(in which the Thorns pull off a huge win against long odds)
The Thorns hosted the league-leading North Carolina Courage on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s semi-final playoff match. On the back of an outstanding defensive effort and a Hayley Raso headed goal, they won 1-0. The win moved the team back into the fourth playoff position and only a few points off second place and its home playoff match bonus.
This was a match which looked likely to end with a Portland loss – several people I spoke to before the match said they’d be happy with a draw. The Thorns were missing so many key players that it was hard to see how they could face up to the full-strength Courage. The Thorns started two strikers who have been with the team only a few weeks and have yet to score a goal. The substitutes bench had three rookies, two of whom are so new they don’t even have photos for the team roster.
In the prior meeting between the two teams, North Carolina dominated proceedings and won 1-0. The Courage’s previous match, a 2-0 win over Seattle, was notable for their record 29 shots. This is a team on a roll. The Courage retained nearly their entire roster from their 2016 championship season and all their key players were available for this match. The “twin towers” of Williams and McDonald in front of the talented Debinha and Mewis, with destroyer Zerboni and defensive stalwarts Erceg and Dahlkemper anchoring the back – this is the lineup that has been mowing down opponents all season.
It was a perfect day for football at kickoff, bright sunshine with no wind and 72 degrees. Like most matches this season, the Thorns started out slowly with some confused and sloppy play in the first ten minutes. In the 6th minute, we had this Keystone Kops defending.
One minute later, it got worse.
In my report from the Houston match last week, I commented that a better team would punish the Thorns for early mistakes. Well, this week Portland certainly faced that better team, and yet the mistakes were not punished.
After this shaky start, the Thorns settled down thanks in large part to Christine Sinclair’s calmness and exquisite ball control, and Lindsey Horan’s determination. As Portland began to possess the ball, the back line was less frantic. In the 36th, Lynn Williams received the ball with nothing but green plastic between her and Adrianna Franch. Emily Sonnett came blazing back and made a perfect tackle as the entire stadium held its collective breath fearing a card. Fortunately, referee Koroleva was in perfect position and made the right no-call. We learned two things from this episode: Emily Sonnett is F-A-S-T and good NWSL referees are not quite as rare as unicorns.
At halftime, Paul Riley professed to be happy with his Courage team’s performance. I am not clear why, as NC had missed several golden opportunities to get a lead and they are a team that has yet to drop points when they score first. Also, his two midfield anchors, Debinha and Samantha Mewis were invisible. The former due to Horan’s efforts and the latter mostly unable to deal with Sinclair. The trend continued in the second half. Mewis may not have a made a single positive play over the entire ninety minutes. Debinha was subbed out in the 72nd having contributed very little.
Portland began exerting control over the match in the second half. In the 68th minute was this excellent sequence. Three notes on this: Sinclair was not fouled when she went down although Smith (11) may have stepped on her foot in the process of breaking up the play. And Horan’s curler was touched onto the crossbar by Rowland, but the far-side AR didn’t see it and thus no corner kick was awarded, Without the touch, Horan would have surely been up for her second consecutive Goal of the Week. Mark Parsons was very certain that Smith had fouled Sinclair and was bellowing for a yellow card, which would have seen Smith sent off. Lifetime bleeped out his comments in the broadcast and even blurred his mouth (think of the children).
Not even a minute later came the special moment of the match when the smallest Thorn, Meghan Klingenberg, smacked a perfect cross into the box for the second-smallest Thorn, Hayley Raso, to head home. Rowland got fingers to the header but only enough to glance it off the post and spinning into the net.
Five minutes after the goal, Ashleigh Sykes came out for defender Meghan Cox. I commented at the time, “Parsons has decided that the final score will be 1-0”. And so it was, but only because of this sterling effort from Adrianna Franch as the clock struck ninety. Incidentally, the near-side AR this time failed to see the touch by the keeper, so NC got no corner kick.
Next up for the Thorns are two more home matches against lower-ranked opponents: Saturday July 22 at 7:00 pm versus likely Wooden Spoon winner Washington Spirit, followed by Saturday August 5 against 7th place Houston. If the Thorns can maintain their intensity against weak opposition and win these, the coveted second place slot and its attendant home playoff match would be in reach. This season the Thorns have not won three matches in a row and have struggled against poor teams. But we’ve also not had three home games in a row, nor have we yet played the last place team, so maybe it can happen. Here’s hoping!
This match was clearly a total team effort. But even so, there were some excellent individual performances and a few disappointing ones.
Although she did not (quite) make a spectacular contribution, Lindsey Horan is my nomination for WOTM. I count positive-to-negative meaningful touches for every player and Horan’s led the team with 29:4, evenly split between halves. Christine Sinclair was nearly as good with a ratio of 24:1 with many outstanding displays of close control. Essentially, NC were unable to dispossess her – all they could do was block her shots and foul.
