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Thorns FC: Good Point?

Image from go90. Licensed by Fair Use

For the third match in a row, Thorns FC made a disastrous error in the back that led to the first goal. For the second match in a row, Thorns FC fought back to equalize, and steal a point.

One point is better than none. But the teams going ahead early and forcing PTFC to battle for that single point were Washington and Utah; we’re not talking “Sky Blue bad” or “Houston bad”, but neither team is particularly good right now. That, in turn, suggests that Thorns FC isn’t particularly good right now, either.

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by making the excuse that the Thorns are cobbled together from a mix of regulars, new arrivals, reserves, and fringe players, or that injuries have been a consistent problem, or that the team will look very different in mid-season. I concede all three points. The Thorns are likely to look very different at the beginning of September than the beginning of May.

My concern isn’t how good the team will be in September. It’s how many points the team will be sitting on at the end of May. Because I’m seeing problems in these early season matches; where are the goals coming from, and what about the defending?

Image from go90. Licensed under Fair Use

All We Really Want Are Goals

The gorgeous Tobin Heath chip that equalized in Salt Lake City shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Thorns’ three regular starting forwards have exactly zero goals so far this season.

Mallory Weber? Ifeoma Onumonu? Tyler Lussi?

A combined 790 minutes.

No goals, no assists.

The Thorns: failed to score at all in Cary; capitalized on a keeper error, a bit of individual Lindsey Horan brilliance, and a PK in Chicago; tallied a Horan golazo and a Christine Sinclair tap-in (largely thanks to some awful marking) against Orlando; scored on a PK against Washington; and, finally, created a lovely goal in Salt Lake City from an Andressinha tackle, a Sinclair pass, and the Heath chip.

Take a bow, Heath.

Oh, wait. You did.

Even counting Sinclair’s tap-in against the Pride, Heath’s is only the second goal the Thorns have created by a deliberate, run-of-play buildup so far. And, obviously, none of the goals have come through the frontline.

It’s not that Thorns FC can’t win if the scoring comes from the midfield rather than the forwards. But reaching backwards for goals has risks, as the last two matches have shown.

Washington showed that one way to hinder the Thorns midfield from scoring was to press the midfield and force Horan backwards. Utah did the same thing for over an hour, with Diana Matheson and Elise Thorsnes doing what Ashley Hatch had done the week before. As Horan was forced back, Sinclair was either stranded or had to retreat with her to stay in contact, and with Celeste Boureille offering little going forward the Thorns’ midfield was stifled.

That’s the bad news. The good news appears to be that when PTFC brings on Heath, she helps take the pressure off the midfield and unlocks both Horan and Sinclair. Both times the Thorns’ midfield looked more dangerous going forward after Heath came on.

So, at least in theory, as Heath moves closer to full-ninety-minutes-fitness the Thorns midfield should be capable of supplying more goals. This wouldn’t be the first time the Thorns had to make do with getting goals from the midfield - the 2016 Thorns had a lot of the same issues and had to use the same midfield-scoring workaround.

But that still leaves the question of counterattacking. Because to counterattack you first need to consistently stop the opponent’s attacks, and that’s been a problem, too.

Image from go90. Licensed under Fair Use

Eighty-nine Minutes of Comfort, Sixty Seconds of Terror

The 2017 Championship was built on top of a defensive wall. That wall has looked decidedly unstable so far this season.

At least once in the last four matches one or more Thorns have made disastrous errors leading directly to a concession; Hubly in Utah, Eckerstrom and Horan against Washington, Sonnett and Reynolds against Orlando, and practically half the team on the first goal in Chicago.

There was no reason the Thorns needed to go down a goal. Look at Utah’s shot graphic;

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

The Royals had only four decent opportunities and biffed three of them; Amy Rodriguez’s 20th minute floater and 39th minute blast that both went high, and Stengal’s 84th minute shot wide. But the defense broke down in the 53rd minute and nearly gave the game away. One minute of confusion was almost lights out in Utah.

A counterattacking team needs to be able to drastically reduce or, better, eliminate that sort of damage. If you can’t defend consistently over a full match you can’t rely on the counter; you’ve got to score early and often. So if PTFC were raining in goals, winning 4-2 wouldn’t be an issue. But when only scoring seven over five games and conceding six? Then defending becomes an issue.

With A.D. Franch and Menges out for at least another month, and Meghan Klingenberg now either missing, or leaving, two matches in a row with injury, it’s on a makeshift defense to solve that issue.

Based on her short time on the field in Salt Lake, Andressinha appears to be one possible part of the solution. Two other parts of that solution, as we’ll discuss in the player ratings and comments, however, is that 1) the Thorns as individual players have got to stop making catastrophic mistakes in the back, and 2) the backline and defensive midfield need to figure out how to work together better as a group.

If the Thorns aren’t going to get production from their forwards, and if low scoring games are going to be the rule, then it’s past time for the defense to pull together and start putting up something they haven’t; clean sheets.

This coming Saturday will be the sternest test for Thorns FC since the opening match against North Carolina. A win will settle PTFC solidly into third on the table (and possibly even up to second, if Utah defeats Chicago), while a loss will vault the Reign over the Thorns and could even drop Portland down into the scrum of Orlando, Utah, and Washington that waits below the red line.

There’s never a bad time to win, but this coming weekend would be an exceptionally good time for Thorns FC to win, and win big.

Player Ratings and Comments

Weber (+7/-6 : +6/-3 : +10/-9) For the second match in a row, Mallory Weber looked ineffective in attack, and her stat sheet shows it. InStat lists her with no shots, a 56% success rate for her attacking actions (poorest on the Thorns outside of Boureille), and 11 lost balls to only 1 recovery from Utah. Her forechecking defense was not effective; Weber went into 23 challenges and lost 18 of them.

That’s just not acceptable. If she’s not scoring, not creating, and not disrupting the opponent’s attack in their own half, Weber isn’t contributing, she’s just along for the ride. Portland can’t afford to be dragging along any passengers at this point; Coach Parsons needs to either spark Weber’s game or bench her.

Crnogorcevic (57’ - +4/-2 : +3/-0 : +7/-2) As I watched the match live I liked Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic’s work better than any of the other Thorns forwards. Her statistical metrics don’t really support my enthusiasm. She was good, but not that good.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

She did have a chance at goal, which neither Weber nor Onumonu did, but her turnover rate was statistically identical to Weber’s, and her attacking actions were only marginally more successful.

I still think that Crnogorcevic has looked the best of the three regular starting strikers. But she has yet to fulfill that potential, and despite how she looked, she didn’t in Utah.

Heath (33’ - +7/-3) Her 66th minute goal was a perfect summation of Tobin Heath; skillful, cheeky, and critical to the team’s success. Right now, Heath has taken over the position of “straw that stirs the Thorns’ drink” from Horan. PMRs and statistics aside, the Thorns look stale, flat, and unprofitable without Heath but look sparky and creative with her on the pitch. Heath did the same thing in 2016, and it looks like she has begun to resume that role. The Thorns need her to maintain that contribution over a full ninety minutes, and soon.

Onumonu (25’ - +1/-1) Not a factor, despite performing technically well. My guess is that with Heath on the pitch the attack started going through her and Sinclair, rather than through the on-paper-forwards including Onumonu.

Horan (+11/-3 : +7/-2 : +18/-5) My Woman of the Match. As noted above, Utah took a page from Washington’s book and kept bodies on Lindsey Horan all evening, forcing her to do more defending and recovering than distributing and attacking. Horan still managed to create a header that was cleared off the line in the 36th minute, and a pretty spinning shot barely wide in the 65th minute.

So Horan had a good match, but I thought the team still lacked the divine spark that Heath brought on with her. I’d love to see Horan and Heath develop the sort of connection that Heath and Sinclair have. In my imagination, the result would be one of those multi-pronged-swarming-attack martial arts things where you don’t see anything happening until suddenly there’s a swirl of movement and color, your heart explodes, and you die.

Purce ( +11/-10 : +6/-6 : +17/-16) Although her InStat Index suggests that Midge Purce didn’t have a more difficult a match against Utah than she did against Washington the week before -

Images by InStat. Used by permission

- her PMR reflects her relative ineffectiveness against the Royals. Her stats do reflect the second difficult match in a row for Purce; she only won 62 percent of her challenges, completed only 59 percent of her passes, and was only successful 69 percent of the time when she made an attacking move.

Purce always leaves everything on the pitch. Utah shows that even the toughest competitor can get shoved out of a match if conditions are wrong for her.

Boureille (64’ - +2/-8 : +1/-0 :+3/-8) Celeste Boureille had a terrible match in Utah. She lost 9 of 12 individual duels, and her 20th minute pass gifted the Royals a perfect opportunity that Rodriguez wasted by shooting well over the crossbar. The combination of this performance, Boureille’s inability to distribute forward, and the arrival of Andressinha make Boureille’s relegation to the bench seem likely, if not for the coming match then in the near future. That’s a bit unfortunate, since Boureille did well until last weekend. But Andressinha looks like the better option at DM.

Sinclair (+10/-3 : +7/-2 : +17/-5) Another businesslike Cap’n Sinclair performance, including a simple but perfect lead pass to Heath for the goal. Great opportunity to put the Thorns ahead in the 75th minute (from another piece of gorgeous Heath trickery) blocked by Becky Sauerbrunn.

I should note here that as disappointing a match as the Thorns put up in Salt Lake, the Royals should be even less satisfied with the result. Rebecca Moros and Sauerbrunn had to work like heroes to keep the match under control, while their attacking five had difficulty getting a sniff at goal and wasted what chances they had more often than not. This match really was a race to the bottom; as Murphy says, when both sides are convinced they’re about to lose, they’re both right.

Andressinha (26’ - +7/-2) Terrific work from the Brazilian, culminating in the sly toe-poke tackle for gain that began the Thorns’ goal sequence. What little I saw of her in Utah made me want to see a lot more.

Klingenberg (65’ - +6/-0 : +6/-0 : +12/-0) Kling did exceedingly well in Utah, and was clearly the best Thorns defender; in fact, InStat rates her as the third-best Thorn on the pitch; her Index rating of 192 falls closely behind Horan’s 207 and Sinclair’s 196. For the first time in 2018, Klingenberg duplicated the devastating service from crosses, passes, and free-kicks she showed in the latter part of 2017.

The bad news is that Klingenberg had to be taken off with an injury, apparently a recurrence of the stomach-muscle strain she suffered in training before the Washington match. As of this writing, her prognosis is still unknown.

Hubly (+2/-4 : +4/-8 : +6/-12 ) Kelli Hubly had what can only be described as a nightmare match in Utah, the nadir being her 53rd minute turnover that led directly to Rodriguez’s goal. I have no idea what happened to the composed, professional defender of the previous four matches, but Hubly against the Royals was a trainwreck, and without a hope of replacement in the near future we can only hope that she was working off an entire season’s worth of derps in a single match.

Sonnett ( +3/-3 : +4/-1 : +7/-4) Emily Sonnett’s (or “Son-NET’s”, as the go90 announcer Kellen Vick repeatedly referred to her) match was the mirror-image of her backline partner Hubly’s; dangerous in attack (86 percent successful in her actions, 88 percent pass completion, including 22 of 26 attacking passes) and resolute in defense (69 percent of her challenges won).

Reynolds (+3/-3 : +5/-2 : +8/-5) Decent match from Kat Reynolds, although she almost gave Utah a goal when she chested down to Rodriguez’s feet with only Eckerstrom to beat; fortunately A-Rod blasted the shot well over the goal. Other than that, however, Reynolds was solid in defense. Still having trouble with her passing, however; Reynolds connected only 55 percent (22 of 40) of her attacking passes.

Eckerstrom (+0/-0 : +2/-1 : +2/-1) Might have done better on the Rodriguez goal, but I can’t think of how much better; that concession was primarily on her defense. Eckerstrom came out strongly to take a dangerous Utah cross in the 71st minute and generally controlled her penalty area well. Another generally good match from our backup keeper.

Coach Parsons: If I could ask him anything, my only question for Mark Parsons would be “Why the $#%!$# did you pull Crnogorcevic for Heath instead of Weber?” Die Schweitzerin looked an order of magnitude more effective up front, so unless she was gassed, or nursing a knock, or there’s some sort of rule against letting a Swiss player go more than an hour that I don’t know about, I can’t figure that substitution.

Other than that, I can’t think of much Parsons could have done to prevent the concession, or to manufacture a goal. Parsons can’t stop Hubly from having a massive brain-cramp and handing the ball to Rodriguez, and he’s tried every player he has on the roster up front and none of them have caught fire. He’s fought through absences and injuries. There’s no way a coach can yank a player who’s having an awful match if he doesn’t have anyone better to replace her. So the team has managed to muddle through.

This coming Saturday, though, something has got to change. We need to see a full match from Crnogorcevic, Heath, and Andressinha if they’re fit and ready. Parsons needs to woodshed the backline and insist that they refuse to let the Reign have so much as a peek at the Thorns’ goal.

A road point is acceptable. Barely, given the sloppy mess we saw in Utah, but acceptable in the big picture of the season.

A home draw, or, worse, a loss to Seattle?

Is not.