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Roses and Thorns: Same as it ever was

Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic goes up for a header against the Washington Spirit.
Anya Button

Ahh. Do you feel that summery breeze? That sudden lightness? Do you smell, just faintly, a whiff of freshly-baked bread?

That’s the feeling of long-awaited victory, my friends.

Yet intermingled with that new lightness is an uneasy feeling of deja vu. Far from the barely-thwarted attacking powerhouse the Thorns looked like in their last two home losses, this game marked the return of a look that’s almost become a cliché in the Mark Parsons era: the team that possesses toothlessly for long stretches, but grits out wins by defending well for 90 minutes and finding a single moment of brilliance to put the game away.

I have to say, as much as I missed winning, I didn’t miss this.

Here’s the question, though. Is this the Thorns’ true identity? Is this—the team whose success always starts with a strong defense, whose attacking corps almost always looks better on paper than they do in person—their inescapable core self? Have these last few weeks of shot records and frantic scrambles in their opponents’ penalty areas been a flukey and ill-fated departure from that core self?

In short, are the Thorns having an identity crisis? And how will they resolve that crisis?

A rose to Ellie Carpenter, the youngest goalscorer in NWSL history.

Since Mark Parsons has been saying for months that he expected Carpenter to need some time to adjust to the league, it naturally stands to reason that she’d score in her third game as a Thorn. It’s a noteworthy achievement for the young Australian, and probably comes as a relief to Mallory Pugh, whose youth has been the incessant subject of commentary since she joined the league.

Beyond that, though, this goal is really a team effort and a joy to watch from start to finish. It all starts when Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan squeeze Meggie Dougherty-Howard from two sides and Sinclair making the tackle to send the ball to Carpenter. The youngster taps it back to Horan, who turns, sees Heath sprinting into space, and sends a perfect long pass to her. Heath takes an absolutely note-perfect first touch, putting just enough weight on the ball that she can sprint onto it and find the cross to Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, who sees Carpenter’s run and makes the final pass.

But this was a blip in a game where the Thorns were barely able to string together an attack.

A thorn to a mostly listless offense.

Despite how fun that goal was to watch, it has to be noted that throughout the game, the offense floundered. Long stretches passed where the Portland defense plinked the ball back and forth. Andressinha was a nonfactor for the 72 minutes she played, with the Spirit forcing her off the ball repeatedly and containing any effective forward passes. Numerous players—Crnogorcevic, Heath, Sinclair, Horan, Purce—wasted opportunities by waiting for runs that didn’t materialize, whiffing crosses, or making nothing passes in the general direction of the Spirit defense. All told, the team created a measly six chances.

Are we to believe that this is a team that can only score from a transition play? Is Washington’s defense—an Estelle Johnson-less iteration, no less—so good Portland shouldn’t be able to stretch them out of shape? Who are the Thorns, offensively?

Those questions remain open. On the other end of the field, we got a possible answer to another question that’s been in the air since the winless streak started: the one about why the Thorns kept conceding goals.

A rose to Emily Menges.

If we’ve learned anything at all in this cruel winless stretch, it’s that Emily Menges is the single most important player on the Thorns roster. It’s always been clear that Menges is one of the best defenders in the NWSL; it’s never been quite so clear that without her on the field, Portland is a different team.

It’s easy to find highlights of a defender screwing up, harder to pick individual moments that exemplify what they’re doing right. Regardless, here’s a moment where Menges did exactly what she was supposed to do.

In the 31st minute, Estefania Banini picks Andressinha’s pocket and sees Pugh making a diagonal run. Menges looks over her shulder and also sees Pugh.

Banini picks out a nice pass that sneaks past Emily Sonnett. Menges, meanwhile, is tracking Pugh’s run.

She chases Pugh all the way to the endline and makes the tackle.

Of course, observing that Menges did her job here is of limited usefulness without opening a Pandora’s box of hypotheticals. What if Ashley Hatch decided to make a run instead of lackadaisically hanging back around the penalty arc? Could, say, Kelli Hubly not have made this play? Emily Sonnett? Would Pugh, who’s been on a run of mediocre form, necessarily have beaten Eckerstrom even if she’d gotten one on one with her?

We can’t account for all those variables but we do know that on any given day, no other defender is likelier to see this play developing, make the right decision, and muster the speed to keep up with Pugh.

If there’s reason to think Portland’s season is turning around, the return of Menges—and with her, the foundation of their identity as a team in the Parsons era—is it.