The result says it all. The women left the field having lost 2-0 to Chicago and the frustrations in the North End were palpable. Yet, why was there a loss and where do the Thorns live? That, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.
With international absences due to friendlies, the Thorns lineup was shuffled. Having lost Leblanc, Buehler, Sinclair and Morgan to call ups, this game was going to be a very interesting barometer as to where the Thorns were without the star players that have really powered their record.
Here’s the thing: for the first 30 minutes of the game, the Thorns looked a different team than we have seen all season. Without Morgan and Sinclair working up top, the team attempted (both successfully and unsuccessfully) to play the ball on the ground hitting combinations and simultaneously pinging some awful passes for turnovers. You could see that the loss of the dynamism of the top two caused a bit of a problem in terms of “who gets the ball?”, but even so there was a great interplay that resulted in a Mana Shim shot and a few scintillating plays from Angie Kerr. There were also some passes that were hit directly to Chicago players and utterly rubbish turnovers that certainly seemed the result of a lack of familiarity between players. (Which, given the stage of the season, is really an invalid excuse.)
The dynamic of play shifted as the clock turned over into the mid 30s and Chicago started pressing, passing and attempting to disrupt the play of the Thorns. In this, the Thorns helped as they started to punt the ball back up top.
Finally, Chicago picked up a handball call, the following play ended up generating a corner and the Red Stars player Zakiya Bywaters found herself utterly unmarked in the box firing home a header from close range. Suddenly it was 1-0 to Chicago and the game was downhill from there for the Portland Thorns. The thing that had been the reason for the Thorns record this year, the defense, fell apart, and certainly one could look and question whether an absent Rachel Buehler would have covered that ball. Unfortunately, it was more than one Thorns player who fell asleep on the play as two Red Stars players were wide open.
Even after the goal, Portland tried to come back up the field, but the problem that would haunt them the whole game started to bite. As soon as they entered the Chicago end of the field, the ability to find someone to play a dangerous ball dried up. Frequently the Thorns would turn over the ball, hit the wrong pass, foul a player to try to recover the ball, or get into a decent position but not have any support.
So much of the game was a frequent reminder of the 2011 and 2012 season for the Portland Timbers that I think more than a few people had a bit of deja vu. More on this later.
Chicago had a sequence in the second half where they easily could have scored another goal as the Thorns lacked the ability to clear the ball from repeated corner kicks. Any sign of the “gameplan” from the first half vanished as the Thorns method of play devolved into 11 players behind the play aimlessly clearing the ball in any general direction that would work. The sequence at 53:00 is a perfect example of the frustration in the second half as the Thorns broke on the counter, passed a great ball out to Dougherty and the resulting cross was too high and too long.
Time over time over time Portland would try to break out offensively only to miss the final pass, sky the final shot, or turn over the ball. Meanwhile, Chicago took advantage of poor marking again and had a brilliant ball result in another goal. This was due to (once again) absolutely abysmal player marking and more Red Stars players getting goalside of the Thorns defenders.
In the 64th minute the Thorns had a rare chance at goal from a corner kick and the ball predictably rebounded off the post.
Immediately, Chicago came back up the field and the Thorns defensive/midfield issues reared their heads again. Edwards was now playing so far back that she was playing as a de facto sweeper in front of the center backs, and yet still the Red Stars had another great opportunity in the 18 yard box that rebounded off the outside of the post denying them a third goal on the day.
This sequence of play resulted in a very odd scene as Zakiya Bywaters (the goal scorer from earlier) had an apparent knee injury and was CARRIED off the field by Ella Masar. Yes, she was physically CARRIED off the field by Ella Masar. How on earth this was allowed to happen is beyond me. Was she too quick for the stretcher? Was there no Red Stars/Thorns stretcher available? I do know that the Red Stars absolutely and legitimately could have had more time come off the clock and they didn’t do this. Whatever you want to say about sportsmanship in the game, the sight of Masar carrying Bywaters off the pitch is both touching and simultaneously worrisome.
The final 22 minutes of the game filled out in the same fashion that the second half had been conducted. The Thorns couldn’t find each other offensively and when they did they couldn’t hit a shot on goal. Meanwhile, Chicago was solid defensively; and the crowd became more and more frustrated.
Every through ball for the Thorns was too long, every touch was a bit too hard, every shot was too high and too wide making the loss seem more inevitable as time ticked off the clock.
Then at 76:20 Cindy Parlow Cone and assistant coach John Galas had a few words for the referee and the fourth official on the sideline. Galas was tossed from the game and this really riled up the crowd. Now here’s a quick word about the referee on the night: I think it is the prerogative of a home crowd to be passionately defensive of their own team and to chant and cheer and goad the referee into feeling like she needs to make calls. However, on this particular night, the referee wasn’t really egregiously biased against either team. Certainly she didn’t call some of the physical play, but this went for both teams. While this inability to card the right player at the right time encouraged physical play leading to some very cheap fouls, none of what she called made the Thorns fall asleep defensively on set pieces… THAT is on the players and the coach.
Either way, the game time ran out and what we are left with is… what happened?
Simply? Defensive lapses, and no real adjustment in the second half. While the first 30 minutes of the game offered a glimpse at something different, in the end, the Thorns showed their heavy reliance on the otherworldly talents of their missing players. 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. While the Thorns “style” has been more effective, that is really due to the fact that the Thorns possess some of the most talented players in the league. Frequently, a Spencer coached team would look like it ran out of ideas, the subs typically didn’t make enough of an impact, and they would just repeatedly try the same thing over and over and over again. This comparison hits a bit too close to home for those of us that have watched the Thorns over the course of the season.
When we discussed the counter attack style, in an earlier recap, I remarked that the absence of the international players would test whether this style would work without the players the Thorns lucked into receiving. In this game, it didn’t.