There was a moment early in Saturday’s Portland Thorns FC second half which, if it didn’t tell you how those 45 minutes would play out, at least hinted at where the pressure points would be between the home side and visiting Seattle Reign FC.
It was in the period’s opening minutes, right after the teams returned to the field after halftime with the score at 1-1 in the NWSL Playoffs semifinal, when play was first starting to re-establish a flow. Seattle was moving the ball from the left flank back to the middle, where they usually try to play through defensive midfielder Allie Long.
Normally, it would be Thorns attacking midfielder Christine Sinclair who would be in that space to mark Long, but she was out wide, trying to help where the ball once was. Caitlin Foord, the team’s striker, made a number of plays in the first half where she came from high to pressure the ball, but in this instance, is was Lindsey Horan, coming up from one of the team’s two holding midfield spots, who applied the pressure.
Long was eventually forced to play back, Sinclair moved up to apply more pressure to the Reign backline, and the Thorns, having their press and shape established, forced Seattle’s Lauren Barnes to (cut off from the GIF above) play long.
This is the mundane of moments, one we also saw occasionally in the first 45 minutes, but as the second half went on and Seattle had trouble moving the ball out of their own half, the moment proved prescient. The Thorns came out of halftime intent on improving their pressure, playing higher on the field and, as a result, eventually wore the Reign down. It was that type of pressure that led to Horan’s game-winning goal:
On an individual level, Horan was the ultimate the beneficiary of that change, finding herself at the focus of so many 50-50 balls and, in the 77th minute, getting on to the end of that Sinclair cross. But none of that freedom would have been possible without the team having faith in the player who sat behind Horan – the one who would have to control defensive midfielder by herself, if the Thorns were to apply the pressure they wanted. We have talked about Celeste Boureille’s improvement, before, but in the biggest game of her career, the third-year professional may have delivered her career’s best performance, with the pass to Sinclair before the game-winning goal perhaps the easiest of her day’s contributions.
“For me, Cel has been so great,” Horan said, after the match. “People don’t see that. Cel lets me do what I can do. She’ll do all the dirty work for me.”
Consider moments like this, in the 49th minute, when Boureille’s small victory helps maintain possession and keep the ball in (or at the edge) of the Thorns’ attacking third:
Most of her high points were similarly mundane. This one, however, in the 71st minute, saw her win a one-on-one battle with one of the most tenacious players in the league, Jessica Fishlock:
Then there were other little plays, like committing this foul, here, on Megan Rapinoe. Boureille doesn’t think this is a foul, but just to be in position to prevent Rapinoe from making the most of the space behind Ellie Carpenter was important. Before Boureille’s intervention, Rapinoe’s heading upfield:
And then there’s this, a first half moment that combines everything Boureille brought to the game in one beautiful moment:
1. Moving to account for Lindsey Horan's movement, pressure— Richard Farley (@richardfarley) September 17, 2018
2. Recognizing VERY early where Utsugi was going to move in response
3. Executing off of that read, closing, winning the ball
4. Drawing a yellow card on Jessica Fishlock
Great play, @CelBee. #BAONPDX #NWSL pic.twitter.com/PXAJG7PxSZ
This is part of the reason why you don’t hear much about the Celeste Boureilles of the world. Particularly when they’re playing alongside of a player like Horan – who needs to be freed to thrive if the team’s going to reach its potential – the Boureilles of the world shine in isolated tackles, sublime reads, or off-camera movements. Fishlock, herself, was part of a similar partnership for years in Seattle, one that saw University of Portland graduate Keelin Winters become the most-underrated player in NWSL history. The Seattle Reign never win two NWSL Shields without Winters at the heart of midfield.
Since mid-season, Boureille is been the Winters of Portland, but given the coverage of players like Horan, Sinclair and Tobin Heath have earned, it’s understandable that Boureille rests outside the limelight. Even on Saturday, when her play was so crucial to the team’s victory, Adrianna Franch’s first half heroics were rightfully the spotlight’s focus. It’s only now, two days later, that we document all of Boureille’s virtues.
In fairness, we have been here before, trumpeting a player whose three-year rise was worth more than a post or two. But never before has Boureille’s contributions been so important and so timely. In a must-win game, when the Thorns felt the need to exert more pressure on an opponent, they were willing to test whether Boureille would hold up. And she not only held up, but in terms of how soccer formations work, she held her teammates up.
When the Thorns are in their base look, you have a typical 4-2-3-1 formation. In that look, both Boureille and Horan are at the base of midfield, tasked with breaking up opponents’ play before their hit the last line of defense.
And, to be sure, that is how the Thorns played in the second half, too. But just as the embedded tweet shows, above, there were times from the beginning of Saturday’s match where the team allowed Horan to get forward, leaving Boureille alone. Seattle played the same formation as the Thorns, but you rarely saw the same movement from Rumi Utsugi – the player covering space next to a sitting Long. Part of that is because Horan and Utsugi are very different players; part of that, though, was Portland’s approach.
As the game went on and the Thorns pressured more and more, Boureille increasingly found herself flying solo. Horan can’t be giving license to attack for that winning goal if Boureille isn’t trusted deeper on the field.
Unfortunately, on a team like the Thorns, the role Boureille plays isn’t going to put up a lot of supporting numbers. The assists and passes? Horan’s there, for that, and if everything goes as planned, the tackles, interceptions and recoveries Boureille’s role usually collected will happen higher up the field. She needs to put up some numbers – over 90 minutes, a good plan isn’t always executed to its fullest – but if your team is playing well, in this kind of system, your defensive midfielder’s presence should be carrying the day, only called upon to shine in moments.
But that’s exactly what Boureille did against the Reign, just as she’s done consistently since moving back into the starting lineup mid-term. It’s part of the reason why the Thorns were able to climb to second place in the league, why Horan is one of the leading contenders for Most Valuable Player, and why Portland were able to wear down Seattle.
It may have been three years in the making, but on Saturday, Boureille truly arrived in the NWSL, announcing her presence in full with a crucial performance.