Thorns FC: Sword

It took the Western New York Flash three tries to figure out how to defeat Thorns FC this season.

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Unfortunately, the third try was the one that counted the most.

Among the major professional sports soccer is perhaps the cruelest, and soccer in a playoff league may be the cruelest of all.  This season, as in all the preceding three, the team that finished at the top of the league table will not win the Championship.

I was worried that the Thorns would not match up well against the attacking power of Western New York.  I was concerned that Paul Riley would force a high press and play a physical match to knock the Thorns out of the semifinal.

What I wasn’t concerned and didn’t worry about, or even expect, was this:

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Zerboni is bringing the ball up to the edge of the 18, Nadim is cutting across to her as Horan moves to her in front…and…

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…the player on the ground (Erceg – thanks, Richard!) extends her legs and cuts Horan off at the knees!  And…

…”we play on”, as Anne Schatz would say.

Whaaaat?  Or how about this…

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I hate whining about officiating.  My default position is that referees and linespeople are like the weather; you get what you get and you deal with it.

But Marco Vega, the center referee the past Sunday, was manifestly unable or unwilling to either control rough play or penalize obvious infractions and his incompetence was a factor in the Thorns’ defeat.  Not the only factor.  Not the largest factor.  But…a factor.

Now, before we go on.  I’d like to show you the handball in the box that Sinclair appeared to force cleanly in the fifth minute and Vega completely missed…but I can’t.

Because of this:

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Drag racing?  Freaking DRAG RACING??

Yep.  Drag racing.

Imagine my surprise and…delight…when I turned on the FS1 recording of what I had assumed was the NWSL semifinal – one of only six matches that the second-tier ultimate-fighting-and-Shark-versus-Dyson network Fox Sports channel deigned to broadcast – and found some sort of goddamn nitro-fueled funny car extravaganza going on.

That put a bit of a wrench in the gearbox for the plus-minus ratings I had planned for this post, I can tell you, given that I could only review tape for the last ten minutes of the first half.  Grrrrr.

Look, Fox.  If you’re gonna promise to show NWSL soccer?

Show fucking NWSL soccer.

Not polo.  Not bocce’.

Not fucking drag racing!

Ahem.  Excuse me.

As I was saying…from being in the stands it was obvious to me that, while the Thorns came out looking the more dangerous that within the early minutes they were losing momentum both to WNY and to their inability to win what appeared to be the obvious calls.

Vega:

  1. Missed several potentially game-changing calls that hurt Portland.  The 5′ handball.  The 62′ play above that appears to be a clear foul from behind on Tobin Heath in the penalty area.  The 38′ non-call on the foul on Horan that could, and probably should, have blown dead the play that resulted in Rochester’s second goal, and;
  2. Allowed a lot of rough play to go on, in particular Dahlkemper and Eddy’s roughhousing that took Heath out of the match.  That played more into WNY’s game plan, especially once they went up several goals.

However.

While getting beefed around and unprotected by non-calls must have been frustrating for Portland, the real problem, the failing that lost the match for the Thorns, was that, much like the Seattle away match, several players picked a very bad day to have very bad days, and the Portland defense came apart as a unit several times.  Such as here in the first overtime period:

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Jess McDonald killed the Thorns with her throw-ins on Sunday.  I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of defending that sort of play; between the freedom from worrying about offside and the number of bodies banging around inside the 18 long throws can be a nightmare for defenders.  This season, however, the Thorns backline has usually done a good job clearing out those dangerous moments.  This play looks no different; the red shirts look well-marked up and alert to danger.

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Even as the ball is flicked on deeper into the 18 the Thorns defense looks capable of handling the pressure…

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…and the pressure is on Kat Reynolds as Smith shoves for position and the ball descends.  A good fullback like Reynolds, though, will hold her position, outjump Smith, and head clear.

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Except…she doesn’t.  Miscalculation, fatigue, or simply in error; whatever the reason Reynolds heads the ball straight down into her own 18.

Horan had done this earlier, headed down short into traffic, on the Doniak goal in the 38th minute.  This time it was Williams who was the lucky girl.

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Unluckily for Portland even with two players in front of Williams neither could block her shot toward Betos’ left post.

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Michelle looked slow to dive to her left; possibly she was unsighted by her teammates, or was unsure where Williams would place her shot.  But whatever the reason she was beaten, and Rochester had the lead with 27 minutes to play.

Then, near the end of the first overtime…

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This.  This, to me, was the signal that the Thorns were done.  Klingenberg lobs a lazy throw in, sorta-kinda towards Long who moves slowly towards it.  Not so Sam Mewis, who cuts in the ‘burners and torches through Allie for the ball.

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There’s nobody in front of Mewis but Klingenberg.

Kling at that point had been looking gassed since the end of regulation, and even before that she looked…not good.  Her passing was off-target as much as on, and – perhaps because her favorite partner Heath was getting battered and wasn’t on her game – she was getting her pocket picked in attack and getting turned in defense and generally looking like she’d been hit with a massive case of the slows.

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Here she commits the defender’s Cardinal Sin; she “stabs”.  Instead of trying to stay with Mewis and tackle the ball away, or body her off shoulder-to-shoulder Kling just leaps and sticks a foot out at the ball.

That works about as well as you’d think, and now Kling is a step behind Mewis as she streaks upfield.

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Lynn Williams has taken off when Mewis did.  She’s zipping past Reynolds – who either doesn’t see her, or does and can’t stay with her – and Mewis makes a lovely pinpoint pass right between Reynolds and Sonnett.

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And that was it, really.  Lindsey Horan got it close with a nifty little goal in the first overtime, but the fourth goal was just too much.  Portland’s defense hadn’t conceded four goals this season, and picked a pretty rotten time to start.  The top team in the regular season, and its’ fans, would watch the Final from their apartments, or their soccer bars, or on their phones.

——–

Player ratings and PMRs are compromised by the loss of the first half hour, which as noted above was perhaps Portland’s most productive period.  In this case since the overtime the format is (first half +/- : second half +/- : overtime +/- : match +/-)

Sinclair (+1/-3 : +7/-0 : +4/-2 : +12/-5)  Another quietly effective game from our captain; I hope she has another couple of season’s worth of them left.  Had a much better first half than her numbers show but was forced to press chasing the game and gave several long passes away.

Pretty 39′ goal, and though the broadcast didn’t show it Paul Riley’s Booty Dance of Hypocritical Rage with the fourth official protesting her turn to shield the ball goes down as a complete sarcasm failure from the man who seems to have sent his team out to headhunt Heath.

Nadim (70′ – +2/-1 : +4/-2: +6/-3)  Needed to do more and couldn’t, largely because she was usually in traffic and had some trouble getting open but also trouble with her first touch when she did.  She’s not the speediest of wingers or the neatest of ball-handlers and needs pinpoint service to thrive, and her teammates’ passes weren’t dropping Sunday.

Heath (+0/-2 : +8/-5 : +2/-2 : +10/-9)  I suspect the Notorious TFH is furious about this match and well she should be.  WNY played whack-a-Heath when they weren’t playing keepaway from her, and though about half of the tackles were legal half weren’t.  How Dahlkemper escaped yellow for her kneeing Heath from behind late in the match I’ll never know.

My only issue with Tobin is her setpiece deliveries.  She had a tough match overall but – for the player who won the championship in 2013 with a gorgeous free kick – her deliveries were perhaps the weakest element of her game.  By halfway through the match half of her FK/CK efforts went right to keeper, over the byline, or short to a white shirt.  By the overtime she couldn’t put a setpiece on target with a trench mortar.

Long (+1/-5 : +6/-6 : +8/-5 : +15/-16)  Uncharacteristically poor match from Allie.  Almost all her “minuses” – in fact, ALL her minuses in the second half of regulation – were poor passes that resulted in loss of possession.  Unable to put herself in dangerous positions and – as the Mewis steal demonstrates – looked overwhelmed by the end of the match.

Horan (+1/-1 : +8/-6 : +9/-2 : +18/-9)  Got steadily better throughout the match.  Her poor clear led to the first WNY goal but after that was an engine in midfield and her passing improved to where her “good” to “bad” pass ratio was 4-1 in the overtime.  Worked her tail off – her goal wasn’t pretty, it was dogged hard work and well earned.  Good match, not quite enough, but as good as anyone could ask.

Henry (+1/-2 : +13/-1 : +3/-4 : +17/-7)  Worked hard on both sides of the ball, though her finest moments came in the second half of regulation  as she led the midfield attacking with some of the best passing on the team.   Well played match in a losing cause.

Reynolds (104′ – +3/-1 : +3/-5 : +2/-5 : +8/-11)  Portland’s outside backs had the worst match of their season other than the dumpster fire in Houston, and that was a different Thorns team.  Many of her “minuses” were long passes forced out of the back, much the same as her problems here during the previous WNY match.

Sonnett (+3/-2 : +5/-4 : +8/-1 : +16/-7)  Nifty goal created by sheer effort, and outside of the second half of regulation some excellent passing as well.  Nearly burned badly on a Williams effort in that period when she was caught out of position and stabbed at the ball (that seems to have been a theme for Thorns defenders in this match):

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Here’s the beginning of the play; Kling beaten on the run again…

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Ouch.  The problem with that sort of stab is that it’s an “all-or-nothing” sort of play.  If you connect you knock the ball to safety.  But if NOT…you not only don’t clear the ball but you put yourself out of the play, so…

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Menges (+2/-1 : +3/-4 : +2/-3 : +7/-8)  Combined her usual positional steadiness and solid tackling with inexplicably poor decision-making and poor clearances.  Normally the Menges Emily is the sturdier of the two pieces of the Great Wall.  But the Menges wall crumbled on Sunday, and I’m not sure why.

Klingenberg (+1/-1 :+1/-9 : +6/-5 : +8/-15)  Possibly the worst match I’ve seen her play in Thorns red.  Awful passing, poor defensive positioning, slow, slow, slow.  Not to “blame” for the loss – that was a team effort – but certainly not her day.

As an aside, Kling’s problems Sunday point up the difficulty of managing the NWSL 20-player roster to get any sort of depth.  Clearly Coach Parsons must have seen that Kling was struggling; hell, I could see Kling was struggling from Row K.  The problem for Parsons was…so was Reynolds, and who do you have to replace one or the other?  Or both?  Morris out for the season, Kendall Johnson and Kat Williamson both just coming off serious injuries…Mallory Weber?  In a one-and-done playoff match?

I’m not saying that Weber might not have been the better option, or that I’d have thought Parsons foolish for trying her, or that any number of other ideas might have worked.  But I’m saying that it points up how hard it must be to get a small roster through a full season and end up with a deep bench in the playoffs.  The Thorns didn’t have one Sunday, and it hurt.

Betos (+1/-1 : +4/-0 : +1/-0 : +6/-1)  Thought she could have done better with the Doniak goal but not really at fault on the others, tho I wonder if she could have gotten down quicker on the Williams goal shown above.  On the other hand, she alone kept the scoreline from being 2-5 in regulation; huge saves from Williams in the 51′ and 54′ and McDonald in the 69′, and a critical take off McDonald’s head in the 94′  Had one very poor short kick in overtime but distribution not otherwise an issue.

Dagny (50′ – +5/-3 : +5/-1 : +10/-4) Another case of playing well but not quite enough.  Needed a thunderbolt and couldn’t find it  Assisted on the Horan goal, though, and was otherwise useful – nice run in the 106′ that might have come to something if she’d gotten help.

Raso (16′ – +2/-0) No rating.

Coach Parsons – I hate to say Parsons was outcoached.  I think that the poor officiating helped Riley’s plans tremendously, and I wouldn’t say that in many other situations – have you ever heard me whine about officiating here before? – but the bottom line is that, poor officiating or not, Riley’s plan worked; score early and often, push the score up, press high and use McDonald’s long throw as a weapon.  Parsons couldn’t find an answer or, if he did, the Thorns couldn’t execute it.

So. One and done, and we’ll be watching the Final from our couches Sunday which is a hard – and, today, a bit bitter – reminder of the capriciousness, for good and ill, of a playoff league.

Just as this season one match smashed our chances let’s remember that in 2013 we sorta backed into the playoffs and were losing 2-nil to FCKC in their house when we suddenly came alive and ran the table in the final 180 minutes of the season.  FCKC and 2013 Shield Winners – WNY, remember? – had to feel the same way we feel now; “Goddamn it, we had already “won the league” and you #!%!#! got lucky..!”

So are the 2016 Thorns a great team?

Yes.

Are they, by at least one definition, the “best team in the NWSL“?

Yes.

Will they “win the league”?

No…because they had one bad match.

That’s hard.  That’s damn hard.

But if we’re being honest with ourselves we’d have to admit…that in 2013 we lived by the same sword that we died by last Sunday.