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Roses and Thorns: Mirror, Mirror

Nikita Taparia

“It’s our [Allie Long]... but it isn’t.”

-Captain Kirk

What a weird weekend. After the fever dream that was Saturday’s home loss and subsequent brutal taco showdown, I woke up Sunday around six in a cold sweat because I couldn’t stop thinking about this bizarre nugget from Allie Long’s post-game interview:

I mean I think that first of all, it was a great TV game. We knew they were going to be direct, we knew they were just going to pump balls into the box, and I think that that works for them... We just needed to control the game a little more. I thought we did in bits and pieces, and when we have the ball, they don’t touch it, they’re not dangerous. So we just have to build on that and I think it was a good step and a great game, a great TV game. It was exciting.

First and foremost, the “great TV game” line excepted, this is a series of brazen lies, almost as complete a misrepresentation of the game as is physically possible in the space given. My angst was deeper than that, though.

In the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” Kirk is whisked away to a parallel universe, physically similar to our own but populated by evil simulacra of his crew. Mirror Univese Spock, like the one we know, is still governed by logic. His is an especially cold logic, though, deployed not in service of the Federation’s mission of exploration and discovery, but the evil Terran Empire’s mission of galactic domination. Mirror Universe Spock looks like this.

Nikita Taparia

Oh, sorry, wrong photo. He looks like this.

Like Evil Spock, the Allie Long who came back to Providence Park on Saturday was the same one who used to play here: often frustrating, occasionally brilliant, never boring. She was also, fundamentally, not the same one. The alternate flashes of greatness facing toward goal and caving under pressure in the midfield, the high passing accuracy buoyed by a tendency to play back to her defenders, the whole perplexing package that constitutes Long: all that was now in service of a new master.

That quote, the one that was eating at me Sunday morning, was the bow on that package. Beyond the sheer reality-manipulation giving me an uneasy Mandela Effect feeling, I was having flashbacks to the evening of September 7, 2016, when I had the pleasure of hearing Long’s Arsene Wenger imitation after a game against Houston:

We kind of just focused on ourselves and if we had the ball. I know Arsene Wenger, they were playing Barcelona in one of their Champions League games and somebody asked him about Messi and everyone, and he said, [Wenger voice] “how can they score if they don’t have the ball?” So in my mind, if we keep possession, we’re limiting those dangerous players.

In other words, this narrative is the same one one she’s been using since she was a Thorn. Her version of Saturday’s game is the creation of a Bizarro-Long, not a reflection of reality but a simple manifestation of her essence as a player. Good teams, according to this narrative, play a possession game, while inferior teams play direct. Naturally, it follows that the winning team must always out-possess the losing team.

Except this is neither a general truth nor what happened this weekend.

Setting aside the philosophical debate about style, over the course of this game the Thorns had possession 53.6% of the time—that’s the average of a slight disadvantage (46.4%) in the first half and a large lead (60.8%) in the second.

Not only do the numbers tell a story but to the eye, Seattle’s possession throughout the first half was often toothless. Most of that first half was played in the middle third of the field. When Seattle did get into their attacking third, they were almost always confined to the wings, thanks in part to Celeste Boureille rendering Jess Fishlock an absolute non-factor. Three of their four first-half shots on goal came from set pieces, the remaining one being a shot from distance that Fishlock sent straight to Britt Eckerstrom.

Then, in the second half, Portland notched a flat-out ridiculous 16 shots from inside the box. We don’t have nice things like heat maps in the NWSL, but if we did, the Thorns’ attacking third would literally be on fire. Other than the long-range screamer Rumi Utsugi scored in the 75th minute, Seattle’s best chance in the run of play was on a transition, when Emily Sonnett stumbled and Jodie Taylor pounced to get one-on-one with Eckerstrom. In short, there may be a universe where Seattle played a careful possession game on Saturday, but it is not this one.

Anyway, as the title implies, I’m contractually bound to award roses and thorns in this column, so here they are:

A rose to Celeste Boureille and Kelli Hubly.

Boureille and Hubly are ultimately going to get pushed out of the starting lineup, which is a shame, in a sense. Both have been punching above their weight for the last six weeks. Boureille, as I mentioned above, bossed Fishlock around all game on Saturday and produced a pass-completion rate of 82.6%, trailing only Andressinha. Hubly played savior for the Thorns several times—including a dramatic goal-line clearance in the 74th minute in one iteration of the unending parade of goalmouth scrambles.

These players both came to the Thorns as walk-ons. Neither is a match for their first-choice counterparts—Emily Menges for Hubly and Andressinha/Lindsey Horan for Boureille—but they’ve done an admirable job filling those shoes.

A thorn to Michelle Betos.

Long wasn’t the only former Thorn back in town in a Reign kit. Onetime hero of the legendary Battle of Kansas City, Betos had a ridiculous second half on her homecoming. Right now, Portland’s finishing issues are much the same as the ones they’ve historically had early in the season, and there were definitely moments where Thorns players could have done more to put their chances away. Still, Betos was huge in denying Horan a brace in the second half and, especially teamed up with her good friend the woodwork, she’s a big part of why Portland couldn’t find a third equalizer.