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Roses and Thorns: Great Expectations

Nikita Taparia

Heading downstairs to the post-game media sessions Saturday night, I was feeling pretty good about the Thorns’ performance. Yes, it was a draw at home at a time when Portland is still fighting for the second seed and a home playoff berth. But for one thing, clawing back from a two-goal deficit isn’t something this team has always been able to do in 2018, and doing so displayed a kind of grit familiar from past seasons in the Parsons era.

For another, I didn’t think that either of Sam Kerr’s goals was particularly damning to the Thorns. The first one was the result of a real mistake by Emily Sonnett and Lindsey Horan (more on that in a minute), but the second came on a half-chance at best. Kerr is the kind of player who can score at will, and that goal said a lot more about her than it did about Sonnett, who marked her as tightly as possible as she ran onto Vanessa DiBernardo’s service.

So it was a little bit of a surprise to get to the mixed zone and find out just how unhappy everybody involved, on both sides, was with the result. When I asked AD Franch for her assessment of the game, she paused and stared at the ground for ten full seconds—I just checked my recording—before saying, “that’s about my thoughts.” That exaggerated pause was something of a joke, but it was a joke she made because she was legitimately angry about the draw.

With that said, it’s the team’s job to be frustrated with results like this and to expect better of themselves. My job, meanwhile, is to try to unpack what happened, both the things that went wrong and the ones that went right. So: let’s start with one thing that went wrong.

A thorn to Emily Sonnett and Lindsey Horan.

To be clear, this isn’t a blanket assessment of how these two players looked on the night. The responsibility for Chicago’s first goal, though, rests rather squarely on their shoulders—although the situation is more nuanced than “Sonnett screwed up.”

Right here, Sonnett has a few passing options. She could go to Meghan Klingenberg over on the left, Ana Crnogorcevic on the right, Horan in front of her, or even, conceivably, Celeste Boureille, although Yuki Nagasato’s position makes that a riskier option.

She chooses Horan, and as she does, Kerr and Nagasato continue to close in, effectively cutting off Kling (not shown here, but still in the same place) and Crnogorcevic as options for Horan.

Horan plays back to Sonnett, making it easy for Kerr and Nagasato to corner her and pick the ball off.

Even from there, Kerr’s work isn’t done; she still has to sprint forward to get on the end of Nagasato’s ball, drive into the box, take a clever touch to beat Sonnett and Emily Menges, and squeeze her shot between Menges and the near post—right where Franch isn’t expecting the ball to go. Menges bears some culpability here, too, as she drops just a couple steps too deep while tracking Kerr’s run, so that she’s too far away to step when the Australian beats Sonnett.

None of that is good, on Portland’s part. But it was also probably the best chance the Thorns had given up to that point, and even so, it’s a chance that most forwards probably aren’t going to finish. On top of that, to the same extent that this goal represents a series of individual mistakes by Thorns players, it also represents a successful application of a good game plan from Chicago’s side, largely involving throwing numbers at key offensive players all over the field.

Let’s look at that game plan in a little more detail.

A thorn to Rory Dames—and a complementary rose to Mark Parsons.

Dames isn’t especially well-known for being a tactical mastermind, but he came into this match having made a couple important adjustments that paid dividends. Most notably, he decided to play fullbacks Arin Gilliland and Casey Short on the opposite sides from where they typically play, meaning Short, on the right, was paired up with Tobin Heath, while Gilliland was responsible for Hayley Raso.

From Chicago’s perspective, that move made a lot of sense. Short’s one-on-one defending is better than Gilliland’s, while Gilliland has the speed to both keep up with a player like Raso on the defensive side of the ball and to break through any pressure from her going forward. “Gilliland was being very aggressive,” Mark Parsons said after the game. “She’d been told not to let Raso turn. We weren’t playing in the space behind them that was there and available, we kept playing into feet and they were nicking it.”

That worked over and over for Chicago, with Gilliland both shutting Raso down defensively, sometimes with help from Alyssa Mautz and/or Morgan Brian, and either poaching the ball off her or beating her going forward. Then, around the 30th minute, Parsons swapped Raso and Crnogorcevic, moving Crnogorcevic to the right wing and Raso to the nine. “Raso was not as effective or working in the game as much as she normally is,” said Parsons. “They were pressing and we were just playing into their pressure. And Raso started giving us the movements and the pressing that we needed. And Ana gave us the quality that we needed over there against Gilliland, somebody who was trying to get tight, somebody to hold it, bounce it, exploit space with someone else behind.”

Right away, that move worked, with Raso sprinting toward Chicago’s back line and heading left as she received a pass from Heath, dragging Short and DiBernardo away from Kling so she could send in a cross when Raso passed it back to her. The game opened up over the next 15 minutes, in part because players like Heath and Kling did better playing out of pressure, and in part due to Raso’s constant, unpredictable movement up top, which opened up a new option behind for those players. Of course, the 44th-minute goal changed the tenor of the game, but Parsons had another move up his sleeve in the second half.

A rose to Andressinha.

The other key moment in this game, and one of the most interesting things to unpack in its wake, is the shift that came after Andressinha and Caitlin Foord came on for Celeste Boureille and Ana Crnogorcevic in the 56th minute. The game broke wide open for the Thorns; where they’d just been starting to figure out how to break through Chicago’s press when the Red Stars scored, adding Andressinha to the midfield opened up a whole new set of options.

The Andressinha we saw in this game is the one I’ve been hoping to see since the day she signed with the Thorns: the one tasked purely with creating, using her excellent vision and razor-sharp passing accuracy to set up her teammates in behind the defense. Comparing Boureille and Andressinha’s actions shows a stark contrast in what each player brings to the table (triangles here represent various defensive actions). Note the Thorns are attacking downwards in these maps.

Immediately after subbing on, the Brazilian combined with Foord—also a hugely important sub, for different reasons—and threaded a ball past three Red Stars defenders in to Kling. Kling’s cross was deflected, but that was the start of the sequence that led to Heath’s goal.

To be clear, Boureille had a good game doing what she does—she just does a very different thing than Andressinha. Boureille is a huge asset to the Thorns because she’s a reliable presence as a holding player, meaning Horan is free to spend more of her time getting forward. When Portland’s opponent is throwing two or three players at Horan every time she’s on the ball, though, her effectiveness is naturally going to be diminished, and while Boureille is good at sitting deep, breaking up attacks, and moving the ball to players like Horan and Heath, she’s not as useful going forward herself.

When Andressinha came on, she was successful in part because Chicago didn’t immediately pile pressure onto her. Whether that was because they weren’t quite prepared to deal with her, or just because they were having to split their attention between her and Horan, I’m not sure—but the result was that she had enough breathing room to make a huge impact.

Foord’s impact is easier to unpack. She made a difference simply because she’s a more complete player than Crnogorcevic. Going forward, she has Crnogorcevic’s hold-up play, but she also has speed, dribbling skill, and excellent mobility.

It’s tempting to look at the difference Andressinha made in that same light, thinking the way she changed the game is evidence she should be starting over Boureille. That’s not the right way to look at it. Is Andressinha is ultimately “better” than Boureille in some totally abstract sense? Probably. Is she the right player for this particular team in every situation? No. Portland is still going to want the option to deploy a pure holding player, as that allows Horan to be more effective.

Instead, think of it this way: it’s f***ing incredible that the Thorns have the option of bringing on Andressinha, the player who ran Houston’s attack and created the most chances of anyone in the league last year, as an impact sub.

A rose to the painter of this masterpiece.

I mean, come on.