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Roses and Thorns: So close, yet so far

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Kris Lattimore

Fans are probably going to remember the Thorns’ home draw against the Washington Spirit this week for two frustrating moments (plus... that other thing, but bear with me for a minute): Francisca Ordega’s maddeningly stupid first-half goal, and Lindsey Horan’s spectacularly screwed-up penalty kick. Soccer games are ninety minutes long, though, and it’s a mistake to reduce this match to the highlight reel.

A thorn to the Spirit for getting it together at exactly the wrong time.

Washington looked rough against the Courage last weekend, especially defensively. Whitney Church and Taylor Smith were abysmal, with Smith looking woefully outmatched against North Carolina’s forwards, both in sheer athleticism and positional awareness, and Church looking like she couldn’t even be bothered to try to keep up. However, while the Spirit defense was a shambles, their midfield and forwards weren’t terrible—they got an early goal and didn’t completely wilt under the Courage press.

All that is to say the difference between the Spirit in that game and the Spirit in this game was night and day. Their back line stayed organized, Smith contained Tyler Lussi and Mallory Weber, and Estelle Johnson put in a great shift. Their front six, meanwhile, outplayed Portland’s midfield in the first half; while Lindsey Horan had a drop in form from previous weeks, committing a lot of uncharacteristic errors, Mallory Pugh continued what’s been an excellent season so far. Although for the most part Portland’s defense ultimately kept her contained, she ran rampant in the midfield where she acted like a black hole sucking in Thorns players to open up vast gulfs of space.

On the other hand, it has to be said that the Thorns’ defense also made strides this week, with Kelli Hubly continuing to step up in Emily Menges’s absence, and Emily Sonnett having gotten most of the oopsies out of her system. Katherine Reynolds, as usual, read the game brilliantly and kept pace with Pugh, Francisca Ordega, and Ashley Hatch.

A thorn to the Thorns’ finishing.

The Thorns working their way into good positions and then being unable to finish isn’t new—it’s been plaguing them all season—but it was on particular, extra-frustrating display Friday night. Throughout both their shifts, Tyler Lussi and Ifeoma Onumonu looked completely flat in the final third. Neither one could finish their chances; a particularly frustrating example was in the 11th minute, when Lussi was unmarked in the penalty area and couldn’t do more than plink a low shot directly to Aubrey Bledsoe at the near post. Midge Purce, meanwhile, continued to dazzle on the wing, but her service into the box—although it was better than it’s been—is still inconsistent.

Lussi and Onumonu (and Weber and Purce, in previous weeks) aren’t tasked only with scoring. A big part of their job is to relentlessly pester opposing back lines and keepers, to force them into mistakes. That strategy paid off against Chicago. It hasn’t yielded as much in the last two games, and as other teams start to cohere going forward, it’s going to be less and less effective.

This is something Portland has struggled with not just throughout this young season, but throughout Mark Parsons’s tenure. They haven’t had a true goalscoring number nine in any of the last three seasons, and this is how it shows: with the team struggling to consistently put shots on frame early in the year. It wasn’t, in the end, a problem in 2016 or 2017. Will it prove a problem this season?

A rose to the abstract idea of what the Thorns will be in a month or so.

If the first half swung the Spirit’s way, things turned around in the second half. Portland took just three shots to Washington’s seven in the first half; in the second, the reversal was dramatic, with the Thorns tallying nine shots to the Spirit’s three.

A lot of that change had to do with the immediate step up in quality when Lussi came off for Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. To some extent, that difference shows on the stat sheet, as Crnogorcevic had three chances created in the 45 minutes she played while Lussi had none. What did that actually look like on the field, though? At times, it looked like what Pugh was doing to Portland’s midfield; dropping back and pulling Andi Sullivan and Tori Huster in to create space for players like Horan or Christine Sinclair.

At other times, the difference showed in the quality of runs she made into the box, or her touch, or her ability to read transition plays quickly and move the ball where it needed to go. Crnogorcevic is the style of forward Parsons wants: a player who doesn’t just have speed and finishing skill, but the ability to drop back, get involved in the play, and create chances. In other words, she’s not an archetypal nine, and that’s why she’s going to do well here.

Oh, then there was that other player who came on in the second half.

Nikita Taparia

Tobin Heath’s long-awaited return—even though she played a few matches in 2017, it feels like it’s been years—was, perhaps predictably, exactly fine. She made a few good plays, connected some passes, cruelly robbed Joanna Lohman at one point. She also made some careless turnovers and bad passes. Overall, she looked like a good player who’s barely gotten minutes in the last 18 months.

All in all, with Crnogorcevic looking promising, Heath working her way back into the fold, and Andressinha and Ellie Carpenter both about to arrive, we can see the outline of a new look for the Thorns taking shape. It remains to be seen exactly how all these pieces fit together, but it’s exciting to think about.

A rose to Caitlin Foord for encouraging PTFC from afar even when we don’t deserve it.

Behold, friends, the hottest take of the season so far: