Thorns FC: First Steps

There’s a story about a frivolous and fashionable lady of the French court of Louis XIV whose chaplain tried to impress on her the importance of diligent seriousness by recounting the story of an early Christian martyr whose faith was so powerful that, after he was decapitated, he made a pilgrimage by walking to Jerusalem with his severed head underneath his arm.

The lady nodded at this and replied gaily; “Ah, yes, mon pere, and in cases like that the first steps are always the hardest.”

Image from Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

Well, Thorns FC took their first steps back to the championship match Sunday, defeating the Orlando Pride 0-2.

While the away win was generally a solid, work-woman-like effort, I noted a couple of things that concerned me a bit, so that’s what I want to concentrate on here.

Forgive Your enemies? No.

The first half saw the Thorns in almost total control of the match. They outshot Orlando something like 15-5 and scored the only goal. Even better; Orlando was largely pinned in their own end of the pitch; the Pride didn’t generate any attacks at all in the first 18 minutes, and only five to seven attacking forays in the remaining half-hour compared to the 15 or so the Thorns put together.

Why?

Largely because of this:

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

That’s the defensive actions of the Thorns forwards and midfielders in the first half. Call it what you want; high press, forward defending…I like the hockey term “forechecking”. Whatever you call it, it’s defending in your opponent’s defensive zone by sending your attackers after the ball as soon as the opponent puts it in play.

That stifling forechecking pinned Orlando back for almost the entire first half and allowed the Thorns to boss the Pride around because, as Thuycidides wrote, the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.

This also helped lead to the first goal, because that 45th minute attack started…

Image by Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

…with Caitlin Foord forcing Ashlyn Harris into a sloppy hurried clearance that fell to Christine Sinclair.

Image by Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

The clumsy clearance effort left Orlando’s defenders stranded in no-woman’s-land, with Foord and Tobin Heath open behind them and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and Sinclair in front.

Sinclair picked out Heath…

Image by Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

…and threaded the ball into her. Heath was well-marked and had Harris coming off her line, so…

Image by Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

…she dropped to Foord and – I think – bluffed a shot that caused Harris to go to ground.

Image by Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

Foord sank her putt and that was that. One-nil Thorns.

But for some reason – whether because Coach Parsons hinted to his troops to back off, or because of fitness issues, or complacency, or lack of discipline, or some combination of both – the Thorns simply stopped forechecking in the second half.

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

Suddenly the touchlines opened up and, surely as you can say “Morgan and Marta” the attacks started coming. Here’s the Orlando shots compared between the two halves:

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

I’ve added notes to the second half image that emphasizes the actual danger of the second half attacks that is underrepresented by the original diagram. Alex Morgan drove a shot off the crossbar in the 58th minute, then pinged another off the far post in the 66th; Franch was well beaten by the first and glacially slow to react to the second – both could easily have gone in.

In second half injury time Morgan latched onto a brilliant long pass from Ali Krieger and took it straight into the goalmouth. Franch made a brilliant dive to take it off her feet but could only shove it out directly onto the boot of Kristen Edmonds, who should have had a simple finish but who, instead, skied the ball ten feet over the bar.

Ugh. That’s a problem.

Good teams don’t take their foot off their opponents’ necks. They hold them down until they stop moving. The time to forgive your enemies is after they are hanged.

The Thorns were fortunate in that Orlando was too weak to make them pay for their mercy. Chicago? Will not be that kind.

don’t waste your chances!

The other concern I came away with was the Thorns’ wasteful finishing – or, rather, lack of finishing. From all those first half shots? Here’s the expected goals diagram:

That suggests that the Thorns left something like two goals on the table in that half. Against punchless Orlando that worked. Against North Carolina, or Chicago? No.

This is even more critical in light of the coming World Cup defenstration. The Thorns can’t count on generating the sorts of attacks in the World Cup interval they can when the team is at full strength. The players that will be here will have to bury their chances when they get them. It’s that simple…and that difficult.

There’s another issue exposed in this diagram, but we’ll talk about that in the player rating section.

hey, c’mon…thorns win! why you so grumpy, gus?

I don’t want to be nothing but little Debbie Downer about this game. The Thorns got all three points on the road. They generally played well and looked confident and cohesive. The attackers generated tankloads of chances, and the midfield and defense largely stifled Orlando’s ground game, forcing the Pride to go direct downfield to try and beat the press.

So that’s good.

But. We can see things to work on, and this week would be a good time to work on them, because Chicago is out there working for the weekend.

Image by Yahoo! Sports – licensed under Fair Use

player ratings and comments

Crnogorcevic (89′ – +0/-5 : +5/-0 : +5/-5) A tale of two halves for AMC. The second half she did all the good things she does off the ball; pressed hard, passed well, and pushed the Pride backline out of shape.

In the first half? She was a damn trainwreck.

Remember the two lost goals on the diagram above? At LEAST one of those was AMC’s. Her finishing was appalling all match, but in the first three-quarters of an hour in Orlando she couldn’t hit water if she fell out of a boat. For a forward, and for the “best of the rest” forward who will be expected to lead the line after May 1? That’s just not acceptable.

This season is AMC’s to take, and this season is key for her both now and going forward. If she can begin scoring consistently this year she could have a long and successful time here. But she has to do that. Another season of 14% conversion rates and it will be time to move on.

Lussi (1′ – No rating) Pure timewasting.

Foord (92′ – +3/-3 : +3/-0 : +6/-0) I was kind of surprised by how little Foord did, given the buzz about her from this match, other than…score a goal and assist on the second. Is that ridiculous? Yes ,but it brings up how I think she’s becoming something of a poacher. She seldom seems to run to any specific purpose other than putting the biscuit in the basket.

And y’know what? That’s fine, provided she can get the service. A clever and consistent poacher is a beautiful thing.

Could easily have had a brace, by the way, had she been able to get a little redirection touch onto Heath’s 59th minute service. Great run, but well defended.

Weber (1′ – No rating) More timewasting.

Heath (+6/-5 : +7/-0 : +13/-5) Vintage Heath, and a fine drink that is. I want to call her out in particular for her relentlessness, because in the 90th minute Marta made a terrific run into the guts of the Portland defense…and Heath caught her just shy of the Portland 18-yard-stripe and dispossessed her. That’s hard work, damn hard work; most attackers could have been forgiven for loafing back to make up numbers at that point.

But that’s not Heath. And that’s why she’s Heath.

Sinclair (+11/-2 : +2/-1 : +13/-3) Just another day at the office for the Quiet Professional. Sinclair was perhaps the most obvious absence when the Thorns dropped back in the second half, and her PMR reflects that. All the usual positives; passing, marking, tackling, and generally controlling the attack.

Horan (+16/-1 : +3/-2 : +19/-5) My pick for Woman of the Match; Great Horan-level work on both sides of the ball.

Boureille (72′ – +9/-3 : +8/-0 : +17/-3) Fine work from Cee Bee, who was a destroyer of nearly Henryesque proportions. Did some pretty passing work in the first half, particularly, along with all the good defending. If Boureille plays at this level all season she will be huge for the Thorns’ defense.

Brynjarsdottir (18′ – No rating) I barely noticed she was on the pitch, which says things about both the game state and the Thorns midfield in the second half.

Carpenter (+9/-3 : +2/-8 : +11/-11) Fierce, active, and relentless hounding Orlando attackers in the first half, Carpenter was the worst exposed of the Portland defenders by the second half retreat. By the 68th minute she was getting brutally skinned by Marta purely on soccer smarts. Given their relative pace Carpenter should never be caught out by the Brazilian, but the wily veteran simply outthought her.

I have to wonder if there’s a conditioning issue, as well, given Carpenter’s long W-League and busy Matildas calendar. Not a bad game, but a trifle concerning.

Sonnett (+6/-2 : +4/-4 : +10/-6) Relatively easy day for Emily Sonnett. Orlando didn’t seriously test her, Kat Reynolds and Ellie Carpenter did a lot of work beside her, and she kept her head on and made no appalling goofs.

Reynolds (+5/-3 : +3/-1 : +8/-4) Much the same can be said for Reynolds; nothing heroic, but nothing appalling, and that’s all this match needed.

Klingenberg (+9/-2 : +2/-1 : +11/-3) Probably the most visible thing Kling did in this one was make Farmer Morgan ride the nose plow – that’s the picture at the top – and piss off her former national teammate, but overall she had a good match, particularly in the first half. Tough defending, good service, didn’t get caught upfield (much). Well played.

Franch (+0/-0 : +3/-4 : +3/-4) Got enormous luck on Morgan’s two woodwork misses, but also had a fine take in the 76th minute as well as the massive stop on Morgan’s late run.

Coach Parsons: Here’s Parsons quoted in the Stumptown match report: “I think the hard thing for us, and it showed, is that when things get comfortable we can take our foot off, and in this league you can’t do that […] as soon as we took our foot off, we allowed them back in.”

Hunh? That’s your team out there, coach. YOU’RE supposed to decide whether they take their foot off, right? Not them. Were you screaming at them to push up and press and they were ignoring you and jakin’ it? If so that’s something you all need to discuss. But if not, who gets to own that slacking off?

up next: the Red stars

Give credit where it’s due: Parsons’ team looked ready on Sunday. But finishing and in-game consistency appear to be issues that will need to be worked on before the next match.

Chicago is being discussed as a potential top-two finisher this season. Sam Kerr in her ownself is a massive load, and won’t be content to get pushed around for half a game the way Morgan and Marta were.

The Thorns have two more games to take advantage of the U.S. internationals, so nine points from the first three matches? That would seem to be a not-unreasonable expectation.


John Lawes

I've been writing about Thorns FC ever since the inaugural season - first at Slide Rule Pass, and then at Stumptown Footy - and have been a fan and player of the game for a couple of decades.

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