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Roses and Thorns: The field is too damn big

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Bennett Dewan

So, you’ve drawn with Sky Blue.

Sorry.

Despite their reputation as league punching bag, Sky Blue (like many teams) have long played some of their best soccer against the Thorns. That was especially true in the Sam Kerr era, but even last season, Portland had a middling record against the historically bad side, notching just one comfortable win against them late in the season, after a home draw and a sloppy road win that could have easily gone south.

There were specific reasons for both of those games — the draw was on a penalty that Celeste Boureille conceded after being asked to play center back, and the iffy win was by a Thorns b-team in a rainstorm — neither of which exactly applies to yesterday. But there are general similarities: Portland was missing their key player in Lindsey Horan, which was exacerbated by the fact that multiple players had careless individual performances, for whatever reason. I’ll come back to that in a moment; for now, let’s look at the one specific similarity between this game and the 2018 draw: Carli Lloyd.

A Thorn to Carli Lloyd

Loath as I am to play into the story she likes to tell about herself, Lloyd is a player people tend to complain about so much we forget that when she wants to be, she’s incredibly good — and the Thorns are a team she always wants to be very good against.

As Tyler Nguyen wrote last week, Mark Parsons predicted Sky Blue were going to try to cause trouble by dropping one forward deep and having one run at Portland’s back line to try to stretch them out of shape.

And, well:

Ok, so this doesn’t look great. Katherine Reynolds is pushing forward to mark Lloyd and Imani Dorsey is finding tons of space on the left as she runs around Ellie Carpenter. But Reynolds and Celeste Boureille are able to close down Lloyd’s passing lane and keep her from getting the ball to Dorsey or Sarah Killion, in the middle of the shot. Indeed, Portland didn’t concede any goals like this.

If they were maybe expecting the drop-deep-and-play-wherever-she-pleases Lloyd, the Thorns were not equipped to deal with the run-at-the-back-line-like-a-charging-bull Lloyd. In that sense, she did about as good an impression of Sam Kerr as anybody other than Sam Kerr could be expected to, and that’s what burned the Thorns.

Sky Blue’s first goal came on a transition play, after the Thorns started what looked like a promising attack, with Christine Sinclair finding Meghan Klingenberg wide, and Kling lofting a cross toward Caitlin Foord. She instead found Sky Blue’s back line, and they were able to quickly move the ball to Nahomi Kawasumi, then to Raquel Rodriguez, who sprinted down the vast expanse of Yurcak Field (more on that in a minute) past Boureille and Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and sent the ball to Lloyd on the outside — with plenty of space due to Kling still being way upfield. At that point, Lloyd had already decided she was going to score, and Reynolds simply wasn’t going to stop her.

Their second goal, not totally unlike Chicago’s second last week, came down to the Thorns wilting under pressure. The moment that goal was scored, I could hear the commentariat howling about Sonnett: how she makes these mistakes so often, and she needs to learn to just think, for once! Folks: this was not Emily Sonnett’s fault.

A Rose (by way of apology) to Emily Sonnett

Here we see Sky Blue pinning the Thorns back in their defensive third. With Rodriguez running at her, Boureille does exactly what Sky Blue wants and passes back to Sonnett. That’s not necessarily a problem, except 1) the figure rushing Sonnett is Carli fucking Lloyd, and 2) the pass itself turns out to be a bad one, landing behind Sonnett instead of in front of her, where she’s pointing.

Just like Kerr last week, Lloyd doesn’t miss a beat and scoops up that ball, sprints endline, beats AD Franch as she comes off her line, and puts it away from a crazy angle. It’s an excellent finish. It’s a mistake for the Thorns to let her get in that position, but it’s an excellent finish.

Both of these goals, in other words, come down to a combination of factors. Some of those factors are individual mistakes by Thorns players. One big one, which shouldn’t be understated, is Lloyd taking advantage of openings lesser players wouldn’t be able to. And some of them are tactical:

A Thorn to the Truly Enormous Field

If there’s one thing that stood out throughout the first half, it’s that Yurcak Field is absolutely expansive, and Sky Blue was using that space well, and the Thorns weren’t.

It’s strange: Denise Reddy sent her team out in a 4-1-4-1 with Lloyd at the top and 2019 draftee Julie James in the single pivot. Logically, there should have been space for the taking around James, and there often seemed to be.

But with Lindsey Horan out, the Thorns weren’t moving the ball through the midfield well. Boureille is a pretty defensive six, while Brynjarsdottir, still finding her legs after a year of maternity leave, also tended to sit deep and wasn’t providing much support to Sinclair or the three forwards. That left a big unused hole in the field (as you see above) unless one or more of the forwards dropped back, and when they did, things started to click.

Sky Blue, on the other hand, were tearing that huge field apart, taking advantage of Boureille and Kling both being fairly slow, and either catching Kling out or beating Boureille on the dribble several times.

Their first goal is a good illustration of both sides of this coin: the whole thing starts when Foord drops back to pick the ball off James before she can control it, then tap it back to Sinclair. With Tobin Heath in the middle of the park occupying James, Sinclair runs into that same hole seen in the shot above, and she sends it to the onrushing Klingenberg.

Then, of course, with Kling pushed forward, Sky Blue are only two passes and a dribble away from getting Lloyd the ball in behind.

Sky Blue may have stolen two points from Portland, but your life is not ruined, I promise. This was a bad draw, in many ways, and many players need to do better. But if there’s reason to worry after this game, it’s not sloppiness from the likes of Boureille or Carpenter or Reynolds, but the fact that the Thorns seemed to have so much trouble connecting their attack without Lindsey Horan.

How the team would cope in the absence of their internationals was always the big question looming over the season, but things looking this dire with just Horan missing doesn’t bode well. Portland has two weeks to rest and regroup, then they head out to see what they can do against 2018’s other punching bag, another team that aren’t going to just roll over for the Thorns, when they head to Washington.