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Thorns FC: A Fine Line

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Craig Mitchelldyer

“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” ~ Oscar Levant.

The moment the south end video screen began showing the Chicago Red Stars starting XI for last Saturday’s match, the person behind my right shoulder remarked: “Damn. He’s going into the tank.”

“He” was Rory Dames, Chicago’s head coach, and the tank was what I concluded was too risky for Dames to even think about in the final regular season game: “The prospect of sending the team out to deliberately throw a match away and still ending up playing their semifinal in front of a big hostile crowd can’t be appealing for Rory Dames.”

Apparently Dames and I disagree. The Chicago Red Stars started a mix of reserves and journeywomen and the result was predictable: a relatively comfortable 3-1 win for Thorns FC.

I wasn’t the only one. Christen Press said to NWSL.com’s Katelyn Best after the match: “As a player, I want to come out here and win...I’m disappointed, and I’m angry, but I think Rory hopes that that’s going to fuel us.”

Perhaps the most bizarre part was Dames’ 12th Dimension Playoff Chess - if that’s what it was - worked.

Later that Saturday, the Orlando Pride defeated the Carolina Courage 2-3 in Cary to flip-flop the last two playoff spots and earn Dames the semifinal matchup he must have wanted - against a Carolina team that hasn’t beaten his Red Stars all season.

I’m not sure I’d have had the guts to walk that fine line. Maybe that’s why he’s the head coach in Chicago and I’m not.

Congratulations, Dames, you magnificent bastard.

Like artillery, Christine Sinclair adds tone to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl.

The mismatch made finding topics for this piece a little tough. “Thorns starters can club Chicago reserves like baby seals” isn’t really a compelling story to deconstruct.

Whenever I’m at a standstill, however, I can always count on Captain Sinclair to bail me out.

If you look at Sinclair’s PMRs for this match, they aren’t outstanding. Sinc had many of the same problems last Saturday as she had in Orlando; much of the play went over her head, or out wide of her central position.

What makes her so good, though, is how she can do so much with so little.

Here’s an example, in the 14th minute:

Sinclair doesn’t have the wheels she used to, and to make her runs succeed she has to depend more on her intelligence than on her speed.

You can see from the screenshot above that almost all the other players in view are stationary, running to the side, or back towards Sykes. Sinclair is the one who’s going towards Chicago’s goal because she thought one move ahead and started running in the right direction a half-second or so before everyone else.

Pushed to the byline, another attacker might have hammered a shot at Dalton or just fired a low cross into the open space inside the six yard box. Instead, Sinclair sees that the Chicago defenders are almost all ball-watching and her teammates are approaching unseen behind them.

I’m not sure why Gordon plays this ball so poorly, but from watching her react to Sinclair’s cross my guess is she didn’t see Sykes until after she’d headed the ball and thought instead that she had a teammate behind her to clear up her mess.

This is why, even though she might not be as fast as Alex Morgan or as strong as Jess McDonald or as aggressive as Christen Press, Sinclair is still one of the best in the game.

The Return of Tobin Heath - Matchday Two (now with 100% more Dagny!)

Tobin Heath played the full second half against Chicago as an attacking midfielder. Dagny Brynjarsdottir also played the second half, as a left wing.

The two neither scored nor tallied an assist, but between them they made some very pretty soccer.

Brynjarsdottir isn’t the paciest of attackers, but with the help of some excellent passing from Emily Menges and Allie Long she did good work getting wide of, and behind, the Chicago defense.

This run from Brynjarsdottir spread the right side of the Red Stars’ defense and put Heath in on Dalton with the ball at her feet.

Unfortunately, 1) Gordon has dropped off Nadim and fronted up to Heath while Gilliland has Nadim well-covered, and 2) no more Thorns have arrived to give Heath a better option.

Who arrives, instead, is Taylor Comeau.

I thought this tackle was arguably as bad or worse than the 82nd minute contact on Long that earned Portland a penalty, but regardless of the outcome the buildup - which was only one of several good sequences between Brynjarsdottir and Heath - was promising for the playoffs.

So - what did we learn from this match (other than Sinc, Dagny, and Heath are awesomesauce)?

Well, not as much as I’d like.

The play in this match and the past three matches, taken together, make assessing the condition of Thorns FC going into the semifinal damn deadly difficult. Particularly opaque is the state of the Portland attack.

In 270-plus minutes the Thorns have scored four times; a freakish against-the-run-of-play single goal in Boston, and three goals last Saturday - two gift-goals on Chicago defensive errors, and a PK.

Portland did generate some chances in Orlando, and had several promising half-chances or buildups against Chicago. But the run-of-play goals weren’t there.

Meanwhile, Portland’s defense scrambled in Boston and spent the first half in Orlando under the hammer. To swat away the attacks of Chicago’s reserves was well done but wasn’t all that difficult. Summer Green isn’t Marta and Stephanie McCaffery isn’t Morgan.

Thorns FC has the stingiest defense in the NWSL regular season, so there’s that.

But next week Portland will see a Marta who hasn’t played a mid-week match and a Pride that will be ravenous to get through Thorns FC to hunt the final match on their own private Serengeti.

The season is over. Now the playoffs begin.

Had he been writing about the Thorns instead of about war, the great strategist von Clausewitz would warn of the coming matches:

"Everything in playoff soccer is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."

Player comments and PMRs

(In case you don’t remember how PMRs are tallied, and expressed, the long-form explanations is here).

Raso (45’ - +17/-3) All the usual excellence from Raso; runs, passes, aggressive forechecking pressure, tackling for gain, and a neatly taken gift goal. She also took her usual pounding; the NWSL site shows her with 49 “fouls suffered”, making her one of the most fouled players in the league. Parsons was reported by the Lifetime matchday crew saying that her removal was largely to keep her from being knocked around further.

Heath (45’ - +11/-5) Looking more and more like last season’s Heath, which has both upsides and downsides. While she has returned her electric energy to the attack, she has also returned just as unable as last season to resist Tobinizing her opponents; which is to say taking on defenders with pretty footwork. While that’s nice when it breaks some fullback’s ankles and springs the Thorns’ attack, it’s not so much when it leads to self-indulgent ball tricks and dribbling into dead-ends.

She was relatively disciplined against Chicago, though, which bodes well for the playoffs.

Sykes (+9/-3 : +5/-3 : +14/-6) Sykes was outstanding in the first half, her right-flank runs making space for her to deliver passes and pinpoint crosses. Faded slightly in the second half but was still effective. Well-struck goal and perhaps now that she’s scored the floodgates will open.

Nadim (+8/-8 : +6/-5 : +14/-13) The last match showed the best and worst sides of Nadim. The best; aggressive penetration and intelligent positioning, precise passing, tenacious defending and tackling. The worst; a heavy first touch and wasteful finishing - only one of her seven shots was on frame, and that was the penalty kick. On a team that generated more chances Nadim’s wastefulness might not be a problem. On the Thorns she needs to be much more clinical.

Sinclair (+6/-4 : +5/-2 : +11/-6) As discussed above, for the second match in a row Sinclair found herself without as much to do as usual. As she has her entire career, she still found ways to make herself dangerous. Needs to be more decisive in front of goal, however. Far too many soft, easily-handled shots; as my Scots granny would tell her, For the love o’ Goad, wumman, put a boot through it!

Horan (+11/-5 : +13/-5 : +24/-10) Hard to call last Saturday’s performance “full” Beast Mode (slapping around reserves requires a strong stomach but not much beastliness) but very near to it; call it “Beast-Lite”.

Did a terrific job taking away what midfield Chicago could scrape up and found both teammates ahead of her for attacking passes as well as defenders behind her to pass back out of danger. Her minuses were almost all (8 of 10) long forward passes that went astray; could have been more patient.

Henry (45’ - +9/-4) In destroyer mode, as always, although with less to do distributing forward than usual. What’s always impressive about Henry is her ball-winning ability, as shown in her action map for the half:

The green-in-black triangles are what you’re looking for; T/G, or tackles-for-gain. Her map also points out the productive relationship Henry has developed with Sykes. The other thing to note about Henry is where she operates - forechecking, typically deep in her opponent’s half of midfield. She’s what ol’ Clausewitz would call a “spoiling attack”; a sudden and unexpected assault that is designed to break up an enemy building up for an offensive.

We are so going to miss her.

Long (45’ - +5/-1) I had the great pleasure of attending Gwendolyn Oxenham’s reading of her new book Under the Lights and In the Dark at Powell’s last Friday evening. Allie Long was her special guest, and when time came for questions I got to ask Long something I’ve always wondered; given how many different coaches have played her at so many different positions, if she had her own choice, where on the field would she play?

She looked at me skeptically; “Are you familiar with the position numbers?” I nodded. “Number eight.” I must have looked surprised, because she nodded emphatically.

“I don’t like being a six, sitting back defending all the time.” she concluded.

What intrigues me about that answer is here’s how she looked against Chicago Saturday:

That, to me, looks like nothing so much as a six.

Operating mostly out of the back, lots of backpasses and lateral passes in the top of the defensive third (whereas Henry in the map above is working most of the right flank from box-to-box like a true #8) with occasional forays up the pitch.

Long’s attacking-midfield chops show up in the three significant forward passes she connects to Brynjarsdottir’s runs. And I think she heard me complain about her not shooting from distance; late in the half she hammered a strong shot from 25 yards that forced Dalton to dive hard to her left to save.

But that map sure looks to me like a defensive midfielder. Maybe who Long is, is different from who Long wants to be - or her coach is telling her to be.

Klingenberg (45’ - +8/-2) Excellent shift from Kling, both defending and attacking, her only minuses a couple of overhit long passes. In the past, I’ve been critical of Kling because of her episodic play, combining long moments of good work with terrifying seconds of utter derpitude. Last Saturday Kling was consistently fine. Took a minor knock, which was Coach Parsons’ explanation to the Lifetime broadcasters for removing her.

Brynjarsdottir (45’ - +16/-1) Last Saturday was the first match in some time that we’ve seen the víkingur Shieldmaiden and her shift made me, at least, sorry about what we’ve missed. Just outstanding; well-timed bold runs and judicious crosses in the attack, combining well with her teammates for swarming defense. I would have said before last match that it was hard to see her starting over Raso or Sykes, but not if she consistently plays like this.

Sonnett (+11/-0 : +11/-1 : +22/-1) Typically a plus-minus rating like this would mean Sonnett would be the hands-down Woman of the Match. Chicago’s attack was so meager that’s not the case here, but still a very good match from the Sonnett half of the Great Wall. Did have one unfortunate moment, a lazy pass in the 75th minute that Press pounced on, drove to the byline, shot hard, and forced A.D. Franch to do well to save.

Menges (+6/-2 : +14/-6 : +20/-8) The other half of the Great Wall of Emily also had a very good afternoon. Her second-half minuses are deceptive; three of six (and four of her total of eight) were long passes that went wandering. Defensively rock-like.

Reynolds (+10/-2 : +5/-1 : +15/-3) Not as hard-pressed as the center backs, but did well when she needed to do well. Great anticipation and tackle in the 38th minute to stop a charging McCaffery taking advantage of a quick restart.

Franch (+0/-0 : +1/-1 : +1/-1) Little troubled for much of the match and then had to make a brilliant save toppling backwards to pull in the Press shot at 75’ with Huerta lurking at the back post. Distribution minimal, generally decent with a single significant exception (see below).

Distribution: One aspect of Portland’s control of the match was that Franch put only 11 balls in play - one goal kick, three punts, and seven clearances.

Of those only four went to Portland, three punts and a clearance.

Of the seven that went to Chicago, two were nearly immediately returned towards Portland’s goal (18%, over twice the typical number of “dangerous” attacks for a good Thorns match) and one of those ended with a Chicago goal. Because of that Franch’s distribution was not good by her recent standards.

Coach Parsons - With little to play for other than pride, this match seemed a good opportunity to rest some Thorns starters and get a look at some reserves such as Jordan or Lussi. Parson’s explanation for starting the regulars was he felt that letting off the pressure would be damaging to the team’s attitude and destructive to momentum going into the playoffs.

I would argue it is impossible to assess now how good the decision was. However, the judgement on that decision will come; on the Providence Park pitch next week.

Mark Parsons’ critics contend that while he and his teams excel in the regular season, they stumble in the playoffs. The Thorns’ critics claim the team is mentally soft and can’t get tough when everything comes down to winning a single match.

This coming weekend he, and they, get a chance to prove those critics wrong.