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Thorns FC: No Easy Day

The Thorns make beating Houston look hard

Kris Lattimore

Well, it was nice week, thinking that Thorns FC beating down visiting teams was the New Normal.

Then the Houston Dash came to town and brought us back to reality; almost nothing comes easy this season.

Our Katelyn Best described last Sunday’s 3-1 win as a “breeze”. If I had to come up with a meteorological term for what happened at Providence Park I’d go with “cloudy, with occasional showers of poor goalkeeping”.

Horrific errors by Houston’s Jane Campbell contributed to both of Lindsey Horan’s first half goals.

She missed her late, low stab at the ball Horan headed smartly home in the 16th minute.

Then she made some sort of inexplicable flap at a 31st minute Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic header coming down off the crossbar, missed, and watched helplessly as the ball bounced down to Horan to poke in for her second.

The goal that pulled Houston back to 2-1 six minutes later wasn’t A.D. Franch’s finest work, either; she failed to hold a Taylor Comeau shot and deflected it into the path of Kealia Ohai.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Portland outshot Houston 19 to 9 (including 8 to 4 on goal), outpassed them 503 to 302 (completing almost 81% to Houston’s 67%), and kept the ball 61% of the time. It should have been a breeze.

Despite that, Houston came close to equalizing in the 40th minute.

Leading 2-1, Franch misplayed an Emily Sonnett backpass into the attack of Rachel Daly. The two players tangled, and then - instead of putting her body between Daly and the ball - Franch used her hands to stop Daly from moving to it.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Daly chose to flop dramatically instead of fighting through the push and emphasizing Franch’s obstruction. Franch was able to fall on the ball, referee Eric Tattersall waved impatiently to Daly, and the Thorns escaped to the locker room still up a goal.

Late in the match, leading 3-1 and apparently in control, Franch could only parry a 78th minute Ohai cross onto Daly’s boot. Daly fired a shot that looped off the crossbar with Franch helpless on the ground, but luckily for Portland the rebound fell to the foot of Celeste Boureille to clear away.

Ouch. That’s a pretty harsh breeze.

Along with the scary moments there were things in this match which had me scratching my head, too. We’re two-thirds the way through the season, but both teams looked like they are still figuring stuff out.

For instance, Houston. What part of “Mark Lindsey Horan On Setpieces!” is so hard to rememeber?

If I was coaching Portland’s opponents I’d have that written on a big-ass sign stuck up over the exit to the tunnel, like the “This Is Anfield” sign in Liverpool. And yet Houston never seemed to remember to find her. Here they are, letting Horan run free to head in the first goal. Clare Polkinghorne was an innocent bystander on the second, within arm’s length but somehow not bothering to body Horan off Campbell’s gaffe.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Go figure.

Here’s another head-scratcher. In the screenshot below, Polkinghorne and Linda Motlhalo are both worried about Christine Sinclair and choose to drop deep and give Celeste Boureille a ton of space. Meghan Klingenberg has a bunch of options.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

She could play a square ball into Boureille’s path - let’s call that Option 1. Once Boureille has possession, she can play a pass up to Sinclair - that can be Option 1A.

Kling could play a long ball forward to Sinclair, as Sinc makes a diagonal run.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Or she could play a safe ball backwards; Option 3. Which option do you think our fullback will choose?

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Yep. Backwards.

Here’s a similar situation several minutes later.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Klingenberg had the same choice; play the ball up to Horan, or back to Menges. You can see what Horan thinks she should do; there’s an acre of space in front of her and Sinclair is already on the run.

Which way do you think Kling went?

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

You can see how Horan felt about that, too.

When Horan, Heath, and Sinclair are combining well, the Thorns have one of the best midfields in the league. They can control the center of the pitch. Why don’t they use it more? It kept bugging me that the Thorns spent so much time getting trapped along the east touchline.

Here’s a really tough head-scratcher; Tobin Heath, distilled soccer brilliance, or style over substance?

Here’s Heath in the 59th minute.

Heath trickery

Posted by John Lawes on Wednesday, July 18, 2018

I love this. It’s gorgeous. It’s fun. It’s every attacking soccer player’s happiest dream, breaking the ankles of defender after defender. It’s lovely trickery, wonderful entertainment. It must be terribly demoralizing for the Houston backline.

But ultimately it doesn’t go anywhere, ending with a backheel to Klingenberg who shoots harmlessly into Campbell’s arms.

Since Matchday 11 Portland has played six games and Heath has been absent for three of them; the draws to Chicago and Sky Blue on Matchdays 12 and 14, and the loss to Seattle on Matchday 15. She has been on the field for all three wins.

But those wins have been over Houston - this match and Matchday 13 - and Utah, on Matchday 16.

So are the Thorns so much better because Heath is on the pitch, or does Heath play better when the opponents are so lame? Does Heath expend energy breaking ankles that might be better used in other ways? Would Portland as a team do better if Heath directed her immense soccer energy into more directly productive channels?

So few matches left, so many questions.

One question does seem to have been answered, however; the delightful thrashing of Utah now looks just like a late outburst of spring fever, and in the dog days of summer Thorns have returned to their usual 2018 form; struggling to grind out points.

The good news is that they took the points, all the points, from Houston and are still moving towards the postseason.

Player Ratings and Comments

Crnogorcevic (89’ - +7/-0 : +9/-0 : +16/-0) Of the three Portland goals, AMC’s gorgeous 48th-minute strike was the prettiest, capping a match in which die Schweitzerin continued her string of terrific games. Active, intelligent, creative, and a decisive finish. That’s what a forward does when a forward is on form, and that’s what she did here.

Raso (83’ - +7/-2 : +4/-2 : +11/-4) Oi, oi, oi! As good as AMC was, her strike partner Hayley Raso was right there setting the pitch on fire. I’m still not convinced that she shouldn’t have broken her duck in the 70th minute when her goal was called back for offside, but she got the goal with a cunning back post run and nifty finish, so perhaps she’s found her shooting boots. Oh, and that was a sweet through ball on the AMC goal, Ribbons.

Forgotten in the disallowed goal tsuris was her ferocious attack two minutes later where she kicked in the afterburners, just skinned Lindsey Agnew, and was alone on Campbell at pointblank range; Campbell made the save, but it was a burst of vintage 2017 Raso.

Lussi (7’ - +1/-0) No impact.

Weber (1’ - +1/-0) Timewasting.

Sinclair (+6/-1 : +10/-1 : +16/-2) Carried a lot of Portland’s water all over midfield, particularly in creating attack; 11 of her 16 pluses are for slide rule passing. Solid match on both sides of the ball.

Heath (+5/-3 : +5/-3 : +10/-6) Ah, Heath. You’re like Coyote in the legends; clever, brilliant, but somehow just the tiniest bit scary because we never know if you’re going to use your powers for good, or just to amuse yourself. You were a constant threat against Houston, and that’s good. You still have moments when you seem to be trifling, though. I’d love to see a match where you were on every moment, blazing from within like a fire in the night.

Boureille (+6/-2 : +6/-2 : +12/-4) With the caveat that Houston’s midfield was exceptionally passive, Celeste Boureille had an excellent match, controlling her defensive sector like a particularly mean goldfish patrolling her tank and nipping everything that came close. She was especially tough in tackling and ball-winning; five of her pluses are for tackles for gain or gaining possession on loose balls. Well played.

Horan (+11/-0 : +13/-4 : +24/-4) Woman of the Match. The Great Horan could easily have created a third when Campbell spilled her fierce 18th minute shot, but the ball went just a touch too far wide of AMC. Brilliant passing; her 19th minute sequence at the top of the penalty area was particularly lovely, culminating in a clever diagonal ball to AMC that the striker dummied thinking Heath was behind her.

Carpenter (+1/-6 : +5/-3 : +6/-9) Ellie Carpenter had some issues with positioning all match.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

I’m hoping that this was because she was instructed to play more centrally, but she never seemed to know where Ohai was, and that let Ohai create a lot more trouble than she should have, given the meager Houston attack. Then there was this.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Ohai simply tossed Carpenter aside and got a free run at the goal with Carpenter trailing behind like a pup looking for its dinner.

Part of that is just a young player getting schooled by a veteran. Part of it may have been the heat and Carpenter just having an off day, too, so I’m not exactly worried. But this season, Carpenter has typically adapted more quickly than she did against Houston, and I was disappointed to see Ohai burn her to the outside over and over.

Sonnett (+4/-2 : +5/-2 : +9/-4) Relatively untroubled given the paucity of Houston’s attack, Emily Sonnett had a solid match and could have easily helped keep the clean sheet - Sonnett wasn’t at fault on the concession. Nice service on the first goal for the assist, and passed well in general, though hopefully she learned a lesson about backpassing in the 40th minute. Starting to look more Great Wall-ish.

Menges (+2/-3 : +8/-2 : +10/-5) Also played a good match, growing into the game after some questionable passing in the first half. Made some excellent defensive plays in the second half in her usual style; nothing flashy - Menges is sort of the anti-Heath - but just gritty marking and fierce determination not to let her opponent get past her. I don’t recall who said it, but the aphorism “You may get past me, or the ball may get past me, but you and the ball aren’t getting past me together” sums up Menges at her implacable best.

Klingenberg (66’ - +5/-5 : +3/-3 : +8/-8) A mix of Good Kling - some terrific service, active in the attack, and getting back when she needed to - with Bad Kling in the form of some surprisingly poor passing; 7 of her 8 minuses are for passes so bad that they went right to Houston. A one-match suspension shouldn’t have put Kling’s passing eye off that badly, so I’ll chalk that up to a random bad game and move on.

Reynolds (24’ - +0/-1) Didn’t have a huge impact on the match, but didn’t need to and wasn’t put on to do that. Needed to help keep the boot on Houston’s neck and did that, so by that measure well done by Reynolds.

Franch (+1/-2 : +1/-0 : +2/-2) Did well enough saving Ohai’s long shot in the 44th minute, and controlled her penalty area decently, but was lucky not to have been penalized for her antics on the Daly clash pictured above; and probably should have done better with both the Comeau shot that she spilled to Ohai as well as Ohai’s cross. Neither keeper covered herself in glory Sunday; Franch benefited in that Houston failed to take advantage of her goofs.

Coach Parsons - Mark Parsons was the one person who had an easy day Sunday. Houston couldn’t figure out how to put the ball in the back of the net, Horan was on fire, and when his keeper had issues she had good luck, so he came off looking like the Nikola Tesla of Soccer. Didn’t have any real problems to solve with his substitutions, either, so no problem there. Sunday’s breeze was a gentle zephyr for Coach Parsons.

This coming weekend? Now that may be an ugly storm.

In keeping with it’s disregard of the NWSL, U.S. Soccer has called four players into the Tournament of Nations camp ahead of the FIFA window, so now Thorns FC must go play Sky Blue on the iron-hard Yurcak turf without Franch, Horan, Heath, and Sonnett. As of this writing, the Australian Federation has called up Raso and Carpenter, as well, but the Australians look to be available on Saturday. Sky Blue will miss only midfielder Carli Lloyd.

Thorns FC has to take all three points in Jersey. It’s that simple, and yet, with the heart of the team missing it might be that difficult.

We’ll see if Coach Parsons can keep the breeze up and blow away the Jersey Blues.