(in which the Thorns take a step backward, but it was closer than it seemed)
The Thorns went to Houston and came away on the wrong end of a 3-0 result. It was our second loss in a row after twelve unbeaten. Both losses came against teams with only two wins on the season, until they met us.
While the table shows us still in first place, other results mean that the Thorns can now be overtaken by both the Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash in the race for the league title.
The game itself – first half
Houston, as we all know, is a hellish place. It was especially so this night: 91 degrees and very humid at the 7:30 pm kickoff, “cooling” off to 86 degrees by the end. The Thorns had played in similar conditions a few weeks ago in Orlando, on artificial turf, and prevailed. For long stretches of this match, it appeared we might do it again. Alas.
For the first thirty minutes, the Thorns were pretty woeful. Passes were misguided, underhit, overhit. Houston was tackling the ball off our team regularly but we were rarely returning the favor.
In the third minute, Hayley Raso found herself in the Dash box but could only roll an easy ball toward the Houston net. This was to be our only official shot on goal of the night. A few minutes later, Daly scored for the Dash. Ohai (more on her later) beat her marker (more on her later also) and sent a cross into the box. The first Dash player whiffed on her shot attempt, but the ball kept rolling to Daly who put a hard shot just out of Betos’ reach off the crossbar. Betos was somewhat obstructed on the play by Kat Williamson who was on the goal line instead of covering Daly.
This was Houston’s first goal in seven matches dating back to early May.
At the fifteen-minute mark it was Raso for the Thorns again, this time picking off a weak back pass near the Dash penalty spot. While she might have attempted to go around Houston’s backup goalkeeper Henninger, Hayley instead poked a quick shot that missed wide by several feet.
Less than a minute later, Houston should have had a second. Again Ohai delivered an uncontested cross, this time to O’Sullivan who somehow missed the net wide from dead-center three yards out.
Ten minutes after that miss, it was Portland’s turn as Celeste Boureille put a lovely penalty-dot layoff from Nadia Nadim into row Z.
It was then time for the first-half water break. After that break, the pace of the match slowed somewhat. The Thorns began passing the ball more effectively and neither team had another open chance until well into the second half.
Just before halftime, Kat Williamson began struggling with her right quad and was subbed off for Sam Lofton. Opening the second half, Shade Pratt replaced Maureen Fitzgerald who had made her first-ever start in a professional match. Of course, she is not a “professional” herself since she was not paid for her efforts, but she will have some stories to tell her students when she resumes teaching the 6th grade this fall.
The game itself – second half
Not a lot changed in the second half. The Thorns did look more organized with crisper passing and fewer simple errors. However, there was still no answer for Ohai who continued to skate around the corner at will. And in this half there were no serious threats made on the Henninger’s goal.
In the 68th minute a cleared corner kick fell to former Thorn Becca Moros, whose shot from distance was unhappily deflected to former Thorn Amber Brooks who tapped it into the net from close range. This was the first time that the Dash had a two-goal lead in a game this season.
The Thorns continued to press for opportunities, but the more we committed forward the more Houston’s counter-attack was effective. In the 72nd Ubogagu scorched the defense and forced a fine save from Betos. After the water break Ohai was back at it except this time it was converted – by her. For only the second time in the team’s short history, the Dash had a three goal lead.
The controversial bits
It’s a very rare NWSL match without some questionable officiating. Watching the match with a bunch of Riveters, there was quite a bit of complaining that the calls were going against us all night. And examining the replay this was, in fact, the case. According to the statistics, there were 14 fouls called on the Thorns and 11 on Houston. Moreover, two that were called against the Thorns were actually for fouls committed by Dash players. In the end, this did not affect the outcome of the match but it’s frustrating.
In the 70th minute, the referee blew the play dead for a Portland foul while we were in possession near the offensive third and mounting an attack. It was a textbook advantage call, but she killed the Thorns’ momentum by whistling a free kick.
The bigger complaint was on Amber Brooks’ goal, Houston’s second, which looked to be offside. We finally found an angle which shows that the call was close but correct – Brooks (12) was held onside by Lofton (32) as the ball was kicked.
Both teams were extremely shorthanded for this match. Houston lost seven players to the Olympics including striker Carli Lloyd, midfielder Morgan Brian and Brazilian midfielder and dead-ball specialist Andressa. They called up seven unpaid interns. The Dash played a 4-4-2 formation but with four forwards in the lineup. These speedy players made the difference.
Portland was also down seven key players to the Olympics, but perhaps most telling was the eighth – Dagny Brynjarsdottir had a family commitment in Iceland. This left us with only one seasoned player in the midfield, Mana Shim. We played a 4-5-1 formation with Nadim alone up top.
Randy Waldrum made the most of his assets in this match. Ohai and Ubogagu were able to blast past the Thorns fullbacks at will. Take a look at Ubogagu finding another gear and leaving Jennifer Skogerboe in the dust.
Ohai similarly was skipping past Skogerboe and Lofton with a combination of speed and tricks, but mostly speed.
Mark Parsons tried to compensate. Emily Menges often stepped out to help her fullbacks deal with these threats. Unfortunately, Reynolds did not do the same on her side.
Celeste Boureille was the attacking midfielder, Mana Shim was the defensive midfielder. Shim was playing extremely deep, almost as a fifth defender. She was often at the edge of our box to receive the ball and advance upfield. This left the two central midfielders 30 or more yards apart, which forced longer passes, which equated to lots of turnovers. For the first 30 minutes, it seemed that the Thorns could not put a passing sequence together because the back players were always attempting long balls.
The adjustment was for Shim to carry the ball forward and only start the attacking passing sequences once we had the ball near halfway. This worked better.