Adrianna Franch was excellent. Her touch ratio was 16:5 – the poor touches were long distributions in the second half which went astray. Her command of the box was perfect even when the defense did have a lapse. Meghan Klingenberg was also steady and became more aggressive as the game wore on. Her ratio of 18:4 was split 7:2 in the first half and 11:2 in the second, which included her assist on the match-winner. Which was provided by Hayley Raso who had the Carolina backline scrambling as she left their midfield in the dust all afternoon. Her ratio was 15:1.
The “Great Wall of Emilys” as proclaimed on a rail banner was, in fact, great. Emily Menges had a touch ratio of 9:2 while Emily Sonnett’s was 12:3. Each Emily had one major lapse – the ball bouncing over Menges’ head, and Sonnett’s poor clearance, both very early in the match. But they also both provided moments of brilliance. The clean sheet is all the proof you need.
Allie Long had a tough assignment, facing up to the persistent “nasty woman” McCall Zerboni. While her touch ratio was among the best on the team at 22:2, Allie seemed to hang back for the entire ninety minutes. This may have been by design, but still her attacking distribution was not as savant as we’ve grown used to seeing and she made no runs forward. Tyler Lussi is still finding her groove as a professional. She did nothing wrong, but also was not quite the threat that she was in Houston. Then again, Houston is not quite the team that the Courage is. Her ratio was 8:0 for 80 minutes. Her substitute, Mallory Weber, contributed 5:1 touches in her ten minutes, mostly time-wasting maneuvers.
Celeste Boureille had a tough outing. Her first half was forgettable (7:8) and second quiet (4:0). Several times she seemed flustered and simply lumped the ball long to nobody. Better safe than sorry, but without being pressed she did not need to do this. While Ashleigh Sykes had a good match by the numbers (14:2), she has yet to show the flair, or the hard shot, that earned her honors in Australia for years.
Meghan Cox subbed on for Sykes in the 75th and contributed to the clean sheet with a 5:1 touch ratio. Her long throw was called into play several times to get the ball out of our defensive half. Kelli Hubly made a cameo at the end and had one positive touch. I should also mention that the cat is back – Kat Reynolds was in the eighteen for the first time this year. She may not really be match-ready — two rookies were subbed into defense in preference — but it’s still wonderful to see her back in the lineup.
Coach Mark Parsons deserves some credit for this result. He had the team ready to play, set up the right matchups, and made timely substitutions. His strategic decision to play for the clean sheet with twenty minutes remaining was brave (recall that he had only rookies to sub into that tense situation) and, ultimately, correct. He may be a genius but he seems to have forgotten sunscreen for his scalp – he was looking a little pink by the end. Diego Valeri did not care.
Parsons did get smarter since last week, so I’m moving his genius rating up to Aristotle even though the famous philosopher was not much of a soccer player.
At kickoff, the Riveters seemed to be a nervous bunch. Everyone knew this was a pivotal match. A loss would leave the Thorns in real trouble but a win seemed almost too much to expect. The first few minutes of the match did nothing to dispel the unease. But as is our wont, when we sense that the team needs a lift we get louder. As the game went along, each corner kick was met with a crescendo. The tension rose with each minute that passed. So when Raso headed into the north end net, the stadium exploded in glee and relief. The One Goal Beyond chant celebrating that goal was as loud and in sync as I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of One Goal Beyond, the Riveters released a scarf and t-shirt with that phrase for this match. Good timing!
The attendance was 16,804. This is just above our season average and a decent turnout given the early start time and hot weather. Next week’s match is a more respectable hour – 7:00 pm. Bring a friend – it should be a party!
Lifetime TV is producing some type of documentary about the gameday experience. Their TV crew was in the fanladen as people brought their matchday drive items, collected tickets, and bought merch. They were then filming as the flag crew set out flags and DnT set up and tuned the drums and brass, and in the concourses as people flowed in. I even saw them amongst the Riveters during the match – a camera operator was swept up in the One Goal Beyond chant. It will be curious to see what they make of us.
Post-game, Allie Long met up with Diego Valeri at the eastside advertising boards.
Connie Valeri was passed onto the field and accompanied Allie for the walk and rose ceremony. Connie earned it; here’s a picture of her helping paint one of the DHS visitation rooms. You can tell she must get a great deal on kits – who paints while wearing a brand-new regulation jersey?
As she always does, Mark Parsons’ daughter Evie trailed Meghan Klingenberg through the post-game ceremonies. Her father then helped her “conduct” the Riveters with her stuffed bunny. This is becoming a regular, and popular, feature – the grand finale of the day.
Lastly, I feel compelled to plug a new book about women’s football: “Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer” by Gwendolyn Oxenham. I could not put it down. The stories she tells about the joys and struggles (and some terrors) of women’s professional footballers around the world are simply fascinating. You can get the e-reader version here or paper copies at Powell’s online.
By Richard Hamje
Video editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje