(in which we establish that Mark Parsons is a genius and the 2016 Thorns are something special)
Sky Blue FC flew over from Newark licking their chops in anticipation of eating the Thorns’ lunch. The Thorns were down six starting players including our assist and scoring leaders – lost to national team duty. Our roster was shortened to sixteen players including one who had never made an appearance for the team and a lone defensive substitute still recovering from knee surgery. Sky Blue, on the other hand, was full-strength excepting centerback Kelly O’Hara. And they were fresh off a road win over the second-place Washington Spirit. Surely they would leave Portland with at least a point?
Instead, the Thorns won the match 2-1 although a final score of 4-1 would have been more reflective of the balance of power on the pitch. The first half was a pretty evenly matched affair but the second was nearly all Thorns. And most of the really good scoring chances fell to the Thorns throughout.
The match started with a penalty shout after only 20 seconds as Nadia Nadim was tripped in the box. The foul was clear but the referee apparently didn’t yet have her head in the game. Twelve minutes later Nadim was put in one-on-one but could not convert. Both teams went back and forth then for about 15 minutes with Sky Blue generally getting the better of things.
In the 28th minute, Dagny failed to flick in an excellent cross from Raso. Less than a minute later, Sky Blue tallied. Their speedster Galton beat Mallory Weber to the end line and delivered a low cross that passed untouched through the Thorns six-yard box. Taylor Lytle crossed the ball back toward the penalty spot where Tasha Kai was able to volley a hard shot past Michelle Betos.
A week ago, it took Dagny Brynjarsdottir thirteen minutes to equalize Orlando’s opening goal. This week it took only eight. Nadim delivered an excellent corner kick high into the Sky Blue box. Dagny was unmarked and redirected the ball into the far side netting. Compounding Sky Blue’s woes, their starting goalkeeper was injured on the play and had to be substituted.
The second half was barely underway when Sky Blue’s Hawaiian striker Tasha Kai clashed heads with McKenzie Berryhill and needed attention from the medical staff for almost two minutes before she was able to walk to the sidelines. Less than a minute after coming back on, Kai was down again for another two minutes and did not return.
Ten minutes after Kai’s exit, the Thorns scored the winning goal on a penalty kick. Hayley Raso beat Erin Simon to the edge of the box and was tugged from behind just on the line. Nadia Nadim appeared calm as she kicked a perfect, unsaveable penalty. She later confessed that she was feeling very emotional at the time. But she only let it show in the celebration afterwards.
There has been some Internet chatter as to whether the foul actually happened in the box. To my eye, the initial foul was committed right on the line – you can see Simon’s left arm around Raso just at the freeze-frame. The line is part of the box. Had the foul been outside the box, it would have been denial of a goalscoring opportunity and that would have meant a red card for Simon plus a very close-in free kick. I’m not sure that would have been any better for Sky Blue. Regardless, none of the video angles show anything that would prove the referee got the call wrong. She was in perfect position to make the call, only four yards away.
After the PK, the Thorns continued to have great chances. In the 70th minute there was a clear obstruction foul on Raso just outside the Sky Blue box. But the referee didn’t call it. In the 78th, Henry served a delicious ball just barely out of the reach of Nadim. Just a minute later, Nadim was in one-on-one and only a great save by the Sky Blue replacement keeper kept the game close.
Between the halftime shift in tactics by the Thorns (more on that later) and the loss of Kai, Sky Blue was reduced to taking shots from distance as the Thorns dominated possession. Only in the lengthy stoppage time period was Sky Blue able to threaten Betos’ goal again, but without enough accuracy. In the end, they managed only three shots on target, all by Kai in the first half.
As a result of the win the Thorns remain five points clear atop the table and, of course, also remain undefeated on the season. In other league results, the Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash kept pace with wins while the Chicago Red Stars dropped into the final playoff position.
A couple of referee tidbits
There were seven minutes of second-half stoppage time. Watching the game live, this seemed an inordinately long period. However, the referee was actually generous to the Thorns in her assessment. There were five substitutions (30 seconds each), a penalty kick (almost two minutes) and twice Kai was tended on the pitch for 2 minutes. That adds up to over eight minutes, so seven was a blessing. But it sure felt like forever!
This match had a moment you rarely see in soccer, a contested drop-ball. When play stops for an injury, there is a drop-ball to get things restarted. Traditionally, the referee drops the ball at the feet of a player from the team who did not suffer the injury. That player then kicks the ball back toward the other team’s goal and play resumes from there. But in theory a drop ball can be contested, like a hockey face-off, and that’s what happened at 52:09 of this match. It’s so rare that the two players didn’t know what to do and had to try a second time.
Mark Parsons is a genius
Or at a minimum a very clear-sighted man with outstanding organizing and people skills.
In the first half, the Thorns were attacking up the right side with Weber coming forward to feed Nadim. It seems that Parson had identified Skroski as the weak link in the SBFC defense and wanted the Thorns to wear her down. However, Sky Blue was also attacking down that side and this left Weber out of position at times, most notably for the goal.
At halftime, he made a structural adjustment moving Henry from the center to the right and having Celeste Boureille cover both the middle and left. Our attack shifted more toward the left. You can see this in the numbers. As always, I count the ratio of positive and negative meaningful touches for each player. In the first half, Weber’s ratio was 14:4 and in second half 7:6. Henry’s numbers were 12:3 and then 19:4. Over on the other side, Berryhill had a sleepy first half at 6:2 but 13:3 in the second. Boureille’s activity went from 13:2 to 17:0.
For the first 45 minutes, our two centerbacks saw little action with Menges’ touches 8:0 and Reynolds 6:1. Since they were an underutilized asset, Parsons had Emily Menges push forward more, with a couple forays all the way to the Sky Blue box. Reynolds stayed home. Their second half numbers were 17:4 for Menges and 10:0 for Reynolds, with most of the latter’s coming in stoppage time clearances and interceptions.
The 2016 Thorns are something special
Not many professional soccer teams go over half a season undefeated. This alone puts the 2016 Thorns in elite company. But the record alone does not communicate the real strength of this squad. There is a sense of determination about them. The team could have easily let this match slip away, with all the absences. While we’d have been disappointed, there would have been no real criticism. But they don’t want excuses – they want results.
An oft-overlooked element of the Thorns is their team fitness. We saw it in the brutal conditions in Florida and we saw it again in the perfect conditions in Portland. Every player is still running hard at the end of the match. The opponents simply cannot keep up. Soccer is a game of teamwork and skill and tricks, but it’s also a pure test of stamina. And the will of each woman to make one more run, or run back to help defend one more time.
The defining example was Nadim in the 86th minute. She was leading an attack in the SBFC box and when that broke down, tracked back and blocked a potentially dangerous shot at the top of our box. A tired forward late in a match can easily say, “Let the defense deal with it, I will stay up here as an outlet”. Not Nadim, and not the Thorns in general.
My WOTM was Hayley Raso. While she did not lead the team in positive touches she was integral to the action, a terror to the Sky Blue defense, and drew the match-winning penalty. Her ratio for the game was 27:4. If the finishing had been better, she’d have had three or four assists in this game. She is clearly the best crosser of the ball on the short-roster team.
Dagny played a great game with a 31:5 touch ratio and the equalizing goal. (photos credit: Molly Blue)
Celeste Boureille had a breakout performance. Her touches ratio was 30:2, best on the team, and she seemed to be everywhere in midfield and defense.
Mana Shim had a fantastic first half. Her service to the wings was excellent and her touches ratio was 14:1. She was equally effective at the start of the second with a 6:1 ratio, but faded and was subbed out for Shade Pratt. Pratt had a fine game for her 20 minutes with a 10:3 touches ratio and several great chances created on the counter-attack. She was the relief valve for the pressure Sky Blue was applying late, and did her job well.
