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Numbers Up: Space and Grace

Simone Charley and Midge Purce: how is it that two young players did so much damage in their first game starting together? Also featuring some classic Thorns defensive action.

Kris Lattimore

A Thorns column about formations and statistics. A numbers up situation is colloquial language for a phase of play where one team has more players than another on a specific part of the field.

If you love someone, give them space

In training last week, Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons gave us reporters a heads up as to the fact that the team was going to be more open to changing the gameday XI and how they might line up. Part of this is due to the competition for spots in the squad with players fighting every day to prove themselves ready to step up and perform in this period, but he also dropped a hint that there might be a rethink about the way the team is set up as a whole. “If we know we can hurt a team a certain way or we can slow their strengths down a certain way and we need to adjust, we’re willing to do that, which means there can be rotations in selections,” said Parsons last Wednesday.

Parsons has already sprung two tactical surprises on us so far this season after opening the season with the formation he ended last season with, but up until this point the changes have at least corresponded to major changes in personnel availability. Switching to the back three after the American internationals took off and then to the 2017-esque three-and-a-half back after the rest of the World Cup players left both made sense as reactions to outside events. The changes made in last Sunday’s game were much harder to see coming.

Parsons is not a coach who generally likes to tinker with his team just for tinkering’s sake. When he plays around with formations it’s generally not with the aim of countering what another team is doing, but in an attempt to get the best out of his own team, which is part of the reason the return to three at the back for this match initially felt so odd. The back three has mostly felt like a bit of a makeshift formation for the Thorns in the rare occasions it has been used. In past years, the team hasn’t looked particularly comfortable playing in it, and it’s a shape that the Thorns have always had a difficult time getting adequate width from. When it has worked, it’s been down to dominant fullback play, especially from Ellie Carpenter, with her ability to play up and down the lines all game.

Elizabeth Ball and Meghan Klingenberg’s touch map through 90 minutes, with attacks going downward. Neither took a touch in Chicago’s box.

The Thorns played with less nominal width than almost any time so far this season, with Elizabeth Ball staying home on the backline more often than not and Meghan Klingenberg spending most of her time helping in midfield. Neither fullback took a single touch in the Chicago box all game. Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, just like the fullbacks, didn’t take a single touch in the Chicago box all game. In fact, the only touches midfielders took in the Chicago box at all were three touches that Dagny Brynjarsdottir took when up for a corner and the one that Celeste Boureille took in stoppage time on the break. It’s true that Klingenberg generally prefers to cross from deep, but relying on a rookie in Simone Charley and a player whose minutes have been limited so far this season in Midge Purce to run an offense basically by themselves seemed like a bit of a gamble.

Angela Salem and Dagny Brynjarsdottir’s pass chart and touch maps through 90 minutes. Two of Brynjarsdottir’s touches in the Chicago box came in the third minute off of a corner, and her third was a blocked shot off a Katherine Reynolds long throw.

A major question for the team once the internationals departed was where the offense was going to come from. With so many players hanging back and not being attacking threats, it would have been hard to predict the Portland attack getting going at all.

What made the Thorns offense work so well in the first half was exactly the fact that there weren’t a ton of players supporting the strikers in attack. Charley and Purce had space to operate in, switching wide, cutting inside and dropping off the back line. With the rest of the Thorns competing and recovering play in the middle of the field, Charley and Purce had the skill to open up passing lanes and create opportunities for themselves and the mobility to occupy a few defenders at once. Their movement up top completely confounded the Red Stars defenders: specifically Charley’s downward motion into space underneath the defense, and Purce’s intelligent runs in behind that nearly got her two goals in the first 20 minutes.

To be fair, they weren’t entirely by themselves: Crnogorcevic, not your typical playmaker, was busy making a nuisance of herself in attacking midfield, scrounging for loose balls, recycling play, and making runs to draw other defenders away. Klingenberg doesn’t need to be driving into the box for teams to respect her offense—she has a 40% cross completion rate on the season, which is ridiculously high (20% is usually considered to be an excellent cross completion rate, and while seven games isn’t a huge sample size, it’s an impressive run). Still, on some of the best offensive actions the Thorns had, Charley and Purce had the final third all to themselves.

For the first goal, Arin Wright takes an errant touch on a Thorns long ball and Ball comes out to challenge, leaving Charley with possession. Charley plays a quick one-two with Crnogorcevic to elude Danielle Colaprico’s challenge. From there, Charley is running downhill at the Chicago defensive line. With Wright out of position, Sarah Gorden steps to Charley and the center backs are split apart, and Charley makes a fantastic read on an excellent Purce run in behind. Charley plays a near-perfect ball to put Purce through on goal, but since she’s playing the pass from above the top of the box, Purce has quite a bit of space in which to make her move.

The second goal was easily one of the best goals scored by the Thorns this season because of the patience shown in the buildup and the way the team picked apart the Chicago defense. It comes about in part because Chicago are down one and gambling, hoping for a quick steal and break, and are overloading in weird parts of the field where they normally wouldn’t be. It’s worth watching the whole buildup sequence to truly understand how it came about.

First, Charley wins possession by taking the quick outlet pass by Emily Boyd off of Casey Short’s feet, passes back to Crnogorcevic who springs Klingenberg down the wing. Short gets so left behind by this action that she stays home on Kling for the rest of the sequence, which takes her out of the play as a help defender. Crnogorcevic is essential to keeping the offense moving here: she recovers the missed cross and then sheds a Nikki Stanton tackle to keep possession. The fatal mistake happens when Katie Naughton comes up off the backline to pressure Crnogorcevic. At that point, four Red Stars players are caught marking Angela Salem and AMC. Neither Vanessa DiBernardo or Michele Vasconcelos can get themselves in front of Salem, though, and after Salem and AMC recognize that they’ve drawn everyone over to them, Salem is able to play a nice one-time entry pass up to Charley. Charley and Purce are now two-on-two. Charley takes an absolutely brilliant touch around Sarah Gorden to beat her, slows down at the end line to beat her again, and crosses into Purce, who runs to the near post and then peels off Arin Wright once she bites, resulting in an easy tap in.

The fact that the team left Charley and Purce to more or less manage a whole third of the field by themselves shows the enormous amount of trust that this team has in its young talent, and the Thorns reaped the rewards. Parsons is keen to emphasize that what the Thorns look for in talent is “exceptional quality”, which is how he refers to the one skill that an individual player can do better than other players. It’s still early in both Charley and Purce’s careers with the Thorns, and they do it in very different ways, but their ability to command the open field and to carve out space for themselves and each other in tandem already looks unique.

Defense in depth: a classic Parsons Thorns principle.
Nikita Taparia

Counting your blessings

The flipside to two players more or less getting the final third to themselves is the number of players the Thorns put behind the ball. The Thorns did quite a bit more defending in the second half than they did in the first. The Chicago Red Stars had 27 shots this game, and 19 of those shots came in the second 45. By any count that’s a lot, at the level of North Carolina at their most statistically productive. However, this statistic by itself isn’t a very good reflection of how the game went.

That’s not to say Chicago didn’t have opportunities to score, but their best chances didn’t result in a shot. Chicago were largely taking the shots that the Thorns defense was giving them, peppering from five or ten yards outside the box as soon as one of their midfielders got a yard of space. 10 of the Red Stars shots were blocked. 14 of them were from outside the area. On the one or two occasions that anyone got behind the Thorns defense, there were some spectacular recovery defensive plays by individual defenders. The most dangerous look the Red Stars had all game was a header that Arin Wright hit off the crossbar from a corner, one of 10 the team had all game (many of which were opportunities for Britt Eckerstrom to demonstrate her much-improved aerial ability).

The most dangerous sequence for the Red Stars was from around ten minutes after halftime, when they had three dangerous attacks in a row; the most dangerous of which came from a counterattack after a Thorns set piece which put the Red Stars three-on-three against whoever could get back in time for Portland.

Katherine Reynolds is voluntarily giving up defensive position on two Chicago runners here in order to get in a secondary blocking position. Part of this is a function of how the Red Stars have been shooting—very early in their offensive sets—but it’s also just a core function of a classic Parsons defense. The more bodies in front of a shot, the more opportunities players have to prevent their goalkeeper from having to make a save. Ceding a central channel for runners to attack into is risky, but it’s also a message to Johnson: beat us with your passing, because we aren’t going to let a shot get past us. Katie Johnson is an excellent finisher and moves well with the ball at her feet, but she’s a player with only four assists in the past three years. She’s got to squeeze a cross into a fairly narrow window here to create a shot, and she can’t manage it.

The Thorns are a team that pride themselves on efficiency and quality chance creation. There aren’t publicly available expected goals statistics for the NWSL, but Mark Parsons alluded to internal stats after the game that show the Thorns leading the league in xG. Coming into this weekend, the team already had the highest ratio of shots to goals in the league at 20.3%, and scoring three goals on just nine shots improved that. Every single one of the shots the Thorns took on Sunday was from inside the box. The interesting thing is that it’s happening with players who, coming out of college, were not drafted at least in part because of concerns about their efficiency. Marissa Everett scored five goals on 44 shots in her junior year at Oregon. Charley was a volume shooter at Vanderbilt who scored only 4 goals her senior year. Everett now has a goal and 3 quality chances in 30 minutes of professional soccer, and the club has identified Charley’s true skill set as lying elsewhere.

In the absence of quality advanced statistics for the NWSL, and in an environment where there is wide disagreement about how to use statistics effectively in soccer analysis anyway, a lot of commentators have leaned heavily on top line box score statistics to attempt to explain what happens in a given soccer game. It’s a core part of the Thorns philosophy, on the other hand, that creating quality shots results in efficient shooting.

Colaprico, after the game, said she was happy with the chances that Chicago was generating, and that what it came down to was just aim: “It’s important for us to get more of our shots on target and give us a chance to get a rebound or at least make the keeper make a save”. Certainly Eckerstrom only having to make five saves, and not looking particularly uncomfortable in the process, didn’t make Chicago’s offense look good. But with the number of “saves” that Thorns players were making throughout the game, putting their bodies in front of shots one after another, Chicago needed more than that. They needed some way to get their players in some space, which was exactly that the Thorns were denying them.

DiBernardo and Colaprico are two of the most talented midfielders in the NWSL, and Chicago getting to retain them for the whole of the World Cup period should be a huge advantage. They’re both tired after a dual NWSL/W-League season, and recovering from injury. But if this team Thorns team was able to deny both of those players from picking them apart, that bodes well for how this team will be able to defend against other teams that put up a lot of shots.