[9/5: Updated to correct mistakes about North Carolina’s schedule]
The season’s end draws near for the Thorns, who won their second-to-last regular-season home game this weekend in blistering heat. As resounding a win as this was for Portland, it wasn’t a terribly interesting match from the red-hot Thorns, who delivered a methodical beating to the most beleaguered team in the NWSL. Nonetheless, there were some takeaways:
A rose to Emily Menges, the hero Portland deserves, but for the final twelve minutes on Saturday, not the one they needed. Menges subbed out in the 83rd minute, marking the first time the Thorns have played without her since late in 2015, and ending a streak of 3,150 consecutive minutes. Menges doesn't go unappreciated in Portland, but in the wider league conversation, she's still often overshadowed by Thorns players with more name recognition.
But anyone who doesn't realize that Portland's defense has been the bedrock of their success over the last two seasons hasn't been paying attention—and Menges, the unassuming central defender with the pushed-up sleeves, has been key to that defense. She's both smart in her positioning and fast when she needs to be; go back to the 5th minute of Saturday's game to see her smoking Meggie Dougherty Howard, who’d just been played through by Estefania Banini. If you draw a right triangle here, Menges runs along the hypotenuse while Dougherty-Howard takes the shorter vertical route:
If nothing else, this moment exemplifies what Parsons noted after the game, which is that Menges physically works harder than anyone else. "She covers more ground than almost anyone in every training session, she covers more ground in every game," he said. "She's an athlete that needs to be managed... Think what happens to our back line if we suddenly lost Menges."
A thorn to the offside rule, which keeps holding Allie Long down.
Like a dog that finally caught up with a car, watching Long play at striker after I've been whining about wanting her higher up on the pitch all season left me more perplexed than anything else. She certainly had some good moments in dropping back to connect with Sinc and Nadim, but the frequency with which she gets caught offside is a little astounding. There were at least two moments in the game where she called for the ball from an offside position. Then there were the two goals she scored that were waved off.
Putting Long up top was a stopgap decision, necessitated by Raso's suspension. "What Amandine and Lindsey have been doing, with Sincy and the back five, it's really hard to find room," Parsons said. "Rather than overcomplicate this and start moving people around, we had a good chat with Allie about taking this opportunity and getting her in front of goal." What he's dancing around is that the Thorns lineup that’s working, right now, doesn't include Long.
It won't be that way forever, especially with Henry likely headed home at the end of the year. But Long is, in many ways, a perplexing player. She's had moments of sheer brilliance as a creator and attacker, but she hasn't wanted to see herself as that kind of player over the last two years—and naturally, now, when she's forced into that role, she looks rusty and out of sorts.
What a strange time we've all lived to see.
A sympathetic rose to the utterly broken-down Washington Spirit, which, not unlike Seattle last week, served Portland this win on a silver platter.
Before the season started, I wrote that Washington reminded me of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, heaped with misfortune as they were. Over the preceding six months, they’d seen the core of their roster leave en masse, and fallen victim to three torn ACLs. If the Spirit were Oedipus at the beginning of the season, they’re Pentheus now; on top of the existing casualties, 2017 has claimed Joanna Lohman, Line Sigvardsen Jensen, and Arielle Ship, all out with ACL tears.
Washington came to Portland with four field players available off the bench, and both Francesca Ordega and Estelle Johnson—the keys to the offense and defense, respectively—out. Realistically, the game was over before it started, but it was super-duper over the moment Nadia Nadim opened the scoring in the 22nd minute.
From that point, the Spirit defense was nonexistent; Sinc’s goal in the 25th minute was a lovely display of skill by the captain, who deftly chipped the ball to herself, but it was just as much a display of ball-watching by Washington. Whitney Church and Havana Solaun lackadaisically marked Nadim as she tapped a low pass Sinc, in acres of space in the penalty area. If Caprice Dydasco had looked over her shoulder as she was giving Allie Long a healthy personal bubble, she’d have noticed that Emily Sonnett had the whole right half of the 18 to herself.
Sonnett again went completely, head-scratchingly unmarked in the 40th minute on a corner kick:
Spare a little sympathy for Washington, a depleted team trying to keep moving in the dying hours of a hard season. Spirit coach Jim Gabarra, after the game, used the word “horrific” to describe the last 12 months. Say whatever you want about the team’s ownership, but don’t direct your vitriol at the players caught up in all this. Speaking of which:
An extra-sharp thorn to the guy in the stands yelling at Estefania Banini as she limped off the field. Your team is up 3-0 and you're going to yell at a player for being injured? Really?
A thorn to DiDi Haracic, who ended Nadia Nadim’s heretofore perfect record on penalty kicks in the NWSL. On the other hand, Nadim could have done a lot more with her shot, which flew squarely into the Washington keeper. All streaks end sooner or later.
A rose to the Chicago Red Stars, who kept Portland’s Supporters Shield hopes alive this weekend in beating North Carolina. Portland is now two points behind the Courage, with regular-season fixtures against Boston, Orlando, and Chicago remaining. North Carolina, meanwhile, have a game in hand against the Thorns, thanks to Hurricane Harvey forcing a reschedule of a match in Houston that was supposed to take place on August 27th. That means they have two games remaining against Houston, plus one each against Sky Blue and Orlando.
With a remaining 12 points possible for North Carolina, and nine possible for Portland, the Courage would have to drop at least six for Portland to come out ahead in points. Or, if the Courage dropped five, the two teams would be tied in the standings, and Portland could come out ahead on goal differential.
How likely is that to happen? Realistically, there’s probably only an outside chance, but it’s a chance nonetheless. Consider: other than Chicago, the Courage have only lost to three teams all season. Portland is one. The other two are, you guessed it, Sky Blue and Orlando, the two non-Houston teams they have remaining on their schedule. Coincidence, or providence?