Portland, Oregon — In the playoffs, the margins between winners and losers can be razor-thin, and so it was yesterday when Seattle Reign FC went to Portland for a semifinal against their Cascadia rivals. In a first half when Portland Thorns FC admit they didn’t play their best soccer, it was often one player — goalkeeper Adrianna Franch — keeping the home team in the game.
“I thought AD was incredible in the first half,” said Reign coach Vlatko Andonovski. “I was actually afraid, thinking to myself, walking to the locker room, ‘What do we need to do to score a goal?'”
This semifinal was a rematch of last week’s regular-season showdown, which saw Portland dominate their rivals; yesterday, things played out differently from the start. “Seattle came in super aggressive, and really working hard, and they played well,” said Portland coach Mark Parsons. “For us, the biggest difference was we weren’t getting the pressure. We weren’t competing.”
With Seattle coming out swinging from the starting whistle and often pinning Portland into their own half, the numerical discrepancies between the two teams were stark in the first half. Seattle out-possessed Portland 59.8% to 40.2% and took 13 shots to Portland’s eight.
After knocking on the door for much of the half, Seattle finally found the game’s first goal in the 29th minute when Jasmyne Spencer crashed the far post on a Megan Rapinoe free kick and one-timed the ball, which had ricocheted off the crossbar, into the net. For the next 15 minutes, it would be Franch who kept the Thorns in contention.
“We had some great opportunities first half,” said Reign forward Jodie Taylor. “We exploited some weaknesses and managed to create a lot of chances, but AD’s such a good goalkeeper. … I had two really great chances that I hit well, but not good enough to beat AD.”
Franch’s first big save came in the 33rd minute. Taylor struck a beautiful volley from the top of the penalty arc that curved gracefully as it flew towards goal, looking sure to land in the back of the net—but the Thorns keeper, despite initially stepping the wrong direction, dove right at the last minute to get a hand on the ball and deflect it out for a corner kick.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 16, 2018
In the 37th minute, Franch would be tested again, this time when Taylor spun to beat Emily Sonnett near the six-yard line, this one a low driven effort. Franch dove to the ground to make another eye-popping reflex save. Just two minutes later, she dove backwards and blocked an attempt by Rapinoe, who had beaten Ellie Carpenter around the inside to get on the end of a cross from Theresa Nielsen, with her right foot.
“She’s incredible,” said Portland midfielder Tobin Heath. “The kind of saves that she makes in big-time moments — she’s a gamer, you know. It’s really cool to have someone like that on your team.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 15, 2018
Those missed opportunities by Seattle kept Portland in the game long enough for Heath to score the 43rd-minute equalizer, assisted by Lindsey Horan, which set the stage for a Portland comeback in the second half. “I think if we’d snuck in a couple extra, you know, if we were going into the half at three goals, 3-1, it would have been a different game,” said Taylor.
“At halftime I think we all knew,” said Parsons, “we needed to compete, we needed to claw our way back into this game, because no one was going to give it to us. … And wow, were they better in the second half.”
“We got at them,” said Franch of the turnaround in the second half. “We started pressing a little bit more, like we normally do, not allowing them to send in balls from deep. .. if they were pressing, we put the ball long, and if they did drop off we had to play.” The Thorns picked up momentum throughout the half, until they finally found the go-ahead goal in the 77th minute when Horan headed in a service by Christine Sinclair.
Beyond those crucial 15 minutes in the first half, Franch repeatedly demonstrated her ability in the air, leaping to catch crosses and corner kicks that most keepers would be content to deflect away. Aside from Rapinoe’s perfectly-hit free kick on the Reign goal, which skipped past her fingertips, she claimed just about every service Rapinoe sent in out of the air.
“There’s no one, I’d say in the league,” said Parsons, “and I’ll rely on Nadine [Angerer, the Thorns goalkeeping coach] to say the world. There’s no one in the world that can do what she did in the first 45 minutes.”
Franch’s partnership with Angerer, the legendary former German international who became the only goalkeeper ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, has been key to her development as a player since arriving in Portland in 2016. “Her ceiling is nowhere near,” Parsons said. “Working in this environment with our staff and Nadine, what Britt Eckerstrom continues to give to that environment, and Bella [Geist]. … [I’m] just proud of the growth that she continues to make and what she does in big games and big moments.”
For Franch, saves like the ones she made today are all in a day’s work, something she downplays in favor of talking about the overall team performance. “You want to try to keep the ball out of the back of the net and be there for your team,” she said after the game. “That’s what I tried to do. It was enough in the first half, and the team stepped up and took care of the second for a team performance across the board.”