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Thorns FC: Redemption

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Mark Parsons knew. Tom Sermanni knew. You knew. I knew.

We all knew what was going to happen at Providence Park last Saturday afternoon.

Sermanni was going to throw his attackers - especially Marta and Alex Morgan - at the Thorns’ defense. Sermanni’s plan was Marta would turn the Portland fullbacks with flanking runs, and use her pace to turn inside and drive towards goal. Orlando’s midfield would use Morgan’s ability to blow through the center backs to create a target for their through balls and long overhead passes.

That’s exactly what they did, and for much of the afternoon Orlando succeeded, pressed the Portland defense hard, and got their attackers into dangerous positions.

Mark Parsons and the Thorns responded by defending relentlessly, a defense that relied on depth and the defenders (indeed, the entire team) defending as a unit.

Portland’s attack, unlike Orlando’s, relied on quick counters and combination play that seized rare opportunities to strike at Orlando’s high-pressing defense.

Orlando’s defending, unlike Portland’s, relied on a thin, high line and defenders playing well as individuals.

Portland’s attacking and defending succeeded. Orlando’s failed.

Here’s why.

The Semifinal in three parts: Part 1 - the First Half

After a nervous, to-and-fro introduction, Portland ripped off two goals in the space of three-odd minutes before the quarter hour; quick strikes that took advantage of individual Orlando defensive errors.

First, Tobin Heath stepped into an errant Ali Krieger pass. Heath crossed to Meghan Klingenberg, who got enough time and space from Kristen Edmonds (or Marta, who had to do a ton of work at right back for Orlando all day) to serve a pinpoint cross to Amandine Henry crushing towards Orlando’s far post. One-nil.

Then Tony Pressley ran over Hayley Raso from behind to set up a free-kick about 25 yards from goal. Tobin Heath put the ensuing delivery right onto the head of Emily Sonnett. Two-nil.

At that point, Orlando finally started playing to Sermanni’s plan.

The Pride threw Morgan and Marta (and Ubogagu, Kennedy, and Weatherholt to the extent they could) at Portland’s backline for the remainder of the half and in the process nicked a goal in the 23rd minute.

Here’s what the half looked like for the Portland defenders:

The arrows and circles at left represent the first Portland goal. The remainder of the rectangles are all purely defensive.

Remember the Orlando away match when we talked about “forechecking” defense? Look at how far up the field more than half of Portland’s defensive actions take place? That’s “forechecking”, and it worked, for the most part.

But there were parts where it didn’t. The last 20-odd minutes of the first half is where it fell apart a bit for Portland.

Same image as above, only now Morgan and Marta’s contact with the Portland defenders is highlighted. Notice two things in particular:

  1. The actions along the lower (west) touchline. That’s where the team defense and forechecking are working; Thorns are stopping Orlando’s attackers.
  2. The actions in the upper right (southeast) corner? Especially all the yellow rectangles that mean failed tackles, or defenders getting beaten? That’s Morgan and Marta taking on individual defenders - mostly Kat Reynolds - and, in Marta’s case, winning 3 of 4 individual battles. That wasn’t working, at least not for Portland.

One of those Marta 1v1 wins earned the corner that Orlando converted to pull the match back to 2-1.

As scary as the last part of the first half looks, most of Portland’s defensive actions are successful, many of them are well up the field, and these kept the match within Portland’s reach at halftime.

Part 2 - The Second Half (from the Kickoff to the 72nd Minute)

Orlando came out for the second half a purple haze of aggression and put the hammer on Portland’s defense for more than 25 minutes.

That’s plain ugly.

There’s almost no forechecking. Nearly all of Portland’s defending is down near the Portland goal and so are Marta, and Morgan.

Those yellow rectangles between the 18-yard box and the center circle? Those are largely Sonnett and Reynolds getting torched (the others are Hayley Raso committing fouls trying to stop Sonnett and Reynolds getting torched.)

With all this ugly defending why didn’t Orlando score?

First, because - as I mentioned earlier - Portland didn’t rely on single defenders. They threw themselves at anything in a purple shirt in masses.

Okay, that’s from a soccer textbook in the section titled “Beating the Offside Trap”. And Marta has beaten Sonnett and Menges like Big Red Drums.

But even Marta has to slow up a bit to control the ball. And means that Menges, who is still probably the fastest Thorn in a dead run, has a chance to catch her.

She does, throws her body in front of Marta - knowing that once she does she will have taken herself out of the play - and blocks Marta’s touch away towards the byline.

Marta hasn’t been the World Player of the Year something like five times for nothing. She reacts quickly and regains possession.

Only to find Sonnett on her like white on rice. She blocks Marta’s cross away for a corner - which is cleared away safely.

Note that Menges, even though she is now too far to close down Marta herself, has taken post backing up Sonnett in front of her three other teammates sealing off the 18-yard box.

I think Mark Parsons realized his individual defenders couldn’t stop Marta, or Morgan, or Ubogagu 98% of the time. But he reasoned if Reynolds could stop Marta 50% of the time, and Sonnett another 50%, and Menges another 50%, and maybe Horan another 40% of the time, then in series they might stop Marta altogether.

And, second, because when Orlando did get a dangerous chance they couldn’t convert. Morgan got in alone on A.D. Franch in the 48th minute and scuffed her shot well wide of Franch’s far post for no reason.

With 70 minutes gone, the match still looked to be in the balance. But the problems in Orlando’s defense, the individual failures that helped Portland produce the first two goals, were still there. Of Orlando’s back four, Edmonds had already been lax on the Henry goal, Krieger was not playing well, and Monica was uncharacteristically sloppy in passing and possession.

Where individual problems intersected with tactical problems, the result was not pretty for Orlando.

One “tactical problem” was the immense space created between the high defensive line and Ashlyn Harris who spent the match parked on, or near, her goalmouth.

So long as Orlando’s backline was on alert every moment to possible Portland attackers running into that space and marked them, or pulled them offside, that space wasn’t an issue.

When they weren’t, that’s when the not-pretty happened, as in the 71st minute:

Not just the end of the beginning; that was the beginning of the end.

Part 3 - From 72’ to the Final Whistle

After Portland went up again by two goals late in the match, Orlando was desperate and what method had been in their attack began to break down.

To make matters worse for Sermanni’s team, Parsons had subbed Brynjarsdottir on for Sykes in the 66th minute and, after Raso’s goal, seems to have called his Icelandic shieldmaiden over to the touchline and whispered:

“Dagny, smite!

And so she did.

Notice the the defensive actions have also moved further up the pitch, in particular as Brynjarsdottir roams the left side of the Orlando midfield like a berserker. Morgan and Marta are still getting forward, but less often than before. Portland’s defending, and the match, are moving back into Orlando territory.

Orlando hadn’t lost yet, but were losing the match.

The final killing stroke was delivered by Nadia Nadim and Christine Sinclair just a minute after the former entered the match. As with the earlier goals, this strike succeeded because of some more shoddy Orlando defending:

Nadim has always been a terrific tackler, so she was a perfect fit into a match Portland was just trying to see out. But her run might have come to nothing, had Edmonds bothered to do something about the space outside of her:

Edmonds couldn’t even be troubled to drift out wide a bit to give Sinclair a trifle less room.

As the old guy in the Indiana Jones movie says after the evil Nazi picks the fake Grail and dies a horrible death: “She chose... poorly.

Four-one, and now it’s all over for Orlando.

Player Comments and PMRs

(The long-form explanation for how PMRs are tallied is here.)

Raso (+12/-2 : +6/-5 : +17/-7) Raso was her typical energetic, aggressive self in the first half but faded significantly (despite scoring her goal) in the second. Part of this might have been the tactical situation but I suspect a large part may have been just weariness. Raso is listed in the boxscore has having only suffered one foul, but she took her usual knocking about for most of the match; the center referee let a fair bit of rough play go uncalled and Raso herself is not shy about getting stuck in.

Heath (80’ - +13/-2 : +6/-2 : +19/-4) Heath looked like her 2016 self Saturday. Set up a goal, distributed elegantly, and was a pest on defense. Given that North Carolina will be the opponent for the final, Heath should have ample motivation to elevate her game even further next weekend.

Nadim (10’ - +7/-1) Assist on the Sinclair goal and an excellent shift to see out the win. Well-used given that the final minutes were the perfect setting for Nadim’s mix of tough tackling and intelligent, precise attacking.

Sykes (66’ - +11/-4 : +3/-1 : +14/-5) Overall a good outing for Sykes but faded worse than Raso in the second half, so Parsons’ substitution was both well-timed and effective. Like Nadim, she is a good defender and, still like Nadim, could typically be more clinical in front of goal. Not Saturday, however, when it appeared that her role was as a provider and cover for Reynolds, at which she did quite well. Will likely need to be more involved in the attack against the Courage.

Brynjarsdottir (24’ - +17/-4) I though the last Chicago match here was the best I’d seen from the Icelander this season, but she just keeps getting better. Her rating for less than half an hour was higher than any of the other forwards outside Heath. The tactical situation meant she didn’t have to do a great deal of creating, although she provided a terrific cross in the 77th minute that was unlucky not to do better. Other than that, she was a total package; aggressive forechecking, tough tackling in back, and intelligent, precise distribution.

Sinclair (+10/-4 : +6/-2 : +16/-6) Another tough match for the captain, with the same problems as she had in Orlando; much of Orlando’s attack went over or around her (so she couldn’t help out much on defense) and most of Portland’s attack was sprung on counters or long passes up to the strikers (so she was often too far behind the play to contribute offensively). Lovely finish on her goal, though, and her usual intelligent contribution to the midfield, so a decent match if in somewhat of a minor key.

Horan (+13/-4 : +7/-0 : +20/-4) Horan was in Full Beast Mode in the first half. But she also faded badly in the second, especially in the first half-hour or so of the half when Portland really needed her badly. Did come up huge in picking out Raso’s run and slotting an outstanding pass up to her. Did enough, but will need to be on for the full 90 against North Carolina.

Henry (81’ - +8/-4 : +4/-2 : +12/-6) Wonderful goal, and a beautiful sendoff for our Destructrice. Perhaps not her most outstanding match, but did much of what she needed to to keep Orlando’s attack in check. As with Horan, however, will surely need to go harder and at a higher level in the final match.

Long (9’ - +2/-0) Almost invisible which, sadly, speaks volumes of why Long played less than ten minutes in this match and has come off the bench for much of the latter part of the season.

Reynolds (+5/-5 : +7/-1 : +12/-6) I have this mental image of Reynolds emerging from the post-match dressing room with the thousand-yard stare of a veteran of the Somme, or Bastogne. There are not too many defenders who can say that they faced the wrath of Marta and walked away with their heads up. Reynolds can; she bent, but didn’t break, and she will be playing next weekend while her tormentor will not.

Sonnett (+5/-1 : +4/-2 : +9/-3) As with Reynolds, so with Sonnett; defended well and though Morgan and Marta got the best of her now and again during the match, she got the best of them at the final whistle. Throw in the goal and the match has to be considered a good one for Sonnett.

Menges (+7/-2 : +4/-2 : +11/-4) Vintage Great Wall Emily, and the 53rd minute recovery pictured above is one of the reasons she’s so valuable. All defenders make occasional errors or are torched; Menges has the speed and judgement to recover from all but the most appalling, and she seldom makes errors that appalling.

Klingenberg (+12/-6 : +7/-2 : +19/-7) Her brilliant assist to Henry was only one of the many good passes Kling created Saturday. Defensively huge as well, and, given the importance of defending in this match I’d consider her a worthwhile candidate for Woman of the Match.

Franch (+1/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0) Not at fault on the concession and surprisingly untroubled on a day when the expectation was that she might have to stand on her head to keep Orlando out of her net; no saves reported in the boxscore. Owes her defenders a round for making that happen. How the hell Morgan put that 1v0 shot wide in the 48th minute, however, I’ll never know. Sometimes lucky is as good as good.

Franch controlled her penalty area well and came off her line to claim several potentially troublesome crosses or long passes.

Distribution: Franch put a total of 14 balls into play; five goal kicks, five clears, three punts, and one free kick.

Of these, only four were claimed by Portland, an exceptionally low number for a typical Thorns match. However, none of the 10 deliveries intercepted by Orlando were returned quickly at Portland’s goal, so Franch’s distribution was, if not effective at jumpstarting Portland’s attack, not troubling to Portland’s defense.

Coach Parsons: Brought his team to the pitch Saturday ready to fight and with a tactical plan that, though Orlando was more threatening than the scoreline makes them look, was effective in suppressing the visitors’ attack and exploiting their defense. Effective substitutions and clock-mangement, and that’s pretty much the definition of a head coach’s match day job.

So good defense wins semifinals. Great. Now what?

Go to Orlando. Beat the Courage. Win the Championship.

Simple?

Remember what that ol’ rascal von Clausewitz said about playoff soccer?