Das Eisbärwunderspiel

Because the “Ice Bear Miracle Game” sounds better in the original German.

Here’s a statistical tale for you to ponder.

In the first quarterfinal match of the Challenge Cup one team fires 21 shots, puts 8 on goal. Wins 11 corners. Controls about 54% of the possession.Puts in 30 crosses. Needs only 2 saves, 12 clearances, and 7 blocks from its defense. This team started essentially the same squad that had won the league title less than a year earlier and had won the first four matches in the tournament handily, scoring seven while conceding only a single goal.

The other manages only 3 SOG from 10 shots and ekes out only 5 corners and lofts only 14 crosses. Has to make 4 blocks but a whopping 8 saves and 42 – yes, 42 – clearances. This team scraped through the first four games with a loss and three draws, scoring twice but conceding three times, had collapsed at the end of the previous season, lost its best player in the 51st minute of this match, and had to declare it’s retired goalkeeper coach as the reserve keeper because the keeper who had started the previous four matches was injured in training and had no other keepers healthy.

Which team won?

If you watched the match last Friday, or have been paying even the slightest of attention since then, you know who won; the Portland Thorns emerged from an hour under the cosh of North Carolina attack to snatch a goal and a win and send the defending champs home early.

What the ever-loving hell?

HOW?

The Thorns have looked underwhelming and underconfident going forward throughout the “group stage”. The defending – and, most notably, Bella Bixby’s brilliant goalkeeping – has been there.

The scoring? Has not.

How on Earth could this team have managed to not just survive but defeat the champions?

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Homeric

An injury to Bixby in training forced Coach Parsons to start Britt Eckerstrom, his notional backup who hadn’t played a minute since August of 2019.

“Go with your hot goalie” is conventional defending wisdom up there with “don’t start land wars in Asia”. Having to throw a cold keeper, against the most ferocious attack in the NWSL, in a knockout match?

Arrgh. Just shoot me now.

Wait! Put that pistol down! In probably the most critical match of her professional life to date, Britt Eckerstrom did this:

28′ – Lynn Williams skins Kat Reynolds and bores in alone on goal, fires a head-high shot 10 yards from goal. Eckerstrom parries it into the air and catches it.

31′ – Debinha takes a Williams drop near the top of the penalty arch and fires a low shot that rips through the crowd in front of the goal. Eckerstrom gets down to her left and parries the ball around her post.

34′ – Debinha again, races through the Thorns defense and fires a 12-yard shot at the lower near corner. Eckerstrom saves cleanly.

45+8′ – Hamilton blows through a crowd of Thorns and hammers a shot towards the left side of the goal from 7 yards out. Eckerstrom parries around the left post.

68′ – Debinha pounds a powerful header towards the lower right post from about 15 yards out. Eckerstrom turns it around her post.

79′ – Debinha lines up over a free kick barely outside the Thorns top right penalty area and strikes a perfect arching shot into the upper right corner. Then this happened:

Image by CBSSN. Licensed under Fair Use.

That may be the best save I’ve ever seen Eckerstrom make, hell, that’s one of the best saves I’ve ever seen, period, and it couldn’t have happened on a better shot at a more critical time.

But that wasn’t the last time, or the wildest.

86′ – Lynn Williams found Debinha running at the Thorns’ backline…and Debinha ran through the backline to put herself 1 v 0 on Eckerstrom. Breck came off her line perfectly, closed the angles, made herself big and blocked the shot away…and then a trailing Hailie Mace took a crack off the rebound and Eckerstrom knocked that away, too.

Image by CBSSN. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s nuts. That’s brilliant. That’s…I’m not sure what to call it.

Portland has been blessed with some truly outstanding goalkeeping talent beginning with Karina LeBlanc through Nadine Angerer, Michelle Betos, and A.D. Franch. But for sheer, sustained, insanely good, single-match goalkeeping I don’t think I’ve seen the equal of Eckerstrom’s performance against The Damned Courage in Utah.

There’s a scene in the old John the Wayne film The Quiet Man where the little guy contemplates the scene of the young couple’s marital bed – which they’re wrecked, although not in the way Mickoleen thinks they have – puffs his cigar once thoughtfully, and says; “Impetuous…Homeric!“.

That’s what to call it. That’s what Breck28 was yesterday.

Homeric.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Opportunistic

In the first 67 minutes Portland had exactly one respectable chance.

Lindsey Horan worked the ball down to the Carolina endline in the 12th minute and cut back a sweet drop to Tyler Lussi lurking around the left corner of the six-yard box. Lussi took a swing at it, but it was blocked out for a corner kick by Abby Erceg.

That was pretty much it. Oh, yeah, well, Angela Salem had a go from outside the top of the 18-yard-box that sailed harmlessly over…but in terms of real danger?

Nothing.

Nothing in the first hour, basically. Then, in the 67th minute Portland brought the ball upfield and began working around the right edge of the Carolina penalty area. Celeste Boureille and Christen Westphal played kickabout but couldn’t find any holes in the Courage left-side defense until Westphal picked out Raquel Rodriguez making a diagonal run and slid a pass in to her…

Image by CBSSN. Licensed under Fair Use.

Rodriguez takes the ball to the byline. She doesn’t have an angle, and Denise O’Sullivan is all over her, doing what a good DM does; picking up the attacking midfielder’s run, staying goal-side, marking tight.

But somehow Rodriguez finds the hole and fires the cross as Morgan Weaver is struck by Poacher’s Lightning; she’s been loafing around the back post probably hoping for a speculative cross.

Instead she kicks in the burners, beats Addisyn Merrick (who’s ballwatching and doesn’t head-check to see where her mark is or what she’s doing) just as the ball gets there.

Here’s where Kate Rowland helps Portland out, too. Once O’Sullivan pushes Rodriguez to the byline Rowland doesn’t really have to play in front of her post. Rocky has no shot, Rowland can cheat back a bit. She doesn’t.

So Weaver has time to just tap in the cross and score all the goals Portland needed because Britt Eckerstrom was going utterly mad at the other end of the pitch.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Finish, Goddammit!

To beat The Damned Courage Portland needed heroic goalkeeping and poaching goal-making…and a huge helping of good luck…and piss-poor Carolina finishing.

Here’s the full match shot-on-goal chart:

And here’s the xG calculation’s for Carolina based on that chart:

Remember how I’ve been whining to the Thorns forwards about “finish!”

Yeah, well.

Hi, Carolina. I’m lookin’ at you now. You had something like 0.69xG in the first half alone. By the 65th minute? let’s call it 0.8. And by the end of the match…

Between Mad Eck and your own issues you couldn’t find a goal and force Portland to chase early. Or equalize and force PKs late.

The rap on Carolina’s attack has always been it’s wastefulness. They swarm you like plague rats; generate a crap-ton of chances but put most of them off-target. They kill you with brute force, not precision. But there’s a danger in that.

The Thorns have had finishing issues since last fall, but found the goal they needed (and, in case you’re wondering, here’s Portland’s xG for this match)…

…when they needed to.

You took your usual crap-ton of shots.

And didn’t.

Torwartfülle

Let’s not leave before mentioning how astounding it is that the Thorns are deeper at the keeper position than the Marianas Trench.

When A.D. Franch went down with injury the notional third-string keeper Bella Bixby came in for her and played like a veteran through the group stage.

(Bixby’s xG/G ratio was 4.63/3, for a -1.63 differential or -0.4GD per match. Just to put that in perspective, the best keeper in the NWSL last season was Kailen Sheridan of Sky Blue. Her GD was -0.91 per match. A.D. Franch posted a -0.25GD per match in 2019. So, yes; Bixby was just that good.)

When Bixby went down this past week with a partial ACL tear – dammit! – Eckerstrom came in and played like a hero for 90+ minutes to lock down the Damned.

What’s the link?

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Die Kaiserin.

Nadine Angerer has crafted the entire Thorns depth chart into starting-quality goalkeepers.

That’s ausgezeichnet. We and the team owes ya’ huge, kumpelin.

Onward, Rose City

Now the semifinal; Wednesday, Houston – who used their outstanding goalkeeping along with some shamefully poor officiating to see off the Royals on Friday.

Which Houston will show up? The one that split six goals on Matchday 1 or the one that couldn’t find a single goal yesterday?

We’ll be here Wednesday to find out.

Portland, Hoch! Hoch!

Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

13 thoughts on “Das Eisbärwunderspiel

  1. Excellent and humorous game discussion as usual John.
    Eck was definitely WOTM; that was epic, but there were a lot of heroes. I thought Rocky was a rock, Hubly keeps surprising us, Westphal was a steal, she is good! CelB has come back from OZ even better than last before, Salem, what can I say, she is such a calming presence. The Courage are super fast; the way that Lynn Williams torched Reynolds (who is fast) and Menges who is faster just shows how good she is and Debinha, damn that woman is amazing.
    But there was one point where Pogarch took off on about a 70 yard run to get back on defense and it looked like everybody else was moving at half speed. That is commitment and effort, but that is amazing speed. The Thorns also showed great composure in the last 10 minutes, Sinc maybe slower but she really showed her skill and savvy.
    This team is fun to watch and the game with Houston should be a lot of fun to watch. Jane Campbell has not been impressive but she is the penalty kick Queen. Lets win in regulation! Hopefully, Horan will be ready to play but if not I think the character of this squad will rise to the challenge. Even though Weaver’s goal was a poach, that is what she needed. She looked 2 inches taller after that goal.

    1. Several players had a fine match, especially CelBee (as RIchard points out below), Salem, Westphal – who has done well all tournament and, yes, I’m eating my words about her.

      I’m still on the fence about Pogarch. She’s got a crap-ton of speed but has been positionally naive and very raw-looking until now. Hopefully Friday was a harbinger of better things.

      Frankly, if we go out in the semi I’ll be kind of disappointed, but only “kinda”. We put the Damned Courage out, and for me that’s enough. I’m very petty that way…

      1. I feel the same way about going out in the semi or even final. Denying the Courage more silverware is a high point of this season; winning the COVID Cup would be higher, but only by a little. And for the sake of the NWSL, someone other than the Courage-Thorns duopoly needs to start winning trophies too. I’d rather lose the COVID Cup and win a Shield or Cup next year than vice versa.

  2. I am loving Boureille more and more. She got called on to be Lindsey Horan for 40 minutes and did it. Her finishing could use some work – if she bags that second goal we all breathe a LOT easier for the last 15 minutes. And she might have scored – it was there on a plate. I’d bet on Horan getting a goal there darned near every time. But since we didn’t need that goal, Boureille delivered what we did need – smart, stout defending and the occasional threat to keep Carolina honest.

    This is the official start of my whispering campaign to make sure CelBee is on the protected list come January.

  3. Rewatched the replay of the Eckerstrom free-kick save, staying focused on Debinha: You can see by her reaction;
    she knows she hit it perfect,
    she’s tied the game,
    team survived the scare,
    mix of relief and joy as she turns to celebrate with her teammates, and …
    are you effing kidding me, Eckerstrom?

  4. 360 minutes of knockout soccer, 1 goal. Sure there were a lot of saves, but this has been a bit of a yawn to the semi-finals in the last 3 quarterfinals.

    Houston V Portland

    Chicago V Sky Blue.

    Goals please. If the semis and final go 0-0 all the way to final PKs I am going to be very sad.

    Portland winning would be great, but having outlasted the entire bonfire I don’t really care anymore if the other 3 teams get their first piece of silverware on the 26th.

    If we win this thing are we really going to put a banner in the rafters next to our shield and our playoff championships? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It could be very good for the league if a Houston, Sky Blue or Chicago can bring something home to show their progression.

    1. Yeah, funny…if someone not-Portland wins? I want it to be SBFC. They’ve been the poor stepchild for so long I’d love to see them pick up some silverish-ware…

  5. I’m hoping for a Portland – Chicago final. It can be marketed. Two of the best players in the world with Horan and Ertz.

    I’m stunned that Sky Blue beat Washington more than I am Portland beating Carolina. I know we ranked 8th, but we’ve played well in the tournament in most facets of the game. Sky Blue hasn’t, but got a gift win from Jane Campbell

    1. Campbell’s odd. She’s a monster at stopping PKs — they quoted some crazy statistic on the broadcast about her stopping 9 of her last 14 PKs or something — but she has made a bunch of bad decisions during the run of play. She comes out for balls that she fails to get to, which is absolutely disastrous for a keeper, there was the time with the USWNT when she was defending her goal from INSIDE it, and she’s done other bone-headed things that I can’t remember.

    2. I’m going to bet that if Horan plays tomorrow she picks up a knock so that even if Portland goes through she won’t be available for the Final. Hate that…but I think she’s looking likely to get re-injured give the turf and the way she plays…

  6. 2022 sees a new NWSL franchise, Angel City. Women-owned and unaffiliated with Galaxy or LAFC (or Lyon).

    That will bring the league to 11 teams, which works nicely for a 20 (or 30) game season, but awkwardly for 24. Perhaps Sacramento will come in with them, or some other city (Dallas? Cincinnati? Denver?)

  7. 20 games with a midseason cup like the COVID Cup would be terrific – so a guaranteed minimum of 24 games and a maximum of 27, before playoffs.

    Pandemic circumstances notwithstanding, I thought this Cup was a great deal of fun, and I’d like to see the NWSL add it to the regular lineup.

  8. Agree Thornado. This Challenge Cup was fun and I am super happy we saw so many Thorns play. One of my hopes before this started was that we would see a lot of the gals on the bench get some experience. If there is a season next year (no certainty) and an Olympics (kind of doubtful at the moment) then this experience will be real valuable. With an expansion draft coming Parsons knows a lot more about his talent pool. The 2 position or RB looked dire after Carpenter left, looks fine now, I really like Westphal. We have at least three very serviceable players at the six, none is an Henry, but Salem, Seiler and Ogle are promising and CB can slot in there too. We have Kling at LB and tho she isn’t fast, she is extremely crafty. Pogarch has some awesome speed, but I think it will be a while before she can get to NWSL starter skill. I don’t ever expect her to get to Kling levels of craftiness but, if she could develop Catley levels of passing to go with that speed she would be starter material.
    I feel the questions about Rocky and Weaver have been answered.
    When Smith is added to the mix this will be a pretty awesome team. High pressing, strong midfield with two players that are pretty ridicule to take the ball from (Horan and Rocky). Also a stout deep defense

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.