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Thorns FC: Shut Out

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John Lawes

If Thorns FC is to return to the top step of the podium next season they will need to learn several lessons from the shutout loss to the North Carolina Courage in the Final.

Lesson One: “Forwards score!”

The 2018 Thorns relied heavily on their midfield - and of that midfield, three players - to produce goals. If the midfielders have to spend much of their game defending, or fighting through relentless defensive pressure to get forward - as they did in the Final - they need aggressive forwards creating space, occupying the defense, taking shots and giving the midfielders open shots themselves.

Here’s the shots the two sides’ forwards - and I’m including Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic as a Thorns forward - took in the Final.

Image by NWSL in public domain

Ouch.

While admitting that the imbalance owes a lot to the North Carolina “creating a crap-ton of crap shots” thing, the Thorns getting only one shot from each forward is decidedly suboptimal.

To beat a fast, high-pressing-midfield-and-speedy-fullback team like North Carolina, the Thorns forwards have to get open for service and have to take good shots and convert. Otherwise the Courage will simply lay off the forwards and stifle Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath, which is exactly what they did.

And then there’s this.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use

Crnogorcevic puts that away - and, yes, I know it was a hell of a tough shot to make, but that’s what forwards are out there to do - and it’s 1-nil within eleven minutes of kickoff and Carolina has to chase the game.

This lack of production from the strikers has been a Thorns problem all season and in the final it helped North Carolina bite them in the backside. Undoubtedly, getting Hayley Raso back and having a healthy Caitlin Foord for 2019 will help, but the team still needs to think hard about whether those players can begin to provide more attack and, if so, if tactical changes will be required to help make those players more effective in the future.

Lesson Two: “Defense, Don’t Eff Up!”

There’s really no other way to describe this other than a complete cluster.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Who the hell has Lynn Williams? What is Emily Menges doing so far outside and so far behind the play?

Ellie Carpenter has Williams and Crystal Dunn both bearing down on her - how is she going to mark them both?

Why is the left back, Meghan Klingenberg, way the hell upfield instead of defending against Jessica McDonald who is attacking the left back spot?

I wouldn’t harp on this except that the Thorns defense was doing this sort of thing all match.

Here’s McDonald’s second and the Courage’s third goal. Keep your eye on McDonald.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

It looks like every blue shirt has a red one goal-side of her as the ball goes out short to Merritt Mathias. That’s good. But who has McDonald? Crnogorcevic seems to be head-checking her as McDonald jogs forward, but she’s the only one.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

As Mathias tees it up, McDonald is still moving through the pack. Sinclair is the nearest Thorn to her, so maybe the captain will pick her up.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Nope. McDonald is all by her lonesome when the ball arrives, and all AD Franch can do is wave bye-bye as McDonald puts a bulge in the old onion bag and it’s lights-out, Thorns.

I’ll get to it in the comments, but while North Carolina played a hell of a match, the Thorns defense helped them by collapsing into a disorganized mess much of the time. The 2017 team won because they had a defensive rock to build from. The 2018 squad got themselves in trouble having this sort of meltdown. The 2019 edition will have to change that.

Lesson Three: Individual Matchups and Team Play

Here’s an otherwise unremarkable moment in the 61st minute that begins with Carpenter trying to attack up the Thorns’ right touchline.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

The play started with a free kick, so the Thorns’ attackers are lined up along the top of the penalty area. When Denise O’Sullivan takes on Carpenter and forces her back the Thorns’ fullback has no help square or forward. Nobody drops back to help, and the only open players - Celeste Boureille and Emily Sonnett - are behind Carpenter.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Carpenter drops deep to Sonnet, who, like Carpenter, has no outlet - most everybody in red is still inside the penalty area - and is immediately attacked by both Debinha and Williams and stripped of the ball.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Debinha plays the ball through, Williams kicks in the burners, and is off down the touchline. You’ll notice that she’s already toasted Sonnett, and Menges has turned the wrong way. It’s only three-on-four, but the four are spread out all over hell and two of them, Sonnett and Boureille, are 1) already behind the play, and 2) isolated from their teammates and each other.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

To give credit where it’s due, Sonnett hustles back and gets close to closing down Williams. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades; Williams’ cross flies by Sonnett towards an onrushing McDonald while both Menges and Klingenberg are busy ballwatching. Boureille is hustling back, but too late.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Williams’ cross is deadly; one of the biggest differences in the Final was North Carolina’s ability to put crosses onto heads or to feet, and Portland’s inability to do the same. Fortunately for Portland, McDonald’s header is off-target and sails safely wide.

The Courage put together an impressive example of both individual effort and team play. The Thorns not only lost individual duels, but they couldn’t work together as a team when they needed to most. Both rosters are full of quality, but on the day of the Final the roster that won the duels and worked together better dominated the one that didn’t.

Extra Credit: Forechecking

Remember how early in the season how we talked about “forechecking”, the defensive work done by attacking midfielders and forwards to disrupt the opponent’s attack in the opponent’s end of the pitch?

Okay, so contrast this...

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

...with this.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sinclair seems to be marking up on someone, but what are Foord, Heath, and Boureille doing? Certainly not what Dunn, Williams, McDonald, and Debinha were doing in the screenshot above.

One thing that Hayley Raso brings to the pitch is something that the 2017 squad got from Nadia Nadim; furious forechecking. Foord and AMC don’t have the same level of skill - typically they lose 80% of their individual duels. To best North Carolina, the Thorns need more of the sort of forechecking the Courage used against them.

Final Grade: North Carolina 3, Portland 0

North Carolina defended fiercely, including all the way to the Thorns’ goalmouth. They threw a crap-ton of speed and aggression at Portland’s defense, which buckled under the strain. They won individual encounters and played better as a team, while Portland lost more of those duels, particularly in back, and upfront were stymied trying to create goals from individual efforts.

Changing those imbalances will mean the Thorns will have to make some tactical and technical (and, possibly, roster) changes.

It’s deciding which changes, and the actual making of those changes, that is the difficult task for the next seven months.

Player Ratings and Comments

Foord (+3/-5 : +5/-2 : +8/-7) The more effective of the two forwards (if we consider Crnogorcevic as a forward) but not effective enough to materially impact the match. Worked hard, made some intelligent runs and crisp passes - in the second half, particularly - but needed to put more and better shots on goal, and couldn’t.

I saw enough good from Foord this season to want to see more of her next season, but her conversion rate suggests that either 1) some sort of tactical problem between her and her teammates, or 2) I was correct in my assessment back in February that:

“Foord doesn’t seem to be a big scoring threat; in 46 matches over three seasons with Sky Blue she took a total of 16 shots and put 5 on target without scoring. Her form in the W-League is better (20 goals over a little over 100 matches) so she’s not entirely without striking skills, but her primary tools are a winger’s; very high workrate, pacey on and off the ball, a skillful dribbler, and an accurate passer.”

I want to be wrong, and I’d love for Foord to become the consistently dangerous scoring threat that the Thorns Front Office clearly wants her to be. But she hasn’t shown that to date, and I hope that’s only because of her injury and late start.

Crnogorcevic (68’ - +4/-4 : +1/-2 : +5/-6) What frustrates me about AMC is the flashes of brilliance - typified by her clever little meg in the 24th minute that put Boureille’s pass through to Foord - lighting up long, gray minutes of sterility.

She certainly hasn’t produced anything like her Swiss national team form, which suggests that the gaudy international goal production is an artifact of her preying on no-hopers like Montenegro and Luxembourg.

The problem with that is even when she’s only moderately effective, die Schweitzerin is still more effective than the other forwards outside of Foord and Raso.

This off-season, the Thorns Front Office and coaching staff really need to take a hard look at the strikers and make some hard decisions.

Andressinha (22’ - +6/-1) The Final drove home the truth that 1) Andressinha is nowhere near the two-sided threat that Debinha is, and 2) because of that, her place in the Thorns midfield is problematic.

On a team with a rock-like defensive midfielder, Andressinha might provide little extra defense along with a decent supply of service going forward. Portland doesn’t have that rock; as good as she is, Boureille simply doesn’t have the same skillset Amandine Henry had, and Andressinha doesn’t have the defending chops to combine with Boureille to make the both of them better. She’s more or less a passenger when the opponent has the ball.

She’s not tough enough to fight through a physical midfield, not fast enough to run through a technical one. She’s a good passer, but too often doesn’t have a good target to her front (see: “Forwards, score!”).

Right now she reminds me strongly of the Equatoguinean forward Genoveva Añonma - Ayo - that Paul Riley signed in 2015; a fine individual player, but one that just can’t seem to find a comfortable place in the squad. Figuring out how best to use her will be a major decision the Thorns FO needs to make before next season.

Sinclair (+4/-0 +10/-3 : +14/-3) If I was forced to choose a Woman of the Match - which is difficult in a match such as the Final - I’d choose our captain. Tireless as always, relentlessly trying to push her team forward while struggling with defensive chores that had to wear on thirtysomething legs.

Sinc was then what she always is; the beating heart of the Thorns. Sadly, on the Final matchday North Carolina had everything else. Heart alone wasn’t enough.

Heath (+4/-3 : +5/-5 : +9/-8) The Final exposed the best and worst of Heath. Her creativity and relentless drive, her vision, and her ability to inspire her teammates, alongside of her frustrating reliance on ball-trickery that too often backfires, leading her into blind alleys where she’s tackled for loss or, as twice in the first half, when she tried a little back-heel volley that went either straight to North Carolina or careened out into touch.

As her distribution diagram shows, Heath tried repeatedly to provide service into North Carolina’s penalty area.

Image by NWSL in public domain

As the diagram also shows, that service was not successful, largely because the Courage backline was diligent about marking Horan on setpieces (what a rotten time for an opponent to remember that!), Heath’s teammates not getting good looks, or just pure bad luck.

Horan (+6/-5 : +2/-2 : +8/-7) Over the 26 matches of the 2018 season Horan has only had one other match where her net PMR fell as low as +1, Sky Blue here on Matchday 22. The speed and precise passing of North Carolina’s attack forced the MVP to play far more defense than the Thorns wanted; of her 8 pluses 5 are for defensive plays. On the other end, North Carolina’s defense did an excellent job marking Horan out of the match.

It is telling about her importance to the Thorns’ attack that when Horan is shut down so are the Thorns. But it is a warning that if Portland is to reverse the 0-4 streak of losses to the Courage that the Thorns have to find ways to either prevent opponents from shutting Horan down, or find ways to create goals from other players when she is.

Boureille (+5/-2 : +2/-0 : +7/-2) A hell of a tough afternoon for Cee Bee, with Samantha Mewis and O’Sullivan and Debinha all running at her; it must have looked like a junior high school recess out there.

Should have worked better with Sonnett marking Debinha on the first goal, but otherwise a decent outing for Boureille.

Carpenter (89’- +2/-4 : +5/-1 : +7/-5) It’s just as well that we start our assessment of the backline with Carpenter, because she had the best afternoon of the group. Provided some good service, and was generally solid defensively, not a simple task given that Jaelene Hinkle was tearing up the pitch all match.

Because of the Courage’s pressure, Carpenter wasn’t able to have as much of an impact going forward as usual, but at least she was moderately effective on both sides of the ball, and that was more than her squad mates could say.

Sonnett (+0/-7 : +5/-8 : +5/-15) Emily Sonnett was a trainwreck against North Carolina. There’s simply no way to overlook that in the biggest match of the season, Sonnet had her worst match of the season. Failed to pick up Debinha on the first goal, skinned by McDonald repeatedly, and was part of the collective backline failure to read the Hinkle pass that led to McDonald’s first goal.

Yike. That’s just ugly.

I like a lot of what Sonnett brings. But I also think it’s time for her to live up to her potential. Three years into her professional career she should be the rock-steady center back she was for much of 2017. This year she has all too often reverted to her rookie form, alternating fine performances with inexplicable brain-cramps and inexplicable mistakes. For the Thorns to move forward next season it is imperative that Sonnett maintain her highs and lift her lows, or the Front Office may need to put some thought into finding a new brick for the Great Wall of Emily.

Menges (+2/-7 : +1/-4 : +3/-11) The defining Menges moment from the Final came in the 13th minute.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Menges misplays this long Courage pass into Williams’ path, Williams takes the ball out wide and bangs her shot off the crossbar into the path of Debinha for the matchwinner.

Ugh.

If Sonnett had been the only Thorns center back to have tanked the Final match Portland might, at least, have come off the field having merely lost and not been whipped. But Menges, too, had her worst match of a season in a season where she’s struggled with injuries and form.

Against the Courage, one big problem was that a lot of Menges’ usual sturdiness comes from her pace, and North Carolina is the only NWSL team that is jam-packed with forwards - hell, is packed with players - as speedy or faster than Menges.

I’m not worried; the Final was decidedly un-Menges-like. But it’s also a reminder that the Thorns have no real centerback depth right now, and that should be a consideration for the transfer market this winter.

Klingenberg (+0/-3 : +3/-5 : +3/-8) I didn’t receive the InStat match report for the Final - my subscription ran out at the end of the regular season - but Chris Henderson did, and reports that InStat rated three Thorns as having the worst outings of all players in the match. In lowest-to-next-lowest order they are AMC, Sonnett, and Klingenberg.

Perhaps I was harder on Menges because I have higher expectations of her, but certainly her -5 net PMR puts Kling in my #3 slot for the Balon d’Nope. Klingenberg’s 36th minute giveaway set up Mewis for what could easily have been North Carolina’s second, and she had an earlier misplay to Debinha that resulted in a Mathias shot on goal.

Klingenberg still has a lot of positives. She’s a smart player, and is usually a deft passer. She’s an integral part of a defensive unit that - when it’s not imploding as it did in the Final - is one of the best in the league.

But she has completely lost whatever pace she had, and is increasingly exposed by faster wingers which, at this point, is nearly every winger in the NWSL. I’m not sure whether she just needs to be supplemented by a younger, faster player who fills in for her in late minutes and against blazing fast teams like the Courage, or whether it’s time for the club to start looking around for a replacement.

Franch (+2/-0 : +1/-0 : +3/-0) Critical block on an O’Sullivan shot in the 33rd minute, and save off Williams in the 63rd. Franch can’t really be faulted on any of the concessions; she had to go up on the Williams shoss in the 13th minute that left her helpless on Debinha’s finish, was utterly exposed by her backline on the first McDonald goal, and that she managed to even get a fingertip to McDonald’s second was a minor miracle.

I have to question her selection as Goalkeeper of the Year - Lynn Williams, Kate Rowland, and Alyssa Naeher all seem to have better qualifications - but there’s no question that Franch’s performance over the last third of the season was a huge part of Thorns FC just getting to the Final. No goalkeeper will ever be satisfied with getting three hung on her, but given her full season, Franch had no cause to be shamed at the end of that September afternoon.

Coach Parsons - Of course, stumbling at the last step is going to bring out the haters, but for anyone knowledgeable of the teams, and the league, it’s hard to see how Parsons could have done much else to improve on his team’s performance. The Thorns hadn’t had a good answer to the Courage’s speed and high pressure all season, but neither had anyone else (outside Laura Harvey’s Utah). Parsons couldn’t have anticipated his defense’s collapse and didn’t really have any substitution options to clean up the lack of attack or the defensive mess.

He did bring on Andressinha for an obviously ineffective AMC, but other than that what game-changer did he have on the bench? Purce might have brought some attacking speed, but the 2018 Thorns simply weren’t set up to claw back three goals against North Carolina.

The only option might have been to duplicate the brutal physicality of the 2017 Final and, frankly, I’m glad Parsons chose not to go there.

Envoi

It’s hard to get over the tough loss. But I want to end this, my final match analysis piece of the 2018 season, by remembering the high points of the Thorns’ journey this season.

It was a long road, and a hard one, fraught with troubles and reverses along the way. At times - when dropping points to teams like Sky Blue - it seemed very likely that this year’s squad would fail to even make the playoffs at all; remember that Portland fell as low as sixth on the table back in midsummer.

But Thorns FC, version 2018, was the team that refused to die. The team that found a way to grind out results in the last weeks of the regular season. The team that clawed back into second on the final day of the season. The team that went down a goal and clawed back the semifinal from a Seattle that had defeated them soundly twice during the regular season. The team that fought their way to a shot at the title.

The Courage may have had the speed, and the skills, and, eventually, the championship.

But the Thorns had the kind of heart, and desire, the kind of love and comradeship as a team, that shone out like a lamp on a cold dark night.

Image by NWSL in public domain

And for that, above all, I will remember this season with a fondness made wistful only by the thought of what might have been.