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Thorns FC: Best In Life

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Friday night’s alright for beating down Utah

Bennett Dewan

In a darkling season fraught with disappointments, last Friday’s 4-nil beatdown of the visiting Utah Royals stands out like a bonfire in the night.

On that glorious summer evening all the clouds that loured on the Thorns’ house cleared away. Forwards - not just one, but two forwards - scored. The defense not only didn’t derp but kept a clean sheet, only the third of the season. The Thorns thoroughly crushed Utah.

Now, before we get too excited, this was Utah. The Royals have not been particularly good against Portland this season. They lost an ugly grinder of a match that both sides seemed determined to lose on Matchday 10 and managed to sneak an undeserved point in Utah on Matchday 6.

Friday, they helped Portland out by being appallingly incompetent in front of goal. The Royals seldom managed to find their strikers - Amy Rodriguez didn’t have a shot all evening - and when they did, those strikers couldn’t find the goal; perhaps the worst offender here was Christen Press, who had several half-chances and couldn’t put a shot ontarget.

It’s worth noting, too, that despite the clean sheet the Thorns still struggled a bit with defending. Here’s a Utah attack in the 21st minute.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Rodriguez is obviously offside here, and that killed off the play. But look at the Thorns’ defensive spacing!

Press has way too much room to slot the pass through the backline, as Lindsey Horan and Celeste Boureille arrive too late and Emily Sonnett is just moving to close Press down. Emily Menges is marking space, so Ellie Carpenter has had to abandon her wide position to try and close down A-Rod, leaving the Utah winger wide open.

A better team would probably have punished Portland for this. I understand why it happened, given the cobbled-together nature of the Thorns’ defense Friday, but I just feel the need to caution that we need to be realistic about the work that still remains to be done if our Thorns are going to be in the top four on Matchday 24.

Still, needing a comprehensive win last Friday the Thorns went out and got it. A loss, or even a toothless draw, might have put a stake through Portland’s playoff hopes.

The thumping win keeps those hopes alive.

Scene: The Thorns locker room, fourteen minutes before kickoff.

Coach Parsons: “Tobin! What is best in life?”

Tobin (“The Barbarian”) Heath: “To crush your enemies. To see them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of Laura Harvey.”

Player Ratings and Comments

Crnogorcevic (+9/-0 : +9/-2 : +18/-2) My pick for Woman of the Match, edging out Horan on strength of her strong shift at left back. Not many strikers could have made that move, let alone as well as Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic did. Here’s her action diagram for Friday night.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

AMC typically loses something like 70-80% of her challenges when she plays up front. Friday evening, she was an utter beast, winning 11 of 16 challenges, completing 71% of her passes, and succeeding in 76% of her attacks. A terrific match from die Schweitzerin.

Raso (85’ - +8/-3 : +5/-1 : +13/-4) When Hayley Raso finds her shooting boots she will be a force of nature. As it was she did terrific work breaking up Utah attacks at the top of midfield or in their own defensive third; 4 of her 13 pluses are tackles for gain.

At this point, I want to note that this match was an outstanding collective effort from the Thorns rather than one or two players having a terrific game. Raso, Boureille, Christine Sinclair, and Horan all won less than 50% of their challenges, ranging from Boureille’s low of 38% to 48% for the other three.

But together, they went into 79 total challenges, winning 37 of them. All five of Utah’s midfielders (including substitute Lo’eau LaBonta) and both forwards entered a total of 88 challenges and won only 42. Portland’s defending started at the edge of Utah’s penalty area and simply swarmed the Royals’ attack, while Utah lost the battle everywhere forward of their goal and even, as the scoreline showed, around it.

Sinclair (+6/-0 : +2/-3 : +8/-3) Captain Sinclair ground out that battle in midfield; Sinc and the Thorns midfield forced the Royals to give up trying to go through on the ground and, instead, try to lob long balls forward that went astray as often as not. Sinclair could easily have had an assist with a terrific lead pass to Crnogorcevic in the 17th minute, but Becky Sauerbrunn managed to fend AMC off.

As much as the Thorns suffered in Seattle when the forwards failed to score as Sinclair was being neutralized in midfield, they prospered last Friday when Sinclair took the fight to Utah and Portland’s forwards exploded in a burst of gorgeous goals.

Heath (62’ - +7/-2 : +1/-1 : +8/-3) When she scored her 1st minute goal, I thought it must have been due to some sort of positional error on Utah goalkeeper Abby Smith. I watched and re-watched that sequence trying to figure out what Smith was doing wrong and not finding much of anything. She was a trifle off her line, but not more than she should have been given the tactical situation at the moment Heath put her boot through the ball.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

And then I remembered; this is just something Heath does. When she wants to, she can put a strike past the keeper through the top foot of the goalmouth half a block away.

I’ll betcha A.D. Franch remembers that, and not happily.

Image by Fox Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Add the free kick assist on the Horan goal, and Tobin The Barbarian cutting a swath through the Royal guardswomen was key to this win. Well played, Heath.

Lussi (28’ - +3/-0) Some good things can’t be measured by length or volume. Tyler Lussi could have done nothing more for twenty-seven-and-a-half minutes after striking Portland’s fourth goal and she would still get props from me for her work. As it was, though, she buzzed threateningly around Utah’s backfield for the last almost-half-hour. Good shift, and a prettily-taken goal, her first of the season.

Horan (+8/-1 : +10/-1 : +18/-2) Great match from the Great Horan, dangerous both attacking and defending. I have no idea how she manages to keep scoring on dead ball plays; why doesn’t every Thorns opponent have a big “This is Anfield”-type sign over the exit to their dressing room that reads “Mark Lindsey Horan on setpieces!”? Horan’s lead pass was critical to Lussi’s goal, so she shares goal-and-assist kudos with Heath.

Boureille (+6/-0 : +2/-0 : +8/-0) Celeste Boureille was the soccer equivalent of the Quiet Professional against Utah. Without flashy stats to impress the InStat analysts she wound up with the lowest Index value (174) of the Thorns starters. I disagree; Boureille did what she needed to do, and as such had a decent match.

Carpenter (+5/-4 : +8/-5 : +13/-9) Ellie Carpenter had a tough task at right back for the second match in a row. The previous match it was taking on Megan Rapinoe, this one it was facing up against Christen Press. This time, Carpenter came out ahead, winning 3 of their 4 encounters including a critical 76th minute stop on a Press breakaway and another 84th minute battle where Press tried repeatedly to fight through Carpenter only to see the young Australian tackle the ball away from her. Had a couple of scary moments but escaped without harm because, for example, when in the 72nd minute she lost Press in the 6-yard box Press skied the ball five yards over the crossbar.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but something I really like about Carpenter’s game is her throw-ins. The Thorns as a team don’t do throw-ins particularly well; they’re not bad at them, just nothing special. But Carpenter has a powerful and accurate throw, much like Jessica McDonald’s that is such an effective weapon for North Carolina; if she gets a throw anywhere along the touchline within about 15-18 yards from the byline, it’s almost as good as a corner. So far, the Thorns haven’t managed to turn that into a goal, but it bears thinking about; Coach Parsons, are you reading this?

Sonnett (+2/-1 : +2/-2 : +4/-3) A relatively quiet evening for Emily Sonnett. Her principal contribution was simple steadiness as part of a backline that combined decent defending with good luck; when they stumbled, Utah failed to take advantage of the bevue.

Menges (+2/-4 : +2/-1 : +4/-5) Menges’ PMR is deceptive. She was generally solid defensively on a night she partnered well with her Great Wall teammate Sonnett; their work together snuffing a Press fast break in the 73rd minute was a perfect example. Two of her minuses are for ill-advised passes, so without those miscues she’d be a net positive. InStat saw her as effective; her Index of 214 is well above the Thorns’ average of 193, so my metric was unduly harsh to her. The Thorns’ defense is still a work in progress, but Menges (and Sonnett) progressed well last Friday night.

Purce (45’ - +8/-5) Before being violently cleated by Diana Matheson, Midge Purce was doing good work out on the Thorns’ left flank; winning 85% of her challenges, completing 71% of her passes, and attacking successfully 81% of the time. The only Royal that got the better of Purce was Gunnhildur Jonsdottir, and that only once. In the post-match walkaround, Purce’s ankle didn’t show the sort of bruising and swelling I associate with a bad sprain or strain, so I have hopes that she will be training again this week.

Update 7/10: I was too optimistic; the club is now saying that Purce is out 4-5 weeks. For a brutal foul that earned Matheson a single match suspension. Hmmm.

Weber (45’ - +4/-4) While technically Mallory Weber came in as a forward, she spent most of the second half defending. Compare her nominal position on the upper right hand chart to her actual average position on the lower graphic.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

Weber wasn’t a game-changer (her Index of 168 is the lowest of the Thorns’ players) but she didn’t have to be. She did enough to help keep the clean sheet, and that’s enough for me.

Ball (5’ - No rating) Timewasting, and rest for Raso. For trivia fans, those were Ball’s 30th through 35th on-field minutes of the season, and her first since Chicago on Matchday 2, way back in March. She seems like a nice person, but as a player, her lack of playing time makes me wonder why she (and Meg Morris) are still on the roster and Sandra Yu and Gabby Seiler are not.

Franch (+0/-0 : +1/-0 : +1/-0) A perfect example of the weakness of the PMR system for goalkeepers. A.D. Franch did good work Friday night, controlling her penalty area and coming up big when she had to, on a Katrina Gorry shot in the 57th minute. But other than that, her defense kept her largely untroubled, so she didn’t get credit for doing anything “significant”, for good or ill.

Keeping a clean sheet and rallying her backline is perhaps the most significant thing a goalkeeper can do, but which the PMR system doesn’t reflect. InStat’s Index does the opposite, which is why her Index of 235 is the second highest of the match behind Horan’s 266. The second fine outing in a row for Franch, and a good sign for the coming matches.

Coach Parsons - Well managed match in general, although it’s difficult to assess Parsons’ substitutions other than Lussi’s which looks like genius since Lussi scored within seconds of her entrance. Weber for Purce was forced by injury, and Ball for Raso was pure timewasting. I’ve been impressed with Parsons’ game-management in general, though, so I’ll give him full credit for the Lussi sub.

Credit does go to the coach for bringing his team to the pitch ready to crush the Royals. The loss in Seattle could have been a spirit-breaker and, based on the team’s performance last Friday, was not.

The Thorns now have to find a way through the final third of the season, and that way is sure to have more rough patches.

But somehow the road seems a little smoother, and the landscape a little greener, when watered with Laura Harvey’s tears.