Tag Archives: Western New York Flash

Thorns FC: Veni, Vidi, Vici

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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

Thorns FC: Low Expectations

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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.

Thorns FC: Good News, Bad News

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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: Flash Burns

This coming Sunday is Bastille Day, and, appropriately, Thorns FC as the preseason consensus-royalty of the NWSL will be faced with a swarm of canaille from Western New York at the gates of Jeld-Wen Field; the Flash, a.k.a. Wambach & Co.

For me this is not good news.

That’s because our Thorns have just put on a fairly unimpressive display of ragged defense and disorganized attack in their nil-2 loss to the fifth-place Boston Breakers just a week after going scoreless and gifting two goals at FC Kansas City and being held to a messy nil-nil draw away to Sky Blue before that.  In fact, you have to go back almost a month to recall at Thorns FC win, and that was home against a then-sorry Seattle Reign.

At this point there’s really no reason to rehash the observations I’ve already made about the Thorns.  We’ve all seen what’s happening on the pitch, and we all know – at least, I hope that Coach Parlow Cone and her team know – what needs to happen to stop the bleeding.  My intention here is, specifically, to break down the Flash and see if there’s anything special that needs to happen before this coming Sunday.

From the distance of Cascadia the Western New York Flash are a real mystery to me.

On paper this team is loaded, packed with national team players; forward Adriana Martin from Spain, midfielders Samantha Kerr from Australia and Veronica Perez of Las Tri, and USWNT players U-23 goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and senior national team midfielder Carli Lloyd.

Oh, yes, and a certain Mary Abigail Wambach who might just be the greatest women’s player in the world at the moment.

So you’d think that we’d be looking up at this lot on the top of the league, rather than seeing them clinging to the last playoff spot.  But the Flash have had a problem all season getting results.

Sometimes their attack just doesn’t work; the woeful Red Stars shut them out in Chicago last week as did Kansas City this past Sunday.

Other times they break down in the back; back on June 23rd Seattle was a goal up within half an hour and WNY needed a Wambach PK to save the point.  The same month they shipped two goals against both Chicago and Boston to barely manage the away points, and even the dire Washington Spirit managed to hold them to a 1-1 draw back in April.

They seem to play down to the quality of their opponents; Chicago is 1-1-1 against them, and Boston is 1-0-1.  Washington is the only no-hoper at 0-2-1 including a 4-nil thrashing in Rochester back at the end of June.  At the other end they’re 3-0 against Sky Blue and 1-0-1 against FCKC; they seem to like a challenge.

So it’s going to be difficult to suss out which WNY will show up next week; will it be the one that walloped Washington or the one that lost to Chicago?

We do know some things, however, and here’s my thoughts on what they are and what will need to happen for Thorns FC to get a good result against WNY.

Wambach is a menace in the air and WNY will be extremely dangerous from lofted crosses and corners.

Thorns FC scores very few goals from headers; 6% (only 1 of 18 goals scored).  Given our lack of effective width and few players who cross well that’s no surprise.  But we also don’t see many headers against us; Bywater’s goal for Chicago (on the June weekend when the USWNT and CWNT call-ups left both sides without their stars) was the only one I can recall.  I certainly hope that the team is practicing their team defense against lofted crosses and set pieces this week.

But WNY thrives in the air.  22% of their goals – 6 of 22 – have come from someone’s head.  Of the teams in the NWSL that can score only Boston (22%, 5 of 23) comes close.  Those of us who have watched Wambach will find this no surprise.  But it’s worth noting that WNY defender Brittany Taylor has two goals, and that usually means off a set-piece of some kind, and another defender (Robinson) has a goal off a corner kick.  I cannot help but suspect that Aaran Lines will want to test the PTFC defense with some aerial attack, and we should expect to see that.

The Thorns backline will have to mark tightly – especially Wambach and especially on set-pieces.  Beyond general improvement in team defense the play of the central defenders must also improve; Williamson cannot afford to be torched as she was repeatedly against Boston, and Wambach – who knows Beuhler’s penchant for rough play – cannot be allowed to use that to draw a penalty.

The Flash tend to score goals from the run of play and appear to have a solid midfield providing service.

Over the past nine games ten players have scored 20 goals for WNY; Wambach, of course, with 6 goals but also Lloyd (4 goals), Martin (2), and Kerr, Winters, Perez, and DiMartino with one each.  Almost all of these goals have come in open play, other than the three noted above and a McCall Zerboni strike from a goalkeeper error.  To assume that the Flash will come in looking like St. Mirren circa 1962 would be a mistake; these people will look to play balls through midfield and both out to the wings as well as into the 18.

The Thorns will have to control midfield play.  Sure, that’s Soccer 101, but until now we’ve consistently bypassed the midfield in hopes of an Alex Morgan long-distance lightning strike.  If we are going to stop the WNY attack that defense must begin in midfield, and the midfielders will have to be capable of turning on the ball and then providing accurate passes to our strikers, something we have not done consistently to date.

The Flash tends to ship goals at random moments and while they have a good defense it’s not statistically better than ours…and we’ve seen what that means.

I see this – and marking Wambach out of the match – as the key to victory.

When the Flash get beaten it’s been on the counter, with goals from distance, and early goals forcing them to struggle for late equalizers.  Chicago’s Mautz scored on them in the first minute and forced them to nearly into 90+ for the draw.   Leroux nailed a 20-some yard strike and forced the Flash, again, to go almost to full time to pull off the draw.  Backfooting them will be critical, and that means pressure, and that means both opportunism and possession.

Our frontline has to score, score early, and then keep possession and pressure on through the match. 

Let’s face it; the best way to keep Abby Wambach from scoring is to ensure that Abby Wambach’s opponents don’t let her have the ball.  Better yet; they keep the ball down around her goal, and force her to play central defender.

But we haven’t been doing that of late and, honestly, I don’t know how to solve that problem.

If I did I’d be on the phone to Jeld-Wen right now.  We have two of the best strikers in women’s soccer – possibly in ALL of soccer – in Sinclair and Morgan.  But we have been terrible as providing them with good opportunities and as a strike partnership they have looked out of sorts and poorly connected.

I know part of the trouble is in midfield, and we have a potential missing piece – Tobin Heath – arriving this week.  But, frankly, we haven’t seen our forwards playing well off each other even when they do work the ball down into the attacking third.  I think a large part of that is our width; we don’t have any, and it allows opposing defenses to collapse around Morgan, Sinclair, and Weimer (and Foxhoven, Shim, or any other Thorns involved in the attack).  But another part of it is on the players themselves, and their working out techniques that allow them to make space around the goal.

This is what I see as Coach Parlow Cone’s hardest task for the upcoming week.

Can you believe that we’d be saying that?  Hey, this was Thorns FC!  We have the two of the deadliest gunners in North America, amiright?  Just roll that ol’ ball out and watch ’em knock it in, amiright?

Well, no.

Turns out that even great strikers need support from the back, and a tactical plan, and movement off the ball, and wing play, and good coomunication and coordination.

And y’know what?  I have to think we can do that.  I want to think we can take the attack to the Flash and make them worry more about what Morgan and Shim and Sinclair will do with the ball and less what Abby Wambach could be doing with it.

And I want to think that Coach Parlow Cone thinks that, too.