(In which the Thorns beat the Reign 2-1 and break the Curse of Memorial Stadium)
Take a base element, in nature or the lab, and apply constant increasing heat and pressure for a long time. The result can be a perfect gem. On Saturday, the Thorns produced a beautiful red ruby in only 90 minutes using these same principles. The resulting jewel had a single flaw when an impurity was introduced late in the process. But on the NWSL scale of zero to three, this was a beautiful three-pointer.
As with any big rivalry match, the players came out pumped up and ready for action. And as we often see in those cases, everyone trying to be a hero leads to a lot of sloppy play. For the first 20 minutes, it seemed like nobody could do anything right. Katelyn Johnson missed an excellent headed chance in the 10th minute for the Reign. Nadia Nadim took three cracks at the Seattle goal in the first eleven minutes, all of which were lucky to avoid the parking lot. Portland were pressing high and breaking up the Seattle play, but then turned the ball over themselves nearly every time. From 18:18 until 18:50, Haley Kopmeyer in the Reign net diddled with a goal kick – 32 seconds in total and then she kicked it out of bounds. In the first half, she put five goal kicks directly into touch.
But starting in the 20th minute, Portland calmed their play and good things started happening. As usual, it was Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair who settled the team’s nerves as the Reign lost some of their initial energy and backed off. Look at this sequence of Portland attempts: 20:43 Nadim can’t quite get to an excellent cross; 23:20 Meghan Klingenberg delivers a great corner kick but the header is off target; 24:10 another good corner by Kling and a near-miss by Horan; 32:13 Raso just misses the net; 33:30 Horan’s turn to miss just high; 34:50 Nadim takes a wild shot when she had Sinclair trailing in the box wide open; 36:50 multiple shots on a crazy sequence in the Seattle box, all blocked; 37:50 Raso somehow splits two defenders and gets a shot off; 39:40 Sinclair’s chance is saved; 40:24 Klingenberg runs onto a deep ball but her rocket shot is just over the bar; 41:10 Nadim tries to chip Kopmeyer from close range but it’s saved. Whew! Not a lot of time in there for Seattle to do anything, and they didn’t.
The first half ended 0-0, after referee Farhad Dadkho gave two minutes of stoppage time for no apparent reason. The second half picked right up where the first left off. At 48:50 Raso picked off a poor backpass from Kristen McNabb and slotted the ball past Kopmeyer for the 1-0 lead. This was reminiscent of Megan Rapinoe’s pickoff of a Sonnett backpass the last time these two teams played.
With five minutes remaining, Sinclair laid an exquisite long ball out for Raso to chase. Hayley blasted right past a hapless defender, controlled the bouncing ball and unleashed a hard shot that Kopmeyer saved. But the rebound came right back to Raso who made no mistake from a tightening angle. The visiting Riveters erupted in joy. The second Raso goal was again reminiscent of the Rapinoe’s late dagger to Portland hearts last time.
In the 89th minute, referee Dadkho simply lost his mind. He called a penalty kick for Seattle for no reason, and gave Klingenberg a yellow card to boot! The play was completely routine as Franch ran out to catch the ball in front of Rachel Coursie and Kling. Coursie fell down after brushing shoulders with Klingenberg. When the penalty was awarded, you can see Coursie laughing as she’s on the ground. After the match, Laura Harvey, coach of the Reign, said she had no idea why the penalty was called. In any case, Jess Fishlock took the PK well and Franch had no chance. Her season PK save ratio is now down to an amazing 60%.
Dadkho announced an appropriate two minutes of stoppage time but proceeded to actually give four. He now joins Karen Abt and Marco Vega in my Pantheon of the Pathetic™. With less than 30 seconds to go in the extra stoppage, Hayley Raso committed a silly foul and got a yellow card. It was her fifth of the season so she will be suspended for the Washington Spirit match.
The scoreline doesn’t really reflect Portland’s domination of this match. Seattle had only three shots from the run of play, none on target compared to Portland’s 25 with six on frame. For two different twenty-minute stretches, the Reign had almost no possession and did not get out of their own end. Portland’s possession was leading to shots – what little Seattle had of the ball was mostly panic clearances. There are no published detailed player stats, but I believe that Jess Fishlock did not have a touch on the ball until about the 35th minute. For her to be that uninvolved in the play is a testament to Horan’s and Henry’s defense, but it was a dire thing for Seattle. The final stats say that the Thorns had 52.8% possession.
The win puts Portland in a very good position for a home semifinal match for four games remaining. Two more wins will seal a playoff berth mathematically. The Thorns also play Orlando and Chicago, currently third and fourth, to wind up the regular season. This means that the Thorns don’t need any help from others to host a playoff match. Of course, outside assistance is always welcome.
This was the first win for the Thorns at Memorial Stadium. It was Mark Parsons’ first win there as coach of both Washington and Portland. He had threatened to kiss the turf if the Thorns won, and he’s a man of his word.
How can the WOTM award go to anyone but Hayley Raso? If you score two goals in Seattle and break the curse, not only are you WOTM but you probably never pay for a Foster’s in Portland again. Hayley had a fine outing in general as Harvey threw one defender after another in front of her without effect. The only smudge on the day was the not-very-smart yellow card she took at the end. Her positive-to-negative meaningful touch ratio was 15:5 with all five bad ones in the second half.
This was Ashleigh Sykes’ best performance yet as a Thorn. She locked down the right side on defense, never let a Reign player behind her once, and contributed a couple excellent crosses. Her touch ratio was 20:3. I met her father at halftime outside the stadium. He’s a dedicated soccer parent if ever there was one, taking seven weeks to come to the US and follow Ash after spending a lifetime taking her and her twin sister to matches all over Australia. He told me that he’s waiting for her first NWSL goal because ten more will immediately follow, “That’s how it’s always been with Ash”. He also told me that, at Canberra United, Ash and Raso often switched positions in the second half but I am glad that wasn’t done for this match.
The usual suspects had their usual great performances. Christine Sinclair led the team in touch ratio (27:1) and her bouncing exit in the 88th revved up the already hyperactive Riveters. Lindsey Horan also put in a great shift (25:3) alongside Amandine Henry (14:2) for the first 57 minutes and Allie Long (5:1) for the rest.
Nadia Nadim brought her shooting boots and had them on from the first minute. Unhappily, they were her “high and wide” pair. Her touches were 11:5 in the first half, fading to 2:1 in the second. Dagny Byrnjarsdottir came on in her place in the 75th and instantly picked up a yellow card. She then spent 15 minutes wandering around lost with only three touches, two of them poor. Savannah Jordan made her professional debut in place of Christine but got no meaningful touches in her five minutes. Perhaps with Raso suspended we will see more of her next week, although Tyler Lussi will also be available.
As you would expect when the opponent has no shots on goal, the defense was stout. Meghan Klingenberg contributed the most offense with her good corners and crosses. Her ratio was 17:4, evenly split between halves. Kat Reynolds mostly stayed home but made several crucial plays (10:1) especially in the second half. Emily Sonnett (10:2) and Emily Menges (9:1) were as steady as ever. They both came forward a few times but Sonnett was unable to keep her scoring streak alive. Adrianna Franch had very little to do. Seattle’s best chance was an off-target header attempt by Johnson, but I believe Franch had it covered. That attempt, along with all but one of the Seattle corners, were taken to the far post. Harvey’s scouting must have told her that they needed to get Franch moving across her box, but she got there every time this match. Her distribution was also respectable and her final touch ratio was 12:5.
Last week I had promised Mark Parsons the Newton genius award should the Thorns produce a sharp win. The Thorns were the better side all afternoon. His plan to mark Fishlock tightly worked a charm. The team was energized and produced maximum effort and focus for the entire ninety. At the time, I thought Allie Long might have been better subbed for Nadim, who was fading, instead of Henry who still looked strong. But he was right. The Newtonian heights were achieved and award is bestowed. May it remain in place for six more games!
It was a lovely day for football. Seattle’s biggest crowd of the season, 6,041, was augmented by what is surely the largest traveling contingent yet in NWSL. The Riveters distributed 170 tickets and were joined by many others who bought their tickets some other way. We filled two sections behind the Thorns bench and clearly overwhelmed the organized Seattle support. Aside from some random drumming, the Queen’s Court managed to coordinate clapping once or twice, a couple tepid renditions of the Sounders’ “Fight and Win”, and a big noise for the unearned penalty kick. But the loudest roar from the crowd came on Raso’s second and the resulting “Two Goals Beyond” chant was likely audible at the Space Needle.
The Riveters brought two busses north. The trip up was uneventful, traffic was light and we arrived well ahead of schedule. For once, the keg did not run dry. This is attributable to the early morning start (cider for breakfast?) and the fact that Two Towns donated a full 55-gallon keg. Even the hardest-core fans can’t drink a gallon of cider apiece!
One bus stayed overnight for the Timbers v. Sounders match on Sunday. The Queen’s Court invited the overnight Riveters to join them for a Black Lives Matter march downtown after the match. They had several takers. There were matches between the TA/Riveters and ECS supporter groups. Portland’s women’s and over-40’s sides posted shutout wins. And the weekend culminated with the Timbers managing a draw for a satisfying four-point weekend.
While Diego Valeri was training on Saturday, his family joined the Riveters at Memorial. Connie, Florencia, and an older woman I guess to be Connie’s grandmother, were in the row in front of me. No VIP seats for them – they sang and danced with the rest of us the entire time. Everyone respected their privacy, although I was mightily tempted to ask Connie for an autograph.
The next match is back at Providence Park as the already-eliminated Washington Spirit with Mallory Pugh come to play the spoiler role. The match report will be delayed as I will be out of town and probably unable to even watch the match. I get back after the Boston away match on the 10th and will try to provide an update on both as soon as I get unpacked.
Tobin Heath is back! At the roster deadline, Heath was moved off the disabled list and returned from Los Angeles where she’s been recuperating. Tobin hasn’t played a competitive match in almost a year and while she appears very fit, there’s no telling what shape her game will be in. The team has been doing very well in spite of her absence, but we all know what she can bring. Will she make a difference for the Thorns as crunch-time arrives?
I certainly hope so, because her return meant that somebody else had to go. And it was Mana Shim who got waived. She will be going to Sweden to restart her career. In 2016, the Olympics stripped the Thorns bench and we faced the full-strength Seattle Reign at Providence Park. I will never forget the inch-perfect 40-yard ball from Mana that Nadia headed in for the unlikeliest of winners. I hope that Mana has not paid for a drink in Portland since. One of the last original Thorns, via an improbable path. A woman whose honesty, humor and sorrows were freely shared with all of us.
So the Thorns tore out a little piece of my heart and fed it to the playoff wolves. Perhaps Heath will be Heath, and the Thorns will win the cup, and we will go to the airport and sing, and the pundits will say, if they remember, that this was the right move. But I will still have a little hole in my heart.
By Richard Hamje
Video and still editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje