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Thorns FC: Toil and Trouble

Kris Lattimore

What happened?

The forwards didn’t score.

The defense derped.

After five tries, the Orlando Pride finally beat the Portland Thorns.


A combination of problems, as individuals, and as a team. Injuries and late arrivals have put the squad on the back foot, and Coach Parson’s first XI is still not in place. None of the strikers have found their shooting boots, putting the burden on an already-overburdened midfield. The defense is still prone to individual and collective mistakes.

The result has been a troubled April and May. I was a trifle surprised, however, to learn this appears to be a feature of Thorns soccer, not a bug.

In a comment on the match report, observer tonysocref reminded us that Portland has a history of starting slowly. The Thorns have now scored 11 goals in 8 matches. At the same point in the previous five seasons the Thorns scored 12 goals (2013), 10 goals (2014 through 2016), or 11 goals (2017).

In four of those five seasons the team came on late to finish in playoff contention. The Thorns’ current poor position on the table owes more to defensive issues than failure to score. It’s worth noting that the only other season that Thorns FC conceded more goals than they scored was 2015 (27GF/29GA), the only season that Portland has failed to qualify for postseason play. This season, Portland is tied with Houston for the most concessions at 12; only hapless Sky Blue, with a -6 GD and 10 GA in 5 matches, looks worse.

What needs to happen now?

If the problem is largely conceding goals rather than failing to score, the first step towards repairing the fortunes of Thorns FC would seem to begin from the back. A healthy Emily Menges should help stop the bleeding. A healthy A.D. Franch should help, too. Andressinha going a full match and nailing down the back of midfield should help both defending as well as moving the ball up out of the back.

Going to a four-player backline should help a lot; with the team scoring less than 1.5 goals a game, locking down the defense seems like an immediate priority. It’s time to swap out the 3-5-2 for a 4-3-2-1 and put up some clean sheets until somebody up front finds her Inner Kerr.

Now, that.

Who that’s going to be, I haven’t the faintest idea. So far, every forward has looked suboptimal, ranging from energetic but erratic (Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic) to just meh (Mallory Weber and Tyler Lussi) to ohmigod-that-brutal-first-touch (Ifeoma Onumonu). Hell, defender Elli Carpenter played up front last Saturday and looked as good going forward as any of the players officially rostered at striker. Whether that means Carpenter has mad attacking skills, or all the other Thorns forwards are that lame, I cannot say.

The solution to the defensive issues looks straightforward. The solution to the dry and rocky place that is the Thorns’ striking corps does not.

Nevertheless, something has to be done, and it has to be before too many more points go astray.

Player Ratings and Comments

Carpenter (81’ - +6/-0 : +4/-5 : +10/-5) A surprisingly good outing at forward for the Australian defender, who made some intelligent runs. Her PMRs show how she faded badly in the second half where, whether from fatigue or inexperience, she started trying to force passes and turned the ball over.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

Still, a not-unpromising start for the youngest Thorn.

Sinclair (+3/-2 : +7/-2 : +10/-4) Aside from netting the only Thorns goal, Christine Sinclair connected with a series of passes in the second half to help the Thorns chase the match. Another match where Sinclair had a tough midfield battle, though, this time with Alanna Kennedy; Kennedy got the better of Sinc, winning all four of their individual duels. Overall Sinclair won only 6 of the 16 challenges she faced. Good work, but another hard day for the captain.

Heath (+8/-7 : +5/-1 : +13/-8) Tobin Heath underwhelmed Saturday, and her InStat numbers reflect that; Heath lost 9 of 12 challenges, misplayed 25 of 37 passes, and was successful going forward only 67 percent of the time. Gave away far too much possession in the first half, though she improved her precision late in the match.

Heath had a good attempt in the 27th minute that Ashlyn Harris couldn’t hold, and she had a terrific couple of minutes in the second half; she had a rasping shot saved in the 52nd minute, and then two minutes later pounced on a loose ball but had her shot blocked. Overall, however, Heath just couldn’t make the magic, and that’s what Heath is in the XI to do.

Onumonu (26’ - +2/-4) Onumonu seems to lack the striker’s instinct for finding open space for herself; she often runs into traffic rather than around or through it. Her touch is leaden; the ball leaps off her foot instead of clinging to it. Omumonu’s height, long limbs, and frantic pace remind me strongly of a former Thorns forward, Shade Pratt. Unfortunately, Onumonu also shares Pratt’s inability to score.

Lussi (9’ - +1/-2) No impact.

Weber (64’ - +5/-4 : +0/-0 : +5/-4) No matter many times I look at this, I cannot figure out how Weber is offside here.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use

This is a bad call. Weber should have put Portland up in the 7th minute.

Then Weber made an awful mistake and gifted Alex Morgan a goal that put Orlando up in the 11th.

That pretty well sums up Weber’s first half last Saturday.

After Parsons made the tactical switch that pushed Weber forward, she faded out of the match, and was nearly invisible by the time she was subbed off. So, despite what should have been a goal - if there was any justice in the universe - Weber did not have a good outing.

Horan (+8/-4 : +5/-3 : +13/-7) Has anyone else noticed that we haven’t seen the Great Horan for some time? Not the Good Horan, or even the Occasionally Brilliant Horan, but the 90-minute monster whose Beast Mode would dominate opposing midfields and crush games like empty Widmer beer cans?

Horan against Orlando was a good midfielder who had a good match. What she wasn’t was a game-changer at a time Portland needed one. She didn’t score (and managed only one off-target shot) and lost 12 of 27 challenges. Horan completed 70% of her passes and while she had more successful attacking actions - 71 - than any other Thorn, she was successful only 70% of the time.

For most midfielders that would still be a fine afternoon. For the Great Horan, it was not.

Andressinha (+5/-1 : +6/-1 : +11/-2) Woman of the Match, despite Tom Sermanni’s outfit playing whack-a-Brazilian all game; Andressinha suffered 8 of the 14 fouls Orlando laid on Portland. Provided brilliant service - look back up at the key pass diagram in the Carpenter comment to see how many opportunities Andressinha created, along with two lovely crosses in the 41st and 43rd minutes that aren’t shown.

Impressive performance from the gal from Roque Gonzales.

Purce (+7/-6 : +4/-3 : +10/-9) Midge Purce’ part in the Thorns’ recent struggles - including her poor pass that fell to Christine Nairn to set up the match-winner - stands in sharp contrast to the pleasant surprise of her early-season play. In March and April, Purce was outstanding when many Thorns were not. Now she’s struggling along with the rest of her team.

Here’s her InStat action diagrams and Index over a three game stretch between the middle and the end of April - Orlando and Washington in Portland, and Utah away - compared to the last match.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

Looks pretty darn similar to me. The difference I see is that Purce was working her tail off in April but is carrying less of the load in early May.


Heath, that’s why. With Heath on the pitch, more attacks go down the Thorns’ left flank than they did without her. So Purce is doing just as well as she was before Heath returned; she just has less to do.

Should have done better supporting the attack, in particular in the 20th minute when she ended a strong run with a weak shot instead of feeding Heath standing unmarked at the top of the 18-yard-box.

Menges (45’ - +4/-4) Her limited minutes and a pair of derps from her teammates make it difficult to assess Emily Menges’ contribution to the defense. Her positioning, marking and tackling were fine; all her minuses are for poor long passes. Clearly hasn’t imposed herself on her backline, however, so we’ll just have to wait and see if things improve as she works her way back into the XI.

Hubly (45’ - +1/-2) A very vanilla match from Kelli Hubly; nothing horrible, nothing spectacular. Decent going forward but not particularly sturdy in defense - lost 4 of 5 challenges - and generally “not awful” was good enough in the second half. Still, even less likely to see playing time if she’s playing this indifferently as Menges works back to match fitness.

Sonnett (+5/-3 : +2/-1 : +7/-4) Emily Sonnett had an excellent match; won 10 of 12 challenges, and her pass completion and successful attacking actions were both in the 80% range. Like her backline teammates Menges and Hubly, Sonnett did well enough defending; she was undone by others’ limitations.

Reynolds (+2/-3 : +1/-2 : +3/-5) Purce took a lot of criticism for coughing up the ball that led to the Nairn goal, but the real culprits on that concession were Kat Reynolds and Britt Eckerstrom.

Here’s Nairn settling on the ball; you’ll note that Reynolds is running up to close her down.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use

Nairn is much closer to the ball, so it’s questionable whether Reynolds will get there in time to stand Nairn up, tackle away, or block a shot.

But it’s a moot point; Reynolds doesn’t even try; three yards away she’s already pulling up short, giving Nairn the uncontested shot.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Reynolds’ PMR is a little deceptive. She had a lot of misplayed passes and some shifty marking, but other than that her mistakes were more frightening to look at and irritating than dangerous. Still, this is the second not-particularly-good match in a row for Reynolds.

Eckerstrom (+0/-2 : +0/-0 : +0/-2) Britt Eckerstrom isn’t a starting-quality goalkeeper.

No duh, you say? That if she were she’d be starting somewhere for someone else?

Yes. Well, the thing is we’ve had such outstanding backups here for years - Michelle Betos for Nadine Angerer, Franch for Betos - it’s easy to forget that most backups are backups for a reason.

Eckerstrom’s not a bad backup, she’s not shockingly awful in ways that hit you in the face. But she does little things wrong that cost her team goals. Example; the Nairn shot we discussed just a moment ago.

Here’s the end of that play.

Image by Lifetime. Licensed under Fair Use.

Not to take anything away from Nairn, who struck a clinical looping shot, but Eckerstrom got caught dozing off her line, got such a poor jump that she wasn’t able to get back in time, and then didn’t have the athleticism to get up explosively enough to tip the ball over the bar.

That’s a combination of three small failings that add up to one big match-losing one. That’s why backup keepers are backup keepers.

Coach Parsons: Once again, whatever Parsons’ tactical plan was, it was undone by brutal defensive blunders. Once again, it’s hard to see how he could have anticipated or prevented them. My assessment of Parsons’ actions after the concessions are a mixed bag, however; one was successful, the other, not so much.

His first move was to abandon the 3-5-2, push Weber up front, and drop Purce, Menges, Sonnett, and Reynolds back into a 4-2-3-1. That appeared to largely shut down Orlando’s attack and jumpstart Portland’s; for the next half hour or so Portland smothered Orlando pretty thoroughly. My match notes show 4 dangerous Orlando attacks and 4 quality Portland attacks in the first 23 minutes. From then until the 58th minute, though, it’s all Portland; 12 quality attacks to none for Orlando.

The Pride worked back into the match late, as short rest and hot weather slowed Thorns’ legs. But for a critical half hour, Parsons’ tactical shift had the desired effect.

The second move, though, were his substitutions; Hubly for Menges at the half, then Onumonu for Weber in the 64th minute and Lussi for Carpenter in the 81st.

Menges’ relief was surely for fitness reasons and as such is difficult to second-guess. But neither Onumonu nor Lussi was effective, much as Parsons’ substitutions in Houston had little or no effect on the Thorns in that match. I can only wonder if this is a coaching issue - is it Parsons’ failure to match substitute with game state - or whether it’s just the limitations of the small roster and the crowded schedule colliding; maybe Parsons just doesn’t have anyone he can throw on to fire the team up?

But that, in turn, brings up the question “why are Elizabeth Ball and Meg Morris still taking up roster spots when this squad desperately needs forwards who can convert and subs who can lift Portland late in matches?” I don’t have a good answer for that.

After a disappointing week, Portland travels to Maryland to take on a Washington team that may possibly be even more troubled than the Thorns. Can Portland use the Spirit to turn around and wring three points out of a road game?

If so, I can suggest a couple of ideas:

Forwards, score.

Defense, don’t derp.

Let’s send some other team’s fans home unhappy for a change.