Major kudos also to Amandine Henry for her contributions (31:7 with at least two potential assists) and for even being here. She skipped the first week of the France national team camp to play in this match, the only French player not to report on time. Her commitment to her new club has won our hearts.
Emily Menges seems to never get WOTM recognition because her quality is simply taken for granted, and because defenders don’t get the flashy opportunities. But Parsons clearly appreciates what she does and named her captain for the first time in her Portland career. Captain Menges has a nice ring, doesn’t it? She stepped up to the responsibility.
Finally, last week I reported on Michelle Betos’ free kick woes. What a difference a week makes – her kicks were far better in this game, with 12 delivered to a Thorn and only 5 turned over (70%). This time only two kicks became immediate trouble. Of course that’s two too many, but still an improvement. And a few of her twelve successful efforts were the 60-yard boomers we’re used to seeing from Michelle.
Three items for this week, starting with a big BOO! to the Sky Blue training staff for allowing Tasha Kai to re-enter the game with a head injury. She was on the sideline for less than a minute before rejoining the action only to collapse less than 60 seconds later. We’ve become used to trainers examining a player’s eyes, often with a flashlight, for the response that signals a possible concussion. I saw no evidence that the Sky Blue staff did this. They could have asked the Thorns staff for help – we have qualified professionals handy. Even when it’s dealt with correctly, concussion can be a serious problem as Kendall Johnson will tell you.
It was so encouraging to see Mana Shim back on the pitch and playing well. But she faded after about an hour and was subbed out. A ninety-minute performance will complete the resurgence of Shim. Maybe next week?
As mentioned earlier, this match could have been 4-1. The main reason it wasn’t falls to Nadim’s finishing. More accurately, her lack thereof. She had five truly quality chances including twice when she was alone with the keeper. Ultimately, she never registered a shot on goal. It wasn’t all bad for Nadia though. Check out these mad skillz!
In spite of the smallish crowd of about 14,300, this was a special night in the stands. Perhaps it was the combination of fear and hope brought on by the team’s roster situation. Whatever the reason, the Riveters were hopping.
Near halftime, Karina LeBlanc made an appearance on the capo stand. This was the first time that our revered goalkeeper has returned to Providence Park since her retirement. She danced with the capos, posed for selfies, and led us to break out the “Ka-Rin-A, Karina!” chant of yore. And in honor of July 1 being Canada Day, and LeBlanc being our arguably second-favorite Canadian person, the Riveters belted out “Oh, Canada!”.
On the topic of player chants, we got to sing the “O, Mana Shim” song for the first time in a long time. It’s one of my personal favorites. And when Hayley Raso exited, a spontaneous chant of “Raso, Raso, Raso. Oi! Oi! Oi!” arose and was picked up by much of the stadium. I later saw a tweet confirming that Hayley noticed.
Last week I made some predictions for this spell of four short-handed matches. Regarding the roster, I said “The best news we could get would be the return of Williamson this week” and Kat was actually on the bench although she didn’t feature. Hopefully one more week will turn the trick. I also guessed that our three unpaid interns would be Pratt, Maureen Fitzgerald (I got her last name wrong in the post) and Sam Lofton. Those were, in fact, the three and they all saw the pitch. Finally, I said “I imagine Gavin Wilkinson is scouring the globe as you read this [looking for a defender to replace Morris].” And this week we signed Jennifer Skogerboe from the Czech Republic team FC Slovácko.
So far, so good – but what about the most important prediction? With the announcement of Henry’s availability for this match, I revised my guess from a 2-0 loss to a 0-0 draw. Happily, I was dead wrong about that. Since I also predict a 0-0 draw for this coming match versus FCKC, I hope to be equally mistaken this time next week!
By Richard Hamje
Still and video editing by Jeanette “BitMangler” Hamje