Thorns FC: Straight on ’til morning

The Portland Thorns are NWSL champions for the third time in ten years.

I’m going to spend some time discussing how that happened.

But first I want to just revel in the happiness of this year’s squad. They kept fighting to the finish. They believed in themselves when no one – sometimes even we – believed in them.

And they were right. They deserve every happiness; they earned every joy.

The odd thing is that after all the drama – ending the regular season, conceding the Shield on the final day, and then the injury-time winner in the semifinal – I expected the Final to be a tense, tight, low-scoring game that stretched everyone’s nerves and produced nervous, ugly soccer.

What I least expected was…

…this.

The Kansas City Current had nothing Saturday.

No.

Thing.

Nothing as in…

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

0.34 xG nothing.

No shots on goal nothing.

The match reports used the term “domination”. My recollection from the exultant chaos of my seat at The Sports Bra was a combination of Thorns tackling and Current giveaways that stopped Kansas City well short of Portland’s goal.

When I sat down to review tape I decided to track them; which Current attacking moves were killed by Thorns defending, and which were died by suicide?

Quarter hourAttacks stopped by defenseAttacks stopped by turnover
0-1566
15-3048
30-HT510
45-6025
60-7546
75-FT611
Total2746

Keep in mind that the Current only generated about four more attacks that did succeed in getting a shot or close to a shot;

  • in the 34th minute (Kate del Fava headed over the bar),
  • in the 40th minute (the Current had couple of looks inside the Thorns box but solid defending from Kelli Hubly, Becky Sauerbrunn, and then Meghan Klingenberg saw them off without a shot),
  • in the 67th minute (a strong Lo’eau LaBonta cross went past Kristen Hamilton; after a couple of recycles KC was called offside), and
  • in the 70th minute (an Alexis Loera shot was blocked).

And that was it; about 77 attacks; 4 taken to completion (but without a shot on goal), 27 snuffed out by solid defense, and 46 thrown away by sloppy passing, heavy touches, or other incompetence.

Wow. Yeah, okay…that’s pretty dominant.

We’ll talk about this in the comments, but the weird thing is that it was visible early on that the Thorns fullbacks were mauling Hamilton and Cece Kizer, and Hailie Mace and del Fava were not providing service to the forwards to let them get in behind.

The Thorns kept tight lines and didn’t give KC anything to work with when they did pass well – which, as we’ve seen, wasn’t often.

Late in the match the Current was simply out of ideas, trying – as in the screenshot above – to just pitch the ball into whatever space they could find.

After Crystal Dunn came on in the 73rd minute it looked like Coach Wilkinson went to a 1-3-2-4…

…and it was lights-out and the 2022 Thorns had the third star they’d been chasing since the winter of 2018.

Here’s to you. Who’s like you. Damn few.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Just like the semifinal, the Thorns were pretty meh at 75% completion but Kansas City was a 67% trash fire.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Natalia Kuikka and Kling are diming everybody, and the Morgan Weaver-Sophia Smith-Raquel Rodriguez-Yazmeen Ryan power front is sticking and moving like a golden gloves heavyweight. Props to Sam Coffey creating out of midfield, and even the centerbacks are getting a piece of the passing action.

Kansas City, on the other hand…

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Mace and del Fava (and Loera and Edmonds further back) are trying…but everything is dying upfront. Look at where LaBonta, the notional #9, is playing! That’s a mess, and that’s what it looked like on the pitch.

Corner Kicks

Four. Three long into the box, one sort, one first half, three second

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
32′KlingenbergLongInto the crowd, cleared out for a Thorns throw, cleared again for a throw, finally lost.
58′KlingenbergLongPinged off a bunch of heads before being cleared out to Weaver, who rifled a shot that Franch had to turn around her post.
60′KlingenbergLongInto the scrum, cleared out to Rocky who shot wide right.
64′CoffeyShortTo Ryan; her lob was cleared, recycled, but finally ran out for a goal kick.

One great chance out of four; 25% is pretty decent for corners, as we’ve seen.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+15/-3 : +6/-3 : +21/-6) Despite all the hard work on defense it’s hard not to see how Smith isn’t Woman of the Match. Matchwinner, tireless hard work both attacking and forechecking defense. She’s had it all season and won the MVP for it and she brought it to Audi Field, too.

Well done.

Weaver (63′ – +11/-6 / +3/-3 : +14/-9) Oh, my…if that 58th minute shot had gone in..!

Another in what I think of as “Weaver Games”; lots of good Chaos Muppet energy, great runs, deft passes, hard graft tracking back and defending.

No goals.

Even more than that, soft shots (well, except for one) and poor placement. C’mon, coaches, help a sister out! You get this woman scoring, too? Christ, you’ve got a monster on your hands!

Beckie (27′ – +8/-1) Solid outing; defended when she needed to, and provided lots of possession at a time the Thorns needed to play keepaway.

Ryan (93′ – +4/-2 : +5/-1 : +9/-3) Good shift, both pushing up and defending. Nothing flashy, but the same dependable “third option” we’ve seen and expect from her all year.

Moultrie (1′ – no rating) Nice curtain call for the future of Portland soccer, and an end of a season of good progress. Looking forward to more next season.

Rodriguez (63′ – +4/-2 : +6/-0 : +10/-2) Some terrific passing, and put in the tackles when she needed to; as with Ryan, not a show pony, but a warrior for the working day who worked as well in D.C. as she has all season.

Sugita (27′ – +6/-0) With Beckie, possession in seeing out the match is a bit of a pleasant surprise. With Hina-san it’s expected, and it was there as expected at Audi. I’m not sure that Rocky needed to come off – I think she was doing fine – but we’ll talk about that another time. Domo arigato, Sugita-senshu.

Coffey (+7/-3 : +6/-2 : +13/-5) Hell of a match; locked down midfield, and distributed like a vending machine. A fine choice of WotM had Smith and Kuikka not been tearing it up.

Sinclair (73′ – +5/-8 : +2/-1 : +7/-9) This is for the joy of the team and the Championship, and Sinc surely deserves that.

But we’re going to talk about this.

Later.

Dunn (17′ – +2/-3) It would be impossible to top that 93rd minute winner, and she couldn’t. But played a solid shift and saw out the win that she’d sent the club thru to in the semifinal, so, fine.

Klingenberg (+10/-4 : +2/-1 : +12/-5) Every time I think that age is ready to reap you…

…you do stuff like this.

You were a beast in D.C. – it didn’t hurt that Kansas City wasn’t very pacey, but, still – you took the touchline away, and they never adjusted to that. Enjoy your second ring.

Hubly (+4/-0 : +4/-2 : +8/-2) The centerbacks were largely untroubled by Current pressure, but when they were they both handled it with disciplined calm; that quality has sometimes been fleeting in the Portland backline this year so it was damn good to see.

Sauerbrunn (+5/-0 : +3/-0 : +8/-0) Not a single foot wrong. Damn fine.

Kuikka (+9/-1 : +11/-1 : +20/-2) Supposedly the charge of the Finnish cavalry was the terror of Russian soldiers in the Northern Wars, and the cry Hakkaa Päälle! – “cut them down!” spread fear from the Baltic to the Urals.

Well, they say that at the youth team practices in the fields outside Kansas City the surviving Current veterans now tell tales of Finnish savagery that chill the blood of young wingers and send a shiver of fear up the backs of the listeners.

Bixby (+0/-1 : +1/-0 : +1/-1) Utterly untroubled. Couple of nice takes, but otherwise a day off work.

What is this, some sort of secret handshake? A gang sign? What?

Coach Wilkinson: Well.

You did it.

For all our – for all my – doubts and worries, for all the stressing over formations and lineups, for all the fear and doubt and second-guessing…you bagged the Big Prize.

Now – our discussion isn’t quite over. Next week we need to talk about a certain blind spot.

But that’s for next week, and there’s time enough for that.

Today, tonight, tomorrow…those are to simply bask. Bask in the feeling of the end of a job well done, a mission accomplished, a well-earned rest.

Of the third star…

…of honors hard-won…

…of happy tears…

…and of the love of your friends and teammates.

Everything’s fine. Shush now. Shush. Time to rest.

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13 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Straight on ’til morning

  1. A big thanks for your coverage over the last season. I look forward to it every week. Im kind of the go to for soccer knowledge in my season ticket holder group. Little do they know, I just read your articles and it makes me sound like I know what Im talking about! Cheers to you John.

    Let the craziness and speculation of the off season begin!

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    1. I had the thought tonight at the celebration party at the PP; that the end of the season is always bittersweet, even when the ending is as happy as this one. The team will change, old favorites (and not-so-favorites) will go, new faces will come…today the joy of the championship is still ringing, but tomorrow is a new day, and a new world.

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  2. Woot!

    Kuikka – knew she played a great game, but 20/-2!! Wow.

    Love to see Kling get some sort of award (Riveter MVP?) – hell of a season for someone who has already made her mark on the game. We need a Hall of Fame.

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  3. Thanks again for your intelligent, funny, biased, timely, insightful, literary, passionate & distinctly Eeyore-like coverage. Looking forward to the next post. Go Thorns! 🌹

    2
  4. Thank you John for this write up and all the coverage this year. As usual the pictures you include are iconic (see Mana Shim reflective) and in some cases tell a story all by themselves. I wished that the Thorns/ Wave semi-final was the game seen by those 915,000 CBS viewers. This game was fine, but not the exciting game that the semifinal was.
    Your scores for each player really confirmed what my eyes saw. That game was peak Kuikka. When she is on I don’t think there are many better right fullbacks in the world that match her. I think she plays Centerback for her national team. No wonder she gets happy feet when she gets an open look at the goal with Portland. To my eyes Wilkinson kept her in more of a defending role than as an attacker and she totally dominated, Mace, Hamilton, Keiser and LaBonta.
    Coffey is everything I thought Andi Sullivan would be out of college. But injuries have made pro soccer a bumpy road for Sullivan. Every American six will be compared to Julie Ertz. Sam does not have Ertz’s physicality, but she has the field general chops of Ertz and I think is a way better passer. But Ertz was a beast on set pieces.
    What can you say about Sophia? She is just so good that adjectives fail.
    Weaver and Ryan have become a great accompaniment to Smith and when they can improve their finishing; well your right the Thorns would have a monster.
    The defensive players all had good games and the attacking front played a role in that. Smith and Weaver coming up from way way back to support and Ryan coming from midfield. With Ryan spending a lot of time in the midfield it felt like the Thorns had twelve players on the field or KC only had 10.
    I didn’t say anything about Sugita, she is always good; but I saw this week a YouTube mashup of all her touches in the 2019 She Believes cup against the USA. There was our Hina-san on Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Crystal Dunn and Rose LaVelle. If I had watched that video before she came here I would have had no worries about her. But that first Seattle game she really was thrown around. That was a rough opening game for her, but she is fairy magician out there.

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  5. What was Bixby’s minus 1? The back post cross that was headed up and over the crossbar? For that matter what was her +1 collecting one of the crosses?

    Fair enough that was not a game that either keeper will be adding to their highlight reel. Besides maybe the saves Franch made on Hina’s shots.

    That was the most enjoyable (start to finish) stress free final I have seen the Thorns in.

    Ranking all the Thorns playoff games by subjective personal enjoyment.

    2017
    Thorns 4 Pride 1. (Was there and great filled stadium crowd, party all game long.)

    2022
    Thorns 2 Current 0 (Early lead played keep away and took advantage of sloppy play from the other team. Did not watch in person or would probably be 1 if I was there.)

    2018
    Thorns 2 Reign 1 (Only playoff game against them. Extra special as we hosted it because we beat them last game of the year. I was there both games were a blast. Not higher as it is attached to the 2018 final, also Seattle were fighting back.)

    2013
    Thorns 2 Flash 0 (Heath free kick Sinc clincher a good outing if Wambach was tearing out defense to pieces. Getting our team cut down to 10.)

    2016
    Thorns 3 Flash 4 (A loss, a blood bath, at least there were goals, saw it in person always a plus.)

    2018
    Thorns 0 Courage 3 (Thorns out played. Saw it in person, helps it stay up, no stress unlike the 2017 win.)

    2017
    Thorns 1 Courage 0 (Had no control on the game got a very lucky midfield free kick that Horan was able to convert. Did not see it in person. Was so stressed out it was going to be a loss all game, no real happy memory from the game, was a wreck.)

    2019 Thorns 0 Red Stars 1 (Don’t remember much of it at all.)

    2021 Thorns 0 Red Stars 2 (Was there in person, first playoff after the Riley conduct was known the mood was a funeral. Thorns weren’t in it.)

    2013
    Thorns 3 KCFC 2 (Do not watch have no memory of the game.)

    2014
    Thorns 0 KCFC 2 (I have no memory of this game. I don’t think I have seen it.)

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    1. Bella’s minus was for a poor decision in the del Fava header in the 34th minute; she came off her line too soon but had too much ground to cover to close down del Fava. Had the header been on frame she might very well have been stranded and the bloop header equalized.

      And the plus was, indeed, for a good take on Mace’s cross.

      What’s funny is that I was as nervous as any of the other playoff games until the second goal. I just couldn’t believe that KC would be as toothless as they turned out to be.

      The 2013 semifinal may have been the most exciting and memorable Thorns playoff match I ever saw. Watched it with the loud and very partisan Thorns crowd at the old Bazi Bierbrasserie. Very reminiscent of this year’s semi; went down early (despair!) then fought back to equalize (hope!) and then ahead in overtime (joy!). Amazing game, better (in that it was more dramatic a win) than that year’s Final.

      So that’d be #2 for me.
      #2? The 2013 Final; the first, and redemption for a turbulent season.
      #3 – the 2022 semi. From keelson-deep despair to maintruck delight.
      #4 – this Final; felt deserved after the trials of this season.
      #5 – probably, yeah, the 2018 semi, just because Long and Seattle were such shits that season and it felt good to whip them.
      #6 – Maybe the 2017 semi? I don’t really recall it that well, despite seeing it live. Maybe because I didn’t really take Orlando seriously.
      #7 – The 2017 Final. I hated how brutal that game was, and while I wasn’t going to turn down the star I felt we hadn’t played well enough to deserve it.
      #8 – The 2014 semi; another brutal, ugly game – that time by Vlatko’s Blues – and evidence of the hollow core to the Riley (spit!) squad.
      #9 – The 2018 Final. Never in it, never close. Felt beaten before kickoff.
      #10 & #11 – The 2019 and 2020 semis; like 2018, felt beaten going in – trouble team, bad form, tricky opponent and, sure enough, Chicago spanked us. Both sort or run together as a sort of sour “meh”.
      #12 – The 2016 semi, the Vega Robbery. The utter worst. Foul play from WNY, worse from the referee, and left angry at both of them to a degree that still resonates. That fucker Vega and that fucker Riley (spit!).

      It’s been a pretty amazing decade, when you stop and think. Imagine trying to do that as a Sky Blue fan..?

      1
      1. You were nervous until the second goal for a very good reason: This match was too reminiscent of the one in KC in August.

        In the first half of both matches, Portland were in charge and KC were toothless. In August, we had many better looks but couldn’t convert. In October, we hit payday in the 4th thanks to Ball’s miscue. In August, we looked to finally have it resolved only to give it away.

        So, between that small but crucial difference of Smith’s early goal, how close Del Fava came to equalizing, and the fact that Sinc was even less impactful on Saturday than she was in August… well, I was right there with you in Nervousville.

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      2. Your #12 was my former #1.

        Until this year’s semi-final, that 2016 semi-final was the most exciting, emotional game the Thorns ever played at home. It was also a turnaround moment in the team’s history. Sincy’s “never again” set and endured as the team ethos. Having players and coaches who there ensure it will not be forgotten at the club (we fans aren’t likely to forget that one for a couple generations). And tragedy is also entertainment.

        But now the 2022 semi-final has become my number one of all time. For the 2013 Final, we were at the Bagdad communing with hundreds, and there was a real connection made amongst us which has served the Riveters well. But in 2022, the connection was both to our fellows and the players. It felt more special and more joyous on more levels.

        PP has seen some epic moments: the Double Post, the RSL Western Conference loss, the Marco Vega game, the Peace Game, Mora’s last-second goal in MLS Cup, and now the 2022 semifinal. We are the luckiest fans on earth.

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  6. LaBonta was the #10 for KC, with Hamilton and Kizer as strikers (and Bennett off the bench), so nothing surprising on positioning, just no value happening up there.

    The only thing that would have made the match better is if our goals had come from the potential bangers instead of poor Elizabeth Ball’s slip or the own goal. If Smith’s dribble through 4 players and then shoot low far-post had curled in instead of going straight out, or if Morgan’s or Hina’s left upper-90 shots had been able to beat Franch, that would have been extra satisfying.

    These last two matches though, the team’s and the fans’ embrace of the moment and joy has really been uplifting. Even with my own disappointment at missing out on these moments (had to sell my semifinal ticket and watch from the couch with a bad cold, still recovering and not able to attend the homecoming celebrations), I feel so much better this off-season than last, even with the ownership issues lingering.

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    1. This season – as, um…challenging as the FO issues made it – was a welcome tonic after the sour, dispiriting endings of the last TWO seasons, where the Thorns just sort of shuffled into the playoffs with all the enthusiasm of a woman trapped on an escalator and were handily dispatched by Chicago.

      Even if we’d gone out in the Final, the heroics of the semi shook off that malaise, and since we DIDN’T fold, well…like I said in the post; I’m ridiculously happy for this squad.

      In 2013 I felt like it was a shared moment; the team and the fans both new, both a bit surprised that we’d found ourselves on the top step after the turbulent season.

      In 2017 I felt a bit sour and grouchy; less joyful than entitled – “you fuckers shiked us last season by thugging us out of the semi…how’d you like it now that it’s payback time?” – and kind of embarrassed at the way the squad beat down The Damned Courage in the Final.

      This year? I felt like this one was for the team itself, like I was at a marriage ceremony, or watching a brilliant and moving performance by actors playing from the heart. It wasn’t so much an “us” as it was in 2013. It was about them, and heartwarming the way you feel at the happiness of people you love.

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