Coming into the game versus the Washington Spirit, I thought we could potentially see a lineup change for the Portland Thorns. Angie Kerr had been not been linking up well in the midfield, the large gaps in the interior between offense and defense, the narrowness of the Thorns formation in the first place and the play of Danielle Foxhoven had me believing that perhaps Cindy Parlow Cone would trot out a 4-3-3 formation that would put Foxhoven at the tip of the attack and allow Morgan and Sinclair to create for her.
However, the move at this time was the aforementioned removal of Kerr for the 22-year-old Meleana Shim who filled the position that Kerr had previously held, namely rotating between playing up top with Alex Morgan and dropping back to provide support to Christine Sinclair.
It has to be said that we have reached a point where we can admit that contributions of certain players in the Thorns system and Portland as a whole would be lost without the contributions of Christine Sinclair and Rachel Buehler. Sinclair has given up the ability to play simply as a forward and has been the person creating the offense for the Thorns in the midfield. With Tobin Heath not yet an option for the Thorns (and who knows if she will be), Sinclair has attempted to pick up the slack in the midfield and provide the cutting through balls and link up play that needs to happen. Meanwhile, Buehler has been the rock in the back four who has actually cleaned up quite a few of the mistakes that the Thorns have let happen whether through positioning, give aways, early season miscommunication, or just fine passes from the opposing team over the top. Even when it seems like the Thorns are going to be in trouble from a dangerous situation, Buehler seems to ghost in and pick the pocket or pass out for a throw and break up the attack.
In the 12th minute Morgan settled a long pass over the top, turned her defender into an awkward position and looked to be brought down with a tangle of legs after which a penalty was called. Morgan strode to the spot and dispatched the penalty calmly to the left side of the net to a good-sized cheer from the crowd. This “good-sized cheer” rather irritated the Washington Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris who made some remarks later on twitter
Of course the response from many fans in the stands indicated that perhaps Harris is just not used to there being travelling fans as a small group of the Rose City Riveters were there as well as a contingent of fans from the East Coast Platoon of the Timbers Army. There were, as well, a group of Thorns fans right behind the goal (according to reports from twitter). Either way, the Alex Morgan circus continues unabated and Morgan almost scored again as she pressed up against the Spirit defense, picked off nervous defender and fired a shot that just ricocheted off the post.
The Spirit came right back and created a dangerous chance down the left side of Portland’s defense before Sinclair cleared the ball out and the Thorns blocked the ensuing shot from that.
A perfect example of the play of Sinclair in the midfield is around the 22nd minute in which she wins a ball in the midfield, and while doing this the ball gets passed off to Dougherty, who passes off to Edwards to Sinclair to Dougherty who plays a ball to Morgan to Sinclair who tried to loft a ball to Shim. She generates that connection that certainly one would hope to see from your attacking midfielder, a position that the Thorns are still in desperate need.
Even when the Spirit were able to break in the first half, Rachel Buehler was there patrolling the field and punting the kicks downfield for Karina Leblanc. This was a continuation from the second half of the Red Stars game in which Buehler started coming back to kick the ball back into play for Leblanc. While Leblanc hasn’t had the need for too many acrobatic saves this year it is worth watching to see if she has any issues pushing off when going to punch the ball or making a diving save, or if this is just a temporary strain/fatigue issue with Leblanc.
Now I’ve written a fair few game recaps this season, and I’ve oft belaboured the issues with the midfield, the open space and the (at times) cheap giveaways (those giveaways that somehow Buehler seems to clean up) but it has to be said that so far the Thorns haven’t been challenged yet by that dynamic presence on the field that could take the game to them from the forward position. The game that gave them the biggest problem so far was the first game against FC Kansas City in which Kansas City was aggressive, well-organized and defensively compact enough to shut down the talented players of the Thorns.
In the first half, Washington had a number of interesting opportunities on the counter attack but were unable to find the connection from the forward position often stranding players up top and seemingly trying to earn corners. Many times the Spirit kept 8 players behind the ball seemingly intent on stopping Portland first and then generating an attack.
A quick word about Alex Morgan and the “jawing at the referee” that happened in the first half. Interesting to me that somehow we equate this as a special advantage for Morgan when this “leeway” seems to happen to every superstar player whether male or female. There was a decent chance she could have received a yellow card for what happened but, at the same time, it’s a part of the game that exists when you are a considered a “prestige player.” Yes, it might be annoying if you are the opposing team, but from Kobe Bryant to Abby Wambach to Michael Jordan to David Beckham, this tends to happen quite a bit.
As the second half started it remained to be seen if Washington could generate enough offense to actually make the game… a game. Interestingly enough, they managed to find a dangerous counter within the first five minutes as the shot of the Spirit was only stopped by the thigh of Karina Leblanc.
Minutes later, though it was the truly hard working Nikki Washington who pounced on what can only be deemed a truly AWFUL pass by Ali Kreiger and struck in a gorgeous curling shot from distance. Nine times out of ten that shot is booted well wide, well over, or struck out for a goal kick but in two consecutive weeks we have seen a Thorns player (Sinclair and Washington) strike home a beauty of a curling goal.
After the goal, Portland began trying to attack down the right side of their offense while Washington tried to play down their right, but ultimately seemed to end up with a few long hopeless balls that were collected by Karina Leblanc.
There was a bit of back and forth with Portland having the better of the chances until Nikki Marshall went in for a tackle on the field and came up injured. She limped off the field and was replaced by the multi-talented Jazmyne Avant. Avant was thrown into the fire immediately as the Spirit, already playing down Avant’s side of the field, started making an empahsis of coming down the left side of the Thorns defense. At the other end of the field Sinclair hit an absolutely filthy shot from roughly 20 yards away that Ashlyn Harris palmed over the top.
Allie Long decided to jump into the yellow card lottery as she was cautioned in the 70th minute and the Spirit attempted a long ball into the box from the restart that ended up with a wide ball into the arms of Karina Leblanc.
With a substitution and a positional shift, the Spirit went with a three woman back line and tried to overwhelm the Thorns midfield with numbers. The ability of the Thorns to hold the ball and reduce their giveaways allowed them to break away from the pressure and keep possession in the Spirits half for the first 5 minutes of the positional shift as the Thorns do have quite a few very talented players with the ball at their feet.
Courtney Wetzel came on for Allie Long covering any issues with Long’s yellow card as Becky Edwards received a yellow card just previous to the substitution.
The Spirit kept up with their tactic of long set piece attempts from deep that were cleared by Thorns players. Even with all the long ball attempts, one of the better tries for the Spirit came from rarely seen (in this game) combination play from forward position as the resultant long distance shot was off target.
Suddenly the Thorns started giving up cheap possession, the Spirit switched the field and worked on Avant who was beaten by Mccarty who passed to Matheson who Avant probably thought was going to be covered by Rachel Buehler who (uncharacteristically for her recent play for the Thorns) seemingly deadlegged herself and fell down. This cavalcade of errors resulted in Matheson getting taken down in the box for a penalty. Matheson dispatched the shot and the Spirit got a goal to send the game to an exciting finish.
This exciting finish was helped by the on-screen clock not counting anymore and the ping-pong frenetic play that resulted in the Spirit looking fresher and more threatening than they had for most of the game.
BLARING CAR ADVERTISEMENT
Still the Thorns defense stood up and managed to keep the game 2-1 for another road win and another massive statement in the NWSL.
MOAR BLARING ANNOYING CAR ADVERTISEMENT
It has to be said that while the Spirit threatened at the end of the game that at times in this game, it seemed like the Thorns’ biggest enemy is themselves. If they continue to play switched on and engaged they have the talent to overcome quite a few mistakes and the lack of a true attacking midfielder to win on the road against a number of talented teams.
EVEN MOAR BLARING CAR ADVERTISEMENT AND MY C@R WAS BIT BY A M00SE 0NC3
Oh wait… no… let’s not do that kind of intrusive stupid advertising, for that would be silly and would probably make everyone hate the car company that did that. My apologies for the people who did that above as they have been sacked.
BLARING LLAMA CAR ADVERTISEMENT AGAIN
Oh, indeed (llama) that is just very silly…
See you back in Chicago for “Portland versus the Red Stars Redux“, or “Can Chicago learn how to Stop the Thorns” or… “how I learned to to love the Galumpki at a Polish food festival“.