Portland woke up gray and drizzly, probably looking very similar to the way Jim Gabarra and the gals from Sky Blue FC are feeling after dropping to third in the NWSL.
Wednesday night Portland Thorns FC did the business they couldn’t last Sunday and hung a 3-1 whipping on the Jersey Girls.
Mind you, in the larger sense all that did for PTFC was set up a huge match this coming Sunday with the league leaders, FC Kansas City. But sufficient to the day is the soccer thereof. Let’s just take a quick look at last night and see what might have made the difference between giving up two points to Chicago and hammering three out of SBFC.
Portland’s attack continues to be ferocious. That was the biggest similarity between the two matches, the intensity of the revitalized Thorns strikers. PTFC outshot SBFC 25-12, including 13-4 on goal but the numbers alone don’t really give a good sense of how different the two clubs looked last night. Thorns FC threatened from the opening whistle – Shim was desperately unlucky not to score in the first minute – to the final one. Sky Blue did what they could, given the depletion of their strike force, but relied largely on a counterattack that was generally well handled by PTFC.
While I’m here, let me shout out both Meleana Shim and Allie Long. Shim was perfectly positioned to clean up the mess Alex Morgan made firing twice at SBFC’s keeper Loyden at pointblank range. And Long got some karmic payback for Mautz’s golazo Sunday, crafting what amounted to the identical play with the identical result for Portland’s third goal. Allie has been working her tail off on defense for the past month and it was nice to see her enjoy her beautiful strike.
And Alex Morgan. Let’s just say that the Thorns’ marquee player had a fire and a ferocity I wish she’d display every match. Her first half equalizing strike was beautifully taken, and Wednesday night she was in every way what Rose City supporters dreamed of and opposing fans feared; a game-changer and a force of nature. Well played, Alex.
Portland’s midfield has been Tobinized. I was skeptical, I admit it; I didn’t see how the addition of a single player, no matter the quality, would fix the problems Thorns FC had been displaying in midfield. Well, for the record, I’m eating my words. Heath has made a vast difference, and Thorns midfield is finally showing the cohesion and composure we’d hoped to see from the opening match.
From what I can see Heath does this both with her own skills and the way she plays off the others. Her dribbling is far and away the most accomplished in the midfield and was really on display Wednesday night. I lost count of how many times she danced between or within a brace or trio of Sky Blue defenders, but the effect was to repeatedly draw pressure, like a black hole in a red jersey, and repeatedly free up space around her.
Then she would deploy her other talent, a gift for accurate passing. Especially to her forwards, Heath is capable of providing the sort of deadly service that makes her every possession a threat to the opposing goal and forces the defenders to concentrate on her as SBFC had to and as a result opening up opportunities for the Thorns around her. But she also makes her midfielders more effective, threading passes to them that would have been picked off three weeks ago. Wednesday night the Thorns midfield was no longer a place where the Thorns’ attack went to die, and I give Heath a huge portion of the credit for that.
I’ve seen other players do this, raise their teammates to a higher level, but it’s been delightful to see it here. Heath makes her midfield partners play better, gives her defenders a reliable outlet when pressed, and provides the service to make her forwards more deadly. That’s pretty damn impressive for one player. Well played, Tobin.
Portland’s defense did a vastly better job of avoiding the derps that cost them Sunday. Not entirely; the lone Sky Blue tally was a 17th minute own-goal that combined poor positioning by Karina LeBlanc with a head-scratching flick-on from Nikki Marshall jumping above the PTFC wall that looped Freel’s free kick neatly into her own net. In the second half Karina made up for her gaffe by stoning SBFC’s Ocampo’s 54th minute breakaway but with the entire PTFC backline puffing along behind thoroughly beaten by the well-placed long ball. Karina still had to make some other big saves, notably in the 13th minute when she dove to her right to palm a Brittany Bock shot around the post.
I have to give credit to Coach Parlow Cone on this, too. She started the match with Allie Long nearly sitting back amongst the defenders; technically the formation might have been a 4-4-2 diamond but in practice it looked like a 4-1-3-2 with Long acting as a sort of midfield sweeper, chasing down the ball and harrassing Sky Blue’s Rangel into insignificance. And that brings up another huge difference…
Coach Parlow Cone’s substitutions looked timely and sensible. Opposed to Sunday, where her choices seemed ineffective at best and actively harmful at worst, Wednesday night Parlow Cone did what she failed to do in the earlier game. Sitting on a 3-1 lead with about a quarter hour to go she pulled Meleana Shim for Courtney Wetzel and shifted to a 4-2-2-2 (or a 4-4-2 with Long and Wetzel deep in the bucket). This allowed the PTFC centerbacks the freedom to stifle Ocampo and a hobbled Lisa DeVanna while the fullbacks and DMs cut off their wing service, played keep-away with Heath and Foxhoven, and generally made nuisances of themselves. The result was a calm and controlled fifteen minutes that saw the game out and secured the victory.
There’s a saying to the effect that the reward for work well done is more work. Wednesday night’s work was well done by the Girls in Red; their reward is a meeting with a surging Kansas City Sunday. Last Sunday I looked ahead with a great deal of trepidation. Today I am a lot more confident. The Chicago clouds that loured upon our house are in the deep bosom of Sky Blue buried, and the hopes for sunny skies Sunday are suddenly once again on the rise.
Briefly Noted – The Sections of the Rich and Famous: For the first time since the renovation I watched part of the match from the East Stand, the “club” section of Jeld-Wen Field. I have to admit; several of those of us who normally haunt the North End call this stand the “Prawn-sandwich Patio” for the supposedly snooty and exclusive crowd it supposedly attracts. So I was curious to see how reality conformed to prejudice.
I tried to pick up a single General Admission ticket for the game but the on-line ticket service wouldn’t let me; the only seat it offered was over on the club side. As noted, these are expensive seats and I’ve never really had the urge to splurge. But I wanted to see the match and didn’t have time to run down to the box office and try my luck, so I took the seat I was offered in Section C4, Row C.
And having been there, I have to tell you; it’s probably a very good thing that us unwashed proles standing behind the north goal don’t know how the Jeld-Wen 1% live. We’d be insanely jealous, rooting in squalor as we do.
First, club section seats are HUGE; my ass sighed in air-conditioned comfort as I wallowed about in the enormous bucket waiting for kickoff. Second, there’s a special little cup-holder on the back of the seat in front for your beer.
A cup-holder. For you. Yourself. For your very own beer.
The width of the rows is vast, with leg-room enough between your seat and the seatback in front for an NBA center. You can’t help it; you loll about like a Wall Street CEO surveying your minions with a sort of enormous well of contempt and self-satisfaction.
And the pitch! So close, if you weren’t lolling about in your ginormous seat swigging your $9 beer from your very own cup-holder you feel like you could play a 1-2 with Tobin Heath.
It’s hard to describe the immense gulf between this luxury and the crowded terrace several hundred feet away, but lolling about in my club seat I suddenly understood how one could sweep past some grubby commoners in one’s Jaguar with not even so much as a sneer.
Before the match I kidded a Section 109 friend about practicing my “tennis clap” to fit in with the club stand crowd. But it turned out not to be much of a joke. When you’re used to standing and singing, shouting and jeering at the enemy and crying out love for your team it just seems wrong to respond to great play with a polite spatter of applause.
But based on the other night, that’s what you do sitting in the club stand section.
Let’s just say the intensity there wasn’t…intense. With the game and possibly the season on the line the girls behind me spent most of the first half talking about the cute boys on their rec league soccer team. The young guy two seats over did nothing but catcall the referee. Other than a burst of cheering for the Morgan goal the stand was so quiet you could hear the players shouting on the pitch. When the two teams ran off at halftime 1-1 the entire section erupted in a burst of frenzied…clapping.
So I got up to get a beer, snuck around and into the North End, and spent the second half standing in front of a tiny seat in a narrow row, my warming beer in my hands, singing amid the thunder of drums and feeling thoroughly, vastly, immensely, contentedly privileged.