When my metal hip set off the barrier at Gate 3 Saturday morning I had more on my mind than worrying about that usual nuisance.
I was worried about the Thorns’ recent run of poor form going into a match with the league leaders and that that might lead to yet another loss just like this season’s first meeting or, worse, like last season’s semifinal.
I was worried that the center referee’s penchant for letting rough play go would play into the North Carolina Courage’s physical game and get into the Thorns’ heads as it had in the past.
I was worried that a blowout loss might be lights-out for the Thorns’ 2017 season.
When I walked back out that afternoon I was right about one thing; Koroleva sure did let ’em play. You can argue about whether that’s good or bad. But that’s how she usually calls her games, and she didn’t change that day.
But I was wrong; deliciously, gloriously, wonderfully wrong about everything else.
Say this for Referee Koroleva; she’s consistent.
I’m not saying she called a bad match. She missed a couple of calls, yes, but overall she was fair, and her definition of rough – unlike Vega, the center referee for the 2016 semifinal – never descends to truly thuggish.
But the Thorns haven’t been responding well to getting beefed around this season, and the first half, which featured more fouls (11) than shots (9) had me worried that Portland’s difficulties in controlling possession, getting quality chances, and defending confidently, would be exacerbated by the physical match. And it was, indeed, a choppy and fairly ugly first half.
What didn’t help were some nervy Portland defending in the opening minutes.
Emily Menges badly mistimed her little hop at a bounding ball 7 minutes into the match. Williams, who was chasing, used Em’s error to take possession and loop a little rainbow to Debinha sitting at the corner of the 6. But the Menges half of the Great Wall continued racing back, tackled the ball off her teammate Celeste Boureille’s leg into the frantic gloves of A.D. Franch.
Whew…glad that was…
Wait…what? Gah! One minute later Williams beat Boureille to the outside and fired across the goal. Sonnett-Emily got a piece of it but only just far enough to set up Hatch at the top right corner of the 18!
Fortunately Hatch fired tamely at Franch to end the danger.
It was barely 1:00pm and I was already on my second drink.
Here was the moment when Thorns FC might have fallen apart and been run off the pitch. Here was just exactly what had me worried.
…the defense stiffened, and the attack began to gain momentum.
At 16′ a strong Raso run earned a corner. Hayley took the short kick, rounded Doniak with a nifty little touch but could only hit a weak shot to kill the attack.
Two minutes later Horan put Raso through with a lovely lead pass that was just barely tackled away.
Portland’s apparent 3-5-2, with Kling on the left wing and Sykes on the right, did good work stifling Carolina’s movement and providing service. Going forward Horan was in the sort of Beast Mode we hadn’t seen since Boston away, Long was doing good work, Raso and Lussi were moving quickly and aggressively, and Sinclair was doing her usual quiet good job of controlling and distributing.
In the 31st minute Horan found Lussi at the top of the 18 but her turn and shot was saved.
In the 38th the Thorns strung together some pretty little passes; Long to Horan to Lussi up to Kling whose deep cross into Sinclair was tackled away by Hinkle. Five minutes later, another series of attacking passes and runs set up Sinclair, but her shot was blocked.
Mind you…it wasn’t all Portland. A Smith cross found Hatch between a ballwatching Sykes and Boureille at 44 minutes in, but her 5-yard header went over the crossbar and sent the teams into the half scoreless.
Second half. Portland looking more composed; the team had figured out Koroleva and were moving the ball around more quickly. Lussi had a shot at 49′. Sinclair had a terrific shot from the corner of the 6 off a Klingenberg corner kick 51 minutes in. Yes! Finally, a goal off a corner!
And Carolina kept coming on. Nervous moments.
In the 54th minute Long headed a clear short for Zerboni just outside the penalty area. Franch absorbed her shot.
In the 63rd McDonald came on for Hatch, and the next four minutes were a flurry of Carolina attacks. She stripped Horan and sent a dangerous pass up to Debinha that caught Sonnett and Menges napping and Kling upfield, but Menges made a terrific recovery run and shielded the ball and Debinha over the byline.
Three minutes later Debinha returned the favor, splitting Menges and Klingenberg with a pass that found McDonald alone on Franch but Jess shot weakly and A.D. saved.
I was on my…I dunno. I had lost count of the beers but nervous tension had me painfully sober. I liked a LOT of what I was seeing. Portland was moving quickly, quickly, unlike the sluggish pace of so many of the recent matches. Passes were sharp, movement off the ball was incisive. The change of formation helped open the midfield, and the speed of play seemed to baffle Carolina.
But the goals weren’t coming. Still scoreless, and the chance of one of the Carolina strikers knocking in a cheap goal and stealing the match seemed all too frighteningly likely.
And then, in the 70th minute, this happened:
Doesn’t look all that promising, does it? Carolina seems well marked up, nobody in red has an obvious advantage. But Boureille’s long cross bounds all the way over the goal to Smith at the back post, who…
…combines an utterly pathetic little dink-clear with complete lack of situational awareness that misses Lindsey Horan tearing down on her through the 18 completely unmarked. And notice that there are suddenly a bunch of other red shirts getting unstuck from their markers as the Carolina defense comes unstuck.
Horan gets to the cross, and…
…drops to Klingenberg who has a ridiculous amount of time and space to pick out her teammates inside the 18 and catch nearly the entire Carolina defense staring at her like a business of mongooses at a cobra. Who’s not being watched? Hayley Raso.
Raso crowns what may well have been one of her best outings in Thorns red with a powerful headed goal that would be all that Portland needed to see off the league leaders and kick their way back into the top four.
The win needed a taut final twenty-five minutes, though. Carolina had four good chances in the late going, including Zerboni’s free header over the crossbar at 72′, a McDonald shot inside 10 yards blocked by Sonnett at 81′, an Eddy shot saved by Franch at 85′, and a truly frightening strike from Smith that Franch tipped up and off the crossbar in the 90th.
One-nil is a near-run thing, obviously. Portland didn’t dominate Carolina.
But Carolina didn’t dominate Portland, either. Yes, the Courage was unlucky in front of goal; based on their “expected goals” the Courage could well have bagged one goal from their seven second half shots:
But, then, Portland was also unlucky converting; their xG works out to 1.81, so a second wasn’t impossible (perhaps Sonnett’s 69th minute rocket off the crossbar? Sinc’s 51st minute point-blank shot?) and makes the case that Thorns FC was the more dangerous team on the day.
Point is that, having beaten Portland twice in a row, having run the league table to date, the North Carolina Courage was stopped cold here last Saturday, on a day that could easily have been a disaster for a struggling Portland side that was missing three critical starters. A day that could have gutted this Thorns team
But it wasn’t.
And it didn’t.
Player comments and PMRs:
Sinclair (+5/-2 : +11/-1 : +16/-3) Another quietly excellent outing from our captain. For all the nonsense that the Lifetime announcers talked about moving her forward Sinc is doing a terrific job right where she is, controlling the top of the midfield, gaining possession, distributing, creating, then foraying up when she needs to. I think Parsons is using her just as he ought right now, and Christine is doing her usually outstanding job of doing what she needs to.
Raso (84′ – +5/-2 : +12/-1 : +17/-3) Woman of the Match, and not just for the goal. Tireless, aggressive, active, and intelligent. Just a great outing. Does need to be careful about her fouling; while I understand her frustration (since I’d argue she gets fouled more than any other Thorn and was taking her usual beating Saturday) when you get a caution card from Koroleva you’ve been swinging a bit of a broadaxe. She’s sitting on three, only one less than the team champion, Horan and two away from a seat.
Lussi (80′ – +5/-2 : +1/-0 : +6/-2) A better shift than her PMRs suggest; most of the action went through Raso since she was on fire and Tyler made a good contribution when she was needed. Was tiring in the second half so the substitution was timely.
Weber (10′ – +5/-0) Played as a left defensive wing/back after coming on for Lussi. Fine work in a short shift.
Hubly (6′ – +2/-1) Limited impact, but helped see out the game and gave Raso a deserved rest.
Horan (+15/-4 : +8/-3 : +23/-7) If not for Raso’s Big Day Lindsey would be my WotM pick. Best match since Boston; great passing, effective defending and positioning both going forward and tracking back. Helped the Thorns midfield stymie Carolina; the Lifetime announcers talked about what a quiet day Mewis had, but I think it was as much due to Horan and Long and Sykes and Company having a hell of a good day in midfield. Share a brew and some Vegemite with your pal Raso, Lindsey. You earned ’em.
Long (+6/-2 : +8/-2 : +14/-4) I’ve been picking on Allie lately not because she’s been playing poorly on an absolute scale but because she’s been playing poorly compared to her abilities. Well, Saturday she played like La Blanquita as she should be playing, and it was a delight to watch. Huge in attack in the second half, particularly, both distributing and stepping into Carolina passes to help knock their pass completion down to a wretched 55%.
Sykes (74′ – +8/-1 : +3/-1 : +11/-2) Well done. Terrific defending in the first half when the Thorns really needed terrific defending, and was helpful in attack, though I’d like to see more from her. This was the first time I watched her play when the team was going well; I wanted to be more excited but can’t say I was unimpressed. Solid, and I think she can be better still. Was visibly tiring late in the second so the Cox substitution made some sense, tho it does point out how thin the squad is (see the Cox comment).
Cox (16′ – +0/-2) Here’s the thing; Meghan only made two “significant” actions and both weren’t all that helpful (one heavy touch that gave the ball to Williams at the top of the 18 in particular) but…she played her part in sealing the win. Sometimes there’s a place for a player to just “be there”, and Cox did what she could. Given what she was asked to do, she did enough, and hopefully can do better in the future.
Klingenberg (+3/-4 : +8/-5 : +11/-9) This is really where the thin roster shows up. Klingenberg actually had a pretty good first hour; some nice passing, good positioning, got up and down the line well enough. Five of her “minuses” are three first-half passes that went astray for little damage other than the simple loss of possession, getting torched on the Doniak cross at 34′, and a tackle-for-loss early in the second half.
But she kind of fell apart after that, and had Parsons a deeper bench I think he would have pulled her instead of either Raso or Sykes. But he doesn’t so Kling stayed on and did enough to help the win. But, damn, this sure ain’t Olympique Lyonnaise.
Sonnett (+4/-3 : +1/-5 : +5/-8) Emily took a turn being the little-girl-with-the-curl Saturday (normally that’s Kling’s thing). She had some gorgeous tackles – her 37th minute tackle off Williams’ foot, at a dead run, with the Thorns’ goal coming in view was a thing of superb beauty to a former goalkeeper whose defenders’ usual reaction to getting skinned was to wave a warning that I was about to get hammered.
But…she had to make that tackle because she’d goofed and let Williams blow past her just moments before. That was Sonnett-Emily Saturday. Took a beating in the second half as Carolina shoved everything forward, too, which accounts for her second half cratering. Critical block on McDonald in the 81st.
Menges (+8/-2 : +4/-4 : +12/-6) Same-same as Sonnett – came under the cosh in the second half – but weathered the storm better. Terrible mistake in the 7th minute, made some other technical errors…but also did some damn fine defending and, let’s face it; the backline and Franch kept a clean sheet, and you can laugh off a whole lot of derps when you can do that.
Boureille (+5/-5 : +6/-0 : +11/-5) Celeste Boureille is quietly having a hell of a good season. Three of her five “minuses” were long passes that went astray with little harm to the side. Another outstanding outing, and a big part of the clean sheet.
Franch (+2/-0 : +3/-0 : +5/-0) The Month-of-April Franch, the scary, shaky one that seemed a moment away from blundering into giving away a crap goal…where has that Franch gone? Certainly nowhere to be seen in the athletic, decisive, active ‘keeper that we saw Saturday. Terrific takes in both halves, a great save off the Eddy shot, and tipped Smith’s hammer off the crossbar (sorry about the no-corner thing, Smith…okay, not sorry).
Distribution: A.D. had a total of 18 clearances Saturday; 3 goal kicks, 3 free kicks, 6 clears on backpasses, and 6 punts. Of those 9 went either directly, or ultimately, to a teammate. Of the remaining 9 three went directly into touch. The play from those three and the remaining 6 that were taken directly by Carolina did not result in a direct attack on Portland’s goal, for a “dangerous giveaway” of 0%.
Wee heidies: In the comments from the Houston match we discussed the seemingly-odd tendency of the Portland backs and midfielders to head long, high, or looping clears and passes right back up in the air. I wondered if this was a Thorns thing, or a women’s game thing, or just a soccer player thing.
Well, on Saturday I counted a total of 24 “high balls” coming down on various players’ heads. Eleven were played by Thorns; of these Horan headed 3 up in the air, one down to someone’s feet; two of these were controlled by Portland (one airball and the one headed down), two by Carolina. Menges had 4; 3 airballs (2 won, 1 lost) and one down (won). Sonnett lost the one she headed up, and so did Klingenberg. Sinclair played only one, and that down to Horan’s feet. A total of 8 airballs out of the 11 played.
Meanwhile Carolina’s players headed 11 of their 13 back up in the air; about half of those were won, the others lost.
So…19 of 24 back up in the air? Sounds like it’s not something that just the Thorns do. Now I have to watch and see what the Timbers do Wednesday to see if there’s a difference between BroSo and WoSo…
Coach Parsons – Formation change worked out as planned? Check. Substitutions timely and effective? Check. Team played hard, intelligent soccer? Check. Got all three points and beat the league leaders? Check and mate.
Take ten bucks out of petty cash, coach. You Da Man.
In fact, all you Thorns. Good work out there.
Go kick the spirit out of the Spirit.