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Roses and Thorns: the One for All the Marbles

Match Gallery: Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash Roscoe Myrick

The regular season is over. The sweet but all-too-short NWSL playoffs are upon us. Let’s play some good old-fashioned American playoff soccer, shall we?

A rose to Orlando for sheer cussedness.

With their victory over North Carolina last weekend, the Pride brought about what was numerically the least likely playoff scenario. That’s not by a slim margin, either. Out of nine possible outcomes of the last week of the regular season, only one—a win by both Orlando and Portland—would have brought the Pride here for the semis.

They did it in magnificently cussed fashion, too, going up two goals, blowing their lead by letting Lynn Williams score two, then notching a last-minute game-winner on a beautiful free kick by Alanna Kennedy.

There have been murmurs, in all this, that these semifinal matchups may have been partially engineered by Chicago coach Rory Dames. The implication may not be quite that he threw last weekend’s match, but perhaps that he let go and let God, so to speak, thinking that North Carolina, who the Red Stars are perfect against this season, would be a better semifinal matchup for his team. Dames rested Dani Colaprico, Julie Ertz, Jen Hoy, Sofia Huerta, Christen Press, Casey Short, and even, weirdly, Alyssa Naeher. That’s certainly not the bench of a coach looking to beat the Thorns, and the lopsided match that resulted surprised no one.

Dames, of course, dismissed the notion, saying, “it doesn't make a difference to us if we play here or go to North Carolina... It made more sense for us to rest our players and have our focus or mindset on next week rather than trying to chase this.”

Of course, it’s an outcome that also means twice as much travel for the Red Stars, who would’ve otherwise stayed in Portland for the week. But enough about Chicago: what does this mean for the Thorns? Well...

A thorn to Orlando, whose victory paved the way for what’s probably Portland’s less-preferred playoff scenario.

There would have been pros and cons to either semifinal matchup, but on balance I think this was the more challenging one. The major positive here is that if the Thorns win, they won’t have to face Orlando in Orlando for the final.

The negatives are more numerous, and more immediate. First and foremost, between Chicago and Orlando, Orlando has to be seen as the more dangerous opponent. The Thorns haven’t lost to either team this season, but the Pride came closer to beating them in a 0-0 draw a few weeks ago than the Red Stars ever did.

Portland has had Chicago’s number this season even when they’ve been the real Chicago—Christen Press and all—and the Red Stars are a team that’s sputtering into the playoffs after a lackluster run in the second half of the season. Historically, the teams that do well against Mark Parsons’ Thorns at Providence Park are high-flying attacking teams with speed and individual brilliance—teams like last year’s Western New York Flash or Sam Kerr’s Sky Blue FC.

Teams, it has to be said, like Orlando.

The Pride are undefeated since July 22 and have a league-leading 45 goals on the season. As flat as they looked for stretches against Portland when the two teams last met, there were a few nervy moments when balls got over the Thorns’ back line, and only AD Franch saved their necks—and that was a few days after around half of their starting lineup had flown in from Australia. This is a trite observation, but it has to be made: they’ve got Marta, who’s been exactly as good as she was expected to be.

There’s also, of course, she of the UK Section of Epcot Center. We’ve all had some laughs at Alex Morgan’s expense this week, but her record this season is hard to argue with: nine goals and four assists in 13 games. That’s a better goals-per-minute average than anyone else in the league except Sam Kerr. I don’t care what she did or didn’t do while she was in Portland; 2017 Morgan is dang good. And don’t underestimate the size of the chip on her shoulder when she comes back to play in front of the Portland crowd for the first time in a year and a half.

When I write all that out, I realize I’m actually very nervous. More on that in a minute. First, a rant:

A rose to the Emilies, perennially passed over for defender of the year.

Ah, fall: time for changing leaves, sweaters, pumpkin spice, and the bitter, angry tears of Thorns supporters as the NWSL awards start to roll out. Awards don't mean anything, we tell ourselves, visions of sour grapes dancing in our heads. We know the Thorns have had the best defense in the league for two years running. Mark Parsons knows it. The teams who've failed to score on the Thorns know it. At the end of the day, or season, the record speaks for itself. It's the wins that matter.

And yet, there is a sting to being overlooked, isn't there? It's the sting of the illogical injustice of it all. How is it that a team fights their way into the top two spots in the table for two seasons on the strength of their defense—indeed, builds their whole identity around a strong defense—without having defenders worthy of recognition?

As friend of Stumptown Footy Charles Olney pointed out on Twitter, it's probably precisely because Portland's defense is so good that its constituent parts go unrecognized. Defense is inherently not flashy. A great center back influences the game without even touching the ball. A structurally sound back line goes unnoticed by design.

Oh well. If you need me, I'll be over here in my Menges jersey, shaking my fist at the sky.

(Also, this happened, if you missed it:)

A thorn to my rattled nerves, which won't let me stop reliving last year's semifinal.

It's funny. I've talked to a handful of Thorns in the last week and a half, and one thing I've been asking is this: how much do you think about that game a year ago? Has it driven you over the course of the season? Is it at the front of your mind, going into the weekend?

The answer, at least prior to the beginning of this week, has been "not really."

For me—and, I suspect, many of you—the answer is different. This is the thing I've been waiting for, with equal parts excitement and dread, for six long months. I don't remember last year’s semifinal game itself in much detail (in fact, I think my brain's defense mechanisms have blocked it out), but I remember the succession of emotions: the pre-game jitters. The elation when Sonnett scored and the low, gripping fear as the game went into overtime. The raw, numbed shock, sinking into garden-variety depression, at the whistle. The aftermath of that game felt like getting dumped two weeks after getting engaged. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. I already had a plane ticket to Houston, for God's sake.

For the players, there were lessons to be learned about not taking results for granted, and learning to defend long throw-in plays better ("that's an actual, real comment," Kling said in the media conference call this week). Those are lessons the team is, by all accounts, taking seriously. After that, I suspect, they moved on.

As a writer, I love narrative and I look for it constantly. But when you drill down beyond the emotion and the drama to the basic reality of any situation, especially in this sport, it rarely lives up. Randomness is an inherent part of soccer. Sometimes you hit a cross and it goes in the goal. Sometimes the better team loses. The players who live this game every day are better at seeing that than those of us who merely watch it.

But with all that said, hot damn, what a narrative we've got here. There's symmetry on all sides. The Thorns' season at home is neatly bookended by two meetings with the Orlando Pride, two squads now exiting the regular season with the league's strongest defense and leading offense, respectively; the same positions Portland and Western New York were in last year. Orlando has never beaten the Thorns; much like how, last season, Western New York hadn't beaten Portland in the regular season.

If you're into this sort of thing, Alex Morgan's return to Portland, her first since April 17, 2016, is a thread all its own. Is this her chance to prove she was, after all, underappreciated here? Or will the Thorns brush off her efforts and get their playoff redemption?

I don't know what's going to happen. I've already booked my ticket to Orlando, though.

Buckle up.