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Roses and Thorns: She flies with her own wings

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The Thorns’ result against Utah was part physicality, part wizardry

It was Christmas in July for Thorns fans Friday night, as their team hand-delivered the biggest NWSL win to date in 2018 to the home crowd, wrapped in a big red bow. There were two steps to the process here: First, they did the hard work in the central midfield and broke up whatever Utah tried to put together. Second, they got the ball out to the wings, especially that glorious Midge Purce-Tobin Heath left wing, and worked some magic in wide areas. Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett were there to clean up whatever niggling chances the Royals snuck through. Rinse, repeat.

Let’s go in chronological order and start with what happened in minute two.

A rose to—who else?—fucking Tobin Heath.

Poor Abby Smith.

In all three meetings of these two teams this season, Tobin Heath has committed deeply disrespectful acts against the Utah keeper. Two, obviously, have been those chef kiss-worthy chip goals—the one in Utah where Smith was off her line, and the one Friday where she wasn’t, and Heath somehow found the exact trajectory that would throw Smith off enough to squeeze a ball between the bar and her fingertips.

Then there are the passes. In May, Heath did this to set up Christine Sinclair’s goal.

Right before she made this pass, the play-by-play commentator rhetorically asked, “is there some room here?” There wasn’t, but who cares!

Friday night, in eerily similar fashion, Heath squeezed the ball in between Sam Johnson and Desiree Scott here to bounce it off Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and back to herself, for a goal of her own.

What on earth is she thinking here? Any normal person looks at this situation and turns around. There is no space here. There is no pass to be made. Yet, somehow, she finds one.

If you’re Smith, you can only scratch your head at this. There was no anticipating she would create a shot here, and there’s certainly no stopping the shot itself, sent with one deft touch to the exact right spot.

The defenders have to be befuddled, too. Tobin Heath with the ball is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t type of situation. Before she makes the pass to Crnogorcevic, Johnson and Scott back off and just let her advance with the ball for a good fifteen yards. They probably shouldn’t both be dropping off that eagerly, but at the same time, what exactly are you supposed to do when Heath is coming at you? If you step, she’s going to dribble you. If you back off, she’s going to find this stupid pass. There’s seemingly no amount of compactness a team can achieve that will shut down enough space to stop that from happening.

A thorn to the fact Portland can’t keep playing Utah.

Heath consistently doing ridiculous things against Utah isn’t an aberration. It’s part of a pattern: the Thorns just have Utah’s number, in the way teams sometimes do with specific opponents. Part of the reason for that is illustrated here.

The people in yellow shirts next to Horan and Sinclair aren’t kids. They’re Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott!

Utah’s central midfield is just drastically outmatched, physically, against these two; throw in Celeste Boureille, who was having an excellent game, too. No matter which players Harvey stuck in the center of the field to stop this trio—all of Matheson, Scott, Gunny Jonsdottir, and Katrina Gorry spent time deep in Utah’s midfield—it didn’t work. Here’s Sinclair muscling the ball off Matheson, Jonsdottir, and Gorry.

It’s blurry, but here’s Scott falling down at the mere sight of Horan bearing down on her (I can’t really fault Scott here; it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being charged at by The Great Horan).

This one led to Crnogorcevic’s goal when Horan drove straight up the middle, tried a through ball to Heath, and Becky Sauerbrunn’s deflection fell to Crnogorcevic instead.

That wasn’t quite the typical pattern, though. More frequently, what we saw was Horan, Sinclair, and Boureille winning the ball as Utah’s defense and deep midfielders tried haplessly to ping it around and find an outlet from the pressure, then sending it out wide, most often to the left for Midge Purce and Heath.

A rose to everyone who had a shift in a wide position.

Heath wasn’t the only player out wide who had a great night. Purce, until she got taken out by Matheson (more on that in a minute), had an outstanding night at left back. It’s possible Utah wasn’t the best test case for her in that position, since the Thorns’ pressure higher up the field meant she didn’t have to do all that much one-on-one defending in deep areas and against a team less intent on playing through the middle, things might look different. As it was, though, she did outstanding work in squeezing Sam Johnson to force turnovers wide—one of which frustrated Johnson enough she conceded a foul that led to the free kick where Portland scored their second goal. She also looked great both overlapping Heath and cutting inside to combine with her.

Hayley Raso has yet to find her scoring form—that will come, with time—but for now, she’s plenty useful harassing opposing defenders to force giveaways in dangerous areas.

When Portland dropped back a little late in the second half, and Utah finally figured out how to get Christen Press the ball, Ellie Carpenter did a magnificent job holding off their hard-won new attacking threat. Press spent the first half frustrated her team wasn’t finding her, and the second frustrated she couldn’t beat an 18-year-old.

Finally, Crnogorcevic was excellent filling in for Purce after she subbed off. Crnogorcevic was good for all 90 minutes, both at center forward and fullback, but it’s worth noting how some of her best play for the Thorns has been in wide areas. She did hard defensive work on the wing in Seattle, and continued that form at left back here. At this point, she’s got to be pretty high on the depth chart if Portland needs someone to fill in at outside back again.

A thorn to the refs.

There’s not a lot to say here that hasn’t already been said, but I can’t simply ignore what was the biggest news of the night, other than the scoreline. Matheson’s tackle on Purce was about as bad as tackles come: studs up, late, no apparent attempt to go for the ball (I’m not going to show an image again, but you can find a link to the gif in my match recap from Friday).

Just a reminder: we’re 70 matches, or roughly 6,300 minutes, into the season, and not a single red card has been dealt in the NWSL. That’s an absolutely absurd statistic.

Ejections and suspensions aren’t just about punishment. They’re about setting a tone. Are players going to look at the leniency both Matheson and Meghan Klingenberg have been dealt with and decide it’s time to start injuring more opponents? Probably not. Would a red have changed the tenor of the game, in the moment? Yes. Lax officiating leads both to rougher play and more diving, as players figure out exactly where the line is in terms of physicality, and exactly how hard they have to sell fouls they sustain.

We complain about PRO a lot in this league, but this week demonstrated that those complaints aren’t just about the outcomes of games, but about players’ wellbeing. The NWSL is a top-tier league and it deserves top-tier officials. It’s past time for a change.