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Roses and Thorns: A game of inches

I’m not going to defend a player for kicking another player off the ball. Such kicking is against the rules, as we all know.

Nonetheless, Meghan Klingenberg’s 14th-minute foul against Allie Long this Saturday, and the resulting discourse and possible post-hoc suspension, strikes an emotional chord that rings perfectly true with how this season has gone.

For a player who has, as Kling did until Saturday, three career yellow cards, to commit that particular foul, the level of frustration has to be pretty high. That frustration foreshadowed the feeling in the dying minutes of Saturday’s game, when after containing Megan Rapinoe for 88 minutes, Ellie Carpenter let one well-placed cross slip past to find an unmarked Jodie Taylor. The same thing was in the air last Wednesday, when after Portland dominated the first half but only found a single goal, Celeste Boureille—put in the unenviable position of replacing Emily Sonnett despite not being a center back—conceded a fairly borderline penalty to hand the worst team in the league a third point.

There is a pall over this team right now. None of the things that are going right—and there are plenty of things going right—seem to matter in the face of the things that are going wrong. Game after game, between an ever-shifting back line, Tobin Heath’s on-again-off-again availability, and whatever hex seems to befall all of the team’s forwards anytime they’re facing goal, the “con” side of the scale has outweighed the “pro” side just enough to cost the Thorns two or three points in what nearly always should be winnable games, on paper.

In the interest of providing context for what feels, for a team accustomed to winning, like a dire situation, I’m going to do something a little different this week and withhold roses. What remains won’t be a list of criticisms, however, but something like a list of explanatory notes. It’s easy to look first at this team’s record, then at their world-class roster, and conclude these players simply need to do better, whatever that means.

That’s both lazy and unproductive. Instead, I’d like to enumerate exactly how many ways Portland has been fighting an uphill battle in 2018—and why there’s still hope to turn things around.

A thorn to the W-League semifinal.

It was way back in February that one of the first seeds of Portland’s current troubles was sown. After opening the scoring in Sydney FC’s W-League semifinal against Newcastle with an excellent goal, Caitlin Foord suffered a weird foot injury that sidelined her for the following five months and counting.

Foord is not a true number nine. She probably wouldn’t have scored piles of goals if she had been playing for the Thorns this whole time. She would, however, be another threat in front of goal, one more likely to put away any given chance than any of Portland’s current group of forwards have been. She’s a Thorns-style forward: physically strong, good with her back to goal, useful not just as a target woman but also in linking up with attack-minded midfielders like Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair. Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic is also a forward in this mold, but has taken a lot longer to find her footing than Foord, who already has NWSL experience, probably would have.

We knew losing Foord was a blow for Portland from the beginning, but it’s only in retrospect that just how big a loss she was has become clear.

A thorn to Tobin Heath’s nagging injury problems.

Just how big a problem Heath’s frequent unavailability has been is both obvious and not. We all know that Heath, when she’s healthy, is among the most dangerous creative players in the world. We also know that Portland won a championship in 2017 essentially without her.

This season, between a late debut, an injury suffered on national team duty, and the recent flare-up of that injury, she’s only played five full games. While the team’s actual record in those games—three wins and two losses—is somewhat agnostic as to Heath’s impact, to the eye, a Heathless Thorns lineup is a very different entity from one that includes her. She unlocks spaces that don’t exist when she’s not on the field. She finds passes that wouldn’t even occur to most players. In doing those things, she makes everyone around her look better—and when she gets a shot at an open net, she tends to find a goal.

Heath is a player who’s only gotten better with age. If she’d been able to stay healthy this whole time, she would have been the engine behind Portland’s offense, and instead she’s been on the bubble. This is a huge loss.

A thorn to the perpetually shifting defense.

Despite those key absences in Portland’s attacking corps, the Thorns have still managed to find 20 goals in 15 games, putting them solidly in the middle of the pack, offensively. That’s better by one than their offensive record at this point last season. The difference, of course, is the number of goals they’ve conceded, which is also 20.

That, too, ultimately comes down to personnel. Between injuries to both Emilies and Kling’s scheduled absence in April, the four players who remain from 2017’s championship-winning defense have only played together twice. Only one defender, Katherine Reynolds, has played every minute this season. Emily Menges—and AD Franch, for that matter—have each only played in six games.

Not only does that constant rotation inevitably lead to confusion and miscommunication, even among players you’d want starting, but Portland’s defensive bench is paper-thin. Adding Ellie Carpenter to the mix has helped, but Portland is still missing a reliable backup centerback. Ostensibly, Reynolds can play there, but she’s had a drop in form this season, and had an especially difficult time playing as the left CB in Menges’s absence.

The Sky Blue match was a perfect illustration of just how little defensive leeway the Thorns have. With Sonnett not yet fit to play 90 minutes, Parsons had basically two options, neither of them good. He could have made a like-for-like sub with Kelli Hubly, who has committed errors leading to goals on several occasions. The only other obvious choice was what he did, which was shifting Boureille back and bringing on Salem. Conceivably, he could have also done something wild like subbing on Tyler Lussi and moving Sinclair to Boureille’s defensive midfield spot, hoping the captain would be able to control that area of the park better than Salem. In any case, there was no obvious right answer, and Boureille, playing out of position, made a mistake that cost the Thorns a win.

A thorn (and a rose) to the competitiveness of the league.

2018 has probably been the most competitive season yet in what’s always the world’s most competitive league. Right now only three points separate second-place Seattle from sixth-place Portland. That’s both good and bad for Portland. On one hand, more teams than usual are competing for the three playoff spots left in North Carolina’s wake.

On the other hand, when we look at the Thorns’ record and throw our hands up despairingly, it’s important to keep in mind that none of the five teams in that part of the table have looked reliably better than the others. All of them have had both good and bad days; Portland has been the worst of those five by only a small margin. Looked at through that lens, the Thorns are doing pretty well given the crappy hand they’ve been dealt in terms of injuries.

This season has been a game of inches. If Portland’s defense hadn’t undergone so much rotation, their finishing problems wouldn’t seem quite so dire. If they’d been able to put more in the back of the net—something that either Heath or Foord being consistently available would have helped with—their poor defensive record wouldn’t be such a big deal. If any one thing out of a dozen had gone better, the mood would be different.

When we look ahead to Friday, a lot depends on who’s available and who isn’t.