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Thorns FC: Opportunity Knocks

In the 2016 NWSL semifinal, the then-Western New York Flash took on the Portland Thorns and, under the somnolent gaze of center referee Marco Vega, beat the living bejesus out of them.

No, I’m not talking about the final score.

I mean that Western New York’s players took the opportunity given them by a referee who considered anything less than forty stitches or a gunshot wound incidental contact to whale the tar out of Portland’s key players.

Gee, I hear you say, that was a whole year and another season, ago. Surely a fine player like, say, Tobin Heath couldn’t have run out on the Orlando pitch still holding a grudge for things that happened in that 2016 semifinal. Surely she’s forgiven and forgotten stuff like this, right?

Wanna bet?

But, gosh, that 2016 semifinal opponent wore a whole different kit and, anyway, that was then, this is now.

Surely, last Saturday Lindsey Horan couldn’t still have been holding a grudge for fouls like this, can she?

Wanna bet?

I’ve been following and writing about the Thorns for five years, so I know this team is capable of what is politely called “physical play”. I knew this was effectively a rivalry match, and one between two teams that don’t seem to like each other very much, so I figured there as a good chance of that physical play getting physical.

But I never thought I’d see anything like the 2017 NWSL Final.

Mind you, the Courage weren’t shy, either - in fact, North Carolina ended up out-fouling Portland 13 to 9 - and the result was a rough, choppy, and brutally defensive match. How defensive?

This defensive:

Portland defended in the final the way they defended all season, the way they defeated Orlando in the semifinal; in pairs, in groups of three, or, as here, a group of four.

In this particular attack, Williams managed to eventually pass out to O’Sullivan (who’s to her left in the screenshot above) but there was a lot more like this from Portland. A swarming Thorns defense helped break up a Carolina attack already missing Debinha and, within the first quarter hour, Taylor Smith after the collision with Heath.

Portland wasn’t the only good defensive team in Orlando on Saturday, however. The Courage lived up to their reputation for tough tackling and high-pressure defending:

It’s less than two minutes after our screenshot of Portland’s four-on-one defense and now three blue defenders are forcing Amandine Henry backward.

With the Courage missing important attacking pieces and the Thorns lying deep and relying on the counter, the circumstances favored the team that could create, and convert, a single opportunity.

Both teams struggled to find something in the first half and found nothing. Then, in the 47th minute, Makenzy Doniak served up a long forward pass.

Lynn Williams, who had been fairly quiet until that point, blew through the Portland backline onto the ball, and fired a hard shot low and to A.D. Franch’s right.

Franch was forced into a hurried dive and could only parry to her right front. And who would be running toward that spot?

Who else; Jessica McDonald.

In the picture above it appears that Kat Reynolds has McDonald well marked. And she had, but Reynolds goofed and overran the rolling ball. McDonald didn’t, and suddenly she was in possession, unmarked, almost precisely atop the penalty spot. She spun to take the shot -

- and missed.

Somehow McDonald’s foot went right over the ball. Whiffed on it. Bricked it. Fluffed it. Instead of hammering the shot at point-blank range, McDonald committed an error, made a botch, was guilty of a massive bevue.

Probably North Carolina’s best opportunity of the match up to that point (possibly their best of the game) - and McDonald missed the perfect sitter.

That spelled trouble for the Courage, because three minutes later Lindsey Horan did not.

She ran onto a Sonnett free kick that was not flicked on by Henry (as the match announcers claimed) but, rather, came off Dahlkemper’s arm:

If Henry heads the ball, Horan is offside. Since it comes off Dahlkemper, Horan is not and the goal stands.

And that really was the story of the match; both teams played a rough, defensive game. North Carolina took 16 shots, put 5 on goal (and had 5 more blocked), seized several promising opportunities, and got nothing out of them.

Portland took 4 shots, put 3 on goal, got one great opportunity, and buried it.

By the “expected goals” formula Portland had a slight advantage over North Carolina in the opportunity for a goal if you take into account just the shots taken.

If you add in McDonald’s whiff as a shot, though, North Carolina’s opportunity for the equalizer looks much better.

And had McDonald buried that opportunity? Taken the match into overtime? Given North Carolina still more chances, more opportunities to snatch a late goal as they did in last season’s final?

We might not be discussing how Portland’s game plan worked.

But last Saturday, opportunity only knocked once and it was Lindsey Horan who answered the door.

Player comments and PMRs:

Raso (69’ - +4/-2 : +4/-1 : +8/-3) A muted performance from the Aussie, who found very little joy from the left side of Carolina’s defense and a very uncongenial reception, in particular, from McCall Zerboni whose general attitude towards opposing forwards is one of a Somali clanswoman meeting a stranger, and an armed one at that. Did what she could but with little space to run and little support from her embattled midfield had a difficult match

Nadim (21’ - +15/-0) Nadia Nadim loves to get stuck in, so in a match when getting stuck in hard was the plan for both sides she was perfectly suited to the day. Fierce, but with her unique combination of ferocity and judgement. A threat on both sides of the ball, as usual, and critical in disrupting Carolina’s desperate late flurry of attacks. A wonderful finale for a very special player.

Sykes (54’ - +5/-2 : +1/-3 : +6/-4) As with Raso, lacked the room to run and the service from midfield. As also with Raso, finished the match without a shot. Had a tough time against Hinkle, who had Sykes’ number most of the day. Not a match for the forwards to shine in general but Sykes had perhaps the poorest day of the Thorns forwards.

Brynjarsdottir (36’ - +13/-1) Is this the role for Dagny; late match defensive substitute? She was a monster in that role in the semifinal against Orlando. Against the Courage she was a beast along the Thorns’ right defensive flank, making life exceptionally difficult for McDonald and Williams (her take off Williams’ foot in the 78th minute was utterly gorgeous). Had some nice moments going forward, as well. With the roster changes next season it will be interesting to see where Brynjarsdottir ends up.

Heath (+7/-5 : +6/-5 : +13/-10) A tough outing for Heath, harried and rushed all afternoon, with none of the space in which she likes to use her foot skills, or the time to take on individual defenders. Instead, Carolina came at Heath in a rush and in groups, and Heath’s tendency to try and beat opponents off the dribble rebounded against her; she was repeatedly tackled for loss or forced into a poor pass.

I have to say this; if I had been the center referee, I would have given Heath a caution for her challenge on Smith and that, in turn, would practically have assured her a sending-off after her foul in the 41st minute.

In the last two matches, Heath has sometimes seemed too casual about her tackling and she didn’t seem to bother to mend her ways Saturday. On an afternoon when everyone else’s boots were flying in I think she might have considered that the referee would eventually tire of seeing players limping off and start looking for someone to card.

Horan (+11/-5 : +8/-2 : +19/-7) The goal, a massive block in the 19th minute, great passing, and solid defending. The toughest fighter in the Thorns’ midfield on a day when the midfield was all hand-to-hand combat. Did good work neutralizing Mewis. Also found a particular foe in Zerboni; their tussle was epic and I think Horan emerged the victor. A worthy MVP for the match.

Sinclair (+6/-2 : +10/-4 : +16/-6) In matches like Saturday’s final it’s easy to forget how good Sinclair is at the “not-flashy/not-scoring” parts of the game. But Sinc never rests, never stops thinking, never stops organizing. Even when her scoreline is empty, it would be a mistake to think she’s not doing anything. Not just for this match, but for a season that saw her on-field role change significantly, Sinc has been critical to the Thorns’ success. The championship is a well-deserved second NWSL star for our captain.

Henry (89’ - +7/-3 : +9/-2 : +16/-5) Grew into the match and was a rock in the back of midfield, especially in the late minutes. Not as many opportunities to display her flair for accurate passing, but critical in locking down a tight match and securing the win and the championship.

Long (1’ - No rating) Typing that “no rating” saddens me immensely. Long has been a crucial part of Thorns FC since the team’s inception. However, with the arrival of Henry and the reinvention of Sinclair as an attacking midfielder, Long’s place on the pitch has been largely overridden. Her tiny stint in the final seems to symbolize how her role has shrunk over the past season, and that seems to me a very unhappy ending.

The real question is now that Henry has played her last match in Thorns red, can Long return to the midfield?

If so, where? Can she be the #8 she says she wants to be? Does Coach Parsons see her that way? I hope she can; Long has a great history with this team and I want her to have many more years to add to that tale. But next season will have to be the time; Long needs to seize that opportunity as her team did theirs last weekend.

Klingenberg (+6/-6 : +7/-1 : +13/-7) Something I’ve noted about Klingenberg all season is that she often tends to undergo a change at halftime, and usually for the better. Is there a Good Kling that hides in the dressing room and then changes places with Bad Kling after the mid-match break? Bad Kling spent much of the first half in Orlando spraying poor passes and getting dispossessed. After the break, she went on a tear, making stops and blocks, dropping dimes at teammates’ feet. Was that Good Kling? Or was it just Regular Kling taking a whole half to wake up in the lazy autumn heat in the Magic Kingdom? What? Sometimes you are a riddle wrapped in an enigma, Kling, and Saturday was one of those times.

Menges (+10/-1 : +8/-4 : +18/-5) The Menges side of the Great Wall of Emily had a terrific final, including several critical blocks that were topped by a point-blank stop on McDonald in the 82nd minute (Menges was torched on McDonald’s run and had to scramble back to throw herself in front of the ball). A great finish to a season that started with questions but ended with an exclamation point of a match. Well done, Menges.

Sonnett (+7/-3 : +8/-2 : +15/-2) The Sonnett side of the Wall was equally great.

As critical as the emergence of the Thorns’ center back pair was last season, this season’s journey, from some horrific early season problems to the pinnacle of the Championship, may be the more compelling story.

Every heroic tale has a moment where the heroes find themselves a their lowest point and have to fight back from despair. This season the Emilies were the heroes, and their early-season troubles were the point in the story where they found themselves hanging upside-down from a TV-antenna-thingy, brung down by massive cognitive dissonance and a missing hand (cut off by their mean dad, who is Paul Riley in this version).

Saturday they got to huck the mean dad down the ginormous shaft and blow up the Flash/Courage Death Star. Which would make the Thorns’ celebration after the Timbers’ match where they get to party with the Ewoks, so I think we’d best stop there.

Well done, Great Wall of Emily!

Reynolds (+6/-4 : +9/-3 : +15/-7) The Kat That Came Back may be the other great story of the Thorns’ defense this season. As well as Celeste Boureille performed during Reynolds’ recovery, the Thorns defense needed one final piece to solidify into stone. Reynolds seems to have been that piece. Reynolds’ forte is sheer hard work, and she did that Saturday, constantly harassing Hinkle and McDonald.

Franch (+2/-1 : +4/-0 : +6/-1) One genuinely scary moment; caught off her line after her own crummy clear by Mewis’ long shot in the 14th minute but bailed out by the goalkeeper’s second-best friend, Ms. Crossbar. Repaid the crossbar with several terrific saves, including off O’Sullivan in the 34th minute, Williams in the 47th, and Mewis in the 91st. Came out strongly to take a long pass and stone McDonald in the 71st. Controlled her penalty area well. Good game overall.

Coach Parsons: The knock on Parsons was his record in the playoffs; great regular season guy, always the semifinal bridesmaid.

Well, this season he kicked his way through the chapel door and grabbed the bouquet. His game plan in the semifinal was ideal for shutting down Sermanni’s offensive machine built around Marta and Morgan. His plan to send the Girls in Red out to take no prisoners in the final meant Riley’s tough squad were out-toughed long enough for the Thorns to seize the opportunity and seize their second, and Parsons’ first, NWSL crown.


So, here’s where I stop being objective.

I’ve loved following this team this season, from the early struggles to the final step up to the podium and the title. I’ve enjoyed supporting and caring about this group of players as much or more than any Thorns squad I can remember. They seem to be as joyful and as excited about playing a game for a living as, well, as it should be joyous and exciting. They seem to have a gift for celebrating each other and their team that shines from them like a good deed in a weary world.

The 2017 Portland Thorns have just been fun to watch, fun to talk about, and fun to support, as a team and as individuals.

So it makes me ridiculously happy that their journey ended with them standing together, surrounded by the city and the people who love them, their arms around each other, grinning goofily as their coach told again the story of the Ice Bear and how it brought them up from the early spring darkness to the midnight sun of autumn light.