The tandem of Boureille feeding Nadim had a tough night. Waldrum surely had identified Nadim as the danger and Boureille as the weak point. Houston was double-teaming them both as soon the ball came near Boureille. This gave Celeste no time on the ball and no passing lanes forward. Rather than passing to the wings, or even back to Shim, Boureille tried to force the ball to Nadim. It simply did not work.
In retrospect, it seems that Shim might have been the better choice at attacking center mid. Mana’s passing is accurate and she sees the passing lanes better than Boureille did. Coach Parsons may have put too much faith in the rookie. Or to put it another way, he may have asked too much of her under trying conditions.
Oh, how we missed Dagny! Our set piece defense was much weaker and our attack anemic without her. Maureen Fitzgerald tried to make up the difference, but essentially all we had was Raso on the left wing and Nadim chasing up the middle. Unsurprisingly, the unpaid intern wasn’t a straight replacement for the professional international.
What it means for the standings
The Thorns now sit tied with the Washington Spirit at the top of the table and WNYF is one point back. We have one more match before the Olympics, versus Seattle. The Spirit have three more – Sky Blue twice and then at the Dash. The Flash have two more – FCKC and at the Dash.
Even if we win the Seattle match, we will need losses by the other two teams to remain in first place. The Dash can do us a big favor by winning their next two home games.
I had predicted a win in this match for the Thorns, but obviously was wrong about that. My earlier long-term prediction was for the Thorns to take five total points from the four July matches and be sitting in second place when the Olympic Games wrap up. We have three points now so we can’t possibly get five. Should we beat the Reign and get six, the month will be considered a success and there is a reasonable chance that we actually will be in second place. Should we end with three or four points on the month, we’ll most likely be third.
It’s tough to give a WOTM award when we lose badly, and perhaps tougher still to give it to the goalkeeper, but Michelle Betos gets my nod. The Thorns had a good chance of getting back in this match up until the 80th minute in large part to her efforts. She made several splendid saves. None of the goals were anything she could stop. She made no errors in judgment or execution.
I’m never going to hate on an unpaid intern. Maureen Fitzgerald actually had a good performance with a positive to negative touch ratio of 5:1 for her 45 minutes. While you’d certainly want to see a forward have more than six touches in a half, you cannot complain about quality.
I was surprised to see that our two central defenders had decent numbers in this match. How do you put up ratios of 13:2 (Reynolds) and 16:7 (Menges) and concede three goals? Partly by errors of omission that don’t get counted, such as Reynolds not getting out to cover the flanks, and partly when the goals are attributable to other players not marking well.
Mana Shim had a rough first half (6:7) but was much better in the second (11:2). Had she been the forward midfielder, her contribution might have been noticeable on the score sheet also.
Lastly, recognition is owed to Mallory Weber for her evening. She had a ratio of 11:4 and put in a hard shift from start to finish. Her game has improved every week and she makes a good claim for meaningful minutes over the rest of this season.
You can’t coach speed, as they say. And Jennifer Skogerboe clearly doesn’t have it. When you know you’re beaten for pace (like me, in every rec league game) you have to play your position smarter – stay a bit deeper and retreat a bit sooner. Jennifer didn’t do this and was torched repeatedly. Her touch ratio was 13:10 and she was on the hook for two of the goals. But for all her pushing forward, her offensive contributions were few. Clearly she still has some adjusting to do.
Nadia Nadim had her second bad outing in a row. Simply put, she is not the horse this team can hitch its wagon to. She plays well when she’s supported by players like Henry and Heath, but when it’s all on her shoulders she disappoints. Her final touches ratio was 13:13. It was not all bad for Nadia as she set up several good chances that got wasted.
Poor Celeste Boureille – once again thrown into the frying pan and once again seared. She had the most negative touch ratio on the team (12:15). Nadim set her up with an open look at goal but her shot went into the second deck. So even her one chance for glory was missed – she must be very frustrated.
To round out the team, the ratios were 5:4 for Kat Williamson for her 44 minutes, 13:10 for her replacement Sam Lofton, 14:9 for Raso and 2:3 for Shade Pratt. McKenzie Berryhill came on at the end but had no touches.
Mark Parsons gets his genius rating knocked down another notch this week. It was clear to all that our fullbacks were being beaten like rented mules, yet he continued to push them forward. Yes, we were chasing the game. But isn’t it better to be chasing one goal with six attacking players than trying to make up two and then three goals with eight attackers? Also, I argue that giving Boureille some relief was called for at halftime if not sooner. He could have moved her back and Shim forward, for example. Or played them side-by-side where they could interchange and support each other. But instead he apparently just asked her to try harder.
As is usual with road games, any Riveters in attendance were not shown. I know of one group from the Lone Star Brigade who made a three-hour drive to attend their first Thorns match. There may have been others, as LSB is pretty large and active. The announced attendance was 5,661 which is not too shabby considering the conditions.
The Dash broadcast was the most professional I’ve seen this season – at least on a par with ours. The game was well directed, the video quality and internet feed was top-notch, and the announcers were prepared. They also weren’t total homers. The general quality is attributable to the fact that Dash matches are broadcast on regional TV (CSN) in addition to YouTube.
I noticed two particular tidbits from the broadcast to give you an idea. The color commentator, Jen Cooper, was discussing Hayley Raso and noted she’d heard the Riveters “Raso, Raso, Raso, Oi, Oi, Oi” chant while watching our home games. And during halftime, the broadcasters were doing a promotional bit about the NWSL championship match which will be at BBVA Compass Stadium in October. Cooper, saying that fans come long distances for the Final, mentioned the impressive number of Riveters in Rochester for the 2013 Final.
It’s gratifying when a non-Thorns soccer person notices the things we do.
We now have a two week break, and then the Reign visit for our final match until the end of August. Let’s go out with a bang!
By Richard Hamje
Still and video editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje