(in which we learn that the Thorns still have work to do; and Coach Parsons runs out of ideas)
The Thorns went to Seattle on Saturday and came home empty-handed, losing 3-1. It was our first game with the returning Olympians and the team looked out of sync most of the afternoon. The Reign, playing with their season on the line, dominated proceedings. Portland had little response although things got interesting right at the end when Allie Long brought the scoreline back to 2-1. But as the Thorns pressed hard for an equalizer, a very late goal by Megan Rapinoe settled matters.
Laura Harvey deployed the same formation and lineup that she brought to Portland in July, aside from the late entry of Rapinoe back from a long-term injury and mediocre showing in Rio. Indeed, this is likely to be the Reign team that sees out the season, barring further injuries. Three things were notably different from the prior meeting.
First, unlike in July, the Reign were in absolute desperation mode. They needed to win out to have a realistic chance at making the playoffs. This was the first of only two home matches remaining in their schedule. The players responded with a maximum effort. They managed to break the Portland press most of the match with short, precise passing and lots of off-the-ball movement. The Reign defended stoutly and with numbers as the midfielders flew back to their box every time the Thorns threatened.
Second, the Reign played a very physical match. In July, Laura Harvey called the Thorns “thugs” but in late August it was clearly the Reign wearing the brass knuckles. They were lucky to finish the match with eleven players on the pitch as referee Mendoza allowed an accumulation of fouls by Fishlock in the second half to go uncarded, else she’d have been sent off since she already had a card. He also gave a pass to Yanez for a ruthless and unnecessary out-of-bounds challenge on Kat Reynolds, to Melis for kicking Reynolds in the face, and to Utsugi for a not-unintentional headbutt on Sonnett that drew blood. On a different day, the Reign might have finished with eight.
Finally, and most importantly, the Reign were able to finish their chances. In July, Seattle had several excellent looks at goal but failed to keep the shots away from Betos, the posts, or the tenth row. On Saturday, the shots were on target with seven of eighteen between the posts.
In the 50th minute, Laura Harvey went ballistic over an uncalled out-of-bounds ball right in front of her. Indeed, the nearside AR Messer had a rough afternoon calling those, as she missed three. Unfortunately for us, the Reign players kept playing even as their coach stopped. Harvey was still ranting at the officials as her team recovered the ball and scored their second goal. Only several seconds after the ball went in did Harvey realize what was happening and decide she’d rather not have the throw-in.
For the first time since June, Mark Parsons had a nearly complete roster lacking only Christine Sinclair. Dagny Brynjarsdottir was on the bench but apparently not really fit to play. The Thorns came out in their “normal” 4-1-4-1 formation rather than the 5-4-1 that had been reasonably successful in the Rio interregnum and definitely successful versus Seattle in two prior meetings.
Sadly, the team looked somewhat discombobulated most of the day. Passes were off target or weak more often than crisp. Set piece delivery was generally poor. Amandine Henry came off early with what appeared to be non-contact back spasms. Emily Sonnett got her bell rung in the first half by the ball, and then her nose broken in the second by the headbutt.
It’s hard to pin down the actual problem. With only a week to prepare, was it a problem with re-integrating the Olympians? It’s not as if they had been sitting in beach chairs for two months – most of them had been playing together the entire time. Was it just a bad day for a lot of players individually? There were certainly a number of poor performances, even by normally rock-solid players. Were they trying too hard? Perhaps for Nadim and Heath you could make this claim but it’s hard to see it with the others. Were they coasting? No – the effort was certainly there, just not the coordination.
Coach Parsons perhaps did not help the cause with his second half decisions. In the 50th minute, the Thorns were down 2-0 and not looking particularly threatening. Mana Shim had come in for Henry in the 18th minute, leaving him with two subs. Yet he did not make the second substitution until the 76th minute when Hayley Raso came in for Mallory Weber. He never made the third.
The injection of Raso did seem to lift the team and raised the level of urgency, something they could have used fifteen minutes earlier. After Raso, there was no healthy attacking sub remaining on the bench. Could he have brought in Kat Williamson for the clearly ailing Sonnett, pushed Allie Long forward, and moved Lindsey Horan up as a second striker with Nadim? Or the reverse: Horan back and Long forward? We will never know. But the game demanded something, and sooner.
The loss put a small dent in our dwindling hopes for winning the league, but made no real difference in our pursuit of a home playoff match after Western New York was only able to take one point from Houston. The task has not changed – win the remaining four games, three of which are at home next week, and we will finish no worse than second.
Allie Long was simply splendid in this match, the obvious WOTM. Of course she scored the goal with a lovely outside-of-the-boot flying volleyed chip – an amazing piece of skill. But she was bossing our defensive midfield the entire game. Her positive/negative touch ratio was 20:1. Looking back on prior matches, Allie always seems to post numbers like these. But, with her team crumbling around her, the accomplishment this day was even more notable.
Mana Shim was pressed into service early after Amandine Henry departed. Her touch ratio was 14:2 and one of the two negatives was an attempted long ball that went only slightly awry.
Nadia Nadim certainly made the effort, especially in the first half with a touch ratio of 10:4. She faded in the second and nearly scored an own-goal defending a corner kick. In her defense, the other Thorns weren’t exactly rushing to support her when she got forward with the ball.
Tobin Heath was very active in the match and was clearly exhorting the team in the latter stages. Her touch ratio was 21:7. In the second half, she torched the Reign defense multiple times to get free in the box. Sadly, after all the work to get free, her final shot or pass was not adequate. And her free kicks were poor by her standards, excepting perhaps two of her eight corners and the ball in for Long’s goal.
Hayley Raso was a spark when she came in. She had very few touches, but they were all positive and created chances.
This is going to take a while.
Michelle Betos had a rough day and not really on the concessions. She might perhaps have handled the first goal better as she hesitated coming off her line. But she had no chance at all on the other two. Her distribution was not good and she misplayed two routine balls, nearly but not quite disastrously. Her touch ratio, including goal kicks but not the goals, was 9:12.
Emily Sonnett had a really rotten day. First she caught the ball in her face, possibly directly in the eye, on a header challenge. She came off nearly in tears and looked woozy. Then she got headbutted and her nose broken. And to top off her day, she completely misplayed a routine pass, letting it run past her rather than simply stepping in to pass it forward. Melis was behind her and happily placed the ball into the net.
Lindsey Horan’s first half was nothing to write home about (9:8 touches) but the second was better (9:3). Of all the Thorns, she seemed the most disconnected from the team…
Except perhaps Meghan Klingenberg. She was very involved in the play right from the start, but her passing was simply terrible. She frequently looked undecided when looking for a pass, which slowed her play and made it easier for the Reign to pick her off. Her touch ratio was 13:9, but unhappily the nine were all bad ones and don’t include a sloppy back pass that Betos was fortunate to boot clear.
Menges (6:6) and Reynolds (14:8) did their jobs but didn’t contribute much. Weber (6:2) was largely invisible, rarely getting forward, and Henry wasn’t out there long enough to make a real impact.
Last match (so looong ago!) I offered Mark Parsons the possibility of Newtonian genius level if he successfully reintegrated the returning Olympians. Well, sad to say, he didn’t. Combine that with the fact that the team was not completely prepared to play this match, and the late substitution when trailing, and failure to use the third sub when losing, and the rating has to take a hit. So, it’s back to Planck for now.
The buses left awfully early but after a large caffeine injection the party started as if it was five o’clock. By all reports the cider bus was the rowdier of the two, same as last time. I don’t know what Two Towns puts in their product but it sure makes the Riveters happy. Many thanks to them and to Lompoc for the Kick Axe ale.
Traffic was unexpectedly light so we arrived far ahead of the gates opening. We passed the time by continuing the kickaround that had started at the Scatter Creek rest area stop. The local contingent included at least a couple of TACO members attending their inaugural Thorns match, a regular long distance fan who flew in from Sacramento and another from San Diego for her first in-person Thorns match.
The weather was perfect and the stadium fairly full. The chant battle between the supporters was no contest in spite of the Queen’s Court’s drum set. The only negative report I heard was that the ginger cider in the beer garden was awful swill. But of course we’re spoiled.
At the conclusion of the match, the team had their usual huddle at midfield while we chanted our love songs. The team then broke the huddle and walked over to stand in front of our section, behind the bench. The players clapped for a couple seconds and then simply stood there for a few minutes, staring at us. Aside from some waves of acknowledgement, they were a straight-faced and somber group. It was a strange time, almost as if they expected us to be shouting angrily when in fact we were singing with smiles.
The trip home was high-spirited with another kickaround at the rest stop. The beer bus had a small issue with a brake that did not release and overheated but the driver Wendell soon sorted it out. Everyone was home in Portland ahead of schedule.
On the beer bus, the consensus was that, while unfortunate, this result was no death knell to our hopes. The Thorns have the final three home matches of the season this coming week: versus Boston on Sunday, Houston on Wednesday and Western New York Sunday. If Parsons sorts out the issues, and the team brings it hard, and we bring it hard, all will be well. See you Sunday!
by Richard Hamje
Video editing and still photos by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje