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Thorns FC: Thorn in the paw

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Image from go90 and licensed under Fair Use

Stumptown Footy’s Tyler Nguyen has already described how the Portland Thorns fought through the driving rain, and back from an early concession, to defeat the Orlando Pride 2-1.

It would be pleasing to analyze the win a part of a steady upward progression in the quality of Portland’s play, from the Matchday 1 loss to North Carolina, to the wild Matchday 2 brawl in Chicago, to the sturdy comeback win Sunday.

Pleasing, but misleading.

Orlando is not a good team, and the Thorns let that team score a goal – and barely escaped conceding another - before the half hour. The match could have been lost or drawn by halftime to a team missing the lioness’s share of its best players.

How did that happen?

Largely because the Thorns defending ranged from steadfast to shocking. What gave up the goals - and then helped make the win happen - was that the shocking parts came early, and when Portland needed to hold onto a one-goal lead late in the match they got the steadfast part.

Defending: From WTF? to Wow!

The first thirty minutes included a succession of frightening moments from the Portland backline and midfield. Here’s that half hour, from my match notes:

2’ – Orlando looking good in attack but lost the final pass. C’mon, backline; steady on.

8’ – Sonnett! Awful headed pass (clearance?) right to Ubogagu’s feet! Ridden wide by Hubly. Whew.

13’ – Good Orlando FK, Horan crummy little headed dink falls to Krieger, shoots high.

16’ – Purce great right-side run, wins CK. Short, knocked out, put back, falls to Lussi, great shot forces Harris diving save to her right. Good POR sequence.

20’ – Sonnett pass sets Horan up for pick; Nairn steals, slots to Ubogagu – Reynolds ballwatching! – beats Franch far post, 0-1 ORL.

27’ Cross rolls completely though Portland 18! Horan, you’ve gotta move to that! Kling dropped off to double Morgan (Hubly had her) so Edmonds simple tee-up and shot, off crossbar w Franch beaten! Yike!

Then, of course, Horan struck a golazo in the 28th minute, leveled the score, and the match turned on its head.

How sharp was that turn? Here’s Orlando’s expected goal diagram for the entire second half:

The Pride didn’t even get a shot at the goal until more than 25 minutes into the half, when Christine Nairn’s long-range effort floated over the crossbar. After that, they had only three other half-chances; two were blocked and Ifeoma Ubogagu put the third and perhaps the most dangerous into the side-netting.

The most important factor n the turnaround was Portland began to dominate the midfield and became more aggressive upfield. Here’s the Thorns tackle locations as mapped by InStat.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

You’ll notice that in the second half the Thorns tackled 1) more, and 2) further upfield. This helped break up Orlando before they could threaten the goal.

What I find interesting about this is not so much the successful tackles as the unsuccessful ones - the gray symbols - in the second half. The pattern suggests to me that in the first half Orlando was getting into dangerous positions without much resistance; Portland was only able to try and tackle away where the Pride player made a mistake, or was isolated.

In the second half, though, Portland started challenging everything. These challenges weren’t as successful, but as we discussed about the attacks in Chicago a week ago, sometimes quantity has a quality all its own. More tackling, even more unsuccessful tackling, helped knock Orlando backwards.

Here’s where Orlando players were tackled for loss or had passes picked off.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

And here’s how it effected Orlando’s ability to pass the ball into dangerous positions.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

That looks ugly for the Pride, and it was. What also helped was the Thorns started defending in depth, and in groups.

Here’s Alex Morgan taking a short pass deep in the Thorns right defensive corner.
Kelli Hubly is marking her tight, as she has all match. But Meghan Klingenberg drops back to help out.

Kling and Hubly have Morgan locked up, while Tyler Lussi marks Kristen Edmonds out of the play and takes away Morgan’s drop.

Kling muscles Morgan off the ball, Hubly takes and turns, looking to find an outlet upfield.

Hubly’s outlet pass goes out no further than Dani Weatherholt, who puts the ball back in to Morgan as the Orlando striker crosses inside toward the top of the penalty area.

So Hubly tracks with Morgan, and neatly tackles the ball off the international’s highly-paid feet like she dispossess star strikers all the time.

I’ll get to this in the player comments, but Hubly has been thrown into the fire by the injury to Emily Menges and could have been a hot mess by this point. Instead, she did fairly well in her first two games, and Sunday? Sunday Hubly was on fire, and Morgan was the one who got burned.

Still a few thorns in the paw

So. A win is good. A home opener win is even better. Two wins in three matches is very good. Sitting third on the table is even better.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The teams above Portland include a North Carolina that looks frighteningly good and a Seattle that has been outstanding in two games. So far the Thorns have been stifled by Carolina and beat a flailing Chicago and a depleted Orlando, all the while showing some moments of shocking fragility in the back. There’s still some player roles to sort out, particularly up front.

It’s a long season, and the team still has a way to go.

Player Ratings and Comments

Weber (60’ - +8/-3 : +4/-0 : +12/-3) I get the sense that some fans are getting frustrated with Weber, and to a point I can understand that. Weber is a striker, a striker’s fundamental metric is goals, and Weber doesn’t have any.

That said, Sunday was a perfect example of the sorts of good things that Weber does other than scoring. She was relentless harassing the Orlando backline, doing the sort of forechecking defending that disrupts attacks long before they can become dangerous. Her runs at goal kept the same backline off-balance and reacting for an hour. And let’s give her credit for an assist; if she doesn’t make a fierce near-post run and draw three defenders, Horan’s cross doesn’t fall straight to Sinclair’s feet for the match-winner.

I have to admit that our new Swiss attacker looks fast and dangerous. But I think it’s far too soon to relegate Weber to the bench. She’s working her tail off out there and making good things happen.

Sinclair (+7/-3 : +6/-5 : +13/-8) Despite her tap-in goal, Christine Sinclair had another match where she toiled like a heroine in midfield hauling water for her teammates. We’re used to seeing Sinclair’s heroics. We’re not used to seeing her trudging through the midfield doing the sort of dirty work Thorns like McCall Zerboni and Amandine Henry used to do.

That Sinclair has been doing this, and doing it well, says a lot about her quality. That Sinclair can do all this and score? That’s why she’s Officer Sinclair of the Order of Canada. Well played, officer.

Lussi (61’ - +3/-2 : +3/-2 : +6/-4) Of the two starting forwards I think Tyler Lussi is doing much the same things that Mallory Weber is; she’s forechecking, she’s running at goal with pace, she’s taking her shots. She’s just not quite getting to the space that Weber is, and she’s not quite making the same impact. She had a decent shift Sunday, yet of the two forwards that came off she seems closer to the bench, if someone has to make space for Crnogorcevic.

One odd note; I have no idea why the NWSL credits Lussi with one more minute than Weber, since they both came off at the same time. But that’s NWSL stats for you.

Crnogorcevic (30’ - +9/-2) A terrific half-hour from die Schweitzerin. Fast, good passing, and a delightfully close connection with Onumonu, a teammate she’s played with, what, all of a week? It’s always dicey to speculate from a small sample size, but what I saw from her Sunday, I want to see more. A lot more.

Onumonu (29’ - +10/-4) All the usual Onumonu positives; terrific pace, aggression, well-timed runs, and communication with her teammates. With the usual Onumonu caveat; no goals, perhaps the most frustrating being when Onumonu was put in on Harris at point-blank range in the 86th minute and scuffed the shot that would have put the match out of reach. As Nguyen’s match report notes, Onumonu and Crnogorcevic added a terrific burst of energy to the Thorns’ final half hour, helping to keep Orlando on the back foot and icing the game. I just wish that Onumonu would find that final touch that would put a bulge in the old onion bag.

Horan (+6/-4 : +11/-3 : +17/-7) A gorgeous golazo and generally useful throughout the match. While she did her usual good work Horan didn’t seem to stand out as much against Orlando as she had in the two previous games, but I believe that was because her midfield teammates did that much better, as we’ll talk about in Celeste Boureille’s comment.

Boureille (89’ - +3/-3 : +8/-1 : +11/-4) Sunday’s match went a long way towards changing the way I look at Celeste Boureille. For a long time I’ve thought of her as “not-Amandine-Henry” and been disappointed that she doesn’t do what Henry did. But I’m beginning to think that she’s is doing a lot of that work, just more quietly and without the elegant panache of the Frenchwoman; Boureille is The Quiet Professional. As such she had a quietly excellent match; InStat has her rated as the best player for Portland. While I disagree - I think that was Midge Purce - I can see why InStat rates her so highly. Boureille had the highest percentage of successful actions on the pitch, and was the most precise passer, completing 91% of her attempts.

Purce (+16/-4 : +14/-3 : +30/-7) Woman of the Match. Purce owned Pickett all afternoon and was a holy terror to the Orlando left defensive flank with her pace, great vision, and downright nasty ball skills – Pickett is probably still wondering where Purce is going to turn up next and smarting from one of the most casually cruel meggings I’ve ever seen.

I worried that losing Sykes would make a hole up the right touchline. That worry is gone; over three matches Purce is playing a level higher than Sykes at her peak last season.

Salem (1’ – +1/-1) Angela Salem’s lack of on-field time has me a little puzzled. I thought the Thorns organization would try and replace Amandine Henry with a similar style of player, and Salem, by reputation, seems to me to be the most similar Thorns midfielder to the Frenchwoman. Whether it is because Parsons doesn’t want to disrupt his starting midfielders’ cohesion, or because of something Salem is showing, or failing to show, on the training ground she has yet to see significant minutes this season and I’m still trying to figure out the “why”.

Klingenberg (+2/-4 : +13/-3 : +15/-7) Another match where Bad Kling played the first 45 and Good Kling the second. After a shaky defensive first half she flipped a switch and became a monster in the second. This bizarre schizophrenic play is consistent enough to be a Kling feature, not a bug, but it still baffles me. Why can’t you be Good Kling all match, Kling? What would it take?

Whatever it is, I hope Coach Parsons figures it out and makes it happen, because we need you to be that good Kling for the full 90. Reynolds isn’t going to provide the attack you can when you’re going well even as she provides much more defense than you do when you’re not. We need you to do both, consistently.

Hubly (+7/-6 : +15/-1 : +22/-7) For much of the first half-hour Kelli Hubly looked very much what she is; a young player being asked to defend some of the best strikers in the game. Her passing was off all match. But she made up for all those issues with huge defending in the second half, including a critical block on Pressley at 72’. Hubly had the best defensive half of her season to date and was the best Thorns defender on the pitch during that time.

Sonnett (+4/-5 : +7/-5 : +11/-10) For a player of Sonnett’s pedigree it is disheartening, almost shocking, to see her with the lowest net PMR of the Thorns backline. Sonnett committed several appalling defensive derps, the sort of mistakes a defender with her professional experience shouldn’t be making. Sonnett seems to need Menges alongside her to play to her potential, and her relationship with Hubly seems to lack whatever Sonnett gets from being part of the Great Wall of Emily.

That said, Sonnett owned Morgan more than any of her teammates, winning 7 of 9 challenges against her (Sonnet’s work constituted almost a third of the Thorns 23 defensive actions against Morgan) She also improved in the second half when the team needed her most. Hopefully this was just an off day, but it’s still frustrating to see Sonnett not play up to the quality she’s shown us when she’s on top of her game.

Reynolds (+7/-2 : +8/-3 : +15/-5) Writing “Kat Reynolds had a solid match, as usual” is getting boring, but there really isn’t a better way to describe the play of Portland’s right back; Kat Reynolds had a solid match, as usual. InStat suggests that Reynold’s passing, especially her long passing, wasn’t much better than against Chicago; perhaps Coach Parsons should have a chat with her. Reynolds looks to be developing a productive understanding with Purce, and that’s helping the Thorns’ right-flank attack become the most productive side of the offense.

Franch (+0/-0 : +1/-1 : +1/-1) Not at fault on the concession, but A.D. Franch seemed a little more tentative in her penalty area than usual. Possibly the effect of the rain? Had a critical take off a long cross in the 53rd minute, though, and as her PMR suggests was largely untroubled after the initial half-hour flurry. During that time, though, Franch was exceptionally fortunate that Edmonds smacked the crossbar; she was toppling over and couldn’t have gotten a hand to it. Franch’s distribution was decently unremarkable other than a single poor second-half clear.

Coach Parsons: The coach seems confident in his backline despite some early-season lapses, and has been willing to trust that the goals will come despite getting no joy from Weber and Lussi. So far that trust and confidence has been rewarded in two out of three matches, so it is hard for me to question it. Obviously, we are still looking at something other than the coach’s desired endstate for the 2018 Thorns. But right now I can’t really figure out what that endstate is going to look like.

One particularly effective piece of the coach’s work Sunday was in game-management. Parsons’ first two substitutions were particularly timely Sunday. As Weber and Lussi began to look fatigued, his replacements brought a jolt of energy to the Thorns and were huge in gritting out the win. Well done, coach.

Final Note - Walking in a Stats Wonderland

You probably noticed that I’ve added statistical data from the InStat website to Thorns FC: I can’t recommend their work enough, and I hope to include more of their material in the future to give you some sense of the quality of their data collection and analysis. If you’re a data geek like I am I think you’ll agree; well played, InStat!