There are four home games left in the season.
There are eight games left in total.
And the Portland Thorns have seemingly fallen apart.
Goal Sidney Leroux, Goal Sidney Leroux and a second loss in a row. The most in-form striker in the league hit twice against a Thorns side that barely looked to threaten at home.
The previously decent defense has started letting in goals. The offense is non-existent even with the superstars on the field and even the marquee players are second guessing themselves. What then can happen at this point in the system?
Enter Tobin Heath.
Well, let’s look at this without Tobin for a second.
Yes, the Thorns are still in second place. Yes, the top four teams in the NWSL go the playoffs. YES, the Thorns have only played 14 games to Sky Blue FC’s 15 and FCKC’s 15. They also still have some fantastic players. However, that is just about as many positives as can be mustered right now given the current state of play on the season. Now, let’s notice something here. The previous statement made by me says “On The Season.” The Thorns’ struggles in midfield are nothing new, they have just recently finally had the poor results to go along with the poor play in midfield. As was stated before, “I have intentionally avoided trying to make comparisons between the Thorns and the Timbers as I think it behooves us to have the Thorns stand on their own. However, I think it is very helpful now for us to compare the tenure of John Spencer to Cindy Parlow Cone in terms of play style.“
Well, not much has changed and there have been some recent writings on the long ball futility problem that illuminate the similarities. I forgot something important in the comparison between the 2012 Timbers and the 2013 Thorns. Rather, I forgot something in terms of players. Basically the only way to compare the 2012 Timbers and the 2013 Thorns is if somehow you transported Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi onto the 2012 Timbers and then watched them struggle to get goals and chase down hopeless balls launched up field from Lovel Palmer. Whether you place them #1 and #2 or whether you just place them in the top 5, not many would argue against Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair being two of the best female players on the planet.
On this team they are merely the #8 (Morgan) and #10 (Sinclair tied) goal scorers in the NWSL. Neither of the two players are in the top 9 of assist makers in the NWSL. There are actually no Thorns players in the top nine players for assists in the NWSL. Morgan is tied for 10th with three on the year. These goal numbers just show how stranded the players have been for service up on the front line. In the case of Sinclair, the player has been played out of position almost the entirety of this year. In the case of Morgan, what was originally a punt and score offense has slowly been shackled as the defenses have caught up with the Thorns. Morgan has looked increasingly tentative and clearly was out of sorts as she passed up a golden scoring opportunity late in the second half of the Boston Breakers game in a moment of pure “lack of confidence” that echoed throughout the stands.
As close as the Thorns are to first place (four points) they are also that close to being out of the playoffs (four points). Given that the current schedule has the Thorns playing Western New York Flash (4th), Chicago Red Star and Sky Blue FC (1st) in the next few weeks, this time is starting to edge towards crunch time. The Thorns simply need to find a way to pick up wins against the better teams in NWSL. It would be very difficult to imagine the Thorns actually being out of the NWSL playoffs, but, given their current form and playing style, it is also becoming difficult to imagine their fortunes hanging on the acquisition of one player.
Yet, that is really where Portland is right now. They are tied for the least goals allowed in NWSL but they also have only scored 18 goals, which gets them right at 5th in the league. For a team that acquired some of the best offensive talent in the league they are in desperate need of someone in the midfield who can set up the ball.
And….Now…..?? Enter Tobin Heath?
As bad as it seems to pin the entire hopes of a fanbase on one player to revamp the style of a team has been playing long ball for an entire season, that’s where Thorns fans are at this point. If anything, this stretch of play has proven that you can’t simply play well in the NWSL by lining up two world-class players and telling them to run at competent defenses over and over again. Will Tobin Heath be able to impact the Thorns positively? Well, that is the three-point question. The idea of freeing Christine Sinclair to play forward next to Alex Morgan with Tobin Heath feeding them the ball sounds something out of a dream. Yet, given the amount of talent already on the Thorns, the question that hovers around Cindy Parlow Cone will always exist until the team shows that they have a different tactical style than those espoused by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City.
Watching the Boston Breakers versus Portland Thorns game, I was convinced at the end that Cone had reached her “Dreaded Vote of Confidence” moment, but with the arrival of Tobin Heath, the steady attendance of 12,000 fans and the Thorns stuck at #2 in the standings, I would hazard a guess that the fans will see a few more attempts at what Cindy Parlow Cone can do with a team. A fan for the Thorns can hope it is four points north in the standings rather than four points south.