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.
Thorns FC are the champions, my friend.
But it wasn’t easy. Any more than anything about this season has been easy.
Our Girls in Red had to wrestle the NWSL crown from the Western New York Flash at Rochester, where the home side seemed angry about the whole business of actually having to, y’know, “play hard to win”.
If there was anything representative of WNY’s attitude it was Mary Abigail Wambach rising from the ground with her arms up appealing for a foul. Wambach has a reputation for a player that works the referee and Saturday evening she played like an aged grannie, falling over every time a white jersey came close to her and then crying about it.
And it worked, too; she managed to hang a second yellow on Kat Williamson for a dive so blatant that even Kate Markgraf for Fox Sports “The Ocho” couldn’t ignore it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Both teams came out looking for chances and making them, perhaps the most dangerous a 12th minute Samatha Kerr header that Karina LeBlanc could do no better than parry off the crossbar; luckily for Thorns FC The Wall scrambled to her feet to grab a looping “clearance” from one of her own defenders that was headed back into the goal. The teams traded attacks during the first half hour that were either just off-target or absorbed by LeBlanc and her WNY counterpart Franch.
Markgraf’s pre-match prediction of a midfield battle was wrong. The Thorns tried to boot the ball up to Christine Sinclair through the first half while the midfield was fairly well dominated by WNY. But Portland’s backline and particularly Allie Long as DM worked tirelessly and effectively to deny Wambach service while Williamson shut the national team striker down. The big forward responded with a positively Olympic repertoire of dives with a running commentary of whines and appeals to the referee. Neither side found an effective strike until late in the first half.
Tobin Heath broke the game open for Thorns FC in the 40th minute. She calmly lined up over a free kick 25 yards from the right side of WNY’s goal with the intent to slot the ball home – she said later that several of her teammates including Christine Sinclair asked her what they could do on the kick and she told them to stand in the wall and look pretty – and she did, hitting a rocket that went just under the crossbar.
The teams went off at the half with Portland holding what felt like a very precarious one-goal lead.
The second half opened much like the first until finally Wambach’s constant whining and flopping worked; she earned Williamson the distinction of being the first ever Thorn sent off, in the 56th minute.
Of the championship match.
Clinging to a one-nil lead.
The final 34 minutes and the five minutes of stoppage time saw Thorns FC do what I have never seen them do all season; defend desperately and well, play like women inspired. You hear a lot about heroics in sports, often for what is little more than a sharp eye, strong muscles, and quick reflexes.
This was genuinely heroic.
Western New York attacked and attacked – 10 of their 18 shots came in the second half – with increasing ferocity. Although Wambach never did manage to be a factor – she ended with four shots, none on goal – Carli Lloyd and the Flash pressed hard for the equalizer. As they did the Thorns scrambled and fought and Coach Parlow Cone began to substitute on defenders; Ellertson for Heath at 63′, Wetzel for Kerr at 80′.
And, interestingly, Alex Morgan for Foxhoven at 71′.
It was that substitution that turned out to be decisive, as Morgan slipped a lovely cross-field pass to Christine Sinclair running in on goal in stoppage time. Christine waited for Franch to commit and slipped the ball past her into the open goal to seal the match for Portland.
Portland has it’s first major league sports title since 1977.
Thorns FC saved the best it has for last two matches; 180+ minutes of tough, smart, cohesive soccer, the soccer we all dreamed they could play, the soccer of champions.
It’s hard to express how contented I feel writing these words, after the trials and troubles I’ve written about this season, after all the worries and derps and what-ifs and why-nots.
It’s hard to express how sweet the moment was when the final whistle blew, the Thorns raced across the field to embrace each other, the screen flashed the sign “2013 NWSL Champions: Portland Thorns FC“, and the crowd at Bazi Bierbrasserie stood up and roared.
But trust me; it was a sweetly contented moment.
So; we did what the song claimed we were gonna do – we won the league…this year!
I hope you’ve enjoyed following our Thorns with me this season, and I hope to meet you here again next season.
To rejoin Portland Thorns FC.
The 2013 NWSL Champions
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
It says something fairly damning about the current form of our Thorns FC that the nil-nil draw at Western New York they scratched out Saturday seems like a huge relief.
It’s when you are satisfied with the Death Star as a sort of big clumsy black interstellar bug-zapper that you realize that your expectations have been lowered substantially from the euphoria of preseason.
And the NWSL table reminds us of the implacable fact that a win in Rochester was a must-have for home field advantage in the playoffs. With the season series at 0-0-2 WNY still owns the tie-breaker that will prevent Thorns FC from hosting the semifinal match if the current positions are unchanged after this coming weekend’s match at Tukwila.
I can’t really say much about the match itself other than at least Thorns’ defense didn’t ship a soft goal. In fact, the play in back looked improved from the two preceding matches and the double man-marking kept Wambach under control, or as much as you can control Abby Wambach without actually hiring Shane Stant to club her on the knee. Still, Karina still had to make 10 saves to preserve the clean sheet.
And no Thorns match in the last could of months would be complete without the patented Thorns Defensive Derp ™ – this game’s was on Marianne Dougherty, who was in the process of shepherding a bounding long ball back into her own penalty area when with her goalkeeper no more than 3 or 4 yards away and little or no pressure on her back inexplicably tapped it to LeBlanc with her boot, setting up a dangerous opportunity inside the Thorns 18.
