Coming off a lackluster performance against Chicago Red Star, the Thorns looked to turn around and win against FC Kansas City. Now that the perfunctory initial sentence is out of the way, lets get to the point. If the Chicago performance was akin to the offense wandering around the Sahara, then the FC Kansas City game was the attacking equivalent of hitting the lottery.
With Kansas City coming into the game with one of the best defenses in the NWSL, the game seemed like it had the potential of turning into a test to see if the returning national team players could break the defensive solidarity in the middle of the field. Instead, the game changed quickly 12 minutes in with a FC Kansas City defensive mistake as Becky Sauerbraun failed to collect the ball, fell down and Alex Morgan rifled a shot past the outstretched hands of Barnhart. Has to be said that Barnhart awkwardly reached over her body with her right hand instead of trying to use her left. While the goal was a shot with a ton of pace on it and perhaps unstoppable, certainly it seems that a left hand in that particular situation would have allowed her a chance to deflect the shot.
This series of events was then quickly followed up seven minutes later by a Dougherty to Wetzel combination that was finished off with aplomb into the lower right corner of the net. Wetzel has definitely been playing herself into the lineup with solid performances, assists and now goals. Down 2-0, Kansas City couldn’t rely on staying defensively compact and hoping to bury the game in a quagmire, they had to attack and so happened an enthralling back and forth affair between Portland and Kansas City that wasn’t over ’til the final whistle blew.
While the statistics prove that a 2-0 lead is an extremely advantageous position to be in for the team up two goals, Kansas City decided to test the theorem that there is always a chance. Attacking down the right side of the field, Kansas City began creating chances and seemingly had one penalty shout denied that appeared from the stands (at least) to not be an overt foul in the box. KC kept coming at the Thorns defense as both teams traded blows. Then, Rachel Buehler made what was very poor challenge from behind on inaugural NWSL goal scorer Ranae Cuellar giving away an absolute stonewall penalty. Buehler stood up and walked away without complaint knowing full well that a penalty kick was coming. Lauren Cheney converted the chance from the spot and Kansas City pulled back a goal and the score was 2-1 Portland with only 33 minutes having gone by. Cuellar, incidentally, was worked on behind the Thorns goal for a number of minutes before finally being loaded into a wheel chair and taken off the pitch. The report on her, currently, is that X-Rays were negative and her injury is believed to be an ankle sprain.
The half came and on the restart the two teams were back at it again. With not even two minutes gone on the clock, Morgan sent in a beautifully weighted pass into substitute Danielle Foxhoven who converted and the Thorns were back up by two goals.
Kansas City and Portland then traded possession as the two teams seamed to believe they could score at almost any time.
Less than ten minutes after the goal by Foxhoven, Kansas City came down the right side of the Thorns defense and another beautiful ball sent into Lauren Cheney resulted in a goal for Kansas City. Suddenly it was 3-2 and once again Kansas city and Portland swarmed forward looking for another goal.
Ten minutes later, at 65 minutes into the game, Christine Sinclair sent in a cross that was collected by Morgan who rounded the Kansas City defense and sent in a shot that deflected off Allie Long and in for a Thorns goal putting Portland up 4-2.
Yet… The game was STILL not done with twists and turns.
At the 80th minute contact resulted in Alex Morgan being on the ground next to the corner flag of the North End. While the trainer came out to investigate her, even making the sub sign with her hands, the referee would have nothing of it and motioned to Morgan to get up. When Morgan did not get up immediately the referee brandished a yellow card, which was either a card for diving or a card for time wasting. Either way, Morgan jumped up and ran back onto the field smiling at the referee.
A few seconds later, Kansas City came backdown the field and scored again off a slow bending ball that beat Karina Leblanc into the far corner of the goal sending the game to its eventual 4-3 conclusion.
A wild game was over and Portland certainly showed that it could keep up offensively to both score goals and win the game. While the statistics show that Kansas City had more shots, less fouls and more corner kicks on the night, they lacked the ability to finish the shots when needed.
Between this game and the last I had the privilege of speaking to a number of people about the Thorns, their style of play and building something from the ground up. There are a lot of stylistic differences between this team and the one that shares the space in which they play, and we should not use these to compare as the play, the movement, the style and the players are different. What we can use are our eyes, the history of the game, tactics, and the players available to determine what could be happening. In order to do that though we must also look at the way in which the players respond to a coach and the way in which they respond to the other team on the field. The Thorns showed, in this particular game, the ability to respond to what the other team was giving them (at least offensively, defensively was an entirely different proposition). This was not something that they were able to do against Chicago for a full 90 minutes. If we look at the differences between how the team played and who was available for Chicago, versus who how they played and who was available against Kansas City we get at the heart of the matter.
Simply, talented players matter in the system that Cone wants to use. This isn’t something that she should necessarily be blamed for as the acquisition and deployment of top talent successfully is not something to overlook. Yet the ability to generate offense and have a team come together without the star players allows the entirety of the team to feel their own value and contribute. In my opinion, having a dangerous team from position 1 to position 22 will lend itself to not just wins, but the building of a dominant team in the league. As the number of international departures over the course of the season will prove, the ability of Cone to generate success from the role players on the Thorns will dictate the level of success from the team this season.