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Thorns FC: Twelve seconds of brilliance

Kris Lattimore

A forward scored.

The defense didn’t derp. (Well, mostly didn’t derp, and when they did they weren’t punished for it, as we’ll see.)

As a result, the Portland Thorns took three points off Washington on the road.

I want to be thrilled about this. I want to be sunshine and sparkles and unicorns dancing on rainbows. I want to say that this is the beginning of Glorious Summer, that all the clouds that loured o’er our Thorns’ house are in the deep bosom of Great Seneca Creek buried.

But I can’t quite yet. Because remember the part about the defense mostly not derping? That didn’t mean that the Thorns defense didn’t have some horrifying moments. Eighty-nine minutes of comfort, sixty seconds of terror, remember?

Here’s that minute.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Portland is pushed well up in attack when Andressinha puts a heavy touch to a Tobin Heath pass and then loses the battle for the loose ball to Tori Huster. One touch from Huster and she’s off to the races.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Huster has three good options but the one that matters is Mallory Pugh, who is in front of her in the screenshot above. Huster slips the ball up to Pugh, who sprints through the Portland midfield into Washington’s attacking third.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Pugh’s motor is such that she just blows past Emily Menges, one of the fastest Thorns, in a dead run. Emily Sonnett is now the last defender, and she’s stabbed on what chess players call a “fork”; Pugh can make two possible attacking moves - a run directly at goal, or a pass to Ashley Hatch - and Sonnett can’t possibly cover them both.

Instead, inexplicably, Sonnett does neither. She simply continues to run ahead of Pugh, who has eons of time and acres of space to slide the ball over to Hatch.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

The Thorns are caught dead. The goal gapes in front of Hatch, who simply has to strike a ball into the far upper corner to put the Spirit up 1-nil.

She doesn’t. Instead, Hatch knuckles a shot wide of the near post and the Thorns dodge the bullet.

But that’s what I meant by “mostly” not derping; the Thorns defense still needs to keep working on not getting taking these random mental vacations. Last Saturday, they got away with it because Washington couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. Seattle or North Carolina won’t have that problem.

The less-derping is important, because the Thorns still aren’t scoring much. Creating chances? Yes, and some good ones.

Finishing? Well, the original title of this was going to be Thorns FC: Eighty-nine minutes of frustration, twelve seconds of brilliance, but I decided to go straight to the good news instead.

And the good news began with Christine Sinclair doing what Sinclair does; creating something out of nothing by tackling an opponent for gain.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sinclair sees Meggie Dougherty Howard dithering around and closes her down from behind, poking the ball away to Ellie Carpenter. Carpenter dishes to Lindsey Horan, who sees Heath breaking downfield and deftly switches the point of attack.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Notice several things in the screenshot above. First, Carpenter took off right after her pass to Horan and is rocketing towards the Washington goal. She’s gaining ground on Taylor Smith, whose attention is divided between Carpenter and the ball. Second, look at all the space Washington’s backline has given Carpenter, Heath, and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic.

A lot of good things can happen for Portland when they get that kind of space.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Notice where Smith is now; still ball-side, goal-side of Carpenter, making the Australian an unattractive pass option for Heath. Crnogorcevic has a little more space but still has a ball-side goal-side defender, so Heath is the most dangerous attacking Thorn. Aubrey Bledsoe has reacted to this by shifting all the way across her goalmouth to stop Heath’s shot.

Carpenter doesn’t let up, however. She kicks in the afterburners and gets just enough space in front of Smith as Heath, sensibly realizing that her shot is likely to be within Bledsoe’s reach, crosses the ball.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Bledsoe is stranded, Smith beaten, Carpenter smashes the cross home, and it’s 0-1 Portland.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s terrific buildup and a good finish. Portland has been doing a lot of the former over the past several matches, but the latter? Not so much.

The Thorns needed someone who could score off the run of play. That someone was preferably a forward, to give the midfield a chance to do what Horan and Heath did here, create the goal. So Carpenter did just what she needed to do, at a point in the match when the Thorns really needed her to do it. For that, here’s a big “oi oi oi” to ya, mate.

I don’t want to make too much of this. It was a road win; that’s good. The Thorns generally looked more composed in back and one of their forwards scored.

But it was also against the tire fire that is Washington, and it still featured a lot of the same issues Portland has had all season; a potentially disastrous defensive derp, which luckily didn’t get punished, and failure to finish.

That will see off the teams like Washington and Sky Blue.

But against North Carolina?


Player Ratings and Comments

Crnogorcevic (81’ - +6/-0 : +2/-1 : +8/-1) Another frustrating match from the Swiss forward. Lots of action, especially early in the match, but nothing much to show for it. Her InStat metrics reflect her performance; 71% pass completion - lowest of the starters - and only successful 64% of the time in her attacks, also the lowest of the team outside Tyler Lussi. Crnogorcevic also lost 10 of her 13 individual challenges, and turned over the ball 12 times with only 2 recoveries.

I like Crnogorcevic’s energy, and she seems to have the nose for the ball a good forward needs. But at some point she needs to turn all that into goals if she’s going to continue to start.

Purce (64’ - +6/-6 : +4/-2 : +10/-8) After flirting with mediocrity over the past two games, Midge Purce finally turned in an outright poor performance against the Spirit. All her metrics are sub-par; passing, tackling, and successful attacking actions all in the 70% range or below.

But then, in the 62nd minute, there was this.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Try as I might I cannot find any way to see this as anything but a straight red for denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity, or a yellow and a penalty kick.

So for all that she didn’t have a great match, Purce should have earned Portland the chance to go up a player, or a goal. She didn’t, and that’s something for the Professional Referee Organization to ponder.

Heath (+2:-3 : +5/-0 : +7/-3) Struggled to get going; in the 20th minute Heath managed to dribble around in a circle in the Washington penalty area for what seemed like a full six or seven seconds without getting a shot off. In the 21st, had a terrific opportunity 10 yards from goal but shot right at Bledsoe.

Heath did better in the second half, including the cross that made the goal, but you could tell that she was frustrated with her troubles getting unstuck in the early part of the match.

I like Heath’s straw-that-stirs-the-drink energy. I don’t like that she’s still turning the ball over a lot; Heath lost 13 of 19 challenges. She had 10 of the Thorns’ 61 total turnovers, and recovered only 3 of Portland 74 recoveries. That’s a big part of why Heath’s net PMR is only +4; for every ankle-breaking dribble or clever pass, she booted the ball away or got tackled and lost possession.

What bugs me about this is I’m still not sure whether this give-and-take is a feature or a bug with Heath. Is this just a hangover of the long injury layoff that she’ll work her way out of? Or is this all the Heath we’re going to get in 2018? I want it to be the former, but after two full games I’m just a trifle spooked.

Sinclair (+3/-4 : +8/-2 : +11/-6) That toe-poke that started the goal sequence says all you need to say about Christine Sinclair in Washington. Rough night wrestling with Sullivan, who won all 3 of their individual battles, and a 50% overall success rate in her challenges. But count Sinclair out of a match and she’ll do some little thing that turns you inside out, like that tackle.

Carpenter (26’ - +3/-1) Lifted the Thorns in the final stages of what had been a slogging match with her energy and opportunism. I will be interested to see what Carpenter can do with more time on the pitch as an attacker; she did well in her 81 minutes against Orlando, too. Perhaps it’s time to give her a start at forward and let her go the distance against, say, Utah this coming Friday.

Lussi (9’ - No rating)

Andressinha (72’ - +3/-3 : +2/-2 : +5/-5) The Brazilian did not have a good match, and her metrics show it; her InStat Index of 171 is the second-lowest on the team and the fifth-worst overall (Hatch and Purce are tied at 151, and Washington’s Mallory Eubanks and Huster are the joint “winners” the Ballon d’Nope, each with 146). Andressinha looked tired and slow in Maryland, hopefully just the effect of a player having an off day, but after 70-odd minutes of futility she can have no complaints at being yanked late in the match.

Horan (+4/-3 : +4/-3 : +8/-6) Another good evening at work for Lindsey Horan; her pass completion and successful attacking action percentages were both in the 80s, and she provided two key passes, including leading to the goal. Bossed Huster like a boss, winning 5 of their 7 duels, and was a pest to the Spirit in general all match, winning 12 of her 19 total challenges. Perhaps not “Great Horan” great, but pretty darn good.

Boureille (18’ - +1/-0) Came in when Andressinha had become a liability and did the job she was undoubtedly asked to do; Boureille won 2 balls back while not losing any possession, and won 2 of her 3 duels. Not as effective going forward, but that wasn’t really critical given the game state.

Klingenberg (+0/-1 : +2/-4 : +2/-5) The Thorns fullbacks didn’t shine in Maryland, and Kling’s night was perhaps the sketchiest of the two. Lost possession 8 times while recovering possession only twice. To put this in perspective, the Thorns backline recovered a total of 48 loose balls, including Britt Eckerstrom’s 6 pickups. None of her backline teammates recovered less than 12 balls. Lost 5 of 8 challenges, including 3 of 4 to Pugh. Her lack of situational awareness nearly gifted Washington the equalizer in the 90th minute when she ran around like a headless chicken completely losing track of both her mark (Sullivan) and the ball. Luckily Sullivan whiffed her shot and Eckerstrom collected safely.

Menges (+5/-1 : +4/-1 : +9/-2) InStat has her and Eckerstrom tied for best player on the pitch at 207, and I agree; that was a Great Wall of Emily performance. Perhaps the vintage Great Wall moment was in the 20th minute, when Menges hauled down Pugh from behind and bodied her off the ball after the Spirit striker had dribbled through the entire Portland squad and had Eckerstrom dead to rights, 4 yards from goal. Welcome back, Menges. We missed you.

Sonnett (+3/-2 : +2/-2 : +5/-4) Emily Sonnett had a generally solid match other than her indecision in the 54th minute shown above. Didn’t have to do anything spectacular (which is why her PMR isn’t gaudy), just stuck to her marks and cleaned up her defensive third like a good center back should, helping to keep the sheet clean. That’s fine.

Reynolds (+3/-6 : +3/-0 : +6/-6) Kat Reynolds was pretty much owned by the Spirit’s attackers; she lost 6 of her 11 challenges, including going 3-for-8 against Estafania Banini, who just plain broke Reynolds’ ankles in the 37th minute to win a corner kick.

I’ll give Reynolds credit for this; she learns from others’ mistakes. In the 34th minute she and Eckerstrom both arrived at a Washington cross at the same time as Hatch. Reynolds and the ball ended up with Reynolds supine and the ball lodged underneath Reynold’s legs. This was almost exactly the position as Horan found herself the last time the two teams played, in the 37th minute goalmouth scramble that led to the Ordega goal.

Reynolds didn’t try and get up and in doing so give Hatch a chance to poke at the ball the way Ordega did. Reynolds just lay quietly over the ball, holding it still until Eckerstrom could grab it and kill off the play. Smart, Reynolds. Smart.

Eckerstrom (+2/-0 : +2/-1 : +4/-1) Britt Eckerstrom had a fine evening. She had little to do - thanks, backline! - but did what she needed to do, including strong takes in the 32nd, 33rd, and the 87th minute, as well as a fine save on a nasty Sullivan shot in the 94th minute to seal the win.

Coach Parsons: The last couple of matches I’ve given Parsons stick for his substitutes. This time? Bravo, coach. You put Carpenter in and four minutes later she scores. That’s genius because you knew that was going to happen, right?

Kidding aside, subbing out Purce for Carpenter and Andressinha for Boureille were timely and effective moves, in both cases relieving a player who was struggling with one that did better, or, at least, well enough.

Beyond being the substitution savant, Parsons learned a tactical lesson from the last match, going to the 4-2-3-1 that had proved effective against Orlando late. As his preferred XI settles in, the defense is looking more composed. Now it’s up to the coach and his attackers to find a way to turn all those opportunities and all that good buildup into goals.

That is all the more important with Utah coming to Portland this coming Friday. While the Royals can’t score worth a lick - their 7 goals in 8 matches is second only behind the punchless Houston Dash - they can defend. Utah’s 5 goals conceded - 0.62 goals per game - is the best in the NWSL.

So, Thorns forwards, keep scoring. Defense, don’t derp - or, at least, derp less.

Let’s send these lionesses home without their pelts.