To no one’s particular surprise the Portland Thorns defeated Gotham FC in the 2021 Challenge Cup Final Saturday morning, particularly to those who watched the Thorns put a comprehensive statistical lickin’ on The Team Formerly Known As Sky Blue.
The rebrand had done wonders for the Joisey Goils, but it couldn’t do that much wonder when the Thorns were all over the Batwomen like Italian dressing on a Jersey Mike’s sub. Here’s what the cumulative xG chart looked like:
No, the surprise was that Gotham stayed in the match until the 61st minute, when Carly Lloyd equalized the Christine Sinclair strike that had put the Thorns ahead for what surely seemed like “for good” and managed to hang on to force spot kicks where a Jennifer Cudjoe miss and a Adrianna Franch save and a Morgan Weaver conversion were all required to nick the Thorns their first silverware since the end of 2017.
All of that changes nothing that hasn’t been said before. The Thorns still look very likely to challenge for the regular season title. The Rebuildening looks as though it has made Portland a much more lethal club than the one that went out in the 2019 semifinal and looked no more than moderately convincing in 2020. The newcomers look anywhere from solid to terrific.
The Chaos Cup made a perfect mug to drink celebratory Budweisers from, and that’s just fine. Well done, Thorns.
Preseason is over, and the matches are going to count. It’s time to turn all those lovely opportunities into goals, and play the sort of merciless soccer that makes champions. Last weekend you let a visibly overmatched opponent hang around for an hour and, as such opponents often do, they made you pay. If Ifeoma Onomonu had headed that ball two yards to her left you’d have been left drinking not Buds from the Cup but bitter tears of regret.
So bring on Chicago, and bring on the regular season and let’s see how ruthless you can be.
Passing the Passing Test: 76.3%. That’s okay. Better than Gotham’s 70%, and, more important, the Thorns midfield and backline were generally well-positioned and cut off the most dangerous Gotham passes..
Okay, remember: only dangerous attacking and possession-gain (or -loss) passes count. A “1” is a pass to and from feet. “L” is a long pass, “H” a headed one, “F” a free kick, “X” a cross. For goalkeepers “G” is a goal kick, “P” is a punt, and otherwise they are rated like the field players.
If a pass was exceptionally good – a “key pass”? – I’ve added bold and italic and underlined to the symbol in the “completed” column. The same iconography in the “missed” column means a very bad pass, one that leads directly to danger or a concession.
Got it? Let’s go.
You can see who was the long passing beast; Kelli Hubly was diming people left, right and center out of the back; apparently Sauerbrunn has let her centerback partners do the pushing up while she sits deep. That’s fine, as far as it goes
Lindsey Horan, on the other hand, was sort of all over the place. Some nice crosses and passes, some poorly-judged efforts. Crystal Dunn’s numbers are heavily impacted by her typical location when receiving or releasing; caught in a crowd of white shirts with little or no space to work. It’s a tribute to her skills that she got any completions off at all.
The Thorns won 12 corners. The first two were taken short, but the remaining ten were “long” – that is, typical direct-into-the-box-type corners.
The 29th minute Klingenberg corner landed on Horan’s head, but her strong shot was well wide right. The same connection in the 36th minute went right at Didi Haracic. The remainder were either cleared or (as in the 86th minute) led to nothing more than a blocked shot or a scuffle in the penalty area and a clearance.
PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS
Smith (76′ – +10/-2 : +5/-4 : +15/-6) Sophia Smith had a severe case of Lussitis, especially in the second half. Lots of good ideas, lots of action, no goals to show for it. I think she hammered that into Parsons’ head with two appalling misses, first in the 71st minute when Sinc put her in on Haracic 1 v 0 and Smith shot well wide left, and worse in the 76th minute when Smith had Haracic at her mercy and shanked her shot wide right.
Smith had a hell of a first half, doing everything from forechecking defense to making runs and passes and being a nuisance in Gotham’s backline. Everything…but scoring (although it took a terrific save from Haracic to keep her off the scoresheet in the 33rd minute…)
The pro cycling peleton has a term for days like that: un jour sans, “a day without”, a day when you bust your lungs and burn your legs and the pack rides effortlessly away from you. Smith had that sort of day Saturday. Not a wasted day, not with those numbers, but a day without what a forward thrives on, goals. She’ll be back, but Saturday just wasn’t her day.
Weaver (14′ – +8/-1)
Morgan Weaver, on the other hand, was a quarter hour of lightning in a bottle. I suspect had she come on another ten minutes earlier she and Sinc between them would have made the matchwinner. And, of course, in the end she DID find the matchwinner.
I still don’t have a good feel for whether Weaver is a 90-minute forward. She seems to use her body recklessly, and that might not last a full match. As such she’s a terror off the bench, though, and she was Saturday.
When she’s fresh she’s got tremendous pace and uses it to get in behind defenses and put in crosses. When she did just that in the 86th minute her seeing-eye cross found Sinclair near the top of the 18, and Sinc came within a Haracic-fingertip of winning the thing in regulation time.
Hell of a shift.
Charley (+9/-0 : +5/-2 : +14/-2) Simone Charley thrives on direct play, and the Thorns had a lot of that Saturday. She also had three terrific opportunities to put the match away; once in the 33rd minute when Charley’s rocket put Smith in on Haracic, then again in the 72nd minute when her pointblank looping chip had Haracic beat but Mandy Freeman cleared off the line, then again in the 79th when Kling dimed her run through the Gotham backline to put the biscuit in the basket…but offside.
All in all, a very good day’s work from Si-money.
Sinclair (+5/-2 : +9/-2 : +14/-4) There will come a day when the whirligig of time will bring in its revenges and Christine Sinclair will no longer be able to play this game at the highest level.
That day was not last Saturday.
Two goals – counting the spot-kick – and a lot of all the usual hard work.
For any other thirty-eight-year-old that would be the cause for marvel and admiration. For the Captain it was just another day at the office, punching the clock and taking out the trash and doing all her usual good. Combined fiercely with Weaver; I’d love to see what those two could do over a full half or even a full match. But we’ll see.
It’s worth recalling that Sinc IS no longer a slip of a girl. The club benefited from her rested vigor over this cup. But the regular season is a grind, and with it the Olympic Games, and I hope the Front Office is thinking about that.
Dunn (+6/-3 : +9 : -2 : +15/-5) I’d reeeeeally like to see Crystal Dunn play forward of midfield for a full match. She’s got a crap-ton of valuable attacking skills; pace, vision, precision, energy. When she goes forward she’s usually dangerous.
But it’s beginning to look like we’re not going to see that this season.
Nine of her fifteen pluses in this one are defensive; tackles or recoveries. She has only one offensive plus, an attacking run late in the second half. Parsons seems to want her to play a sort of midfield sweeper, a box-to-box defensive/shuttle midfielder. She’s terrific at that. I’m greedy, and I’d love to see her further on the frontline. Apparently Coach Parsons doesn’t agree, so it may be a rare Dunn Sighting within 20 yards of goal.
Salem (68′ – +3/-1 : +6/-0 : +9/-1) Here’s the thing about this match.
A lot of the Thorns defenders and Salem as the defensive midfielder don’t have gaudy PMRs.
That’s because of a couple of things, one good, the other kinda meh.
The “meh” thing was that Gotham had a hard time keeping possession. More often than not they’d throw a pass away or get tackled for loss before they got even a sniff at goal. Gotham weren’t awful on Saturday, but they weren’t “good”, so it didn’t take heroic defensive work to keep them down.
The good thing, though, as that Portland was generally well organized and disciplined. The Thorns defended in groups, and as a team, so no one individual had to race around like her hair was on fire putting up pluses for tackles and defensive stops.
Salem wasn’t a madwoman, but because her team was around her she didn’t need to be, and that’s just fine.
Rodriguez (22′- +4/-1) Came on to bring fresh legs, and did, and that meant she did her job.
One thing I haven’t seen from Rodriguez that other people seem to see – and talk about – is her playmaking. She passes well enough, but I’m not seeing any midfield wizardry. She doesn’t seem to distribute all that well – no better than any other of the Thorns midfielders.
I’d like to see that from her; Portland hasn’t had an outstanding midfield general since Vero left. People I trust say Rodriguez has that in her. But I haven’t seen it yet, and I’d like to.
Horan (+5/-2 : +10/-1 : +15/-3) Another Thorn who could have put the match away, this time in the 39th minute when Horan struck a golazo-worthy free kick that had Haracic beat but clanked off the inside of the post and away. Slotted her PK away calmly, along with everything else she’d done, so well-earned her slug of Anheuser product from the big mug. Perhaps not Great, but Damn Good Horan, and that’s all the team needed Saturday.
Klingenberg (+5/-2 : +11: -3 : +16/-5) I’m glad Kling had fun Saturday. I’m also damn glad Cudjoe missed her spot-kick and Franch saved from Kawasumi and Weaver scored, because I was pretty shocked to watch Kling stroll up to the penalty spot like she was in the checkout line at Fred Meyer. If her shank had cost the team the game, well…I’m not sure that might have sucked the fun right out of it.
We’ll talk about this more in the Kuikka comment, but for a team that asks its fullbacks to push up neither Thorns fullback is particularly pacey. I was a little surprised that Gotham didn’t try and throw Midge Purce at either Kling or Kuikka; the one time she did, in the 69th minute, Purce skinned Kling like she was standing still. We saw that in Houston, and I’m a bit concerned that facing truly speedy teams might not show our fullbacks at their best.
Klingenberg continues, like Sinclair, to defy the calendar, and hopefully that will continue through this season.
Hubly (+9/-3 : +3/-3 : +12/-6) Soccer is a game of routine punctuated with moments of sudden terror or exhilaration. Both Portland’s centerbacks lived up to that that last Saturday.
For 88-odd minutes both Hubly and Sauerbrunn did just fine. They kept Gotham’s danger women marked and under control, cleared out dangerous passes and crosses, and kept things calm.
But if Hubly gets credit for that she also has to take the lick for ballwatching in the 49th minute when Dydasco dropped a lob onto an unmarked Lloyd’s head, and Hubly and her team were both damn lucky that Lloyd headed wide. Then again, in the 93rd minute, both ‘Brunn and Hubly were marking space as Imani Dorsey’s cross clanked off Onumonu’s head with Franch well beaten.
Now. Had Portland finished all their chances would those goofs have mattered?
They didn’t, though.
Everyone makes mistakes, so occasional lapses of concentration or discipline are entirely understandable. But in sport those mistakes are often punished, so there is no waving them away. Athletes are heroes. That’s their job. And when you’re a hero you can’t fail. That’s written into the contract. Sucks, but there it is.
Sauerbrunn (+1/-4 : +3/-5 : +4/-9)
It must have been a frustrating day for Becky Sauerbrunn. Just like with Hubly, she played well enough for the vast majority of the match. Then comes the 61st minute and ‘Brunn gets just the teensiest bit behind instead of keeping ball-side on Lloyd and the big lug gets up high and just thunderdunks over her.
I think I’m hard on ‘Brunn because she’s got the rep and the c.v. and the big payday and so far doesn’t look all that much better than her ham-and-egg partner Hubly. But she’s DOES have the rep and the big paycheck. It’s her job to lock down the back line, and that didn’t happen. Unfair? Sure. But just like with Hubly…it’s her job to be terrific.
Kuikka (68′ – +9/-5 : +3/-1 : +12/-6) Kuikka bites off a piece of the Gotham goal, too, failing to close down Dorsey quickly enough. But she also gets a huge plus for her recovery run in the 55th minute when Lloyd’s long pass put Paige Monaghan in alone on Franch; Kuikka kicked in the burners and nicked the ball right off Monaghan’s foot. Terrific play.
I’m a little baffled by Kuikka. That play on Monaghan suggests she’s got great pace. Yet she routinely gets beat to the byline. Is it positioning? Is she not adjusting to the NWSL turf? Communication with her teammates?
I like a lot of what Kuikka does. She’s generally a solid defender, and she gets up the touchline well enough. It’s just that she seems to have a brainfart every so often, and I’m not sure why. She’s an international and an experienced professional. I hope she’s not going to turn out to be another Emily Sonnett.
Westphal (22′ – +1/-1) It’s kind of hard to believe that she was on the field more than 20 minutes. Almost invisible…although I don’t recall Gotham getting much up the east touchline late in the second half, so perhaps she was being quietly effective.
Franch (+0/-0 : +4/-0 : +4/-0)
Says it all.
Welcome back, Stonewall.
Coach Parsons: Hard to slag off on the gaffer when his club goes 4-0-1 and nicks the silverware. So in that sense, well done, MP and the team. Enjoy that Cup.
Still. The Cup Final was frustrating in that an obviously better Thorns lacked the ruthless killer instinct to put their boots on Gotham’s necks. This one never should have gone to PKs, where winning and losing become a coin toss. That’s the coach’s job. He needs to instill that merciless efficiency that takes games like this and kills them off quickly and convincingly.
Next Sunday Chicago comes here to kick off the season. The Red Stars were dire in preseason; losing Samantha Kerr has utterly nerfed their attack. They’re another crippled animal, and this time the Thorns need to emulate the action of the tiger, and finish them early and often.
It’s time to put the Cup on the trophy shelf and go hunting.
Update 5/12: Timber Dave has questions about Simone Charley’s called-back goal in the 78th minute. I do, too, but not because CBS didn’t show a replay. The problem is HOW they showed the play. Here’s a screen capture of the moment Klingenberg puts a boot to the ball:
This is something I see when a broadcast crew (or the director) doesn’t have a lot of experience with soccer. This angle is useless because we have no idea where Charley is relative to her defender. We don’t see her until the camera, following the ball, picks her up downfield.
The original shot from live play was no better:
Again, we can’t tell from this angle whether Charley is onside or not.
Overall I had no problems with the broadcast, and when you think that a mere eight yeasr ago we were watching these games on freaking YouTube, well…
But there’s still some ways to go to get the sort of coverage you’d expect if you were a Serie A or Bundesliga fan, and with any sort of decent luck we’ll keep moving toward that end.