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Analysis

Lauletta: Sermanni won the battle but lost the war

Amandine Henry celebrates her goal that opened the scoring in the Thorns’ 4-1 playoff win over the Pride (photo copyright Patti Giobetti for The Equalizer)

One year and five days after walking off Providence Park in a cruel mix of tears and heartbreak, the Portland Thorns made good on their second straight home semifinal. In a match that had some moments of brilliance for both sides, the Thorns ultimately proved the better side winning a lopsided 4-1 result over the Orlando Pride. The win means the Thorns not only ended the Pride season but will now follow them back to Orlando where the NWSL Championship will be contested next Saturday on the Pride’ home pitch.

Here are three thoughts from the match.

Sermanni won the ref battle but Pride lost the war

One of the talking points from the week was Tom Sermanni’s assertion that referees become intimidated in front of the large crowds at Providence Park which in turn, allows the Thorns to play more physical without consequence. This was clearly a tactic meant to plant a seed of doubt in the whistle. And it may have worked.

The match was called fairly even, and the Thorns number one agitator Hayley Raso appeared to be on the wrong side of the call almost every time she went in for the dual. There were not really any close calls in either box but the few penalty shouts came from the Thorns and not the Pride.

But Sermanni and the Pride still lost the war. They lost the war not only because they lost the match, but because the goal that stretched out the game came after one of the few times Raso was able to draw a foul. Toni Pressley, starting for the injured Camilla, ran over Raso as they chased down a ball on the right side of the penalty area. Tobin Heath, making her first start in a Thorns uniform this season, sent in one of her patently gorgeous free kicks and Emily Sonnett raced between Pressley and Steph Catley and scored with a clinical header to the far post.

That goal made it 2-0, and even though the Pride got one back less than 10 minutes later and enjoyed long stretches of territorial domination throughout the afternoon, they never actually recovered from going two goals down. We’ll never know if Sermanni’s comments helped his side when it came to the referee’s whistle (there was a blatant card missed on Katherine Reynolds and a potential card missed when Monica got her arm up on Heath), but the Pride died by the set piece anyway.

Henry gets signature moment on the way out of town

Matches that end 4-1 are rarely as memorable for any specific goal and this one figures to be no different. But the one that opened the scoring on the day came off the foot of Amandine Henry who was playing her final match in Portland. She still has one more to go and will be looking to leave an NWSL champion, but she won’t play at Providence Park again after agreeing to return to Lyon after the Thorns season ends.

Henry’s existence in NWSL has been an interesting one. She arrived with much fanfare after being among the top handful of players at the 2015 World Cup. She also arrived with a message, even if it was never her intent to carry it, that NWSL could attract major players to take pay cuts in order to play in a deeper, more physically demanding league. At the time her signing was easily the most significant for NWSL (since passed by Marta).

On the field though, Henry has been good but not spectacular. There has been little to criticize about her play, but rare has been the game where Henry controlled its entire tempo out of her deep-lying midfield position as we had become so accustomed to seeing with Lyon and France. Furthermore Henry’s stated goal of helping to instill the U.S. mentality in her French side blew up when France unceremoniously crashed out of the EUROs in the quarterfinals (they did beat the U.S. 3-0 to win the SheBelieves Cup.)

With all that in mind it was nice to see Henry get a big moment in front of 18,000 strong at Providence Park. Not a whole lot had happened when, in the 12th minute, Meghan Klingenberg ran onto a ball in space down the left side. Klingenberg played a perfect cross in the vicinity of Henry. After muscling through Ali Krieger, Henry beat Ashlyn Harris to open the scoring on the day.

Time will tell how Henry is remembered by NWSL and Thorns fans but it was nice to see her as the center of attention for a moment–a big moment–on Saturday.

Thorns defense bends, never breaks

Part of the hand wringing that comes with any release of awards finalists was that no Thorns defender was named as Defensive Player of the Year finalist despite the Thorns conceding the fewest goals in NWSL during the regular season (Adrianna Franch is a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year.) Saturday’s semifinal showed many of the reasons why the Thorns defense was so stingy to play against.

As mentioned earlier, the Pride dominated possession across stretches of this match. They scored on a short corner in the 23rd minute and then once Marta started seeing more of the ball, the Pride spent much time in the Thorns’ defensive third. But the Thorns never allowed themselves to break or to become too stretched in the back.

Two plays typified what makes the Thorns defense so difficult to beat. The first one came in the 53rd minute after Catley found Marta with a perfect ball that left Katherine Reynolds stranded out of position and Emily Sonnett beaten by Marta’s run. Emily Menges came to the rescue, dashing into the box to block Marta’s initial shot/cross in a spot where so many players give away a penalty. After that Sonnett recovered and got down low to defend Marta before conceding nothing more than a corner kick.

Five minutes later, Chioma Ubogagu ran down an errant Catley cross and prepared a return pass to the Pride left side. Alex Morgan was camped out on the far post and Ubogagu’s cross looked as if it would find her. Reynolds read it well though and backed up to get her body on Morgan (contrast this with Kristen Edmonds spotting Christine Sinclair behind her but electing not to close down the space leading to the fourth Thorns goal), and did not shy away from contact in going up for the challenge. Unfortunately Reynolds also got a piece of Morgan’s head, but she also won the ball, and yet another Pride chance was scuttled.

About 10 minutes after that, a quick buildup to Raso put the Thorns up 3-1 and they were on their way to the final.

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