Category Archives: NWSL

Thorns F.C.: Silly Season

silly season


I thought I’d written my last post for the year two weeks ago after the title match.  The story of the Thorns FC 2013 seemed to have a happy ending, and there remained nothing more than to bask in the glow of Portland’s second ever big-league sports title.

Then the club waived Nikki Marshall. Continue reading Thorns F.C.: Silly Season

Thorns FC: Quick Quick Slow

QUICK


If you’re a Thorns fan you already know that the Girls in Red came back from 2-nil down to take the match in overtime, 3-2.  I can’t add too much to Jonanna W’s fine match report over at Stumptown Footy.

However, if you were one of the many who doesn’t get FOX Sports 2 (Or  “The Ocho“, as we like to call it around here…) and didn’t get to watch the game you might not have had to pound out the flat spot in your forehead after the first half hour.  Actually watching the match was a bipolar swing between quick despair and slowly building hope.  Because, as Jonanna says, within 30 minutes the game seemed all over –

“It’s here that the gloom descended, over the several watching parties across Portland; over who knows how many PDX households; over the Rose City Riveters tent, where a handful of SG faithful cheered their team on halfway across the country; and, most importantly, if body language is to be believed, over the 11 Thorns who almost sleepwalked through the next 10 or so minutes at Verizon Wireless Field, shoulders slumped.”

The Thorns truly looked like a beaten team.  Kansas City’s goals weren’t just goals, they were shots right to the head; two in the skull, quick-quick, a sudden killer.  The very worst examples of the sort of defensive breakdowns that have killed Thorns FC all season.  Tymrak had eons of time and acres of space to place her shot, and Karina LeBlanc looked slow to dive to her right.  Then the defense simply stopped, ballwatching, as Melissa Henderson looped a header over LeBlanc for #2.

I was watching the game at Bazi Bierbrasserie – which was a terrific host and provided a great venue; thanks, Bazi! – and after I finished pounding my head on the table I looked around and saw I wasn’t the only one.  Too many other Thorns fans had seen this before; the defensive derp (TM), falling behind on soft goals…and too many of us have seen the team crash and burn in this situation.

Only Saturday it didn’t.  The two quick-quick Kansas City goals were their only goals that day.

Instead, slowly, the Thorns fought their way back into the match.

Perhaps it was Tobin Heath, refusing to just lie down and die, pulling back the first goal, roaring and driving on her teammates and lifting their heads back up.

Perhaps it was Christine Sinclair, wrathful as always, working tirelessly up front, making runs, moving skillfully and intelligently off the ball (her brilliant dummy at 65′ practically makes Weimer’s tying goal happen as the defense freezes long enough for Weimer to calmly claim the ball at the top of the six and drive it past Barnhart) and forcing FCKC to respond to her moves rather than start its own.

Perhaps it was Coach Parlow Cone, whose substitutions were timely and effective.

Perhaps it was Beuhler and Williamson, Marshall and Dougherty and Ellertson tightening up for the last 90 minutes; communicating with each other and with their midfield, marking Holiday out of the match, acting like a tough, composed band of well-drilled professionals instead of four strangers who just happened to wander onto a grassy field.

I’ve had some hard things to say about the Thorns backline this season.  I have some hard things to say about the first half hour they played Saturday.

But after that they did a woman’s job, all of you; well played.  That was the Thorns defense we all hoped we’d see this season.  That defense saw out the full time drawn 2-2.

And then the game went into overtime.

There’s no way to describe the tension of the last half hour of play.  Both teams looked gassed.  The hot day and the brutally hard pitch looked like misery.  It felt at that point like the next goal, whoever scored it, would be the winning goal.

So when Allie Long took a sweet pass from Weimer and slotted it into the FCKC goal to put Thorns FC up 3-2 I’ll bet that people emerging from the Fred Meyer all the way down on SE Hawthorne and 39th must have heard the roar from us down on 32nd.

Hell, when the long whistle blew people out in Corbett must have looked around and up at the cloudless sky, wondering what that strange distant bellowing noise was.

What is was, was pure wonderment.

The wonderful thing about this match was that slow, remorseless comeback; the Thorns’ refusal to concede.  For perhaps the first time all season this team, this entire team, showed ferocity and cohesion instead of fragility.  From the 33rd to the 120 minute, from Coach Parlow Cone’s substitutions to the play on the pitch, this team looked like the team the rest of the league started out afraid of.  The Death Star.  Mentally and physically tough, technically skilled, and tactically smart.

Now.

My father used to say that the reward for work well done was more work, and that is surely the case here.  The reward for this wonderful win is a hard hour and a half in Rochester, where Mary Abigail Wambach and Carli Lloyd and another dozen or so talented players will be waiting for Thorns FC this coming Saturday.

We’re there.  We’re in the Final, where “they” said we would be back in April.

I could thoroughly break down Western New York against PTFC here as I did FCKC last week, but why?  You know and I know and Coach Parlow Cone knows what we’re going to see in Rochester and what we have to do about it.

We’re going to see Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd.  We will have to put a collar on them; defend in depth, with our keeper and our backs and our midfield communicating and working as we did over that last hour and a half in Kansas City.  We will have to watch especially for long balls over the backline, the Wambach specialty.

And then we have to score; our midfield has to protect the ball, move to space, and make accurate passes.  Our midfielders and attacking fullbacks will have to spread the Western New York defense wide and pass into our forwards.  Our forwards have to make the timely runs, take the passes in stride and turn them into goals, something we have yet to do in Rochester.

But the Thorns showed last Saturday that they can do things they haven’t done before.

If there is ever a time to do that again, if there is ever a time to show that last Saturday was the team as it is and can be, it will be next Saturday.

I learned one other important thing from Jonanna’s post; the NWSL Championship Trophy may well be the butt-ugliest piece of silverware ever offered up as a professional sports prize.  Seriously.  It’s fugly.  Reeeeeally f’n ugly.  I’ve seen kid soccer trophies that looked better.

There’s only one hope for it.

The damn ugly thing will look a whole lot prettier sitting in the trophy case at Jeld-Wen Field.

Thorns FC: Goin’ to Kansas City…

kansascity


I mentioned the last time that the upcoming semifinal match in Kansas City might be anybody’s game.

After looking back at the season past I’m still not sure who can pull off a win at the fabled Shawnee Mission District Stadium.  The four meetings between Thorns FC and FC Kansas City tell wildly different stories, and while it’s worth looking back to see what happened I’m not sure that we can predict this coming Saturday’s match from the preceding games.

It’s also probably also worth looking at FCKC’s recent form and try and suss out who we should be worried about.

But first – let’s roll tape, shall we, and see if we can learn anything from it? Continue reading Thorns FC: Goin’ to Kansas City…

Thorns FC: Level One Complete

levelone


The regular season is over and Thorns FC will play in Kansas City next weekend.

This is because the Thorns ran their season record over the Seattle Reign to 4-0 on Saturday, and because FCKC couldn’t hold off Chicago ninety minutes on Sunday, long enough to win the league and go top into the playoffs.  Instead Western New York took the top spot with their win over Boston the day before.

Can we agree that this has been a turbulent and rather intriguing August for the NWSL?

As for Thorns FC…

Well, the match in Tukwila wasn’t exactly the dominating performance I’d hoped to see out of PTFC going in to the postseason.  The defense was caught asleep in the third minute and Megan Rapinoe began what turned out to be a 90-minute schooling of the right flank of Portland’s backline by skinning Kat Williamson  – with Marian Dougherty pulled out of position – and slotting the ball past Karina’s outstretched leg and inside the far post for the 1-0 lead.

Let me say for the record; Rapinoe is a hell of a great player and I wish we had her.  She’s one of those players who look liable to score nearly any time that they have the ball at their feet, and she did that all night on Saturday.

But Saturday the Defensive Derps TM had a conscience and five minutes later the Reign were caught on a similar long ball, this one a perfectly weighted lob from Allie Long onto the feet of a running Sinclair.

Sing, oh Muse, of the wrath of Sinclair.

Christine’s fierce desire to score, and to win, were huge elements of the Thorns’ win Saturday.

Collecting the ball, Christine had a defender closing down on her and the USWNT keeper in front of her.  But…Hope Solo then made the inexplicable decision to come all the way out of her 18 and missed the tackle.  She was left chasing Christine like a Brittany spaniel pursuing a street dragster.  Sinclair went to her right, cleared the Reign players, and deposited the ball neatly into Solo’s abandoned goal.

In many ways Christine has had a frustrating and disappointing season, but every match – one way or another – she does something that reminds me what a hell of a great player she still is, and of how badly she hates to lose.

If Alex Morgan cannot return next weekend I hope Sinclair can somehow infuse that hatred into the rest of the Thorns.

Meanwhile, back in Tukwila Chris’ strike was the end of the scoring for the next seventy-odd minutes; the two teams spent the remainder of the first half and most of the second trying to create another goal and failing.

If you forced me to be honest I’d admit that Seattle had by far the better and the more numerous opportunities.  Fishlock and Rapinoe were constant menaces to Portland’s goal, and both Nairn and van Egmond had good opportunities that they either whiffed or couldn’t finish.

Seattle largely won the fight for control of the midfield, while Portland’s attack dried up; Weimer and Foxhoven were not effective most of the match and Shim was energetic but unable to create a really decent chance.

Portland’s backline was…well, Portland’s backline; controlling their penalty area and Seattle’s attack for much of the first half.  Until someone missed a mark, was caught ballwatching, or stabbed and missed.  At that point a free-for-all would break out, with panicked Thorns racing about trying to recover their marks and clear their lines.

Fortunately for Portland when Portland was panicked and out of position – Seattle was unlucky.

The Thorns defense looked more composed in the second half, and Coach Parlow Cone’s defensive substitutions – Ramirez for Dougherty at 51′, Ellertson for Williamson at 73′ – were, if not inspired, at least effective.  I had my particular doubts about pulling Williamson, who had largely done good work throttling down Fishlock, but Ellertson continued to contain the Welsh Rarebit.

No, the substitution that puzzled and frustrated me was Wetzel for Foxhoven at 82′.

For all that she hadn’t been spectacular Foxhoven had rattled the crossbar at 56′, had been doing at least no worse than the other Portland forwards, and didn’t look gassed or out of ideas.  Wetzel has not been a particularly effective attacker this season, and to me, at least, the move suggested that Parlow Cone was content to see the draw out and take the away point, a choice – if that was her reasoning – I didn’t and still don’t understand.

Yes, Western New York had already clinched the second home semifinal, so the win wouldn’t have secured a home game.  I get that.

But still…here was the final regular match, against the rival Reign, for the chance to go into the away semifinal with a victory if you can score a late goal…and you pull one of your forwards for a defensive midfielder?

I don’t get that, Coach.

Whatever CPC’s plans were, fortunately for Thorns FC she didn’t bother to brief Christine Sinclair who latched onto a long lob from Weimer – less than a minute after the Wetzel sub – and flat outran the entire Reign defense to slap the ball past Solo for the 2-1 lead.

Have I mentioned lately what a terrific player Sinclair can be?  How badly she hates losing?

Sing, oh muse, of the wrath of Sinclair..!

After that Seattle kept pressing but the defense held on, and Thorns FC ended their season with a win.

To my mind Saturday’s result in Tukwila vindicated the notion of refusing to settle for a draw whenever possible, and especially when a match is critical, whether its for league standing or team morale.

For example:

Sky Blue’s draw to Washington dropped them emphatically into fourth, while FCKC’s loss to Chicago handed Western New York the “Sahlen Meat Products Supporter’s Shield” or whatever the heck the NWSL calls the regular-season championship.

To make things worse for FCKC, Chicago’s unheralded striker Jennifer Hoy scored two of the three goals that she would score in the 2013 season in the match, including the winner deep in second half injury time.  That has to be gutting for Kansas City who enters next week’s semifinal on a tw0-game losing streak.

But…Portland’s form hasn’t been outstanding this month either.

The semifinal could be anyone’s match, and we’ll talk about what we might expect in Kansas City in the coming week.

Thorns FC: Utter Rubbish

utterrubbish


Before my hip went bad I played keeper for a basement-league co-ed recreational soccer team in Portland.

You can imagine what the quality of our play was like.

I had a centerback that played in front of me who had been a decent amateur defender before his wheels had gone, but even then, as he tried hopelessly to contain the disaster in my penalty area, he retained a fine sense of defensive positioning and tactics; he knew how the game was supposed to be played and he had a keen appreciation of the difference between that and how we actually played.

So when, for all his hard graft, we would ship yet another goal Ed would typically look around at the wreckage of the defense strewn all about him, make what I always suspected was a very Scottish noise through his nose, and growl;

“Well.  That was utter rubbish.”

Portland Thorns FC lost Wednesday night 2-1 to a pair of late Boston goals.

After going up on a Weimer strike in the 52nd minute the Thorns defense left Lianne Sanderson unmarked in their own 18 fifteen minutes later and she slotted the ball past a charging LeBlanc to even the match.

A draw would still have seen PTFC through to the playoffs, but shambolic defending descended on PTFC again in the 84th minute, when Heather O’Reilly ran onto a nicely weighted long ball and from there had an uncontested run at goal, and converted it handily.

Add to that a knee injury to Alex Morgan and you had an evening that was pretty thoroughly utter rubbish.

Portland has manage to back into the playoffs only because the woeful Washington Spirit defeated the Chicago Red Stars in a freakish 1-0 match – terminated in the 81st minute after long electrical storm delays, if you can believe that.  Only in the NWSL…

We here in Portland should not be celebrating this.

Given the shambolic defending on display at Dilboy Stadium tonight the Thorns would be lucky to prevent three U-12s and their parents from putting four past Karina LeBlanc if they were to meet in the semifinal.  Recreating their ugly mistakes in the loss to FCKC last Sunday the Thorns backline had another series of appalling breakdowns tonight and lost a match that the team should have won or at least drawn.

What will happen next week in Rochester I have no idea, but if current form holds nothing good.

Coach Parlow Cone’s contributed her inexplicable player selections and substitutions to the troubles Wednesday night.

Starting Ramirez for Dougherty might have made some sense had the defensive problems we’ve seen been largely on the flank rather than through Kat Williamson in centerback.  But what the heck was going on with her match substitutions?  Wetzel for Foxhoven at the hour might have made some sort of sense had it stiffened the defense; that it did not – both Boston goals went in after the sub – calls it into question.

But Ellertson for Shim at 85 minutes, down a goal and needing the equalizer?

I honestly don’t know what else to say other than, well…

I had hoped that the Thorns would rally in Boston after the wretched display last Sunday.  I had hoped that Rachel Beuhler would woodshed her defenders and make them swear a blood-oath to give up their firstborns rather than ship another soft goal between the kickoff tonight and the final whistle in Tukwila.

I had hoped the Coach Parlow Cone would have devised tactical plans for the last three matches so cunning that Boston, Western New York, and Seattle would each end up in turn standing in a stymied huddle in midfield at the final whistle wondering what the Girls in Red had done to them.

Instead this team is a mess right now, sliding towards the playoffs in the worst possible condition.

I want to be hopeful.  I want to continue to believe that this and last Sunday were just hiccups.  I want to believe that the Thorns will regroup, charge into Rochester and slap the Flash around, storm into Tukwila and hammer the Reign, and from there roar into the playoffs with a shout.

But back in the day I wanted to believe that my team could win Co-ed Rec League IV.

And that turned out to be just utter rubbish, too.

Thorns FC: Red Skies

red skies


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.

But.

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.

Thorns FC: Queen Anne Front, Mary Anne Back

queen anne


My mother had accumulated a trove of sayings from HER mother, born near the turn of the last century.

One of her gems was reserved for times when she’d catch me trying to get away with spiffing up the visible part of something while doing the bare minimum of scuffling to cover up everywhere else.

You know what I’m talking about; your girl/boyfriend is due over and there’s crap all over the place so you run out to the yard and cut some flowers, dunk them in a vase, clear everything off the couch and the coffee table and put the lovely flowers right there.

Then stuff all the junk in the oven and hope he/she wants to go out for Chinese.

The flowers on the coffee table were, in her terms, the “Queen Anne” – the visibly beautiful and inviting – part up front.

The “Mary Anne” part, the common trailer-trashy part, was the shoes, magazines, and pizza boxes hidden in the back.

That was the story of Sunday’s match against the visiting Chicago Red Stars.

Up front the Thorns Queen Anne attack, led by Christine Sinclair with a brace and Meleana Shim with a third, was a thing of beauty.

Yes, there were some wasted opportunities; yes, we should have had four, or even five.   Perfect example; early in the second half, up 1-nil, Christine Sinclair took a ball in alone through the 18, beat the Chicago keeper and with MacLeod sprawled on the turf squared up three yards from the left post with two Chicago defenders standing in front looking like those cut-out free-kick practice dummies.  2-nil?

No. Chris hit left side netting.

But call me a believer in the Heath Factor; after a bit of a slow first half the Heath-led midfield began reading the spaces between the tight-marking Red Stars and putting passes to those spaces.  The  Thorns attackers – Morgan, Sinclair, and Shim – looked dangerous all match, and Chicago’s goal was in constant danger from the thirtieth minute until the final whistle.

Thorns even scored on nifty execution of an obviously pre-rehearsed setpiece in the first half, Sinclair running through the Chicago defense onto a quickly taken free-kick to score the first goal of the match and put Portland up 1-nil at the half.

A lovely Shim strike off of a deflected Morgan cross put Thorns up 2-nil at 55 minutes and the match looked like a threepeat of the first two Chicago-Portland scorelines. Chicago was locked down, the Thorns midfield and backline looked comfortably in charge, and it was hard to see how Chicago could play themselves back into the match.

But.

Then things came apart in back.

The first crack in the wall was the right side of the backline failing to mark Alyssa Mautz.  At about the hour mark Mautz received the ball outside the top corner of the area and carried it inside, dancing along the top right-hand edge of the 18 without a PTFC defender closer than two yards.

From there she launched a golazo into the far upper A with Karina at full stretch.

2-1.

That was not good.  But, worse, after their first goal Red Stars – who had look incapable of scoring through much of the entire first hour – suddenly looked dangerous.  The match – which until this point had been a scrappy business replete with tight marking and some ugly fouls but of which Portland had largely been in control – began to open up and not in a good way.

First, though, Thorns had another piece of pretty attacking; a through ball from Heath found its way past Shim, whose run froze the central defenders, to Sinclair, who knocked it home for the brace, 3-1 Thorns.  If there was a queen of the Queen Anne attack Sunday it had to be #12; she looked more deadly in front of goal than she has all season.  That’s the Christine I’ve been wanting to see, and she was glorious.

But.

Then the Red Stars opened the oven door and all those damn defensive embarrassments came spilling out.

First was another Mautz goal, a simple knock-in off a cross from the Portland left wing.  Kat Williamson had to chose to mark one of two Red Stars in the box with her, tried to mark both and ended up marking neither.

I will say this; Mautz looked offside to me.

But she didn’t to the linesman, and that’s what counts.

Before the final sneaker dropped out of the broiling pan Thorns FC had one last piece of beauty up front; a lovely Tiffany Weimer shot at about 78 minutes curled into the upper right-hand corner of the Chicago net!  4-2?

No.  Weimer was offside when she received the pass.

Several minutes later – about 83 or 84′, I think – Chicago had a terrific opportunity when substitute Inka Grings lofted one high in the air with LeBlanc well off her line.  Karina either misread it, thought it was in the net, or safely over the bar, and froze.

Instead it clanked off the crossbar and down for Mautz to take another shot on goal; only Kat Williamson’s body saved the three points.

Not for long.

Those points were gone three minutes later when the Portland defenders failed to clear their lines, sending a looping ball no further than Chicago’s Julianne Sitch standing just about 16 yards from goal.

Sitch hit a bullet, LeBlanc was completely unsighted, and the Red Stars had snatched a point at Jeld-Wen.

I’ve been hard on Coach Parlow Cone here in the past.  But I cannot in honesty place the failure to gain the full points from Chicago – a team we have beaten, a team we SHOULD have beaten again Sunday – on Parlow Cone.

I will say that I thought that some of her substitutions didn’t help.  Not Weimer for Morgan; Morgan had already earned a yellow, was looking angry and we need her for the four-games-in-ten-days we have coming up starting this week and couldn’t afford to get sent off.  But up a goal with ten minutes to play why not Wetzel for Shim?  You need to protect a lead, why not bring on a better defender?

And there was the usual troubles we get into because we don’t and, apparently, can’t hold possession; needing a goal with four minutes plus three minutes injury time to play Thorns FC managed little attack and only one shot, a Weimer effort that was not on frame.

Those were coaching issues, yes.  Not critical to this match, in my opinion.

The draw – and make no mistake; this was one of those draws that felt like a loss, having been up 2-nil and 3-1 – was largely on the team – and of the team, on the defenders.  Failure to mark.  Failure to clear.  This wasn’t doctoral-level soccer.  This was just what we talked about last time; the team that is hardest for the Portland Thorns to beat is the Portland Thorns themselves.

Here’s what I said back in June:

“Of the ten matches left five are to teams we should beat handily; three to the only moderately-awful Boston Breakers (which with any sort of decent play probably means at least four points and probably five), one more match with the woeful Chicago here and the final meeting with sad-sack Seattle at Tukwila for another six.”

We have taken four from Boston and with any decent luck should take at least another and possible three more.

But – only one from Chicago instead of three.

Sky Blue – our next opponent at Jeld-Wen this Wednesday – lost today to FCKC today, dropping them down to a second-place tie with Portland.  You can bet they’ll be fighting for the full points when we see them.

And then the league leaders, KC, come to visit next Sunday.

Then it’s Boston and Western New York away before the regular season wraps up in Tukwila against a Seattle Reign that is no longer a sort of frequent-flier-miles “points giveaway” operation.

There’s no slack left in the schedule.

We can no longer afford to let these kinds of matches slip away.  We can’t afford to be all Queen Anne up front if we’re going to be Mary Anne at the back.  We can’t stuff the dirty socks and old issues of Sports Illustrated into the backline and hope nothing falls out on the floor in front of the guests.

We have GOT to be the sharpest Thorns in soccer for the next month if we want home-field advantage and a straight shot at the final match.

Hang on.  It’s going to be a hell of a month of August.

Thorns FC: Good News, Bad News

goodnewsbadnews


Let’s get to the good news first: the Drought is over, the Thorns are back on the scoresheet, and the revolting Western New York peasantry didn’t storm Jeld-Wen Field on Bastille Day, they only nicked a couple of spoons and dirtied up the carpets a bit.

A lovely Meleana Shim strike 38 minutes in equalized the early Wambach goal and Karina “The Wall” LeBlanc stonewalled a PK late in the second half to preserve the draw.  With FCKC and Sky Blue both settling for draws this past weekend Thorns FC still holds second on the league table, one point ahead of Kansas City and three over Sunday’s visitors.

OK.  Now the bad news.

I still can’t get the flavor of disappointment out of my nine-dollar Jeld-Wen hefeweitzen.  For every bit of good news there was some bad; in fact, the whole match kinda felt like one of those lame good-news-bad-news jokes.

The good news was that a Thorn finally scored.  And the attack in general looked healthier than it has in weeks.  Yes, there was still a fair amount of Route 1.  But, no, this time it looked less like “Forgawdssakedon’tthinkjustbootit!” and more like the long balls were meant for someone to do something with.  There still wasn’t a whole lot of possession, but there was more, and it looked more purposeful than the earlier attempts.

The bad news was that the Thorn that scored wasn’t the one who was supposed to have scored.   And our two supposedly world-class strikers looked very much classless, out of synch, and out of humor with each other.

Shim had two shots and one goal.  Morgan had ten shots – half the Portland total – and got nothing out of all that.  Worse; although she said afterwards that she “…got a lot of shots on goal…” of her ten shots only four were on frame.

I’ve hesitated to speculate on this before but yesterday it was so marked that I can’t help saying something; Morgan yesterday looked like a truly terrible strike partner for Sinclair.

Christine gets little if anything from her sister striker; perhaps the worst example was deep in the second half with the Thorns needing the goal for win, Morgan running at the right side of the Flash goal with a defender on her back and the New York keeper Franch covering the short side of the goal like a blanket.  To Morgan’s left Sinclair was completely unmarked at the penalty spot; an easy sidefoot pass puts Sinclair in alone on goal for what would probably have been the game-winner…and Morgan blasted a shot that Franch easily turned around the post.

You could see Sinclair’s frustration – she stopped dead with her fists at her temples – and I completely agreed with her.  I understand that you want your star striker to be selfish; she is supposed to be greedy and want to score goals.  But Sunday it was beyond selfish, it actively hurt the team.

And what’s odd is that Morgan often dishes off to other Thorns; it’s Sinclair that she seems to be completely out of touch with.

Which is really bad news.

Particularly because if it really is some sort of personal disconnect between the two strikers (instead of just generic team play issues) if you’re Coach Parlow Cone how the hell do you solve that?  How do you make Alex Morgan – Thorns FC marquee player, the woman hundreds, possibly thousands, of Portland fans pay to see – do anything she doesn’t want to do?  You go to Merritt Paulson and say “You know our star striker, the one in all the publicity releases?  Well, I’ve had to bench her for a game because she won’t listen to me.”  How do you think that one works out?

I hope that Sunday was just Christine and Alex having a terrible, awful, very bad day and they’ll figure things out.  It just seems to me that we’re a long way into the season for our two best players to still have problems playing off each other.

The good news is that the midfield looked much improved and managed at least a draw against the WNY midfield.  That’s not a small thing, given that until now the midfield was a sort of soccer Dark Matter; talked about and speculated on but impossible to see and often simply invisible.   I thought that Tobin Heath’s contribution was helpful if not polished, no surprise for a player who had been with the team less than a week.  Overall I was pleased with what I saw of the service provided the forwards.  Long – her appalling tackle that led to the penalty aside – had a solid match locking down the back.

The bad news is that the midfield managed no better than a draw, at home, against the WNY midfield.  We needed our midfield to lock down the WNY attack and generate our own.  That didn’t happen consistently, and contributed largely to the failure to get three points.  I’m hopeful that this was a sort of “first-match-jitters” with the New Girl getting used to her midfield pals.  But a fair bit of that was problems we’ve seen before; poor passing, failure to move to a pass to open space, or failure to move to space to make such a pass possible, and it’s damn late in the season to be seeing that.

The good news is that Karina IS The Wall.  She and Franch were both terrific, but anytime your keeper saves a penalty you have to simply accept that as a nonpareil, a unique statement of quality.  Not to knock the other good stops Karina made, but Wambach slots that PK and we lose.  Period.

The bad news is that she kinda HAD to be The Wall.  The backline was it’s usual self on Sunday.  Lots of good marking and team communication punctuated with moments of pure panicked horror as someone missed an assignment or failed to cover a runner or got caught ball-watching.  Not to mention that Wambach got pretty thoroughly knocked around – with the understanding that Mary Abigail is no delicate flower herself – and got little love from the man in yellow for it; we cannot count on that sort of benign neglect when we visit Western New York.

The overall effect of the lapses was to undo much of the hard work.  Kat Williamson has a decent match but lets Wambach get the better of her once and ships the goal.  Long playing DM has a solid game but panics once when WNY hits a diagonal pass into the 18, knocks down Perez  and we’re looking at a PK with seven minutes and changes to play.  That’s the kind of thing that kills our team, and the kind of thing out backs need to work on.

The good news is that the Thorns as a team looked more dangerous than they have for a month.  I don’t want to run that down; this match was a step in the right direction, and if we can build on this we should be able to enter the playoffs ready to cut like a razor.

The bad news is that really dangerous teams don’t settle for home draws.  The improvement is just that; a step in the right direction after a month that has seen two points from a possible twelve, including one of six at home.

We have a total of nine points possible at stake against WNY; the scoreline now stands at one apiece and the last two matches are in Rochester.

So the good news is that I still believe our Thorns are capable of entering the postseason as the team to beat.

The bad news?  We still look capable of beating ourselves.

Thorns FC: Broken by the Breakers

broken

John Lawes has the lowdown on Thorns FC 0-2 Boston Breakers.

Does crisis fuel soccer in the Rose City? It’s now two defeats in a row for the Thorns and all-too familiar problems on the field for Portland fans.


Damn but these are getting depressing to write.

Thorns FC lost it’s second match in a row and the third without a win Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field.  The fifth-place Boston Breakers looked comprehensively the better team; effective in front of goal, dominant in midfield, and solid in the back.  Naeher, the Boston keeper, played a blinder that included an 86th minute stoning of Alex Morgan that kept the sheet clean.

On the other side of the pitch Thorns FC showcased the problems I’ve been carping about for the recent weeks, both individual and collective.  Nikki Washington had one of the worst outings I’ve seen from a winger whose usual form has been subpar since early in the season.  Kat Williamson and Nikki Marshall got torched, Rachel Beuhler and Williamson seemed to be playing for different teams and with a Sydney Leroux in front of them that has been a pantsload over the last couple of matches the backline gave her acres of space and aeons of time and were rewarded with a pair of nifty – for Boston fans – goals.

The less said about Courtney Wetzel’s night as a defender the better, but if Parlow Cone tries THAT little experiment again she’d better have a good explanation for why.  Wetzel looked so bad matched up against Leroux that Parlow Cone kept shifting her around the field like she was playing human three-card monte and Wetzel was the Red Queen.  Cone’d better hope that she never has to take to hustling rubes for a living, because she sure wasn’t fooling Boston.

Thorns midfield?

What midfield?

Boston dominated midfield play, pressing high and attacking the ball aggressively, just like every successful Portland opponent has done.  And the Thorns responded with errant passes and lost tackles as has been their wont when confronted with this tactic.

Up front the attacking woes continued.  The attackers took 20 shots but of that only seven were anywhere near the goal and those seven were either softballs or right at Naeher.  Boston was rarely troubled all night by the supposedly deadly Portland forwards due to a combination of poor Portland coordination and tough Boston defense.

It’s getting harder and harder to see a good ending to this mess unless we see some real improvement in both team and individual play, and soon.  Parlow Cone has got to figure out what to do about the problems we’re seeing and implement it.  The team needs to find an on-field leader who is capable of marshaling the troops to make the coach’s plan happen.

And I think this needs to happen before the end of the regular season.  One of the comments on my last post read in part:

“…as long as Portland keeps drawing 3X the crowds of the next closest drawing club in this league nobody at the FO gives a F***. And I mean that. This is a cash cow for them. SPC can coast on talent. With the talent the Thorns were gifted (and don’t think they weren’t) they will make the playoffs and win a lot of games. Her 1965 tactics won’t matter to anyone at the FO as long as they make the playoffs and they will.”

I think the commenter misunderstands the position this club is in.  Merely getting to the playoffs this season will not be enough.  A finals berth; in fact, a championship is the minimum the fan base expects.  Portland soccer fans are far more forgiving than most – too forgiving, in my biased opinion.  But given the expectations I firmly believe that merely making the playoffs and going out in the first round won’t cut it.

So I think this next match will be crucial.

If we can see some real changes, some real improvement across the entire team (except you, Karina – you are still The Wall!) against a tough opponent – even if we lose a hard-fought match – I think we can see the Thorns we expected to see and challenge for the league title.

If not?  Well, if not I think we may be in for a damn ugly off-season.

Dammit, I refuse to think we can’t do that.

Onward, Rose City!

 

Reversal of Fortune

Thorns FC now sits squarely in second place in the NWSL after a 2-nil loss to the Chicago Red Stars at home and a Sky Blue win.

As I discussed earlier; Saturday’s game was full of questions.  Clearly, given the scoreline, the answers weren’t very favorable for the Thorns.  What were those answers and were they the reason for Thorns FC’s second loss of the season?

Was the third time the charm for Chicago?  I don’t believe so; I didn’t see anything particularly innovative about the way Chicago played today.  Both goals were the direct result of Portland errors; an unmarked Bywaters heading easily for the first goal, while the second was a dreadfully defended shot/cross that more or less bounced of Chicago’s Santacaterina into the net from pointblank range.

The changes all seemed to be on the PTFC end of the pitch.  The loss of Beuhler looked to be critical, as Portland’s backline looked disorganized and backfooted all afternoon.  I didn’t think that amateur keeper Cris Lewis was particularly at fault on either goal but her presence between the posts calls into question Parlow Cone’s assessment of her notional backup for LeBlanc; why didn’t Adelaide Gay get the start Saturday?  Why go with an amateur who last played for Portland State – not exactly the North Carolina of West Coast soccer – and who seems to have last played competitively in 2009?

Was it the Germans?  Not particularly. Grings was not a major factor; she was well marked and didn’t have a good chance until late in the second half.  Fuss did nothing more than the rest of the Chicago backline, who had most of the afternoon off as Thorns FC flailed about trying to get past midfield.

Was it the loss of the national team players?  I would say yes, to a large degree, but not entirely.

At this point in the season I would say that Parlow Cone has only faced two real tests; the Sky Blue match and this one, dealing with the loss of the Thorns national team players.

In neither has she shown us any Porteresque degree of insight into the game of soccer.

She was flat-out schooled by Jim Gabarra of Sky Blue.  And Saturday against Chicago she appeared just stymied.  Her team continued to try and lump the ball forward but without the speed of Morgan or the force of Sinclair that didn’t work. The backline, without the Bacon-saver, made fundamental errors at critical times and shipped two fairly (one brutally) soft goals.  That isn’t exactly the sort of game reputations for managerial cunning are built on.

We’ve all noticed that the midfield without Sinclair is sort of ordinary.   Saturday when the Sinclair-less midfield did get the ball forward what they provided was nothing special – and neither Foxhoven nor Shim were able to make something out of nothing special, the quality that Morgan provides.  Bringing on Washington and Guess in the second half merely restated the obvious; Thorns FC attack is a Cascadian fir with twin trunks made of Canadian and American national timber.

Without that lumber the poor vegetable looks more like a boxwood hedge.

And since we’re on the subject of things that haven’t worked so well, here’s my pet peeve – this Thorns team’s motto should be  “ea alis nunquam” which loosely translated from the Latin means “She ain’t got jack @!#! for wings”.

Because the one thing the Thorns have not yet shown against any opponent is effective wide play.  The gals in red really want to force the ball through the middle.  And when that didn’t work Saturday…they tried to force the ball through the middle again.  What little wide support the forwards get is typically random and usually not particularly effective; one indication of that is that Thorns FC has scored only 1 of their 12 goals from a PTFC head.  Crosses?  Typically in the single digits (and one of the three matches where Thorns FC attempted more than ten was Sky Blue, where the visitors’ central defense was so impenetrable that the only attack that PTFC had was crosses in from out wide…).

Why is this a problem?  Because if you pack the middle the Thorns have trouble scoring because we cannot or will not play the ball out wide.  I’m no Kevin Alexander but it seems to me that attacking the flanks should at least be an option for Thorns FC.

Well.

If all that sounds like I’m being grim, well. I don’t think this was more than a bad day and the national team players will return.

But.

I would suggest that Thorns coaching staff might want to think very hard about whether there are real problems in the things I’ve discussed here, and, if there are, whether something needs to be done about this.  If I knew for sure, hell, I’d be coaching the team.   But if there are…well…

KCFC is coming around this Thursday, is all I’m sayin’.

Just a couple of other random comments on the match;

–  It was great to see the turnout for a match that didn’t feature the big stars.  12,000-odd?  I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; Portland really is “Soccer City USA”.

–  My normal match tickets are for the General Admission section at the North End, but for single-match tickets I usually have to depend on whatever’s available.  The last several times these tickets have been in the far-southwest portions of the West Stand.  And I have to say; that is a whole different world over there.  I’m sure that there are lots of people who like sitting quietly watching soccer, but for me it feels like going to a memorial service with 10,000 strangers.  I just don’t feel…right…sitting quietly watching my team.  I want to stand and sing and chant and abuse the officials and slag off on the visiting team.  It’s spoiled section 216 for me.

– There was one extremely odd bit of business that marked the second half.  John Nyen at By Any Other Name does a good job describing it but the gist was that Bywaters from Chicago went down with an injury and was carried off the field by one of her own teammates.  What the heck was up with that?  Where was the Chicago trainer?  Where the heck were the medical attendants with a stretcher?  The whole thing had a real rec-league feel and left me, at least, confused and concerned.

– Nyen also describes the furious altercation that broke out late in the second half between the officials and Thorns FC coaching staff that ended with assistant coach John Galas getting tossed.  That, too, was a bit disturbing.  Yes, the referee let some rough play go but was at least letting it go on both sides (not her fault that PTFC was shrinking from the tackling…) but the Thorns’ problems were not on the officiating in any sense.   Nyen draws some uncomfortable parallels between this incident, the PTFC coaching that this match showcased, and some of the worst features of the Spencer Era – and I have to say I agree with a lot of what he says.

– And can we STOP with the “What’s it like to see a crowd?” already?  Bad enough to taunt other teams playing in tiny venues that can’t seat more than a couple of thousand when we’re beating them.  When we’re losing 2-nil it had the nasty taste of sore-loserdom.  I don’t want to hammer on this any more, but, c’mon; we have lots of great songs and chants.  Let’s pack this one away until the next time Chivas USA comes to visit the Timbers, K?

Sorry.  Had to get that off my chest…

Anyway, Saturday the First of June was a bad day for Thorns FC.

We all have them; one of those days when nothing works, when you go to your Plan B and discover that it pretty much sucks and you got nothin’ in the “Plan C” file.  One loss is just one loss, even if it is to Chicago.

The thing to do now is learn from this and move on and up.   But Parlow Cone and the Thorns have to do that; they have to learn, and they have to do the work.

Because if you don’t do the work, the love dies.

And nobody wants to deal with that one.