The Thorns wrapped up their preseason tournament Saturday night, finishing with a win against Chicago, a draw with Houston, and a rather embarrassing loss against the USWNT U23s.
Just so we’re clear, everything that happened over the course of the week has to be taken with a grain of salt. The Thorns were missing a number of starters, including Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan, and much of the tournament, as you’d expect, was an opportunity for all four sides to get a look at some younger players. Plus, preseason is weird. It was still, however, an interesting early look at how the squad is shaping up.
The dilemma in the midfield: or, where in the world is Allie Long?
With Lindsey Horan out, the central midfield during the first two games was anchored by Allie Long and Amandine Henry, who traded off between offensive and defensive roles. On paper, this makes some sense; Long has played everywhere in the midfield at various points in her career with the Thorns, and she certainly can play in a more defensive role, as she did before Henry arrived last season.
In practice though, Long sat really deep a lot of the time—to the extent that she often looked to be reprising her recent stint at center back with the national team. Henry, meanwhile, spent an awful lot of time pushing forward and try to create further up the field, which was an almost jarring look for a player we usually see sitting back and setting things in motion with her exceptional vision and passing range.
I just don't quite get the logic here. In Henry, the Thorns have a player who's probably the best number 6 in the world. In Long, they have a player who's consistently been one of their most effective goal-scorers over four seasons. They're both world-class, and there's not exactly a wrong answer when it comes to who plays what role, but some answers are certainly better than others.
Two plays from the second half of the U23 game illustrate this point. In the 67th minute, Emily Sonnett passed to Long, who was just at the top of the Thorns' penalty box. Long, who was being closed down by two defenders, got a weak pass off in Emily Menges's direction, and the ball was scooped up by Ashley Sanchez. Sonnett also deserves a lot of the blame for that giveaway, but Long's decision to keep retreating toward her own goal as Sonnett looked for an outlet put her in a bad position that could easily have resulted in a concession.
Then, in the 71st minute, Long created an excellent scoring opportunity for Caroline Flynn. She dribbled out of the middle third, found a seam between Tierna Davidson and Savannah McCaskill for a one-two pass with Flynn, drew her marker across the top of the 18 to create a hole, and then rolled the ball back to Flynn for her to shoot. When a player has that kind of playmaking ability, why try to use her in a defensive role?
Obviously, soccer formations, the way they play out in the real world, are fluid, and players are going to trade positions to some extent during the course of a game. But both Long and Henry spent too much time looking jammed into roles that aren't their best.
There's playing out of the back, and then there's screwing around out of the back
The biggest facepalms of the week all went to players who were way too relaxed in the Thorns' defensive third. There were several Sonnett mishaps, including the one already discussed. Then there was the big mishap by Adrianna Franch in the 90th minute of the U23 game, in which she passed directly to Sonia Smith, who made short work of things to net her team an upset victory.
The Thorns want to play out of the back. They want to find each other and pass and play with elegance and composure. But there's a time for beautiful combination play, and it's not in your defensive third when multiple defenders are closing you down. That's a time for just clearing the damn ball.
This, most likely, is one of those issues that will resolve itself as the team tightens things up over the next two weeks. If not, Portland is going to be in some trouble when they’re playing full-strength opponents.
Some notes on the bench
With the starting lineup substantially thinned out, these three games provided an excellent glimpse at some of the Thorns’ depth players.
Mallory Weber, who started all three games, has clearly been putting in work over the offseason. Especially against Houston, where she had to step up in Christine Sinclair and Allie Long’s absence, she showed skill on the ball and offensive mettle we didn’t see from her last year.
Mana Shim, who would be a starter anywhere else, demonstrated what an injustice it is she plays for a team this stacked with talent. At this point, she’s as much a veteran as anyone on the team, but she’s also unlikely to find herself in the starting eleven unless somebody gets hurt. Shim’s goal against Houston, her first for the Thorns since 2015, was an absolute cracker; if you watch nothing else from preseason, watch that goal. She also, against Chicago, got a nice header to a goal-bound Allie Long, who picked up the foul that resulted in Nadia Nadim’s penalty kick.
Nothing was quite as nice, though, as seeing both Kendall Johnson and Meg Morris back on the field. Johnson spent 2016 recovering from post-concussion syndrome, a scary-as-heck condition that should prompt us all to be careful with our heads. Morris, who looked poised to become one of the league’s breakout stars last season, broke her hip against Western New York in June. Morris didn’t get much time, but Johnson looks to be picking up pretty much where she left off—as a capable wide player who’s effective on both sides of the ball.
One last question
Does anyone else like this logo better than the Thorns’ actual logo?