Thorns FC: Protect the precious

The funnest part of the Thorns’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Spirit came at roughly 56:24 in the Yahoo! Sports stream.

It wasn’t actually part of the matchplay, but, rather, during a weather delay when the Yahoo! crew dove for cover but left the microphone open.

At that time we learned that we weren’t playing basketball, that there was pineapple to be had, of the possibility that we would be waiting forever-ever, and, most importantly, that we must Protect the Precious!

Photo Credit: Thorns FC on Facebook

Other than that? The game wasn’t really much fun.

Tough going, going forward

Thorns FC didn’t generate a ton of chances in Maryland; 15 shots, only four on goal. One of those was a sort of junky pinball 67th minute attack that pinged around inside the Spirit six-yard box for a bit before Caitlin Foord stuck it in the back of the net.

But before that she had this opportunity:

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Then late in the match Dagny Brynjarsdottir had this chance:

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

The troubles in midfield that we’ll talk about in a bit meant that the Thorns’ attackers didn’t get a lot of opportunities.

That they botched several they did get didn’t help.

long trip + good opponent + off night = tough loss

Aside from just being a tough road loss, I think that this match was sort of a perfect shitstorm:

1. A long road trip finally wearing the Thorns down, who are
2. Missing critical pieces (who are more critical to the Thorns’ game than Washington’s missing internationals are to theirs), while
3. Several Thorns have epically awful evenings (Kling with 53% passing? Cee Bee. Menges getting her pocket picked on her own 18-yard line?), and
4. Washington plays brilliantly, particularly
5. Andi Sullivan, who was a one-woman wrecking ball in midfield

That said, I think it exposed some issues that have been troubling since the beginning of the season, and that made Washington’s game more effective as fatigue and depletion ran the Thorns down.

We’ve talked about the forward misfires. What about the midfield and backline?

midfield mismatch

The Spirit played a fast, tight-marking, high-pressing game pretty much all night. The Thorns pass completion was in the low sixties well into the late second half, when fresh legs and Washington sagging into a lower block gave the Thorns some more time and space.

Here’s what Portland’s midfield was looking at almost all match:

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Without the ability to pass around, or over, that sort of press a team is going to get stifled. Without the precision of players like Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Lindsey Horan Portland isn’t passing around their defenders. Last weekend they tried to go over, and failed, their long lobs going to a striped shirt more often than a white one.

Meghan Klingenberg is usually one of Portland’s most reliable long passers. Look at her distribution matrix against Washington.

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

Kling’s completion rate in Maryland was 53%, and as you can see, nearly all of the unsuccessful passes were long balls, including set pieces, usually her strength.

Right now the Thorns are caught on a devil’s fork. When the internationals are here the midfield is one of the team’s strongest units. When they’re not – at least so far this season – the midfield has struggled. How do you fix that? Given the financial reality of the NWSL, you either hope that your Andi Sullivan doesn’t get tapped for the USWNT, or you have to try and make the Celeste Boureille-Dagny Brynjarsdottir pivot work.

Yes, I know; the Thorns have never really replaced Amandine Henry at the #6. Even if they had she’d be gone by now. That’s not the point

The point is whether the team can nick points with Cee Bee and Dagny and Kat Reynolds as the midfielders on the pitch. They couldn’t in Maryland.

backline blues

Perhaps the single most frustrating issue – because it’s been so lingering – has been the fissures exposed in the backline. The first and third Washington goals are perfect examples.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Remember the Washington press we saw up the page? Here’s the Thorns on defense, and the pitch looks a little less…crowded.

The time she is given lets Amy Harrison push way upfield, sight down the barrel, and…

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

…send a sniper’s pass to Ashley Hatch.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

I’m not sure why the Thorns’ backline didn’t pick up Hatch. Thought she was offside? Just lost track of her?

But more to the point – why didn’t either Seiler or Menges step in front of the pass? Both were fairly close to the path of the ball, but perhaps because of unfamiliarity with each other’s skillset, or just failure to communicate, neither tried to stick a foot out.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Once Hatch turned, she finished well.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

And, speaking as a former goalkeeper, don’t you WANT to protect your keeper, Thorns? Because, otherwise…

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

I can’t say this enough; Washington looked terrific last weekend, the much better team on the night. But Portland didn’t help themselves with stuff like this:

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

It’s damn-near a quarter-way through the season. It’s time to tighten up on defense, backline.

C’mon.

So…just an off day against an opponent who was feeling perky. Not a problem, right?

Let’s see how the Thorns look this coming weekend in New Jersey.

THEN – if things still look like this – maybe then it’s time to panic.

At least a little.

player ratings and comments

Crnogorcevic (+6/-8 : +3/-1 : +9/-9) Got the assist, but not a great evening otherwise. AMC seems to have issues deciding what she wants to be. Is she a poacher? She often seems to play like one, but, if so, she needs to demand better service, and put her efforts on frame more often. Right now she’s the #1 forward on the depth chart. She needs to start playing like it.

Foord (+4/-9 : +5/-2 : +9/-11) Other than the goal, not a terrific send-off night for her, either. Got herself into dangerous positions well, but the results included too many poor passes and missed opportunities. Lots of action, just not a lot of results. Interestingly, per Chris Henderson, InStat rated her second-best of all the field players on the pitch. I disagree, but have to accept that Foord wasn’t bad, just not as good as I wanted her to be and disagree with the comrades.

Andressinha (+5/-1 : +3/-3 : +8/-4) My question would be; why Andressinha wasn’t taking the free kicks within 20-25 yards from goal? Meghan Klingenberg was having a tough time with her long passes, and was putting everything over the goal, wide, or right to Bledsoe. Why hand Kling the setpiece opportunities when you have Andressinha’s gorgeous golazo from Orlando in recent memory? Coach?

Other than that the Brazilian was probably the best Thorn field player on the pitch.

Brynjarsdottir (+9/-1 : +2/-4 : +11/-6) Desperately unlucky on the own goal, because otherwise the Icelander had a decent match. As noted above, should have done better with her shot in the 80th minute.

The only reason I included the screenshot below is because I saw it and my immediate thought was “Danerys Brynjarsdottir and her handmaidens“.

For what it’s worth, “Mother of Dragons” is Móðir drekanna in Icelandic.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Boureille (54′ – +3/-6 : +0/-1 : +3/-7) Really off day for Cee Bee, and my hope is that it was only that, and not a sign of what we should be concerned with seeing in the coming weeks.

Salem (36′ – +3/-2) Every time I see Angela Salem I want to like her work more than I do. And every time I finish seeing her work I scratch my head and think to myself “Did she do anything in particular?” Not awful, but not terrific, and this was a match that Portland could have used more “terrific”.

Klingenberg (+7/-9 : +3/-4 : +10/-13) Kling finally hit the end of her string of good games in Maryland, and the pass chart above shows the main reason why. Her passing eye was completely out, and I’m not sure why; often she wasn’t under a lot of pressure when she struck the ball – a lot of them were free kicks – and she still sprayed them all over hell. Did well defensively, but a liability going forward, and that was shocking given her play to date.

Seiler (53′ – +4/-4 : +2/-0 : +6/-4) Another Thorn who had a just-sorta kind of night. Not awful, not particularly good…afflicted with the same just-a-trifle-slow, just-a-tad-off issues that her teammates seemed to have.

Lussi (37′ – +6/-1) We will never know whether Tyler Lussi might have had a bigger impact on this match than she did, because in the 64th minute she took a goofy little bloop AMC headed pass down inside the Washington 6-yard box, spun, and fired directly at Audrey Bledsoe. Easy take, no big deal.

Except Samantha Staab was tugging her around by the shirt like a mean kid with a puppy.

I would have called the foul and the PK, frankly. That wasn’t the first time in that match that referee Danielle Chesky and I didn’t see eye-to-eye.

Bottom line was that Lussi didn’t score the goal, Portland didn’t get the PK chance, and the score remained 2-nil.

Menges (+7/-3 : +4/-0 : +11/-3) Not superhuman, as the 45th minute giveaway attests, but a rock in the back as usual, and the best Thorns defender on the night. The loss of the regular midfield starters has got Menges coming forward to nick balls away in deep midfield, and that’s at the same time a comment on her quality and a shake of the finger at the Thorns midfield.

Reynolds (+2/-3 : +2/-2 : +4/-5) A very muted evening from Kat Reynolds, but whenever your team gives up three goals you as a defender haven’t had a good outing, and so with Reynolds. At least she only hucked two crap long balls downfield, so there’s that.

Carpenter (+6/-7 : +6/-4 : +12/-11) Maybe both the Matildas were looking past this match towards the World Cup, because this wasn’t much of a springboard for international glory for Ellie Carpenter, either. A whopping 6 of her 11 minuses are for poor passes or crosses, including all four in the second half.

Eckerstrom (+1/-0 : +2/-1 : +3/-1) I’m going to give Breckerstrom the Woman of the Match because 1) none of the field players was truly outstanding, and 2) she made two huge saves and takes; off Sullivan in the 46th minute and off Meggie Dougherty-Howard in the 58th. Might have done better on the Hatch goal, but that’s questionable, had no chance on the own goal, and had Matthews all up in her grille on the third.

So it sucks to lose 3-1, but it’d have sucked even worse to lose 5-1. Good work, Eck.

Coach Parsons – Troubling.

The thing that bugged me about the Washington match was that the Thorns clearly had no idea how to break down the Spirit midfield. They tried passing around it and couldn’t. They tried passing over it, and failed. They eventually began to just look tired and frustrated, and, having missed some sitters and had several unlucky breaks – own goals, non-PK-calls – were just stymied.

When the players are at a loss it’s up to the coach to figure out how to help them find their way. Coach Parsons couldn’t do that in Maryland. I’m not sure if it’s because he didn’t actually know what to do, or whether he had an idea or ideas and his players couldn’t execute it or them.

We’ve discussed before how this is The Test, the measure of how well Parsons and the Thorns Front Office have prepared for this lean time, these seven years of famine when the internationals are gone. How they have either put by enough to get through to July and August in shape to contend for the playoffs, or whether the team will die in the desert of May and June.

Now we’ll see which.

John Lawes

Soccer-obsessive. Stats geek. Thorns supporter. Former Slide Rule Pass and Stumptown Footy Thorns beat writer. One of those people who's "often mistaken but never wrong"...

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4 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Protect the precious

  1. John, I think this is the first time my subjective evaluation disagreed with your objective data. As a scientist I defer to the objective, but I really thought Angela Salem looked good out there. CB was having off game and Salem seemed to be everywhere connecting passes and looked like the player I remembered from Boston.
    You may be right about Carpenter and Foord looking ahead a bit to the World Cup. But if I was the Aussie coach I would schedule some Kumbaya time for Carpenter and Logarzo because that match up looked pretty chippy. He will probably be more concerned with the way Sam Kerr really took Claire Polkinghorn apart. There are some elite forwards in World Cup with Sam Kerr speed that will licking their chops. Alex Morgan did the same thing with both Polkinghorn and Kennedy in the last US/Aussie match up.

  2. Well, I think we may have a chance to see more of Ms. Salem this coming weekend, now that Andressinha is gone, and we may find out which Salem we’ve got, yours or mine.

    I’ll agree that she has a lot of energy – her action chart is all over the pitch – but I just didn’t see her impact the game as you did. All her individual effort didn’t really move the meter of the game state. She DID attempt a lot of passes – 28 – in her thirty-odd minutes. Her completion rate, though, was kinda meh; 19 complete, or about 68% (the Thorns’ final completion was in the low seventies, but that was flattered by late match conditions as noted in the text).

    Yeah. Poor Polkinghorne got spun like a top, didn’t she? Brutal. If the Matildas go out early I think it’ll be their defending. They’ve got a hell of a lot of attack, but they just don’t seem solid enough in back.

  3. Speaking of Aussie internationals, why didn’t Raso play? Seems like we could have used her speed and guile to break down the spirited defense. I think we still had a sub left at the end of the game too. Was she injured?

    1. Raso was listed on the injury report as “questionable” with a hip problem. I’m not sure to what extent the federations can use their influence with the league to shield their players, but I can see that being a possible factor – the Australians not wanting her to be risked in her sendoff match. I tend to agree that it might have been worth bringing her on at halftime otherwise, so my guess is that there was either some pressure from the Australians, or her hip really was bad enough to keep her on the bench.

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