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Roses and Thorns: At Last

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Nikita Taparia

At last
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song

One of my favorite things about Portland is the specific feeling you get when you land at PDX anytime between May and September after you’ve been away in some hotter, more crowded, less green city. The ideal time to land is an hour or so before sunset, when the mountains are bathed in that pinkish-orange glow (and here’s a tip: the left side of the plane, which gives you the best view of Mount Hood in existence, is great; but there’s an argument to be made for the right side too, which has a lovely view of Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Rainier) and the light is shining off the Columbia. You step off the plane and it’s exactly 70 degrees, and the air smells like summer, and the water from the drinking fountain tastes ambrosial.

A Pacific Northwest summer is simply impossible to argue with. In comparison to a New Jersey summer, a Chicago summer, certainly a Houston summer, it’s no contest. We pay for these three golden, cloudless months with nine where we don’t see the sun, but when you walk into that perfect evening at the airport, it feels worth it.

So here we are, finally. Summer.

And here, perhaps, are the Thorns we were promised: against Houston last Friday, we got our first look at a team that looked truly, emphatically, Good. They weren’t perfect, but this was hands down their best all-around performance to date.

Some of that was purely down to personnel. Friday was the first time AD Franch plus the whole starting back line of Meghan Klingenberg, both Emilies, and Katherine Reynolds were available—the group that maintained the best defensive record in the league for two years straight. It’s hard to overstate how much of an obstacle having to rotate that group as much as they have over 12 games has been. When you think about how many goals the Thorns have conceded on individual mistakes by defenders, or miscommunication within the back line, a lot of dropped results start to make sense.

Seeing a convincing offense, though, was an even bigger relief. When you look at the numbers, it’s a little strange to say that: Portland was sitting on 16 goals before this game, pretty squarely in the middle of the pack. But having Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan on your team will cover a lot of deficiencies, and there have been plenty. Hopefully, the improvement we saw Friday is here to stay.

A rose to Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic.

Just as this was the first really good game by the Thorns, this was the first really good game by Crnogorcevic. All of the jitteriness she’s had going toward goal or getting closed down by defenders seemed to have evaporated; what was left was a composed, confident player who looked as good with her back to goal, holding up play for Christine Sinclair or Tobin Heath, as she did making runs behind the defense herself.

A thorn, still, to the defense.

The irony of getting your starting back line together for the first time mid-season is that on the one hand, they’re your starting back line—but on the other, they’re playing together for the first time mid-season.

There were two moments when the defense really broke down. The first one led to Houston’s goal: Kealia Ohai destroyed Katherine Reynolds to send in a cross. The ball pinged around the box a little when Portland couldn’t clear it, and then Sonnett and Franch couldn’t figure out who was supposed to be doing what with Kyah Simon’s low cross, and Sofia Huerta put it away. Much has been made of the miscommunication between Sonnett and Franch, but a lot led up to that point—that goal wasn’t the result of a single mistake.

The second major breakdown was in the 65th minute, and it’s a similar story. Simon has the ball in an acre of space 15 yards outside the penalty area. When nobody steps to her (despite Mark Parsons screaming for somebody to do so, which was picked up clearly by the field mic), she sends a ball over the top to Ohai, who has too much space from Reynolds—perhaps because everybody thinks she’s offside. When the flag stays down, the whole defense simultaneously notices Huerta just outside the six-yard box, and it’s part good positioning by Menges and part dumb luck that keeps her from scoring.

For the most part, these are early-season type mistakes, the kind you see when players are still getting used to each other. Reynolds getting beaten multiple times by Ohai is a different story—one that probably speaks to the fact that she’s slowing down a little and may simply be turning into a different type of defender than she once was. In any case, the messy parts will work themselves out, given some time. The only question is how much time that’s going to take.

A rose to Andressinha and Tobin Heath.

A Brazilian. A tricky American who grew up obsessed with Ronaldinho. It’s a bromance made in heaven, folks. Do we have a name for these two? We should have a name for these two.

In all seriousness, this was both Andressinha’s best game and the first time she and Heath have figured out how to play together. Andressinha’s superb passing ability was finally on display, and when both of them are in the same area of the pitch, defenders don’t know who to focus on. With Heath roaming back and forth from a wide position to a central one, the two of them combined with Sinclair to form an honest-to-god functional attacking unit.

How much of that was Houston sitting back and letting them have the ball, hoping for a quick turnover and a counter, remains to be seen. How that dynamic might change with Horan back in the mix also remains to be seen. But hopefully, this is the first peek at an upward trajectory and we keep seeing more.

One hundred roses to Christine Sinclair, OC, on the occasion of her 100th Thorns match.

The GOAT in her natural habitat.
Nikita Taparia

That’s all I have to say about that.