(in which the Thorns win the NWSL Championship and Portland pees itself a little)
The NWSL Final was played in the land of sanitized fairytales. The original stories included dark themes of villainy, maimings, and worse. But then a hero emerged and everything wrapped up with a happy ending. How appropriate for this match.
The Thorns won the title! On Saturday in steamy Orlando, they prevailed in a chippy match beating the North Carolina Courage 1-0. In the 50th minute, Lindsey Horan scored the goal with a crisp volley from very close range. Team defending then helped Portland see the match out.
The first half was a dreary affair with poor passing and strong tackling by both sides. The Courage suffered two injuries that disrupted coach Paul Riley’s pregame plans. The second half was more like a proper football match, albeit still rough. The referee had her hands full but generally did a reasonable job — we have seen far worse in big games before.
The first injury was a big one, as Taylor Smith, North Carolina’s speedy fullback fell awkwardly after colliding with Tobin Heath. The foul, which was called, was a fairly routine coming together. But unfortunately for Smith, she landed on her scapula and dislocated her shoulder. She gamely tried to play through the injury but after another mild collision she collapsed in pain and was subbed out.
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In the 15th minute, Lindsey Horan got a stern talking-to after she cleaned out McCall Zerboni near the Courage goal. In the 36th minute Kristen Hamilton had to subbed after she injured her leg. As you can see below, she stuck out her foot but planted her ankle on top of the ball. This caused her to do the splits and reportedly twisted her knee in the process.
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Former Thorn Jessica McDonald replaced Hamilton. This one one of McDonald’s earliest entry times in the latter part of the season, as she has been nagged with hamstring problems. She did however contribute to the end. Smith’s replacement was Makenzy Doniak who left a nasty mark on Tobin Heath’s left ankle in first half stoppage time that the referee missed.
Between the fouls and injuries was a seemingly endless stream of throw-ins and goal kicks. Both teams’ final passing accuracy was around 54% which is terrible. The first half was notably worse than the second, so the accuracy was surely well below 50% for both teams through halftime.
Overall, North Carolina were the more successful team in the first half. But they surely went into the locker room frustrated as they never tested AD Franch in Portland’s net. One reason was the swarming defense played by the Thorns. Here’s an example, as Lindsey Horan – nominally a center midfielder – made two stops on Courage shots in Portland’s box.
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The second half opened as the first ended with the Courage in control but not being very effective. They had an excellent chance in the 47th when Lynn Williams forced a good save from Franch. The rebound fell to the Thorns’ penalty spot but Jess McDonald completely whiffed on her hurried shot attempt. She was chuckling about it, but only two minutes later she was surely ruing the miss. A handball by Abby Dahlkemper gave Emily Sonnett a free kick at the midfield stripe. She sent a towering ball into the Courage box where it glanced off two North Carolina players and dropped to the wide-open Horan. Lindsey made no mistake, burying a crisp volley into the roof of the net.
I’ll spare you your one-hundredth look at the replay, but there was an interesting note on the goal. Horan was offside when the ball arrived, but since it came off Lynn Williams’ extended arm, and since Horan was initially onside, the play was correctly allowed. Kudos to assistant referee Adrienne McDonald who clearly knows the offside rule better than the Courage’s tweet-whining owner. Since she must have seen the handball in order to get the offside call correct, one can only a assume a penalty kick would have been awarded had Horan not scored.
Portland nearly doubled the lead on this chaotic play about twenty minutes later. Here I do wonder why no foul was called on Zerboni for dumping Nadim late in the sequence.
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A minute after this, Dagny Brynjarsdottir was subbed in for the flagging Ashleigh Sykes. Dagny was almost immediately shown a yellow card for an unintentional foul that was probably the mildest offense of the match. And one minute after that, Tobin Heath was raked by Lynn Williams who received no card or lecture for it.
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This was the same ankle that Doniak had tenderized in the first half and Portland held its collective breath for Heath’s health. She did return to the match but we learned later that the injury was real. Heath will miss the upcoming USWNT friendlies.
After Heath’s return, the Thorns bunkered. The last fifteen minutes saw eleven Thorns behind the ball nearly 100% of the time. With each tackle or block, the ball was simply lumped upfield or out of bounds. Portland did earn one more corner kick as the clock hit 84:00, which was combined with three consecutive slowly taken throw-ins in the Courage end to run the clock to 85:30 without any possession. Finally, after nearly six minutes of stoppage time, the whistle blew and the celebrations began.
The Curse of the Shield continues for the fifth year. The Thorns match FCKC’s two titles but are the first team in the league with three pieces of silverware counting last year’s Shield. Next time you’re in Providence Park, stroll over to the northwest corner and check them out!
Lindsey Horan was named MVP of the Final. This was entirely appropriate based on my viewing and stats. Of course, she scored the only goal. But Horan was the team leader, by a wide margin, in positive-to-negative meaningful touches. In the first half, her ratio was 12:3, in the second also 12:3. There can be little doubt that without her, the Thorns would have been overrun in the midfield. In the hot conditions, her contribution is even more critical as she saved the rest of the team from chasing for ninety straight minutes.
Second place honors go to Amandine Henry who has since returned to France with two pieces of silverware and an amazing life experience from her 18 months here. She was the only other Thorns attacker with consistent performance for the entire game: 9:1 in the first and 8:1 in the second.
Nadia Nadim came on in the 69th minute but had the third best contribution (14:0). Unfortunately, Nadia left Orlando to go directly to the Danish national team camp for a World Cup qualifier only to have the match cancelled by the miserly and misogynist DBU over a pay dispute. I can imagine that, had she known, she’d have rather come back to Portland for the day of feting.
The other Thorn who flew direct to Europe was Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Iceland’s federation is on good terms with their WNT and will play their World Cup qualifiers. Dagny contributed stats of 11:3 for her forty minutes including a few plays to keep North Carolina honest late in the match. There has been speculation that Dagny may not return in 2018 due partly to her World Cup workload in Europe and partly to her rising global profile from her Thorns performance. To my knowledge, she has not publicly given even a hint of a desire to move. Time will tell if the rumor-mongers are correct.
The rest of the Thorns attackers were basically wretched in this match. It’s harsh to say that Tobin Heath was bad, but she pretty much was. We saw none of her usual flair, her passing was poor and she seemed reluctant to take on defenders. Her touch ratio was 11:8 (3:5 in the first half) with more than half of the positive touches coming in the final fifteen minutes. Her first positive touch did not come until the 31st minute. Similarly, Christine Sinclair had a forgettable outing (2:1 in the first, 10:2 in total). Possibly her best play was a perfectly weighted clearance to the Courage corner which burned up thirty seconds in stoppage time. The normally reliable Meghan Klingenberg had a rotten first half (2:5) but was better in the second (5:1). Allie Long had a token appearance late in stoppage time without any touches. Allie tweeted a couple weeks ago that she will not be a bench player next year. Does this mean that she is determined to step into Henry’s slot? Or that she is leaving the Thorns for Europe, or another NWSL team with less depth? All interpretations seem reasonable.
The two Australians were invisible. Hayley Raso had only six meaningful touches over her 69 minutes, all but one positive. Ashleigh Sykes was worse still with a 4:3 ratio for 54 minutes. There has been some question as to Sykes’ return for the 2018 season. She appears to be enjoying herself and we’ve certainly seen her level of play step up as the season progressed. But who knows if she’s truly happy with her role, and life, here?
Not all of the attacking malaise can be laid at the feet of our players. Every Thorn was making the effort (except sometimes Heath, who may still have some injury aside from the ankle knock). North Carolina was pressing very hard and double-teaming the Thorns marquee players whenever they got the ball. Credit to them for being aggressive and bought-in to making life miserable for Portland. It resembled what the Thorns had done to Morgan and Marta in the semi-final match.
It also seemed that the Courage’s gameplan was to attack on their left, against Sykes and Reynolds. They often had four and five attackers pressing that pair which forced Menges, Horan, Henry and Sinclair to rush over and shore things up. This plan may have evolved after the injury to Smith which weakened the Courage’s right-side attack. Regardless, it nearly worked and Portland did well not to give up an equalizer. I don’t know if the Thorns could have held on for another 30 minutes.
The Thorns backline was very good, as they had to be given the struggling in front of them. Emily Menges had a 9:1 touch ratio including a couple of key blocks. Her one error saw her bypassed with a sharp ball to Lynn Williams which lead to the Courage’s best chance of the match. Another time she got out-muscled by Jess McDonald, only to round her and block the close-in shot. Emily Sonnett had a similarly steady match (7:2) with the assist for the goal on her long free kick.
But the star on defense this match was Kat Reynolds. She was being picked-on almost from the opening whistle. Maybe Riley thought that her thirty-year-old legs weren’t up to the challenge in the heat, or perhaps that her wiles would not be enough to overcome her pace mismatch versus Williams. Regardless, she played her best match of the year and proved the Courage’s strategy mistaken. Her touch ratio was 12:5. Her biggest error was a “no-you-take-it” miscommunication in the box but she scrambled to break up the play after the resulting turnover.
Adrianna Franch showed everyone why she is rightfully NWSL’s Goalkeeper of the Year. Her distribution was middling but her shot-stopping and positioning was perfect. Her touch ratio was 11:6 with the worst moment right after halftime when she made a terrible clearance straight to Samantha Mewis which immediately came back as a 45-yard lob shot. Franch was beaten but the ball hit the top of the crossbar. With that embarrassment behind her, AD turned in her 12th clean sheet of the year. Incidentally, there were a total of 12 saved/missed penalty shots league-wide this season and AD had 33% of them. Had this match gone to a shootout, I’d have liked the Thorns’ chances.
Often when a team struggles the coach takes the blame but when they shine the players get the credit. But coaching always matters, for worse and for better. Mark Parsons and his entire staff deserve all the praise they get and maybe more. When it really mattered – in the last five games of the year – they had the team healthy, motivated and unified. When facing a well-matched opponent, Parsons’ game plan seemed to be “absorb pressure and counter-attack”. When facing weaker opposition, he let the Thorns run-and-gun. Thus, the team got some fun matches sprinkled in with the tough ones. And at the end of the season, when they’re nearly all tough, the team was prepared and tempered. A tip of the cap to Nadine Angerer for her unique ability to keep things focused yet light.
What a busy week! Starting with the game itself, the attendance was a paltry 8,124 not even filling the lower bowl of the lovely new Orlando City Stadium. Much debate has ensued about the merits of having the higher seed host the final, which would presumably pack the venue. Luke Fritz reported in a tweet that “if” the league sticks with a neutral site for the 2018 final, it will be in Portland. This implies that there is at least discussion about awarding the better team the home game.
Somewhere around 150 Portland fans made the long trip. Most were concentrated in the sun-drenched section 26 of the “Wall” standing area at the north end of the stadium. Others were scattered through the regular seats. The Riveters were in full force with banners, flags, capos, and drums. Their counterpart, the Oak City Supporters, sited in the adjoining section 24 were much less colorful and had no drums to help them compete. They did however have the benefit of shade from the opening whistle.
The Riveters brought along a huge rose to represent the smoke that you usually see at Providence Park.
In a funny : not-funny moment, the Orlando security staff attempted to shut down profane language from both supporter groups. At one point the Oak City group was chanting an uncreative “Fuck You, Portland” and later the Riveters used the R-rated version of “Root for the Girls in Red”. The stadium staff complained that swearing is not allowed in the stadium for NWSL matches. Apparently, it’s okay for the MLS supporters though. When the Riveters pointed out this double standard, they were met with shrugs.
As the final whistle blew, the north end erupted in glee. Several players ran into the stands to exchange high-fives. The stadium day ended with the trophy being presented to the players, and then by them to the Riveters.
All then adjourned to a nearby bar where, as he did in 2013, Merritt Paulson ran an open tab. It seems that the bar would not accept Merritt’s credit card over the phone and he had an owner’s meeting to attend, so he had Gavin Wilkinson deliver the physical card in person. Merritt later tweeted this picture of a portion of the bill.
Somehow, the next morning about a dozen Riveters shook off their hangovers to help pack food boxes for Puerto Rico relief.
When Mana Shim was waived from the Thorns she extracted a promise from Merritt that she would be able to join the team for the Final if they made it. He did, they did, and she did!
Back home, there were watch parties at more than a dozen bars in town and others around the state and country. I was at Bazi which was packed like sardines with nervy Riveters. The same story played out at Gigantic Brewing, Lightning Will, Punch Bowl Social and presumably all the other sites. After the victory, the crowd at Lightning Will trotted over to the stadium to light flares, hang a banner, and watch as a stadium crew member updated the sign.
Others scurried home to make tifo for the Sunday celebrations. These started with a greeting at the airport at noon. In 2013, we were possibly one hundred people inside for this welcome – five years later the support has grown tremendously and had to be shifted outdoors. The crowd sang some songs, exchanged high-fives, collected autographs and generally had a great time. The Rose City Rosarians were present as official greeters. Every TV station had a crew there. A few lucky Riveters got to hold the actual trophy which, by the way, is half again the size of the original 2013 version.
The party was capped off with a rally at Providence Park shortly after the Timbers match. This was a larger affair with thousands of people filling much of the north end. Jake Zivin mc’ed once they got a working microphone. There were speeches by Merritt, Mark Parsons, Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, several players and even capo Alex Staller representing the Riveters. Parsons and Staller had an epic FIFA17 showdown while inaugurating the DHS family visitation room this past summer. Alex won and the ever-competitive Parsons is still jonesing for a rematch, to the point that he issued the challenge in front of the assembled crowd. Maybe they can stage a charity event and play on the video-board at the stadium?
The high point, for me at least, was AD Franch and Nadine Angerer unveiling the mystery of “Ice Bear” with the entire team recreating a pre-game huddle as Nadine narrated. It was hilarious but also a telling illustration of the camaraderie of this group.
The Ice Bear tale starts at 10:30. Nadine’s bleeped comment was a bashful “oh, fuck”.
The final ribbon was tied as the Portland City Council issued an official proclamation declaring Wednesday, October 18, 2017, to be a day of recognition for Portland Thorns FC.
And so the season is wrapped up, this time in joy.
The long offseason now kicks off. The first event is “Night of the Living SHRED” with bands, beers, great raffle prizes from friends and partners (guitar giveaway!), and prizes for best costume. The event will take place at Oregon Public House on October 29, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Admission is $5. It is a fund-raiser for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, and a good time with your fellow Riveters.
There are sure to be announcements from the team as replacements are signed for the departing Henry and Nadim, and as other players may move on and new ones step in. The NWSL 2018 Draft is on January 18th, in Philadelphia. Merritt continued to hint that there may be a preseason tournament involving a European team. We have a lot to look forward to, but as Meghan Klingenberg said, “What, there’s no game next week?”
“We Just Won the League – This Year!”
By Richard Hamje