After the last meeting between Thorns FC and the Seattle Reign, I wrote;
“...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?”
As it happened, both teams did those small things, right and wrong; traded slips, and brilliance, on the way to a 2-1 Thorns win.
Seattle romped brilliantly through most of the first half. But the Thorns never let the game get out of reach, leveled before halftime, and then brought disaster to a tiring Reign after the break.
The First Half
Seattle’s high press put a collar on Portland for most of the first half hour, and a momentary lapse of defensive concentration let Jasmyne Spencer score the opener to put Seattle up a goal in the 28th minute.
Here’s Portland’s defensive actions in the first half.
That says “pinned back around their own goal” as clearly as if it was written on the turf in words of fire. Remember how Ellie Carpenter ran wild against a Seattle without Megan Rapinoe on Matchday 24?
Here’s what happened to Carpenter’s attack last Saturday, when Rapinoe returned to the lineup.
That’s a pretty good picture of what happened not just to Carpenter but to Portland’s attack in the first half. Between relentless defensive pressure stifling Thorns going forward, and then Portland having to scramble back to defend against Seattle threats, there just wasn’t any Portland attack worth mentioning.
Portland had exactly one serious chance on goal during the first 43 minutes; a wild scramble in the 17th and 18th minutes that saw pointblank shots by Caitlin Foord and then Midge Purce blocked by a scrambling Lydia Williams.
It was a great flurry, but that was it.
Even worse, though, was the damage done by Seattle’s attacking pressure. Seattle got multiple looks at Portland’s goal. Good looks. Thorns FC should have gone into the lockers at halftime down by two, or possibly even three, goals.
They didn’t only because AD Franch went utterly, completely, wonderfully, brilliantly mad.
In the 33rd minute, she turned a Jodie Taylor shot around her left post with one hand.
I can’t emphasize strongly enough what a superb save this was. Franch was moving to her left, following the arc of a looping Emily Sonnett headed clearance, when Taylor stepped into the ball and volleyed it high and to Franch’s right.
Franch had to screech to a stop and immediately leap up and back against her momentum to make contact with the shot; the ball was actually slightly behind her body when she blocked it. Not just blocked it, but turned it safely around her post. With one hand. While changing direction and momentum.
But that was AD Franch in the semfinal.
Four minutes later, Taylor fought through Sonnett and fired a low hard shot from seven yards out.
Problem? No, no problem; Franch’s dive turned it around her right post.
Then, barely a minute later, Franch made what may have been the most impossibly brilliant save of the half.
A short Emily Menges clear went right to Spencer, who dumped the ball out wide to her right to Theresa Nielsen. Nielsen’s cross sailed right through the Thorns’ backline, past Taylor, to Rapinoe who was crashing the ball, the goalmouth, and Carpenter all at the same time.
Somehow, Franch stuck a foot out and parried the ball away.
Perhaps the merciful Gods of Soccer looked down and concluded that all this amazing goalkeeping deserved some kind of reward because finally, in the 43rd minute, the Thorns made a goal out of nothing.
The play began with Christine Sinclair flicking a Carpenter throw-in to Caitlin Foord.
Foord could have turned back, or tried to bull through a tackle and been stripped of the ball, or banged a hopeless pass off someone’s shin. Given all the pressure the Thorns had been under? I wouldn’t have blamed her.
She didn’t. Instead, she fought into space where she found Lindsey Horan running up from her left. Still, Horan didn’t have anyone in front of her except Heath, and she had Nielsen marking her.
Small things, remember? Watch Nielsen.
Foord slips the ball crossfield to Horan in stride, Tobin Heath breaks downfield, and Nielsen? Nielsen suddenly bolts upfield.
Was she thinking of closing down Horan? Trying to close in on Heath?
Whatever Nielsen thought she was doing, what she did was make a critical error, leaving Heath all the time in the world to run into all the open space in Southwest Portland.
Horan’s run takes her to the top of the penalty area, where she sees the Reign defense closing her down and slips a slide rule diagonal pass to Heath.
Heath charges down on Williams and slots the ball under the Reign keeper’s left hand,
Suddenly it’s 1-1 at the half and between the goal, and Franch, Portland is still alive.
The Second Half
Coach Parsons reportedly told his team that they needed to put more pressure on Seattle in the second half.
Well, most of them.
Parsons on Sonnett being close to a second yellow: "You could create a cartoon of what it was like at halftime, me going around to everyone telling them to get pressure on the ball and turning to her and saying, ‘not you.'" #NWSL #BAONPDX #PORvSEA— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) September 15, 2018
So no high press for, Sonnett. I wonder how she feels about that?
Ooh, okay. Sorry.
Her teammates did just fine, though. Here’s the Thorns’ defensive actions in the second half; compared to the diagram above, you can see the push forward from their own goal and even into the Reign’s end.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s defensive actions went from looking like this in the first half...
...to this, in the second.
Partially because of the Portland pressure. But also because:
1. Allie Long let her determination to show up her old team overwhelm her understanding of her own fitness. Here’s Long’s actions - attacking and defending - in the first half,
Here she is in the second.
Long should have come off at halftime, and both she and Coach Andonovski overestimated her value to the team by keeping her out there. Her determination to stay out there cost her own team.
2. Remember how Rapinoe was quoted after the Australia match back in July how li’l Carpenter needed to learn how to defend wily ol’ Pinoe if she wanted to play in the Big Leagues?
Hmm. How’s young Carpenter’s work looking to you now, Rapinoe?
Rapinoe? Oh, sorry. Are you busy? I’ll just check back in a moment, okay?
Oh. Um. Could you...say, is that young lady still pestering you?
What? Oh my, that’s not a very polite thing to say!
Guess the young rascal learned pretty good pretty quick, huh?
Carpenter and Portland’s defense largely took Rapinoe as a decisive factor out of the match. Spencer, true to her form (2 goals in over 1,000 minutes), was not effective (other than converting the ball that almost fell into her lap); she had only that one shot all game. Taylor, as we’ve seen, was stoned by Franch for her only two shots on goal.
The bottom line for this match is Portland had few chances and converted them. Seattle had few - and didn’t.
Finally, Andonovski subbed off Spencer for Yanez.
3. Yanez, with a chance to level the match, did this.
“A tiny slip”, remember?
Given as much time and space as Heath had to take her goal, Yanez literally slipped and fell, and so did Seattle, and that was that.
Now we have one more match to play, and it’s for everything. Until now, I’ve been hesitant to believe that this Thorns squad can play North Carolina and win.
Now, I believe.
Player Ratings and Comments
Purce (45’ - +9/-2) Midge Purce played well through the most difficult time of the match. Desperately unlucky to have been denied in the 17th minute, but Williams was on fire herself at that moment. Made some fine runs and put in some decent crosses, but the Thorns simply couldn’t provide her with any help.
Crnogorcevic (45’ - +4/-1) Surprised me by being less effective under less defensive pressure than Purce had been. Not entirely her fault; the obvious conclusion at this point is that the 2018 Thorns are The Team That Has No Need For Scoring Strikers, but still a muted half from die Schweitzerin.
Foord (+7/-0 : +3/-1 : +10/-1) Provided what attacking pressure the Thorns mustered in the first half, but gave way to the midfielders in the second, and, as noted with AMC, that may simply be what we have to accept what the 2018 Thorns do; forwards make runs, apply pressure, forecheck, and open space for the midfielders to create goals. That offends my sense of soccer decorum in some obscure way, but that’s my problem; clearly it works for the Thorns.
Heath (+5/-1 : +6/-1 : +11/-2) Lovely finish, and all the usual Heath positives. Should have had a brace, and we’ll pause here for a moment to ponder the vagaries of the offside rule. Heath was also the emotional leader, and heart of the Thorns’ unwillingness to capitulate to the early Seattle pressure.
Boureille (+8/-1 : +6/-1 : +14/-2) Cee Bee was instrumental in winning the midfield for Portland in the second half, and a critical tackle and clearance off Taylor in the 31st minute.
Sinclair (+8/-1 : +7/-0 : +15/-1) Sinclair’s skills were on display in the tidy service to Horan, but her persistence and work rate are best illustrated by her small part in the goal pictured above. So long as she’s on the pitch, Sinc will work tirelessly for this team. Her teammates know that, and that’s a huge part of her value as captain. She deserves much of the credit for bringing the 2018 squad through the troubles and turmoil to the final matchday.
Horan (+6/-1 : +7/-1 : +13/-2) Horan feasted on Seattle on Matchday 24.
Last Saturday, the table was a lot less bountiful.
Still, got the assist and the goal, and provided her usual strengths on boths sides of the ball. Perhaps not a classic Great Horan outing, but Great Enough.
Carpenter (+7/-1 : +3/-0 : +10/-1) Watching Ellie Carpenter chase Megan Rapinoe around and frustrate her for more than fifteen full seconds just warms my heart in what is probably an unwholesomely meanspirited way. Couldn’t provide the attack she did on Matchday 24, but did a terrific job on defense.
Menges (+4/-0 : +4/-0 : +8/-0) Critical clearance in the 26th minute and saving tackle in the 31st; organized her backline and helped in frustrating the Reign’s shooters; of Seattle’s 17 shots only 5 made it on frame; one went in, and Franch dealt with the other four.
Sonnett (91’ - +4/-3 : +2/-0 : +6/-3) While generally solid, Sonnett still had a couple of goofs in the first half, most notably the poor “clearance” that went right to Taylor in the 32nd minute.
Her partnership with Emily Menges, though, is what makes the two of them more than the sum of their parts, and that is looking better every match. Went off late with a knee injury; hopefully it will turn out to be minor, because the Thorns will need her again.
Klingenberg (+7/-2 : +6/-3 : +13/-5) As with Sonnett, Kling had a generally good match. She also had a few miscues; Yanez was her mark in the 80th minute, and had she not slipped down, Kling might have been a very unhappy fullback. She did slip, though, so we’re all happy.
Franch (+4/-0 : +0/-0 : +4/-0) Woman of the Match. It’s really just this simple - had Franch been any less good than she was in this game it would probably have been the end for Portland’s season last Saturday afternoon.
Coach Parsons - I think Parsons was a little taken aback by how much Rapinoe and Long added to the Reign’s pressing defense and attack when they were fresh.
For all that he, and his team, knew that a Seattle with those two was much more dangerous than one without I don’t think they really understood what that meant, and if not for the Madness of AD Franch they might not have recovered from that misunderstanding until too late.
But she was all that, and the difference in the match was that Parsons adjusted - he sent his team out in the second half to press, to slow the match down, to get physical and profit off the choppy chaos - and Andonovski didn’t. Long and Rapinoe wore down under the strain, he brought on Yanez and Addo too late, and the match slipped away from them.
On the last day of the regular season, I said that the Thorns had saved the best for last. I was wrong; they saved their best for the last half of the last match, where they shook off disaster and found a way through a flawed beginning to a victorious end.
Now the task before the Thorns is simple, yet awful; one match, defeat the Courage, defend the title, win the League.
Portland and North Carolina have played six times over the past two years. North Carolina is 4-2-0 against Portland over that time. The Courage have never lost to Portland in Cary, so it is fortunate that the “neutral” venue is here instead of in the Shield winner’s home pitch.
Portland has beaten the Courage twice; in the 2017 Final in Orlando, and here, on Matchday 14, in July of 2017, both by a single goal.
Can they make this Saturday the third?