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Thorns FC: Boss Fight

The Thorns are stumped again in North Carolina

Freedom v Courage X Getty Images

At the end of the “NWSL Regular Season” level, which ever team wants to move on to the next level - “NWSL Championship” - is going to have to beat the North Carolina Courage.

From Wikipedia:

“A fight with a boss character is commonly referred to as a boss battle or boss fight. (T)he boss enemy is generally far stronger than the opponents the player has faced up to that point. At times, bosses are very hard, even impossible to defeat without being adequately prepared and/or knowing the correct fighting approach. Bosses take strategy and special knowledge to defeat, such as how to attack weak points or avoiding specific attacks.”

Based on last Sunday’s match the Portland Thorns are not now adequately prepared, and do not yet know the correct approach, to win this boss fight.

The Utah Royals are the only team in the NWSL that has figured out North Carolina, beating them once and drawing them twice. The Thorns have beaten Utah twice and drawn them once. But, for some reason I can’t figure out, Portland can’t square the circle - they can’t beat or draw North Carolina and haven’t really come close in three tries.

What’s maddening about this is that you know what the Courage will throw at you; relentless pressure, speed across the full width of the pitch, and a crap-ton of shots, many of them poor quality.

Last weekend was no different, and even knowing what was coming, Portland didn’t seem to have an answer for that.

North Carolina would come tearing upfield full gas, and the Thorns would just seem to start randomly running, leaving North Carolina eons of time and acres of space to pick them apart.

Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Look at the opportunities for Merritt Mathias. A run straight up the right channel. A diagonal pass up to McCall Zerboni that Celeste Boureille is in no position to cut off. A long, looping cross-field switch over to Lynn Williams who has got open, well wide of Midge Purce.

And, despite being packed together like sardines in a tin, the Portland backline has still left a gap open for Jessica McDonald to run through.

Here’s another example, from just over a minute later.

Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

This Courage attack starts when Debinha settles a lofted clearance out of North Carolina’s defensive third. Notice that she’s already behind Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan, who were forced to push up high all match to try and attack or provide service to Portland’s forwards.

Also note Portland’s back four locked tightly together in the center of the pitch, ceding the wide areas to North Carolina. I’m guessing that Coach Parsons was worried about defending runs through the middle, but if this was the response it wasn’t working.

Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Debinha passes across the field to Zerboni while continuing her forward run. Williams gets wide of Purce, and McDonald and Denise O’Sullivan push up against the retreating Portland backline.

Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Even though they have to know what’s coming, there are too many possible options to let the Portland defense get tight on Williams to intercept or force her off the lead pass.

Worse, Zerboni’s pass takes Boureille out of the picture, putting her well behind the play. The Courage now have four attackers running at five defenders, if you include Horan. McDonald is sneaking in behind Emily Menges and Meghan Klingenberg, who are too busy ball-watching to head-check her. O’Sullivan is getting into a dangerous position behind Horan, who is overtasked.

Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

As Williams reaches the top corner of the Thorns’ penalty area she’s still got a lot of options;

  1. Drop a short square pass to Debinha running into the top of the penalty arch. The Brazilian is in space equidistant from Purce, Horan, and Menges,
  2. Hit a longer square pass to McDonald (though Purce and Menges aren’t too badly placed to cut that option off, making it a lower quality play) or,
  3. Pass all the way across the field to Denise O’Sullivan; either a low hard pass across the top of the penalty area into O’Sullivan’s path, or a longer, aerial cross for O’Sullivan to run under.
Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Fortunately for Portland, Williams squares to Debinha and underhits the pass, forcing her teammate to slow up and allowing Horan to catch Debinha, tangle her up, and eventually dispossess her.

Keep in mind this was within the first quarter hour. Portland’s legs were fresh, the Thorns’ defense as alert and composed as it would be all match. Even so, North Carolina’s speed and passing sliced Portland’s defense open and continued to do that most of the game.

Here’s InStat’s summary of the dangerous Courage attacks just from the run of play.

Image by InStat. Used by permission.

This was the teams’ third meeting this season. Given the hidings they received in the first two, Coach Parsons and the Thorns must have had a plan to try and stop North Carolina.

If they did, however, it didn’t work any better than the first two times the teams met. North Carolina bossed Portland around for most of the game like, well, a boss. While I wouldn’t say North Carolina ran Portland off the pitch, the Thorns never looked likely to do any better than scratch out an equalizer. The Courage controlled the pace and shape of the match.

This season, Portland has struggled to recreate 2017’s defensive cohesion and attacking creativity. North Carolina, by contrast, has developed into the best team in the NWSL with a swarming attack, aggressive forechecking defense, and a tenacious midfield that helps shield their somewhat slow-footed backline.

I have little doubt that with hard work and some good fortune Portland can scramble into the 2018 playoffs. But - barring a miracle - all that will do is force the Thorns to try again to beat North Carolina some time in September.

Portland was the boss of 2016, and Paul Riley’s Western New York Flash got smarter and more dangerous each time they met Portland in the regular season, until in the semifinal they figured out that to beat the Thorns you just had to beat up on them. They did, and it worked.

Mark Parsons’ Thorns have had three shots at this year’s boss and look no closer to figuring them out than they did back in March.

So there it is, Thorns.

Riley figured you out in three matches two years ago.

You now have just about six weeks, and just one more match, to return the disfavor.

Let’s do that.

Player Ratings and Comments

Crnogorcevic (58’ - +2/-6 : +1/-1 : +3/-7) Die Schweitzerin’s first half rating is pulled way down by her passing, which was atrocious - every single minus was a pass that went right to a blue shirt. Other than that, Crnogorcevic was just stranded, unable to get service from Portland’s overrun midfield, and forced to race back every time North Carolina tore off upfield.

I’m reading suggestions that Portland should try to play long balls against North Carolina. I think the combination of the Courage’s defensive strengths and Portland’s forwards playing styles make that tactic unlikely to succeed. Raso works best when running at defenders and AMC has become a sort of poacher, mixing it up in a helter-skelter penalty area and picking up loose balls. Going Route 1 and bombing long balls into the heart of the Courage defense simply lets the Abbys (Dahlkemper and Erceg) minimize their weakness - lack of pace - and accentuate their strengths; tight marking and tough tackling.

Raso (78’ - +4/-1 : +2/-0 : +6/-1) Hayley Raso had the same problems Crnogorcevic did; she couldn’t get the ball, and when she did it was usually in a muddle of bodies from which she couldn’t get a clean strike. She did have a good run in the 48th minute, but her cross went to nobody because nobody was there to receive it. Most of her pluses are defensive, which gives you an idea of the sort of night Raso had.

Raso may have suffered from Tournament of Nations exhaustion. In the 72nd minute Sinclair hit a pretty lead pass down the right touchline, the sort of pacey through-ball that Raso usually feasts on. Raso was so lead-footed that she couldn’t even get close to it before Debinha strolled over and cleaned it away. That she came off just minutes later makes me suspect she was gassed by some time around the hour mark, which is a very un-Raso thing.

Foord (32’ - +3/-2) By the time she came on, Portland had been run ragged, so Caitlin Foord didn’t get much opportunity to show attacking flair. She did have some nice runs, winning a corner in the 63rd minute, and getting open to fire a hard shot at Katelyn Rowland in the 71st. She also showed the rust of her long layoff, misplaying a pass to Heath that killed off a promising attack in the 75th minute and then running into traffic and getting tackled for loss in the 86th. We’ll need to see more of her to find out whether she’s as good as advertised.

Heath (+9/-4 : +5/-3 : +14/-7) If I was handing out a Woman of the Match for this one (and the taste is still so sour that it’s hard to do that) I’d give it to Tobin Heath for never giving up. Heath continued creating, probing at North Carolina’s defense, and just being a nuisance to the Courage from kickoff until the final whistle.

She did show her usual tendency to dribble into trouble - 5 of her 7 minuses are for being tackled for loss - but that was more forgivable on an evening when the Thorns weren’t creating much otherwise. Tough match, working hard for a losing effort. InStat agrees with me; Heath’s Index of 191 is second best on the team behind Horan’s 203.

Sinclair (+3/-4 : +3/-0 : +6/-4) By her own standards, a shockingly poor evening for Captain Sinclair. Sinc lost 10 of her 17 individual challenges, succeeded in only slightly more than 60% of her attacking moves, and completed only 71% of her passes.

Worse, for Portland, Sinc was just not able to impact the match. In attack, she couldn’t connect with her passes and didn’t get a good look at goal. In defense, North Carolina ran around her like a practice cone. Sinc needs to shrug this one off and move on.

Boureille (+5/-5 : +5/-6 : +10/-11) Celeste Boureille had a hell of an assignment last weekend. With Horan, Heath, and Sinclair pushing up she had to try and lock down the back of the midfield with North Carolina running wild at her. I can’t even imagine what that was like - it must have looked like a junior high school recess. Boureille did decently overall but not surprisingly she was also over- and outrun repeatedly.

Horan (+3/-4 : +5/-4 : +8/-8) Lindsey Horan scored Portland’s only goal in the midst of having what may have been her most marginal, random play all season, alternating her usual creative play with losing possession and misplaying passes. I said above that her InStat Index was the Thorns’ best for this match, but it’s worth noting that her typical numbers for a good game are up in the mid-200s. I was even harder on her; her net PMR zero is the lowest of 2018.

Given how she has carried Portland’s attack much of Portland’s sterility can be traced to Horan not connecting with her passes or succeeding in her attacks, and then having to race back as North Carolina poured forward. Horan and Sinclair were marginalized in this match, and it showed.

Andressinha (17’ - +3/-1) Not awful, but mostly uninvolved and largely ineffective when she wasn’t. InStat agrees; her Index of 129 is the match “winner” of the Balon d’Nope.

Purce (70 - +5/-3 : +1/-3 : +6/-6) Tired in the second half so her relief was timely, but the bottom line is that even while fresh Purce had no answer for Williams’ speed, no other Thorn did, either, so no shame to Purce who had a decent shift. For a player coming off a severe injury, Purce did as well as she could; unfortunately Portland needed more.

Sonnett (+2/-8 : +2/-3 : +4/-11) Desperately lucky not to have conceded a penalty in the 30th minute she she took down McDonald with her backside.

Image by Lifetime/NWSL. Licensed under Fair Use.

Other than that, Sonnet may have had her worst match of the season; her net PMR and her Index of 138 are her lowest to date. Certainly she played as badly as I’ve seen her play with Emily Menges alongside her. We can only hope that she was suffering from too much international play and that a week of rest will help her recover her usual form.

Menges (+1/-7 : +4/-0 : +5/-7) Emily Menges had a better second half, but her first half was bad enough to help put the Thorns in a hole they couldn’t climb out of, and unlike her partner Emily she can’t blame the Tournament of Nations. Only won 64% of her individual challenges; the fact that she did the best of the Thorns back line is a harsh comment on that group. Did lead the Thorns in ball recoveries with 11. For another center back the last match might have been just a kinda tough night at the office. For a player of Menges’ quality it was a very poor outing.

Klingenberg (+5/-10 : +4/-5 : +10/-15) Although she won 57% of her individual battles, Meghan Klingenberg was repeatedly skinned to the outside by Courage attackers; Debinha in the 21st minute, O’Sullivan in the 29th (who also megged her brutally), and Williams in the 59th. Typically Kling makes up for her lack of defensive pace with attacking service, but against North Carolina she connected with only 62% of her passes. With the Courage attacking from the flanks, Kling was sure to be tested, and her relative slowness meant that Klingenberg had a tough time meeting the challenge.

Ball (20’ - +4/-4) While her appearance was likely forced by Purce’s limited minutes rather than prompted by her own qualities, Elizabeth Ball did well enough in her third of an hour. Another decent performance from a player who looks like she should probably get more minutes.

Franch (+4/-0 : +4/-1 : +8/-1) Not at fault on the first concession, and probably couldn’t have done much better on the second. Franch kept Portland in the match to the extent they were, including a fine save of Zerboni’s snap header in the 41st minute and of an Abby Erceg header in the 70th. Spilled a hard Samantha Mewis shot in the 66th minute that she probably should have held, but Williams missed off the rebound, so Franch escaped the danger.

Coach Parsons - Two of his substitutions seemed as much forced by circumstances as attempts to reshape the match; Raso was toast by the 70th minute, and Purce’s minutes were probably limited by her rehabilitation. Foord brought some energy into the late minutes of the match but wasn’t able to solve the problem Portland faced retaining possession and creating attack.

Parsons’s challenge is defined by Riley’s success in 2016. Riley looked at the Thorns as a problem to solve, and he came up with a solution as the season progressed. That solution was ugly, but it worked. The problem of North Carolina is now Parsons’s problem to solve, and if he can solve it the Thorns have a chance to win the boss fight. To defend the championship, he and they will have to, eventually.

But the first order of business is getting into that fight, which means Portland has to shake off this loss and go to Orlando and get a result. With the form Orlando has displayed lately, I have no idea whether, or how, that can happen.

I just know that it needs to happen.