Things Learned: Thorns just couldn’t stop set pieces

Ray Curren October 2, 2016 76
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.

  • > it’s hard for Portland fans to blame bad luck or officials or anything else for their defeat.

    D’Angelo, already on a yellow, punched Horan in the face during 2ET stoppage. Yeah they can.

    • JL

      D’Angelo was trying to punch a ball away, and it rebounded off Horan and was headed for goal were it not for Dahlkemper blocking it. No referee, even one as incompetent as Marco Vega proved to be, is even going to consider calling that play a foul on D’Angelo.

      • Video: https://twitter.com/LagoonerBeach/status/782749977642545152

        D’Angelo’s hand comes down after the ball bounces off Horan’s face.

        • JL

          Yeah, from the follow through after punching the ball right into Horan’s face. It’s momentum from her attempt to clear it away, not malicious or intentional in any way.

          • Kevin

            Intent has nothing to do with whether it’s a foul or not.

          • Ethan

            Yeah, that brings up an Ospina challenge on Oscar in my mind. It most likely wasn’t his intention to have his momentum crash him into Oscar; that doesn’t mean the ref was right not to give a penalty.

          • DNG

            These plays should be called penalties all the time. Far too often keepers are given free passes on reckless play.

          • A careless challenge is still a foul. She carelessly ran out of the goal box to contact Horan, and carelessly punched downward, and followed the careless punch through hard enough to knock Horan down backwards.

            D’Angelo’s attempted clearance wasn’t even effective. Horan’s head contacted more of the ball than D’Angelo’s hand, and D’Angelo’s hand connected with Horan’s head more than the ball.

      • DNG

        This is another one of those clear fouls that is hardly ever called. Goalkeepers for some reason are exempt from reckless play violations when it comes to clearing balls out of their box

      • Happy

        No ref – ever, ever, ever – is going to call this penalty in the box, in stoppage time, of a play-off match. Ever, Ever, ever.

        • mockmook

          No ref would ever call a GK for taking too much time LATE in a critical OG match…

          • DNG

            That was certainly an outrageous decision. The US probably should have lost that match.

  • Silver Frost

    3 goals off throw-ins. That must be a pro woso record, and totally inexcusable if one is a Thorns fan. DC won’t be so lazy in the 18 box on throw-ins next week.

  • guest

    gotta love allie long turning her back away from the shot right when mewis shoots her half-volley goal. and then right after the goal she starts complaining to the ref about a possible non-call.

    • guest

      remember, these are soccer players not hockey players sacrificing their bodies to block shots.

      • AlexH

        Well for $6,000 a year I don’t think very many hockey players would be that thrilled to sacrifice their bodies either.

    • Kevin

      Some people want to win more than others.

      • mockmook

        Oh, good grief.

        Players are so concerned about inadvertent hand balls that they often turn their back to shots.

        Regardless, she was just as “big” from the back.

        • guest

          when you turn your back to the shot you lose sight of the ball. if she would have stayed facing the ball she could have used her legs to tip the ball wide as the ball went right by her side. but of course she didn’t know that because she was totally turned around and lost track of the ball. and the players that turn their backs to protect themselves frequently end up flailing their arms anyway risking a penalty kick. much better to face the shot and keep your hands behind your back if needed.

          • mockmook

            I’m sure you agree that your arms are most often if front of you.

            But, sure, IF she flailed her arms, it would defeat the purpose of the move.

        • Observed

          Woso players are afraid of the boob shot. It hurts.

      • Steglitz49

        That is the mantra of all the great ones, female or male.

    • BGH123

      Her constant need to complain to the refs drives me crazy, and I don’t think it ever ends in her getting the calls she wants. Like what complaint did she have about that play?

      • Katie Curtiss

        so true, that and you could hear the announcer after the game was over say that Allie Long had walked over and was still arguing/talking with the refs. Like the game is over, lose gracefully already, oh wait…

      • guest

        her teammate fell on the ground after her header. so i guess long wanted a penalty called for her teammate being on the ground. you wonder why the refs miss some legit calls when you have some players constantly trying to deceive the refs.

      • Ashley C

        If we judged based on Twitter alone last night, you’d think it’s illegal in soccer for Tobin Heath or Allie Long to be tackled.

  • Miguel Najdorf

    Portland the land of underachieving superstars. Great job Flash! McCall Zerboni, Lynn Williams, played with heart. For being a “technical” team, the Thorns sure booted forward to the other team a lot. Played right into the type of game the Flash could win.

    • Happy

      I wouldn’t expect Spirit to do this much. They play the possession game pretty well.

  • Lorehead

    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.

    I call shenanigans. Four could have been zero if it hadn’t been for a few Jess McDonald throw-ins, and three could have been five or six or seven if D’Angelo hadn’t made a few saves. Michelle Betos is a Thorn. Her saves were part of the Thorns’ performance on the field, not some kind of external event that compensates for bad calls by the referee. And when fans complain about bad calls, they aren’t asserting that every player on their team played perfectly.

    • Ethan

      Yeah, I haven’t seen the match, but posts from both teams’ Twitter accounts talked about multiple D’Angelo saves. She did screw up on Sonnett’s goal, but not mentioning any big plays by her doesn’t make sense if you bring up Betos. Agreed on the rest of your post.

      • Steglitz49

        These two SFs have been great adverts for WoSo. Hope it shows in attendance numbers in Houston for the final and for all teams next year.

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      • Lorehead

        I guess my point is, the goalkeeper is a player on the team, and a writer doesn’t get to say, “If this one player who was brilliant had been terrible instead, you wouldn’t have been in the game, therefore, you didn’t deserve to win.” The ref screwing up (even according to people who were plenty willing to point out the questionable penalty against WNY last time they were in Providence Park) is not like that at all.

        • Breakers fan

          I think one would have to go very methodically through the entire game and point out *every* questionable play, ones that received and did not receive calls, study each one carefully and then see what you come up with. All could do this but it’d probably be better if, say completely impartial referees from around the world, ones who watch zero NWSL play and so have no rooting interest, did it — and then see what they say. I think it’d be too hard for fans for whom this game meant so much to be able to do this sufficiently objectively. Too bad this idea will never be executed. I guess the next best thing would be for fans to do it and try their damnedest to be brutally honest. It would take a thorough, careful review, though, I think, from knowledgeable people who know the rules well to say what were all the incorrect calls made. Still, keep in mind that there was plenty of time otherwise to score and play defense outside of those instances.

          • mockmook

            Say it’s 30 bad calls for team A versus 20 for team B.

            That still tells us nothing about how the game would have ended if every call was right. Indeed, the first bad call sets up a whole new game from that point — and so on and on and on…

          • Breakers fan

            True. I’m just wondering if impartial experts, assuming some exist, fellow refs, would echo the outrage being voiced here by Thorns fans or if they would feel things weren’t as one-sided as Portland fans are saying they were.

            Regardless how that hypothetical experiment may go Portland had enough chances to alter the outcome by their play, I think it’s quite safe to say.

          • mockmook

            Hey —

            Did you go to that BC vs NC St ?

            And did you identify the mystery girl? (I think I have it figured out)

          • Breakers fan

            Yes, I did. I’ll go respond on that old thread directly to rkmid71. Hold on…..

            Also, yesterday and today I’ve watched UNC-UVA. Good to finally see UVA — 4 top-notch Seniors.

            and now I’m almost through with Arizona St and Utah – both teams I’ve seen before and I’m noticing how both are pretty darn good! Have you seen either of them? Kind of amazing how many good players are out there…

          • mockmook

            No, haven’t caught those two.

          • Breakers fan

            Did you read rkmid’s response? He revealed the identity. I had it wrong, but was tempted to say the right name…didn’t have the courage of my conviction.Who do you think it is?

          • mockmook

            Yes, I got it on my 4th guess out of 3 🙂

            Of course, rkmid71 gave me plenty of clues.

          • Lorehead

            There is something like that: someone can submit video of a call to PRO and get an official review of whether it is correct. I don’t think anybody disputes that both teams got another chance to win the thing in extra time.

          • Breakers fan

            Didn’t know that about the review thing – that’s good. Scoring and defending of course can happen from minutes 1-120. I’m not saying the Thorns didn’t get the short end of the stick, just noting that, here, due to their tremendous fans you hear the Portland voice more than you do the voice of WNY fans.

    • I think Betos’s absurd, high-flying-while-windmilling-to-stop-the-shot-then-somehow-coming-down-and-controlling-the-ball-so-no-rebound-shot save was the sort stop which is less part of a general performance, and more a glorious freak of nature.

      But I get what you’re saying.

    • xanthophobe

      Very good point. It’s not luck when you have one of the best GKs in the league.

  • zentech11

    I’m a Washington Spirit fan (for geographical reasons), but I was really sad to see the Portland Thorns lose this one… They had a great season though!

  • FantasticMrFox

    The way all these commenters are acting, the Flash should have graciously stepped aside for the Thorns. How dare they play hard, fast, and physical against Portland’s lineup of superstars?! Portland is good for woso and the league, but this is a lesson that nothing is guaranteed. WNYF played a great game and won fair and square. Bad calls happen in every match. Winners win regardless.

  • AlexH

    The most important thing learned was that in the 10 goals scored this weekend 9 came off of directly played balls and only one could be described as resembling jogo bonito. So could the powers that be please, please, please stop talking about “modern soccer” and focus on “winning soccer.” If they are worried about teams like Sweden bunkering and playing for PK’s then maybe our gals should spend a few extra minutes practicing them rather than our coaches spending years trying, unsuccessfully, to fit square pegs into round holes.

    • Happy

      I was thinking that the Nairn/Ordega (plus Stengel, plus Matheson) goal was a pretty good example of an offense breaking down a packed defense. Can argue Nairn should have been pressured earlier, but that just would have opened space for Dunn, who was lurking low.

  • AlexH

    The other thing we learned is that Kling is really slow. Why exactly is she an automatic starter for the national team? Oh yeah, Jill.

    • Steglitz49

      Has to have at least one ex-Beantown player?

    • Happy

      Because she’s effective on offense, and Jill thinks that gives her the advantage of an extra attacker. Which works, until the “two best CBs in the world” get beat on a Sweden counter.

      • Steglitz49

        Lisa Dahlkvist to Stina Blackstenius.

      • AlexH

        This is the one thing I don’t get. If Jill just wants somebody to provide offense on the flank and play optional defense then why wouldn’t Jill just put somebody like HAO in that position. HAO puts in some pretty nice crosses and can damn well get back to the other side of the field faster than Sam Mewis when the situation warrants.

        • Steglitz49

          Germany demonstrated how to play defense, also Japan before them. The Germans and Japanese like to bring their OBs into the attack. As they move up, the CBs move out and two MFs drop back. Then it sorts itself out over time.

      • Guest

        Sorry but when is the last time she was effective on offense? Whenever there is nice buildup play going and the ball gets to her, she just smacks a cross into the box. Maybe being effective on offense isn’t the answer, since the USWNT has been successfully counterattacked and scored upon on the counter in the past 5 games straight (including against Thailand). The last time I remember her being effective on offense was at She Believes

        • AlexH

          I think Happy was being sarcastic.

          I personally think that if a team wants offense they should go to a 3-5-2 with attack minded wingers. If they need that added offensive push then the CM’s can push up higher and 1 of the CBs can push into the space left over by the CM’s, but if not then the 3 CB’s should be more than enough to snuff out a counter.

          • Steglitz49

            Indeed. 3-5-2 was Even Pellerud’s favorite position, at least for WoSo.

            I have seen WoSo teams use the good old 2-3-2-3 when attacking a much weaker side — and getting caught in transition.

          • AlexH

            The 3-5-2 was Pellerud’s favorite formation? How come you never mentioned that before 🙂

          • Steglitz49

            Touché! Because it bears repeating. Pellerud was a highly successful coach who left a big footprint on WoSo.

          • Happy

            I wasn’t being sarcastic, I think Ellis really thinks what I wrote. I think that’s why she starts O’Hara instead of Krieger.

            Klingenberg is valuable as an attacker, and was playing the ball forward well even in the last minutes against the Flash. I, however, think there’s a substantial risk with pushing Backs forward, which has been exposed for the WNT more than a few times. And, as DiCicco pointed out in a recent friendly, “That back line won’t be getting faster in the next 3 years.”

            I respect what Ellis is doing: it’s courageous, and she’s a lot smarter than me. It does suggest that if our CBs remain the same over this cycle (and I don’t think that’s a given) then we need shapes that manage that risk better. Getting hyper focused, and too far forward, on breaking down a packed defense can be dangerous.

  • Joel

    And there was that no call on the foul in the box.

  • JL

    Mark Parsons would rather rely on an increasingly ineffective and clearly not 100% Tobin Heath to get a result instead of using his last sub for some fresh legs. Why is he not being criticized for that?

  • Dennis Nguyen

    Field-gate vs Anthem-gate for the championship. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. Cheaters are winners, lesson that every little girls watching NWSL should learn.

    • Miguel Najdorf

      Last year in the Championship game, Buzckowski should have earned red for her tackle on Fishlock, which hobbled her for the rest of the game.

      Tymrack should have earned a card for a play that put Fletcher out of the game. Ellie Reed had to come on for Fletcher, and a minute later HAO has the winning assist against Reed. 1-0.

      But what does everyone remember from that game? KC played amazing, and Seattle didn’t rise to the challenge.

      From my seat, Portland has way less to complain about in this game.

  • BGH123

    Portland has the most talent in the league, probably too much, but I think it almost works against. They have too many players who can only really play centrally, and they don’t have a ton of speed. I would consider trading Long, Henry or Horan for some speedy wingers, as I think they can kind of cancel each other out.

    • AlexH

      Trade Kling for HAO and go to a 3-5-2. Both Tobin and HAO are beep-test marauders and can hold down the flanks leaving the central players to do their thing.

      • Calci0

        FCKC IS NOT trading O’Reilly. Just not going to happen. Especially not straight up like that.

        • AlexH

          Nor would I. But there are lots of federation suits that would make that trade in a heartbeat which does not bode well for US soccer.

          • Steglitz49

            HAO is unlikely to continue to play much longer. If she is deallocated her pay will plummet.

          • AlexH

            Supposedly she still wants to play. However I was just using HAO as a counterexample for what could be done without Kling.

          • Bruce

            Moving to a new city to earn the max $40k at this stage of her career just doesn’t make sense.

      • guest

        kling is one of the worst defenders in the league right now. it is sad how much she is fallen in what seems like less than a year. i dont know if it is a confidence or physical issue. im sure she is the one Portland is going to try to trade esp if they get another allocated player. FCKC would be stupid to trade Oreilly for her.

    • Guest

      They could trade Dagny and Kling, and keep in tact that central midfield