(In which the Thorns defy expectations and sate a multitude with one frustrated Fishlock)
On Saturday, the Thorns broke a two-game losing streak with an improbable 1-0 win over the Seattle Reign. For a Portland fan, the game was a roller-coaster of near-concessions followed by almost-chances; then a euphoric moment; then fifteen minutes of nail-biting; then finally relief and celebration. For the Seattle fan, it was ninety minutes of frustration, ending with oh-what-might-have-been and worry about a post-season berth.
The Thorns remain in first place in the league going into the Olympic break. The Washington Spirit are in second place with one game yet to play – a mid-August makeup match in Houston. Should they win that game, Portland will bump down a spot.
The match was played in perfect conditions in front of the largest home crowd of the season.
When Seattle came calling in May, the Thorns were in a shorthanded situation. All the US national team players were gone for a friendly match. Amandine Henry had not yet arrived. With such a short roster, the Thorns played a very defensive game. There were very few shots by either team and the final result was a 0-0 draw.
Laura Harvey, coach of the Reign, was quoted before Saturday’s match saying, “a draw is not good enough.” Clearly she was expecting to face a bunkering Thorns squad again, and had prepared the Reign to break it down. And her team came out looking determined to leave with three points.
The first half had little to offer in terms of chances but was played at a high pace. Seattle had the lion’s share of the possession and patiently tried to play through and around the Portland defense. They were caught offside twice, but most of the attacks ended in a turnover either from a poor pass or tight defense. Michelle Betos made a couple of fine saves in net.
The Thorns had only one serious attack in the first half when they had three corner kicks in a row. The first was played short and was deflected out at the near post. The second was similar and the third was sent longer and was easily dealt with by the Reign.
The opening thirty minutes of the second half was a repeat of the first. Then it all changed with a magical moment as Portland scored against the run of play.
Mana Shim was left wide open and delivered a long ball into a cluster of three players. As she had in Seattle in May, Nadia Nadim outjumped the Seattle defense. Barnes (3) did not jump at all, just as she hadn’t in that earlier match. Pickett (16) was behind Nadim and while she did jump, it wasn’t high enough to get a touch. Nadia nodded the ball inside the far post just out of the reach of keeper Kopmeyer.
Now down a goal, Seattle redoubled their efforts. They put the ball in the Portland net, but the play was offside. A shot from distance by Jessica Fishlock was just inches too high. A fine free kick from Fishlock was well saved by Betos. And so the Thorns survived the onslaught and secured the win.
How Did It Happen?
The Thorns played a unique bunkering formation with two lines of defense and a single attacker, Nadim.
This image is from the very start of the match. Parsons set up the team with a line of five defenders and a second line of four midfielders. A 5-4-1 formation is not unusual, but the way Parsons deployed it was. The lines were quite close together, often only ten or twenty yards apart. And the back line was very high up the pitch. Thus Seattle was confronted by a wall of nine players and very little open space to use.
Parsons also brought out his team ready to play. Clearly the past two weeks have been spent on a very focused message from the staff: play disciplined defense, work hard, be patient, work hard, don’t let Kim Little have any time on the ball, work hard. Everyone knew the plan. Everyone executed the plan. The plan was the right plan.
When Seattle was in possession, there were no Thorns players above the midfield line except Nadim. Essentially, they were invited to walk the ball up to the Portland half and then try to break through from there.
Harvey’s response was to leave only two defenders in the back and push the other eight forward. Initially, the Reign tried to play the ball on the ground through Portland’s lines. After twenty minutes of frustration, they then began playing long balls into the open space between Betos’ goal and the back line of the Thorns defense.
Long balls require a high degree of accuracy. Hit it a little too long and Betos easily scoops it up. Hit it a bit short and the tall Thorns defenders head it clear. Hit it a bit off line and your attacker has to chase it down against the speed of Emily Menges, Kat Reynolds or Mallory Weber. All of these happened repeatedly as Seattle looked for that one perfect delivery.
And here it is again late in the match after Portland had scored. Still nothing changed. Playing this formation requires that every Thorn player focus their full attention and move as a group. With Menges marshaling, the team was able to do it with very few breakdowns.
This video shows one of the rare Portland failures on defense. This came within two minutes of Nadim’s goal. Recall, that the Thorns scored when Shim was left alone to launch a long ball into the box. Here Shim and Fitzgerald commit the same sin, allowing the uncontested entry ball from fairly close in by Pickett. Fortunately, it did not connect. Watching the game live, I thought that Fitzgerald was running out of gas at this point. This may account for her simply wandering around on the play rather than closing down the ball. Parsons subbed her out ten minutes after this, inserting the fresh and speedy Shade Pratt to close out the match.
