Last Sunday afternoon Thorns FC won the NWSL Shield for the first time in their short history.
A convincing 1-3 away win over the Joisey Goils of Sky Blue – combined with a 3-1 Chicago demolition of the Washington Spirit – brought the only piece of NWSL silverware Thorns FC had not yet won home to Portland.
But, since this is Portland and, thus, incapable of doing things the easy way, first the visitors had to hand a gift goal to the home side.
But before we go on…let’s set the scene for Sunday.
As noted above, Chicago had whipped Washington the day before, leaving the Spirit a single point above Portland on the league table, so – with the win here in July giving Portland the tiebreaker – a draw or a win in Jersey would bring the Shield to Portland.
On the other hand…
Western New York’s beatdown of the lowly Breakers meant that a win in Jersey would also bring the Flash here this coming weekend for the semifinal. That seemed…less than suboptimal, to me, anyway.
Tanking the Sky Blue match seemed inconceivable. And yet…the notion of playing Chicago rather than Rochester in the semifinal seemed like such a…nicer option. So when I dropped into Bazi Bierbrasserie on the sunny Sunday afternoon I was honestly torn.
I wanted to see the team play well. I didn’t want anyone to get badly injured, or get a red card. I liked the idea of winning the league…and yet…
I didn’t want THIS, either…
Emily Sonnett – who had a solid match otherwise – makes a poor decision here; trying to move forward and cut off the drop from Kerr to Natasha Kai. She misses, and Kerr burns past her. Kai then…
…slots a slide-rule pass through to the running Kerr. Both Sonnett and Menges are caught behind, and only a speeding Kat Reynolds catches Kerr and bodies her off. But…Kat has to knock the ball over the byline for a Sky Blue corner.
On the ensuing corner, PTFC shows why we can have problems with setpieces. What’re all five Thorns off the back post doing? If you guessed “ballwatching” you’d win the doorprize. Meanwhile nobody’s watching Kai…
…who proceeds to crush Christine Sinclair getting to the ball first.
Kai has no problem slamming the header past a helpless Betos and it’s 1-nil SBFC in less than six goddamn minutes.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things that Coach Parsons, or the team leaders, or both, have done this season is hammer some steel into this squad. The Parlow Cone Thorns – and the Riley Thorns to a lesser extent – had an ugly tendency to hang their heads when matches went bad. This year’s Thorns don’t often panic and they don’t quit. The slow start and the early concession weren’t what the Thorns wanted. But they kept their shape and they kept pushing up, and in the 41st minute that persistence paid off.
Mind you…I don’t think it hurt that the offside linesman was doping off at that moment. I thought Long looked offside at the time and after reviewing the stream I’m even more convinced. She was offside a full body’s width.
Didn’t matter; the goal counted and the score was level at the half.
In the second half the Thorns’ looked even more confident and their crisp passing and intelligent off-ball movement started to pay off, as here:
Kat Reynolds, head-up, sees Sinclair running towards the far post and loops a long ball to her.
At the moment the Thorns’ attack looks neutralized; SBFC’s backline is matched up and looks to be marking well. Sinclair, however, sees that Nadim has worked a little overlap on Erin Simon, SBFC’s left back, and has room to run to the outside.
Sinclair hits Nadim with a perfect pass, and that’s not all. All sorts of Thorns are doing smart things here. Nadim’s run has pulled open the backline. Heath is pushing inside in case Nadim needs a drop, or in case one of the Sky Blue players gets to the ball and misplays it. Horan is following the play and going out wide left.
Of course, not every story has a happy ending, and in this case Casey is well positioned and, trying to hook the ball inside the far post Nadim’s shot rolls wide. But it’s just this sort of intelligent team play that picked Sky Blue apart in the second period.
Four minutes later it was Reynolds, again…
…lofting a long pass to Sinclair (again). Sinc pushed the ball up to Nadim along the left touchline. Nadim squared across and saw four of her teammates in the 18, and put in a lovely cross that fell right to…
…Horan, crushing into the top of the six. Rampone is marking space, Simon moves to Horan too late, and Casey is helpless against Horan’s hammered short-range header; 2-1 Portland. The match, and the Shield, go to the Thorns.
Plus-minus ratios and comments; PMR format as usual (first half +/- : second half +/- : match +/-)
Sinclair (83′ – +6/-1 : +9/-1 : +15/-2) Active and intelligent as always, although marked tightly enough to get off only two shots, only one on goal. But, as the Nadim attempt and the Horan goal show, as always a critical factor and often the engine driving the Thorns attack.
Nadim (71′ – +8/-8 : +4/-4 : +12/-12) Not as poor a match for Nadim as her PMR suggests, although Nadia did have a troubling resurgence of her “heavy-first-touch” issues, including twice (and three tackles-for-loss) in the first half. Largely her issues were that she was being heavily marked and often received the ball in traffic. Worked hard and provided a terrific cross on the Horan goal. Not her best match for shooting, however; both her shots were badly off-frame.
Honestly thought she had a legitimate appeal for a foul inside the 18 in the 43rd minute, but not only didn’t draw the penalty but didn’t get any call at all, suggesting that the SBFC defender cleaned her heels without fouling.
Horan (+12/-3 : +10/-1 : +22/-4) Terrific match from Lindsey, even apart from the goal, on both sides of the ball. Could easily have had a brace as well but her 10th minute blast was blocked by Grubka at pointblank range. Interestingly, was more defensive in Jersey than usual, possibly because Henry was pushing up more.
Heath (+11/-4 : +15/-3 : +26/-7) More of the usual energy and precise passing with 90% less farkling-about-looking-tricky. The Notorious TFH did get the assist on the first Long goal but in general she’s still having some problems with her free kicks and corners; far too many are going short, or long, or somewhere other than where they could do the most good. At her best when the Thorns need possession, as late in the match looking to play keepaway or when threading the ball through the midfield.
Long (+13/-3 : +13/-4 :+26/-7) Simply put; Woman of the Match. Her second goal was just evil; precise control of the cross coming to her feet and then utterly bullying Rampone, making her look not just her age but like she was ready for a blue hair rinse and a nice long nap, as Long knocked her down turning and firing past Casey. I’ve said here that Heath may be playing the best soccer of her career. But Allie Long has made perhaps the single biggest step up in her game of any Thorn this year, and in my biased opinion should be in consideration for league MVP.
For what it’s worth, I came into the match with no particular opinion of Natasha Kai. But her 69th minute collision with Allie Long was utterly appalling. She was running around out of control like a drunken maenad and could have badly injured herself, Long, or both. Someone she respects on the SBFC staff needs to take her in hand and explain that while soccer is a contact sport it’s not a collision sport, and if she doesn’t want to become known as Shea Groom’s Evil Stepsister she needs to knock that shit off.
Henry (+15/-5 : +7/-5 : +22/-10) Her steadiness in tackling and controlling the midfield and, more importantly, starting the attack with precise passes was critical in holding the Thorns in the match in the first half. Was as much creator as destroyer and helped regain the momentum lost after the Kai goal. Excellent match from Henry.
Reynolds (+5/-2 : +6/-0 : +11/-2) If not for Long I’d have considered her a legitimate choice for WotM. Her passing out of the back was outstanding, and her defending typically effective. Her 87th minute clear of an O’Hara shoss could well have saved an embarrassing late concession.
Sonnett (+10/-3 : +8/-1 : +18/-4) Odd sort of game for Emily. On the one hand, she did a helluva job putting a muzzle on Sam Kerr; the Aussie had only two shots, one on goal. Had some pretty passes and made some excellent defensive plays. On the other, she is still making rookie mistakes, such as her poor move to ball in the 6th minute, or the horrific backpass in the 56th that forced Betos to concede a corner. Not a bad game…but one that showed both her strengths and her weaknesses.
Menges (+8/-3 : +6/-1 : +14/-4) Just another day at the office for The Gatehouse of the Great Wall of Emily.
Klingenberg (93′ – +7/-2 : +8/-1 : +15/-3) Lots of nice interplay between Kling and Heath, as usual, but Kling got more of her teammates involved, as well. Did get completely skinned by O’Hara in the 87th – ouch – but otherwise solid defensively against a Sky Blue that, outside Kerr, admittedly doesn’t have tons of speed.
Betos (+2/-0 : +1/-1 : +3/-1) Not at fault on the goal. Huge take in the 30th minute after Kerr split the Thorns’ backline. Marshaled her backline well and had safe hands all match; can’t ask more than that.
Dagny (19′ – +8/-4) Useful as a replacement for Nadim as Nadia ran out of gas late. Her long passes weren’t dropping, but her fresh legs helped run SBFC around and her height and size helped push them around, so an effective substitute.
Raso (7′ – +4/-0) Assist on the Long goal was nice, but had a pretty little run on goal herself in injury time; I really want her to score because I think it’ll spark something tremendous. Otherwise, sparky as always.
Williamson (1′ – No rating) “Ohhhh…the Kat came back, we thought she was a goner. But the Kat came back; she just couldn’t stay away…”
Coach Parsons: Workmanlike performance. The initial concession suggests a certain lack of intensity in preparing for the match, but the unshakable confidence that the team showed suggests their trust in their coach and each other.
But beating Sky Blue ain’t beating Washington, Chicago, or Rochester…
…and that’s what the Thorns need to do over the next 180 minutes.