Analysis

And so it ends

(In which the Curse of the Shield continues)

The Thorns hosted the first post-season match in their short history and came up just short to the Western New York Flash in extended time, 3-4. The match was an exciting back-and-forth affair between two evenly matched teams. It was marked by many hard fouls and was ultimately decided by poor officiating.

The semi-final was a rematch of the penultimate regular season game, won by Portland 3-2, and the 2013 NWSL Final, won by Portland 2-0. The league commissioner, Jeff Plush, was in attendance although he chose not to award the Shield to the Thorns on the occasion. Perhaps it will come in the mail next week.

The Flash will face the Washington Spirit in Houston on October 9 after the Spirit beat Chicago 2-1 in extended time on Friday. For the fourth year in a row, the Shield winner will not win the league title. And for the first time the Shield winner will not even appear in the Championship match.

What happened

Although Portland eventually scored first on a dubious penalty call in the meeting three weeks earlier, the Flash had come out on fire. The Thorns then ran out to a 3-0 lead before New York came on strong for the last 30 minutes and nearly tied it up.

The semi-final match was completely different. The Thorns came out on fire but the Flash scored first. The first half ended 2-1. Portland tied it up in regulation, only to again concede two and score one in the first half in extended time. The Thorns were unable to find the ultimate equalizer in the final period and so a penalty shootout was avoided and the season ended for Portland.

First 45’

The match opened with an immediate attack by the Thorns which saw Nadia Nadim with one defender to beat in the Rochester box. Nadim took a slightly wide angle in her run to the ball and was unable to get off a shot as a result. But it was a close thing and set the tone early.

Moments later came the first of the three defining moments of the match. Christine Sinclair faced up to Abby Dahlkemper inside the Flash box. Sinclair attempted a pass to Horan at the penalty spot, but Dahlkemper reached out her arm and knocked it down. The referee saw the handling and waved off the foul for no apparent reason – there could not be a more classical example of intentional handball.

This is a penalty, plain and simple.
This is a penalty, plain and simple.

Center referee Marco Vega had called a soft penalty in favor of the Thorns in the prior matchup between these teams. He seemed determined to not make any calls in this match. The problem is that not blowing the whistle is also making a call. Intentional handball has four characteristics: (1) the player’s arm is extended; (2) the player has time to react and has seen the ball; (3) the player moves her arm toward to ball; and (4) the result of the handling hurts the attacking team. This incident meets all four criteria. It should have been a penalty kick and a yellow card to Dahlkemper.

As we have seen many times, Portland plays best with a lead. We have also seen that Nadim and Sinclair never miss penalty kicks. And so, with a single botched call the entire direction of the game changed. In addition, the lack of an early card on Dahlkemper allowed her to play without restraint for the next hour of the match.

In the 5th minute, a rough foul by Samantha Mewis on Tobin Heath went un-carded. It became evident as the game progressed that Paul Riley wanted his team to play a physical game. Ultimately Vega showed New York four cards and whistled them for 16 fouls, but the count could have easily been twice that. By letting hard fouls go early, the tone was set. Portland never did have an effective response to these New York tactics which especially frustrated Heath, who suffered the most.

In the 15th minute New York scored their first goal. It came from a long throw-in by former Thorn Jess McDonald. Three of the four Flash goals came via the long throw, which has been a strength for Rochester all season.

In the 31st, The Flash got behind the defense with a long diagonal ball that beat Emily Menges. Michelle Betos made a fantastic save to prevent the early blowout. Two minutes later saw the second defining moment as New York scored on a scramble in the box started with another McDonald long throw. Lindsey Horan was intentionally tripped in the box by Abby Erceg while trying to close down the cross. The referee was in good position and appeared to see the play, but called nothing. Not only should the goal have been waved off, Erceg could have seen a yellow card for her scissoring of Horan’s legs.

Blow the freaking whistle!
Blow the freaking whistle!

Less than a minute later, Christine Sinclair got one back for Portland. Kat Reynolds kicked a 60-yard ball which bounced past the New York defender and was volleyed into the Flash net with Sinclair’s first touch. Paul Riley was upset with a perceived foul by Sinclair and apparently physically assaulted the fourth official. He was sent off and will miss the Final in Houston. And so halftime arrived with the score 2-1 and both teams mightily upset with the officiating.

Second 45’

The second half started off at a less frantic pace than the first had ended. If anything, New York seemed the more aggressive. In the 53rd minute, Portland suffered a total breakdown on defense and Williams unleashed an uncontested shot. Betos rescued her team with her best save of the day, possibly of the year.

The third defining moment of the match came in the 61st minute. Abby Dahlkemper dragged Heath down in the New York box. This time the referee was not right there, but honestly he didn’t need to be – the foul was obvious from the last row. Even the TV announcers drew their breath. But no call was made, no penalty awarded and no card given. So the score remained 2-1 and Dahlkemper remained free to foul Heath at will, which she happily did.

How is this not a penalty?
How is this not a penalty?

Dahlkemper committed yet another foul on Heath fifteen minutes later (her 8th by my count) and was finally shown the yellow card. The failure to make the earlier penalty call meant that this was not her sending off.

Shortly after Dahlkemper’s card, Emily Sonnett scored her first professional goal off a set piece scramble. Her joy was evident to all – she barely restrained herself from ripping off her shirt!

Both teams tried to win the game in regulation, but neither actually mustered much of a threat in the final ten minutes. Regulation ended a 2-2 draw.

First Extended Time 15’

New York came out full of energy to start the first extra period, in particular Zerboni and Williams. They got their payoff after seven minutes as Williams scored off yet another McDonald long throw. Portland mustered a response less than two minutes later as Sinclair used some fantastic control to set up Horan. Her volleyed shot hit the crossbar, possibly via the slightest of touches by keeper Di’Angelo.

What talent!
What talent!

The eventual game winner came from a New York counter-attack as the clock struck 103 minutes. It was their only goal not from a throw-in and it started with a misdirected pass by Allie Long in the Portland end. A long ball from Mewis was misjudged by Reynolds and fell to Williams in the Portland box. Betos had no chance as Williams hammered the shot to the far side netting.

Again the Thorns responded, this time successfully, as Horan buried a goal after a flick-on by Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Less than a minute later the period ended with the score 4-3.

Second Extended Time 15’

For the final stanza, the Flash bunkered, determined to protect their lead and avoid a penalty shootout. The high pressure they had been using all game stopped. The Thorns repeatedly launched long balls into the New York end looking for a flick-on from Sinclair or Dagny to spring a shot. Emily Sonnett was the designated “launcher”.

New York resorted to more fouling. In the 118th, Dahlkemper committed yet another uncalled yellow-card-worthy foul on Allie Long at the edge of the New York box. How she avoided being sent off in this match is a mystery.

Portland earned a number of close-in free kicks in this period, taken by Heath. She may not have been the right choice, as her attempts in the final period were poor. Whether from fatigue or a knock to the knee she’d taken earlier, the kicks were weak and directly to Di’Angelo.

As the game went into the final stoppage time period, Lindsey Horan attempted a wild shot from the edge of the Flash box. The higher percentage play was probably a pass to Sinclair, but Horan had been Portland’s biggest threat all game and may have thought she could do the improbable. In the final seconds of the match, Di’Angelo again botched a long ball catch. The ball deflected toward the Flash goal only to be saved off the line by Dahlkemper. Seconds later the whistle blew and the 2016 season ended for the Thorns.

Thumbs Up!

In spite of the result, most of the Thorns had good games. As always, I counted positive and negative meaningful touches. I was surprised at how good the numbers were.

My WOTM was Lindsey Horan. She was still chasing down the goalkeeper in the 120th minute. Horan scored the final goal for the Thorns in 2016 and hit the crossbar on what would have been the equalizer to send it to penalties. She also played stout defense all game long. It was Horan who was fouled attempting to block a Flash cross – had the foul been called the Thorns most likely would have won in regulation. Her touch ratio was the highest on the team and the best – 43:6. It was evenly spread 13:2 in the first, 14:2 in the second and amazingly 16:2 in the shorter extra time.

A close second is a tie between Christine Sinclair (27:3) and Tobin Heath (35:9). They both played very aggressively from start to finish, with Heath playing through a knee problem for most of the extended periods. Christine scored the fantastic volley to lift Portland spirits in the first half, and her amazing juggled control led to the near-goal by Horan.

Michelle Betos (20:9) also played a good match. Her distribution was mostly good, her long kicks are all very long. You could argue that she could have come out more aggressively on the fourth Flash goal, but she could do nothing about the others. And she contributed three outstanding saves to limit the damage. I believe that had the match gone to a penalty shootout, the Thorns would have been heavily favored. Betos was clearly the better keeper on the day.

You would think that giving up four goals would indicate poor play by the defense. But that was not really the case. Only one Flash goal came from open play. Had this been a regular season match, it would have ended a 2-2 draw even with the bad officiating. Recall that Rochester scored a pair in the prior meeting. Emily Menges finished with a 13:5 ratio, Emily Sonnett with 16:2 and Kat Reynolds with 18:2. Menges was partly responsible for one goal, Reynolds for another. Of course, Sonnett scored the crucial regular-time equalizer.

Others with noteworthy efforts were Dagny Brynjarsdottir (16:2) with some important defensive plays and an assist on the final goal and Hayley Raso (4:0) who twice drew free-kicks near the New York box that should have been more dangerous than they ultimately proved.

Thumbs Down!

Several Thorns had less-than-their-best days. From my viewing, this was mostly due to both team’s coaching strategies. Nadia Nadim (15:3) was not very effective. She was double-teamed as soon as she touched the ball. Clearly Riley feared her more than Sinclair. Also, Nadia was not being very disciplined in her positioning. She often drifted to the center instead of staying wide. This created congestion in the midfield, limiting the effectiveness of Long and Henry, and made it easier for New York to defend. The wide pitch at Providence Park is often an advantage for the Thorns as they wear down the chasing defenders. But if the players don’t stay wide this advantage is squandered. We can’t know if this narrowness was Parson’s intent or if Nadim was trying to win the game by herself. We do know she was the first player substituted.

Meghan Klingenberg (20:15) was often caught out of position. As is her wont, she was pushing forward in support of Heath. But several times she was caught upfield and clearly does not have the footspeed to catch up to speedy strikers. Klingenberg’s passing was erratic at times – most of her 15 negative touches were passes out of bounds or directly to a Flash player.

The Portland center midfield had a rough outing. As mentioned above, the Thorns were not using the width of the pitch very effectively. Aside from Nadim’s positioning, consider that when Raso entered the game she only had four touches. Hayley was staying on the touch line, and was nearly always wide open. But both the Flash defenders and Thorns midfielders ignored her. The concentration in the center meant that Allie Long (26:8) and Amandine Henry (22:10) never got a moment’s peace with the ball. Henry contributed very little in the first half (3:3) when she was playing very deep and, as she pushed up toward the end, tried progressively lower-percentage “thread the needle” type passes in the extra periods (9:6). Long was steadier, but rarely approached the New York box. Twice when Di’Angelo gave up big rebounds there was no Thorn in the box to hammer them home – that should have been Allie Long.

I have no genius upgrade for Mark Parsons after this match. Results count. But it’s hard to be too critical of the actual game plan. With proper officiating the Thorns would have won this match, possibly handily. Even without it, the match was still close and one lucky break any number of places would have sent it to penalties.

Parsons also had the team well prepared for this match. Unlike the earlier meeting, the Thorns came out hard from the start and could have scored the opener early.

Some have questioned the lack of a third substitution by Parsons. The only attacker remaining on the Portland bench was Mana Shim, but who would you take out to in her favor? The Thorns were already down to three in the back with Raso’s entry, so there was no defender that Parsons could have safely removed. Any other player he might have pulled would be somebody with proven ability to score under pressure – the likes of Heath, Sinclair, Long or Horan. Maybe Mana would have come in and scored late, but the odds were much higher that someone like Horan would do it (as she very nearly did).

Overall, the season performance by Parsons and his staff was spectacular. Who really thought the Thorns would reel off 14 games unbeaten, would beat Seattle with all the Thorns’ star players gone, would host a playoff game, or would win the Shield? Who thought the team would be such a joy to watch all season long? Obviously the players make it happen, but Mark Parsons deserves a lot of credit. He finishes 2016 at the Einstein level with aspirations for Newton in 2017.

einstein

Finally, a thumbs down to the league’s handling of this final match for three specific failings. First, in professional leagues the assignment of officials for the postseason is a reward to the league’s proven best. No personal attack on Mr. Vega, who is probably an entirely likable man, but there is no way that he can be the cream of the crop in NWSL officials. At least not based on this performance or the prior one. I would suggest Ekaterina Koroleva or Christina Unkel as better center referees.

Secondly, for the first time the NWSL Shield was not presented to the winning team at a home game. Commissioner Plush was in Portland for the match, so why not present the trophy our women had worked so hard for all year? Did he forget it at the hotel? Was his spouse using it for a cocktail party in Chicago? Aside from the disrespect to the team, this failure also devalues the trophy itself. If the league doesn’t care, why should anyone else? [The Thorns announced that the Shield will be presented at the first home match in 2017. Which is almost worse than never, in my opinion. How many of the players who won it will still be here to receive it? Sorry, this gets a second thumbs down!]

And third, hisses to Fox Sports for their mediocre coverage of NWSL. The match was booted to FS2 without notice so that FS1 could show drag racing, which somehow ran long. Is there stoppage time in drag racing? The effect was to ruin the TV ratings for the biggest game of the season. Comcast does not carry Fox Sports 2, so the unannounced switch meant that Comcast customers along with DVR users missed the first 37 minutes of the match. The FS2 portion drew only 16,000 viewers, the FS1 part drew 105,000. For comparison, the MLS matchup Sunday between Seattle and Vancouver on FS1 drew 129,000.

Also, the Fox broadcast did not show any of the pregame rituals or the tifo, live or in replay. There was no lead-in segment and Fox had done almost zero promotion of the event. During a halftime interview, Jeff Plush gushed about the tifo to the effect of “Where else would you see tifo like that in women’s sports?”. This drew embarrassed silence from the announcers who knew that their audience would be included in the people who had not seen tifo like that. The NWSL either needs to find a more serious TV partner, or abandon TV and invest more in social media broadcast delivery.

Hammered Rivets

Speaking of tifo, this match was the Riveters’ most ambitious effort yet. There was a huge three panel display reading “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til Houston”, derived from Peter Pan. Obviously “second star to the right” refers to the hoped-for addition to our crest. The skylines of Portland and Houston are depicted, with BBVA Compass stadium contained in an orange glow. The display was accompanied by over a thousand Riveters blowing bubbles, analogous to pixie dust but easier to clean up afterward. A crew of about fifty people worked over six straight days to paint it and another thirty helped set it up, lift it, and put it away afterward. It takes a village to make a tifo…

That's a BIG tifo!
That’s a BIG tifo!

Although everyone expected to see a Thorns win, I would characterize the initial mood in the North End as nervous, becoming almost panicked after early the no-calls and the pair of Flash goals. Once Christine drew one back, conditions finally began approaching normal in the stands. Late on, the intensity increased until finally nearly the entire 20,084 were on their feet. There was a minute of silence at the final whistle, and then the usual postgame chant was begun. But everyone was emotionally wrung out.

The players were also understandably upset. As they approached the North End and the rose ceremony, several players were in tears while several others appeared to be close. Meghan Klingenberg came onto the main capo stand and hugged every person in the front row individually. One Riveter reported that Klingenberg said “goodbye”. Let’s hope she meant just until next season. Afterward, Sinclair said that the team was determined to be gracious in defeat. In the postgame interviews, “watch out next year” seemed to be a common thread.

As to the Flash, they clustered at midfield in a joyous huddle. They then filed out without any taunting given or taken. How can you not be happy for them, even if stricken for us? They played their best game and were classy winners.

As always, the banner gnomes dug up and polished some fresh jewels. Photo credits to Darren Llyod, Timbers Army drum maniac and Riveter. (click the thumbnails for full-sized views)

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About 100 Riveters, maybe more, are still going to Houston for the Final. Most will be Washington Spirit fans for the day. An informal event is planned at Little Woodrow’s EADO (2019 Walker Street, 1 block NW of BBVA Compass Stadium) on Saturday evening October 8th. A friendly pickup soccer match is planned for Sunday morning tentatively at 8:00 am (while it’s relatively cool) at Discovery Green near the stadium. Details here. Bring a white and a dark shirt.

If I don’t see you in Houston, let’s meet up next spring. The Riveters will be planning for the new season as soon as the schedule is released. Before you know it, the first whistle of the preseason tournament will sound and off we’ll go again.

Onward Rose City!

 

by Richard Hamje

Video editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” 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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