Another consideration when playing such a high line of defense is getting the ball out of the back cleanly. A short goal kick can be a disaster if the opponent gets the ball between the defense and the goal. We’ve seen the Thorns score goals like this, such as Sinclair picking off a keeper clearance to score on Chicago.
In this match, Betos was excellent getting her distribution long. She had 35 goal kicks, clearances and punts in the game. All but seven were well beyond halfway and none of the seven shorter kicks were cleanly recovered by Seattle.
Aside from formation and distribution, the key to the win was purely effort and concentration. The Thorns were ready to play. They were cohesive. They were committed. And they worked so hard it was surprising they had anything left for the lap around the pitch afterward.
Will It Happen Again?
Our next match is at Seattle on August 27th (get on the bus!). I do not expect a similar match. The Thorns will have a least a few of our national team players back in the squad by then. As a result, we should be able to possess the ball more, and be more dangerous on the attack.
The three points that the Thorns got on Saturday are huge. If we win in Seattle, and if any one of Washington, Western New York, Sky Blue, or Chicago lose a match against other opponents, the Thorns will be guaranteed to finish no worse than fourth and be in the playoffs. So the Thorns will be highly motivated to take three more points off Seattle. Not that we need much extra motivation for a rivalry match.
For Seattle, this loss was a major blow to their playoff hopes. They must win all five of their remaining games, and get help from several others, to make it. Another loss to Portland will effectively eliminate them from the playoffs (depending on other results that weekend, a loss could see them mathematically eliminated). The Reign never hang their heads – even in their brutal inaugural season they always gave maximum effort.
So you have every reason to expect a barnburner. It will be fun.
No Thorn had a bad game, or even a slightly off game. So everyone gets a thumbs up this week.
Our attackers worked so hard in this match! Nadia Nadim probably ran a 10k race in each half. She was always double- or triple-teamed yet posted a good : bad touch ratio of 28:8 – her best yet since I started collecting the statistic in May. And of course, she scored the game-winner. Mana Shim, with the game’s only assist, had a touch ratio of 25:3. And Hayley Raso was her usual energetic self, racing after every ball on offense and defense. Her touch ratio was 28:6.
Special honors go to Michelle Betos who played an essentially perfect game. Outstanding distribution, great saves, excellent positioning and not one judgment error. In addition, she wasted 34 seconds getting her shoe re-tied by Emily Menges.
Kat Reynolds is always steady in the back, but this was a notably excellent effort by her. Her touch ratio was 17:0, she took all the team’s free kicks, and her long throw-in was one of our few offensive threats.
Mallory Weber was in beast-mode, especially in the second half when she had fifteen chances to play the ball and aced them all. Her final ratio was 22:4.
However, my WOTM goes to Emily Menges. Her touch ratio was 23:4 but more important was her constant effort keeping the defense organized. This month has seen her grow fully into a seasoned professional player and a respected captain of the team. I would posit that she should keep the armband for the remainder of the season – she has earned it.
The other player’s stats: Dagny 31:7 (most on the team), Boureille 19:1 in center defense, Skogerboe 21:7, and Fitzgerald 13:9. Pratt and Berryhill came on late and didn’t factor.
Mark Parsons sees his genius level return to the Einsteinian heights. If he can successfully re-integrate the returning Olympians for the final run of matches, he will be breathing the thin Newtonian air.
My predictions for July, and for this match, were all wrong. To recap, the predictions were:
Sky Blue 0:0 draw (actual result, 2-1 win)
FCKC 0:0 draw (actual result, 1-2 loss)
Houston 2:0 win (actual result, 0-3 loss)
Seattle 0:1 loss (actual result, 1-0 win)
I was hoping for a five-point month, but it was actually six points. That one point may yet prove to be crucial to having a home playoff game, or even winning the league.
This was the biggest crowd of the season to date: 19,231. The Thorns’ three best-attended matches this year have all been when our national team players are gone.
Clearly, the fans are not coming to see the “stars”, but rather to support the team when they need it most. In the post-game interviews, all the players and coach Parsons noted the importance of that support. Home field is a very tangible advantage at Providence Park this season.
The loudest moment was when Nadim scored. Deafening in person, the roar could surely be heard at Waterfront Park. On the video, the announcers were completely drowned out. The noise level over the nervous final fifteen minutes that followed grew in a steady crescendo. Each Seattle threat was met with a wall of sound. And when the referee’s full-time whistle sounded, the roof was raised again. The phrase “gameday experience” doesn’t do justice to the emotions in the stadium this day.
Here’s a fun moment when Nadia gets video-bombed.
As per usual, the tifo factory churned out a few new treats for this match (click the images to expand):
The Riveters’ buses to Seattle leave at 8:00 am on Saturday August 27th and we’ll be home by 9:00 pm. It’s affordable and a ton of fun. I hope to see you then!
By Richard Hamje
Still and video editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje