There was much hope going into Saturday's match against Western New York.
Alex Morgan, Vero Boquete, and Stephanie Catley were all set to make their debuts, with a possible cameo appearance for Rachel Van Hollebeke.
The Flash were struggling coming in and without Abby Wambach in the Starting XI.
Riley trotted out a new formation, an attacking-minded 4-3-3 that would allow the Thorns top line to simply run over the Flash defense, score goals, and put the game away early.
It was supposed to be Thorns v2.0.
It ended up being Thorns vs. Breakers v.2.0, only worse, and played at in front of 13,838 at Providence Park.
The new formation didn't work, and Morgan revealed during post game interviews that they had never even practiced it before.
The lack of a true defensive midfielder gave the Flash the ability to overwhelm the Thorns' defense, and while Allie Long dropped back into the position during the game, it wasn't nor has ever been a natural fit for her, as showing by her eclipsing her goal scoring mark from last season in the first month of the new one.
When Nadine Angerer was sent off after an apparent foul in the box, a foul that may or may not have actually happened, and on an excellent dive by Flash midfielder Sam Kerr , it took referee Juliana Duncan nearly a minute and a consultation with her assistants to make the decision to show the red card, despite what appeared to be an initial reluctance to do so.
I'm not going to fill this space with a dissertation of the ineptitude in refereeing that once again graced the pitch at Providence Park. My friend Anthony already has that covered.
It would be easy to want to place all the blame on the referee, but ultimately the failed decisions fall on Riley and the players, and to their credit, they did not make excuses for their poor display.
Vero probably said it best:
"This is not good enough. We can't play like that and lose in front of our fans. They deserve a big team and we have to be great. Not good, we have to be great"
Unfortunately, the Thorns weren't even good, and calls into question what kind of team we really have or if this is even a team at all versus simply an all-star team: great on paper, but everyone playing to their own skill sets and not to their teammates.
But instead of focusing on the stars, I'm going to look at the role-players.
Jessica McDonald had a torrid start to the season but has cooled off significantly and on Saturday, instead of playing in her usual poacher role, she found herself on the wing, sending the ball into Morgan and Christine Sinclair, and it was clear that she was out of position and didn't have any rhythm with her fellow forwards.
Sinead Farrelly was once again a baffling choice in the midfield, especially in a match that featured two attacking midfielders in Vero and Long. She did little, if anything to prove that she was deserving of a starting spot over Amber Brooks, Rebecca Moros and an in-form Angie Kerr, and to date Riley's steadfast dedication to her remains one of the strangest decisions he's made all season. If she had been subbed off instead of Courtney Niemiec to bring on Michelle Betos in goal, perhaps the Thorns wouldn't have given up the worst goals allowed in the short history of the NWSL.
Finally, instead of picking one player from the defense to place the blame on, perhaps it would be better served to look at them as a unit. Before Van Hollebeke was subbed on at halftime, the Thorns' defense was already in shambles. Nikki Marshall's horrible short-pass to Angerer that led to the red card effectively lost them two players on defense and all of their organization comes from the German goalkeeper, a fact that was exemplified from minutes 28 to first half stoppage time. Van Hollebeke steadied the defense and organized them, allowing only one goal early in the second half.
As the Thorns of look to pick up the pieces of this disaster and move on, they'll find themselves gutted of their national teamers once again. Long and Morgan we knew were already gone, and Van Hollebeke has since been called in as an injury replacement, while Angerer and Sinclair will face off against each other June 18 at BC Place, though neither the CSA nor DFB have put out press releases on the matter.
This leaves Riley without five of his top players, add in the injury to Kat Tarr and the Thorns roster currently sits at 13 active rostered players for their home and home with Washington on June 15 and 21. The national teams will be tired, but available for the latter match, though Angerer's status will be in question depending on whether the league allows the Thorns to use Sunday's match as her red card suspension.
Amateur players will likely be called in for Sunday's match and they've had several training with the team for the past year, including goalkeeper Cris Lewis, who played collegiately at PSU in is currently with THUSC Diamonds of the WPSL, defender Carlie Davis, and forward Hanna Terry, both of whom play for Westside Timbers of the WPSL. Lewis is also a familiar name to those who followed the Portland Rain and also was given the starting nod over Adelaide Gay in last season's 2-0 loss to Chicago on June 1, 2013.
The Thorns have hit a rough patch. They did last year as well, going winless from June 22 to July 21 a stretch that included them going goalless for 341 minutes.
All is not lost. For all we know the Thorns could use this loss as a springboard and finish the season perfect. Riley thought Boston was that match, but boy was he wrong.
Riley has made a name for himself by using the pieces handed to him as effectively as possible and grinding out results. It's how the twice-casted off McDonald leads the team and sits tied for 4th in the league with 5 goals, despite playing poorly the past several weeks and Long finds herself with the National Team and tied with players such as Wambach and Carli Lloyd with 4 goals, something that was seemingly unthinkable last season.
During halftime I heard the following:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Overheard in bathroom - "this coach is horrible. The coach last year was much better..." um...no... <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23baonpdx&src=hash">#baonpdx</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23nwsl&src=hash">#nwsl</a></p>— Jeremiah M. Braeback (@cascadiafooty) <a href="https://twitter.com/cascadiafooty/statuses/475472645878603776">June 8, 2014</a></blockquote>
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The Thorns went out and got the best possible coach they could when they hired Riley. His track record speaks for itself, but the questions on how he would manage a team with the star power of the Thorns was valid then, as it is now, and as the season reaches its midpoint, serious questions need to be answered.
Perhaps Vero said it best after the match:
"We can find lots of problems today. We can be here for an hour talking about all the problems-defense, offense, with the ball, without the ball-everyone has to take their responsibilities-forwards, midfielders, defenders, people on the bench, coaches-everyone has a responsibility with this big loss...We tried to be positive. Championship teams build after a big loss. Let's hope that this is our big loss and after this we go out and we can be strong"
We can only hope.