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Roses and Thorns: Well, That Could Have Gone Worse

Bennett Dewan

To no one’s great shock, the Thorns came out of the opening weekend of the 2018 season with zero points, following a match that pitted a partial-strength Portland side against a still-formidable Courage team. As our own John Lawes pointed out already, this game was not totally unlike the final; Portland did a lot of defending and absorbing, and in the end, it was a single defensive slip-up, combined with a moment of brilliance from Debinha, that made the difference in the 1-0 scoreline.

It should never come as a surprise that in a league with a month-long preseason, the first few weeks of the season tend to look like, well, more preseason. This was the archetypal opening game, often weird and dumb and replete with goofy errors from both sides. Things certainly could have gone a lot worse for Portland, though, who largely managed to defend well and were a fair sight better in the midfield than they were this time last year. That brings me to my first point:

A rose to Lindsey Horan, who’s picking up right where she left off.

Horan was Portland’s midfield engine in this match, winning duels left and right, looking confident under pressure, and serving as the architect of Portland’s offense, such as it was. She sat fairly deep for most of the match—Celeste Boureille had a hard day, and Horan had to pick up a lot of slack deep in the midfield—but when she did get forward, she linked up well with Ifeoma Onumonu and Christine Sinclair.

Horan orchestrated a beautiful play in the 62nd minute; while Debinha was pressuring her in the center of the field, she found Sinc ahead of her, who sent the ball to Meghan Klingenberg on the left sideline. Kling held onto it just long enough for Horan to burst into the space created when Denise O’Sullivan closed down on Kling. Horan took a few touches and found a wide-open Tyler Lussi on the left edge of the 18-yard box—who, unfortunately, was offside. Horan can run Portland’s midfield, given the opportunity, but she also can’t work miracles with forwards who aren’t in the right place at the right time.

The final pass or two in the attacking third was what Portland couldn’t find all game, and by the final whistle, they’d taken a measly three shots to North Carolina’s 20. The absence of a consistent scoring threat seems to be the Thorns’ perpetual lot in life, these days; it dogged them for long stretches in 2017, then all through preseason this year.

Hopefully, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic—Caitlin Foord’s temporary replacement—shows up in form. Andressinha’s arrival should also help, as adding another midfield playmaker will free Horan up to get forward and receive those final passes—or vice versa, as Andressinha can be also a scoring threat if she’s not the one doing all the work in the midfield.

A thorn to Crystal Dunn, North Carolina’s terrifying new weapon.

Dunn had an unusual year at Chelsea, where she was called on to play a variety of wide roles, including fullback, at various times. She made a splash in her reintroduction to the NWSL, looking at least as good as she ever did with the Washington Spirit. The lineup graphic showed her on the right wing, but in reality, she seemed to be everywhere at all times, switching sides frequently and sprinting from one end of the field to the other.

The Courage offense, fairly or not, is often reduced to words like “fast” and “athletic,” and of course, it is both of those things. Dunn is those things, too; her work rate alone would make her a strong addition to any roster. She’s much more than that, though—she’s also whip-smart, with great vision and excellent passing accuracy. It’s frightening to think that between 2015 and today, Paul Riley’s offenses only seem to be getting better. Fortunately for the Thorns on this opening weekend, the Courage were also having their share of final-third mishaps:

A rose to North Carolina’s shooting form, which kept the scoreline closer than it could have been.

Portland’s defense wasn’t terrible. The three-back mostly gave the Thorns enough bodies to compensate for things like Kelli Hubly getting beaten on the dribble, or the fact that Merritt Mathias is just faster on a flat run than Kling is. To say it wasn’t terrible, however, is also not to say it was great; there were plenty of moments when it was only a Courage player’s poor shot that kept them off the board.

Have a look at this sequence, in the 53rd minute, that nearly got the Thorns in big trouble. First, Dunn, under pressure by Boureille, passes back to a wide-open O’Sullivan:

You’ll note that in this photo, every player in red appears to have her eyes fixed firmly on the ball. Nobody is watching Debinha, who slips free of Katherine Reynolds:

O’Sullivan slides a pinpoint pass between Reynolds and Sonnett, to Debinha—who, although she’s quickly closed down by Kling, now has both Dunn behind her and a massive hole to her right to pass into:

She chooses the latter option, and Mathias runs into that hole. Fortuitously, Mathias then did this:

John already broke down in detail what went wrong on the goal in his column, but, briefly, it was a similar mishap with a slightly different cast of characters: as O’Sullivan drove toward goal with the ball, Horan and Sonnett were both fixated on her, leaving Debinha completely unmarked. O’Sullivan slipped a tidy sideways ball to her, and Sonnett and Hubly couldn’t close in fast enough to block her beautiful shot inside the right post.

In both these instances, the Courage (read: Debinha) had a fraction of a second to make something happen, and in both instances, that was enough. Missing Emily Menges or not, the Thorns have to clean this kind of thing up—and they certainly will, it’s just a question of how fast they can do it.

A bonus thorn to the tarp on the sideline:

If anybody can tell me what a literal slip-n-slide was doing in the technical area, I owe you a beer.