Thorns FC: Right in the face

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Where to start?

Perhaps with the final score; 2-2 in Rio Tinto, a road point in Utah, which would typically be cause for, if not celebration, at least a certain satisfaction.

Why did the result feel so disappointing, instead?

Perhaps because of the score progression, where the Thorns went up in the 9th minute only to give up an equalizer in the 43rd, and then went up again in the 87th minute only to give up the match equalizer in the 90th.

Or, perhaps even more instructively, with the Thorns attacking statistics.

I recorded a total of 17 genuine “attacks” – that is, possessions that resulted in some sort of pressure on the Utah goal – 10 in the first half, 7 in the second.

Two of these resulted in goals; the Christine Sinclair golazo and what first appeared to be a Lindsey Horan goal that was eventually ruled a Becky Sauerbrunn own-goal.

Two were defeated by good Utah defending; a 29th minute corner that went to Ellie Carpenter but resulted in a weak effort that went right to Nicole Barnhart, and a 76th minute Meghan Klingenberg serve into the box that Barnhart came out strongly to take.

Everything else – three quarters of all Portland’s moves within striking distance of Utah’s goal, petered out in a welter of poor passes or tackles-for-loss or other fails.

Why?

Well, because a lot of Portland’s “attacks” looked like this, beginning with Klingenberg in possession near the left touchline.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

She’s marked tightly, so she can’t run at goal, and she doesn’t have any really good options to pass forward. Midge Purce is cut off, Sinclair is at a front angle but is pretty closely marked, and Gabby Seiler and Horan are both flat. Nobody is running an overlap.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Kling squares to Seiler. The pass isn’t on-target, so Seiler has to stretch out to dink the ball up to Sinclair. She does, though, and Sinc turns with it…

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

…but there’s STILL no good options ahead of her. Purce is flat and Horan is behind her. Raso is in front, but has defenders on both sides, and hasn’t (or can’t) run through them.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

But that’s all she has, so Sinclair lofts the ball up to Raso who is predictably dispossessed, and the “attack” is over.

Keep in mind that Portland had just conceded, and was chasing three points at the tag end of the first half. This wasn’t just loafing about with a lead; this was a team that should have had its hair on fire trying to go in at halftime back in control.

And keep in mind this was Utah, a team that has failed to generate any sort of real attack this season; 10 goals-for, only one more than the hopeless Sky Blue.

Their only real weapon had been Christen Press, who returned to the XI last Friday and should have been covered like a rug whenever she touched the ball. Instead, she scored in the first half and was a constant nuisance all through the second.

Instead it was Portland that had trouble scoring. Here’s Portland’s xG graphic:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

The xG from these shots? 0.26, meaning that it took a piece of pure crystalline Sinclair brilliance to get even one goal out of this mess.

Here’s Utah’s:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

That isn’t that great – as you’d expect from the team with the lowest goals-for record in the league; 1.26 xG.

Note that Utah managed only 0.11xG per shot., while Portland’s is 0.09 xG/shot, so neither team was tearing it up in front of goal.

Sinc’s goal was brilliant, by the way. Two people saved Portland’s ass in Salt Lake City; A.D. Franch (who had issues of her own, though…) and Sinc, right here.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s perfection, that is. Barnhart has that goal covered, except for perhaps 14 inches at the top of the far corner, and that’s where Sinc puts the ball.

Wow.

I don’t think there’s any more to be had trying to dissect this match. The Thorns went up on a gorgeous strike and an own-goal piece of luck. To get all the points they needed to keep possession and the pressure on Utah, and couldn’t, and lock down the back to keep Utah off the board, and couldn’t.

This was a road point that felt like a loss.

At this point I’m honestly not sure what to say about the Thorns. There’s obvious quality here, quality all over the roster. There are also obvious issues; attacking issues – pace, mobility, communication, creativity – midfield issues and defensive issues – that center again on things like pace, organization, and communication.

I think the next several weeks are going to be a watershed for the Thorns.

Coach Parsons needs to sort out these issues and find a way to make that quality tell on the field.

The “attack” at this point consists of a couple of random passes around the back and a long boot up the touchlines. That won’t work against good teams, or teams like Utah that can play defense.

The midfield isn’t being used to channel the attack – largely because the midfield has seem more chaos and turnover than anywhere else on the roster – and while there are defensive lapses all over the pitch the backline has some serious individual and group problems.

The “big problem” isn’t that the Thorns are a bad team. If they were we could just write this season off and look at a rebuild next year.

The problem is that while there are a bunch of good and great players they’re not as good a team as they could and should be, and the window is closing to find that team.

The chaos of this season has made “stability” in the XI nonexistent, but even conceding that I recommend this study by Thornado on the sheer insane degree of the revolving door that has been the Thorns’ pitch this season. The coming-and-going is worse than I ever imagined. That’s damn deadly difficult for any coaching staff to figure out.

But we’re past what in aviation they call the “bingo point”; it’s shorter to the end of the season than the beginning. We don’t have the luxury of a do-over. The team, the coach, the Front Office, need to find answers now if this season is going to end up landing triumphantly in Cary this October.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test. The Thorns completed nearly 70% – 69.9% – of their passes in Utah. That’s nice, but poor passing wasn’t really the problem in Utah.

Here’s the problem:

UtahPortland
433 Total Passes352
74.1% Passing Accuracy69.9%
55% Possession45%
48 Duels Won35
18 Tackles Won4
34Entrances into the opponent’s final third40
16Entrances into opponent’s 18-yard box11

Utah made more passes, completed more passes, held the ball longer, and won more individual encounters than Portland.

To me the most telling stats are in the last two rows. Both teams were about even in the number of attacks that brought the ball into the final third, 34 to 40. But once there the Thorns farkled about the outside of Utah’s 18-yard box – only about a quarter of the time was Portland able to get into the penalty area with the ball.

Utah? Damn near half the time – 47%.

The scoreline was even.

The play on the pitch?

Was not.

How Good Are The Thorns? – The xG Story. Here’s Henderson’s latest xG/goals matrix. To help put things in perspective, this week I’ve superimposed the latest matrix over the one he prepared after the Orlando win.

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

The Damned Courage remain atop the NWSL and the Thorns remain second, reversing their table positions. Portland is helped immensely by exceeding their xG in Utah but hammered by conceding two on an xG barely above one; Franch’s struggles pushed the D.Diff into positive territory for the first time this season.

Utah, on the other hand, got the lift from their unexpected striking talents even as the took it in the shorts defensively; the combination lifted them over Washington. Otherwise Houston and Chicago swapped places by the slightest of margins.

Overall the picture remains remarkably similar. North Carolina, Portland, and Tacoma remain solid. Houston, Chicago, Washington, and Utah all have specific issues; Utah can’t score, Houston can’t defend, and Chicago and Washington can do both, just not as well as the top three. Orlando and Sky Blue still suck; SBFC in front of their opponents’ goal, the Pride in front of their own.

Image by Thorns FC on Facebook

Player Ratings and Comments

Purce (77′ – +3/-3 : +1/-4 : +4/-7) After her tangle with Raso in the 3rd minute Purce was painfully ineffective. Her passing was off, and when she did get a chance to take a run at goal she was either unsupported by her teammates or dribbled into trouble and got her pocket picked.

Given her form to date it was almost inevitable that Purce would have a bad game at some point – she’s been cruising at 30,000 feet, and it’s hard to stay aloft that high forever. It was unfortunate that she picked a night when all her teammates were off, too.

Per InStat via Chris Henderson, the three Thorns forwards were rated the worst players on the pitch; in descending order – Foord/Raso/Purce.

Heath (13′ – +2/-0) Shockingly invisible over her limited time.

Raso (+3/-1 : +3/-4 : +6/-5) Lots of action, very little to show for it, including zero shots. Very little chemistry with Purce, and, surprisingly, even less with Foord.

Foord (27′ – +0/-6) If Tobin Heath was a shock due to her almost complete disappearance, Caitlin Foord was even more shocking because of her almost complete lack of quality. Her entire evening consisted of misplaying passes and getting tackled for loss. Oh, and picking up a yellow card for a dumb foul.

I really want to like Foord. She’s a hard worker, and I’ll never desert a player who leaves it all on the pitch. But she doesn’t seem to be able to figure out how to score in competition, regardless of how well she does in practice.

At this point I’d put Tyler Lussi over both her and Ana-maria Crnogorcevic on the forward depth chart. Lussi has performed, the other two have not.

