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Roses and Thorns: We few, we happy few

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Matches Gallery: Soccer Weekend

So, some things happened last week.

If you weren’t in Orlando, I’m sorry. If you were there, you know that nothing I could write here would do justice to that day.

Regardless, I have some thoughts on the final, what lead up to it, and the aftermath. Let’s get one thing out of the way first:

A thorn to that game, which was bad.

We all saw it. It was a choppy, chippy mess, marked by a slew of card-worthy fouls kicked off by the Thorns’ biggest star.

In retrospect, this was exactly the match we should have anticipated. We knew it was going to be a low-scoring defensive battle, for one thing. And as John Lawes correctly pointed out, for the Thorns, this was a grudge match.

I don’t award the game a thorn exactly because it was ugly, which it was, but because that ugliness is what everybody outside of Portland is going to remember about this season. Neutral fans aren’t going to remember AD Franch’s brilliance in goal, or Hayley Raso’s breakout year, or Meghan Klingenberg’s re-ascendance as one of the best fullbacks in the league, all of which got the team into this match. Nor, likely, are they going to remember much about the team’s defensive heroics in the match itself.

They’re going to remember that in the second minute of the championship, Tobin Heath dislocated Taylor Smith’s shoulder.

I don’t say that to moralize, though I felt awful for Smith. Players do what they’re allowed to get away with, and a large helping of the blame has to go to referee Danielle Chesky, who could have completely changed the tone of the game if she’d carded Heath.

I say it because now more than ever, a lot of people are going to look at the Thorns as villains—not just the Yankees or the Real Madrid of the NWSL, but a team of galacticas who nonetheless resorted to brute force to bring home their second trophy. That’s the inevitable extension of the existing discourse around the Thorns.

It’s not wrong, exactly. It’s also far from being the whole story:

A rose to defense, which really does win championships.

I’m a big fan of obvious sports observations, and when I asked Emily Sonnett about her team’s defense, she deadpanned this most obvious of all assessments: “keeping the ball out of the net, they have a worse chance of winning.”

I’m done complaining about the perpetual lack of recognition the Thorns’ back line gets. I’m at peace with the fact that rather than bringing Meghan Klingenberg back into the fold, or giving Katherine Reynolds a shot, Jill Ellis has decided to use Sofia Huerta as a fullback. I’ve squinted and scratched my head enough at Ellis’s opinion on who the top three keepers in the country are. And the Emilies—I won’t even go there.

Because as much as they’ve been passed over by Ellis and my fellow NWSL award voters, this group brought home the only award that really matters: the championship trophy.

In some sense, as much as their lack of individual recognition outside the Rose City is an injustice, it fits the ethos of the whole enterprise. Emily Menges’ heroic blocks against Marta in the semifinal and Jessica McDonald in the final may have been highlight reel-worthy, but as many have pointed out, this was a whole-team defense.

Franch is the best keeper in the league, but she was also just the last line of fortification, after the high-pressing, badgering forwards, the dual wrecking balls of Amandine Henry and Lindsey Horan, and the precise organization of the back five. What was so impressive about that Marta block, after all, wasn’t merely Menges’ work, but the fact that Sonnett and Reynolds were behind her immediately after it.

Anyway, they did get a little bit of individual recognition:

A thorn to the inevitability of change, which is already afoot in Portland.

Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim are gone. Portland native Kendall Johnson, we learned today, is on her way out—which comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody, but should still sting to longtime fans. I’ll be surprised if Dagny Brynjarsdottir comes back for a third year, and Ashleigh Sykes could well be on her way out, too.

But here’s the big one, folks: what becomes of Allie Long?

There’s no world in which Long spends another season riding the bench for her club team. Nobody doubts Long’s devotion to this club, or her contributions to it over the years. Nonetheless, she can’t afford to not be a starter at this point in her career.

Parsons has understandably been cagey about benching Long. Some have wondered whether her “excused absence” midway through the season has anything to do with it—I don’t know that it does, but frankly, I don’t think it matters. With Henry and Lindsey Horan on the roster, she simply didn’t fit into the starting lineup.

With Henry gone, does that change? It could. Whether it does depends on two things: first, who Parsons can bring on to replace Henry; second, what Long’s best position is, something that’s gotten weirdly shrouded in mystery over the last two years.

It’s important to remember that Henry didn’t come here because the Thorns were looking for a defensive midfielder. She came here because she wanted to, and when you’re the best in the world at your position, you get to go where you please. In other words, don’t expect Portland to bring on a striker and a defensive midfielder to replace Nadim and Henry. If another world-class player, at any position, wants to come here, they’ll find a way to fit her onto the roster. Right now, we have no idea what’s in the works on that front.

The second point is both clearer and less clear. To my eyes, Long has played her best as an eight or a ten. She can play as a six, and for reasons I don’t quite understand, that’s where she’s often ended up over the last two years. The important question, then, is how Parsons sees her—and whether his view lines up with whoever else they end up bringing on next season.

The simplest solution to the puzzle is to stick Long in Henry’s spot, with the only issue there being that the team was noticeably worse whenever that happened this season. My preference would probably be to play Horan as a six—a role she did well in when she had a stint there in 2016—and use Long as an attacking or box-to-box midfielder. You could also deploy them both as box-to-box midfielders and let them trade off defensive and attacking responsibilities.

Of course, there are other unknowns about how next year’s squad is going to shape up. With Nadim gone, does Sinc move back up to striker? Will Sykes still be in the starting lineup? Where will Heath play? Things could shake out a lot of different ways, and there’s inevitably going to be more change between 2017 and 2018 than there was between 2016 and 2017.

For now, though, we can take some time to sit back and be grateful for what we had these last two years:

A rose to Alex Morgan, who gave Portland more in leaving for Orlando than she did as a player.

I’m a little bit of a Morgan apologist. Regardless of her general apathy toward the city of Portland, she did contribute here: she scored eight goals in 2013 and got the Thorns into the playoffs with a goal against Seattle the following year. There’s no question, though, that her greatest contribution was leaving.

Horan already thanked Morgan at the inevitably rather awkward victory celebration the team held last week, after Kling called her move to Portland “one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” Just so we’re extremely clear, though, the Morgan trade was one of the best things that’s ever happened to the Thorns, too. The Morgan trade won Portland this trophy.

Let’s review everything the Thorns got in exchange for #13:

  • Meghan Klingenberg, who, as noted above, was one of the best fullbacks in the league this year
  • Lindsey Horan, who scored the game-winner last week, and was one of the Thorns’ most important players over the course of the season
  • The international slot for Nadia Nadim
  • The international slot for Amandine Henry
  • The first-overall draft pick Portland used on Emily Sonnett

That’s almost half the starting lineup. So, yeah: thanks, Alex Morgan.

A parting rose to all of us.

This is always a bittersweet time of year. NWSL soccer ends just as the rain comes back and the days are growing shorter. We always have to say goodbye to somebody—this year, it happens to be Henry, one of the best to ever play in a Thorns jersey, and Nadim, one of the most remarkable people, period, who’s ever lived in the Rose City.

But this year, we got to send them off right. Their time in Portland ends neatly, with a trophy for a parting gift. That’s something other beloved players—I won’t name names—didn’t get.

Savor this moment as winter creeps up. The Portland Thorns, right now, are the most remarkable franchise in all of professional sports. We can hope that in twenty years, teams like this will exist around the world. When that happens, we get to say we were there when it all started—we were there from the start for the biggest women’s club in the world.

Let’s make a constellation, shall we?