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Roses and Thorns: Home stretch

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When the story of the Thorns’ 2018 season is complete, one of the longest chapters is going to be the one about what this team could have been, if not for the hard luck that plagued them. I’ve written before that how we look back on the season is going to depend on how it ends. But if we feel a certain feeling of precariousness around the team—a suspicion, borne out of one too many dropped results early on, that Portland might have somehow stolen their spot in the standings out of mere happenstance and could fail catastrophically at any moment—we are looking at the season the wrong way.

The truth is, this is a team that could have been the most dominant Thorns side to date. It hasn’t been, for some very real reasons, but nonetheless, what we’re left with is a team that’s been just as exciting in recent games as they sometimes were frustrating early in the year. Before the Thorns head into their last and biggest game of the regular season, let’s take a moment to unpack exactly where they stand right now as a team: what went wrong, what’s going right, and how far they’ve come over the course of the season.

A thorn to the defense.

When we look at the most basic numbers, the difference between last year’s championship-winning side and this one is clear: the biggest issue with the 2018 team is not trouble scoring (with 37 goals, they’re tied for the second-best offense in the league), but trouble keeping other teams off the board.

There’s an obvious reason for that. Portland’s first-choice back four, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Ellie Carpenter, have only been available, all together, four times this season. Out of 23 games. Although we all remember a series of mistakes Kelli Hubly made while filling in for Menges, the primary issue there isn’t even necessarily the personnel, but the lack of consistency. There was a stretch between May and July when the team fielded a different defense from game to game almost every single week. They’ve used 12 unique back-line and keeper combinations in all.

Having to make as many adjustments as Portland has is going to make any group of defenders look worse. A huge component of defending is knowing what the people on either side of you (and behind and in front of you) are going to do at any given time. So, to use an example Menges gave me a few weeks ago, if Katherine Reynolds wound up playing left back in a particular game, having to play alongside her instead of Kling introduced a half-step of hesitancy into Menges’s game. In the super-competitive, high-speed NWSL, that’s often all it takes to concede a goal.

Here’s a hypothetical to put the effects of that defensive inconsistency in perspective. If Portland had conceded just three fewer goals—say, against Washington at home, Seattle away, and Sky Blue at home in July—they’d have five more points than they currently do, which would have put them in second place, four points clear of Seattle. The outcome of this final game wouldn’t even matter.

But I’m not just arguing that with a different defensive outlook, this team could have been as good as the 2017 team—I’m arguing that due to a couple of other factors, they could have been better.

A rose to what could have been.

Going into the season, one of the biggest question marks was how the Thorns were going to cope with losing new signing Caitlin Foord to injury shortly before preseason. A few weeks in, the answer became Ana Crnogorcevic, an emergency signing who was able to cut her time at Frankfurt short due to a Thorns-specific clause in her contract.

Crnogorcevic does certain things well—notably, her hold-up play has been effective, and she’s been great at serving as the final link for players like Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair as they crash the box, either sitting with her back to goal or making runs forward herself. She’s also done well filling in on the wing and at fullback. At the same time, there is a vast distance in quality between her and Foord.

It seems strange to think of a player who has yet to score a goal for the Thorns as one of the most dangerous forwards in the NWSL, and yet, in the 190 minutes we’ve seen from Foord, that’s exactly what she’s shown she can be. This is a player who seems to have it all: raw speed, pace on the dribble, chaotic off-the-ball movement, an excellent eye for the game. She’s hands down the most well-rounded forward the Thorns have had in the Parsons era. It’s hard, at this point, to feel too much regret about her injury, since the real issue has been the defense. At the same time, you have to sigh wistfully imagining what a Portland team with Tobin Heath, a full-strength Foord, and a ridiculously in-form Lindsey Horan might have looked like.

A thorn to the Andressinha question.

As you know if you’ve read much of my writing over the course of the season, I’m a huge fan of Andressinha. I was very excited when she signed, even though it was unclear, at the time, where exactly she’d fit into the starting lineup.

Somewhere around the middle of the season, it became clear that, simply put, she didn’t fit. Not because she isn’t good enough, but because she’s not the type of player the Thorns needed alongside Horan and Sinclair. Parsons tried to use her and Horan as dual eights; the result was that the 5’3 Andressinha got bullied all over the field. After a handful of games, it was obvious she wasn’t doing well in a role where she was asked to do the kind of physical work a box-to-box midfielder needs to spend some of their time doing.

Before I go any further, I should point out that Andressinha still has some very, very good stats, despite that rough start. Her long pass success rate is 68% (with 57 attempted), among the best in the league. Her overall passing accuracy is 84%, with 75% in the opponent’s half; 32% of those were forward passes. When she’s been allowed to do what she’s best at, like she was when she subbed on against Chicago in August, she’s changed games.

This is the difficult thing about the Portland Thorns. There are so many superlatively good players on this team that sometimes, really good ones—players who have carried other teams—end up on the bench. I wrote this before the season started:

Where the Brazilian ends up getting played, and whether she shows up in form, has potential ripple effects throughout the team. If she was used as a ten, that could free up Christine Sinclair to push higher. On the other hand, even with the addition of a creative central midfielder, Sinc’s current best position might still be in the midfield; if Parsons deploys her as an eight, which he says is his tentative plan, Sinc could reprise her role as a ten, with Andressinha sitting deeper, alongside Horan.

Of course, it’s now blindingly clear that I was looking at the situation almost backwards. Out of Horan, Sinclair, and Andressinha, if one of those players has to adjust to better suit the playing style of the others, it’s going to be Andressinha. Sinclair’s position, at this point in her career, is in the midfield, period—and almost nobody is going to displace the captain from her best position. Horan, meanwhile, has been having the season of her career and is currently the most impactful midfielder in the league. Andressinha was always the one who was going to get displaced. That’s what the double-eight setup was: Andressinha was being asked to adjust her playing style to allow Horan to do what she does best.

As it turns out, the midfielder who lets Horan have the biggest possible impact is not Andressinha, the next-best midfielder on the team; it’s the only true holding midfielder on the roster, Celeste Boureille.

I used this image a couple weeks ago. These are Boureille’s actions (left) alongside Andressinha’s (right) in the Chicago game in August. This comparison confirms the impression many people had that the Brazilian really opened the game up for the Thorns (Portland is attacking downwards here).

I didn’t share this one. Here we have Horan’s actions in the first half compared to the second. It’s not a perfect visualization of what happened to Horan after Andressinha’s substitution—Parsons didn’t make the change until the 56th minute—but nonetheless, it’s clear that something changes here.

My first instinct, looking at this comparison, was that Horan was less involved in the attack in the second half because she was taking on more of the defensive duties that were mostly Boureille’s job in the first half. I do think that’s the case to an extent—she does have more defensive actions (represented by triangles) in the second image—but looking back at the game itself, that’s not the whole story. We can also see here that Horan is trying more long forward passes in the second half, in an attempt to break free of Chicago’s high pressure. Most of those passes weren’t successful.

That’s why Andressinha worked so well in this situation: she was able to thread those pinpoint long passes through the defense, something nobody else was having success with. In part, she was able to do that because the Red Stars weren’t immediately piling as much pressure on her as they were on Horan, perhaps simply because she wasn’t part of their game plan. In short, Andressinha has done the best as an impact sub, in situations where the Thorns want to make this kind of adjustment mid-game.

With that said, due to Raso’s injury there may now be an opening for her, either in the starting lineup or as an impact sub on another area of the field. Putting Andressinha on the wing might be a little counterintuitive, but it’s something Parsons says he hasn’t ruled out. Against a team like Seattle, which plays with three in the midfield and has two strong fullbacks, it could make sense to deploy her and Tobin Heath both as nominally wide players who want to cut inside and thread balls in through the back line.

A rose to Portland’s other most impactful player

With all the superlatives being (deservedly) said about Lindsey Horan’s season, the contributions of another Thorns star have almost fallen by the wayside. We need to talk a little about Tobin Heath, and how on earth it is that at age 30, she only seems to be getting better.

Part of why Heath has been so dangerous this year is because the team has been able to fine-tune around her in a way they weren’t when she returned to the field in 2017. As a result, what we’ve seen is a wildly dangerous attacker who has the freedom to roam wherever the game takes her—from the left wing, to the space between lines, and all the way out to the right wing. “It’s taken us a good six, seven, eight weeks to get the fluidity that her and others have,” said Parsons, “but then every time she moves, everyone else has to balance that defensively, and we’ve been really fine tuning that element to deal with transition and deal with winning it back higher, and it’s got better.”

The result is a player who doesn’t just set up and score goals—she’s sitting on six goals and six assists right now—but who can have an almost hypnotic effect on opposing defenses in drawing their attention away from everything else. Sometimes she can beat that pressure herself, as we saw with the ridiculous pass she made to set up a goal in the first Utah game in Portland; at other times, like in Orlando, it’s served to open up space for players like Hayley Raso who are well-suited to exploiting it. Never take Heath for granted. This is an incredibly special player who’s in the form of her life.

A rose to growth.

In the wake of the Thorns’ win in Washington two weeks ago, Mark Parsons was effusive with praise for his team, particularly with regard to one thing: the mental toughness it took to stay engaged in a game that not just was the third in seven days, but took place two days after the team flew across the country, early in the morning, after an 8 pm game. “I saw how dead the players were when the whistle went,” he said last week.

“I think it was all mental. I forgot, until the whistle blew, how hard that seven days had been, because we were all so focused, our eyes were so close to the prize and what we had to do next, and the whistle blew and I looked at them all and I said holy cow, what they’ve just done, it hit me only then because they looked so good, they looked so organized and committed to their roles... for not a second they switched off, and that’s a crucial step for us, because at the beginning of the season, we were having some lapses in those areas.”

It’s hard to be quite as complimentary of the team’s performance against Chicago the previous weekend—because, well, they didn’t win—but that result, too, demonstrated a mentality the Thorns seemed to be missing to start the season. It’s hard to imagine this team in May clawing their way out of a two-goal deficit. That they’ve demonstrated an ability to do that, and to stay focused and dominate for 90 minutes at the end of a hard week, is going to be a huge factor come playoff time.

All in all, there’s really only one conclusion to be drawn: these Thorns are good. They haven’t been perfect—no team, including North Carolina, has been—but their flaws make sense, given the circumstances, and their ceiling is probably higher than we’ve ever seen.

Of course, the other three teams in the playoffs are also very good. The road to a championship, if that’s in the cards, won’t be easy.

But it’s going to be exciting as hell.