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Thorns FC: Lèse-majesté

Cindy Lara, RSL Soapbox

I expected Friday’s match against the Utah Royals to end without a goal.

Portland hasn’t exactly been scoring in bunches, and Utah, sitting on 0.8 goals per game over eight games, looked like a team that would have a hard time scoring against a good rec league side.

But any backline led by Becky Sauerbrunn is likely to know how to defend, so I figured for the price of my ten-and-a-half-buck beer I’d at least get to enjoy a nice grim scoreless slog. Utah bunkering and Portland misfiring at one end, while at the other, half the Great Wall of Emily would keep things organized as the Royals tried to figure out which direction the ball was supposed to go through the goalposts to count as a goal.

A lot of the match was pretty grim, and that wasn’t even counting the work of center referee Lukasz Szpala, who let the match get out of hand to the point where I was afraid that Meghan Klingenberg was going to just snap her head forward like a striking cobra and bite someone in yellow.

Bennett Dewan

The passing was particularly dire; both teams struggled to complete 70% of their passes. When they weren’t misplaying passes they were getting tackled for loss; both sides won only about half their duels.

InStat’s primary match breakdown gives you a pretty good picture of how all that looked on the pitch.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

Amidst all the weeds, the Thorns did manage to make a couple of flowers bloom. Like this rose in the 18th minute.

The play starts off with a nifty little looping pass from Ellie Carpenter, who’s tightly marked but sees Christine Sinclair moving into space. Carpenter lifts the ball over her defender into Sinclair’s path. You’ll note all the open greenspace on the Utah side of the center stripe? Watch that space.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sinclair takes the ball in stride, settles it just for a moment, and then hits another perfectly weighted arching pass up to Tobin Heath, running the left channel. Notice who else is attacking? Both Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and Carpenter are running at the goal and pulling their defenders with them.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use

Heath pulls up near the top corner of the penalty area with two defenders in front of her. She sees Sinclair begin to run into open space near the penalty arc, but nine out of ten midfielders would hesitate to thread a low pass to Sinclair; there are just too many legs in the way.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Tobin Heath is that tenth midfielder, and she gets the ball to Sinclair. It’s no good asking how. It’s just a Heath thing, and, like the flight of the bumblebee, you just have to enjoy the ridiculously improbable wonder of it.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Heath slips the ball past Brooke Elby and under Katrina Gorry’s feet to Sinclair, while inside the penalty area? Look who’s there; Crnogorcevic and Carpenter, and they’ve dragged their defenders inside the box with them.

This surprised me at the time. I thought for sure at least one of the two players marking Crnogorcevic—probably Sauerbrunn—would step up to close down Sinclair. It’s Utah, they’re good, they can’t possibly leave a player like Sinclair that much space, right?

Wrong. They did. Sinclair makes a simple diagonal move to her left, uses the bodies in front of her to help screen out Abby Smith, and fires a rocket that ticks off a Utah leg and buries itself inside Smith’s right post.

1-nil Portland.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

While the Thorns forwards didn’t score, they did good work to make space for the midfielders who did—both Carpenter and Crnogorcevic were crashing the box on Lindsey Horan’s goal, as well. That still kind of drives me crazy, but as my old drill sergeant used to say, if it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.

Sometimes, however, stupid things don’t work, and in the 44th minute Portland made one of this season’s patented Defensive Derps. Utah brought the ball down their right channel and then worked it across to Amy Rodriguez, crossing the top of the penalty area. A-Rod lifted her head and saw this.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Great Sacred Spirit of Clive Charles, that’s awful. Midge Purce is the offender here; she left her mark, Erika Tymrak, to try and tackle Rodriguez, who already had Emily Menges in front of her. Purce’s unnecessary move left Tymrak wide open for Rodriguez’s pass.

Luckily for Portland, Kat Reynolds raced over to pressure Erika Tymrak. With Reynolds between her and the goal, instead of shooting, Tymrak had to loft a little dink pass up to Rodriguez. Rodriguez then hit a shot past a charging Britt Eckerstrom, but her effort lacked any real pace. Meghan Klingenberg cleared it away a yard from goal and the danger was averted.

Still. That’s still a pretty ugly piece of defending. Rodriguez’s shot goes in, Utah heads into halftime having pulled a goal back and set them up to attack like berserkers in the second half.

Hopefully Coach Parsons is replaying this sequence to his backline and is having them write “I will stick with my mark.” a hundred times each.

Credit where it’s due; Portland took advantage of two fine buildup plays and some terrific individual finishing, and then defended well enough to hold off Utah for the clean sheet and the win.

The problem for me is that Utah looked so sloppy and hopeless in front of goal that I’m not really sure what that says about the Thorns.

It was the second clean sheet, and second win, for Portland in a row. But the two victims were Washington and Utah. Does beating these two clubs really that mean this team is finally coming together? Are they ready to make a run up the table? Can the Thorns now take on North Carolina and win? Or was it just clubbing the hapless, and not so convincingly as to show what the Thorns can bring against the Courage?

It just so happens that we have three more days before we find out, now, don’t we?

Bennett Dewan

Player Ratings and Comments.

Crnogorcevic (83’ - +7/-3 : +4/-0 : +11/-3) Another active and aggressive outing from the Thorns’ Swiss Army Knife. Like the pocketknife, Crnogorcevic does a little of everything well: disruptive runs, good passing (Crnogorcevic’s 73% completion rate was the best of all Thorns attackers), and threatening to score. On Friday that was more a threat than usual; Crnogorcevic was desperately unlucky not to tally her second goal of the season in the 72nd minute, when a Heath cross found her head a bare two or three yards from goal. Smith made a good reaction save, but it was that close. Good work, AMC.

Carpenter (63’ - +10/-4 : +0/-1 : +11/-5) InStat and I disagree about Carpenter. I thought she did well, working hard and creating chances for her teammates. Her InStat Index, however, is 158, lowest on the Thorns, and putting her down with Utah’s Rachel Corsie (156) and Katie Stengel (152) as the match’s Ballon d’Nope. She didn’t have a shot, but neither did Crnogorcevic, whose Index is 191 and close to InStat’s top-rated Thorns (Menges at 225, Klingenberg at 222, and Eckerstrom at 221). Carpenter was stingy with the ball, too; she turned over possession only four times, a bagatelle compared to Crnogorcevic’s 9, Sinclair’s 12, and Horan’s 13 giveaways.

Sorry, InStat, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on Carpenter.

Onumonu (7’ - +2/-2) Did what she does; raced around like she was on fire without actually playing a lot of soccer. At that point, however, that was most of what she needed to do, so, fine.

Sinclair (+8/-3 : +5/-1 : +13/-4) Aside from her goal, Captain Sinclair did all her usual hard work. She had a tough fight on her hands in midfield, losing 13 of her 18 duels, including all four against Desiree Scott. The key to Sinclair, though, isn’t her averages, it’s her highs, things like the first goal, or hitting three of four key passes on Friday. When Sinclair is taken out of the match, the Thorns will struggle. When she’s involved, even when she’s mucking away in the trenches as she was Friday night, the team will always have at least a chance.

Heath (+5/-1 : +7/-2 : +12/-3) Like Sinclair, it’s the moments of brilliance that Tobin Heath creates, like her through-two-defenders’-legs pass illustrated above, that defines her contribution to the team. Could easily have had Portland’s third goal except that Sauerbrunn sacrificed her face to keep the biscuit out of the basket. Heath is still stirring the Thorns’ drink.

Horan (+6/-6 : +8/-3 : +14/-9) Another not-Great-Horan night from Horan. Bad? Hell, no. Any other midfielder would have been content with Horan’s evening, especially with scoring the insurance goal. But in many respects this wasn’t a terrific night for Horan. She lost a shocking 16 of her 26 challenges and completed only 64% of her passes. She also collected her fourth yellow card of the season, putting her one misstep away from a game on the bench. And this isn’t “any other midfielder,” this is Lindsey Horan. We’ve seen much better from her and hopefully will again, soon.

Andressinha (58’ - +5/-4 : +5/-1 : +10/-5) Another so-so night for Andressinha. Not terrible, but not outstanding, the Brazilian lacked something Friday night. Fire? Inspiration? Whatever it was, she seemed to slog in midfield in the first half before coming into her own a bit defensively in the second. That second half uptick is why I was a bit surprised to see her subbed off relatively early; my guess is that she may have been feeling poorly or picked up a knock.

Salem (32’ - +5/-6) Angela Salem put in a decent shift in relief of Andressinha. Solid enough defending, although her passing was atrocious; only 56% completed, and that was without trying anything particularly ambitious. I want to see Salem do better than she does when she gets a shift. She’s a veteran defensive midfielder who seems to be well respected by her peers, so her “meh” form always surprises and disappoints me. My guess is she is one of those players who need minutes to round into form, and Salem’s just not seeing the pitch. Still, did what she needed to do on Friday, so well done, Salem.

Hubly (27’ - +2/-1) Didn’t do much, but did well enough for what was asked from her.

Klingenberg (+5/-0 : +7/-3 : +12/-3) Terrific match from the star of Megisodes, including a classic Klingenberg cross and assist on the Horan goal. Creative going forward, sturdy tracking back, Kling also beat the “Good Kling/Bad Kling” curse by having two consecutive good halves.

Menges (+7/-4 : +5/-0 : +12/-4) The second consecutive Great Wall performance from Menges, including a critical 49th minute steal off of a storming Rodriguez on a Utah fast break. Still working on organizing her teammates, but good individual work from Menges and good enough organization from her backline to pitch the Thorns’ second consecutive shutout.

Reynolds (+3/-2 : +3/-1 : +6/-3) Kat Reynolds had the roughest night of the defenders. InStat has no love for her at all; her Index (162) barely beats out Carpenter’s for the Thorns’ Ballon d’Nope. Lost seven of 11 challenges and pretty much every Royal beat her 1-on-1 except Rodriguez, and A-Rod still won two of four. Still, didn’t have a catastrophic individual derp, helped keep the sheet clean, so I think InStat is being a trifle hard on her.

Purce (+7/-8 : +7/-4 : +14/-12) Midge Purce is in the same boat Reynolds is in. Neither did anything spectacularly awful Friday (although had Tymrak scored on the play I illustrated above we might not be saying that about Purce) but neither were they playing at the level Menges and Klingenberg were. Helped keep Utah off the scoreline, so there’s that.

Still, Purce was doing some terrific work early in the season and seems to have come back down to Earth lately, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps opponents are figuring out that she has a very weak left foot? Perhaps just a run of bad luck, or a nagging little injury or injuries? Whatever the reason(s), I hope to see her excelling again soon.

Eckerstrom (+1/-0 : +3/-0 : +4/-0) Remember how I said “Britt Eckerstrom is not a starting-quality goalkeeper” after the Orlando match on May 12th? I won’t quite unsay that assessment—yet—but I have to amend it by saying that Eckerstrom played at starting-quality level Friday night. Bossed her penalty area, had strong takes in the sixth, 61st, and 72nd minutes, and made an excellent save on a nasty Rodriguez shot in second-half injury time to keep her sheet clean. Fine outing and a rose well earned for Eckerstrom.

Coach Parsons: The coach’s 4-2-3-1 seems to be working well, though given the quality of the opposition it’s hard to be certain it will work against Seattle or North Carolina. Definitely scouted Utah thoroughly, and sent his troops out with a brief that neutralized what little attack the Royals managed to scrap together. Still needs to work on the season’s two consistent issues: getting the forwards onto the scoresheet, and cutting down on the backline’s derps.

Against Utah, I’m not sure how to assess Parsons’s substitutions. Onumonu was just some fresh legs at the top to harass the back of Utah’s midfield, and Hubly was the usual “leading late, pull an attacker for a defender” Soccer 101.

Salem, though, was a quandary. Andressinha was looking better than she had in the first half at the time he lifted her, and Salem wasn’t really much of an upgrade on the Brazilian. That’s why I’m guessing Andressinha was nursing a little injury, or not feeling well, or was troubled by something else we couldn’t see but Parsons could. If she really was on the verge of folding, then Salem makes good sense. I’ve got to trust the coach on that one.

And speaking of trust, now comes the match where we may discover the true temper of Parsons, and the Thorns, metal. North Carolina this coming Wednesday. Facing an undefeated Courage that is storming the NWSL like Pele in a U-12 rec league? That’s huge. Like, “season-turning” huge.

If Portland can beat North Carolina Wednesday, it’s really simple. That win could be the pivot point for the entire 2018 campaign.