You can’t be a part of Thorns culture without having imagined the moment, especially with the other Portland World Cup players already home. That moment could happen by the end of the month, when the four Thorns that are still in France return to the black and red, and line up in the team’s XI before kickoff to be honored at Providence Park.
“Portland Thorns FC would like to congratulate our returning World Cup champions,” the park’s thundering voice would announce from the venue’s new speaker system. “Adrianna Franch. Tobin Heath. Lindsey Horan. Emily Sonnett. Congratulations on claiming the United States’ fourth-ever world title!”
Then the applause, and the songs. The smiles, the waves, and the moment. A final one for the four of them to remember what they’ve done before. Hopefully, they stop and look at each other. The huddle breaks, the whistle blows, and their club world fully resumes. Four new world champions being adored by their home crowd.
Australia’s no longer in the tournament. Neither is Christine Sinclair’s Canada, nor Andressinha’s Brazil. France and Amandine Henry left the competition last week, removing even the most-remote alternatives from view. If you’re a Thorns fan and at all invested in this World Cup, the United States has become your singular focus.
That focus makes these final games so much more fraught. Take last Friday, when Horan wasn’t in the starting XI. We erupted, we emoted, and eventually, we rationalized why somebody so close to Portland soccer wasn’t being given the platform we felt she deserved. When the U.S. advanced, all was well, particularly after Horan returned to the starting lineup against England. But for a few moments, yeah, our World Cup allegiances were fraught.
It was the same thing today, but since our Thorns allegiances have become so closely tied to the U.S.’s, almost every curious decision becomes a reason for tournament-defining doubts. Why isn’t Megan Rapinoe starting? Why is head coach Jill Ellis having the team drop and just sit on these leads? Are we really playing five-at-the-back, again? Why aren’t we winning and playing better soccer?
Perhaps some aren’t so worried about that last question, but over these last two rounds, it keeps coming to my mind. Against France, the U.S. scored an early goal, got very conservative, but eventually doubled their lead, allowing them to advance by winning, 2-1. The U.S. eliminated England by the same score, but thanks to Ellen White’s first-half equalizer, the Americans had to take the lead twice. Each time, the U.S. got conservative. Each time, you were forced to ask yourself, “is this really the right approach?”
“No,” we want to say, yell, scream at the television every time an England player got behind the defense, or the U.S. approach put a defender like Becky Sauerbrunn in a position to concede a penalty. VAR had to save the American backline once, giving us another change to ask, “Did you ever think of just holding the ball?” It’s true, though. It’s hard to give up a potential game-tying penalty if you keep the ball closer to the other team’s goal.
No matter Ellis’ approach, we’d criticize it. Hell, that’s all we’ve done since she took charge. Playing a 4-4-2 going into the last World Cup. “Are we really doing this?” Trying a 3-4-3 at the beginning of this cycle. “This has got to be a joke.” Moving Crystal Dunn to fullback two years ago. “She knows Dunn’s an attacker, right?” Even benching Rapinoe, today, before we found out she was injured. “Ellis sure likes to make things hard on herself.”
After today’s victory, Ellis is 12-1-0 all-time at World Cups. Her teams have outscored their oppositions 38-6. France, Germany, England, Japan, Sweden, Australia have all been on the wrong end of U.S. results, yet we still find more ways to doubt Jill Ellis.
Maybe we just like to freak out. We can’t help ourselves. The U.S. is so close to a fourth star – and we have so few other things to focus on – we would pettifog the team’s breakfast menu, if we had access to it. “You’re telling me Ellis isn’t giving them oatmeal?” Somebody could point out that Ellis isn’t the team chef or nutritionist, and we’d bark, “Lindsey Horan needs her oatmeal!”
The lineups: They’re not good enough. The subs: Same. Need to improve. The information we get on injuries, tactics, pre-match hotel scouting or birthday plans for the team’s most famous star? Nothing will make us happy right now because this close to the end, the only happiness is winning the World Cup.
And beating England. When the final whistle came today, we were happy. We’d entertained every criticism, every doubt, and the U.S. was still moving on. Rational or not, we’ll get back to our pettiness tomorrow. For now, four Thorns are closer to claiming a World Cup.