“She who does not walk against the arrows cannot talk about the strength of her shield”
paraphrasing Mehmet Murat ildan
The Thorns played an energetic and organized match in Piscataway, New Jersey on Sunday and came away 3-1 victors over Sky Blue FC. Thanks to a late-season collapse by the Washington Spirit the win gave the Thorns the NWSL Shield as the first place team. There were no injuries. For the Thorns, the playoffs begin on Sunday, October 2nd at 2:00 pm when the Western New York Flash will come to Portland to try their luck again.
Sky Blue was eliminated from post-season contention several weeks ago and their lack of interest in the match was clear from the opening whistle. It was not until the clock read 30:40 that they managed to connect two passes in Portland’s half of the field. But surprisingly, they held a 1-0 lead at that point.
The Sky Blue goal came from a rather bizarre sequence of events. The play began when Tobin Heath was fouled near the Sky Blue box. However, the referee who was standing right there did not see it as a foul. Play continued as Tobin pleaded her case. Meghan Klingenberg attempted a pass that was cut out by the referee and fell directly to Sky Blue. A long ball was sent to Samantha Kerr in the Thorns half. She passed to Tasha Kai who sent a looping ball toward Betos’ goal. It was cleared for a Sky Blue corner kick. Kelly O’Hara made a perfect delivery to the far post that Kai headed in for the opening goal.
That was effectively Sky Blue’s last contribution to the action until the 86th minute. The Thorns were winning every ball and immediately recovering from every miscue. Portland had countless sequences of ten and fifteen and twenty passes with nary a challenge attempted by Sky Blue. In the 41st, Sky Blue did try a challenge and Heath drew a free kick about 28 yards out. She delivered a fantastic ball that Allie Long headed in from six yards. From the available footage, Long may have been a half-step offside. However, two Sky Blue players were not visible and there were no complaints, so the no-call may have been correct.
With that kick, Tobin Heath set the all-time assist record for an NWSL season with ten.
In the second half, Sky Blue put up a bit more resistance but their passing was still sloppy with many balls going directly into touch or to a Portland foot. Their strategy relied on sending long balls behind the Portland defense but the execution was not good. Kai was ruled offside repeatedly and the Portland Emilys swept up the rest with relative ease. Sky Blue lacks a truly speedy attacker, something they will need to remedy in the off-season if they are going to be a contender in 2017.
The Thorns continued to press high. In the 57th, a failed tackle on Heath let Amandine Henry send Nadia Nadim down the left side in open space. Nadim reached the end line, stopped the ball and calmly sent a pinpoint cross into the Sky Blue box which Lindsey Horan was able to head past the helpless Caroline Casey.
Speaking of Casey, she had a rough night distributing the ball. Her goal kicks lacked distance and her passes were often picked off. This was part of the reason that Portland gained so much possession – Sky Blue was constantly back-pedaling as yet another clearance failed to actually clear.
Hayley Raso replaced Christine Sinclair in the 83rd and her first touch was a cross to Allie Long for the third Portland goal.
Sky Blue seemed to find their spines after this setback and nearly scored two minutes later as both Meghan Klingenberg and Michelle Betos were beaten by tricky moves from O’Hara. Kat Reynolds was there to sweep the ball away from the empty net and clear. In the final minute of stoppage time Coach Parson made his third substitution for time-wasting purposes, sending Kat Williamson in for Klingenberg. So it happened that the Thorns finished the season with a back line of Kat-Emily-Emily-Kat — a nicely symmetrical touch.
For the third match in a row, the Thorns roster was excellent from top to bottom. This is an encouraging sign leading into the playoffs. Working forward from goal:
Michelle Betos had a very quiet night. For long stretches of the match she could have curled up with a nice cup of tea and knitted some rows onto her winter sweater. Her final good-to-bad touch ratio was 5:2. She only attempted two long goal kicks, both well struck, and had only three Sky Blue corner kicks and three shots to contend with.
Emily Menges had a good match after struggling a bit against the Flash. Her ratio was 10:2. Emily Sonnett had one of her best outings of the year with a ratio of 12:1. In addition to playing near-perfect defense, Sonnett had several forays forward and made some nice long passes from the back.
