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Thorns FC: The Price of Glory

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Portland takes three points in D.C. and loses Hayley Raso

Anya Button

To have any hope of hosting the semifinal Thorns FC needed to beat the Washington Spirit in Washington. They did, 0-1.

In the process the Thorns lost Hayley Raso for the season, and had to rely, yet again, on their midfield to bail out the strikers, whose entire evening’s production looked like this:

Image by NWSL in public domain

Certainly part of the drought was fatigue. The Thorns were playing their third match in seven days. But Washington was playing their third match in eight and, c’mon, Washington!

This season, the Spirit has been pretty much asking U.S. women’s soccer history to hold its’ beer while it attempts an epic run of futility. An exhausted Thorns playing an exhausted Spirit? The match should probably have ended 0-3 or more.

The Thorns created some gorgeous attack in Washington, but all too often that attack fell apart in the final shot or the last pass. Here’s just one, in the 48th minute.

Celeste Boureille starts things off with a pretty lofted through ball up the left channel. You’ll note that both Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and Raso are running with the pass.

Image by ESPN/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Both Thorns outpace their defenders; AMC spins Estelle Johnson and leaves her sprawling, (Taylor Smith, who should probably have picked Crnogorcevic up, was lollygagging far behind the play) while Raso sneaks in behind Whitney Church.

Crnogorcevic has time and space to shoot near post, or try a little tougher shot at the far top corner, or continue her run, close the distance to the goalmouth and draw Church - who is the only defender close enough to intervene - and in so doing uncover Raso for the square pass.

Image by ESPN/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Instead, she dinks some sort of little cross right to the happily surprised Church, who gratefully clears the ball out for a corner.

Image by NWSL/ESPN. Licensed under Fair Use.

You can tell by her body language how Raso feels about that.

Image by ESPN/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

I don’t blame Raso. The Thorns’ defense hasn’t been so rock-solid that a one-goal lead – even against Washington – should be thought of as a done deal. A second goal could have put the match out of reach, but every time the Thorns had a chance for that goal something went wrong.

Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic was desperately unlucky not to put one past the Spirit keeper in the 66th minute (and to give her credit, Aubrey Bledsoe was cat-quick off her line). Lindsey Horan had a great header cleared off the goal line six minutes earlier. In the 49th minute, Horan, again, had a pointblank opportunity (from a terrific Tobin Heath cross and AMC drop) but blasted it over the bar.

The bottom line in this match was that Portland had to make a 15th minute Heath goal stand up and could, largely because the Spirit couldn’t figure out how to play well enough to present any sort of danger to the three points Portland so desperately needed.

That’s fine. That’s great.

Now, however, the Thorns are likely headed into two back-to-back meetings with a Seattle Reign that has beaten them thoroughly - twice. A Seattle Reign that is as much like the Washington Spirit as 180-proof vodka is like tap water. A Seattle Reign that desperately wants a home semifinal and another crack at the league title.

That’s going to be a whole ‘nother thing, and one goal is very unlikely to cut it.

PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

Crnogorcevic (80’ - +6/-2 : +8/-2 : +14/-4) Everything but the finishing. Great runs, terrific passes, denied by a great goalkeeping play. The only Thorns forward to put anything on goal. I’d like to add that one thing AMC was having trouble with earlier this season was losing challenges; typically her success rate was in the low 20% range. Over the past several matches, however, she’s winning something like 40% (she won 6 of 14, or 43%, against Washington). We’re not talking Emily Menges here, but that’s double her earlier success rate, so well played.

Raso (60’ - +11/-2 : +3/-1 : +14/-3) I’m heartsick for Ribbons; she’s just had no luck at all over the past year with injuries. Before her injury, Raso was having her usual active game; disrupting the Washington defense with forechecking and aggressive attacking play. Her cross set up the Heath goal. Her scoring touch never really arrived this season, but she provided an offensive spark that only AMC and Foord have equaled. She will be missed.

Foord (30 - +9/-0) Like Raso, provided great energy going forward. Also like Raso, hasn’t been able to find the back of the net. With two tough matches against Seattle and, hopefully a final coming up, the Thorns need one of their forwards to start scoring. Foord seems like the best possibility at this point.

Andressinha (10’ - +1/-0) Did little of note.

Heath (+10/-1 : +10/-2 : +20/-3) Obvious choice for Woman of the Match. InStat agrees; her Index of 273 is the highest of the match and well above the player immediately below her (Boureille, at 236. By comparison, InStat’s highest rated Washington player was Andi Sullivan, at 189). Successful in 84 of her 104 attacking moves (82%), completed 84% of her 55 passes, including 3 of 3 key passes.

Lovely goal, but the Heathiest part was the little touch she took just before shooting that took the ball to her left and broke Taylor Smith’s ankles. That’s pure Heath, and what makes her such a caution. Here’s the odd thing, though; while we think of Heath as the tricky ball wizard she’s generally only marginal in her one-on-one duels. Against Washington she won only 6 of 15 challenges (40%). It’s just that the ones she wins are usually so nifty that we think of her as megging every opponent on the pitch. I wonder; does quality have a quantity all its’ own? Does Heath’s style make opponents think she’s more dangerous with the ball at her feet than she actually is?

Horan (+8/-4 : +4/-1 : +12/-5) If Heath hadn’t been setting the pitch on fire, Horan’s good work would have drawn attention. As it was, she seemed to be just doing business. The thing about Horan, though, is how much business she does. She only succeeded in 75% of her attacking actions - but that 75% represented 86 good attacking moves, one more the Heath, who was the second most active Thorn going forward. She only completed 76% of her passes - but that represents 51 accurate passes, 14% of the Thorns’ total (she and Heath together completed about 30% of the team’s total successful passes). Even when Horan is having an not-so-Great-Horan kind of evening, she’s still pretty damn great,

The other thing about Horan, and Heath, though, is how dependent the Thorns are on them to create goals. Contrast the forwards’ shooting chart above with the midfielders.

Image by NWSL in public domain

That’s not bad in itself, but it means that the midfielders have to do a LOT of the heavy offensive lifting. Against Washington, whose midfield was on vacation last weekend, that’s one thing. Midfield? Hell, the whole Spirit squad took most of Saturday off. Here’s the entire Washington team’s shooting chart.

Image by NWSL in public domain

The whole team couldn’t outshoot Portland’s midfield. That’s just ugly.

But that’s Washington. Against Seattle, or North Carolina? That’s another thing entirely.

Boureille (+3/-3 : +5/-0 :+8/-3) Solid match from Boureille, who admittedly didn’t have a ton of pressure from the Spirit to deal with but did well with what she did, and contributed well in the attack. Well up with the Thorns leaders in a number of categories, including successful challenges (73%, best on the squad), accurate passes (81%) and successful attacks (84%).

Sinclair (+6/-2 : +4/-3 : +10/-5) Not quite as effective as her midfield teammates; Sinc won only 54% of her individual duels, was successful in only 61% of her attacking moves, and completed only 72% of her passes. Put only 1 of her 2 shots in target. My suspicion is that 270 minutes of play in a week wore down Captain Sinclair and that she will rebound with a week’s rest.

Lussi (2’ – no rating) Just timewasting.

Carpenter (+6/-4 : +2/-0 : +8/-4) Ellie Carpenter is perhaps the Thorn that best illustrates the term “young player”. She has terrific energy and speed, shows flashes of great soccer intelligence, and hustles hard all match. She also has occasional mental lapses, such as giving the ball away deep in her own end, several times, and making poor decisions on where and when to pass. If she develops as she shows the promise of developing, however, she will spend more time doing the former and less the latter, and that alone makes her worth every penny.

Sonnett (+2/-0 : +2/-3 : +4/-3) It’s unfortunate, but this season Emily Sonnett has developed a pattern: “When Will Emily Sonnett Have Her Once-a-Game-Brain-Cramp?”

In this match it was in the 68th minute, when she was caught too far out of position to cover Ashley Hatch as she received a Rose Lavelle cross ten yards from goal. Fortunately for Sonnett and the Thorns, Hatch took a poor touch and the ball was cleared safely away.

Overall, Sonnett actually had a decent match - given that Washington seldom threatened the Thorns goal - but she is still making the occasional rookie mistake three years after her professional debut. The sort of bevues she makes are survivable against the Washingtons, but a better team will punish her mercilessly.

Menges (+3/-0 : +5/-1 : +8/-1) Sonnet’s Great Wall counterpart was sturdy masonry in D.C., with the best challenge win percentage of the backline (67%) and the best passing completion rate (85%) of the team. Menges doesn’t do the flashy tackling that Raso or Carpenter does, but she grinds down attackers with relentless pressure and good positioning, and she did just that against the Spirit. With the caveat that this wasn’t exactly the powerhouse of NWSL attacks, Menges looked excellent in D.C.

Purce (+4/-7 : +3/-2 : +7/-9) Midge Purce looked rusty and uncomfortable in the first half-hour, giving the ball away repeatedly through poor passes or being tackled for loss. Cleaned up her play in the last hour, and was fortunate that Washington was simply too poor to take advantage of her. Good work stepping in when Meghan Klingenberg tweaked something in warmups, but I’d like to see Purce be a trifle more clinical. She was just that earlier in the season; perhaps she is one of those players who need consistent minutes to stay sharp. If so, starting her instead of Elizabeth Ball, who does seem to have the ability to come in cold off the bench and kick some serious butt, seems questionable.

Franch (+1/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0) AD Franch had a relatively untroubled evening. Did make a good save off Rose Lavelle in the 33rd minute, and came out strong to take a corner kick in the 88th .

Coach Parsons – Parsons was constrained by circumstances to play veteran starters like Sinclair that he probably would have preferred to rest; with Seattle drawing North Carolina the Thorns had to get the full points in D.C. to have any hopes of hosting the semifinal. His team did, so he was a genius.

His matchday management was likewise constrained. The Foord-for-Raso sub was surely planned, but Raso’s injury dictated the timing rather than the game state. Andressinha did well enough seeing out the result, but I suspect that Sinclair played the full 90 simply because the risk of inserting someone like Weber was just not supportable with possibility of dropping two points to a freak goal. The unfortunate reality is when the Thorns need points desperately, 80% of Christine Sinclair is preferable to 100% of Angela Salem or Mallory Weber.

Now the crisis really begins. A win here against Seattle simply sets up a rematch here in Portland. A loss forces the Thorns to travel to Memorial Stadium to batter their way through to a title defense. Two matches, two wins, against a team that has beaten – thoroughly beaten – Portland all season. That’s all.

Easy-peasy, right?

Suuuuuure.