Thorns FC: Le jour de gloire est arrivé

Last week I predicted that Saturday’s home game against the Boston Breakers was likely to come down to which head coach had best learned the lessons offered by the 2-2 draw in Boston and had best planned for the rematch.

Then between 7:00 and 7:05pm Pacific Daylight Time Amandine Henry created two goals and whatever Matt Beard had learned and planned went completely to hell.

I’m thrilled that Henry finally broke her duck.  But neither goal reflected either Thorns’ strength or Breakers’ weakness.

The first was just one well-delivered Nadim corner of the several she struck all evening.  Henry headed down strongly into the six-yard box, but the ball caromed off Julie King’s leg and into the goal in the first fifty-something seconds.

The second was Henry given a ton of space to tee up a 22-yarder that Smith did shockingly poorly with, stumbling and flopping to her left on a pacey but not unstoppable shot that tucked inside her left post.

And so, down two goals in five minutes through a hard-luck bounce and a goalkeeping blunder, Boston had to throw whatever tactics they had hoped to use on Portland into Tanner Creek and just chase the game.

That’s not to say that Portland didn’t play a hell of a match, and, particularly, a hell of a first half.  Because here’s the sort of thing the Thorns did all night:

As noted in the screenshot, I picked this sequence because it wasn’t unique or game-changing, but, rather, characteristic of the speed, precision, and aggression that Thorns FC brought.  Henry plays wide out to the left touchline, where…

…Sinclair first sells a perfect dummy and draws about a quarter of the Boston midfield to her, freeing…

…Klingenberg to run wild along the left side.  She and Raso did this all night, by the way, just as Boureille and Nadim did on the right.  And look at the freaking space in front of Boston’s backline!  With the Breakers’ midfield pushed way up chasing there’s a metric ton of room for the Thorns’ attackers to operate.

Kling chooses to go to the left channel to Horan, but she could have held the ball for Raso’s diagonal run, or switched the field to Nadim on the right channel, and even now the Boston backline is still not getting help except from Rose Lavelle, desperately racing to try and catch up.

Horan bends to her right, looking for space to either pass or take a crack. But you can see how many options Boston has to try and defend; Raso left, Nadim right, Sinc slipping into the left channel, Kling to slip up to take the lateral drop and, trust me, Henry’s there just offscreen to the right for a crossfield pass.

Horan’s drift to the right and hesitation looking for options allowed Boston to recover somewhat, and her final decision – a long shot that went well over and wide right – wasn’t the best one.  But it was just this sort of incisive attacking that kept Boston on their heels, outshot 17-5 and with no more than a handful of genuinely dangerous chances all evening.

The other significant difference between the last Boston match and this one?

Flank defending.

In Boston White, Lavelle, Dowie & Co. were able to get around Boureille and Kling repeatedly and send in dangerous crosses.  Here in Portland, though, when they tried that something like this usually happened:

Note, too, that this is deep into the second half, when the Thorns had been working tirelessly on both sides of the ball for over an hour.  Lavelle tries again to find a target downfield; in this case Dowie, streaking up the touchline.

And Lavelle’s pass does find her, with Emily Sonnett some distance away.  But…what’s not there?

No White, for one thing, subbed off at 62′.  But no Haavi, either.  No Weimer, arriving late and too deep for a cross.  No Leon.  Nobody.

What’s more, Sonnett doesn’t let Dowie beat her to the byline.  She turns her and forces her back.  Dowie might have tried to put the ball in to Weimer – there’s a lot of open space there – but she doesn’t, whether from fatigue or panic or poor judgement or just bad luck.

In the end Sonnett even cuts off the pass to Weimer, and Dowie has to lay the ball back and try to reset the Boston attack.  Although this spell of possession did result in a good pass inside to Purce a couple of minutes later her weak effort rolled wide, Boston having spent two precious minutes trying to unlock the Thorns’ defense.

My keys to this win were this combination of alert, aggressive defending with some of the best movement and passing I’ve seen from PTFC so far this season.  Boston simply didn’t see enough of the ball to begin to reassemble their offensive game plan, were largely stymied when they tried, and were constantly being cattle-prodded by nasty, dangerous Portland attacks and counterattacks that kept the Breakers’ squad jangled and all in pieces for most of the match.

This is still a good Boston team.  As of today the N-value for Thorns FC showing this sort of composed defending and attacking is…one.  So I would be cautious about predicting a similar scoreline when these two meet for the last time in September.

But right now, today, we, Coach Parsons, and the Thorns should all feel pretty damn good.

This was, indeed, a day of glory.


PMRs and comments:

Sinclair (75′ – +17/-2 : +5/-1 : +23/-3)  Woman of the Match if the match had ended at 45′.  Desperately unlucky not to have gotten her second goal of the season on a gorgeous Nadim service that forced Smith into a desperate left-hand parry of Sinc’s first header and another save on Sinc’s diving/falling rebound header to keep the scoreline 2-nil.

Nadim (89′ – +15/-4 : +4/-1 : +19/-5)  Deadly on setpieces, effective tracking back as usual, and some of the best interplay with her attacking teammates I’ve seen in some time.  Saw yellow for a clumsy foul in the 49th minute, but so far staying out of the sort of heavy fouling that almost got her suspended for accumulation in 2016.  Well played.

Raso (+11/-4 : +14/-4 : +25/-8)  I’m going to be contrary here and tap Hayley for my WotM when everyone else will give it to Henry.  Should really have had her goal at 40′ when Horan played her in alone on Smith but Raso just couldn’t get a handle on the ball.  Fouled constantly all night including a deserved straight red for Chapman who came leaping in on Hayley like freaking Wolverine.  All the usual terrific runs and passes; still missing the final touch.  But she’s like some sort of fiendish hive-engine of soccer energy and, dammit, that deserves a laurel now and then.

Weber (15′ – +2/-0)  Respectable shift from Mallory, asked simply to run hard and be troublesome, and was.

Johnson (1′ – No rating)  Just timewasting.

Long (+8/-1 : +4/-4 : +12/-5)  Tough, almost thankless night for Allie, who had to labor heavily in the midfield trench all evening, tracking back (7 of her 12 “pluses” are for defensive play) and distributing when she could.  With Henry choosing to push up higher Allie spent a lot of the night in deep midfield successfully breaking up Boston attacks.  Spent a ton of time marking Lavelle, and that, effectively; Rose was not a factor beyond her usual skill.

Henry (86′ – +10/-3 : +6/-3 : +16/-6)  Manufactured both the goals, and otherwise her usual active, dangerous self in attack and relentless destroyer in defense.

Horan (+11/-2 : +8/-5 : +19/-7)  Couldn’t sustain the Boston Beast Mode and didn’t have to; her entire team picked up where she left off.  Faded a bit in the second half, but still an excellent match from Lindsey who got a nice belated birthday present of three points.

Cox (4′ – No rating)

Boureille (+10/-2 : +9/-2 : +19/-4)  Locked down White and Lavelle on the right flank.  Crushing tackling in this match, particularly, and some very pretty service.  Looking more and more like this year’s Sinead Farrelly.

Menges (+9/-4 : +7/-5 : +26/-9)  Better and better; the Menges side of the Great Wall is looking sturdier every match.  Huge shoulder-to-shoulder tackle in her own 18 to stop Dowie, and again with a take off Lavelle’s feet at 82′.  Still has to stop making brutally ugly mistakes, though, like the lazy backpass giveaway to Dowie in the 52nd minute that forced her Emily partner into a huge saving block against Lavelle’s attempt.

Sonnett (+8/-2 : +15/-3 : +23/-5)  Stepped up in the second half with a combination of defensive stops and gorgeous passing – her 71st minute long, looping pass to Sinclair should have resulted in the first Boston red card when Westphal had to resort to what to my view was a clear DOGSO to stop Christine from getting 1v0 on Smith.  Did have a terrible “clear” that went right to Chapman in the 3rd minute, but Chapman shot weakly and in general PTE (ponytailed-Emily) was extremely solid.  Her pairing with Menges is looking more Wallish with every match.

Klingenberg (+15/-3 : +20/-5 : +25/-8)  Kling was terrific; simply her best match of the season so far on both sides of the ball.  Did it all; positioning, tackling, dribbling, passing.  If Klingenberg can play like this every match – for club and country – she will justify every penny U.S. Soccer pays her.

Franch (+3/-1 : +5/-0 : +8/-1)  This may have been the first match of the season that I came away thinking that A.D. had been functionally flawless as her clean sheet implies.  Aggressive takes when she needed to, including a huge collection in the 69th minute that ended a spell of dangerous Boston possession, her usual solid positioning and reactions, and only one truly poor clearance.

Still “losing” the majority of her deep kicks and punts, but the more I keep this stat the less impressed I am with the actual danger those losses create.  Unless the clearance is exceptionally short and either right to an opponent or to a teammate under pressure who, in turn, coughs up the ball immediately the hazard from the loss of these long kicks is typically very low.

Coach Parsons  Hard to say much other than “well done, gaffer!”.  I didn’t see anything that looked like Parsons had come in with a particular tactical plan formulated from the first Boston match…unless…the high midfield and attacking pressure was his design and the team aggression and speed was his demand.  If so, a very cunning design and a very timely demand.  Should feel satisfied with this match and this result, especially with the play of his midfield and forwards who, finally, looked as active and dangerous as they have been supposed to and reputed to be.

“Allons, Amandine Henry…

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!”