Oh boy. Is this really happening? I think this is really happening. The Thorns are about to play for a championship for the first time since 2013.
Three days from now.
In the meantime, please enjoy some stray soccer thoughts:
A rose to Tobin Heath’s season-long absence, which forced this team to find other ways to win.
Obviously, I’m never glad when a player is injured, especially one as good, and fun to watch, and seemingly pretty decent a person as Heath. Back in May, when it looked like she might come back, then didn’t, there were moments when I wondered why the universe was singling us out for the special punishment of not being able to watch her play soccer. But it has to be said that in retrospect, not having her available for most of the season might have been the best thing to happen to the Thorns this year.
Mark Parsons’ plan for the season was centered around the player he famously dubbed F***ing Tobin Heath. “We had a very specific tactical model,” he says, “built on getting the best out of Nadia and the best out of Tobin.” When that didn’t work out, the team struggled.
The special and eminently useful thing about Heath isn’t exactly the fact that she can beat defenders; it’s the fact that defenses are afraid of her. She pulls them out of shape and creates space where none existed previously. There’s nobody else on the team who does that as consistently as she can. Naturally, a system based on fear of Tobin Heath can't function without Tobin Heath. So Parsons had to rework things, adding attacking depth out wide and dropping Christine Sinclair deep, where she uses her excellent vision and passing ability to play distributor. Meanwhile, Lindsey Horan has been causing havoc in the midfield, and Hayley Raso has stepped up to become the Thorns’ de facto target woman.
I remember Heath late in the semifinal last year, visibly limping but still manically trying to create as the game ticked away. If you put that much responsibility on one player, at some point, they’re not going to be able to do enough.
In a tidy summation of how this current system has spread offensive responsibilities across the team, Saturday saw four different goal-scorers assisted by four different players. That’s the kind of attacking versatility you want going into a championship match against the best team in the league. And to top it all off, we’ve got Heath back.
A thorn to Orlando's defensive corps, including the late Ashlyn Harris.
John Lawes already laid out Orlando’s back-line disaster in some detail, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. It wouldn’t be fair to say Krieger and company handed Portland this win—that both does a disservice to Portland’s own defensive hard work and misses how poor Morgan was on the day—but it’s absolutely fair to say the lopsidedness of the scoreline is on their heads.
Sinc’s goal was Kristen Edmonds’ fault, plain and simple. Raso’s goal was Harris’s fault. Take those two away, and Portland still wins, but their mistakes were what made the match look, on paper, like a proper thrashing.
As long as we’re here, let’s talk Harris. Has anyone actually watching this season of NWSL soccer honestly thought she still deserves to be #2 (or whatever her current ranking against Jane Campbell is) for the USWNT? Over, say—just picking a name out of a hat here—AD Franch?
I’m going to say this, and anyone reading this outside of Portland can feel free to call me a homer: Franch is the best keeper in the league right now. I’ve talked, in this space, about the difficulty with goalkeeper stats, but I didn’t talk about one simple stat that actually does measure a keeper’s performance: shots-to-saves ratio. Going into the weekend, Franch topped the league in that category with 80% of shots on target saved. Portland’s whole defense is great, but that number is hard to argue with.
In the orchestra of a soccer team, the keeper is the flute section. The flute is a popular instrument that’s only allocated a handful of seats. Playing the instrument really well isn’t enough to guarantee you a job; some of it comes down to dumb luck. To some extent, I get why a national team coach would pick their keepers and stick with them, figuring that at some point, good enough is good enough and any given keeper’s strengths probably come with an attendant set of weaknesses. But Harris, at age 31 I might add, is a worse keeper than Franch across the board. It’s time for a round of auditions.
A rose to Meghan Klingenberg, who’s been a bigger asset this season than anybody could have foreseen.
Remember the end of last season, when Kling couldn’t stop leaving that chasm of space behind her, and could never get back fast enough to stop opponents’ transition attacks? How times have changed.
Not only has she contributed six assists this season (seven, if you add Saturday’s), making her a more tangible offensive asset than she ever was in 2016, but she’s put in some great defensive work. The current formation, which provides her some extra cover when she pushes forward into the attack, suits her, but it’s not the whole story. She’s defended well out wide at big moments, including playing spoiler against Marta more than once on Saturday. At times, especially early in the season, she’s been less mistake-prone than Emily Sonnett.
Where did this 2.0 (or 3.0?) version of Kling come from?
There’s a two-part answer here. One speaks to Parsons’ ability to get the most out of underused players. He did it with Crystal Dunn in 2015 and with Tobin Heath in 2016. After playing Houston at home in August, Parsons talked about having identified Kling as a potentially dangerous crosser and dead-ball specialist over the offseason, saying, “I had a subjective opinion of her success rate of her deliveries with both feet, and we had a target of increasing that.”
Of course, Kling’s case is a little different from Dunn’s and Heath’s, since her lackluster 2016 season was under Parsons. That’s where part two comes in: she was never fully healthy last year. As Jamie Goldberg wrote last week, Kling underwent surgery for bone spurs in her spine over the offseason. That’s an injury she was carrying around all season—after, don’t forget, a grueling 2015 where she won the world cup and then flew around during what should have been the offseason playing in a “victory tour.”
Interestingly, that injury may even have done her delivery some good in forcing her to work on a facet of her game that doesn’t require full fitness. “She worked really hard on it in the offseason when she got back from injury,” Parsons said. “She had about four or five weeks as she was building fitness to work on it.”
A... stem? to the keepers of the Bear Mystery, who have the uninitiated among us dying to know what it all means.
Have you guys been on Thorns Twitter recently? Strange things are afoot.
The top layer of the onion is the flag Franch was waving at the end of the match:
Nobody knows what this flag means. Or rather, somebody knows, but they aren’t telling. I’m told—I didn’t see it, and it’s not on the replay—that this flag materialized not from the crowd, but the locker room.
Then, there’s the gummy bear issue:
All we know about the gummy bear is this: Britt Eckerstrom seems to have started it. Why? I don’t know. Is it connected to the flag? Or is it sheer coincidence that two bear-related conspiracies have surfaced at the same time? What does it all mean?
A preemptive rose to Thorns fans traveling to Orlando, who I’m expecting to be the loudest ones in the stadium.
At last year’s final in Houston, I’m pretty sure Riveters outnumbered any other single contingent. It’s safe to assume the turnout will be better with the Thorns actually in the game.
Nonetheless: Orlando is an eight and a half hour drive, or a two-hour flight, from Cary, North Carolina. The bad guys are going to turn up. You people have to be louder.