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Roses and Thorns: They all count the same

When we look back on a season of soccer, so much of what we see is colored by the eventual result.

That’s not to say that looking at the 2017 Thorns, for example, we forget completely about their scoring struggles early in the season; but we do look back and see those scoring struggles in the context of a later formation change that ended up making the team stronger overall than they probably would have been.

If Portland hadn’t gone on to win the championship, would we be able to keep that in perspective? Or would we look back on that stretch and see it as a sign of an inherently flawed team?

We don’t, obviously, know what the result of this season is going to be. But when we look back at this win against Sky Blue FC, it’s certainly going to be colored by where the Thorns end up in September. We’ll either say it wasn’t good enough, that the fact that a winless team outshot the Thorns 18 to eight shows just how laggard Portland’s offense was, and that they were lucky Sky Blue didn’t score in the second half—or we’ll praise it as a gritty win by a team that was missing four of its most important players.

But here’s the thing: regardless of the overarching narrative of the whole season, there is an objective reality about the game that just happened. That reality consists of truly objective pieces—how many goals each team scored being the key one—and pieces that are open to interpretation, such as how we assess the performance of a given player, or whether we think that player could, or should, have done better.

So here’s what we know. We know the Thorns won a game they needed to win. We know those three points look just as good in the table as the ones they got against Houston, or against Utah.

We also know the lineup that won this game was missing players who fit the following descriptions:

  • The best goalkeeper in the league
  • The best box-to-box midfielder in the league
  • One member of one of the top center back pairings in recent memory
  • The most creative player in the USWNT pool

There’s not a single depth player on the team who’s going to step up and replicate what any one of those players does for the Thorns. Katherine Reynolds for Emily Sonnett comes closest, but her form has been uneven this season, and even if it hadn’t, the amount of inconsistency Portland has dealt with at center back all year would make a substitution there difficult regardless.

Also relevant is that Lindsey Horan, who’s been the most important player in this 2018 campaign, was replaced by Angela Salem, a player who hasn’t had serious minutes all season, and didn’t even join the team until the summer. Salem was predictably sloppy under pressure and directly led to a lot of the chances Sky Blue found in the second half.

With that said, starting Salem in the number eight was one of a handful of less-than-ideal options. Leaving her on the bench and starting Andressinha in the number eight role would have been another—but then you’d probably put Ana Crnogorcevic on the left wing and be forced to stick somebody like Mallory Weber, Tyler Lussi, or Ifeoma Onumonu in the nine. Do any of those players put away Crnogorcevic’s sixth-minute goal?

Instead, Parsons tried Andressinha on the left wing, a move that kind of makes sense to me based on the fact that Tobin Heath hasn’t really been playing as a winger, instead spending a lot of time drifting inside into the ten to link up with Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan. The problem is that where Heath has the vision and passing ability of a creative central midfielder, She also has a winger’s speed and willingness to take on defenders—qualities Andressinha lacks. That meant that whenever she was out wide, she was a nonfactor. The fact that it was pouring and the movement of the ball was visibly sluggish didn’t do her passing game any favors, either.

Was there luck involved in this win, especially in the last nerve-wracking ten minutes? Of course. Was the win entirely dumb luck? Absolutely not. Portland’s first goal consisted of a perfect pass by Sinclair and a nice move by Raso to beat Mandy Freeman, followed by a beautiful curling finish. Their second relied on a mistake by Caroline Casey, it’s true, but it was a mistake forced by Raso’s pressure. The offense may have been sluggish for the rest of the game, but this shorthanded team continued to defend well except for a handful of mistakes. Context matters, everyone.

A thorn to Savannah McCaskill and Imani Dorsey.

For all the shit talked about this Sky Blue side, how they’re the worst team in the history of the NWSL, how they could well finish out the season without a single win, they do have some genuinely quality players. If this team didn’t have to deal with the off-the-field conditions they do, and if Denise Reddy was a better coach, it’s easy to imagine this group stealing some wins.

It’s abundantly clear to anybody paying attention that Savannah McCaskill is head and shoulders the best player to come out of the 2018 draft. Accordingly, the Thorns’ defensive plan largely involved marking her out of the game, sometimes throwing two or three players at her. That generally worked, except when players like Shea Groom or Imani Dorsey were able to get involved—which is what happened with Sky Blue’s goal, when Menges and Reynolds were both so transfixed by McCaskill they didn’t notice Dorsey sprinting around behind them.

Dorsey, for her part, is clearly still a young player who needs to polish her finishing, but makes smart runs and consistently looks dangerous running at defenses. Add Raquel Rodriguez into that mix, as Sky Blue did late in the game, and you have something resembling a functional offense.

A rose to Elizabeth Ball.

McCaskill is good, and fast, and looked dangerous all game. But when Elizabeth Ball—a player whose spot on the roster has generated widespread handwringing—stepped on the field to replace Katherine Reynolds, she came out on top just about every time she took McCaskill on. Ball is good! I believe in Ball! Let Ball play!