Emerging from the Primordial Soup
Last Wednesday, we saw a Thorns FC that looked like the sort of thing you read about the first nanoseconds after the Big Bang; chaotic, random movements of sub-atomic components of a white-hot steaming flux, with little or no order that would be recognizable to those of us not familiar with the behavior of particle physics. Or soccer.
Saturday night against the Houston Dash, Thorns FC looked more like a soccer club and less like those strange neutrinos haphazardly bouncing off each other. The result was another draw, this one scoreless, but the match play gave us a little more insight into what we are likely to see in the season opener next week. The light is beginning to shine as the Thorns coalesce out of the singularity into a soccer team.
I’m not going to discuss the play itself other than to agree with Tyler Nguyen that 1) the Thorns looked much better against Houston than they did in the first two Invitational matches, but 2) right now scoring looks like an issue.
Not that the clean sheet in this match was shocking; Houston’s coach Vera Pauw had obviously chosen to solve the defensive problems the Dash had in the first two games by packing bodies behind the ball and defending in depth. But overall, scoring two goals in three Invitational matches? Not a good sign for the Thorns’ attack.
We’re still in preseason, however, so instead of fretting about tactics and the scoreline let’s do what we did last time and just look at who played for Portland on Saturday and how they looked.
Player Ratings and Comments
Onumonu (74’ - +5/-4 : +4/-1 : +9/-5) Ifeoma Onumonu is a fun player to watch but can be a frustrating player to root for. She has pace, and appears to be both active and intelligent. But she is still raw, often runs into traffic rather than into space, and has yet to develop a deft touch that would allow her to work effectively in that traffic. That heavy first touch lost her what might have been the Thorns’ best chance of the evening in the 19th minute, when she lost control of a perfectly weighted pass from Celeste Boureille that came off Onumonu’s chest and ran directly to the Houston keeper, Jane Campbell. Onumonu had another chance in the 49th minute with service from some clever buildup by Horan and Sinclair, but she shot well wide.
Note to the Portland Thorns: Onumonu is not a holdup forward. So far every attempt to force the ball up to her when she is tightly marked and has her back to goal has failed. She’s tall. But that’s it.
Overall Onumonu had a decent outing and looks like promising, but she will need some more polish as well as to find her shooting boots. And quickly, if she’s in the XI come next weekend.
Weber (+2/-2 : +1/-3 : +3/-5) Just couldn’t quite figure out how to unlock Houston’s packed defense. Several excellent crosses that, like the other Thorns’ crossing all evening, didn’t find a black shirt within the Houston penalty area. Busy all evening, worked hard, had some good moments, but the lightning just wouldn’t strike.
Sinclair (+9/-6 :+5/-0 : +14/-6) Another match in which Christine Sinclair worked her tail off but got little or no joy out of it. When she tried to play through the middle she was swarmed, and when she tried to beat the Houston backline by running under long passes she was just that tiny bit too slow to control. Lots of good work tackling and intercepting passes helped the Thorns midfield control the center of the pitch, but Sinclair was just enough out of synch with her forwards to prevent her work from turning into that final pass or scoring strike.
Purce (+12/-3 : +8/-6 : +20/-9) My Woman of the Match; tireless, fierce in defense and explosive in attack. My notes on the match include lots of stuff like this:
“12’ - Purce great tackle for gain in deep right corner.”
“16’ - Purce great run, wins CK (PK off handball?), tho CK cleared w/o SOG.”
“28’ - Purce clever pass to Onumonu but good defending by HOU tackles it away.”
“34’ - Purce clever run and cross - nobody could get to it.”
Did appear to fade later in the match; her first touch in particular deserted her, which suggests she was fatigued, but other than that a fine match. Purce has looked dangerous in all three preseason matches but without registering a point. Hopefully that will improve.
Lussi (39’ - +5/-0) Like the rest of the Portland strikers, Tyler Lussi had some creatively dangerous moments, including a flurry between the 83rd and 87th minutes when she pressed fiercely in the Houston deep left corner and forced several corner kicks. Like the rest of the Portland strikers, Lussi just couldn’t find that final touch, that perfect pass, that clever strike from distance that would break open Houston’s defense.
Yu (16’ - +3/-0) Came on as a replacement for Onumonu and looked inventive in her late shift, including a tricky little overhead flick that can only be called TobinHeath-esque. Had even less space to work with than the other forwards as Houston appeared to decide to play for the draw in the waning minutes.
Horan (85’ - +8/-10 : +3/-2 : +11/-12) This was clearly a frustrating match for Lindsey Horan, who had problems controlling her passes and was beefed around by orange shirts all evening; I thought for a moment that she and Daly were just going to say to hell with this soccer nonsense, walk out the southwest gate, and throw down in the parking lot. Picked up a yellow because late in the first half Horan was angry with Houston’s rough play and showed it by fighting back.
Some of Horan’s problems were of her own making, however. Of her ten first half minuses five were poor passes, including three balls that went right to a Houston player, and three more minuses were for being caught in possession and stripped of the ball. Horan is still not quite on the same page as her forwards, or with Sinclair and Boureille. If she can make that connection she is likely to go into full Beast Mode, which would be terrific for PTFC.
Boureille (73’ - +8/-5 : +4/-2 : +12/-7) Another evening full of Boureille making timely tackles, swooping in to snap up errant Houston passes and loose balls, and then giving the ball back with a mishit pass. The triangle of Horan-Boureille-Sonnett was a big part of Portland’s possession all evening, but also a big part of Portland’s attacking frustration since the three tended to play off each other more easily than they found targets going forward, and all three had problems with sloppy passing. Boureille has looked efficient in controlling her midfield patrol area but needs to start making better passes if the Portland attack is to prosper.
Salem (17’ - +1/-1) Looked a little more comfortable and in command of her deep midfield area than she did against the U-23s. Decent defending, improved communication with her teammates, and had some good forward passes. Salem even got into the Houston 6-yard box on a Weber 90th minute cross. Mistimed the jump that might have tallied a late winner, but smart positioning nonetheless.
Herndon (5’ - +1/-1) Didn’t do much in her short shift, but generally not looking as good as she did last season. When she came into camp I would have given her even money to stay on pace with her long-time associate Hubly. At this point, however, Hubly looks by far the more likely to stick as an amateur call-up than Herndon.
Klingenberg (61’ - +4/-4 : +2/-0 : +6/-4) Another decent shift from Klingenberg, including several of her now-trademark crosses. A solid, professional outing of the sort you’d expect from her. Klingenberg hasn’t yet established the communication with any of the forwards she has had in the past with her veteran teammates like Heath or Long; hopefully that will develop with more playing time.
Interesting to note that when Lussi came in for Klingenberg, Mark Parsons shifted Weber back to fill Klingenberg’s LB slot.
Hubly (45’ - +4/-7) Despite her net negative PMR, not an awful shift from Kelli Hubly. Still working on her defensive positioning and her passing needs improvement, but generally okay defensively and getting better at working with both Klingenberg to her left and Sonnett to her right. She was seldom glaringly adrift, just not quite at the same level as the regulars and, obviously, not anywhere near the quality of the Emily Menges she was replacing. In my opinion the trialist most likely to be here come opening day.
Ball (45’ - +3/-4) I didn’t think Ball would still be here this weekend but she got a full second half against Houston. In that half she showed the same mixture of decent defending with sketchy positioning, questionable decision-making, and getting skinned that she showed against the U-23s.
I’m not sure whether the last is because she doesn’t anticipate attackers’ runs or lacks the pace to cover them, but whatever the reason the results sure are ugly. Perhaps the ugliest was in the 71st minute, when Motlhalo beat her to the byline and hammered a shot that Franch did well to parry away. Ball then made a hash of the clearance and had to be bailed out by Emily Sonnett.
I’d say that based on her performance over the past two matches she has no chance of being on the roster on opening day, but obviously Mark Parsons disagrees. We will have to see how she works out, because I still have my doubts.
Sonnett (+6/-7 : +6/-3 : +12/-10) Since Catarina Macario was safely elsewhere, Emily Sonnett was able to concentrate on trying to pitch long passes up to her attackers. In doing so she still had some visible issues with passing accuracy; of Sonnett’s ten minuses seven were passes that went astray. When she connected, though, she made things happen - as she did in the 18th minute when her long pass to Onumonu resulted in the latter’s cross rebounding off Campbell and a hopeful flurry in the Houston 6-yard box.
Sonnett labored heroically in her own backfield in the early part of the second half as Houston pushed up, making four critical clearances as well as tackling the ball away. Generally solid defensively, it looks like Parsons expects Sonnett to do a lot of long passing out of the back, so she will need to tighten up her shot group, as we say in the artillery. Right now she’s hitting the target only about half the time.
Reynolds (+4/-2 : +4/-4 : +8/-6) Reynolds’ PMR for this match is deceiving. Defensively she was as solid as she always is. But with Houston clogging up the pitch, Reynolds (as the “stay-home” fullback playing deep in the Portland right corner) had to try to hit long passes forward. Unsurprisingly many of these went to Houston; a total of four of her six minuses. Otherwise Reynolds had a good match, locking down the back right and right flank.
Franch (+1/-0 : +1/-1 : +2/-1) Little troubled by Houston overall, although a good parry at 71’ saved the point when her defenders let her down. Better distribution than against the U-23s (although Franch’s single minus is a short clear that was picked off) and looked much steadier coming out for high crosses and long Houston passes. Against Houston, Franch looked much closer to in-season form than she did against the U-23s.
Coach Parsons: Appears to be close to settling on his roster (although his affection for Ball still baffles me) but will still have some difficult decisions to make when the veterans still not here (like Raso) or recovering from injury (such as Heath) become available.
Parsons needs to do some heavy thinking about how this team is going to score. Right now the squad looks perilously like the 2017 edition that was offensively sterile and had to rely on luck and spot-kicks to take points. The Thorns defense looks like it will be ready for opening day. But with the rest of the league outside of Sky Blue (and possibly this opponent, although Houston didn’t look anything like the dumpster fire I half expected them to be) having improved significantly going forward the Thorns are going to have to score to win. I’m going to bet you all the money in my pocket that scoreless draws will not get the team very far this season.
Join me after this coming weekend and we’ll see how Parsons figures that out.