Thorns FC: Vilely Cast Away

It now seems like ages ago, but it was only a little more than eleven months this past Saturday, that the Washington Spirit was within seconds of winning the NWSL championship.

When they came to Portland for their final meeting with Thorns FC, last season’s runners-up were a burnt-out shell of the glory of 2016; ravaged by injuries, bereaved by transfers, and gutted by losses.

And yet, for about a quarter of an hour of that sultry summer afternoon, the Spirit reminded us that once they were lovely and pleasant in their lives; swifter than eagles, and stronger than lions.

Then Didi Haracic took Allie Long’s feet out from under her and everything went to hell, the way it has been going for Washington this whole damn season.

If you just look at the headline (and the scoreline) you’d think that PTFC had dragged the poor wenches from D.C. out behind the Key Bank stand and just clubbed them like baby harp seals.  But the match wasn’t that easy, or that simple.

For about the first 15 or even 20 minutes Washington looked good.  Damned good.  The first real chances of the match went to the Spirit, from the 12th to the 13th minutes.  Kleiner got in a good cross that Henry headed out, but only as far as Williams.  Klingenberg had to block Williams’ effort out for a corner.  The clearance off the first corner was also short, and Banini hammered a shot off Emily Menges for a second corner; that one was safely cleared away and the danger passed.

After the quarter hour, though…

Portland started to find seams in the Washington defense.  What didn’t help the Spirit was their midfield, who seemed to find the grubby task of defending beneath them.

Henry had a strong run up the right channel in the 15th minute but her final touch was too strong and went over the byline.

One minute later Nadim sent a lovely through ball into the left side of Washington’s penalty area that was just a skitch too far for Klingenberg.

Two minutes later Henry looped a pretty, long cross up to Sykes and Ashley’s strong run at goal won PTFC a corner kick…but Washington cleared that corner and broke downfield; Pugh-to-Banini-across-to-Huster.  Huster’s shot was a good one, but Franch was better and caught the ball safely in the 19th minute.

And then, two minutes later…

Look at where Washington’s midfielders are; just strolling past the free-kick spot as Nadim puts the ball into play briskly.  La-dee-dah, nothing to see here.  For the Thorns Sinclair is blowing past her marker and Long is goal-side of her defender and only has to spin around to get free.

Which she does; takes the ball, and the goalkeeper on, with only Haracic to beat.

I don’t much fault Didi here; she has to go in hard or this is a certain goal.  What might have saved her the card and the PK would have been diving to her right and going in hands-first instead of sliding through Long with her feet.  But that’s also a terrific way to get injured, and with Washington’s starting keeper Labbe’ already on the bench with personal issues I can’t really fault her for not wanting to risk the injury.

Nadia Nadim steps up to the penalty spot and makes a damn dog’s breakfast out of the spot kick:

I love Nadia, I loved what she brought to this match, but, wow, Nadia, that’s one shitty spot-kick.  Luckily for you and for Thorns FC the best Haracic could do was parry it right straight out for you to thump home.

But it’s just as important to be lucky as good, and with the lucky break and the goal in the bank Portland could start hunting for holes in Washington’s defense as the Spirit had push up and chase, and three minutes later that hole opened up.

Allie Long proved fairly conclusively on Saturday that as a striker she’s a fine midfielder.  She spent more time offside than I’ve spent waiting at the DMV, and about as usefully. I’ve read that a striker should be offside at times, because it means that she’s being aggressive and trying to jump the backline or beat an offside trap.  Okay, I’m fine with that.  But Allie’s offsides Saturday were usually the sort of offside that was so crude that it simply killed the attack without ever being particularly threatening.

Here, however, she sees the opening along the touchline for Sykes-to-Nadim and scampers back onside to save the play.

I have no freaking idea what the hell Pugh and Huster are chatting about standing around 35 yards from goal.  I hope it was worth it, because Christine Sinclair has just filed a lien against the wide-open, empty, top space of the Washington penalty area and Nadia Nadim is about to send in the bailiff’s men.

A four goal beating is usually an ugly indictment of the losing backline, but if you look here the Spirit defenders are doing a pretty decent job.  Zadorsky can’t help it that she’s going up against a Sinclair when soccer death is on the line, and Sinclair puts 15-odd-years of experience into a neat little chipped pass to herself (helped by the fact that Haracic stays planted and doesn’t have time to come out to try and claim the ball…) and runs under it.

At this point Washington is down by two and you could forgive them if the Spirit had decided to start mailing it in.

They didn’t.

Between the 35th and 37th minutes Washington pressed hard against the Portland goal in a long possession that began with a brutal Klingenberg giveaway.  A Long foul set up a dangerous free kick but Solaun’s shot was weak and right to Franch.  Still, Washington persisted, won the ball back, won yet another free kick that bounded around the Portland 6-yard-box until Franch gratefully collected Huster’s spiritless shot.

Sinclair shot barely over in the 39th minute.  Haracic’s ensuing goal kick was wretched, going right to Sinclair whose header found Nadim.  Nadia tore in on goal and blasted a shot that the Washington keeper could only parry wide for a corner kick.

On the ensuing corner Nadim went short to Sonnett, whose flicked-on header skipped down right into the path of Tori Huster, who redirected it into the back of the net.  Sonnett got the credit, Portland got its third goal, and surely now it was all over for the Spirit.

Nope.

In the 49th minute Banini swooped down on a horrifically sloppy Horan square pass and turned to Portland’s goal, but the Spirit’s passing was just as brutal as Horan’s and the opportunity wandered away.

Horan returned the favor seconds later, stepping in to steal away from Banini and tearing downfield only to find that Long was (surprise!) offside.

In the 62nd minute Portland had a series of half-chances off repeated crosses in from the right side of Washington’s penalty area but the Spirit defense managed to scramble the ball clear each time.

In the 66th minute Franch finally had a throwback-to-April disastrous short clearance that went straight to Cheyna Williams, who won the corner.  Weber managed to clear that away but only to Washington’s second-half sub Lindsey Agnew.  Fortunately for Thorns FC Agnew’s shot was well over the crossbar.

Between the 72nd and 73rd minutes Washington attacked through the center of the pitch.  Another errant Klingenberg pass started the pressure as Washington took over and then walked the ball around Portland’s 18-yard-box looking for an opening.  Emily Sonnett had a nice tackle and clearance after the first minute, but Washington regained possession and came right back at PTFC; their attack ended only when Williams’ weak shot rolled to Franch.

At 81′ Thorns FC came upfield again; Long to Klingenberg to Nadim whose effort was blocked away for a corner kick.  On Nadim’s ensuing corner Allie Long slammed a header off Haracic’s top right corner woodwork, someone (Sonnett, from the assist credit, tho I couldn’t tell at the time and still couldn’t from the tape) knocked the ball across the face of goal, and Christine Sinclair steamed up like the pistons of the mighty Canadian Pacific Railroad and slammed the ball into the goal to put Portland up 4-nil and finally, finally, the runners-up of 2016, the once-powerful Washington Spirit, laid down and died.

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.

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Since Saturday I’ve heard a lot of crowing about this win.

It was a solid win, and Thorns FC looked very good going forward.

But it was against a team that is a brightly-burning dumpster fire and Thorns FC looked sloppy and sketchy at the back as often as not.

Orlando and Chicago aren’t going to give up the many good looks Washington did and they are going to punish those sloppy giveaways in a way Washington couldn’t.  Thorns FC will have to be just a clinical going forward and much less messy in back if they want to take all the points from those two teams.

As the mad doctor reminds the mind-controlled-zombie gorilla in the immortal Fred Olen Ray classic Tarzeena: Jiggle in the Jungle“Make sure you kill them all.  And do it neatly – nobody likes sloppy work!”

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Player comments and PMRs:

Long (+6/-1 : +4/-6 : +10/-7)  I was generous to Allie and only gave her a minus for the two of her five offsides that were instrumental in killing off an otherwise promising attack.  Did well in distribution in the first half and aggressive attacking won the penalty, but faded badly in the second period including some really atrocious passing.  So…overall did just enough and I realize that Parsons’ options were limited with Raso suspended and Lussi injured (and needing reserves to handle the heat) but I think I would have preferred to see Dagny or even Jordan here instead of Long.

Sykes (45′ – +7/-1)  Fine shift from Ashley, as usual.

Weber (45′ – +7/-1)  Determined to make me eat my words about her; came on and was as good as Sykes in attack, and her crossing was better.  Well played.

Nadim (83′ – +12/-4 : +11/-4 : +23/-8)  We’ve talked about the PK.  Aside from the initial miss, though, Nadia had a hell of a great match.  Wasn’t needed in defense as much as usual so was free to roam angrily about and around the Washington 18-yard-box; making runs, taking shots, and putting in crosses.  The best we’ve seen from Nadia since the Euros, and would have been a strong candidate for my Woman of the Match had Sinclair and Henry not been such utter beasts.

Jordan (7′ – +3/-2)  I’ve been reading comments from others who seem to really want to like what Jordan has done so far.  I’m not convinced.  Not that I think that she’s playing poorly!  But I haven’t seen anything from her that speaks to me of real quality.  I assume that she has it…but she just hasn’t had enough minutes to show anything but glimmers.

Sinclair (+10/-1 : +9/-0 : +19/-1)  This is why Christine Sinclair may well be one of the Greatest of All Time: this is her action matrix in the first half:

If you wanted to draw a diagram of “how do you play attacking midfielder/playmaker” that’s pretty much what it would look like.  The tackles and the backpass you see down in the lower left-hand corner were in the first 15 minutes.  After that Sinclair is all over the attacking half, passing and shooting.  She’s also nicely precise, giving away the ball only once out of 13 attempts.

In the second half the three-goal cushion allows her to be a little more profligate:

Two of the three long passes that get lost are Long running offside (and another is Allie taking a Sinclair pass in the side of the head, which seemed to amuse Christine a lot more than it did Allie…).  The lone action in the Thorns’ 18-yard-box?  That’s Sinclair throwing her body in front of a final-minute Washington shot.

That’s the sort of thing Sinclair does all the time, and that’s why she’s my Woman of the Match.

Henry (+17/-2 : +8/-1 : +25/-3)  Just another terrific match from Amandine.  It’s worth noting that she fades in the second half, just when La Destructeuse would normally being subbed off for Long, another reason that I wasn’t all that excited about starting Long for Raso/Lussi in this game.  Her work had a lot to do with the relative ineffectiveness of the Washington midfield, though, and a strong WotM contender .

Horan (+6/-8 : +12/-3 : +18/-11)  I might have spoken too soon about the “Great Horan” last week.  Lindsey had a very odd match this last Saturday.  In defense she was in Beast Mode, tackling and destroying.  In attack…well, her passing was utterly awful in the first half.  That awful.  Improved notably in the second half, but still making some unusually bad pass selections, including an awful giveaway in the 49th minute.  So half a good match, but far below Full Beast Mode and perhaps as iffy an outing as Lindsey has shown us in a month.

Klingenberg (+8/-1 : +4/-2 : +12/-3)  Excellent match from Kling, including some real quality service from the corner.  I think she benefited from the lack of pressure generated by Washington’s depleted striking corps but, hey, that still counts.

Menges (83′ – +7/-1 : +7/-4 : +14/-5)  I’ve heard that you can see the Great Wall of China from space.  Well, I can see the Great Wall of Emily from Saturday’s match; a 2016-esque outing from both the Emilys, but in context of the season great work from Menges.

Sonnett (+4/-1 : +7/-2 : +11/-3)  As with Menges, a very, very solid outing.  Couple of poor passes, but also some critical tackles and great defending in general.  Gets credit for the goal and I’m willing to go with that even though I might have called that an own-goal given the degree to which Huster re-directed that ball.

Reynolds (+6/-4 : +4/-0 : +10/-4)  As with her backline sisters, Kat played a very good match.  Her only real “minuses” were poor outlet passing in the first half.

Johnson (7′ – +1/-2)  No impact, other than some rest for Emily Menges.

Franch (+2/-0 : +2/-1 : +4/-1)  I’ve mentioned the awful clear in the 66th minute.  Other than that Franch was fine and, of course, Washington couldn’t punish her for the 66th minute derp.  Very good save off Huster at 19′.

Distribution:  Franch put a total of 14 balls into play; 5 goal kicks, 7 clearances, and one each punt and free kick.  Of those 14 chances 7 fell to a Portland head or boot, the other 7 to Washington, so only a 50% possession rate.  None of the clearances that Washington gained resulted in danger to the Portland goal other than the horrible 66′ gaffe, so a 7% “dangerous clearance” ratio, about average for a well played Thorns FC win.

Wee heidies: The two teams played 35 high clearances or passes; Portland played 25 of 36, Washington the remaining 10.

A total of 12 of these balls were played right back up into the air; 7 by Portland – who lost 6 of the 7, with the seventh banging around off random heads – and 5 by Washington, who won 2, lost one, and pinged 2 around randomly.

Eight high balls were flicked on; 5 by Portland, who won all five.  Of Washington’s 3 flick-ons 2 went to a Spirit jersey, the third to Portland.

A total of fifteen of the high balls were headed, chested, or played down with a boot.  Portland played 13 of those 15 and, a bit surprisingly, lost possession of 8 of 13 (Horan and Henry were the big offenders here; Henry losing 4 of 5, Horan 3 of 4).  Washington won both of theirs.

Coach Parsons:  Hard to fault a coach when his team wins by four unanswered goals, and I don’t have anything harsh to say about Mark Parsons’ work last Saturday.  That said, I hope he’s reminding his DMs and backs that they can’t afford to give the ball up like they did against Washington against Orlando, or against Chicago.  And those two teams are the two that close out this season, and might well make a difference between a home semifinal or having to travel to get into the championship game.

But before Thorns FC gets there they need to travel to Boston next weekend and club those gals, rookie superstar Rose Lavelle and all, like baby harp seals.

Thud.