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Thorns FC: What Pain Can Teach

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Bennett Dewan

“I love Medusa laughing in her bath

Tinted with blood, my blood. I love the keen

Blade of her furor in its silken sheath:”

As any gamer can tell you, sometimes fighting and losing to the monsters, the big bosses, can teach you lessons. At least, that’s what I want to take away from the ugly beating the North Carolina Courage handed our Thorns last Wednesday night.

Lesson One: Portland, in its current form, cannot beat North Carolina playing straight-up soccer.

That’s a hard lesson. I don’t want to see the Girls in Red playing bashball; I want the Thorns to play the Beautiful Game. The problem is, the Courage are better as a team, and (at most positions) as individual players. If Portland tries to play the Courage without using stratagems like physical play, or packing the back, the Thorns won’t score and the Courage will run through them like water through a screen door. That’s what happened last Wednesday.

Proof? Look at the InStat breakdown of “dangerous attacks from the run of play”.

First, Portland.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

First, there’s damn few of them, and they’re both crude and largely restricted to the wide areas of Portland’s attacking third.

Look at all the lateral, stop-and-start, back-and-forth movement as the Thorns try and shift the ball from side to side or dink it along the sideline. That’s because the Thorns lacked the collective pace and nous to pass and run through the heart of the North Carolina midfield and backline.

The two attacks that do go up the gut - the ones that resulted in the Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic shot in the 27th minute and the Ifeoma Onumonu shot in the 56th - break down because of individual failure on the part of the two strikers, whose shots were both tame dribblers easily handled by Katelyn Rowland.

Now here’s Carolina.

Image by InStat. Used by permission

Ugh. That’s vicious. The Courage sliced through Portland’s midfield and backfield like a hot knife. And it’s worth noting that two of these “key passes” - the 7th and 37th minute attacks - concluded with Jessica McDonald missing pointblank shots that could easily have been goals; it’s hard to accept that the Thorns should have been punished worse than losing by three goals, but that is the case.

Wednesday’s loss makes last season’s Final match read like a cautionary tale. The 2017 Thorns were better all around than this season’s squad - stronger in back, tougher in midfield (with Amandine Henry locking down the #6 spot), more dangerous up front - but, instead of trying to run with the Courage in the Final, that squad played a tough, physical match that relied on defending to tie the Courage down and set pieces to put the boot to their head.

Last Wednesday, the Thorns tried to play soccer against the Courage and got handed their own head.

The conclusion looks inescapable; to have a hope to beat the Courage this season Portland is going to have to do something like they did in 2017.

Lesson Two: To do that, Portland will have to adjust both the XI and the tactics to match up better with North Carolina.

  1. Return to the four-back set.

North Carolina is fast. Not just foot-speed fast, but quick in their passing, quick in moving to space, and quick in connecting the two with good decision-making. Portland simply doesn’t have the ability to smother the Courage’s speed with only three in back. Even when the Thorns play well, even when there’s no massive, game-losing defensive derp, the three-back is just spread too thin to shut down all the weapons the Courage throws at them.

Here’s an example; it starts with McDonald in possession.

Emily Menges has slowed McDonald up, though, and each Courage runner has a Thorns marker ball-side, goal-side.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

There is a defensive derp on this play, but it’s not a huge one; Meghan Klingenberg leaves Crystal Dunn to double-team McDonald and, as a result, Dunn is open when McDonald passes through both Menges and Klingenberg.

image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

Dunn has acres of greenspace and uses it, taking the ball down near the top corner of the penalty area, looking for a target inside the Thorns’ box.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

The thing that gets me about the screenshot above is it still looks like the Thorns have Carolina under control. Kat Reynolds is moving to close down Dunn. Kelli Hubly is marked up tight in Lynn Williams. Only Debinha has any space, and even then Andressinha is sorta-kinda keeping pace with her.

It looks like it will take something special to create a goal out of this.

Image by go90. Licensed under Fair Use.

It does. Dunn finds her target and hits a perfect cross to the back post, Andressinha gives Debinha a tiny bit too much space, and their Brazilian beats our Brazilian, thumping a header past Britt Eckerstrom for the match-winner.

That’s great soccer. I hate it, but I have to give North Carolina credit for execution. What doesn’t help, however, is Portland being spread too thin across the back. That means the player being forced to mark Debinha is another midfielder, not a specialized defender, and it gave the Courage just enough space to make the play work. Put another defender there instead and maybe Debinha doesn’t get the free header or, better yet, the Thorns clear the cross out safely.

2. Insert a true defensive midfielder; start Salem as the #6, or go with the double pivot using Salem as the #6.

The Courage match brutally exploited the hole in the back of midfield opened by the loss of Henry. The Thorns have tried a 4-2-3-1 double pivot in back of midfield using Lindsey Horan and Andressinha (or Horan and Celeste Boureille) successfully against lesser opponents. I don’t know why Mark Parsons went with a 3-4-3 against North Carolina initially, with Horan and Christine Sinclair sitting deep, but it didn’t work defensively and hobbled both midfielders going forward.

Neither Andressinha nor Horan are good choices in the DM spot. Both want to go forward, and while both are decent tacklers they lack the hardnosed ability to destroy opponents’ attacks Henry brought to the position.

It’s time to try Angela Salem in the #6 spot. She’s got the reputation as a solid DM, but we have seen so little of her that it’s difficult to tell whether she could do some, or even most, of the job Henry did. Against North Carolina, the Thorns need to have someone to do for them what McCall Zerboni does for Carolina. Is that Salem? I’d sure like to see more of her to find out.

Stick Salem to lock down the back, and then Horan and Andressinha can play the #8, going forward to add their skills to the attack.

3. Find a forward that can score.

At this point, none of the current active forwards has shown to be a reliable goal-producer. Ellie Carpenter has shown glimpses, and I haven’t given up on Crnogorcevic, but Mallory Weber, Tyler Lussi, and Onumonu have, instead, showed the opposite; they cannot find the back of the net despite a great deal of effort. All are active, all look promising from time to time, but none of them is producing.

Wednesday night showed that when you run out Onumonus and Crnogorcevics against McDonalds and Williamses, you’re going to lose.

This change, however, looks like the most difficult for the Thorns’ Front Office to make. The transfer window? Who’s available? Where to put them? Right now there’s no roster space. If it was my club I’d waive Elizabeth Ball, find a place for Meg Morris to retire to coaching, and start looking for a forward who can score. A trade, a discovery, or an overseas signing? Fine, whatever, just someone who can put the ball in the back of the net.

I’m tired of dropping points and learning lessons.

Because the lesson the Courage taught us last Wednesday night was just too painful to be repeated.

“Not feral, but the alien thought of man,

Far from the natural temper, far from Earth.

What pain can teach, the crafty mind can learn.”

~ Donald Barr

Player Ratings and Comments

Crnogorcevic (45’ - +2/-9) Wednesday night, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic was a mess. She lost 7 of 9 challenges, was unsuccessful playing in attacks 55% of the time, completed only 50% of her passes, lost possession 8 times without a single recovery, and had only one shot on target, the sad little 27th minute dribbler noted above.

I really want to give Crnogorcevic credit for her hard work, but if you work hard and get nothing out of it, you’ve wasted your hard work. Crnogorcevic’s shift against North Carolina could have served as the poster child for “why Portland’s forwards are part of the 2018 season’s problems”.

Carpenter (45’ - +2/-2) All I can say about her shift is that Ellie Carpenter did better than the Swiss striker she replaced. That said, Carpenter still had no shots, won only 50% of her challenges, and completed only 65% of her passes, none of them “key” passes. That’s just not good enough.

Onumonu (52’ - +6/-9 : +2/-2 : +8/-11) I still have a hard time getting past Onumonu’s 57th minute botch. With the match on the line, a terrific Klingenberg through ball that gave Onumonu a chance to draw her team level, all she could do was dink the ball harmlessly to the Courage keeper.

The bottom line for a striker is goals, and it has become painfully apparent that Onumonu can’t score. Her touch is brutal, and she lacks the striker’s “nose for goal”. She’s just not good enough, and this match really made my mind up on her. Back in my Army days we’d say that right now I’d trade you Onumonu for a case of C-rations and 200 rounds of blank ammunition, and if you were hard up you could owe me the C’s and the blanks.

Lussi (18’ - +4/-1) Another toothless outing from another Thorns forward.

These forward comments are getting depressing to write because it feels like I could simply cut and paste the same thing for every forward for every match.

Lussi, like the other Thorns forward, needs to do better. I don’t know how, or even if she can. But until she and the other forwards can do better, this team is in trouble.

Heath (+10/-6 : +7/-3 : +17/-9) I’d like to call Tobin Heath the Woman of the Match for her hard work and creativity but I’m not sure that any Thorn deserves the accolade for this tire fire. Got into a lot of tussles; Merritt Mathias had Heath’s number, winning 9 of their 13 duels, although Heath did get the better of Zerboni, winning 5 of their 9 challenges.

All the usual Heath positives; creativity going forward, hustle defending, clever passing and dribbling, and great vision and soccer intelligence. Just unable to overcome the reality that a great team can beat a single great player almost every time.

Sinclair (+7/-3 : +4/-3 : +10/-7) Christine Sinclair fought a tough battle in midfield all night with Samantha Mewis and came out barely ahead, winning 4 of 7 challenges. But the difficulty Sinc had fighting the midfield battles took her out of the attack, and the Thorns suffered for it. Sinclair had an especially difficult time matching North Carolina’s speed, and often found herself behind the play, or getting run off the ball by a faster Courage player. Did what she could, but that just wasn’t enough against a comprehensively better opponent.

Horan (+7/-5 : +8/-4 : +15/-9) Horan had the best night of any Portland player - her InStat Index of 201 is the only Thorn to break the InStat Index Mendoza Line. Horan’s passing and attacking were the most effective weapons the Thorns had against North Carolina, but soccer is a team sport, and without more help from her teammates Horan couldn’t change the result with her individual effort. Still, a decent night in a hopeless cause.

Andressinha (32’ - +4/-5) Not a good night for the Brazilian, including some exceptionally poor defensive play. Even more frustrating was that Andressinha was brought in to try and spark the Thorns’ attack and was unable to come anywhere close to doing that.

Purce (72’ - +3/-5 : +2/-3 : +5/-8) Winner (loser?) of the InStat Ballon d’Nope; her Index of 116 was the worst of any player on the pitch. Against Utah, I noted that Midge Purce finally had a genuinely poor match and hoped that it was just a one-off. Well, Purce followed that match up with a real stinker. Lost more than 80% of her individual challenges, should really have been punished for losing her mark - McDonald - in the 7th minute, and generally invisible in attack and no better than mediocre in defense.

Purce needs to shake this one off immediately, because she was a complete trash fire against the Courage.

Klingenberg (+5/-2 : +10/-7 : +15/-9) Except for her poor decision on the play that became the Debinha goal illustrated above Kling had a decent match. InStat agrees; her Index of 172 puts her the third-best Thorn, after Horan’s 201 and Heath’s 176. I agree; Klingenberg had some terrific passes and played a generally solid match in back. Like Horan and Heath, deserved better for her efforts, but, that’s why soccer is a cruel game.

Reynolds (+2/-5 : +5/-3 : +7/-8) Kat Reynolds’ lack of pace was brutally exposed by the speedy Courage attackers. Did score the only goal, so there’s that. But that’s not what defenders are there to do, and she owns three of the four Courage goals; her clumsy challenge on Debinha is a penalty 9 out of 10 times, and contributed to the group failure to clear both the setpiece goals. Against most other NWSL teams Reynolds’ skillset is fine. Against North Carolina, she was overmatched.

Menges (+3/-4 : +1/-1 : +4/-5) Like Reynolds, found herself chasing way too many blue-shirted opponents. Menges’ foot-speed is such that she managed to catch up as often as not, unlike many of her teammates, but Menges still had a tough night. I think she’s overwhelmed trying to control the outnumbered Thorns’ backline, especially since two of her troops are Reynolds and Klingenberg; I won’t exactly say you could time the two with a sundial, but they’re not the paciest of defenders. There’s only so many attackers Menges can chase down, and that limit was exposed last Wednesday.

Hubly (+3/-7 : +5/-4 : +8/-11) Another Thorns defender who was skinned repeatedly; Hubly is good enough against most opponents but lacks the experience to get the jump on the faster Courage attackers and lacks the speed to run them down.

Eckerstrom (+0/-0 : +1/-1 : +1/-1) I can’t really fault Eckerstrom on the concessions. A PK, and two point-blank headers? Lev Yashin would have been hard-pressed to stop any one of those three. Eckerstrom probably should have done better with the final North Carolina goal, a weird skipping ball that she might have better charged out to take rather than holding her line, but the bounces were so unpredictable I have a difficult time being that hard on her. Not a good night for Portland, but not Eckerstrom’s fault, by and large.

Coach Parsons: Parsons initial 3-4-3 didn’t work, despite keeping marginally more possession for the first half, and his shift to the 4-2-3-1 was too late to keep North Carolina from running the table.

Starting Onumonu, even given the short rest after the Utah match, is a real headscratcher. She hadn’t been effective against poorer teams, why should she be any better against the league leaders? His substitutions were not effective, but all that does is open questions about the Thorns’ roster. Who else could Parsons have sent on? Ball? Salem? Boureille? Weber? He’s tried all of them at one time or another; none of them is the sort of game-changer he would have needed to unlock the Courage or keep them off the scoreboard.

I’d like to think this beating was a case of Parsons just having an off day and Paul Riley coming up with a brilliant tactical plan, but I think it’s just as simple as the Courage are just that good. We need to ponder that in the coming months.

The Thorns now have two weeks to prepare for the fading Chicago Red Stars. I want to see some of the lessons that the Courage beat into Portland last Wednesday taken to heart and mind. I want to see some evidence that the Front Office saw the same things we all did. I want to have hope that we can meet the Courage again, in the Final, and repeat the thrashing we gave them last year.

I want Medusa’s head to end up on our Shield come September.

Statistical Note

Several people have contacted me off-line to ask about the statistical information from the InStat organization that I use in this column. The InStat people have been cooperative about sharing their NWSL statistical reports, but they also provide a wide range of information for various teams and leagues around the world. If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out their website.