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Thorns FC: Better

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Image taken from go90 and licensed under Fair Use

Stumptown’s own Katelyn Best sums up the Thorns 2-3 road win in Chicago nicely: “...moments of brilliance matched with cringeworthy mistakes.”

I don’t have a lot to add to Best’s summary, both because she did well and because this was a difficult match to analyze. Both teams were brutally depleted; the Red stars dressed only fourteen players, the Thorns, sixteen. The weather conditions were appalling; the cold rain made footing chancy, and the strong north wind bent and sailed long passes, and turned clearances into performance art.

So without a theme to hang this column on, I’m going to make some general observations and move on to player ratings and comments.

Get Your Kicks on Route Sixty-Six

Remember back in mid-March, when an anonymous “coaching staff” (hi, Paul Riley!) member told The Equalizer; “For the quality of players that Portland has, to play in a 5-3-2 and be as direct as they are, I find disappointing.”? The 2017 Thorns had their moments of physical play, but I didn’t agree that they were “direct”. I didn’t see a lot of “Route One” last season.

Saturday night in Chicago?

Direct.

Here’s the long pass matrix for Portland in the first half.

One caveat; this half Portland was playing with the wind, so some of these passes may have been carried further than intended. But what is obvious is that whether these passes were sailing by design, or because of the wind, very little of this long passing was working. Kelli Hubly, in particular, couldn’t hit anyone in a red shirt if they’d had a laser targeting gimmick pinpointing them.

In the second half, Portland was passing into the wind, so their “long” passing was shorter. But it was also more effective.

What I find interesting is the shift in long passing from largely going down the left flank in the first half to going down the right in the second. I can think of two possibilities; the Thorns coaching staff told Hubly to knock it off, or Ifeoma Onumonu came on and played largely down the right flank. The Thorns seem to see Onumonu as a hold-up forward and like to pitch long balls up to her. Three of the four successful right flank passes shown above went to Onumonu, so that may have been the plan.

It still wasn’t pretty, but it was better.

First Half Defense - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here’s a plot of the Thorns’ defensive actions in the first half.

For the most part this looks like solid defending. The Thorns are doing a lot of “forechecking”; tackling high on the pitch, and disrupting Chicago’s play in Chicago’s half.

But the blue trace is Summer Green, Sofia Huerta, and Alyssa Mautz creating the Red Stars’ first goal, and, wow, that’s ugly. That’s the “cringeworthy mistakes” Best talked about.

Special mention of Meghan Klingenberg’s culpability, first in drifting inside to leave Mautz unmarked, and then by lunging for the ball too late and deflecting it over A.D. Franch. Celeste Boureille also comes in for some serious stick for letting Green fake her out of her Nikes to begin the collapse.

Regardless of individual shortcomings, it was one moment of collective failure that undid all that good defending and let Chicago back into the match.

Second Half Defense - How Deep Is Too Deep?

After Christine Sinclair’s first goal put the Thorns up 1-2, and her penalty conversion made it 1-3, Portland looked like they had put the match away.

But I think that was deceptive. In the second half, Portland stopped forechecking and dropped into a low block to try and defend their lead.

The result was a lot more defensive actions around the Portland goal, until Kat Reynolds’ slip and fall led to Chicago’s second. In second half injury time, Huerta banged a shot off the crossbar with Franch beaten. It wasn’t all one way; Portland had some dangerous attacks. But at a point in the match where the Thorns should have been patient in possession and stout in defending, sloppy passing and retreating under pressure gave Chicago far more of the game than they should have had.

Missed Opportunities and Finishing Touches

Mallory Weber should have put Portland 1-2 up in the 38th minute

Naeher - who had an appalling match for a player who is the U.S. National Team’s #1 goalkeeper - takes a backpass and boots it lazily forward.

Weber, who has been pestering Chicago’s backline, darts in and takes possession.

Naeher is way too far off her line, and all Weber has to do is loft a gentle lob into the goal.

Instead she boots it well over, as Naeher presumably thanks the Gods of Ballistics and Boreas, the North Wind.

Portland could and should have had a fourth in the 63rd minute, as well.

This is Meghan Klingenberg, sprung on goal by Lindsey Horan’s terrific long pass, steaming towards Chicago’s goal like a runaway train.

Naeher holds her line - probably because she has to to cover the potential pass to Onumonu - and Kling has the sort of opportunity that makes strikers’ eyes bulge; a ton of open goal to aim for and a teammate to pass to.

But, instead of blasting a shot, or forcing Naeher to commit and then dishing to Onumonu, Kling pulls up and dinks a little dribbler towards the goal.

Naeher collects before Onumonu can pressure her, and the threat is over.

Hey, a road win is a road win. It’s a whole lot better than leaving Cary with nothing. But “better” still isn’t good, not in an NWSL suddenly teeming with talent in North Carolina and Seattle and Washington.

Last week I said that Portland’s attack was missing. This past weekend, the attack was there; I counted a total of 22 attacking sequences that put a Portland player in a potentially dangerous position (compared to only 11 for Chicago). That’s better, too.

But as Weber and Kling’s examples show, the finishing still wasn’t there and that’s still a problem. The Thorns’ three goals came from a moment of individual brilliance from Horan, Christine Sinclair forcing Naeher into a horrific goalkeeper error, and an inexplicable handball by Danielle Colaprico that gave up a PK.

That’s not going to be enough, and in the next two weeks the Thorns need to keep thinking of ways to make the attack work better still.

Oh, and defenders? You have some woodshedding to do, too.

Player Ratings and Comments

Weber (72’ - +7/-4 : +4/-3 : +11/-7) Another match full of Weber’s strengths; intelligent aggression, clever runs, great crosses and passes, forechecking defending - and her weakness; no goals.

Along with the 38th minute miss, Weber put a free header back across rather than on goal in the 55th minute, and wasted a terrific Hubly length-of-the-pitch run with a timid little shot in the 57th. I love a lot of what Weber brings to the match, but the final judgement on a striker is goals, and Weber isn’t scoring. That’d be fine if PTFC was raining in goals, but right now the front line can’t afford to waste the sort of opportunities Weber is wasting.

Onumonu (45’ - +8/-6) There are times when it’s easy to forget that Onumonu is only 24, but last Saturday wasn’t one of them. She did all the sorts of things that young players do well, including blazing fast runs at goal - her 89th minute attack was only stopped by a fractionally heavy first touch and Naeher suddenly remembering that she’s supposed to be an international-quality keeper - and clever passing. Her shortcomings were young player shortcomings, too; failing to see open space, and a clumsy first touch. I think Onumonu shows great promise, but much of her game is still promise and not yet achievement. A lot depends on how quickly she matures.

Ball (18’ - +3/-0) Not a bad shift, although difficult to assess since the Thorns had dropped far back defensively by the time Elizabeth Ball came in. Still, showed some pretty touches and heads-up play, which is more than I’ve seen from her to date.

Salem (1’ - No rating) We’ll discuss this in the Boureille comment, but I really wish that Salem would get more time at DM. I haven’t seen enough of her this season to really assess what she can do, but what I have seen of her seems composed and solid in defense, two qualities the Thorns need desperately.

Purce (89’ - +10/-5 : +9/-4 : +19/-9) Another fine outing from Midge Purce. To give you an idea of how versatile Purce was against Chicago, her 19 pluses include; four tackles for gain, five dangerous runs, four good crosses (and four other significant passes), a block, and a clearance. Unfortunately, they don’t include a goal, and she was without a shot Saturday night. I keep hoping Purce will crack one; I think she might find she enjoys it.

Sinclair (+5/-2 : +5/-1 : +10/-3) I was surprised by Sinclair’s modest PMR; with the brace she would normally be a lock for Woman of the Match, but Sinc had another game where she struggled with her pace and was left behind the play. Played well in general, scored the goals she needed to, but not quite at the level physically she was while leading the team to the Final last year. However, there’s more to soccer than foot speed, and it’s my guess is that her calm leadership had a lot to do with the Thorns’ rebound from the loss in North Carolina.

Boureille (+4/-3 : +4/-3 : +8/-6) Frustrating. Boureille just can’t do what she needs to be able to do; lock down the back of midfield and allow Sinclair and Horan to go forward and the centerbacks to settle back and defend crosses and long lobs. Right now the center of the backline is without Emily Menges and needs a rock in front of them. Boureille, right now, is not that rock. If she were just a disaster, it would be simple enough to say, “can her” and throw another player in her position. But she’s not. She’s just not quite capable of doing what the team needs her to do and, worse, other teams are likely looking at her as a potential target.

Horan (+8/-4 : +11/-3 : +19/-7) Brilliantly taken goal, fierce on both sides of the ball, and my clear pick for Woman of the Match. Just as she did in Cary, Horan got better in the second half, and I’m not sure how she does it. Another great outing from the Great Horan.

I worry every season about Horan’s disciplinary condition, but even more now given how much of Boureille’s defensive slack she needs to pick up. She has one yellow card already, from Cary, so she’ll need to be careful.

Klingenberg (+4/-1 : +3/-4 : +7/-5) A good-news-bad-news match for Klingenberg. A player of her experience shouldn’t be making the sorts of errors she made on the first Chicago goal. She did a fair amount of decent work defending, but her lack of pace is forcing her to spend more time tracking back and cuts into her contribution to the attack.

Hubly (+5/-8 : +6/-4 : +11/-12) Her horrific passing accounts for six of her first half minuses. Got better when she stopped - or was told to stop - battering hopeless long balls down Toyota Park. Solid defending, but still figuring out her backline partner Sonnett. Hubly lacks Menges’ ability to anticipate attacks and shut them down. That means that Sonnett has to stay home and, in turn, makes the backline less able to snuff out attacks in front of the 18 yard box. When the Thorns are forechecking well - as they were in the first half - that’s not a problem. When the midfield sags back, though, it is, and it exposes Hubly’s inexperience. Just like Onumonu, Hubly appears to have promise. Like Onumonu, she’s in a spot where she’s going to have to turn that into performance most quick smart.

Sonnett (+5/-4 : +5/-1 : +10/-5) Quietly good match from Sonnet; look back up at the second half defensive actions to see how many critical clearances out of the penalty area she made. Her passing was better than against Carolina, and except for her part in the group collapse in the 31st minute tough in the back. Will also need to be careful about her tackling, as she already has a yellow; this is a bit surprising, as Sonnett has not had more than two per season for the past two years. As with Horan, this may reflect how much more she has to do because of the current makeshift roster.

Reynolds (+4/-4 : +3/-0 : +7/-4) I have a hard time blaming Reynolds for her only significant let-down of the match, the slip and fall inside the 6-yard-box that led to Chicago’s second goal, because Reynolds played well overall. Of her four minuses, only two are for poor passes; Reynolds was one of the handful of Thorns that were stingy about giving the ball away.

Franch (+2/-2 : +2/-2 : +4/-4) None of Franch’s minuses are for the concessions; both were practically unsaveable, the first after Kling’s deflection, the second a close-range rocket. Terrific save in the 51st minute off a Gilliland shot with Green lurking at the back post. No, her minuses are all poor clears, including a really wretched effort in the second minute that led to a dangerous spell of Chicago possession.

Coach Parsons: Did what he could with the team he has, Parsons’ most critical accomplishment was getting the heads back up after what could have been a dispiriting loss in North Carolina. The coach still has a lot to think about and work on. Where are the goals going to come from? The defense, so stout last year, looks suspect without Henry and Menges.

The options for change are surely limited, but will Parsons make some changes for the match against Orlando in two weeks’ time?

We’ll have to just wait and see.