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Thorns FC: Simply Difficult

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Kris Lattimore

Es ist alles im Krieg sehr einfach, aber das Einfachste ist schwierig.”

~ Carl v. Clausewitz

Soccer is a simple game. You run. You kick the ball. You pass. You trap. You kick the ball into a goal.

If you’re a goalkeeper you catch, box, kick, or throw.

But as the philosopher of battle reminds us, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest things are difficult”.

Just as stress, physical fatigue, and mental errors make even the simplest things in war difficult, in a game of soccer sometimes small errors, fatigue, the little bits of “friction”, make simple things like kicking and catching immensely difficult.

Consider, for example, a goalkeeper standing underneath a descending ball.

Goalkeeping 101 says that dealing with an high cross or looping clearance is simple; push off the ground into a vertical jump and add to the momentum of the leap by swinging one knee up and shooting both arms high overhead. If the jump is well-timed, the keeper’s hands will reach well over the highest-jumping defender’s head. When the ball arrives at hand-height it may be caught or, if the crowd around the keeper looks dangerous, punched away.

Then, consider what happened to Britt Eckerstrom in the 37th minute of the Thorns’ 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit last Friday evening.

Image from go90. Licensed under Fair Use

Notice where Eckerstrom’s arms are.

Not straight up over her head, but bent, and in front of her body. It looks like she intends to catch the ball, not box it away, despite Francisca Ordega and Lindsey Horan nearly tumbling into her. Eckerstrom doesn’t look like she’s trying to take the ball at full-arm stretch, either, but trying to basket-catch it; her elbows are bent to cradle the ball into her chest.

Image from go90. Licensed under Fair Use

The ball comes down into Eckerstrom’s arms, low, barely head-high. Eckerstrom’s arms collide with Horan’s head (or shoulder) and the ball is knocked out of the keeper’s grasp.

The ball falls into a wild ruck of Portland players and Ordega, coming to rest under Horan’s legs.

Photo by Nikita Taparia

All Horan needs to do is lie still long enough for Eckerstrom to fall on her and palm the ball against the turf, ending the play. Instead Horan tries to scramble up out of Eckerstrom’s way, and as she does frees the ball just enough for Ordega to shove out a foot and push it into the goal.

Photo by Nikita Taparia

A goalkeeper who loses focus for a fraction of a second instead of going up strong to take or box away. A midfielder whose instinctive reaction is to scramble out from under a pile of bodies instead of staying still. A ball isn’t taken or cleared but instead rolls loose to the foot of an attacker who is lying on the ground within inches of the endline and becomes an opponent’s goal.

The opponent’s only goal.

Simple things, yet so difficult in execution.

Consider penalty kicks.

How much more simple can you get than a PK? Put a ball down 12 yards from goal. Run up to the ball and kick it into the goal. Simple? Ridiculously simple!

Image from go90. Licensed under Fair Use

Or not.

Image from go90. Licensed under Fair Use

Horan buries that penalty and it would have been nearly impossible for Washington to equalize in the few minutes left in the match. Instead she fluffs the spot-kick and the Thorns are forced to accept a home draw, one of those draws-that-feel-like-a-loss instead of draws-that-feel-like-wins.

Here’s the main match and possession statistics, courtesy of InStat.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

The stats confirm the way the match looked from the stands; Washington had the better of the first half, Portland had a bit more in the second, especially after Heath came on at the hour mark, but neither looked clearly the better on the night. Both created few chances, neither could convert many of them, needing their opponents’ errors to manufacture goals.

The Thorns find some consolation from considering what might have been had the missing players been on the pitch. But giving away two points at home on a last-gasp penalty miss still has to smart. I will bet you all the money in my pocket that the Thorns are unhappy with the result.

Player Ratings and Comments

Lussi (45’ - +2/-6) None of Portland’s strikers have excelled this spring. However, until Friday none of the strikers have looked awful, either.

Lussi had an awful first half Friday. InStat lays out just how awful; only 41% of her on-field actions were successful (the worst on the team), she completed only 55% of her passes (also the team low), she had only 1 shot while losing 11 balls to Washington while recovering only one from the Spirit.

Even when she’s not scoring Lussi usually adds to her value with her forechecking defending; Friday, however, she went into 12 individual challenges and lost every one of them.

At this point Lussi either needs to lift her game or she needs to be moved to the bench, especially with Crnogorcevic playing as well as she is.

Crnogorcevic (45’ - +14/-1) Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic showed the same pace and aggressive attacking she displayed in her previous shift. Given her outings to date, if she’s match fit I think Coach Parsons needs to consider starting Crnogorcevic in place of one of the current starting forwards. The Thorns’ lack of goalscoring is becoming a problem, and while it’s hard to be sure whether Crnogorcevic is a solution, she certain seems more likely to be part of one than any of the current starters.

Onumonu (60’ - +9/-4 : +1/-4 : +10/-8) When does a forward’s lack of conversions make her vulnerable to benching? I’ve already mentioned Lussi. Onumonu did all the same good things she’s done so far this season; ran hard, drove towards the goal (and in doing so earned a penalty, and combined well with her teammates.

She also didn’t score, again. To make that feel worse, she had a terrific opportunity to put the Thorns ahead in the 46th minute. Instead, with only the goalkeeper to beat, Onumonu put a weak shot wide.

I like a lot of what Onumonu does, but she has a lot of the same issues as Lussi and with the team not converting off created opportunities, something has to change. Friday Lussi was clearly part of the problem. With Onumonu, though, I’m not sure if she’s just part of the problem or can be part of the solution. But if she’s not scoring, and she’s not creating - other than drawing PKs - that’s not part of the solution.

Heath (30’ - +5/-4) Tobin Heath showed flashes of the tricksy ball-magician, as well as the overconfident turnover-waiting-to-happen that combine to make up the whole package called “Tobin Heath”. The Thorns did look more dangerous with Heath on the pitch so her overall impact on the match must be considered positive, but at this point it’s really too early to say more than “welcome back”, and hope for the best.

Sinclair (+10/-3 : +10/-2 : +20/-5) Worked hard as usual, much more successfully in the second half, and markedly better once Heath entered the match and Sinclair pushed further up the pitch. Well taken penalty, and lots of good distribution from the captain; 10 of her 20 pluses are for good passes. She’s my pick for Woman of the Match, but more for her overall quality than for any particular moment or run of play. Another match where Christine Sinclair did hard, grinding good work without flash or glamor; in other words, a typical Sinclair outing.

Horan (+10/-3 : +9/-4 : +19/-7) What for most midfielders would have been a decent outing was, for Horan, a letdown from her Great Horan form of late, culminating in the Ordega goal scramble and the penalty howler. Ashley Hatch was a particular menace to her all night, forcing Horan to play deeper and muting much of her effectiveness going forward. InStat shows Horan’s pass completion at a meager 69% and her successful attacking actions as relatively modest (70%, down from her usual mid-80s), all indications of a difficult match for Horan. Even a so-so Horan is better than most midfielders, but she’s carrying so much of the load for this team right now that when she does have an off-day everyone around her suffers.

Purce (+12/-5 : +10/-6 : +22/-11) To give you an idea of what happened to Midge Purce against Washington, here’s the InStat charts of her play in the past two matches; against Washington on the left, against Orlando on the right.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

Instead of roaming the pitch making trouble and creating, against Washington Purce was pinned against the touchline, largely trying to beat Caprice Dydasco at one end or contain Ordega at the other. She also had to do a lot of hard graft on the attacking end; you can see how many of her actions are along the touchline in the attacking half. This was largely because 1) Lussi wasn’t carrying the load, and 2) Onumonu seemed glued to Purce, drawing defenders to them and forcing them wide and down the touchline.

The result was that while Purce still had a decent match, she wasn’t as good as she was in the first three matches.

Boureille (+6/-1 : +5/-4 : +11/-5) Celeste Boureille had another solid match - InStat credited her with the highest “index” rating - and I won’t argue against that. However, it was against Washington that I finally realized what had been bugging me about her. She has done really well as a defensive midfielder; she’s a good marker and tackler, she anticipates opponent’s actions intelligently, and is usually a precise passer. What she hasn’t been doing is what great DMs do; distribute well enough under pressure to also create dangerous attacks.

That’s a gift rarer than unicorn eggs, so it’s not shocking that Boureille hasn’t been able to do what Amandine Henry could. But she doesn’t, and now that’s becoming increasingly obvious, Coach Parsons has to figure out how to restructure the team, or the tactics, to succeed without it. Otherwise, the attack will continue to stutter, particularly when other teams press the Thorns midfield as hard as Washington did Friday night.

Reynolds (+6/-6 : +3/-1 : +9/-7) Just one week after my writing how Kat Reynolds was always consistently good, Reynolds went and played a shockingly poor match, losing just over half of her individual challenges on Washington’s attackers and turning the ball over repeatedly. In the 20th minute, Reynolds gave the ball straight to Pugh at the top of Portland’s penalty area only to be saved by Pugh slipping before she could turn and attack. Reynolds’ worst moment came six minutes later, where instead of clearing high and wide she inexplicably headed a Huster free kick down and off Boureille’s back - straight towards her own goal!

A very clumsy, un-Reynolds-like outing.

Sonnett (+7/-6 : +5/-0 : +12/-6) After a shaky first half, Sonnett settled down in the second half, making a positive impact at both ends of the pitch. Her strong 86th minute run earned what should have been Portland’s winning PK, and was followed by a tremendous singlehanded block and clear of a pointblank Pugh shot on goal four minutes later. Looked much better combining with her backline of Hubly and Weber than she had in the first three games.

Hubly (+6/-2 : +9/-2 : +15/-4) To give you a sense of how well Kelli Hubly is doing, she had to take on U.S. international wunderkind Mallory Pugh seven times in one-on-one duels. She came away from those meetings the winner 5 times out of those 7. She also took on Hatch twice and beat her, and went 2-0 against Ordega, for an impressive 82% overall success rate against Washington’s frontline.

So far Hubly has been the success story of this young season.

Weber (+6/-5 : +6/-4 : +12/-9) I think her PMR doesn’t do Weber justice. To be thrown in at left back at the last moment and asked to defend a front six as active and dangerous as Washington’s would have been a tough assignment for a veteran defender, let alone a player that spends most of her time on the enemy side of midfield. That Weber did relatively well is a tribute to her skills and adaptability. Among her defensive heroics was a saving tackle on Pugh in the 78th minute; Pugh had beat both Weber and Boureille initially to run free down the west touchline; Weber hustled back to clear Pugh’s dangerous cross.

Weber was unable to provide as much of the sort of service to her teammates that Klingenberg often provides. But adding Heath to the mix seemed to improve her creativity. Here’s her pass chart - note the improvement in the second half; 6 of her 28 second half attacking passes are to Heath. I’ve noticed that with Klingenberg, too, so it seems to be a Heath “thing”.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

Eckerstrom (+4/-2 : +1/-0 : +6/-2) One of the cruelest parts of goalkeeping is that you can be ignored playing a blinder for 89 minutes and when you screw up in the final minute everyone notices.

Britt Eckerstrom made fine saves in the 21st and 26th minutes, came out well to take crosses in the 33rd and 43rd minutes, and made a critical clearance of a dangerous free kick in the 62nd minute. Will those be remembered? No; what will be is the goalmouth scramble and concession. That’s unfortunate, because Eckerstrom played well, especially given the last-minute injury to A.D. Franch. But that’s goalkeeping for you.

Coach Parsons: I think the Coach was caught back-footed by Washington’s sudden improvement in form. To his credit, he made adjustments at halftime, and then again in the second half, that visibly shifted the balance of the match. I’m not sure how much of the Thorns’ first half troubles were tactical and how much were a combination of individual Thorns player problems and a Washington team hungry for blood that smelt it on the Providence Park turf. I have a suspicion this was the soccer equivalent of what old von Clausewitz would have called a soldatenschlacht; a “soldier’s battle”, decided not by coaching genius but by individual efforts out on the field.

I think the more significant issue is how well the coach 1) picks the team up after what must have been a deflating home draw and 2) gets them mentally tough for their first game against old rivals - Laura Harvey and the core of what used to be FCKC - in a new stadium in Salt Lake City.