Luckily for Thorns FC Carli Lloyd skied the subsequent free kick and the Thorns managed to see out the rest of the game without any more defensive breakdowns.
The less said about the attack in the first half the better; there was little to speak of. The midfield was a disorganized mess as WNY ran the playbook on Thorns FC and pressed every Thorns midfielder as soon as they touched the ball and were rewarded with the expected errant pass. Thorns defenders were, if anything, worst, booting every ball randomly upfield. Any Thorns attempts on goal (and the percentage was, as usual, less than half, 3 of 7) were tame and easily saved.
Somehow Thorns midfield managed to gain more composure in the second half and actually strung together some decent passes. About ten minutes into the half Angie Kerr provided an excellent cross but neither of the Thorns inside the 6-yard box could get to the ball or, in Allie Long’s case, control it well enough to shoot on goal. But that was pretty much it.
The match pointed up to me how this is really Alex Morgan’s team. Without Morgan the attack seemed almost random, as various players tried one thing or another without any really looking dangerous. Christine Sinclair – whose two shots were the most attempts of any Thorn and pretty much makes the point of how scattered the attack was Saturday – is still far off her international form. If Coach Parlow Cone has a Plan B I couldn’t see evidence of it.
With Kansas City falling to the suddenly-dangerous Boston Breakers Thorns FC could have pulled within a point of the league lead with a win, but, frankly, I have a hard time seeing how this team, at this point, playing as they are, could have managed to put a goal past WNY’s goalkeeper Franch (who had her usual solid outing) or defend a one-goal lead if they had. My expectations were so low coming in that a clean sheet and only one Thorns Defensive DerpTM seems like a decent result.
Fortunately for Thorns FC Sky Blue couldn’t manage a win, either; all three second-place clubs remain in the same order they were on Friday.
Seattle suffered a gutting loss at Washington Saturday, losing 1-nil on an almost Thorn-like defensive breakdown late in the second half. The Reign have nothing to play for other than spoiling Portland’s post-season.
A win in Seattle seems more like a need than a want at this point. It could still secure a home semifinal. But more to the point, this team needs confidence; confidence that they can play 90 minutes of solid football, confidence that they can score, confidence in themselves.
Saturday in Rochester Thorns almost managed the first. Next Saturday in Tukwila they will need to solidify the defending and score. That seems like a very low expectation.
But it’s what we have right now.
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.
Man, that was brutal.
I don’t want to try and take credit away from Kansas City. They worked hard to win this match. They outhustled and out thought and outplayed the home side and came away with three points they probably never thought they’d see. Up front FCKC blocked off the passing lanes and stymied Tobin Heath as well as any Thorns opponent has yet. The visitors largely marked both Morgan and Sinclair out of the match. Holiday, FCKC’s heavyweight striker, worked hard to get open, and did.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Sunday’s 2-3 home loss was largely on Thorns FC. And largely on the defending.
Yes, Karina LeBlanc picked a bad Sunday to have an off day (probably two of FCKC’s goals were saveable). Yes, a little more precision from passing in the midfield might have helped things a bit (especially late in the game looking for the equalizer; the Thorns midfield looked gassed at about 75 minutes and the passing suffered accordingly). Yes, the wasteful shooting and failure to pull the trigger up front was a bit maddening (of the 17 shots Thorns FC put less than half – 8 – on frame). And, yes, FCKC keeper had a very good match, including a huge tip over the bar on a Heath shot at 69′.
When you give up three goals, at home, you will have a hard time getting the result you want, and that’s defending 101.
I could go on at length about the defensive errors that led to the FCKC goals.
But why? We know what happened and how it happened. We’ve been seeing it all season. Failure to mark – . Failure to track back. Lack of communication in the backline. Failure to close down on loose balls in midfield and lack of hustle getting back to defend against the resulting loss of possession.
The stake to the heart of the Thorns’ game was probably FCKC’s second goal, putting the visitors back up four minutes after Foxhoven equalized at 51′. The Stumptown Footy description – “a comedy of errors” – pretty much nails it;
“Kansas City got a counterattack started, and again and again the Thorns stepped up to try to intercept the ball. Again and again, they missed, until Erika Tymrak calmly chipped the ball past Buehler to Holiday, who was streaking into the box unmarked (again). Karina LeBlanc got a hand to the ball, but it wasn’t enough to keep the shot out.”
Even this account doesn’t give you a really good sense of the flailing panic in the Thorns defense. By the time Karina gave up crawling after the ball that rolled inside her left post you could almost feel the starch go out of the Thorns. The remainder of the match was a clinic in how to see out an away win with better organization and hustle.
What should have been the pinnacle of the Thorns FC regular season turned into a back alley beatdown of the home side in front of 17,000 Portland fans and a national television audience.
Are you angry, Karina? Alex, Christine, Tobin? Mana, Kat, Rachel? Danielle?
Are you angry, Coach?
I hope you are.
I’ve tried to come up with some pithy, epigrammatic, or witty things to say about this match and I just can’t. The problems were there for all to see; all Thorns FC had to do was play 90 minutes of solid soccer – score when they could, and defend their home goal – and they couldn’t do that.
Because there are now 270 minutes left in this regular season.
And Thorns FC has put themselves in a position to win every single damn second of them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.