Meghan Klingenberg had a good evening with a 10:4 ratio. Her link-up play with Heath is something special and was on clear display this night. She spent more than half the match in the Sky Blue end of the field, dishing off short passes. Kat Reynolds on the other side was not so adventurous but had another quietly spectacular match. Her ratio was 11:0, best on the team (how could it have been better?), and she cleared the line on the late goal attempt by Sky Blue. I think her long throw has gotten even longer in the past couple weeks, as she launched several all the way to the penalty spot.
The Thorns midfield controlled the flow of the entire match. Amandine Henry (21:3) and Allie Long (24:4) took turns playing the deeper role. Obviously Long got forward more — often enough to score her brace — but Henry had some moments of attacking especially on set pieces. Lindsey Horan (22:6) scored a goal and had a couple other attempts saved. My WOTM was Tobin Heath (32:5) who finds another gear when honors are on the line. She seems determined to carry this team to the title as she did in 2013.
Christine Sinclair had a scary moment when she took an elbow to the face but she shrugged it off and played 83 minutes with a 10:4 ratio. When she got off the plane in Portland, her nose appeared to be its normal straight self and she had no black eyes. Her replacement was Hayley Raso who had a 5:0 touch ratio including the assist on her first. Nadia Nadim had a fine assist on the second goal and several attempts herself. She finished with a 16:5 ratio for 70 minutes and Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who replaced her, contributed 7:2, mostly defensively.
Coach Parsons is due for a genius upgrade! Tactically, the alignment of the team was as close to “normal” as this season has seen – a straight 4-4-2 occasionally appearing as a 4-5-1. More importantly, Parsons had the team ready to play this match. Faced with such dispirited opposition the Thorns could have mailed it in. Instead they played the entire ninety minutes with ruthless intent. And this after a draining cross-country flight and with our playoff berth already nailed down. So Max Planck gets shoved aside as Albert Einstein re-asserts his claim.
It’s hard to find a negative for the Thorns in this match. But boy did the officials have a tough outing! Take a look at this “offside” call by the far side AR.
Fittingly, this is the same AR who later did not flag Allie Long offside on the first Portland goal, so maybe karmic justice is a real thing.
The center referee let a lot of fouls go unwhistled including the elbow to Sinclair’s face, the clear trip near the box on Heath, another even more blatant one on Nadim and, thankfully, a near drag-down by Emily Menges in the Portland box. Once the whistle did finally blow it was a yellow card to Sky Blue, the only caution of the game.
As is normal for a distant road game, there was very little Portland support in the stadium. After the match, a brief shot of the stands revealed a line of 15-20 girls in red shirts waiting for autographs near the rail. But whatever noise they made during the game didn’t come over the ether.
The broadcast was well commentated for a change. If anything, the two announcers may have been fawning over the Thorns. The color commentator was Dan Lauletta of The Equalizer women’s soccer website. He is a quality writer and about as knowledgeable a media person as there is in the women’s game.
The exclamation point to the weekend came on Monday afternoon when the Thorns returned to Portland. About three dozen Riveters were on hand at PDX to greet the team, hand out roses and sing a song or two.
The entire team and staff was on the flight except Allie Long. I speculate that perhaps she stayed behind for a short family visit in New York City.
Hard-working Riveter Krystal made this observation from above Mt. Hood.
In years past the NWSL commissioner has presented the actual Shield (which looks like a silver cookie tray) to the winning team at their next home game. If this holds to form, we will see a ceremony on Sunday before the semi-final versus the Western New York Flash. It’s a rematch of the exciting 3-2 win of two weeks ago. As of this writing there are still a very few tickets available. It promises to be a loud, emotional and exciting day at Providence Park.
The prospect of the Thorns going to Houston for the NWSL Final on October 9th seems that much closer. Tickets and coordination are available through the Riveters here. A group plans to meet at Little Woodrow’s EADO (2019 Walker Street, 1 block NW of BBVA Compass Stadium) on Saturday evening October 8th. I’ll see you there and we can lift a pint together.
By Richard Hamje
Video editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje