Thorns FC: Can’t you hear the thunder..?

Aussies glow and Thorns plunder…

…and finally break the Curse of Memorial with a gritty 1-2 away win crafted from relentless pressure and some horrific Seattle defending.

If you looked at the stat line you’d think that this had been a sad, one-sided beatdown.  Portland with 25 shots to just 4 for Seattle?  Ouch.

But only 6 of those shots were on goal.  Thorns FC was prodigiously wasteful Saturday, blasting over, left, and right.  Nadia Nadim was somehow credited in the NWSL boxscore as taking 7 shots and putting them all on-goal, but I’ve checked my notes and don’t seem to have seen a single one of those supposed SOG.  It wasn’t that she had a poor game.  In fact she was one of many Thorns who did well to take three points from Memorial; notwithstanding, she didn’t put a shot on goal and neither did a bunch of Thorns.

On the pitch the match was a tough, fairly messy meeting.  The main elements were a lot of good Portland defending and a lot of poor Seattle passing; Portland came out the better but only by comparison, completing 73% to Seattle’s pathetic 68%.  Perhaps the single most decisive element were some appalling derps by Seattle’s backline that helped them commit soccer suicide.

Seattle actually had the first decent chance of the match; a free header off a long, looping Mathias pass up to Johnson.  Reynolds was caught woolgathering and had let Johnson run wide and goalside of her, but fortunately for PTFC Johnson’s header went over the crossbar.

The two sides traded efforts for several minutes; Portland’s 12th minute attack ended with Nadim blasting well over, Seattle’s attack in the 16th ended with Menges recovering to tackle away from Kawasumi for a corner that was cleared but the remainder of the half was almost all Portland.

What a difference Rapinoe makes for Seattle.

Yeah, I know; duh.  But…wow.

In the last meeting she took the match by the throat and choked the life out of Portland.

Without her Seattle just couldn’t find any space in midfield and were the ones choked off in the midfield and their attacking third.  Here’s what two of their players’ afternoons looked like; Nahomi Kawasumi up front and Rumi Utsugi in midfield:

Kawasumi has two dangerous moments in the half; the pass up to Mathias in the 10th minute that leads to the Johnson miss, and the 16th minute block out for the corner.  Otherwise she was nearly invisible.  Utsugi does a lot of dinking around the periphery but can’t get anything through the center of the pitch, and her work up the right touchline to Dallstrom (#5) is a pale shadow of the monstrous impact Rapinoe had on that same flank in the earlier game in Seattle.

Here’s the second half.  Harvey subs Crummer in for Kawasumi at 82′:

Kawasumi is now completely invisible, Utsugi, reduced to desperate long balls up the left touchline, and Crummer is pretty much stuffed in the corner.

Portland controlled the center of the pitch for a massive portion of this match.

There’s simply no space for Seattle to operate there.  A great player, a player like Rapinoe, can make space by the force of pure skill.  Mathias and Kawasumi and Fishlock?  They don’t have those kind of skills, that kind of sacred fire, to do that against this sort of high-press, aggressive, forechecking defending:

Mind you, Portland created a ton of chances against Seattle but were scoreless through a first half in which they out-shot the Reign 17-1.

Seventeen to one!  And no goals!

Finally, early in the second half, Haley Kopmeyer and Kristen McNabb combined to serve up a delicious Vegemite Sandwich to the Gal from Down Under:

Kopmeyer has played the ball out short to McNabb who dinks it back to her keeper without looking upfield to see if anything might make that a problem.

Hayley Raso is in the business of making problems, and pounces on the lazy backpass.

Kopmeyer is stranded, McNabb is too far behind the play to recover, and Raso coolly slots home the goal to make it 0-1 Portland.

Can’t you hear the thunder? 

Because the storm isn’t over for the hapless Reign.

In the 85th minute, Sinclair plays a looping long ball that Lauren Barnes looks to have covered.  But Barnes goofs, leaves her feet to try and tackle the ball out from under Raso, and misses…

Raso simply takes the ball in stride and closes down on Kopmeyer 1v0.

Kopmeyer does a good job of saving Raso’s first shot, but…

…she parries it forward rather than over the byline or to her right towards McNabb.

Raso, good striker that she is, follows her own shot, and…

…has a simple finish to put Portland up nil-2.

You better run, you better take cover.

What (to me, anyway) seemed a ridiculously soft penalty call on Meghan Klingenberg allowed Seattle to get within a goal in stoppage time, but Thorns FC managed to see them off to break the Curse of Memorial and take their fourth win out of the past five.

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Player comments and PMRs:

Raso (+9/-1 : +6/-2 : +15/-3)  Normally the player with the brace (and the only goals Portland scored in the match) would be automatic Woman of the Match, and there’s no doubt that Hayley played a fine match.  But take a look at her actions.  Here in the first half:

There’s not really much there, is there?  A couple of off-target shots and a block, some rather unremarkable passing, and a handful of her trademark runs.  Even in the second half, there’s only this:

Take away the two goals and would you call that a WotM performance?

Good work, Hayley, great goals…but I think some of your teammates deserve the palm for this one.  Let’s keep going and see why.

Sinclair (88′ – +14/-3 : +7/-1 : +21/-4)  Controlled play in midfield; pressuring, tackling, creating, and distributing; in other words, just another day at the office for Captain Sinclair.  Sinc-y, Sinc-y, you so fine, you so fine you blow my mind, oh, Sinc-y…

Nadim (75′ – +7/-3 : +3/-0 : +10/-3)  All her usual energy and hustle, fierce on both sides of the ball, but lacking the precision in front of goal.  Didn’t really look tired at 75′, so I’m guessing that the Brynjarsdóttir sub was planned before kickoff.  Needs to be more clinical.

Brynjarsdóttir (15′ – +2/-2) Not really a factor other than helped run out the clock.  But that was her job, so a good shift for Dagny, then.

Jordan (2′ – No rating) Pure timewasting.

Sykes (+8/-4 : +13/-0 : +21/-4)  Ashley Sykes was so terrific in this match that I want to go out and get a cute little stuffed kangaroo and name it Ashley and make a tiny little Thorns jersey for it and bring it to all the home matches and hug it every time Sykes does something 100% made of awesome which is, like, all the time now.  She was just outstanding.

I wanted to show you this just because it was such a pretty, pretty piece of soccer:

It’s late in the match and Portland is hanging on to that one-goal lead.  Allie Long – and we’ll talk about her in just a moment – starts this off by gaining possession.  Sykes is heading back downfield on the Seattle attack but immediately reverses direction on the gain and roars up the touchline past Long.

Allie plays a simple square and Sykes takes the ball in stride and torches up the north flank.

There’s a blue shirt in her path, so Ashley plays a 1-2 with Raso to get past her, recovers the ball and tears in towards the near post with only a single defender and Kopmeyer to beat.

Luckily for the Reign, McNabb is positioned well enough to block the ball wide for a Portland corner (which, unluckily for Portland was turned over on a foul).  Still, this is just gorgeous soccer.  This is what makes this the beautiful game, and this is Thorns FC playing the beautiful game beautifully.

Henry (58′ – +7/-3 : +3/-0 : +10/-3)  Well played shift, in her usual destroyer mode.  Timely substitution of Long, just as in the last match here against Houston, meant the deep-midfield energy remained high on both sides of the ball.

Long (32′ – +8/-0)  And, just as against Houston, brought great energy and creativity to the last part of the match.  I’m starting to think this Allie-for-Henry thing is how these two players need to be worked, and Parsons gets big props for figuring it out.

Horan (+14/-5 : +9/-1 : +23/-6)  The Great Horan appears to have solidly arrived.

Parsons preferred early-season midfield of Horan, Henry, and Long was surprisingly inert, generating very little on the way of chances on goal.  Much of that inertia seemed linked to Lindsey’s lack of engagement as well as some kind of mismatch with both Long and Henry shuttling between playing box-to-box and holding mid.

I’m willing to entertain alternative explanations, but what I see is three things that changed to make the Thorns midfield creative and dangerous in attack while retaining its sturdiness in defense:

  1. Parsons dropped Christine Sinclair back into midfield,
  2. Parsons abandoned the Henry-Long combination and as noted above began interchange one for the other, and,
  3. Lindsey Horan seems to have found the permanent on-switch for Beast Mode.

Credit to Coach Parsons for the first two.  But credit solely to Lindsey for the third and that, in my opinion, was what made the difference in Memorial.  Horan was everywhere; dangerous in attack, a rock in defense, fluid in transition, and providing great vision, hard tackling, and precise passing.  That’s why she’s my Woman of the Match.

Klingenberg (+6/-1 : +7/-1 : +13/-2)  Very, very fine match from Kling.  Last match, I bitched about her consistency.  This match she was consistency personified, and consistently excellent at that.  I thought the “foul” that resulted in the Fishlock PK was soft to the point of ridiculous; I don’t consider her at fault on the goal.  Well played, MK.

Sonnett (+4/-3 : +4/-1 : +8/-4)  Both Emilies were relatively untroubled Saturday.  When Seattle was dangerous – which was, as noted, seldom – they were good.  When they had a mild derp or two, Seattle couldn’t take advantage of them.  HUGE tackle off the feet of Kawasumi in the 53rd minute may possibly have saved a goal (making up for a truly horrible straight-up-in-the-air non-clearance in the 84th).

Menges (+5/-1 : +6/-1 : +11/-2)  Definitely a Very Stout Board Fence, or possibly a Well-Built Masonry Stemwall.  Critical clear in the 93rd minute away from Johnson’s head.

Reynolds (+4/-5 : +4/-1 : +8/-6)  What little Seattle had largely came at Reynolds.  Shockingly poor position on the Johnson miss at 10′.  Tightened up after that and had a decent match overall.  Most of her first-half “minuses” were poor outlet passes.

Franch (+2/-0 : +2/-1 : +4/-1)  Her single “minus” is not for the concession, although I didn’t think she was strong on the PK.  No, it’s because she came out horribly badly on a ball pinging around her 6-yard-box in the 89th minute, tried to make the grab over two players standing under the ball and failed, tumbling to the turf and taking herself out of the play.  Lucky not to have had a shot on goal at that point.  All her “pluses”, on the other hand, are for strong takes.  Controlled her penalty area well and, as we’ll see, did a good job of distributing.

Distribution:  A.D. put a total of 19 clearances into play; 8 goal kicks, 8 clears, 2 free kicks, and a single punt.  Of the goal kicks, 5 went to a Thorn and 3 were lost; the same ratio applied to her clearances.  She lost both her free kicks, but the punt went to Portland.  So 8 of 18 clearances were lost – 44% – but none were returned under dangerous circumstances.

Wee heidies:  An astounding total of 53 passes or clears went high in the air over the iron-hard Memorial Stadium turf.  Of these a total of 37 were played right back up in the air – 24 by Portland, 13 by Seattle.  Another 5 were flicked on (PTFC 4, SEA 1), and 11 were played down; 7 by Portland, 4 by Seattle.

Of the played-straight-back-up option both sides lost possession of the majority; Portland 14 of 24 (58%), Seattle 5 of 13 (38%) with another 4 (31%) pinging around off random heads (Portland had only one “random” high ball).  Combined the two sides lost or were unable to control 65% of the balls they played back up in the air.

Given the scrappy match and Portland’s control of midfield I’m not surprised that 1) Thorns FC got to so many of the high balls, or that 2) so many balls were played up – I suspect that with the midfielders battling and with little free room to work often the “safest” play was to head the ball back up and out of danger –  but also that 3) so many were either lost or not controlled.

The two other plays off high looping passes and clears, also not surprisingly, were much more effective for the team playing the ball.  Thorns FC won 3 of their 4 flick-ons; Seattle their only flick, while PTFC won 5 of the 7 balls they played down – headed, chested, or straight to feet – while Seattle won 3 of their 4.  You’d probably not be shocked to learn a team which flicks-on or plays down controls the ball 75% of the time.

Coach Parsons:  Last match it was mental and emotional, taking a Thorns FC that had lost a tough midweek match against a low-table opponent and had to be heartened and rested and brought to the pitch ready to take on a Houston Dash that had, instead, won midweek.  Saturday the coach had a different sort of psychological challenge, the Curse of Memorial; to untrack a Thorns FC that has had a truly ugly string of bad matches and poor results in that ugly-ass pile of concrete that squats malevolently in the shadow of the Space Needle.  He did – admittedly, with the help of some shambolic Seattle defending – and as such takes home all the roses.

Well done, coach.

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Thorns FC now has a fierce grip on second in the table; five points above Chicago and a surging Orlando and only two behind an idle Carolina.  The real question at this point is how many points can PTFC take from the final four matches.

Washington here: Dead last and winless in the last four, Washington presents a terrific opportunity to beat a visiting team senseless and swagger off with all three.  Let’s call this one 2 out of 3 (or, to put it another way, an 66% chance of a win).

@ Boston: Only a point above the Spirit, winless in their last five, and 3-4-3 at home.  Without Lavelle turning into the traditional Breakers trainwreck.  But away, so lets call it 2 of 3.

@ Orlando: The match I’m most worried about.  Orlando has found a terrific run of form; unbeaten in the last five and wins in the last four.  I’d love all three but I’m guessing a draw.  1 of 3.

Chicago here: Probably the hardest to suss out, both due to time-distance and because the Red Stars are a bit of an enigma wrapped inside a riddle.  Are they the team that lost three of their last four, including to Portland?  Or are they the team that just beat Washington and have beaten Carolina twice?  Let’s assume that the homefield advantage gives PTFC a good chance to take 2 of 3.

So let’s assume something like 7 out of a possible 12, giving PTFC 44 points at the end of the regular season.

Carolina would need to get less than 1 point per game from their remaining 6 matches to finish below that, so I think we can assume that the Courage take this season’s Shield.

On the other hand…both Chicago and Orlando would need to take all 12 points from their remaining four matches.  And even then, Portland would own the head-to-headtiebreaker over Chicago, and Orlando would have to beat Portland by more than 2 goals to finish second.

So…now the objective is to:

1) take as many points as possible to ensure a top-two finish and a semifinal, and

2) hope that Chicago finishes above Orlando so that PTFC draws them in the semifinal.

Because, just like Western New York last season, I don’t like the Orlando matchup as a route to the final.

So c’mon, you Girls in Red; let’s start by whipping these Maryland wenches Spiritless.