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Thorns FC: A Quality All Its Own

Image taken from Facebook and licensed under Fair Use.

The last four meetings between the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage have all been won by the team that scored the only goal. Last season it was Portland who took the Championship by keeping a clean sheet and scoring the lone goal.

Last Saturday it was North Carolina’s turn. While it’s hard to complain about the goal itself, a 70th minute Debinha golazo, what is frustrating is the paucity of Portland attacking in both matches.

Here’s the expected goals (xG) plot for last season’s NWSL Final.

And here’s the xG plot for last Saturday’s match.

See the similarity? In both matches, the Thorns were outshot by 3 or 4 to 1. A lot of North Carolina’s shots were not high quality. But, as we GIs used to say about the Soviet Army; sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

As in the Final, last Saturday North Carolina was shockingly adrift in front of goal; only 4 of the Courage’s 20 shots Saturday were on frame. But unlike the Final, this time it was the Courage that finished and Portland that couldn’t.

The play that resulted in that goal started with a left channel run by Denise O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan has space but no clear line to the goal. There’s still three red shirts in front of her and Debinha until Lindsey Horan makes a little mistake.

Instead of staying with Debinha, Horan moves inside, presumably to help double- (or triple-) team O’Sullivan.

As Horan moves to the outside, Debinha moves to the inside, and suddenly O’Sullivan has a passing option. She takes it, sliding the ball right, to Debinha’s feet.

Although Debinha has the ball with some room to move, the Thorns still have bodies in front of her and she’s a long way from the goal. Sonnett is reacting and moving to close the Brazilian down. It irks me to see both Hubly and Klingenberg ignoring their marks to ballwatch Debinha, but that’s me nitpicking. The overall defensive situation still looks like it’s under control.

But brilliance has ways of suddenly changing situations and destroying control, and that’s what Debinha’s strike does. It’s brilliant, splitting the closing defenders. Franch has no chance, and it’s 1-nil Courage.

The problem with that is now Portland is chasing the game, and the Thorns didn’t have an offensive motor; the attack was missing all match. Look back at the xG plot above; Portland created less than 20% of a chance for a goal in this entire match. After the 70th minute, the Thorns didn’t have a single shot.

Without a hope of equalizing, one little mistake and one moment of brilliance could decide this game.

I don’t want to make this loss into a disaster. The season is long, the Thorns roster will change significantly when injured players like Tobin Heath and missing players like Andressinha return to the XI. In the big picture of the season, it’s just one loss. Other than trouble creating a goal, the Thorns played relatively well. It was a loss, not an embarrassment.

But teams that win championships do the sort of critical things right that turn those losses into draws, or wins; little things like communicating with each other so Horan marks up Debinha, and big things like finding an equalizer when the chances are desperately few.

That didn’t happen in Cary last Saturday.

Player ratings and comments

Weber (78’ - +4/-3 : +8/-6 : +12/-9) Mallory Weber is continuing to show the form she showed in preseason; active, intelligent, and aggressive - but scoreless. She did some good forechecking when North Carolina had possession. She made some clever runs, and went after the ball like a terrier when the Courage had possession.

Still, somehow she’s just not making that final touch or getting that shot to go in. It didn’t help that she didn’t get a ton of service and, when she did, was closed down almost immediately by good Courage defending. A generally decent outing by Weber, as her PMR suggests, just not quite good enough.

Onumonu (61’ - +6/-2 : +1/-0 : +7/-2) Ifeoma Onumonu did a lot of things right; moved well with the ball, moved smartly to open space, passed well in tight spaces, and made some clever runs. But, somehow, she just seems to lack that sixth sense for the right move, that timing for the perfect shot, which lifts strikers to greatness. Like Weber, she just hasn’t quite figured out how to turn all her good work into goals.

If I had an issue with Onumonu it was that she faded badly in the second half before coming off. That may just be in comparison with the Courage, or it may be a genuine conditioning problem; we’ll discuss the issue in Coach Parsons’ comment.

Lussi (29’ - +2/-0) Tyler Lussi had a lot of the same problems the starting strikers did. Worked hard, but without result.

Ball (12’ - No rating) Invisible.

Purce (+9/-6 : +3/-2 : +12/-8) Midge Purce had a fine match, working hard on both sides of the ball, and combined with Horan for what might have been the best Portland chance of the match; in the 79th minute D’Angelo’s foot got to Horan’s excellent lead pass a fraction of a second before Purce. A terrific tackler and good passer, I’d like to see her try to have a crack at goal more often. I think her dropoff in the second half had more to do with Parsons pushing her higher up the pitch where, like the rest of Portland’s forwards, she was denied service, rather than fatigue; she still looked active and engaged to the final whistle.

Sinclair (+10/-5 : +4/-1 : +14/-6) Christine Sinclair looked slower than I’ve seen her look in some time, and looked especially tired and ineffective late in the match. Probably didn’t help that she spent much of the match wearing McCall Zerboni like a pinny. Seventy-five percent of Sinclair is still better than most players in the game, but the Thorns needed Sinclair to be at her best last Saturday and I can’t say she was.

Horan (+7/-1 : +15/-1 : +22/-2) Well, she didn’t win the match, but it sure as hell wasn’t for lack of her trying. Lindsey Horan was terrific in all aspects of the game, and went into Beast Mode in the second half when her teammates around her were looking gassed - which might very well have kept the match as close as it was. My pick for Thorns Woman of the Match. Well played, The Great Horan.

Boureille (+3/-4 : +3/-6 : +6/-10) Tough match for Celeste Boureille, who had real trouble coping with the speed of the Courage midfield. Got her pocket picked a lot, was torched several times, and generally looked a step slow all afternoon. Perhaps not a shock, given her recent move into the midfield, but if she’s going to remain at that position it’s an issue she will have to deal with quickly for the team to do better.

Klingenberg (+2/-4 : +7/-5 : +9/-9) The standard Meghan Klingenberg outing; some decent defensive positioning and forward passing, combined with some questionable positioning and getting skinned around the outside by faster attackers because of her lack of pace. When Kling provides terrific service - as she did when she dimed Purce inside the Courage 18-yard-box in the 82nd minute - she’s terrific. When she lets Merritt Mathias have her for lunch - as Mathias did repeatedly on Saturday - she’s a problem. It’d be nice to have more of the former and less of the latter.

Sonnett (+10/-1 : +3/-2 : +13/-3) Emily Sonnett was one of the three best players on the pitch for Portland. Solid defending and pleasantly accurate passing out of the back, something she’s been wrestling with in preseason. I’ve been critical of Sonnett’s tackling; in contrast to her backline partner Emily Menges she can be clumsy and risks being cautioned (as she was in this match). But for the most part her work was deft, and against a team as pacey as North Carolina that’s no mean achievement.

However, Sonnett was another of the Thorns that seemed to struggle with fatigue late in the match. That needs to change, and soon.

Hubly (+1/-6 : +9/-5 : +10/-11) I was horrified by Kelli Hubly’s defensive naivete in the first half; she was a shambles, including the five of her six first half minuses which were major defensive errors. These included a vicious schooling in the 17th minute in which Crystal Dunn stripped her twice (Hubly recovered after the first dispossession, won the ball back, only for Dunn to strip her again) before rounding her.

After that half I wouldn’t have been shocked to see young Hubly collapse after the break but, instead, she rallied, and had a fine second half. Still struggled with her positioning, but came out strongly to clear several dangerous balls, including a critical block off Dunn in the 64th minute. She’s not Emily Menges but, then, who is? Decent work for a young player without much NWSL experience.

Reynolds (+4/-4 : +5/-3 : +9/-7) Fair enough work defensively, not so much passing forward (three of her seven minuses are poor passes). Reynolds, like Klingenberg, was troubled all match by the pace of North Carolina’s attackers. Unlike Klingenberg, Reynolds generally held her own, and overall she showed the usual work-woman-like Reynolds outing.

Franch (+3/-4 : +0/-0 : +3/-4) A.D. Franch’s PMR is deceptive. Not at fault on the concession - it would have taken Lev Yashin to save from Debinha - and in command of her penalty area outside a peculiar hesitation on a bounding ball in the 37th minute that she should have claimed. Except for that, her minuses are all clearances; for some reason Franch is having some of the same issues with short clearances, inaccurate clearances, or both that she had at the start of last season. She solved this problem last season, so I’m confident she will solve it this season, as well.

Coach Parsons: It’s difficult to see what the coach could have done much differently to change the outcome of this match. This is not the roster Parsons hoped to begin the season with, and his options outside of the starting XI are relatively limited. He brought on some fresh legs late in the match (although given her play in this match I am still baffled by his insertion of Elizabeth Ball) and was visibly giving direction to the team to try and unlock the Courage. As frustrating as it was to see the team come away without a point, it wasn’t Parsons that failed to mark Debinha, or create a dangerous strike at goal.

The anemia of the attack was a problem that the coach will need to consider. I think part of the problem was the Courage are just good, and good teams make you look bad. But the lack of punch up front has been a problem since preseason, suggesting that this wasn’t just a one-off but a structural problem. We’ll see if the frontline Parsons rolls out against Chicago next weekend suggests he agrees.

Another issue I raised in the Weber comment above is my sense that several Thorns looked gassed towards the end of this match. I wonder if the spate of injuries last season have made the Thorns coaches and trainers hesitant to push the players too hard in the early part of this season. I think Riley’s fierce fitness regime results in his players wearing out in September; but on a cold, wet March day at Riley’s conditioning drills - and Portland’s lower fitness level - may have helped the Courage put away the match as Portland bodies tired.

Right now that’s only speculation, and speculation based on only one data point. If the late-match letdown returns to trouble the team over the next several weeks? Then we have a training issue, and the Thorns leadership needs to ponder what to do about that.