Thorns FC: O Felix Culpa

All other doubts, by time let them be cleared.
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.

~ William Shakespeare; Cymbeline, Act 4, Scene III

That was weird.

So much for the soccer chestnut “If you don’t score you can’t win.”

Sunday afternoon the Damned Courage scored all three goals and still lost 2-1; the stuff that Paul Riley nightmares are made of.

While I’m all for sipping the salty nectar of Riley tears like a fine vintage, this match was so odd, so bizarre, so utterly…unexpected…is there anything we should be thinking about or learning from it?

Other than “don’t score more goals on your own goal than on the other people’s goals?”, that is?

Lesson One: Speed Kills.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the opening half hour was stomp-down terrifying.

The Damned Courage ran through Portland’s entire squad like they were the practice team, and a compound defensive failure (Kat Reynolds’ failure to react quickly to Lynn Williams’ wide pass out to Kristen Hamilton and then her failure to move out to cover Hamilton’s run to the byline, Emily Sonnett’s failure to clear Hamilton’s cross, Emily Menges’ failure to block out Williams’ drop to Crystal Dunn, and everyone’s failure to get in front of Dunn before she could blast her shot past A.D. Franch) gifted the visitors a goal in the 4th minute.

North Carolina is fast. Scary fast. Especially compared to Portland, who had only two relatively pacey players on the pitch at the start; Emily Menges, who was locked down in back, and Simone Charley, who had the right touchline to work while Tobin Heath worked the left

The problem for the Thorns was that in between was Caitlin Foord, and Foord had a very, very, very rough game.

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here’s just one Thorns attack, taken at random, in the 25th minute. Note that Sinc has space in front of her, Charley running to her right and Foord to her left (Heath is out of the screenshot tear-assing up the west touchline).

Sinc shoves a lead pass up to Foord…

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…who is immediately swarmed by the Damned Courage. They did this for the whole first half, and it was brutal; Portland’s attacks were largely stifled by a combination of rapid North Carolina responses, and…

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…utter lack of Portland pace. You’ll note the number of red shirts standing motionless along the top of the penalty area as Foord gets stopped, then turned, then finally has to drop to Reynolds because she has no good options.

At the end of this sequence the Damned Courage pick Reynolds’ pocket, and…

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…boom! It’s off to the races; Williams takes a lead pass and rips through the Portland backline. Fortunately for Portland Williams couldn’t control the pass and Menges caught up with her and dispossessed her.

I think that Coach Parsons started Foord because both Hayley Raso and Midge Purce had a long, tough night in Tacoma. But against the sort of pace North Carolina exults in? That was a way to ensure that any attacks that went to Foord went there to die.

Lessons Two: Speed Revives

So at the turn Parsons yanked Foord for Raso and Charley – who had been doing well but had to wrestle with Abby Erceg, who is probably 30 pounds to the good and pushed Charley around like a kid – for Purce.

Suddenly we started seeing stuff like this:

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Again, this is just a random 58th minute attack; no goal came out of it (no, duh!)

Liz Ball has squared to Christine Sinclair, who 1) squares to Lindsey Horan and 2) moves diagonally forward into space. To her right front Purce has zipped in behind Jaelene Hinkle and to her left Heath is lurking at the top corner of the 18-yard box.

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

You’ll note that the Damned Courage converge on Horan just like they did on Foord. The differences are that 1) Sinclair provides an immediate short-pass option, 2) Purce has now run into space inside the 18 and has drawn two defenders, and 3) Heath is utterly unmarked out wide.

Horan – being a better passer than Foord – slides a pass up to Sinc, and…

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…continues her run. Sinc squares to Heath, and now the defenders are surrounded and baffled; Heath is rampaging out wide, Purce running inside, Sinc lurking outside, and Horan has completely evaded any observation and has zipped into space in front of goal.

Offside, mind you, so the whole play is dead. But, still; you get the idea.

The second half saw the Damned Courage’s speed start to drop, especially in comparison to the incoming Thorns, and that, in turn allowed Portland’s midfield and wingers to push up, and that, in turn, forced the North Carolina fullbacks to stay home and allowed the Portland forwards to stay up.

Before that..? Notice who’s in the circle in the screenshot below?

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Yep. Foord, who had to drop into the Thorns’ third just to escape the Damned Courage’s brutal forechecking. That was the first half, and that was damned ugly.

As soon as the Thorns could match North Carolina’s speed? That shit stopped most quick smart.

Lesson Three: Sometimes Lucky is As Good As Good.

So Portland was lucky to survive the first half only a goal down. That was not good, but it was better than it could have been. Because in the 55th minute the Thorns got freakishly lucky.

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Ninety-five times out of one hundred Stephanie Labbe’ makes an easy catch of this harmless Ball bloop cross. The other five times Merritt Mathias heads the ball clear.

But this time Mathias headed Labbe’s arm, Labbe’ lost control, and like it was headed down to Voodoo Donuts for a Cap’n Crunch cruller, the damn ball looped into the net and it was all square.

After this, here’s my notes for the two teams’ decent chances between the first goal and the 82nd minute:

58th minute (POR) – the Portland attack shown above; Purce puts the ball into the goal but it’s waived off offside.
60th minute (NCC) – Hinkle shot just outside the 18 blocked, falls to Williams, same distance, blocked, falls to Sinclair who loses possession, NCC throw, cleared.
61st minute (NCC) – Mewis long pass wide to Williams, her run beats Sonnett, Franch out too early, Williams shoots wide left with goal open in front of her!
62nd minute (NCC) – Dunn pitch up to Williams, Ball tackles but misses, Williams 1v0 on Franch – shot – Franch HUGE save! – throw, Sonnett clearance.
69th minute (POR) – Ball sweet long pass up to Horan but Mathias good defensive tackle.
74th minute (POR) – Great pass-and-move sequence up the left side; Horan up to Heath, Heath up to Raso crashing the center of the box, Hinkle saving tackle deflects ball onto Labbe’s arm, saved.
77th minute (NCC) – Hamilton across to Dunn, Dunn strong left side run, rounds Ball, great shot but Franch another big save.

Seven fairly decent (or very decent) goalscoring opportunities, three for Portland (two well defended, one offside), four for the Damned Courage (one well defended, two great saves, one poor shot). Honors pretty even, looks like it’s gonna end 1-1, right?

Lesson Four: “Fortune’s expensive smile is earned”

~ Emily Dickinson

The equalizer begins with Sinclair tearing up the east touchline…

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…with, you’ll note, those now-familiar outriders; Purce trailing, Raso square. Where’s all that swarming North Carolina defense? Torn all to pieces by Thorns’ pace.

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sinc pitches a perfect cross into Raso, who has Mathias on her shoulder, and the two crash together as the ball spins away towards Erceg racing into the six, and Labbe’ comes out and goes to ground anticipating a Raso pointblank shot.

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

As Raso falls the ball pings off Erceg, past Labbe’ and into the goal, and it’s 2-1 Portland.

Now all the Thorns have to do is rely on Franch to make two terrific takes in the 87th and 89th minute and Jessica McDonald to miss an absolute fucking sitter in the 91st and it’s the Damned Courage seen off back to Cary three points the poorer.

Whew!

Like I said; weird. Good weird…but weird. How weird? I think Timber Dave said it best on the Stumptown thread for this match:

Image from Stumptown Footy

Goals nil. Wins, one. Goals three? Wins?

Zero.

Here’s the xG charts, first Portland:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

Then North Carolina:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

That’s just goddamn freakish.

This was fun, it was terrific…but I sure as hell hope we never have to depend on this kind of game again to beat these damn people.

Short passes

Passing the Passing Test: 72%. Decent, outpassed by North Carolina slightly (74%). Still, a respectable outing in terms of passing completion.

How Good are the Thorns – the xG Story: Well, we said on Wednesday that somebody would be moving up or down after this weekend. Who were they?

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

Congratulations, Chicago and Utah! Sucks to be you, Tacoma and Washington!

Portland Thorns on Facebook

Player Ratings and Comments

Foord (45′ – +2/-9) At this point I don’t know what to say that I haven’t said. Obviously this player has done well in other venues. Equally obviously she’s pulling an utter rock here now.

I’m not sure why Tyler Lussi didn’t start against a team with the sort of wheels the Damned Courage have, but I’m hoping that Parsons had a good reason because she certainly couldn’t have done any worse than Foord did. Starting Foord looks increasingly like a mistake – not just here, but in general.

I really would like to see Foord catch fire. She seems like a hard worker, and does a lot of the things a forward should be doing right. She just can’t seem to do what is central to the position; score. And she doesn’t seem to show hints that she’s going to break out any moment and do that.

I just don’t know what to say, other than if I’m the coach, at this point she’s behind everyone outside of Crnogorcevic on my depth chart.

Raso (45′ – +7/-1) I’ve been worrying about Ribbons’ seemingly-slow return to form, but this match was a treat; Raso was lit, tearing up the Damned Courage like a heavyweight boxing kangaroo up against Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder. Well, except smaller, and better looking, and smarter. And way faster. Note that her PMR would have put her at +14/-2 for the match.

In my mind she and Sinc get hockey assists for the second own-goal. If they’re not crashing the backline it doesn’t happen. Yeah, I know the rules. Fuck the rules; they earned it – like Emily said; fortune is earned, and damned if they, and especially Raso, didn’t earn it.

Charley (45′ – +5/-3) Good shift in a tough game state, and I was a trifle surprised that the coach didn’t keep her on and try a rerun of the Midgey and Charley Show, but, then, Raso was a monster and so it wasn’t needed. But a good half from S.C.

Purce (45′ – +3/-1) Did decently…but only that, and the contrast with Raso, who was running wild, was noticeable. I still think Purce is in the middle of a minor cold spell, and, hopefully, only that. Did important work forcing the Damned Courage to play deeper, and that was worth the price of admission.

Heath (+6/-3 : +11/-0 : +17/-3) Better. Much better. Lots of dangerous runs, lots of pinpoint passes, fewer pointless dribbles and tackles-for-loss. Would have a good case for Woman of the Match, but…

Sinclair (+3/-4 : +6/-3 : +9/-7) I thought that Sinclair looked slow and overwhelmed…until the second half, when she suddenly woke up and went to work. Sinc’s problem was that she isn’t very fast in a dead run anymore, and she can’t win a footrace with players like Hinkle, Dunn, Mathias, and Mewis without help. Put another slower player like Foord in front of her and she’s stuck. Give her Raso and Purce and Heath? That’s a different story, and so it was.

Interestingly, the InStat boys liked her a lot; rated her fourth-best Index, right behind Dunn-Franch-Mewis and ahead of Hinkle. Hmmm.

Brynjarsdottir (+5/-5 : +3/-2 : +8/-7) Dagny had the same problem Sinc had; in a slow lineup she’s one of the faster players on the pitch. But she’s not fast enough to outpace a bunch of damn greyhounds like North Carolina. Give her faster players around her? Then she can settle in midfield and go to work.

One thing that does frustrate me about her is that, while Brynjarsdottir wins a crap-ton of aerial challenges, her resulting headers seldom go to Portland feet. I wish she’d work on this. She’s on of the best high-ball-winners on the team, but if she can’t turn that into possession…

Horan (+6/-9 : +3/-2 : +9/-11) I thought Horan had an off day, missing a lot of passes and coughing up the ball. She did have some crucial moments, too, though perhaps a bit of a wash. Still, not really Great, and for the end of the season the team really needs her to be great.

Ball (85′ – +6/-5 : +1/-3 : +7/-8) Despite her PMR, I thought Ball did relatively well against a team that was designed to test her severely. Was torched by Dunn in the 77th minute but, then again, Dunn should be the MVP this season; she’s terrific, and for Ball to only get burned once or twice, well, that’s not really that bad.

Carpenter (5′ – 0/-3) Not really a factor in the match, but worthy of mention just for these:

Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.
Image by espn.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sonnett (+4/-3 : +5/-2 : +9/-5) Had her usual brainfart moments, but I didn’t think Sonnett had a terrible match. The InStat tovarisches disagreed, rating her the second lowest Index on the pitch. She DID make two pretty appalling goofs, one in the 52nd minute, the other in the 61st when Debinha and then Williams – in that order – spun her like a top, so perhaps those were enough to spoil her afternoon for the comrades. Me? I think she did enough.

Menges (+8/-3 : +7/-1 : +15/-4) The first truly Great Wall performance I’ve seen from Menges this season, and in a match when the Thorns really needed it. Well played, Menges. Damn well played.

Reynolds (+1/-1 : +0/-0 : +1/-1) Weird PMR in a weird match; I know Reynolds was there, and I know she did things…but, obviously, not enough to either frustrate or impress me. I guess the bottom line is that she was on the winning side, and that’ll have to do.

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Franch (+4/-1 : +7/-1 : +11/-2) Woman of the Match. Just huge, and great to see after some initial questions before the World Cup. I’m not going to say that I’m certain Franch has returned to the form that won her a deserved Goalkeeper of the Year in 2017. But it was this sort of performance that did, and that’s great to see.

Coach Parsons – Well, coach, your lot won, and that’s the bottom line, so yay, you.

What I find fascinating is the speculation I’m reading that the starting XI was a cunning plan to outwit Riley and suss out the Damned Courage’s weaknesses. To which I’d be willing to buy somewhat, except 1) Foord as an obvious mistake, and 2) as soon as he could do it without tearing the team open he made the changes he needed to.

No, I think the starting XI was out there for the reasons Parsons said they were; he had players who were gassed from Tacoma on Wednesday and so he started who he could. Why Foord over Lussi – indeed, why Lussi wasn’t in the eighteen? – is a bit of a mystery. But the rest? I think Parsons hoped to get away with what he could, Riley’s team forced his hand, and he adjusted and got a truckload of luck and, between that and hard work and A.D. Franch, came away looking Fermiesque in soccer genius.

Next weekend comes Washington, a team that looks like it’s entering the terminal phase of what in the airline business is called a “controlled flight into terrain”.

Here’s the thing, though; as our man Richard Hamje reminded me at the match Sunday; the Thorns can afford to drop a couple of points to teams like Chicago or North Carolina. Those teams are going to bag their own playoff spots. Not too many points, mind, but some draws instead of wins.

But the bubble teams – Washington, Houston, Utah?

No. Those teams can only climb into the playoffs over the bodies of the top three.

So as crazy as it sounds – and what could sound crazy after this three-ring circus? – next weekend is a six-pointer, too.

Like I said last week; the road just gets rougher and the slope steeper from here.

Strap in. You thought this one was nuts..?

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: O Felix Culpa

  1. As I see it, the biggest result from this win was not necessarily the 3 points, although needed, but potentially a big confidence boost going forward. If Parson’s can get this group on the same page, they could make another one of those famous late season runs.

    1. Dunno. This was such a freakishly oddball match that I think if it was my team that grabbed the points I’d just be relieved and be all “THAT was lucky! Let’s not do THAT again..!”

      I don’t think this really told us anything about the relative quality of either team; we’ll have to wait for the rubber match in Cary. Hopefully, yes; I hope this fires the team up and disheartens the Damned Courage. But given the bizarre course of the match I have little confidence one way or the other.

  2. I have not seen the game so not much to add, but I have to say your blogs are always so fun to read, but this one was superb.
    Concerning Foord, I am puzzled too. She is more of a bruiser than Raso and Purse, not as fast, but I think the Thorns need to figure out when and where to get the ball to her. She stood out in the W League and in Japan, but they are probably a little slower and not as physical as the NWSL.
    I like Mark’s starting lineup and substitutions, because I think he may have confused the Courage and in the second half they seem to have trouble organizing themselves against a suddenly fast team. He may have waited a little too long on Carpenter’s substitution because her speed would have been hard to handle as well. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt as she has been out for awhile and Ball was playing well.

    1. With Foord I think it’s become mental; I think she’s “blocked”, and she can’t convince her mind that her body can do what it is able to do. I think the team might want to get her in touch with a good sports psychologist to see if she can help.

      I don’t think the Damned Courage were confused or troubled for a moment. I think they were frustrated because after jumping out early they ran into their usual finishing troubles. Let’s not kid ourselves; Williams had nothing but green between her and the goalmouth in the 61st minute. Kerr or Lloyd or Press buries that putt; if Williams does it’s 1-2 and the Thorns are desperately chasing.

      No, I think Parsons was forced to do what he did by the short week and tired players. I think Carpenter – coming off injury – was barely match fit; she did little in her 10 minutes to suggest she would have been more effective with more time. His team won, so that’s great. But I’m not sure where this trope of this match as a work of devious cunning comes from – you’re one of several people I’ve heard say it – but I really don’t think it is evident from the match play. We won a wild, nuts, scrambling match from a combination of hard work and pure dumb luck.

      I’m glad we did…but I’d like a LOT less wild/nuts/scrambling/dumb luck next time…

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