Seiler (+5/-2 : +1/-0 : +6/-2) Seiler worked her ass off all night, and key to Utah’s second half success was playing the ball over or wide of her to Kelley O’Hara, as Seiler’s second half PMR suggests. I’d hoped she would work as well with Horan as she does with Brynjarsdottir, but Horan was not on and not in synch with Seiler. Decent work on a tough night, though.

Sinclair (+3/-3 : +3/-0 : +6/-3) The key here isn’t the net but the gross; Sinclair with only 9 significant actions? That’s not a good night for Sinc, and that usually means a bad night for the Thorns. Terrific goal and otherwise worked hard and all the usual Captain Sinclair positives.

Sinc seems slower than I remember her in April, but I’m not sure if this is just the result of her tough time in France, or if it’s something more concerning.

Horan (+6/-7 : +1/-4 : +7/-11) A very un-great Horan. Horrific passing; 9 of her 11 minuses are for bad passes. Not particularly sturdy in defense, as well; a night I think Horan will want to quickly forget.

Worth noting that InStat rated her as second-best player on the night, so YMMV…

Carpenter (63′ – +8/-4 : +3/-1 : +11/-5) Decent work from EC; all her usual strengths including attacking runs and passes, and did decently when she was able to get back to defend, although the game plan often found her too far forward to help out Liz Ball with Press, and that came back to bite Portland in the ass.

I wish she was a better shooter. She had a terrific opportunity in the 42nd minute, but couldn’t figure out how to beat the keeper.

Ball (69′ – +3/-4 : +4/-0 : +7/-4) Unfortunately, the mental image that Ball will carry from this match is the awful meg that Press hung on her on the way to Utah’s first goal. Because outside of that the youngster did damn decently. Frankly, replacing her with Sonnett seemed like an odd decision, but I wonder if the Carpenter injury didn’t gimmick Parsons’ substitution plans.

Sonnett (21′ – +1/-4) You’d think that if her outings with the USWNT proved anything to us, “Emily Sonnett is not a good fullback” would be the one written in words of fire. And in Utah, no, she wasn’t good. At least no better than Ball, and at least half at fault on the Rachel Corsie equalizer; Corsie was her mark.

I can sort of see why she came on; looking like a possible road point, the defensive sub gave the Thorns right side fresh legs to fight an increasingly dangerous O’Hara and Press. But, if so, why not put Sonnett inside ? More to the point, why send her forward in the run of play if the idea was to hold the road point?

Image by NWSL in public domain

That’s not a fullback that’s trying to play even a high block. That’s a fullback pushing up, that’s a Carpenter. That appears to have been the plan for Sonnett before the Thorns second goal.

This, on the other hand, is a fullback in a low block trying to hang onto a road win:

Image by NWSL in public domain

Unsuccessfully.

Reynolds (+0/-0 : +1/-3 : +1/-4) Utterly uneventful other than getting caught ballwatching on the Press-to-ARod play in the 46th minute. Given that they gave up two leads, however, not really a terrific match for the Thorns defense as a group and Reynolds as part of the group.

Menges (+1/-2 : +2/-0 : +3/-2) What I said for Reynolds. Again, Menges looks just a trifle off. Perhaps reuniting with her fellow Emily will help? Not sure if her issues are physical, mental, organizational, or some combination of the three, but she’s still struggling a bit. Bringing the Great Wall back together might help both of them. I hope.

Klingenberg (+1/-2 : +3/-2 : +4/-4) What I said for Reynolds and Menges. Kling has cooled significantly from the hot start she made this season. Not awful, but not up to her amazing form in the first four matches. No surprise to say that she’s not a solution to the overall issue of the Thorns’ team speed. Not a bad night, but not great, and the Thorns needed more great last Friday.

Franch (+2/-2 : _4/-1 : +6/-3) A.D. Franch’s return was a Tale of Two Keepers.

One gave up a pair of horrible goals; beaten to her near post on the first and then five-holed on the second. That keeper also made a horrific error on a Ball backpass in the 21st minute:

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

We’re goddamn lucky ARod still can’t hit the ground if she fell off a chair.

But…the other keeper stood in her head to keep the ball out of the net, making good-to-great saves in the 36th, 46th (second minute of first half added time), 46th, 59th, 93rd and 94th minutes. That keeper saved the road point.

I’m not sure if Franch is really the better of the two keepers. But I’m also not sure that she’s had a fair trial. Her first three games are long past, and this one was effectively the start of the season all over, so rustiness and a lack of communication with her backline weren’t surprising.

Franch is the better leaving her feet, the better reaction-save shot-stopper. But she’s definitely not where she was two years ago, and Eckerstrom has improved tremendously. I’d argue that they’re very close to a wash tactically, and Franch is only a tiny fraction better technically.

If I were Coach Parsons I’d give Franch a long chance to show that she’s still got the chops. But I’d be more than willing to pull her for Eckerstrom if she keeps making the kind of goofs that she made with ARod, or letting in the sort of goals she conceded to Press and Corsie.

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Coach Parsons – It’s difficult to assess the manager’s work in Utah.

My suspicion is that the Carpenter injury bollixed his substitution scheme. I think he would have liked to bring on Lussi late but brought on Foord with the thought that the Australian was sturdier in defense. Sonnett for Ball seems to have been an attempt to replace Carpenter’s role in the attack, and Heath for Purce looks like a final effort to bring spark to the front line.

All these moves were either problematic, or outright failed, while Laura Harvey’s replacement of Mandy Laddish with Stengal paid off handsomely.

Harvey 1, Parsons 0.

The bigger problem, though, is the Thorns dink-dink-boot style. I suspect that it owes a lot to the roster chaos discussed above. Whatever the reason, it lends itself to loss of possession and depending on luck and opponent mistakes to produce Thorns goals. That’s hopeful, but hope isn’t a plan.

The Tomato Can Tour will mean that Heath, Horan, Sonnett, and Franch cannot be depended on; they will be in and out through October, beginning with “out” for the Sky Blue match here on August 3rd.

Meaning the Parsons, his staff, and the Thorns will need to figure out ways to stabilize performance on the pitch, either by figuring out a way to improve the movement, passing, and communication…or to make dink-dink-boot work against better opponents.

Selfishly I’d like to see the former; the way the team is playing now is just fucking ugly. Though I can accept winning ugly, we’re 2-1-2 over the last five and the two wins came against two of the bottom three teams in the NWSL.

But however it happens, I want to see it happen. C’mon, you Girls in Red. You can be better than this. You are better than this.

Let’s be better than this.

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: Right in the face

  1. Good observations. Some thoughts:

    Has Horan ever had a negative net PMR? I can’t think of one. In fact it’s hard to think of a Horan net PMR less than about +10. She’ll be back, and I hope it happens soon.

    If Carpenter were a better shooter and had better first touch, she’d be a striker, and with her size and speed she’d be deadly. But she’s not those things; she does better in the open field than in tight spaces or in snapping off quick shots, so I think she’s naturally a fullback or wide midfielder.

    None of the US internationals played well. Horan and Sonnett had negative PMRs and Heath was only +2, uncharacteristic for all of them, and Franch had the Jekyll-and-Hyde game you covered. The first game back for them was going to be rough no matter when it happened, and I’m actually glad that we got a road point out of this necessary evil. There may be one more game like this but hopefully that’s all; my big fear is that they’ll have this kind of game after *every* Victory Tour game they go to, and consequently we’ll suck from now until October. Hopefully not.

    1. Horan: Not earlier in this season. She had a net -1 on Matchday 22 last season, in the home win over Sky Blue on 8/22, and had a couple of games with net PMRs in the single digits. But those were pretty uncommon.

      As you could see from the Houston match, the Nats are getting their stride back. Hopefully after the 8/3 Tomato Can game they will be focused on their club and as effective as they were last Sunday.

  2. Also, why can’t Utah score? They have 10 goals this season, only one more than lamentable Sky Blue. They have both Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez so they should be pouring in goals by the bucketload. Of course Press has been gone for most of the season, but still A-Rod versus non-USWNTers should have resulted in a decent number of goals. What’s up? Is the problem that A-Rod has gotten inaccurate (as we benefited from!) and slow? Is it that their midfield is sub-par, with the forwards starved of the ball? I didn’t really watch Utah’s game enough to suss it out.

    1. Dunno, other than they lost Press to the WC and ARod went stone cold at the same time. Their midfield is Stengal and KOH and a bunch of spear-carriers, so they didn’t pick up the slack. But it was ARod, mostly. She had the chance to break out huge, and couldn’t…

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