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Thorns FC: Best for Last

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In the final match of the regular season, Portland denies Seattle the sweep.

Kris Lattimore

Until last Friday, the Seattle Reign had taken all six points from the Portland Thorns.

In May, Seattle ran off winners of a wild 2-3 melee here in Portland that included two Seattle tallies from a soft penalty and a horrific collective backline collapse in the 74th minute.

In June, the Thorns traveled to Seattle, played well, and looked poised to snatch the road point only to give up a Jodie Taylor tap-in in the final minutes to lose 1-0.

Friday was the last chance to take points from the Reign, and a draw would simply mean another trip up to Memorial for the semifinal. The Thorns needed to play their best match of the season against Seattle, and they did.

How?

We should start by accepting that despite the two earlier results, Portland and Seattle have been fairly evenly matched. Here’s a look at the respective midfield and backline performances in the three meetings. I’ve used each player’s InStat Index rating as a relative indicator of how their performances changed over the three games.

As a quick reminder, an Index value of 160-180 means a decent sort of average professional performance. Anything over 200 means the player had a good match; won challenges, completed passes, scored goals, or assisted on goals. Anything below 150 usually means either a major gaffe or a consistently poor outing characterized by missed tackles, giveaways, or shanked shots.

The center column compares the net Index values of each unit against their opponents, and gives you a sense of how the two teams matched up.

Note that on the Matchday 6 meeting Portland’s backline largely outplayed Seattle’s - Megan Oyster, in particular, had a very poor day - which emphasizes the impact of the penalty and the Reynolds giveaway. The midfields pretty much fought each other to a draw; Allie Long was a beast but so was Lindsey Horan, and everyone else had a fairly good match.

On Matchday 15, individual Thorns had a rougher time, particularly Emily Sonnet, Celeste Boureille, and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. While not tanking as hard as those three, both Portland’s midfield mainstays Christine Sinclair and Horan were neutralized while Seattle’s Long and Megan Rapinoe had terrific games. Despite this, Portland managed to hold of Seattle for nearly 90 minutes while getting Hayley Raso several terrific looks at goal.

On Matchday 24, everything came together for Portland:

  • Rapinoe and Long were out with injuries,
  • Rumi Utsugi, who had been decent in the first two meetings, had a bad night,
  • Midge Purce - who over the course of the match lost 8 of 10 challenges to Steph Catley - succeeded in the two moments Portland needed to generate goals,
  • Three of Portland’s four defenders had monster nights while Seattle’s was merely average, and
  • Horan played an absolute blinder.

So how did Portland win? Was this a case of the Thorns peaking at just the right time, or was this simply several players have great outings while Seattle was missing the core of their squad.

Or does it really matter? Napoleon is said to have asked only one question when vetting an officer; “Est-il heureux?”, “Is he lucky?” Great teams, like great generals, can make their own luck, and perhaps it’s sufficient that Thorns FC made enough luck last Friday to get another shot at Seattle here at home this coming weekend. A shot that will undoubtedly NOT lack the presence of Rapinoe and Long, and that, my friends, may be another sort of luck entirely.

But what this all reminds us is that at this moment the two teams aren’t that far apart either technically and tactically.

So it’s entirely likely that Saturday’s semifinal may be so tight that victory and defeat will turn on some small thing; a tiny slip, a minuscule space, a single moment of brilliance, or a sudden tumble to disaster.

Which team will make that small slip, or grasp that moment of brilliance?

Player Ratings and Comments

Foord (86’ - +6/-3 : +7/-1 : +13/-4) Good work culminating in a terrific run and shot on goal in the 81st minute that led to the setpiece dagger, Caitlin Foord looked more dangerous all evening than she’s looked so far this season, lingering along Seattle’s backline threatening to break towards goal and keeping Oyster and Lauren Barnes heads on the pivot. The Thorns need Foord to repeat her performance over the rest of the playoffs.

Lussi (4’ - +2/-0) Did her part seeing out the win so, on those terms, fine work. Had a gorgeous little backheel as part of a 1-2 with Tobin Heath in the 90th minute that was pure poetry.

Purce (89’ - +6/-3 : +10/-4 : +16/-7) Remember how I said that Purce beat Catley at just the right times? Well, here’s the best one.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

I wanted to illustrate this for the way it highlights the quality the Thorns showed all across the pitch Friday. The play started deep in the Thorns’ left corner, where Meghan Klingenberg hoofed out a long outlet that Sinclair flicked on from halfway to the center circle.

The ball fell close to, but not quite at, Purce’s feet, who had Catley in front of her. It didn’t matter; Purce beat her like a kookaburra or a didgeridoo or whatever the heck Australians call a drum.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

You’ll note that both of Seattle’s fullbacks were pushed way up trying to find a goal. Purce has beaten one, and the other (Theresa Nielsen, on for Christen Westphal just moments earlier) is already behind the play.

You’ll also note that Foord is running at the two Seattle center backs, and that they are locked, retreating together, neither trying to step up to Purce nor get tight on Foord.

Foord takes her run out wide right, Purce goes right at the Seattle center backs, still unwilling to split up and pick a Thorn to defend.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

This gives Purce a bunch of options. Take the ball to her left(or right)? Pass diagonally up to Foord? Drop to Sinclair? Crack a shot? Purce opts for the pass to Foord.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

But because both Seattle defenders have continued to drift back as a unit rather than trying to split up and mark someone, Foord now has several good options; a shot, a square pass back to Purce, or a drop to an onrushing Sinclair.

She shoots. Lydia Williams boxes the ball up and over the crossbar, conceding the corner that will turn into the Thorns’ third goal.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

This is lovely soccer, and it was part of what Portland did for pretty much the whole last 80-odd minutes of the match.

(But it comes with a caveat; I’d be shocked if Allie Long would haven’t had something to say about that, and will, this coming weekend.)

A fine match from Purce; her Index was the best of the season, and by my PMR this was her best outing since Matchday 6. Something in Seattle must bring out the best in Purce.

Ball (1’ - no rating)

Horan (+13/-1 : +7/-2 : +20/-3) Woman of the Match.

One of these days a Thorns’ opponent will remember the conventional wisdom “Mark Lindsey Horan on Setpieces!” and Portland will be in trouble.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Last Friday was not that day.

A Great Horan performance from the Great Horan.

Heath (89’ - +3/-0 : +9/-1 : +12/-1) The late-season story of the Portland Thorns may well turn out to be subtitled “The Re-Emergence of Tobin Heath”. Heath has been rounding into form strongly reminiscent of 2016 when she led the team to the Shield.

I note that Paul Riley and the then-Western New York Flash took advantage of that by playing whack-a-Heath in the semifinal and knocking the Thorns out of the playoffs. Vlatko Andonovski’s teams have never been known for their delicate style of play.

Just sayin’.

Perhaps my personal favorite part of Heath’s match was her nifty steal off of Westphal’s feet and subsequent golazo; it was almost like she was giving Jessica Fishlock the side-eye - “You got a golazo in you? Heh. Here. Hold my beer.”

Andressinha (1’ - no rating)

Boureille (+5/-2 : +5/-1 : +10/-3) Solid match from Cee Bee, including a terrific through ball to Purce in the 63rd minute. Fought a tough midfield fight with Spencer, winning 2 of 5 encounters, but did better with Taylor, winning both their duels.

(As a note, the Portland backline locked down Taylor all evening. She went into 13 individual challenges against a Portland back and lost 10 of them; all 3 to Sonnett, 3 of 4 to Emily Menges, 3 of 5 against Klingenberg, and her only tangle with Ellie Carpenter.)

Sinclair (+5/-2 : +3/-1 : +8/-3) Sinc owned Morgan Andrews last Friday, winning 6 of their 8 clashes and effectively taking Andrews out of the match. Much of the play went along the flanks through Purce and Heath, and Seattle’s midfield was Fishlock and Addo and nobody else, so Sinclair had less to do than usual. Not a bad match, just in a bit of a minor key.

Carpenter (+10/-5 :+3/-2 : +13/-7) Since she didn’t have to wrestle with Rapinoe all match, Ellie Carpenter could run wild all over the pitch, and she did. Great run and pass on the equalizer, and had nearly got the equalizer herself five minutes earlier when her shoss pinged off the crossbar.

Between her and Sonnett, Jasmyne Spencer got no joy of the Thorns’ defense; Carpenter won 5 of their 7 encounters, and Sonnett won all five. As with Andrews, between them the two Thorns effectively took out Spencer as a threat.

Carpenter was also critically effective providing service up the right flank, connecting with Sonnet behind her and Purce to her front; see the diagram

Menges (+5/-1 : +6/-1 : +11/-2) Not really culpable for the Fishlock goal; besides the quality of the goal itself, Fishlock took advantage of referee Tim Ford’s casual approach to physical contact to push off to get the space she needed.

Menges was solid all match, making several outstanding tackles including a critical stop on Taylor in the 16th minute, when a fine Elizabeth Addo through-ball put Taylor in a dangerous position and Sonnett, the closest defender, hesitated closing her down.

Sonnett (+6/-3 : +8/-0 : +14/-3) Having just called her out for woolgathering, I should correct any false impression; Sonnett was effective all match. Came desperately close to scoring on a header in the 64th minute that was blocked barely wide as it came off her forehead. Having had some shaky outings earlier in the season, the Great Wall of Emily has been looking decidedly sturdy lately.

Klingenberg (+5/-2 : +4/-1 : +9/-3) Effective defensively against Taylor, Kling had a rough night with other Seattle attackers, going 2 for 4 against Addo and losing her other three encounters to Westphal (0-2) and Fishlock (0-1).

Klingenberg was the essential connection on the left side much as Carpenter was on the right, taking service from the centerbacks and passing up to Heath and in to Horan.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

Franch (+2/-0 : +0/-0 : +2/-0) AD Franch had a relatively quiet night. She wasn’t culpable on the Fishlock goal and otherwise faced only a single on-target shot.

Controlled her penalty area relatively well and had a decent night, but some little niggling things bugged me.

Franch had several short clearances that forced her defense to work harder than they should have. She also misjudged her jump over Addo on an Utsugi free-kick in the 59th minute, getting hung up on the Seattle player and boxing a weak clearance, barely past the edge of the penalty area, forcing Sonnett into a bad foul to try and take possession.

On the ensuing free-kick, Franch hesitated on coming out to claim the ball and was bailed out by Taylor’s grossly obvious offside.

Nothing huge, nothing awful, but some little things I’d like to see her clear up before Seattle returns.

Coach Parsons - Well, he took the three points and earned the home semifinal, so the man is clearly a soccer genius!

Kidding aside, Parsons did good work to set up the team to win against Seattle, taking advantage of the matchups gained by the absence of Long and Rapinoe to knock the Reign on their heels, and then keep the pressure on. His matchday XI was so effective that his substitutes were an afterthought.

Parsons has brought the team to the pitch looking similarly good over the past three matches, and his club has gone 7-1-1 over the past nine games. If “peaking at playoff time” is a sign of good coaching, then Parsons has been a good coach in 2018.

That said, of those last nine games two were to Sky Blue,and one each was to Washington and an imploding Orlando. The Thorns are 1-1-1 to the other three playoff teams over that stretch and over the season Portland is only 2-5-2 to North Carolina, Chicago, and Seattle.

That was the regular season.

Now all Portland has to to is win over 180 minutes here at Providence Park to defend their Championship. Can they do that? Does the late-season run mean that Thorns FC has become a great team?

In less than a week, we’ll find out.