Given that the last time Portland actually beat whatever you want to call the denizens of that fishing village in Puget Sound – Seattle, Tacoma, the Reign, OL Reign, Olympique Lyon B, the Damndelions – was three seasons ago, the scoreless draw that played out last Friday shouldn’t really have been a shock.
As the Sugita-oendan up in 221 that night might have called it, the stalemate – 膠着状態 (kochaku jotai) – was just another on the long string of recent successes that the once- and former-Queens of the North have had against the women of Stumptown.
Last time we actually beat them in a regular season?
The 2018 semifinal. Two-one, in case you forgot. Ah, thim was the days. Sigh.
Three losses in 2019
Two losses and a draw – damn you, Tori Penso! – in 2021.
Now two draws and a loss – so far – in 2022.
And y’know what was even more frustrating? The Thorns played damn well last week, well enough to nick a goal, at least. Here’s Arielle Dror:
Between the 41st and 52nd minutes the Thorns created what could easily have been two goals. The combined xG for the two attempts is 0.6xG, more than half a goal and half the total xG for the night; those are the big step-risers either side of halftime.
The first starts in the 41st minute, when Hina Sugita feeds Morgan Weaver who, well-marked, drops to Christine Sinclair.
Notice Sophia Smith floating along the Reign backline, though…
Sinc sees Smith running to space and splits the Reign centerbacks with a slide-rule pass.
That’s all it took; Smith is off to the races, with only Reign keeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce to beat.
Credit where it’s due – Tullis-Joyce gets out strong and makes herself big. But she’s still at Smith’s mercy. All our #9 has to do is tuck a toe under the ball and chip over the Reign keeper for the opening goal.
But that’s a veteran’s trick, and Smith, as good as she is, is still just out of her rookie season. Instead she tries to smash the ball past Tullis-Joyce and gets stoned.
Here’s Smith again in the 52nd minute, ready to feed Weaver off a Samantha Coffey service:
Here’s the critical part that was hard to see live; Sam Hiatt – the Reign back at the far left in the screenshot above – makes a tiny but critical mistake.
Just for a moment she thinks she can intercept the pass, so she moves towards the ball instead of turning away to stay with Weaver, who’s already outrunning Lauren Barnes.
By the time Hiatt realizes her bad decision…
…it’s too late and Weaver is onto the ball and in on goal with, again, only Tullis-Joyce before her.
But here, again, a young player has young player skills.
Weaver has pace and strength but not craft or guile. Her touch is fast and strong, but not tricksy, and so rather than, say, chip Tullis-Joyce, or bluff the shot and force the keeper to ground and then round her…
…Weaver keeps coming on, dribbling, looking for the opening to smack a direct shot.
But Tullis-Joyce stays strong and Weaver runs out of time and space and when she has to launch it Barnes is sliding in to block the shot.
But…only up in the air and short of the goalmouth.
Weaver stays on her feet and – young player or no, goddammit, she’s a baller – follows her deflected shot as it knuckles towards the post.
Here, in perhaps the most frustrating part of this whole frustrating stalemate, Weaver and the ball and the post all arrive at the same space-time.
For one brief, bright, hopeful moment they seem to approach singularity.
A tenth of a microjoule less energy. A fraction of a inch-ounce less force. The slightest increase in air pressure, or rain intensity, or wind resistance…and that ball comes off the post onto Weaver’s head and she nods it right back into the goal.
But it doesn’t.
It loops over Weaver and Tullis-Joyce and lands halfway out in the six-yard box until Alanna Cook comes in and clears it away.
Doomed, I tell you.
Fated not to be.
Mind you, the match wasn’t entirely one-sided. OLR had their moments to regret, too.
Lauren Fishlock was denied by the other post and Meghan Klingenberg’s head in the 31st minute.
Bethany Balcer headed strongly towards the top of the goal that Bella Bixby had to get up strong to turn over the crossbar in the 65th.
But oh, my, oh my…our two forwards and those two lovely, lovely chances.
I could just weep.
Well. That’s that; shikata ga nai (仕方がない), and it’s time to look ahead to a busy week.
Passing the Passing Test: OPTA had the Thorns as 78% and OLR at 75%, InStat had Portland completing 80%, Seattle 77%.
Lots of good work being done in midfield by Coffey and Sugita, and Sinc, tho she’s making fewer connections, is red-hot when she does. Unfortunately Natalia Kuikka isn’t diming people like usual…but we’ll get to that in her comment.
The Thorns backline’s hard work shows up here; compare Smith’s position above with her OLR counterpart Balcer. Jess Fishlock, ostensibly a midfielder, is leading the Seattle line here. The Damndelions’ shape is…well, out of shape, and while some of that is having played three games the week before and missing some key pieces, a lot of that is Portland’s hard work.
The whole “five corner kicks per match” NFT is not officially worthless. But although OPTA lists Portland with four corners I have records for only three, and – oh, trust me! we’ll get into that in a bit – they’re all in the second half
|57′||Coffey||Long||Tullis-Joyce easy take.|
|73′||Coffey||Long||Floated way over to the far top corner of the 18 and was cleared out to Kuikka. She put a nice cross back in but Tullis-Joyce came out strong to take.|
|83′||Smith?||Short||To Coffey and from there to Beckie; Beckie’s strong shot forces Tullis-Joyce to parry high into the air. Sugita and Kelli Hubly crash the goal to try and make something of the loose ball, but so do the Reign defenders and in the scrum it goes off Sugita’s head for the goal kick.|
So nothing, really; not sure what came of the 8th minute corner but the play-by-play doesn’t list anything until an 11th minute shot by Smith, so it doesn’t seem like any of the Thorns corners amounted to much.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith (+6/-0 : +8/-5 : +14/-) As we saw in the sequences above, this match showed all the strengths but also the weaknesses of our two exciting young forwards. Smith is the complete package; fast, strong, clever, and possessing a shit-ton of “soccer intelligence”. She’s become the Thorns most dangerous weapon.
She’s also young, and doesn’t yet have the craft, the dark arts, of a veteran striker.
Obviously we all hope those will come in time, but for now, she’s a walking embodiment of si vielliesse pouvait, si jeunesse savait.
Weaver (87′ – +2/-3 : +9/-1 : +11/-4) See above.
If there’s one thing I have to whine about Weaver that Smith doesn’t share, it’s that Weaver’s touch is more often heavy. She coughs up balls that Smith has on a string. Part of that, though, is her faster pure foot speed; with those long legs she has a higher gear that Smith doesn’t quite have.
As with the guile, I’m hopeful that experience will teach her.
Ryan (7′ – +2/-1) Decent short shift, but also a sign that Coach Wilkinson had more-or-less decided to accept the draw; she was waaayyy more defensive than the player she replaced.
Sinclair (74′ – +7/-2 : +3/-0 : +10/-2) This evening was a page out of the Thorns bestseller Getting The Most Out Of Your Aging Player.
It showed that if you:
1) Give her extra rest (thanks, shitty NWSL scheduling!),
2) Play her in a deeper-lying, more static role where she’s,
3) Surrounded by younger, faster players who understand her game,
She can still be extremely effective
It was also a reminder that:
1) Sinc is aging quickly – she was gassed by the hour as her PMR shows, and
2) How thin the Thorns are at the #10, because…
Rodriguez (16′ – +2/-1) …once again Raquel Rodriguez came on and did more-or-less nothing.
Oh, she worked hard and had some nice defensive actions. But she was replacing a player who had been facilitating attack, and didn’t.
Rodriguez is a fine player; I’m not a hater. But she doesn’t seem to be able to really make an impact on matches outside of the odd match or two…which was my thought when we picked her up. She’s a top-grade journeywoman player. All teams need them. But while her floor is high her ceiling seems low.
Sugita (+3/-2 : +12/-2 : +15/-4) I’m not sure what was more fun; watching Hina-san do her silken stuff on the pitch…
…or watching the cheering section from the Japan-America Society of Oregon doing their oendan stuff high up in the southwestern stands. Extra fun-points for stonking the visiting fans; that side of the west stand is usually pretty quiet, so the Royal Rooters or whatever they’re called usually have the place to themselves.
Not last Friday. The Deadly Viper Sugita Cheer Squad quickly learned to bang up a loud “PT! FC!” as soon as the visitors began any of their efforts and it was worth the price of admission to hear the confusion and dismay amongst the travelers.
I think Hina-san enjoyed the warmth on a chilly wet evening. I know I did. いらっしゃいませ！Irasshaimase!, JASO!
Coffey (+2/-1 : +5/-1 : +7/-2) The other big piece in the Thorns midfield; Sam Coffey was a deadly efficient #6, locking down the top of the 18-yard box and poaching well forward to distribute. Sometimes it’s tough to remember that she’s played a whopping eight professional games.
Kuikka (+5/-0 : +5/-0 : +10/-0) All her usual strengths.
I do want to mention a weakness, though, not so much for what it says about Kuikka but for what is says about the way the Thorns play. It starts with Emily Menges in possession ready to play out of the back. We all know where it’s going – to Kuikka out wide along the east touchline.
Here’s the thing; look where Sugita is going (and Sam Coffey is, too…); running into space near the center circle.
If Kuikka looks up she will see that a one-touch pass will let her put the ball on Sugita’s feet in space. Then Sugita can either push up herself, or Kuikka can sprint up the touchline to play a 1-2 if Sugita is closed down.
But Kuikka doesn’t do that. Instead she does what she (and Klingenberg) do as often as not; tries to make the run up the touchline. And – as often as not – she gets closed down and the attack stops.
One thing that I envy about the Reign midfield and wingers is their quick passing. It didn’t work last Friday, but it often does and it’s both fun (for their poor deluded fans) to watch and effective. I wish we’d do more of it.
Hubly (+4/-1 : +5/-5 : +9/-6) The Thorns defense was solid against Les Enfants Plutocrattes, so don’t let Hubly’s PMR fool you – most of her minuses are for passes that were too hopeful or small positioning goofs. Huge block on a Rapinoe shot in the 85th minute, too. Well done, Hubs.
Menges (+1/-1 : +5/-1 : +6/-2) Same here; good work, kept the clean sheet. The Reign didn’t manage to work the ball inside enough to give the Thorns centerbacks much trouble until Rapinoe came on, and they handled it when she did. So, there.
Nally (+2/-2 : +0/-4 : +2/-6) Nally’s numbers reflect the same issues as Hubly’s; lots of random long passing out of the back. Defensively fine, but put a lot of work into contributing to the attack and sometimes that’s risky.
Klingenberg (63′ – +5/-1 : +2/-1 : +7/-2) Picked up a knock early in the second half and had to be subbed out. Up until that point was doing fine, and her headed clearance in the 31st minute helped prevent another home loss to these wenches. Hope her shoulder is okay.
Beckie (27′ – +5/-6) Definitely a mixed bag. Had some nice moments, but was careless in possession at times and was clearly stifled offensively playing wingback even though she’s supposed to have experience there. Not really a factor, which is unfortunate given her c.v.
Bixby (+0/-2 : +3/-0 : +5/-2) Big save in the 65th minute, huge takes in the 68th and 69th. Also had one of those weirdly scary mad hands moments in the 37th minute where she appeared to go up to cleanly catch a Reign corner but then dropped it – fortunately right into her own path and away from anyone in white. But c’mon, Bix. Don’t do this stuff. My blood pressure can’t take it.
Coach Wilkinson: Well…what do you say when your team plays well but the visitors’ plan works and you can’t break them down?
You pretty much have to shrug and move on. But the bottom line is that the Thorns are going to have to figure out how to beat these people if they’re going to the Final and beyond; that’s pretty much the definition of the coach’s job.
At the same time, no coach can hammer a veteran striker’s cunning into a player with less than 30 appearances as a professional. The coach can set the table, but the players have to finish the meal, and between them youth and Laura Harvey’s troops did enough to prevent that from happening.
Now we have a busy week, with the Washington Spirit coming in Wednesday night followed by Houston on Saturday. The Spirit dropped a one-goal loss to this season’s Houston, Angel City, while Houston are coming off a road draw in Louisville.
One thing to consider is that having three home games in a row early in the season means long road stretches later. So nicking points from this week?
Pretty important, coach.
Obligatory post-TFC Mini-rant: WTF, NWSL?
One problem with this TFC:?
The tape review and PMRs are based only the last seventy of the ninety-plus minutes of this match.
Because for the first twenty CBS was showing this:
Now I’m an old white guy, so of course I loves me some American Tradition; God, guns, the Flag, motherhood, apple pie, Chevrolet (sound of eagle cry). Pestering livestock for profit is one of those traditions, yes, but…
Your “network deal” means that you get bumped to the streaming service (which fewer people even have than have the CBS Ocho cable channel…) by a bunch of goddamn cowboys, NWSL?
All I can think of is the scene in the original Rocky movie where Burgess Meredith as his manager asks Rock – who’s a dumbass and who before stardom Stallone was willing to portray as a dumbass – where he got this new robe with the meat company logo on the back. From da’ meat comp’ney, Rock replies. What else did they give you?, asks the manager. Rock has to think about that for a bit, and then he says I got da robe. like it settles it. And Burgess Meredith gives Rock the side-eye and says, in that wonderful gravely Burgess Meredith voice:
So. You made a “deal” with CBS, NWSL, that let your product get knocked off the air for damn near half an hour by frigging steaks and new boots?