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Roses and Thorns: A Beautiful Mess

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Nikita Taparia, Stepover FC

The Thorns handed the Red Stars their first-ever loss in a home opener this weekend, in a matchup between the two most-depleted sides in the NWSL. Portland was hurting for Emily Menges’s absence—not to mention the Australians, Andressinha, and Tobin Heath—while Chicago was shorthanded in all areas of the field, missing Casey Short, Julie Ertz, Sam Kerr, and Yuki Nagasato, among others.

The result—fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your stake in the game—was an exciting if nerve-wracking 90 minutes that saw moments of brilliance matched with cringeworthy mistakes. Here are a few of my takeaways from the game:

A rose to Sam Johnson and Alyssa Naeher.

Portland’s first goal was pure ballistic elegance by Lindsey Horan, but their second came down to sloppiness by Sam Johnson and poor timing by Alyssa Naeher—the former got caught making a ho-hum back pass under pressure from Portland’s forwards, and the latter made a necessary but poorly-executed effort at coming off her line to sweep the ball out from under Christine Sinclair’s feet.

Of course, the importance of Portland pressing high here in the first place shouldn’t be ignored. Nor should the captain’s textbook-perfect setup and perfectly-placed shot, both vintage Sinclair—it’s nothing flashy, but it’s a meticulous execution of a difficult shot.

As the scoreline suggests, though, the wide-openness of this game had more to do with sloppiness like this than with attacking brilliance by either team. On Chicago’s side, that sloppiness was especially evident as the second half wore on, as one midfield turnover after another led to a number of near-chances for Portland. Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu, playing up top together after a pair of substitutions, couldn’t quite get on the same page—and Onumonu had some hard touches as she charged into the box—but a better-established strike pair would have made short work of some of those opportunities.

In any case, though, the sloppiness wasn’t confined to the home side:

A thorn to Portland’s defense, again.

Contrary to what I predicted before the season started, the Thorns defense, after week two, is still looking like a weak point. Menges, of course, is a big loss, but it has to be said that even the veterans on the back line are making some major errors.

Chicago’s equalizing goal was a comedy of such errors; Summer Green pantses Celeste Boureille, then Kelli Hubly, then Emily Sonnett, and much like we saw last week against North Carolina, nobody seems to be paying attention to anything but the ball. What we see here is four-fifths of Portland’s back line, plus Lindsey Horan, simultaneously saying, “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” as they realize none of them had noticed Alyssa Mautz on the right side of the penalty area:

Comedy turns to tragedy as Celeste Boureille raises a hopeful hand, seemingly calling for an offside flag (side note: there’s no video evidence of where Mautz was when Sofia Huerta made this pass, but regardless, players in this league should know better than to hope for those calls):

Meghan Klingenberg’s desperate attempt at a block made things worse, if anything, as the deflection seemed to throw off Adrianna Franch.

The big question going forward is, how much of this is fallout from Menges’s absence?

On one hand, Hubly is obviously a big step down from Menges. The veteran is less likely to get humiliated by Green on that play, period. This wasn’t the only time that night that Hubly got exposed as a weak point in the defense; another notable example was in the 51st minute, when she gave Green a comfortable buffer zone in front of goal as Arin Gilliland sent in a cross. Franch managed to punch that one away, but Green could have easily gotten a head on a better ball thanks to Hubly’s lackadaisical marking.

On the other hand, zooming out, that first Chicago goal was also a result of issues further up the field. If we back up a few seconds, we see Sonnett is pushing up into the midfield, seemingly anticipating that Boureille won’t be able to contain Green:

She proves to be right, as Green easily beats Boureille to take on Hubly. That’s a problem in itself, but matters are made worse by the fact that Klingenberg then has to move inside to mark Huerta, leaving Mautz all alone off to the right:

A number of things could have gone differently on this play. Hubly could win this challenge. Instead of stepping to Green, Sonnett could fall back and mark Huerta, leaving Kling to handle Mautz. To me, though, Boureille is the biggest problem in this chain of events. Sonnett should be free to get forward and try to start transition plays, but if she doesn’t have a strong defensive midfield partner who can reliably break up plays and hold onto the ball, the numerical disadvantage that causes in the back simply leaves the Thorns exposed.

Personally, I’m ready to see what Angela Salem can do in Boureille’s position. Unfortunately, Salem is back in grad school now and won’t be with the team until later this spring, by which point Portland’s wayward internationals should be drifting back into the fold.

A rose to Portland’s bench, which is the deepest it’s ever been.

Despite those problems, a road win in week two is a great result for this team. It would be easy, at this point in the season, to excuse a draw or even a loss as the inevitable result of playing with what might look like a B-team once the roster is at full strength.

But the fact that the starting lineup Saturday was at something like half strength in the absence of three to five presumed starters—depending on how you count—one of them (Menges) a crucial defensive piece and another (Heath) a player who has singlehandedly run the offense at times in the past, speaks volumes about just how strong this Portland roster is. The group that started against Chicago, bench players and all, would be a respectable starting lineup for other NWSL teams.

The addition of the three former Breakers players is really a godsend here; even numerically, adding three extra bodies to the league’s austere 20-player roster limit would have helped. The fact that Purce is turning out to be a great fit for the role Parsons needs her to play is, of course, an even bigger bonus.

(Another side note: let’s all take a moment to appreciate that she played 72 minutes at wingback, running back and forth down the length of the field over and over, then moved to forward and kept running at Chicago’s defense for the remaining 18.)

When the Thorns are at full strength, this roster might be the deepest we’ve ever seen in Portland. Get excited.

A rose to the traveling fans.

Including these guys: