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Roses and Thorns: Final countdown

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So.

The Thorns are good.

I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but whatever else there is to say about the team and the upcoming semifinal, know that much, at least. It’s the most important takeaway from Friday.

That semifinal is likely going to be difficult and very different. I’m going to get into some of the reasons why that’s the case in a moment, but first, let’s stop to appreciate one of the reasons they’re so good right now.

A rose to Caitlin Foord

I think I’ve been talking nonstop about Caitlin Foord for the last month, and here’s the thing: I’m not going to stop. Foord is not only an incredible player, she’s the perfect kind of incredible player for this Thorns team.

Last week, Mark Parsons talked about the importance of dragging this Seattle team out of shape. No team of Vlatko Andonovski’s is going to offer you space in dangerous areas; you have to create it. As expected, that’s exactly what Foord — particularly in combination with Tobin Heath — did.

She did it on Portland’s second goal: With Heath driving toward goal and Foord sprinting diagonally in behind, Lauren Barnes and Megan Oyster couldn’t decide whether to step to Heath or track Foord’s run. In the end, Barnes stuck with Foord until the Australian was in an offside position, while Oyster seemed hesitant to commit to either. Finally, both stepped to Heath, but by then it was way too late. She had just enough time before Oyster closed in to get her shot off — and we all know what happened next.

I’ll take a quick sidebar here to note that a lot of the credit goes to Heath. That’s blindingly obvious, because she scored the goal, but what’s noteworthy is that the defenders didn’t really seem to be expecting her to shoot there. Or, if they even had time to think about it, they probably would have reasoned that shot was the safer option to leave her with, rather than letting her play Foord in. It turned out not to be a safe option, which is just one more wrinkle Seattle has to think about going into the semifinal.

Back to Foord. Here’s what she did just a couple minutes before the goal. I don’t know that this screenshot needs much explanation, frankly. Foord has again drawn Oyster and Barnes to her, along with Morgan Andrews. As a result, Midge Purce, Christine Sinclair, and Lindsey Horan have all been left wide open.

Foord’s hold-up play and off-the-ball movement, alone, are invaluable; defenses are clearly terrified of her, and when you watch four defenders try and fail to strip the ball off her, or see her utterly torch some hapless soul on the dribble, it’s obvious why. Combine a justified fear of Foord with justified fears of Heath, Horan, and Sinclair, and you’re looking at a very, very difficult problem for defenses to solve.

It doesn’t even matter that Foord hasn’t scored; it would be a nice bonus, at this point. In Portland’s system, forwards don’t have to score goals to be valuable — and that screenshot above is the perfect illustration of both why that works and why Foord, in particular, is the ideal player for that role.

A thorn to Seattle

Friday may have been Portland’s best game all season, and this offense is probably the most dangerous in Thorns history. Both of these things can be true without being mutually exclusive with another truth: Seattle didn’t bring their best game.

That’s true on several levels. First, they were missing key players. I’ll circle back to exactly what that meant in a moment, but first, it has to be said that multiple Reign players, individually, just didn’t play their best game. The statistical gaps between these two teams are pretty staggering. No Seattle player with more than five touches on the ball had passing accuracy above 70 percent; only two Thorns (Ellie Carpenter and Christine Sinclair) were below that mark, with the majority of the team above 75 percent.

I could tick down a list of other, similarly wide discrepancies — shots, shots on goal, chances created, etc. — but I think those passing accuracy numbers are probably the most telling, of the ones available to us. They confirm what looked to be the case: The Reign were sloppy on Friday. Players we wouldn’t normally expect to commit unforced errors had them left and right. A lot of factors are probably at play there — the atmosphere, the fact that Seattle knew they only needed a draw to clinch second place, and, yes, the fact that Portland was very, very good on the night.

Nonetheless, we can’t expect similar mistakes this weekend. In a must-win game, the Reign are going to be sharper on both sides of the ball, and what’s more, they’ve just seen the best of Portland. The Thorns haven’t seen the Reign’s best. That dynamic could prove dangerous, especially for Portland’s defense.

Nikita Taparia

So, how big a difference did those key players Seattle was missing make?

Megan Rapinoe was probably the most talked-about potential absence going into the game, and for good reason. Without her creativity, the Reign really struggled to put much together going forward. Of course, it’s possible that with players like Steph Catley and Morgan Andrews giving the ball up as much as they were, Rapinoe would have been somewhat isolated, anyway, especially as the game went on and the visitors looked increasingly desperate and beaten-down.

But although the Thorns didn’t give up many chances, Rapinoe has the quality to capitalize on whatever she gets; one play I keep thinking about was in the 15th minute, when Elizabeth Addo breaks through Horan and Purce’s pressure to play Jodie Taylor in behind. Taylor winds up out wide, with Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett marking her, and with Seattle seemingly content to sit on their one-goal lead, nobody crashes the box or makes a supporting run. If that had been Rapinoe instead of Taylor, it’s easy to envision things going differently.

Allie Long is another factor. She’s not crucial to the attack like Rapinoe is, but she brings a level of consistency to the base of the midfield that Andrews and Rumi Utsugi weren’t this week. Her presence isn’t totally unlike what Celeste Boureille does for the Thorns, in that she’s great at sitting deep, absorbing pressure, and making simple passes to the players who move the ball up the field. In a game where Seattle often had a huge hole between the base of midfield and Fishlock, a player who could sit deep and maintain possession would have been valuable.

Finally, Theresa Nielsen’s absence at right back is something that hasn’t been talked about enough. Christen Westphal was no match for Heath one-on-one, and didn’t notice her lurking in wide spaces behind on several occasions. Nielsen is a big step up, in terms of defensive skill, field awareness, and in her ability to get forward and contribute to the attack. The only reason she sat out Friday was because she’d just gotten back from UEFA qualifiers, so there’s no reason to think she won’t play this weekend.

Don’t get me wrong. The Thorns still have plenty of reason to feel good after that show of force. What’s crucial, though, is that they don’t let it lull them into complacency.

A rose to Midge Purce

This will be a quick one, but Purce deserves a shout for an all-around excellent game. She had Catley’s number all night, helped set up Heath’s goal, and best of all, played a beautiful cross in to Sinclair, through the legs of four Seattle defenders. That’s important, because you’ll recall that at the beginning of the season, when Purce was busy impressing all of us with her pace and dribbling skills, both she and Parsons talked several times about how crossing was a weak point in her game. Like the team as a whole, she’s grown — and hopefully, both are hitting their peak at the right time.