Thorns FC: Sharp Thorns All In A Row

So.

We’re more than halfway through the NWSL season, looking like the class of the league and a lock to go to the finals. Top of the league with our rivals Sky Blue who are, of course, still sitting on that head-to-head tiebreaker, dammit. 

Is there anything that Cindy Parlow Cone should be doing, other than booking the team’s tickets for the Final and measuring the Jeld-Wen trophy case to make sure the silverware can fit in it?

Here’s my thoughts in order from back to front:

Pad all the corners, put up stairway gates, and lay down non-slip floor mats in Karina LeBlanc’s apartment.  Let’s be honest; we sneaked out of New Jersey with that point because The Wall was a complete madwoman.  She stoned Sky Blue, owned Lisa De Vanna, and singlehandedly snatched two points from the home side in the last fifteen minutes when her backline inexplicably stopped playing.  She has been a rock in goal for Thorns FC, and we need to keep her healthy.  Given that her nominal backup, Adelaide Gay, was 86ed for a former Portland State amateur when LeBlanc was called up to the CWNT there’s no point in kidding around or taking chances.

For God’s sake do NOT let this woman go hangliding or BASE jumping!

How do they line up then?  LeBlanc.  Period.

Gather up the fullbacks for a little talk about what they do.  Of the Thorns units the defenders have shown the least improvement over the course of the season.  That’s not entirely a bad thing.  The backline was far and away the steadiest part of the team in the early games.  Rachel Beuhler has showed a flair for organizing her teammates and is no mean force her ownself.  Williamson has been a steady partner for Beuhler in the center.  So far the center of the defense has looked respectable much of the time.

On the wings…well, if I were Parlow Cone I would be working with my fullbacks.  Right now what wide play Thorns FC gets is largely from Marshall and Dougherty pushing up the touchlines.  But both of those fullbacks – Marshall more so than Dougherty – have been caught upfield by speedy wingers and the defense has suffered for it.  The Thorns have proved vulnerable both to crosses and to diagonal runs through the middle.  In many of the cases I’ve seen it is because the outside backs have pushed up and poor passing in midfield (we’ll get there in a bit) has resulted in a quick counter, catching the defense napping.  If the fullbacks are going to provide the wide attack the defensive midfielders and centerbacks will have to learn to cover for them better and the fullbacks are going to have to learn when to retreat.

Against the no-hopers like Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Washington we can get away without doing that.

Against Kansas City, Western New York, and Sky Blue, not so much.

How do they line up, then?   Marshall LFB, Williamson RCB, Beuhler LCB, Dougherty RFB (subs: O’Neill, Ramirez)

Sort out how the midfield plays, who’s playing in midfield, and find some width there.  Thorns FC really needs to define themselves in midfield.  And we need to find some wingers

Mind you – it’s better than it was, far better than we looked in the first match against KCFC, where Kerr was adrift and Long stymied.  Long seems to be comfortable at defensive midfield, and I though that part of our defensive woes in New Jersey was her absence at DM.  Kerr has had two solid matches and looks much more the distributor and organizer she looked in preseason and can go out wide at times.  Between those two Thorns should be strong in the back of midfield.

Going forward I think part of the problem – and, mind you, we should all have such problems – is that we have almost too many options for attacking midfielders and yet, not enough wingers; Wetzel, Shim, Guess, Foxhoven and Sinclair (when they play AM/withdrawn forward) are all talented players but all seem like either central midfielders or center-forwards.

The one player who has been out on the wing more often than not – Nikki Washington – to my mind has proved disappointing this season.

This is just me talking but I think the Thorns do better with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield than the 4-3-3; it allows for Long (or Wetzel) to stay in touch with the backline at DCM, Sinclair to distribute, and Kerr to provide width and spread the defense.  From what I saw Saturday a 4-3-3 narrows the Thorns attack more than it already is, which is pretty damn narrow.

But the problem with the 4-midfield is – who else to play out wide, then?  Washington  needs to improve her touch and tactical judgement if so.  Guess?  Shim?  Neither of the latter two seem comfortable playing out on the wing.  Wetzel doesn’t have the speed, Long is too important as the chara, and Sinclair is wasted at winger.

How do they line up, then?  Good question!  In a four MF lineup, my thought would be Long CDM, Wetzel (with Heath after July) CAM, Washington LW, Kerr RW with Guess as substitute.   With three, maybe more of a 4-1-2-2 or 4-2-1-2 with Long and/or Wetzel at CDM, Heath and/or Shim up front?  Sinclair could play anywhere in front of midfield, but (as we’ll see below) I’d rather she played forward.  Foxhoven as ACM sub, Guess as DCM sub.  Subs for the wingers?  Gah!  Who knows?

As you can tell – I think solving the midfield is Parlow Cone’s toughest problem.  If she can get that one right I think we might just run the table the rest of the season…if we get the two forwards we should have going…

Get the Alex Morgan who played in the last Kansas City match at home on speed dial.  Morgan has a tendency to cruise in NWSL matches.  She has terrific skills, she can beat most NWSL defenses on pure blinding speed alone, and I can’t say I blame her for laying off when she doesn’t have to.

But that’s for the Chicagos and Bostons and Washingtons.  Against the top of the table Thorns FC looks an order of magnitude better then Alex works hard all match and does the little things that hurt the opponents’ defense; making runs off the ball to open up space, taking on her defenders and pulling them with her, fighting through tackles and using her teammates to both feed and take service from.   I want to see that Morgan a lot…

Find a way to use Christine Sinclair in her CWNT role.  Chris has been terrific this season doing what her coach has asked of her.  In the early going she dropped back to help marshal a midfield that was overmatched.  Now the midfield looks stronger, and Sinclair is a wrecking-ball of a forward, so it’d seem to be a perfect opportunity to move her back up front.  Parlow Cone tried that in New Jersey but Chris looked pretty gassed from her national team duties.

Still, I have yet to see Sinclair and Morgan look like they were completely in synch.  And I’m not sure if they can; both are strikers with a similar style – it’s a bit difficult to see who can compliment whom.

Make them a dyad, a double-star, providing service for each other and scoring as well.  If Parlow Cone can make that happen Thorns FC may, indeed, become the dreaded Death Star it has been touted.  That would be insanely beautiful.

How do they line up, then?  Morgan (duh!) and Sinclair. I honestly don’t know what you do with Weimer and Shufelt.  In my opinion one of them is a dead woman walking; the moment Heath arrives one of them will be pinin’ for the fjords, an ex-Thorn.

What’s the stakes for all this, then?

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.

But of the remaining four:

Two are home-and-home with Western New York – one of the two teams we have yet to face.  On paper these guys are loaded: Wambach, Kerr, Lloyd…but in practice the Ragin’ Rhinettes have been streaky and unpredictable, beating Sky Blue twice and FCKC once but losing to Boston and drawing against them as well as Washington, Chicago, and the Reign.  Very difficult to tell how these will go.  My hope would be a win here, a draw in Rochester, four points.  My fear would be the other way around; draw here, loss away for a single point.

And two are home-and-home with FCKC – Hard to suss these out just because our first meeting was a frightful mess with goals hard to come by and the second was a wild free-for-all with goals by the bucketful.  Which teams will meet for the last two matches?

I have to think that we’re better now than either Thorns team that played those first two matches; at least four points, then, with the dire possibility that KC might possibly sneak a home win next week and leave us with only the three.

I think Parlow Cone has a terrific opportunity before her; figure out how to optimize this team and blitz these two teams.  Take twelve points from them.  Stun the league into submission before the semifinal kickoff.

The first step, in my opinion, is to sort out how her garden grows; arrange all those silver bells and cockle shells and sharp Thorns all in a row.

Reversal of Fortune

Thorns FC now sits squarely in second place in the NWSL after a 2-nil loss to the Chicago Red Stars at home and a Sky Blue win.

As I discussed earlier; Saturday’s game was full of questions.  Clearly, given the scoreline, the answers weren’t very favorable for the Thorns.  What were those answers and were they the reason for Thorns FC’s second loss of the season?

Was the third time the charm for Chicago?  I don’t believe so; I didn’t see anything particularly innovative about the way Chicago played today.  Both goals were the direct result of Portland errors; an unmarked Bywaters heading easily for the first goal, while the second was a dreadfully defended shot/cross that more or less bounced of Chicago’s Santacaterina into the net from pointblank range.

The changes all seemed to be on the PTFC end of the pitch.  The loss of Beuhler looked to be critical, as Portland’s backline looked disorganized and backfooted all afternoon.  I didn’t think that amateur keeper Cris Lewis was particularly at fault on either goal but her presence between the posts calls into question Parlow Cone’s assessment of her notional backup for LeBlanc; why didn’t Adelaide Gay get the start Saturday?  Why go with an amateur who last played for Portland State – not exactly the North Carolina of West Coast soccer – and who seems to have last played competitively in 2009?

Was it the Germans?  Not particularly. Grings was not a major factor; she was well marked and didn’t have a good chance until late in the second half.  Fuss did nothing more than the rest of the Chicago backline, who had most of the afternoon off as Thorns FC flailed about trying to get past midfield.

Was it the loss of the national team players?  I would say yes, to a large degree, but not entirely.

At this point in the season I would say that Parlow Cone has only faced two real tests; the Sky Blue match and this one, dealing with the loss of the Thorns national team players.

In neither has she shown us any Porteresque degree of insight into the game of soccer.

She was flat-out schooled by Jim Gabarra of Sky Blue.  And Saturday against Chicago she appeared just stymied.  Her team continued to try and lump the ball forward but without the speed of Morgan or the force of Sinclair that didn’t work. The backline, without the Bacon-saver, made fundamental errors at critical times and shipped two fairly (one brutally) soft goals.  That isn’t exactly the sort of game reputations for managerial cunning are built on.

We’ve all noticed that the midfield without Sinclair is sort of ordinary.   Saturday when the Sinclair-less midfield did get the ball forward what they provided was nothing special – and neither Foxhoven nor Shim were able to make something out of nothing special, the quality that Morgan provides.  Bringing on Washington and Guess in the second half merely restated the obvious; Thorns FC attack is a Cascadian fir with twin trunks made of Canadian and American national timber.

Without that lumber the poor vegetable looks more like a boxwood hedge.

And since we’re on the subject of things that haven’t worked so well, here’s my pet peeve – this Thorns team’s motto should be  “ea alis nunquam” which loosely translated from the Latin means “She ain’t got jack @!#! for wings”.

Because the one thing the Thorns have not yet shown against any opponent is effective wide play.  The gals in red really want to force the ball through the middle.  And when that didn’t work Saturday…they tried to force the ball through the middle again.  What little wide support the forwards get is typically random and usually not particularly effective; one indication of that is that Thorns FC has scored only 1 of their 12 goals from a PTFC head.  Crosses?  Typically in the single digits (and one of the three matches where Thorns FC attempted more than ten was Sky Blue, where the visitors’ central defense was so impenetrable that the only attack that PTFC had was crosses in from out wide…).

Why is this a problem?  Because if you pack the middle the Thorns have trouble scoring because we cannot or will not play the ball out wide.  I’m no Kevin Alexander but it seems to me that attacking the flanks should at least be an option for Thorns FC.

Well.

If all that sounds like I’m being grim, well. I don’t think this was more than a bad day and the national team players will return.

But.

I would suggest that Thorns coaching staff might want to think very hard about whether there are real problems in the things I’ve discussed here, and, if there are, whether something needs to be done about this.  If I knew for sure, hell, I’d be coaching the team.   But if there are…well…

KCFC is coming around this Thursday, is all I’m sayin’.

Just a couple of other random comments on the match;

–  It was great to see the turnout for a match that didn’t feature the big stars.  12,000-odd?  I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; Portland really is “Soccer City USA”.

–  My normal match tickets are for the General Admission section at the North End, but for single-match tickets I usually have to depend on whatever’s available.  The last several times these tickets have been in the far-southwest portions of the West Stand.  And I have to say; that is a whole different world over there.  I’m sure that there are lots of people who like sitting quietly watching soccer, but for me it feels like going to a memorial service with 10,000 strangers.  I just don’t feel…right…sitting quietly watching my team.  I want to stand and sing and chant and abuse the officials and slag off on the visiting team.  It’s spoiled section 216 for me.

– There was one extremely odd bit of business that marked the second half.  John Nyen at By Any Other Name does a good job describing it but the gist was that Bywaters from Chicago went down with an injury and was carried off the field by one of her own teammates.  What the heck was up with that?  Where was the Chicago trainer?  Where the heck were the medical attendants with a stretcher?  The whole thing had a real rec-league feel and left me, at least, confused and concerned.

– Nyen also describes the furious altercation that broke out late in the second half between the officials and Thorns FC coaching staff that ended with assistant coach John Galas getting tossed.  That, too, was a bit disturbing.  Yes, the referee let some rough play go but was at least letting it go on both sides (not her fault that PTFC was shrinking from the tackling…) but the Thorns’ problems were not on the officiating in any sense.   Nyen draws some uncomfortable parallels between this incident, the PTFC coaching that this match showcased, and some of the worst features of the Spencer Era – and I have to say I agree with a lot of what he says.

– And can we STOP with the “What’s it like to see a crowd?” already?  Bad enough to taunt other teams playing in tiny venues that can’t seat more than a couple of thousand when we’re beating them.  When we’re losing 2-nil it had the nasty taste of sore-loserdom.  I don’t want to hammer on this any more, but, c’mon; we have lots of great songs and chants.  Let’s pack this one away until the next time Chivas USA comes to visit the Timbers, K?

Sorry.  Had to get that off my chest…

Anyway, Saturday the First of June was a bad day for Thorns FC.

We all have them; one of those days when nothing works, when you go to your Plan B and discover that it pretty much sucks and you got nothin’ in the “Plan C” file.  One loss is just one loss, even if it is to Chicago.

The thing to do now is learn from this and move on and up.   But Parlow Cone and the Thorns have to do that; they have to learn, and they have to do the work.

Because if you don’t do the work, the love dies.

And nobody wants to deal with that one.

Drang nach Portland! – Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars

Today’s match between Thorns FC and the visiting Chicago Red Stars will be intriguing for the number of questions it raises.

There’s the “Third time’s the charm?” question.  The first two meetings between these clubs ended in 2-nil beatings for a Chicago side that never really learned the words to the Thorns’ opponents theme song, “How Do You Stop A Problem Like Alex Morgan?” Not their fault; only Sky Blue FC has managed to cover that number.  But Rory Dames now has SBFC’s example to learn from.  We’ll see if he can get the visitors to sing along to the tune that Jim Gabarra wrote here less than three weeks ago.

There’s also the “Where In The World Is Christine Sinclair (and Alex and Rachel and Karina…)?” question.  We know where – Toronto, preparing to play each other.  At Stumptown Footy the Always Indispensible Jonanna W discusses the potential options Cindy Parlow Cone has for reconfiguring a team that has leaned heavily on the currently-missing internationals.  She mentions all the usual suspects in attack; Foxhoven, Long, Shim…even Angie Kerr (who in my opinion has yet to show the form she promised in preseason) and Nikki Washington (who I thought looked adrift against Sky Blue, underperformed against a visiting Washington Spirit and was recently benched against Seattle).  But all of these players – though decent attackers all – have never yet played a minute against a NWSL opponent without the big names on the pitch.  My suspicion is that they will have serious difficulties today against a Chicago defense that has added a very solid German defender in Sonja Fuss.

Which brings up the third and most fraught question; “Deutschland über Portland?”

Chicago has added another GWNT player, and she is a serious load; Inka Grings

“…is third on Germany’s all-time career scoring list with 64 international goals…was the top scorer in Euro 2005 with four goals… Scored five goals and was the top scorer in Euro 2009…won German Footballer of the Year in 1999, 2009, and 2010…and top-scorer in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in the 2010–11 season.”  She’s also the Bundesliga’s all-time top scorer.

Whew.

I can’t see Grings as anything but a huge problem for a Beuhlerless Thorns FC backline.  And a real danger to a LeBlancless Portland goal.  Parlow Cone will HAVE to devise a tactic or combination tactics to neutralize Grings or today will be, as another German is supposed to have said;

“For the Thorns, it will be the longest day … the longest day.”

Blue Skies Return

Interesting weekend for Portland soccer, eh?

Saturday we had perhaps the oddest Timbers comeback yet, nicking a point in a wild, bizarrely-officiated 2-2 drawn match at Vancouver that our C.I. DeMann recounts here.  Suffice to say that my son is still bounding around shouting “Trencito!” at random moments as he did when we watched the wild finish from our couch.  There are draws, and draws that feel like losses, and draws that feel like wins.  That one felt like a win.

Sunday it was the women’s turn.  Trying to shake off their first ever loss – to a visiting Sky Blue FC that had clawed up next to them top of the league table  – Thorns FC ran out against the Washington Spirit.

I had a lovely recap of the match but, like a Christine Sinclair strike from distance, my friend Chris Singer zinged his terrific match report past me into the back of the net!  Arrrgh!  So rather than post my own I wanted to add some of my observations and comments about Sunday’s match.

1.  Thorns FC fielded the same side that had lost to SBFC Thursday but it appeared that Coach Parlow Cone had talked to the squad about the sterility of their attack in the earlier game.  The most visible result seemed to be that Christine Sinclair was released to do more direct attacking and less distributing, and it was her 41st minute goal that broke through a rather disjointed first half.  Still, there were real issues with movement off the ball that Chris’ report addresses well and you should read.

2.  The Thorns FC’s still has issues in midfield.  In particular, Nikki Washington’s play was unhelpful…and I am trying to be diplomatic about it.  I complained about her tendency to drift inside on Thursday and we saw that again Sunday.  She looked sharp in the early matches but has grown less effective recently, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s picked up a knock or is just out of synch with the rest of the Thorns midfield.  Whatever the cause her play had a lot to do with sucking the danger our of Thorns FC attack.

My wife was nearly sitting on my head to stop my roaring “Get her off!” at the Thorns bench by the 40th minute; I still believe that Parlow Cone gave her far too much time before subbing Wetzel on for her at 71′.  At the moment her form has not been particularly good, and perhaps it is worth Parlow Cone considering another option at right winger.

3.  One observation that came as an unpleasant surprise to me was how relatively slow Allie Long looked; she was beaten to the ball several times and generally looked less than effective though not quite as overwhelmed as Washington.

4.  Thorns FC had difficulty putting the Spirit away until after Washington went out for Wetzel and Kerr came on for Shim at 79′; suddenly the Thorns midfield began to click.  Spirit keeper Chantal Jones did well to save from Kerr within a minute of her entrance, and six minutes later it was Wetzel whose theft of a Spirit pass started the buildup to the second goal.  Wetzel slotted a lovely ball forward to a running Morgan, who in turn calmly carried the ball into the 18 and drove it past an onrushing Jones for the quietus.

5.  Sky Blue shellacked the hapless Seattle Reign 3-nil to pull back even with Thorns FC atop the table.  A measure of the parity at the top is that both teams stand at +7GD.  There is not a sliver of daylight between them outside head-to-head record; there SBFC holds a one-game advantage.

6.  One last thing I have to say here; we as Thorns supporters really need to consider which of the traditional Timbers songs we sing.

What I’m speaking directly about is the “what’s it like to see a crowd” song that rained down on Washington in the second half.

For the Timbers Army to sing that to another MLS side is a nifty little piece of snark; a crafty reminder of the rollicking atmosphere of Portland compared to the sterile bowls of FC Dallas or the empty seats in Kansas City.

But to do that to the women’s teams like Seattle and Washington, which play in tiny venues barely capable of holding the contents of Portland’s North End…well…it’s like singing “Would you walk if you could?” to some poor devil in a wheelchair.  It just seems mean to me, and cruel.  When the league is in it’s fifteenth year and the other clubs are playing in MLS stadiums and potentially drawing MLS-size crowds, then, hey; taunt them all you want.

But now?  Let’s taunt them for living in Jersey as we did with SBFC and leave the crowd-sizes out of it, K?

Do I sound carping?  I’m not, really.  Sunday was a delight.  Thorns FC was winning, the crowd was humming and the Rose City Riveters were roaring.  The Rose Girls awarded their tributes to the three Thorns who had earned a bouquet.  Even the afternoon cooperated; late in the second half the louring skies cleared and the pitch brightened as jackets and fleece came off and sunglasses and caps went on, as the happy supporters basked in the glow of a sunny Sunday and a Thorns FC win.

And when the Thorns win it’s always fair weather.

From her own wings: Thorns FC seen from the north end

Once again my compa Chris Singer is there “fustest with the mostest,” so I won’t add anything other than a recommendation to read his match report from Portland Thorns FC’s first ever victory, the 2-1 win over the visiting Seattle Reign this past Sunday. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also direct you to the by-now-indispensible JonannaW’s report over at Stumptown Footy.

Having been in the North End for the match I thought I’d just add some of my own observations from Section 109.

In the stands:

The numbers.  The last time I recall seeing the old Civic Stadium this full for a women’s match was the last time the U.S. women’s national team played here. in 2012, and that crowd was less raucous and less partisan than Sunday’s.  I can understand how the Thorns FC players and coaches were impressed.  While I don’t expect the stands to continue to be quite that packed, I think we showed our colors as Soccer City, USA, and those colors were bright red and white.

The overall sensibility inside the Shed was very different from a Timbers match.  I think the effect of the large general admission seating section (the entire lower bowl all the way around to Section 110) and the smaller size of the Rose City Riveters supporters group had the effect of diluting the fervor of the North End.  I think that this will sort itself out over the season, as louder and more vertical will gravitate towards 107 while the quiet sitters will move away.

One effect of “early days yet” seems to be that there was some confusion on where exactly “general admission” was located.  The event staff was quite definite; all the 100 sections ending at 110.  But the couple behind us at the west end of 109 had reserved seats for that section, and so did another group of five sitting where we first sat.  We had no trouble finding other seats, but hopefully Thorns FC and Jeld-Wen work this out quickly; having supporters dueling over places to sit or stand won’t help anyone focus on the match.

The other issue that club, supporters, and venue will need to work on figuring out is “who stands”?  On Sunday pretty much everyone across the North End over to 108 was standing.  But in our section the confusion began; several whole areas were sitting, some behind supporters who were standing.  This didn’t seem to be a big issue when the ball was 20 yards or more from the end line, but when a player worked the ball down into the near corner it forced the sitters to stand to see the play.  This jack-in-the-box jumping up noticeably increased in the second half as Portland repeatedly attacked Seattle’s goal, and I can see this becoming an issue in the future as some solid citizen objects to those yobs standing in his way.  The Timbers’ North End match supporters have worked this out pretty well; you know going in that everyone is going to stand so you either stand or move.

The Riveters did fine work Sunday, keeping the energy high and mixing in enough familiar TA (but non-Timbers specific) songs and chants with new Thorns FC material to keep the noise level up.  The Thorns FC songs were a trifle sotto voce; this, too, will strengthen with time and familiarity.  Special kudos to Sunday for her awesome Rosie the Riveter outfit; we already knew she was brilliant for her work as a Timbers capo; she was a rock on the main capo stand Sunday and she’s already bringing the heat to the visiting teams.

The title of this post, by the way, comes from the Thorns’ unofficial slogan, She Flies With Her Own Wings, which is one English version of the State motto Alis volat propriis. The Thorns season ticket holders were all about sporting a handsome scarf with that motto knitted into it; it’s impressive the diversity of scarves this club and its supporters have created in just a few months…

On the pitch:

After a shaky start against Kansas City away, Thorns FC looked an order of magnitude better against Seattle Sunday.  I thought that some of this had to do with the relative strength of the KCFC midfield compared to the less-active, looser-pressing Seattle unit.  But I think a lot of it had to do with better composure and better organization in the Thorns midfield and backline.

For all that, Portland still needed almost 45 minutes to work out how to consistently push the ball up to the forwards.  From what I could see a huge part of this was Seattle’s Jessica Fishlock, who was a complete beast both offensively and defensively.  She went in hard on every tackle, had a nasty instinct for closing down passing lanes and in attack was a pest and a caution all match.  Rachel Buehler and Kathryn Williamson, the Thorns FC centerbacks, had trouble with her all match and her persistence paid off with a 74th minute goal.

Buehler seems to help settle the Thorns FC backline, but Williamson (who seems like a decent CB but nomination for “player of the week” last week was…confusing, to say the least, given the defensive breakdown that led to the Cuellar goal) was nowhere in sight when Fishlock’s mucker Keelin Winters knocked Buehler down to free her pal up for the easy strike.  Over the course of the match the back four looked solid, but the confusion as the ball bounded about in front of goal was a nasty reminder that this unit has very Timberesque moments when soccer just flies out of the room.  Parlow-Cone is surely talking to them about that this week…

Karina LeBlanc’s bicolor mohawk was ridiculously awesome; so was her steady keeping, though she was relatively untroubled most of the match she was blameless on the Fishlock goal.

It is interesting to watch Christine Sinclair’s evolution from a Abby Wambach-style frontrunning striker into a trequartista.  I understand why Parlow-Cone has moved her back; her tackling behind the ball and her service to Morgan and Washington up front make all the difference in midfield.  Allie Long is working hard, but without Sinclair in the #10 position the midfield was overrun at KCFC.  Sinclair adds there what she did upfront; a combination of skill and muscle that stymies the opponent and frees the Thorns FC strikers.  More than ever I am awed by this woman’s gifts; she is truly a great player and it is a gift to watch her play.

In the end:

Portland has shown Thorns FC some love, and at 1-0-1, Thorns FC have returned that affection with a great start to their season.  Their next opponent is Chicago; the Red Stars drew the Reign 1-1 the opening weekend, bombing Seattle keeper Betos with 14 shots, 9 on goal.  This should be a real test for the Thorns FC organization in back.  The defenders will have to have a solid 90 minutes than we’ve had up ’til now.  But I’m confident – Onward, Rose City!

I should add this odd little tale before I go, though.

I picked up our tickets on the Saturday before the match; parked off 17th and walked down Morrison to the box office at the north face of the field.  The woman in the ticket booth glanced up over her cat-eye glasses at me when I asked what was open for Sunday and informed me in a smoker’s voice that the only reserved seats open were at the far southwest end near the visitor’s section.

“That’s terrific…” I replied, “I had no idea that the tickets had sold so well.”

“Well, yeah, that’s Portland…” she rasped, pulling off my tickets and shoving them through the hole in the window. “…but Portland ain’t the whole league, y’know.”

We looked at each other for a moment; both of us, I think, remembering all those other professional women’s soccer leagues come and gone.

And I pocketed the tickets and walked back down the street.

Thorns FC: Impressions from the “first ever draw”

Chris has already done such a fine job with his match report of the 1-1 draw that the Portland Thorns FC scratched out against Kansas City FC that I just thought I’d add some of my impressions of the gamecast and the game itself.

I should say up front  that I missed a sizeable portion of the second half from pure frustration; I was cooking with the live-feed on my wife’s tablet perched on the kitchen window and the buffering had become so slow that I shut the thing off to concentrate on preparing the miso butter for the asparagus.  I turned it back on in the 60th minute in time to see the final half hour of the match.  Chris says the Thorns improved in the second half, though, so I’ll take his word for it.

But I did want to add my takeaways from the broadcast.

1.  For all that I’ve heard Portlanders complain about the Timbers broadcast announcers I can’t say that I really pay much attention to them.

The KCFC announcer Sean Wheelock was impossible not to pay attention to.

Was it his constant reminders of the historical importance of the occasion – did you know that the match was the first ever  in the NWSL?  Sean reminded us of every first ever – first ever goal (by KC’s Cuellar) and first ever PK; Sean even informed us that Emilee O’Neill was the first ever substitution in the NWSL.  For all I know Sean mentioned the first ever use of Magic Spray for the first ever injury.  The live feed wasn’t so great that I couldn’t have missed it.

Wheelock had several more of these catchphrases.  By the 80th minute my children were both using “but we play on…” as a description for not getting booked for quarreling with each other or leaving the top off the milk jug.  And when Nitty the Cat batted her catnip mouse off the sofa she was said to have played “a long searching ball.”

Wheelock’s partner seemed to be some sort of KCFC player or coach but she said so little I couldn’t even learn her name; it was all Sean and his first evers.  As much footy as I watch I don’t often think about announcers but after Sean & Co. I’ve revised my opinion; they need to be like officials – if they’re doing their jobs right you shouldn’t even notice that they’re there.  Are you reading this, Thorns?  I hope so.

2.  As for the match itself, well; KC is a damn good team, and Renae Cuellar is a load.  I’d heard that they had been touted as potentially the best balanced and organized team in the NWSL and tonight they looked it.  The good stuff I saw for the Thorns is that the gals earned a point on the road.  And, well…that’s the bulk of the good news.  The first half was just ugly for PTFC; lots of missed passes, little attack, and several scary moments on defense.

Well, as Chris said, the team tightened up a bit in the second half.  But over the match KCFC imposed their pressing style on the Thorns, disrupted our attack thoroughly, were typically able to pass through the Thorns defense when they needed to, and were visibly the better team on the night.

KCFC completely dominated the Thorns midfield.  Angie Kerr, who looked so composed and resourceful against University of Portland, was not effective.  Far too many passes went astray, or directly to someone in a blue jersey.   The Thorns midfield looked poorly organized, scattered and out of synch for much of the match.

KCFC marked the Thorns forwards relentlessly,  too, and the result was next to no space for the frontrunners Sinclair and Morgan.  Sinclair was reduced to retreating back past midfield in an attempt to gain possession.  After Foxhoven came on for Kerr at 63′ the Thorns had better run of play but the Attack did not look especially dangerous at any time tonight.

The other difficulty the KCFC pressure caused was that the Thorns were unable to consistently possess the ball and thus play the game Parlow-Cone hoped to play.  For long stretches the only attack Portland could generate came from booting the ball forward and trying to run under it – Sean’s “long searching” balls.  One hopes that this was the collected impact of the awful pitch and first-match jitters.  But it never looks good and tonight was no better; those long balls seldom searched out a Thorn or, when they did, the hard pitch made for heavy first touches that were usually immediately lost.

3.  Did I sound dire in the paragraph above?  I don’t want to; I’m not despairing.  This side is loaded with good players, and with more time to gel, on a better pitch, against other opponents – for KCFC is one of the best sides in the NWSL – the Red and Black will get their first ever win.  Parlow-Cone now has 90 minutes of experience to make adjustments from, and the women are coming home next week to their home opener against Seattle.  I had to remind myself that this team has played together less than two months.  And we snatched a point on the road after shipping a third minute goal; that’s nothing to get depressed about.  We will see better from our Thorns.

4.  Overall the match, the broadcast, and “Shawnee Mission District Stadium” reminded me more than a little of the Timbers’ days in the USL than it did a first ever anything.

The screen in my kitchen window tonight reminded me strongly of peering at dumpy little pitches through cheaply filmed video feeds (where the camera was just as likely to be showing the costumed mascot as the play on the pitch) while listening to announcers muttering through badly-adjusted mikes that also picked up every kettlecorn vendor’s cries and gradeschoolers’ chatter.  Stone-hard turf pitches painted over with the local high school football team’s gridiron – I’d almost forgotten how bad that looks for soccer, with the faint yellow lines of the bigger pitch fading out on the screen.

We may have forgotten how lucky we are, here in the Rose City, to have the beautiful pitch we see every home match.

I know it’s early days yet, but if the NWSL management hopes to earn any sort of credibility it really needs to work harder to make its venues look more professional than Middlefield Cheese Stadium (remember the home pitch of Cleveland City Stars? I do now).

Final Thoughts:  Was it a great match (for all that is was…wait for it…the first ever!) for the Thorns?  No.  Was it reason to despair?  Also no.  The gals will be home next week against Seattle, on our own beautiful Jeld-Wen field, with a full 90 against a good opponent to help tweak our play and make adjustments to our tactics.  We will be ready for Cuellar & Co. when they show up out here on D-Day.  We still have a talented side and a lot of time to work out the hitch in our stride.

And I feel confident that day will be a day that will live in infamy for KCFC.

Onward, Rose City!

Thorns FC draws FC Kansas City 1-1 in their inaugural NWSL match

Christine Sinclair converted a second-half penalty kick to help Thorns FC to a come-from-behind 1-1 draw in front of sold-out crowd of 6,784 fans at Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kansas.

The Thorns FC season got off to a rocky start when FC Kansas City’s Renae Cuellar took a long pass from Kristin Mewis and scored the first goal in NWSL history in only the match’s 3rd minute.

The Thorns FC defense settled down after that but FC Kansas City, with especially strong play from their midfield, looked to be the better team in the first half.

The second half featured a much better showing from the Thorns FC defense as Becky Edwards and the rest of the backline did a much better job containing FC Kansas City’s midfield and denying their forwards opportunities.

Thorns FC got a big break in the 66th minute when second-half substitute Danielle Foxhoven was fouled by Lauren Sesselmann in the penalty area. Sinclair, the captain for Thorns FC, converted the penalty kick with a hard shot to the low right side, recording the first goal in Portland’s NWSL history in the 67th minute.

Next weekend, Thorns FC has their  inaugural home match on Sunday, April 21, against Seattle Reign FC. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. (PST) and the game will be broadcast on Freedom 970 AM as well as via web stream at www.portlandthornsfc.com.

Game Stats:

Portland Thorns FC (0-0-1, 1pts) at FC Kansas City (0-0-1, 1pts)
April 13, 2013 – Shawnee Mission District Stadium (Overland Park, Kan.)

Goals by Half              1          2          F
KC                               1          0          1
POR                            0          1          1

Scoring Summary
KC – Cuellar (Mewis)                            3rd minute
POR – Sinclair (penalty kick)             67

Misconduct Summary
KC – Mewis (caution)                            43
POR – Washington (caution)              70
POR – Williamson (caution)               82

Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall (Emilee O’Neil, 61); M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long, M Angie Kerr (Danielle Foxhoven, 63); F Nikki Washington (Courtney Wetzel, 90), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan

Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, M Meleana Shim

TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Morgan, 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Sinclair, 2); FOULS: 13 (Long, 4); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 2

KC: GK Nicole Barnhart; D Becky Sauerbrunn (capt.), D Leigh Ann Robinson, D Lauren Sesselmann, D, Jen Buczkowski; M Casey Loyd (Courtney Jones, 72), M Merritt Mathias (Katie Kelly, 77), M Desiree Scott, M Kristie Mewis (Erika Tymrak, 81), M Lauren Cheney (capt.); F Renae Cuellar

Substitutes Not Used: GK Bianca Henninger, D Nia Williams, F Melissa Henderson

TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Two players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Three tied with 1); FOULS: 11 (Two players tied, 2); OFFSIDES: 3; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 3

Referee: Kari Seitz
Assistant Referees: Kathryn Nesbitt, Kyle Atkins
Fourth Official: Jon Freemon
Attendance: 6,784

Thorns FC announce broadcast details for 2013 season

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC announced today that all 11 of the club’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) home matches will be broadcast on Freedom 970 AM, with all 22 matches available via live web stream at www.portlandthornsfc.com.

All NWSL home teams will provide live streaming video of their matches, which will be made available on www.portlandthornsfc.com for the club’s home and away games. All games at JELD-WEN Field will be streamed in high definition. On the road, the host team’s web stream will be provided.

Starting with Portland’s inaugural home match on April 21 against Seattle Reign FC, veteran sports broadcaster Ann Schatz will provide play-by-play with former University of Portland All-American goalkeeper Angela Harrison adding analysis as the broadcast team on Freedom 970 AM.

Schatz joins the Thorns FC broadcast team with more than 30 years of experience in the sports broadcasting field. After moving to the Rose City in 1989, Schatz worked at KOIN-TV before becoming the sideline reporter for Portland Trail Blazers basketball from 1999 until 2005. She turned her focus to the college ranks working with CBS Sports and, most recently, the Pac-12 Network calling women’s soccer, basketball and softball games. Originally from Omaha, Neb., Schatz played both basketball and softball at Creighton University, where she earned a degree in journalism and mass communications.

Harrison, a standout goalkeeper for the University of Portland from 1996-99, joins the Thorns FC broadcast team after three years as a radio analyst for the Pilots. Playing under the direction of Clive Charles, Harrison finished her collegiate career ranked sixth all-time in the program’s record books in both saves (132) and shutouts (24.5). A Soccer Buzz All-America selection in 1997, Harrison went on to win two USL W-League championships with the Boston Renegades in 2001 and 2002. She returned to Portland and was awarded an MBA from the University of Portland in 2005. In addition to broadcasting, Harrison has been a longtime youth soccer coach, developing numerous goalkeepers for the youth national team and college ranks. She currently serves as the director of operations for the Oregon Premier League.