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Thorns FC: The Art of Forechecking

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Jeremy Reper - ISI Photos

Saturday’s scoreless draw in Orlando was perhaps not the best of matches or results, for Thorns FC. The match was described in the Equalizer as leaving “...both sides less than satisfied” and by our own Katelyn Best as “...a chippy slog”.

The result leaves the NWSL table in flux (Sky Blue’s draw against Carolina also keeps the NWSL Shield in play) and was a disappointment for those of us hoping to see a return of the prolific Portland attack of midsummer.

I’m not here to mope. I’m going to make an argument about looking on the bright side of life for this game.

I think Coach Parsons made a canny halftime adjustment and late-match substitutions that, perhaps combined with the fumes of the previous weeks’ international friendlies, helped see off a dangerous opponent and secure a valuable road point.

What happened in Orlando Saturday?

If you’re a Thorns (or an NWSL) fan you know what happened. The Orlando Pride, desperately needing a win to lock up a playoff spot, threw everything at the Thorns, outshot Portland 14-five, forced frenetic Thorns defending that included 22 blocks, and held the visitors to slightly less than half the total possession.

So like Best told us, “...(d)efense was the main story for Portland”. That’s very true.

However, there’s more to the story. It mattered how and where Thorns FC defended, that the how and where changed in mid-match, and that the change was critical to taking a point from the game.

The first half: cowering in a corner

The first half in Orlando was ugly for Thorns FC. Especially the first half hour.

We all knew that Tom Sermanni was going to throw Marta and Alex Morgan at the Thorns back line. Sure enough, here’s what that looked like from the opening whistle to halftime:

Scary looking, isn’t it? Like the world’s most nightmarish wiring diagram or a tactical map of the Destruction of Army Group Center. Morgan is motoring through the Thorns defense like she’s on a Segway and Marta is providing dangerous service as well as attacking Kat Reynolds and Ashleigh Sykes on the Thorns’ right flank, thus forcing them to play deep in the Thorns’ end of the pitch.

The Thorns’ final third looks like a junior high school recess with the two Orlando strikers as the worst bullies on the playground. And I didn’t track Camila and Ubogagu who were also active and dangerous, so you’re only seeing part of the hammer that was descending on Portland’s backline.

Thorns FC’s defensive actions look pretty much as you’d expect; a mess of frantic tackles, blocks, and clearances deep in the right side of the defensive zone and inside the Thorns’ penalty area:

It’s worth remembering that the graphic above doesn’t include A.D. Franch’s two critical saves off Morgan, the first on Morgan’s relatively tame shot at 12’, the second on a nasty knuckling drive that A.D. spilled but, fortunately for Portland, not far enough for Ubogagu lurking at the far post to clean up.

The offensive statistics for the first half reflect the shelling that Orlando was dealing out. Twelve shots to Portland’s four (although the shots-on-goal were much less one-sided, two-to-one in Orlando’s favor) and the Pride with 56% of the possession. That full half possession balance is skewed, by the way, by the last quarter hour where Thorns FC clawed back into the match; at the half-hour mark, the match announcers credited Orlando with over 60% of the ball.

A full match of that kind of hammering would seem almost certain to have eventually led to an Orlando goal.

The second half: Morrison Street Bullies

In ice hockey, the term “forechecking” is used to describe aggressive defending in the opponent’s territory; “...checking opponents in their own defensive zone, before they can organize an attack.”

During their midsummer run of good results, Thorns FC commonly used this sort of aggressive defending that started with Thorns forwards harassing and pressuring the opposing back line and continued through relentless midfield tackling and pursuing in order to greatly reduce the number of attacks on the Portland goal.

One of the key Portland failures in the previous match against Boston, and in the first half of this match, was abandoning that forechecking defense. It allowed the Thorns’ opponents to swarm the Portland back line and forced PTFC onto the back foot. In turn, Thorns FC’s attack vanished as everyone in a red shirt had to scramble back to defend.

At halftime I suspect Mark Parsons instructed his midfielders and forwards to stop cowering, go out and seek purple shirts, and destroy them.

Here’s what Thorns FC’s defensive actions looked like in the second half:

Along with that tactical adjustment, the replacement of Allie Long with Amandine Henry fifteen minutes into the second half shows up in the picture above like a baguette in a bagel bin.

Henry’s defending - along with a more aggressively tackling Portland midfield and forward line - made the second half miserable for the Orlando left-side attackers. Since Orlando had apparently given up attacking Portland’s left (perhaps Sermanni was frightened by the thoughts of being mocked in a Megisode? Nobody with a decent right foot in Orlando? You got me on that one.) this meant Orlando’s attack began to sputter and die after the break.

Another effect of this forechecking defense was on the body of Alex Morgan, who spent a good part of the last forty-five minutes shaking her head and picking herself off the turf.

Here’s Morgan’s and Marta’s attacking actions in the second half:

Marta is just missing from this picture. I suspect that some, or even most, of the reason is fatigue from her hard work for Brazil the preceding week.

Morgan, however, was relatively fresh (she played less than a full match in both friendlies), and her struggles in the second half are surely largely because of Portland’s players getting upfield and stuck into her.

Whether due to fatigue, or tackles, or both, the improvement for Portland from this forechecking defense was immense. Orlando managed only two shots in the second half, neither of them on goal (Portland had one, off-target as well, confirming that Portland remained largely committed to defending).

Final possession totals were Orlando 50.8, Portland 49.2, meaning that Portland largely won the battle for the ball in the second half.

That’s what forechecking defense does for you. That’s what it has done for Thorns FC over the summer, and that’s what the team will need going into the playoffs.

Player Comments and PMRs

But first, a brief explanation.

Earlier this season I contacted the Opta organization about securing some metrics for the NWSL. Nothing complex, just heat maps, pass charts, and defensive actions. The fella at Opta was a lovely man, and he got right back to me with the goodies.

Only $40,000 for a season, he said, or $27 grand if you buy all three.

I thanked him nicely and said I’d think about it.

That’s why you don’t have pretty Opta graphics here.

In the absence of Opta, I have been using my own recordkeeping, and a method pioneered by the invaluable Richard Hamje who writes about the Thorns over at the blog Riveting!. Thanks, Richard, for letting me steal from you.

I call his method, and now mine, “PMR” which stands for “plus-minus rating”. The idea is to track significant player actions during the match and record 1) how many actions that player makes that have an impact on the match, and 2) whether that impact is positive for the Thorns, or negative.

Here’s what I record as “significant” actions:

Goals for and saves against: are obvious pluses for the scorers or goalkeeper, respectively. For a goalkeeper, a concession may be a minus if I judge that the keeper could and should have done better with the shot. An own-goal is an obvious minus for a field player.

Passes: a pass that places the receiver in a dangerous attacking position, results in an assist, or produces a significant tactical advantage is a plus pass. A pass that either results in a loss of possession (if a better option for the passer is available) or places the receiver in a hazardous position, such as being tackled for loss, is a minus pass.

Heavy touch: is a mishandled ball that runs away from the player. If that results in a degradation of the Thorns’ tactical situation, it’s a minus. A heavy touch is never a plus.

Tackles: a good tackle, one that slows or stops an attack including a tackle that gains possession, is a plus. Being tackled (when there are obviously better options like passing out of danger) and losing possession is a minus.

Defending: Defensive positioning, or play, that results in the marked opponent’s progress being significantly impeded, forces hurried passes or similar poor decisions is a plus. Poor defensive positioning that allows an opponent an advantage such as an uncontested shot or an easy pass into an advantageous position is a minus.

Shooting: an accurate on-target shot, one that forces a save, or wins a corner, is a plus. A poor shot (from a position that would have allowed a better one) is a minus.

Runs: a dribble, or a run onto a pass, that results in tactical improvement, and particularly puts the opposition goal under threat is a plus.

Foul: an unnecessary and reckless foul, and particularly one that gives up a free kick close to the Thorns goal, is a minus. Conversely, a smart tactical foul may be a plus.

Clearances: a defensive clearance that ends a dangerous attack is a plus. A clear that goes short and to an opponent, or otherwise increases the danger to the goal, is a minus.

All of these actions must have an impact on the game to get recorded. What this means is that there are numerous player actions that don’t go in my records at all. Aimless knocking the ball around the backline? Nothing. A pass that’s well-defended and goes nowhere? That’s just good play by the opponent. A run that gets turned back? Nope, nothing to see there.

The format I use for displaying PMRs in the player comments section looks like this:

Each player has a comment and rating section following the player’s name in boldface type.

Behind the name there’s a series of numbers in parentheses and separated either by a dash or a colon.

If the first number looks like this; 60’ - that’s how long the player was on the field. If there’s no number in italics the player went the full match.

For a player that played in both halves there will be three sets of numbers that will look like this: +2/-2 : +2/-2 : +4/-4. The first pair is that player’s first half rating. The second pair is the second half rating, and the third set is the match rating that should be a sum of the first two pairs. A player that plays in only one half will have a single pair of numbers that is her rating for her shift and for the match.

Long (60’ - +4/-4 : +6/-3 : +10/-7) indicates the Allie Long played for an hour, was rated +4/-4 in the first half, +6/-3 in the second, and +10/-7 for the match.

A well-played match should result in a player with an overall positive rating - pluses should be higher than minuses - and higher overall numbers mean the player was more involved in the match than a player with lower numbers.

Typically a “good” match should result in two or three times the pluses as minuses and overall PMRs in the 20’s, something like +15/-5. Any plus total above 20 is typically an outstanding match for that player. A match where the player has twice the minuses as pluses? Not a good outing. A match PMR (for a full ninety minutes) that looks like +2/-2? That player did very little of note, either good or bad.

OK? Everybody good? Now here’s the Comments and PMR’s:

Raso (+8/-2 : +6/-5 : +14/-7) Unsurprisingly not her usual dangerous self going forward since Portland appeared to be primarily concerned with defending. Worked hard on forechecking defense in the second half and thus even then was unable to get more than a sniff at goal. Pretty 1-2 with Sykes at 40’.

Decent day overall, but Raso has been critical to the Thorns’ attack and needs to be freed up to score, not just grinding out tackles. That means more, and better, defensive work forward of the back line to get the ball up to Raso sooner and more often.

Sykes (+6/-1 : +6/-3 : +12/-4) Sykes did some terrific work on both sides of the ball, including the 40th minute attack the put her in 1v0 on Harris and produced Portland’s best chance at scoring. Active and dangerous, as usual, and particularly stingy with her passing, only giving the ball away late in the second half when Thorns FC was just killing off the clock.

Nadim (60’ - +10/-4 : +5/-0 : +15/-4) A very good match for Nadim that, unfortunately, lacked quality in front of goal including two brutal misses at 21 and 33 minutes. Worked hard on defense, as usual, and had some lovely distribution. However, without much service through the midfield, Nadim’s attack - which typically needs passes to her feet - suffered more than Raso’s or Sykes’s.

Heath (30’ - +9/-5) Great to see Heath again. A trifle rusty, but not a bad half hour and a hopeful sign of good work to come.

Sinclair (+7/-2 : +4/-4 : +11/-6) A tough outing for Captain Sinc, worked hard but largely stranded. Portland’s directness in attack passed her by. Orlando either attacked wide or went over her head with long passes, so Sinclair ended up without much activity.

Horan (+8/-5 : +7/-3 : +15/-8) A trifle messy and unfocused in the first half, perhaps a hangover from the international matches, Horan stepped up in the second half when let off-leash to harass Morgan. Not in Full Beast Mode, but useful on a day when the midfield as a unit was not firing on all cylinders.

Long (60’ - +7/-3 : +2/-1 : +9/-4) Well, at least Long did better at DM than she was doing as a striker. There’s that.

Needed to be more aggressive in shutting down Orlando in the first half and it’s worth noting that Henry had almost as many positive actions in the last half hour as Long had for the first hour. Not awful, but not what she needed to be.

I find Long to be in an odd position right now. She’s clearly a quality player, but she lacks an obvious place in the Thorns’ midfield other than as “Henry’s late-match replacement”. Both Henry and Horan are better as pure defenders, and Long has stopped shooting from distance which was once one of her genuinely dangerous weapons. It seems bizarre to consider Long as a bench player, but that’s where she appears to be at the moment and her play in this match does nothing to change that. With Henry set to depart, Long is clearly not superfluous to the team’s future; but her present is a pale shade of what it seemed back in 2013.

Henry (30’ - +7/-2) La Destructrice came on and did her job; she attacked and destroyed everything in front of her. Not as much opportunity to display her quality in distribution as her usual outing but did what she was sent out to do, locked down the road point so by that metric, a fine match. PTFC is sure going to miss her. I know I will.

Klingenberg (+7/-6 : +1/-0 : +8/-6) I fully expected Kling to stop somewhere along the Thorns’ left touchline some time around the 58th minute, unfold a lawn chair, kick off her boots, and check with the linesman to see if he could bring her a mojito and some chips-n-salsa.

The Pride had so given up at attacking her flank in the second half that she could probably have showered and been in her street clothes by the final whistle and Orlando still wouldn’t have scored from that flank. So her low numbers don’t reflect a shortcoming on her part, but, rather, that Orlando avoided her flank like a Benedictine avoids a near occasion of sin through the entire last half.

A good match for Kling; her first half numbers are skewed by attempted long passes or crosses that went astray—five of her six minuses are intercepted passes, most of which were picked off deep in Orlando’s territory so were not particularly dangerous giveaways.

Menges (+11/-8 : +8/-1 : +19/-9) Rock of the defense and looking more and more like the Menges half of the Great Wall of Emily. Only bad miscue was a scary one, though; a badly-chested backpass in the 24th minute that Franch had to scamper out to boot away from an onrushing Ubogagu.

But the rest of Menges’s work was gorgeous, including a neat tackle off the feet of Jasmyne Spencer in the second half. Don’t let her rough first half numbers fool you; Menges was under the cosh for a half hour and did what she needed to do to keep the clean sheet. Made a huge difference in Sonnett’s play, as well; Sonnett looked lost in Boston but not in Orlando, so she’s clearly the keystone of the Great Wall. My choice for Woman of the Match on a day when the spotlight was on the defenders.

Sonnett (+4/-1 : +7/-3 : +11/-4) Sonnet’s modest PMR belies her hard work in the second half. She, Horan, and Henry worked together to deny Orlando any purchase on the Thorns’ final third, and it’s worth noting that all of her minuses in that half were speculative passes that went deep into Orlando territory but didn’t connect and largely did Thorns FC little damage.

Reynolds (+5/-2 : +6/-3 : +11/-5) Reynolds did a woman’s work Saturday. Orlando bombed your side and, thanks to you and your backline sisters, got no closer than close. Reynolds did most of the hard graft closing down Marta and, as you can see if you look back at the second “defensive actions” chart got upfield aggressively in the last half. Very strong match from Reynolds.

Franch (+2/-0 : +4/-0 : +6/-0) Big saves in the 12th and 34th minutes (she does need to try and hold onto that ball) and patrolled her penalty area like a big green goldfish bossing her tank in the second half, with critical runs to take possession in the 81st, 83rd, and 87th minutes.

One thing I’ve been tracking since the spring is Franch’s distribution, since that was the most problematic part of her game in April and May. Last Saturday, she put a total of 15 balls into play out of her area; five goal kicks, eight clearances (that is, balls played back to her either by a teammate or an opponent that she played out), one free kick and one punt.

Of those 15 efforts, a total of six (40%) went to a Portland player. The remaining 60% went to Orlando either directly, off a Portland head, or by going into touch.

However, of those nine, only one was directly returned towards Portland’s goal, so a “clearance-to-danger” ratio of about 7% (and, obviously, none resulted in a concession). That’s about average for a quality Thorns FC match this season.

Coach Parsons - Had Parsons been able to figure out how to keep Orlando’s attack in check while sneaking an away goal I’d have to give him all the money in my pocket. It looks from here, though, that his bottom line was the away point, and he got that so, well done, coach, even without the $8.25.

In this case, however, I have to give him five bucks for unleashing the forechecking hounds in the second half. Bunkering up under Orlando’s barrage for a full match would have been perilously likely to have conceded a goal. With Marta tiring and Morgan isolated, Parsons appears to have sicced his enforcers on the Pride at just the right time. So even better done, coach, and the next rounds’ on me when we drink to the championship trophy.

OK, so Thorns FC got the road point. Now what?

Like I said in the match preview last week; for PTFC the critical pathway is working to 1) arrive at the playoffs in peak form, and 2) set up the best matchup for the semifinal and final.

The Shield? Don’t make me laugh. Now that the NWSL has sited the Final in Orlando, winning the Shield is a meaningless honor. It isn’t worth the extra effort even if it was remotely likely and, given that one of Carolina’s two remaining matches is against Houston, it isn’t.

So; peak form and the best matchup. I think Chicago is more beatable than either Orlando or Carolina. I’d rather Thorns FC faces them in the Final than either of the other two teams. Beyond that, the most important thing for PTFC is to do everything possible to prevent meeting Orlando in Orlando for the Final.

Right now, Chicago is ahead of Orlando on points and set to play in the semifinal here if the table doesn’t change. Orlando’s final regular season match is at Cary, and the Pride have traded lopsided results, losing 3-1 at Cary in April but winning at home in May. I can’t honestly say what the likely result of their final meeting will be.

But resting starters next week, sandbagging Chicago, and hoping for an Orlando win on the final day of the season? To bring Orlando here for the semifinal, beating them, and then face either Chicago or Carolina in Orlando in the Final?

Hmmm.

Now there’s an interesting thought.