Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons doesn’t often roll out the same starting 11 in consecutive matches. There are almost always rotations in the forward line and back line. The midfield has the least rotation, at least before the Olympics.
Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, and Crystal Dunn have started every match they have been available for. Sinclair plays at the No. 10 and Horan and Dunn play as the No. 8’s. But there is still rotation in this midfield.
Parsons has two players that he has used at the No. 6, the defensive midfielder. Those two players are Rocky Rodriguez and Angela Salem. Rodriguez and Salem are similar because they each play as the deepest-lying midfielder in the Thorns’ 4-4-2 diamond, but their styles of play differ. Parsons is able to deploy these players in different situations to get the best out of the team depending on how the Thorns want to play and depending on the space offered by the opposition.
“I think Ang[ela Salem] is a true six,” said coach Mark Parsons in the lead up to the Thorns’ match against Racing Louisville FC. “Ang is a more natural six and Lindsey can play the six and do incredible, Rocky can play the six, Celeste Boureille can play the six. We’ve got a couple of defenders that have had that and done that throughout preseason.
“Rocky [Rodriguez] had a small injury in preseason and came in a little bit late. So we haven’t had the chance to have both players (Salem and Rodriguez) 90 minutes fit. So I hope we’re getting closer. That’s the aim. We need both players 100% healthy, 90-minute players and we’re still we’re still working to that level.”
It is rare that either midfielder plays the full 90 minutes. Both Salem and Rodriguez have started two regular-season matches and they were replaced by the other sometime in the second half.
Rodriguez has played 204 regular-season minutes in her two starts and two substitute appearances and Salem has played 156 minutes. Rodriguez started the first two matches against the Chicago Red Stars and OL Reign. Salem started the most recent matches against Orlando Pride and NJ/NY Gotham.
Rotations like these are to be expected especially because the Thorns had to play three matches in eight days. Against Gotham, Salem played the first 45 minutes and Rodriguez played the second half. This match provided a glimpse at how the different No. 6’s abilities allows the Thorns’ possession style to take slightly different forms.
Differences in Defense
The No. 6 is the defensive midfielder, so it is obviously important that Salem and Rodriguez are able to break up and slow attacks as the last player in front of the back four. Even in defense, these players differ.
Through four matches, Salem has made three clearances, one block and three interceptions. Two of those clearances and one of her three interceptions came against Gotham. Salem has completed one of her three attempted tackles, 12 of her 28 duels (42.9%), and two of her 10 aerial duels. These numbers aren’t staggering by any means, but to judge Salem’s importance in defense on these numbers would be to neglect the importance of shielding the back line.
In this position, flying into tackles and challenges could prove costly for the Thorns. The experienced Salem understands this and often gives opponents a yard or two to receive the ball. Salem puts pressure on the ball receiver but does not get touch-tight. If she was bodied up against the receiver it would be much easier for the opposing midfielder or attacker to take a touch around Salem or turn her.
The other midfielders are more likely to pressure the backs of ball receivers and try to jump passing lanes. They know Salem and the back line are behind them and will slow the attack so the midfielder can track back. The numbers back in defense minimize the risk of such a maneuver and the rewards for winning the ball up the pitch in semi-transition are substantial.
Salem steps to the intended target but leaves space between herself and the opposition. This allows Salem to slow transition and keep the player in front of her. It also allows her to shepherd the player wide or put in a challenge that catches the ball carrier off guard.
Salem also displays a great positional awareness. She typically is positioned in the middle of the pitch, sitting in between but in front of the center backs. This allows her to drop deeper and sit at the top of the 18-yard box to help compact the defense when the Thorns are under pressure. Her positioning allowed her to make two key clearances against Gotham around the 18-yard box and on top of the six-yard box while also making six recoveries in the center of the pitch.
Salem has a good understanding of when to stay central, but also helps out in the wide areas if the eights are caught upfield. The eights typically stretch wide to help the fullbacks in the left and right channels. But occasionally Dunn or Horan is caught out of position and the opposition can drive into that space. Salem identifies these moments well and steps to slow the ball carrier and attempts to prevent the attacker from swinging in an early cross or from driving into the middle.
She is also integral in the Thorns’ press and counter press. The Thorns midfielders, fullbacks ,and forwards — on the side where the ball is — will pinch in to limit space and time. Salem’s role is to sit just behind this group and cut off any passes that make it through the Thorns’ pressure. If the opposition is able to bypass the pressure, Salem then drops centrally, shields the back line, and helps out in defensive transition.
The Ohio native is also crucial in defensive transition. Salem has a great engine and is always tracking back to help out in transition. In the 11th minute against NJ/NY, Horan misplayed a pass to Salem and she couldn’t control it. Paige Monaghan picked up the ball in midfield and drove to the left. Salem quickly recovered and sprinted back to track another forward, Ifeoma Onumonu, and helped shield the top of the 18-yard box.
Salem was integral in a similar capacity only a minute later. Center back Emily Menges tried to find the midfielder with a line-splitting pass but instead found the feet of Carli Lloyd, who drove at the back line. Salem caught up to Lloyd and forced her left and slowed her down. Christen Westphal was then able to win the ball off Lloyd.
Rodriguez is a more physical presence defensively and a ball winner. In her four regular-season appearances she has made five clearances, one block and seven interceptions. The Costa Rican completed one of three tackles, 13 of 30 attempted duels and three of seven aerial duels.
Rodriguez was subbed on at halftime against Gotham and her impact was immediately felt. The midfielder tracked back well in defensive transition. Gotham went down the wide channels and Rodriguez occupied the passing lanes. Within the first three minutes of the second half, Rodriguez made two crucial interceptions on Gotham cutbacks in the 18-yard box.
Rodriguez likes to pressure the ball receiver and win the ball back quickly. She gets touch-tight and attempts to poke the ball free or body off the opposition. This can lead to brilliant moments where Rodriguez can operate in transition, but it can also allow the opposition to run at the back line.
In the 58th minute, Rodriguez tried to pressure Lloyd when she received a pass. Lloyd turned past Rodriguez with a clever bit of footwork and used her strength to muscle Rodriguez off, forcing the Thorns to defend in defensive transition.
The Costa Rican likes to pressure the ball more than her counterpart in the defensive third as well. While Salem usually stays central, Rodriguez likes to step to the left or right behind the fullback and either Horan or Dunn. This condenses the space and closes off passing lanes for the player with the ball.
Rodriguez will also drop centrally when needed to shield the back line, but she gets more involved on the flanks in the defensive third than Salem. When the Thorns are pinned back, Rodriguez can drop between the center backs and serve as a strong aerial presence in the box to repel crosses.
Contributions in Possession
Rodriguez and Salem also offer different things in the attack and the Thorns are able to have slightly different styles of possession play depending on who is the holding midfielder. Both players are integral to the Thorns build-up play but Salem is more of a link-up player and Rodriguez is more of a deep-lying playmaker.
Salem has completed 94 of her 112 attempted passes and four of her eight long passes. She is averaging 64.6 passes per 90 minutes through four matches. Salem is a player that likes to advance the ball from deep. Around 44% of her passes are played forward, 20.5% to the left, 27.7% to the right and only 8% of her passes going backward.
Salem had 38 touches against Gotham and completed 70.4% of her 27 passes. The Akron native's pass map against Gotham shows that she will play passes from the area typically occupied by a traditional 6. But she also likes to drift left and right to play many of her passes.
This is due to Salem’s style but also because of Horan’s style. Horan likes to drop deep to start build-up. Salem and Horan almost form a double-pivot in build-up which allows the center backs more options when building from the back. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch prefers to play it short to her center backs, who then usually play the ball to the fullbacks or Horan.
Salem does a lot of underappreciated running to help facilitate possession for the Thorns. She drifts toward the ball. Salem is always moving to offer as a short passing option for the No. 8s or the fullbacks as a kind of deep-lying link-up player.
She helps connect the defense to the midfield and the midfield to the attack. Salem is a constant outlet for the fullbacks and Dunn and Horan and helps to create a numerical advantage for the Thorns on whichever side of the pitch the ball is on.
The 8s and fullbacks are able to play wall passes and one-twos off Salem that eliminate defenders with short quick passes and create space for the likes of Horan and Dunn to run into the final third. Salem is a one-to-two touch midfielder, who makes short passes that seem easy. But her positional awareness, movement and ability to manipulate space allow Horan and Dunn to move on and off the ball to find space.
Salem is also safe on the ball. She isn’t too flashy and doesn’t take players on often but she turns out of pressure well when needed. Against Gotham, she completed two dribbles to move the team forward.
Rodriguez is more of a deep-lying playmaker. She isn’t on the ball as much as Salem. Rodriguez is averaging 47.6 passes per 90 and has completed 91 of her 108 attempted passes (84.3%). She is extremely safe on the ball in her own half with 90.5% accuracy.
“Rocky’s done a tremendous job dropping in,” said Parsons. “It’s a new area for her. Of course she wants to go connect and then keep going and get up the field. It’s hard in that position, even though we have a lot of fluidity. The six is someone that we always asked to be predictable for us because we have a lot of rotation around the six. I couldn’t be more happy with how Rocky has adjusted both players have been building.”
Rodriguez tends to stay central and serves as the fulcrum of the midfield. She spreads the ball all over the pitch with 31.5% of her passes going forward, 26.9% left, 28.7% right, and 13% backward. The midfielder has a good range of passing and has completed half of her attempted long passes.
The Costa Rican makes longer, more sweeping passes than Salem. She switches the point of attack and is able to swing the ball from left to right and vice versa when attempting to shift the defense.
Rodriguez does a really good job of finding the fullbacks, Horan, and Dunn in stride. Salem links well with these players and their movements can unlock a defense. Rodriguez unlocks the defense by receiving, turning, and looking to play line-breaking passes into the final third to the feet of Horan and Dunn, who can then use their quality to create chances.
Rodriguez can also create space and break lines with the ball at her feet. She is very good with the ball and uses her body expertly to ride off challenges. This allows her to turn out of pressure and dribble into space.
In the 51st minute against Gotham, Rodriguez got the ball, turned past Lloyd, dribbled around Nahomi Kawasumi, and drove into the center of the pitch. She played it wide to Dunn and the Thorns won a corner. Rodriguez has the ability to create opportunities by beating defenders, driving into space and playing the killer pass.
Rodriguez is also a threat on set-pieces. Her service was impeccable against Gotham. Her first corner found the head of Charley, who mishit the header. Rodriguez also linked up with Sophia Smith on a short corner and played it perfectly to the head of Christine Sinclair, who headed it on to Charley.
She is also a danger in the air. Rodriguez scored a brilliant header in the Challenge Cup against Kansas City and almost scored with her head against OL Reign. Her shot rang off the post and the offside flag wrongly ruled off the chance.
Portland Thorns FC has a lot of talent at their disposal and Parsons is often forced into tough decisions. One of these tough decisions is which six should Parsons go with. Both Salem and Rodriguez are terrific players that bring different qualities to the defense and the attack.
Deciding which defensive midfielder should start isn’t a case of deeming one the starter and one the rotational piece. It is a case of diagnosing how the team wants to play in a particular match and which player is best equipped to take advantage of the space offered by the opposition on the day. In the second half, one six is sure to be replaced by the other to tighten up the defense or help the team go forward in a different way.
Statistics retrieved from nwslsoccer.com.