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Analysis

Things Learned: Thorns just couldn’t stop set pieces

Christine Sinclair scored the first of three Thorns' goals on the night. They were not enough though, in a 4-3 loss to the Flash (photo: Portland Thorns FC)

Christine Sinclair scored the first of three Thorns' goals on the night. They were not enough though, in a 4-3 loss to the Flash (photo: Portland Thorns FC)

Christine Sinclair scored the first of three Thorns’ goals on the night. They were not enough though, in a 4-3 loss to the Flash (photo: Portland Thorns FC)

In the end, Portland knew what was coming Sunday afternoon from Western New York. The Thorns knew they would be seeing a very direct 4-4-2. Mark Parsons probably called every player Paul Riley put and where last week. He even said the keys would be breaking the high pressure the Flash would inevitably put on his side and defending set pieces when they arose.

They couldn’t break the pressure nor defend set pieces and the Thorns will be watching next week’s NWSL Championship on television.

It’s not as easy as it looks, of course. Parsons chose to try to match Riley’s 4-4-2 formation, with Amandine Henry and Allie Long attempting to deal with Sam Mewis and Abby Erceg, pushing Nadia Nadim wide and Lindsey Horan closer to Christine Sinclair up top. For the first few minutes, Portland was dominant, but once Western New York got its legs, things changed.

To be honest, the Thorns’ demise was not really tactical. The first three goals amazingly all came from Jess McDonald long throws and the fourth was just a quick counter and a brilliant pass from Sam Mewis and finish from Lynn Williams. But four could have really been six or seven if it weren’t for Michelle Betos making a few big saves, so it’s hard for Portland fans to blame bad luck or officials or anything else for their defeat.

They knew what was coming. They couldn’t stop it.

What else did we learn from the Flash’s epic extra time victory over Portland in the NWSL semifinals?

1) Portland’s best players did not have their best matches

Tobin Heath is probably the league’s MVP (at least that’s how I would vote) and part of the reason why is her pinpoint delivery of set pieces that helped lead her to 10 assists. But Sunday, those services were nowhere to be found as she wasted several free kick opportunities. While Heath got loose a couple of times, the physical play of Elizabeth Eddy and Makenzy Doniak kept her in check for most of the contest. (Heath was also banged up early in the contest, so it’s hard to know if she was 100 percent).

Elsewhere, Meghan Klingenberg had trouble keeping up with the Flash’s pace, while Allie Long, Amandine Henry, and Horan had decent matches, but none did anything truly spectacular, and it’s hard to say any was as good as Samantha Mewis on the day. The match is not played in a vacuum, of course, the pressure and commitment of the Flash had plenty to deal with the general lack of composure from the Thorns. But I’m sure Parsons hoped his world-class players could have dealt with it a little better.

2) Set pieces can be hard to defend

Obviously, the Thorns must have practiced plenty against the threat of long throws, but it’s hard to simulate just how many bodies are buzzing around the penalty area and how quickly the Flash pounce on loose balls. None of the three goals off long throws were the next touch after the throw. They bounced around the box until someone in a white jersey finished it. Portland seemed to have chances to clear, but everything happens so fast and there are so many bodies around, it’s not always that easy.

3) Technical play is great, but speed and physical play are still lethal, too

Although they seemed to get a bit tired at the end of normal time, for most of the game, the Flash neutralized the skill of the Thorns with hard work and speed, using it to close down at every opportunity. While Portland has plenty of talented players, they don’t feature many players whose speed is one of their top assets, and that makes things difficult. You would think with players like Horan and Henry on the field, the physical nature would be a wash, but the Thorns just couldn’t clear the ball on numerous occasions and now they’ll have to wait for 2017.

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