Thorns FC: In With A Shout!

I’ve been saying here all season that a home semifinal is the minimum standard for this 2016 Thorns season.

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Level One Complete: Home Semifinal Achievement Unlocked.

Now that’s done?  I don’t want to see the #@$!%#! Western New York Flash again until the Final…if then.

Because last Sunday’s 3-2 win may well have been one of the tensest matches of the season, and one that could easily have been a 2-2 draw…or worse.  The first goal – the successful conversion of the PK Nadia Nadim won in the 26th minute – was…well, look at the picture:

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At the time, from way down at the North End I was sure it was a foul and was even kind of ranting about a DOGOSO and no red.  Not until I was reviewing tape last night did I get a better look and it and then…well…let’s just say I’m glad we got the call and that it went our way.

Because the first twenty-five minutes were flat-out frigging scary, starting in the 4th minute when Jess McDonald stripped Em Sonnet and passed off to Lydia Williams; luckily Williams’ header went right to Betos.  Two minutes later McCall Zerboni skinned Kat Reynolds and then got goal-side of Sonnett who still managed to body her off the ball until it ran safely over the byline.

In the 8th Mewis served a sweet – okay, if it’d been Long to Nadim it’d have been sweet – ball onto McDonald’s head…but Michelle’s hands got there first and picked it off.  Two minutes later Mewis won the ball off Allie Long, turned, and fired…but off-target.

See where I’m going with this?

The Thorns had some chances, too, sure; largely on long balls up to Nadim or Sinc.  But the high pressure that had so disconcerted Houston?  Lost, overrun by a Flash midfield and two good forwards that pressured and won what seemed like everything.  The aggressive tackling?  Disappeared amid a Thorns midfield and backline that seemed slow, disorganized and strangely adrift under that heavy pressure.

In the 15th Emily Sonnett did a Steve Clark; lazily ran up onto a ball that McDonald then hustled in front of and knocked it right back at the Thorns’ end.

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Emily just stood there, like a hipster whose Voodoo Donut has just fallen, Cap’n Crunch-side-down, onto the Old Town sidewalk.  I can only guess and hope that she was sure the ball was going over the endline and not having a nice nap.  Because McDonald hustled her tail down to the byline, took the ball, and – luckily for us – crossed right into Betos’ hands.

Now do you see where I’m going?

I hate when the Girls play Rochester.  They seem to make us play…odd.  Not ourselves.  Just…kinda out-of-sorts and fugly.

Finally in the 16th the Thorns registered their first shot; an off-target Henry header.  WNY kept pressing forward.  From the 19th to the 23rd minutes they swarmed around the Thorns’ goal, where only scrambling defense kept them out.  The Great Wall of Emily seemed more like a speed bump, and the Thorns midfield that had so dominated play against Houston and Boston earlier in the week looked overmatched and overrun.

Then, the Nadim PK.

Against the run of play?  Sure!  As was the next Portland goal, a wild business where Nadim’s good run and cross fell to Liz Eddy, who put an utterly horrible boot to the ball and passed it right to Christine Sinclair, and…

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Boom.  That’s pure Sinc magic right there; control, touch, touch, score.  That was how the first half ended; 2-nil Thorns, improbably, against the way the match looked on the pitch.  But that’s soccer; sometimes you do everything right and fail.  Sometimes you look hopeless and manage to find a way to win.

——–

The second half seemed to promise more of same; in the 48th Williams split Sonnett and Reynolds but shot wide left.  But…

From about the 50th minute to the 69th Portland grabbed the match by the throat.  In the 55th Sinc played a lovely long ball up to The Notorious TFH…but D’Angelo cleared well.  Two minutes later Sinc was just offside.  In the 62nd Henry passed up to Raso (who’d come on for Nadim in the 60th) who torched her usual scorch-mark up the right flank and hucked a sweet long cross to Tobin for the corner.  Great pressure from Portland…

In the 66th, another great attack; Reynolds brought the ball up the right side, passed in to Sinc at the top of the penalty arch; Sinc’s perfect pass in to Horan should have been a goal but for D’Angelo’s pointblank save.  And then, in the 69th minute…

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That’s…that’s poetry, that’s what that is.  That’s a sunrise, a lover’s gentle caress, the soft feel of a sleeping cat’s fur, the smoky bite of fine whisky.  That’s magic; Menges to Long to Sinc to Heath to Dagny to the back of the net.  Hamar Ísland!

Ah…so that’s that, eh?  Three-nil and safely home.  Now all we have to is…hey!…wha?…the hell!?

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Yep.  In the course of four minutes – over a period of about 10 minutes of strong Flash play from the 70th minute to the 80th – WNY swarmed the Portland goal and scored.  Twice.  And mostly not on crap defending – though that is some pretty impressively poor positioning between Sonnett (who’s also ballwatching) and Reynolds on the McDonald goal – but on damn good soccer.  The match looked like it was going sideways and that was even without this little gem, in the 78th…

This one’s gonna to hang in Michelle Betos’ Wall of Shame for a while:

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Lucky McDonald couldn’t control THAT little present or we wouldn’t be basking in the warmth of nine points in eight days, eh?

Strangely, after seeming intent in giving the match away, after the 80th minute Portland seemed to shake themselves and wake up.  In particular, Heath and Klingenberg went into Beast Mode, constantly holding possession and frustrating Rochester with their pretty ballwork and communication.

Even than…Betos had to go up strong to palm away a Williams strike from distance and then take the ensuing corner kick.  In the 94th minute.

Whew.

But the Thorns did it.  One match to go, home semi locked up, the most dangerous of the three-in-one-week opponents seen off.  Here’s the PMRs and comments; format as usual, players front-to-back and PMR’s as (first half +/- : second half +/- : match +/-)

Sinclair: (+3/-1 : +6/-1 :+9/-4)  How come I seem to have the phrase “Solid match from our captain” preloaded into my keyboard?  Could it have something to do with how good our captain is?  Hmmm.  Anyway, another solid match from our captain, including a goal.  Sinc’s “minuses” were nearly all on balls that she couldn’t control in the tight space she had to work in all match.

Nadim: (60′ – +11/-5 : +2/-2 : +13/-7)  Alert and aggressive on both side of the ball in the first half; pluses include the goal, five tackles (three for gain), one clear, and two good passes.  Was still effective in the second half (although tiring) when she was pulled, according to Coach Parsons, to avoid a possible yellow card suspension.

Horan: (67′ – +10/-2: +3/-0 : +13/-2)  A fairly quiet but effective game from Lindsey, but was getting beefed around a lot and looked tired when she, too, was yanked to avoid a possible suspension against Sky Blue.  Good service to Nadim on the first goal.

Heath: (+3/-1 : +11/-3 : +14/-5)  When Portland was under the cosh in the first period the Notorious TFH had neither time, nor space, to display her mad skilz.  Notice, however, in second as Rochester had to open up and chase a bit…as noted above, she and Kling bossed the final minutes and sealed the win.

Dan Lauletta recommends her as one of his “Players of the Week” for last week and I have to agree; Tobin is playing the best soccer of her NWSL career.  Emily Menges won the Riveters “Player of the Year” award and I agree that she has been a rock in defense this season.  But Tobin has been the engine that drives this team, and she would be my pick for MVP if the Thorns repeat as champions.

Long: (+5/-5 : +8/-2 : +13/-7)  As with Tobin, forced back on her heels early; her first half “minuses” were almost all defensive – a poor clear and a bad piece of positioning and three long passes trying desperately to find anything upfield.  Did have a truly awful turnover in the 80th minute – a lazy crossfield pass (that, admittedly, Sonnett was slow to get to…) that Williams pounced on for a give-and-go with McDonald for WNY’s second goal…but generally had a better second half, in particular as part of the period of Thorns control that led up to the Dagny goal.

Henry: (+5/-2 : +8/-1 : +13/-3)  La Roche was largely her rock-like self, although just like her teammates the swarming WNY attack didn’t really allow her to impose herself on the match as she had against Houston.

Reynolds: (+10/-6 : +6/-2 : +16/-8)  I was worried about Williams and McDonald getting around Kat, but she pretty much held her own aside from the McDonald goal.  Had some really pretty passes, including starting the forward movements that lead to both the run-of-play goals.

Sonnett: (+2/-6 : +4/-3 : +6/-9)  As her PMR indicates, the Sonnett half of the Great Wall of Emily didn’t have a positive match for much of the night, including the gaffes mentioned above and struggling with the Flash attack all evening.  Not horrible enough to be subbed off…but not terrific, either.  Emily’s been kind of up-and-down over the past month, and I hope she’s shaking off whatever the problem is as we head into the playoffs.

Menges: (+2/-3 : +10/-6 : +12/-9)  The other brick in the Great Wall had a tough first half but seemed to brighten up in the second…although her passing was sketchy all night; she had a total of 6 “critical positive” passes but also 6 poor one including five that lost possession.  Perhaps understandable given the caliber of the opponents she had to fight – and, let’s not forget, beat.  Well-deserved supporter-awarded “Player of the Year” on the night; outside Heath she has been perhaps the player most critical to the success of this season.

Klingenberg: (+4/-2 : +9/-3 : +13/-5)  Last match I whined a little about Kling.  This one – after starting as slowly as the rest of her teammates – she caught fire.  She was all over the pitch in the second half, making tackles and passes, holding possession…a very good match from our LB.

Betos: (+4/-1 : +3/-1 : +7/-1)  No real problems other than the awful 78th minute derp.  No real chance on either goal, and came out strongly to take several dangerous chances, including off McDonald in both the 8th and 15th.  Distribution fine.

Raso: (30′ – +2/-0)  Hayley was her usual alert and speedy self, although her time on the pitch was largely dominated by much WNY possession/attack and then seeing out the one-goal match, so she had little chance to stand out.

Dagny: (23′ – +7/-2)  Nice, nice goal…amid a good half-hour-ish of tough tackling and good passing.  Had to do a fair amount of inside-the-18 defending where her height is a big help.  Goal within two minutes of coming on helps make the coach look like Sir Freaking Alex.

Coach Parsons:   Not sure where I am on the overall match management.  Good subs, although I might have yanked Sonnett late if Kat Williamson was ready and had trained as a CB, and overall the tactics seemed sensible enough; whipping longballs to Sinc and Nadim early bypassed the Flash midfield and avoided the battering the Thorns were taking in midfield (this was a fairly rough match, especially late – 22 fouls overall with 8 coming from WNY in the second half…) and helped relieve the pressure.  Then when the match opened up moving the ball on the ground a bit more to try and hold possession.  Still…might have been the toughest match of the season for the full side, and a preview of how difficult the playoff soccer will be.

So…I asked last week what this show would be…and it turned out to be one of those slasher flicks where you never know when the creepy guy’s gonna strike.  You think he’s dead…but he’s not.  Yike!

For all the tense moments, however, the final score gave us what we’ve never had, what we’ve wanted since there was a Thorns FC; a chance for a playoff win here at home.

Let’s go get one.