In the second half, there were only five long balls, two of which were recovered by FCKC. Instead, the Thorns played out of the back. The simple unpressured possession seemed to calm the entire team and the ball was moved much more crisply.
The Thorns worked their way back into the match. Shim barely missed with a powerful shot in the 66th and then Kat Williamson poked in a loose ball from a yard out to get us halfway back. That was it, although the last minute of stoppage time was tense for FCKC.
Barnhart for FCKC arranged an eight-player wall in front of Nadim, with the other two out to the right. Nadim tried to hit the corner but skied over the bar by yards. It’s interesting to note on this play that Dagny was sitting in completely open space, unmarked, between the FCKC wall and a cluster of players to her right. Had Nadim faked the shot and delivered a hard pass into that gap, Dagny could well have had a wide-open look.
The last touch of the game was an attempted headed chip over Barnhart by Mallory Weber. It was emblematic of the match – almost good enough.
Two Thorns had very good games: Betos and my WOTM, Mana Shim (it’s so pleasing to say that!). Michelle Betos was excellent in the net, making five saves including a couple of beauties in the first half. Without her effort, this one would have been over early.
Last week I noted that we needed to see a complete game performance from Mana Shim before we could declare her full back in form. Well, this was the week and she delivered. Mana Shim is officially her old self again! Statistically, she had 23 positive touches to only 4 negative. Her long balls were accurate and well-struck. And she very nearly scored a wonder goal.
Watching live, I thought Dagny Brynjarsdottir was having a poor outing. This was probably influenced by two notably bad touches, one a weak back pass that nearly cost a goal (thank you, Betos!). Yummy beer may have also affected my assessment. On the rewind I note that Dagny had the most touches of any Thorn by almost double and most of them positive (33:8).
Shade Pratt had her first start since the preseason and looked dangerous at times. Her defending is tentative, to put it politely, but her attacking speed and ball skills are notably good. Her touch ratio was 14:4, with a 6:0 ratio in the second half as the Thorns began to finally attack cohesively. She subbed out for Kat Williamson in the 57th minute.
It was great to see Kat Williamson back on the pitch after being gone nearly three months. I’d forgotten what an imposing physical specimen she is. Perhaps seeing her took a little aggressiveness out of the tiny Shea Groom. Kat played for 25 minutes with a 4:0 touch ratio and the goal.
Two Thorns were clearly outmatched: McKenzie Berryhill and Celeste Boureille. Berryhill was faced up to Tiffany McCarty who had her number all night long. Both FCKC goals came on McCarty crosses after she beat Berryhill, in the first instance three times in the sequence. McCarty’s effectiveness did not end until the hour mark with the debut of Jennifer Skogerboe. Berryhill departed with a 9:11 touch ratio.
Boureille had to deal with Erika Tymrak in the central midfield battle. It did not go well for her, with a 18:11 touch ratio. As the core midfielder, this is simply not good enough. Rational fans (is there really such a thing?) don’t expect world-beating performances week-in and week-out from rookies. Celeste was great last week, but not this time. More than any Thorn, she bore the brunt of Henry’s absence.
Tymrak came onto the scene in 2013 with FCKC as the NWSL Rookie of the Season and had two caps with the USWNT that year. Her star has faded somewhat in the intervening years but she clearly still has talent. And on Saturday, she simply dominated Boureille and thus the Thorns midfield. Celeste did not even get a touch on the ball until the 11th minute of the match.
Nadim also had a less-than-stellar outing with a 19:13 touch ratio. She definitely had her shooting boots on. They weren’t aimed quite right. Was she trying to win the game all by herself? It sure seemed like maybe she was just trying too hard.
The remainder of the team delivered an average performance. The touch ratios were: Raso 18:8; Weber 18:9; Menges 14:5 (a sub-par outing by her high standards); Reynolds 8:1 (which doesn’t count touches she should have made but didn’t), Skogerboe 10:1 in 30 minutes; and Sam Lofton 4:3 in 13 minutes.
Attendance on this cool, drizzly evening was a bit above normal at 16,942. I talked to several non-Riveters afterward. The general message was, “Obviously I’m disappointed that we lost and the first half was tough. But it was fun and oh, what could have been, at the end.”
More often than most games, the entire stadium got involved, belting out “P-T-F-C”, “Thorns FC” and even once “C’mon you Girls in Red” at key moments. And the Thorns had several of those moments late in the match. The potential to save a point and the streak was a very real right up to the final whistle.
Late on, Hayley Raso was taken down with a hard foul. As she stood on the sideline awaiting re-entry, the “Raso, Raso, Raso, Oi, Oi, Oi” chant rang out. That one is likely now a keeper.
There was an attempt made to generate a “Cat, Cat, Cat, Meow, Meow, Meow” chant when Williamson came on and again when she scored. It didn’t really catch on, as it doesn’t roll off the tongue and also is perhaps too derivative of the Raso chant. More creativity is required.
Speaking of creativity, the elves in the Riveter’s tifo factory produced a few more gems for this match:
I’d predicted a physical match, fearing rough play and potential injuries. Thankfully, I was wrong. I also predicted a 0-0 draw. Regrettably, I was wrong.
Next up is Houston away Saturday at 5:30. Several weeks ago I predicted a win in that match and I still believe it’s there for the taking. Houston’s been terrible, the Thorns came together at the end of this match, and the streak-monkey is off our collective backs. The weather will be awful, projected to be 90 degrees and humid, like every summer day in that hellhole. It didn’t stop us in Orlando and it needn’t stop us now.
By Richard Hamje
Video and still editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje