Thorns FC: Ouch

Well, that was…unexpected.

Exactly a week after gutsing out a tough road win in Houston, Thorns FC returned to the friendly confines of Providence Park and dropped a clanger against a Reign FC that has been gutted by injuries and absences.

I don’t know how much insight I can give into why the Thorns managed to turn what should have been a thumping win into the mess we saw at 18th and Morrison last Friday night, but I think part of it was just a perfect shitstorm.

The Thorns attack suffered from all the things that have troubled it all season; slow movement off the ball, poor long passing (and lots of long passing – the Thorns seldom played through their midfield, preferring to huck long balls up from the back, or wide along the flanks), and poor finishing.

The attack was also consistently one-dimensional. Here’s just one example, from the 32nd minute:

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Ellie Carpenter has run the ball up the right flank and into the right channel, but she’s stymied with a defender to her front. But where can she go now?

Caitlin Foord is open to her left front, but has two defenders close by.

Christine Sinclair is coming up on her left, but she’s got another defender ball-side-goal side of her and a second Reign defender is cutting off Carpenter’s passing lane.

Midge Purce is open wide to the left front, but she’s a long, tricky pass away and also has a defender nearby.

There’s no option to the wide-open right flank, because no one is running the overlap.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Carpenter chooses the easy pass to Foord, who, as expected, is swarmed by Lauren Barnes. Notice that Sinc hasn’t beaten her defender, so Foord had no option to play back to her, and Purce is still too far out of the play.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

As it happened, Barnes cleared the ball no further than Gabby Seiler, who found Carpenter running her own overlap and passed out wide. Carpenter drove past her Aussie teammate Steph Catley and hucked in a cross the met the collision of Reign keeper Casey Murphy coming out as Foord and Barnes drove in; Foord couldn’t get a solid touch on the ball and it spun away to be cleared.

Note who’s NOT there? Yeah; someone in a red kit lurking at the back post. That was a huge part of the Thorns’ failure against Tacoma; attackers not moving quickly to dangerous positions.

Another perfect example; throw-ins.

Carpenter has a hell of a long throw; as an offensive weapon, it should be smashing. But it’s not if your teammates can’t put themselves in position to turn with the ball when it gets there.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

What the hell good is that? What is Meghan Klingenberg going to do with that throw? Lose possession is what she’s gonna do; all three Tacomites closed down on her and took the ball away like fifth-grader bullies stealing change from a classmate out behind the swingset.

It wasn’t all tactics fails. There were also lots of individual problems, too.

Midge Purce regressed to much of her 2018 form; losing possession, and missing opportunities, including an 86th minute sitter she blasted five feet over the crossbar. Simone Charley was active and dangerous when she entered in the 59th minute, but couldn’t re-establish her connection with Purce; the Midgey and Charley Show is still in turnaround.

There was the Return of the Queen; Christine Sinclair.

Chris Henderson was unsparing in his assessment of Sinc’s play in France:

“The overall stat line for Sinclair doesn’t make for pretty reading in this tournament, as she converted on just one of five chances in four matches. The Canadian legend scored that one goal in a solid performance against Holland and looked good against a hapless New Zealand team but was disappointing on the whole given her usual quality in big tournaments. Sinclair struggled mightily against Sweden in the knockout stage loss.”

All-white Kit, July 1, 2019

Yeah, well, Sinc struggled mightily against the lowly Reign last Friday, too, posting a negative net PMR for the first time in many years that I’ve been watching her play.

She looked slow and out of ideas when she did get a touch on the ball. Which was frustratingly but unsurprisingly seldom, given the Thorns’ refusal to play the ball through the middle of the pitch.

Foord was little better, and the late introduction of Hayley Raso did almost nothing to boost the effectiveness of the attack. Overall the success of reintroducing the returning internationals has to be considered indifferent, at best.

Then there were the defensive mistakes. Not many; the Thorns defended well in general. But when the Big Errors occurred Tacoma took advantage of them.

In the 55th minute Purce failed to clear a looping cross from Theresa Neilsen, blooping it straight up in the air where it fell to Celia Jiménez Delgado. Delgado bopped a shot that Emily Menges was unable to block…

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

…and that rolled through to Ifeoma Onumonu. Iffy dinked the ball back out to Celia, who, untroubled by anyone in a red shirt, teed that sucker up and blasted it through Menges’ legs.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Britt Eckerstrom was helpless, unsighted by the crowd in front of her and unable to get a jump on Celia’s strike.

Nil-one, and Celia had scored all the goals Tacoma would need, given Portland’s offensive sterility and finishing nullity.

I have no idea how all this crap descended on the Thorns all at once. Bad luck? Poor preparation? Collective brain-farts? Just, as I suggested, the Perfect Shitstorm?

Regardless of how, the Thorns picked a damn poor time to lose to a Tacoma that is as weak as it ever will be. Next week, or the week after, Megan Rapinoe will be back in the south Sound, and that’s not good for Reign opponents.

The only good news is that the top five in the NWSL table are still ridiculously tight. Only three points separate Tacoma on the top from Utah, fifth and out of the playoffs.

Next weekend the Thorns have to face an Orlando that has finally won a game, on strength of a Marta brace. But it took two more, because Orlando’s defense still managed to concede three to the Spirit. The opportunity for the win is still there, if the Thorns can figure out what went wrong on both sides of the ball last Friday and solve it.

But they’d better hurry up and figure it out; North Carolina is returning to form, Tacoma looks better, and Washington and Utah are still dangerous.

Christ, even Sky Blue has a win! Clearly, we are living in the End of Days.

So the vacation is over; time to get to work.

short passes

Passing the passing test? Last Friday’s passing completion? 68.6%.

Still not 70%, but close, and hard to better given the large number of long passes, always likely to go wrong. The single biggest problem is that Portland fullbacks still huck a crap-ton of crap crosses.

Here’s Kling…

Image by NWSL.com

…and here’s Carpenter:

Image by NWSL.com

That’s suicide. That’s the definition of “insanity”; trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Either figure out how to make those crosses effective or figure out another way to attack the enemy goal. What you’re doing from the wide positions isn’t working, Thorns.

How Good Are The Thorns? – The xG Story. Chris Henderson of All White Kit does a terrific job of reporting on the NWSL through his Twitter feed; if you don’t follow him and you follow the league and the Thorns…well, you should really follow him.

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

One thing he does is post this table every so often. It gives a snapshot of the league’s attack and defense statistics as represented by the combination of xG and actual goals scored/conceded.

And a quick look at the table reveals that

  1. For all their early-season match-winning troubles, the Damn North Carolina Courage are still the league’s quality on offense. The attacking stat, mind, is heavily skewed by the crap-ton of shots that the Damn Courage take. But even given that their number of actual goals score is twice the rough league mean (12.5) and almost 150% of their nearest opponent – the Thorns’ 18 goals – it’s not all that skewed.
  2. Despite their recent wins, Orlando and Sky Blue are still dumpster fires; Sky Blue going forward (ODiff over 5), Orlando defending (DDiff over 2).
  3. Utah can’t score a lick, but their defense is a damn rock, and
  4. The Thorns are a damn solid team.
  5. Our goals-for are the second-highest, and our “failure-to-convert-on-good-chances” ratio – which is what the xG/actual goals number really represents – is below 2.
  6. What hurts, though, are the defensive errors. Our xG against/goals against ratio is still negative – meaning we’ve conceded fewer goals than our opponents have had chances – but it’s the lowest negative ratio other than Chicago, whose defense that has leaked like a sieve. The only teams with bigger defensive issues are Orlando (see above) and, surprisingly, the Damn Courage.
  7. So fixing the defensive issues is critical for Coach Parsons and the Thorns.

Fourpeat. Since I know everyone had already moved beyond this match to the USWNT Final on Sunday, let me shout out huge props to the first four-time champions in the women’s game. They join the Azurri and the Mannschaft in the World Cup fourpeat club, and trail only Brazil in the all-time rank of international champions.

This piece in The Equalizer is a good reminder that for all that our mental image of the USWNT is of them being World Cup bullies the path to the trophy has never been easy when you have to beat the entire field. China, Brazil, Germany, Norway, Sweden…they’ve all had success, often through a “golden generation”. But the USWNT has won the Big Casino over multiple generations of players. That’s a hell of an achievement.

Especially to our Thorns in France; to Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, and A.D. Franch; congratulations. Well done. You done good, so take another bow and another…then hurry back here. We miss you.

player ratings and comments

Foord (50′ – +5/-6 : +0/-0 : +5/-6) Had the one great chance in the 34th minute, and then in the dying moments of the first half there was this:

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

A truly great striker has to bury that. But that’s also terrific goalkeeping, and as a keeper myself I can only shake my head ruefully in appreciation of that.

Foord had as mixed a time in France as Sinc did, and didn’t shine last Friday, either. She will need to get up to the mark against Orlando, and quickly.

Raso (40′ – +4/-3) Did surprisingly little in her near-half, and much of that was defending. Raso was perhaps the least effective of the internationals against RFC, and that, too, mirrored her overall kinda-meh performance for Australia in the World Cup.

Purce (+5/-7 : +3/-4 : +8/-11) I can’t imagine that Purce wasn’t as frustrated by her play as I was watching it. All her usual strengths on display, but nothing to show for them and little help from her teammates when she did have something going. Deeply involved in the concession and missed the potential equalizer, so overall not a good evening for her.

Interestingly, InStat rated her third-worst player on the night, and I can think of several Thorns who I thought had a worse evening.

Sinclair (+3/-5 : +3/-3 : +6/-8) As discussed above.

Seiler (67′ – +7/-7 : _2/-0 : +9/-7) The InStat tovariches and I disagree strongly; they rate her as second lowest on the pitch, while I thought she was no worse than her teammates and better than most. Lots of poor passing, but tough defensively and as effective as anyone in the Thorns midfield, which is damning with faint praise.

Andressinha (23′ – +2/-1) The problem with Andressinha against Tacoma is that she’s a dagger; she may be frail, but she’s deadly when you put her in the right place and she can slip the blade in with a pinpoint pass or a cunning run.

But Tacoma is an lump of big old ugly-ass rock, and to break a rock you need a big fucking hammer. Andressinha is not a hammer. And even though she did all the things she does well against Tacoma, she couldn’t be a hammer, and that doesn’t work against a rock.

Brynjarsdottir (+6/-3 : +3/-2 : +9/-5) Had much the same problem she had in Houston; when she could get involved in the match she was pretty effective. But the match largely went around or over her, so she spent a lot of time just chasing people and not catching them. I’m not sure how the Thorns have to change their game to make her effective, but she’s not now.

Carpenter (+8/-8 : +1/-2 : +9/-10) Lots of energy, lots of running, little to show for it. LOTS of lost passes – six of her ten minuses – largely not because she’s a poor passer, but because she was asked to boot the ball 50 yards, or along a tiny channel down the touchline.

Another big disagreement with InStat here; the comrades had her tied with Barnes for second-best of the evening, while I’d say she was no better than average.

I’d hoped that Carpenter and Purce would develop a relationship like Tobin Heath and Klingenberg have had on the left flank, but for whatever reason that hasn’t happened. Perhaps after another game or three..?

Menges (+3/-1 : +2/-5 : +5/-6) Menges’ PMR is deceptive, because five of her six minuses are for crap passing. Decent defensively, but wasted trying to start the attack because she had no outlet in midfield, or didn’t even try and find one, and her forwards were not getting open.

Reynolds (+1/-1 : +4/-5 : +5/-6) Kat Reynolds was another Thorns defender who looks bad because she tossed a lot of long passes into the air. Not terrific, but not awful, just kinda meh.

Ball (59′ – +5/-4 : +0/-0 : +5/-4) Mix of decent defending with poor long passing. Again, not bad, just part of a tough and unlucky night for the Portland defense.

Charley (31′ – +5/-3) What can I say? Did what she does – charge around attacking anything that moved – got little service, and wasn’t able to be a game-changer when she did.

Klingenberg (+3/-7 : +2/-6 : +5/-13) The first truly unimpressive match from Kling this season. Decent defensively but a metric ton of poor passing, eleven of her thirteen minuses; a sketchy match on a night when the whole team around her was sketchy.

Eckerstrom (+0/-0 : +1/-0 : +1/-0) Largely abandoned by her defenders on the concession, and largely untested other than that, Eckerstrom was unlucky to be on the wrong end of the scoreline, but, then, that’s goalkeeping.

Coach Parsons – Not really a good outing for the gaffer. The internationals, and especially Sinclair, looked unready for their return to the NWSL pitch. The team as a whole looked slow and out of touch, and the attack, in particular, looked pawky and unable to solve the defensive block Tacoma threw up.

The coach obviously saw that he and his team had a problem; “We’ve got to get better.” was his summation of the night, and I agree. This won’t do going forward.

There’s really nothing to do but that; this one is lost, and the team and the coach have to look ahead to Orlando here next week, and beyond. The importance is to learn from this.

As Sun Tzu wrote: “…if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

If the Thorns learn from this match then one lost battle is just one lost battle, and the campaign for the championship goes on.

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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2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Ouch

  1. I didn’t see this game but it sounds like a real stinker. Hopefully the Girls in Red got all of their bad play out of their systems in this game and can return to their normal quality for the rest of the games this season.

    Much as I hate to do it, I have to tip my hat to Vlatko. He has the Reign on top of the standings despite an injury plague that would have sunk other teams.

    1. As I said in the post, it was a frustrating game simply because neither team looked particularly good. The Thorns had a catastrophic mistake (or series of individual mistakes) in back and Celia had a lucky shot go in. At the other end Murphy – whose signing is looking like one of Vlatko’s and RFC’s best moves this season – played a blinder. Foord had at least two good chances that she saved, Purce should have put her effort at least on frame…

      I hope to see more quality against Orlando, but the failings last week were so diffuse and so layered that it’s hard to say whether the team can figure them out. Definitely we need the internationals who have returned to do better, both better than they did in France and better than they did here last Friday.

      And, yeah…I really loathe Vlatko; he thugs up his teams relentlessly. But he’s also smart as hell, and he’s done a great job this season. Dammit.

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