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Roses and Thorns: Sing, Goddess, the Misfortune of the Portland Thorns

Kelli Hubly
Nikita Taparia

The ancient Greeks had ways of explaining the ebbs and flows of fortune that are far more satisfying, even logical, than any widespread cosmology of the United States in 2018. The courses of mortals’ lives, to the Greeks, were tied up in the whims of the gods, who unlike our own more distant deities would often intervene directly in the affairs of humans.

In the Iliad, the tide of the Trojan War shifts in favor of the Trojans because Achilles is having an argument with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek host; but far from being simply a matter of Achilles, the Greeks’ best fighter, withdrawing from the fray, the shift is courtesy of Zeus, who throws in his lot in with the Trojans because he happens to owe a favor to Thetis, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother.

In this worldview, behind the scenes of every human-scale drama is divine one, a supernatural soap opera playing out in parallel to our own. It’s a way of ascribing a logic to the seemingly random events that shape our world. It’s also the only way I can make sense of the way the chips have fallen in the last few Thorns games.

The best explanation I can come up with for what we saw on Saturday—what we saw last weekend, too—was that one or more of the gods had fixed their wrath on the Thorns, leaving the team to fight uselessly against a preordained fate.

Last weekend against Seattle, the Thorns tallied 24 shots, a single-game record. They tied that number this weekend. In both games, that was double or almost double what their opponent managed. Last weekend, they created 16 chances to Seattle’s eight; this weekend, 18 to Orlando’s seven. Tobin Heath alone had five. In perhaps the most infuriating statistic of all, Portland took as many shots from inside the box as Orlando took, period. That’s a lot of offense.

Yet at crucial moments, the gods intervened to ensure it all came to naught. In the seventh minute, the trickster god Hermes descended to steal the sideline ref’s wits and call Mallory Weber offside here.

In the 21st minute, the hand of far-shooting Apollo descended to guide Christine Nairn’s zero-chance shot just so, curving it past Britt Eckerstrom’s fingertips by a hair’s width. The signs are quite clear.

For the time being, the Thorns are cursed.

That news is bad enough. The worse news is that in Agamemnon’s time, even the wisest seers often failed at guessing what course of action would appease the gods—and I’m not a seer. I have no idea what the Thorns have done to deserve this curse, or what they can do to lift it.

The possible good news is twofold. First, the gods change their minds all the time. Second, these issues aren’t systemic. None of the dropped results at home have been the result of all-around bad performances. It’s both encouraging and frustrating that we’re dealing with a series of concessions on individual mistakes and goals disallowed by bad officiating. If the back line had been the tiniest bit cleaner, if just a few bad calls went a different way, the last two weeks start to look very different.

So: what changes can happen, on the mortal plane, to shift the Thorns’ fate? Here are a few possibilities, in the standard rose/thorn format:

A rose to AD Franch being alive and well.

In the best news of the day, Franch was walking at halftime! While it’s impossible to know exactly how badly the Thorns are hurting for Franch’s absence, it’s reasonable to think she would have prevented at least one, likely two or three of the goals Portland has conceded since the start of the current winless streak, and flipped at least the Washington draw to a win. When the defense keeps committing individual errors, a keeper like Franch can go a long way in covering for them. Especially combined with the absence of Emily Menges’s stabilizing presence on the back line, Franch being injured has been a huge factor in why Portland is off to an even slower than usual start.

A thorn to fatigue.

Tom Sermanni’s squad came into this match having only played one game last week, Wednesday against Utah—a game where Alex Morgan played less than a half and the team seemed content to sit back, not exert themselves too much, and get the draw. The shrewd Scotsman, taking a page from Odysseus (“the man of twists and turns,” according to Homer) then rotated his starting squad for Saturday; starting Nairn and Toni Pressley in the midfield, resting Marta and Chioma Ubogagu, and bringing on Emily Van Egmond in the second half.

Parsons, meanwhile, stuck to his guns and pulled out his best available eleven, paying no mind to the fact that this was the third game in a week for the Thorns. Presumably, the idea here was to put the game away early and then give his starters a break. Instead, the Thorns got exposed twice on frustrating individual defensive mistakes. Whether those two failed clearances, by Mallory Weber and Midge Purce, were the direct result of mental exhaustion or not, the what-are-you-thinking moments weren’t confined to the defensive side.

Despite the litany of goal-scoring opportunities, there were better ones that slipped by. Multiple times in the first half, Heath went ignored by her teammates on the left side of the box. The worst example was here, when Purce for some reason decided to shoot instead of send the ball into the acre of open space around the most technically skilled player on the field.

Without looking into the Thorns locker room, or into players’ brains, it’s hard to know what the cause of these consistent mental lapses is. Hopefully, the team starts to gel further, picks up a win, and these things iron themselves out. If this goes deeper than just accumulated fatigue, Portland may have bigger problems.

A rose to Andressinha.

It’s hard to overstate how big an addition Andressinha can be for the Thorns—if they can figure out how to use her. This weekend, we saw both her quality and how she can be neutralized by opponents. In the early part of the first half—before Orlando’s two goals prompted Parsons to adjust his formation to a four-back—the Pride accomplished that with numbers, as she and Lindsey Horan were the only two in the central midfield (weirdly, this was almost a mirror image of the last time these two teams met, when Sermanni deployed Nairn and Weatherholt as the lone central midfielders in a 3-4-3). Later on, they often did it by fouling her. The Brazilian drew six fouls, five of them in the second half.

It’s not time to despair yet. It’s still early in the season, the Thorns habitually get slow starts, and a lot of their dropped results have been down to luck.

Still, pour out a libation, just in case.