Thorns FC: Swept Away

When I think of “trouble” this season my first thought is usually “The Damned”. But you know who has really been the hammer on the Thorns this season?

Tacoma.

They’ve utterly stoned us; 0-3-0, outscored 4 goals to nil, swept the season series (and 2-5-0 over the past two seasons; the two wins were, fortunately, last year’s last regular season match and the 2018 semifinal…) and just generally been a bloody nuisance.

Last Sunday? No different; 2-0 loss with goals by Jodie Taylor and the likely Rookie of the Year, Bethany Balcer. The Thorns were outshot 15-to-11 (and 4-to-2 on goal) and, frankly never looked likely to score outside of a pure bolt of undeserved lightning. It was a comprehensive beating for both the match and the season.

OK, fine, ace, I hear you say; why? What makes these Puget Sound harbortown fishmongers so damn unbeatable?

Well…part of it is Vlatkoball.

Vlatkoball?

Yeah, Vlatkoball. It’s rough and tough and, frankly, often not fun to watch. But, goddamn it, it works, and especially against us.

The most terrific – and it IS terrific, by the way – illustration of this comes from the Riveting! Facebook group, where Ken Diener posted this picture:

Image by Ken Diener and Rebecca Dubin

Thanks, Ken and Rebecca; I’m shamelessly stealing this because, yep; that’s Vlatkoball.

Vlatkoball is usually just a skosh this side of downright filthy…but just this side. It’s hard-nosed, physical soccer – y’know, the kind of soccer we played back in 2017 on the way to a championship.

But it’s not just physical. It also features a lot of tough, aggressive midfield tackling and forechecking up front. For an attack that moves as deliberately as the Thorns’ does, that can be murder – breaking up attacks before they even begin – and it was at Cheney Stadium.

Vlatkoball is a viable tactic, and while I hate what it does to our attack I can’t hate it anymore than I can hate The Damned’s high-speed rollerball. It’s not pretty but it works, and as my old drill sergeant used to say; if it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.

Now, that said…sometimes one of the Vlatkoballers does cross the line into dirty:

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under fair use.

Now I don’t usually whine about officials. They’re like the pitch, or the weather; you get what you get and you deal with it.

But fuckadoodledoo, Matthew Franz, you goddamn moron of a simulacrum of a parody of a failure of a center referee…how the fuck do you miss Beverly Yanez’ throwing an elbow into Dagny Brynjarsdottir’s face?

You’re standing right there! That’s your big, fat, dumb hand sticking into the screencap, so your big, fat dumb head and big, fat, dumb, blind-ass eyes must be right underneath it looking at this play.

How is that not a straight goddamn red card? How?

I’m not saying that the Thorns could have salvaged this game even playing up one for the last 42 minutes, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But damn if they shouldn’t have gotten the opportunity, Franz, you fucking porch thief.

Okay, /rant. Even taking the Yanez non-call in stride, the bottom line was that the Reign played ninety minutes of Vlatkoball and the Thorns had no answer to it.

SIW-1: “Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part One”

Another part of Vlatkoball is that it forces us into mistakes. Aggressive defending and quick, physical aggression expose all the worst habits of our attack; lack of connection, lack of communication, lack of creativity and, most of all, lack of pace.

Our skill players – Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath (when she’s on the pitch…), Lindsey Horan – aren’t particular speedy. We don’t slice up defenses with speed; we have to pick them apart with timed runs and precise passing.

Well, our passing in Cheney was like an electric fan; no matter how you looked at it, it either sucked or blew (and we’ll get to THAT in a bit). And the runs weren’t there, either.

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here’s a perfect example. Sinc has the ball running at goal. Tight space – remember, Vlatkoball, so the forechecking defenders are on her most quick smart – and hardly any help; nobody running the overlap, and there’s only a tiny space in front of her.

But there IS a tiny space, and Midge Purce is running into it. So what do you do, if you’re Sinc?

Well, if I was Sinc, I’d think that I’d either 1) try and shoot the gap and run toward goal, or 2) pass diagonally into the space in front of Purce.

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sadly…no. Sinc tries to cut outside, and with nobody to pull Steph Catley away from her Catley tackles Sinc for loss and the “attack” is over.

Here’s Purce, again, later in the half:

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

She’s drawn a crowd; two defenders immediately in front, three more ranging behind…so where’s the Portland attackers taking advantage of all that ballwatching?

Nowhere.

Nobody’s running in behind, nobody’s giving Purce a forward pass. So the inevitable happens; Purce gets trapped and her pocket picked; “attack” over.

The Thorns attack can work against an opponent that has a similar sort of slow-paced, stop-and-go, sag-back-and-counter style. Against Tacoma’s physical game, or the pace of the Damned?

No.

SIW-2

Apparently not content with attacking sterility, the Thorns also made some pretty awful defensive mistakes. Let’s just begin with this one:

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Emily Menges had just booted away directly to Megan Rapinoe, and she had just fed Darian Jenkins.

I don’t know how to describe the Thorns’ defense here other than just a facepalm.

Ellie Carpenter has been caught way the hell upfield trying to mark Rapinoe, so Emily Sonnett has had to push out wide, leaving Menges to try to cover both Taylor and Jenkins.

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

The is where the defenders should have been, and there should be a couple of midfielders helping out with Yanez and Rapinoe. The Reign tore up Portland’s defense pretty thoroughly through the first half, as Portland’s slow pace let RFC 1) take the ball away or intercept slow/mishit passes, and 2) spend a lot of their time with the ball in Portland’s defensive third.

So continuing the play from above…there was a flurry in front of the goal – Sonnett made a big block on Jenkins’ shot – the ball rolled to Taylor and from there it went back to Jenkins and out wide to Rapinoe, who squared across the face of the goal

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

I have NO idea what the hell A.D. Franch and Sonnett are doing here. Well, no, I do; nothing. That should be…

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…an easy take for Franch; the ball wasn’t moving particularly fast.

Or, if A.D. wasn’t feeling frisky, she could call on Sonnett to clear the ball away over the touchline.

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Instead, they both stand there looking at the ball roll through to the far post like they were betting on their grannies playing skee-ball, and Meghan Klingenberg has to come up huge to clear out and deny Yanez who’s sneaking in at the back post.

Jesus wept!

It was just this sort of panicky confusion that let in the match-winner about twenty minutes later.

Between the shutout and the gawdawful defense it’s hard to find a silver lining to this Tacoma cloud. Couldn’t score, couldn’t defend…couldn’t even get a deserved 11-v-10…this one was just a hot mess, and it was bad at as bad a time as it could have been.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: 63.7% Ugh. The “significant” forward or possession-gain passing was even worse:

PlayerCompletedMissed
Purce11H
Raso11LX1
Foord11L
Sinclair11H11HL
HoranL1HFHLLH
BrynjarsdottirLLH1H1HH1
Carpenter1HXLXS
Menges11L111111L
SonnettLLL1LLLLL1LL
Klingenberg11X11FC1F
FranchLGG1GPL
CrnogorcevicX1L
ReynoldsL1

As a team, 35 completed of 86 attempted, so only 40% of the possible attacking passes or possession-gains went to a white shirt. Sinclair, in particular, had a terrible outing, the forwards were a mixed bag but did little for good or ill, and nobody on the backline was passing well except for Sonnett.

Menges had a particularly awful afternoon; 30% completion, and, as mentioned above, an appalling giveaway that went straight to Rapinoe to start the 9th minute sequence we reviewed.

Franch had a similar bevue in only the second minute, but one that owed to the poor condition of the wet sod placed over the baseball infield rather than a massive brain-fart.

Like I said; this one was a real stinker.

Wait! What the hell are you people laughing about?

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

(Kidding aside – sometimes it’s tough to remember as fans that the players are only “opponents” on the field. Especially for the Nats; they’re teammates as much as competitors, and can no more “hate” each other than I hate the gang over at GeoDesign.)

Player Ratings and Comments

(What the Heck is a PMR?)

Purce (45′ – +3/-5) Ineffective when in possession, but usually just stranded. The slow style the Thorns are playing now is utterly unsuited to Purce’s skillset.

Raso (78′ – +5/-1 : +5/-1 : +10/-2) What little danger the Thorns produced at Cheney Stadium owed a hell of a lot to Hayley Raso, including one of their two genuinely threatening moments in the 25th minute when Raso pounced on a deflected Kling pass, turned and shot barely wide right with Lauren Barnes hanging onto her shins.

A good, tough effort from our Waltzing Matilda.

Charley (12′ – +2/-1) Simone Charley had the other good chance, a 92nd minute run that should really have produced a consolation goal, but that Charley shanked wide right with Casey Murphy well beaten. Lots of good hustle, but you gotta sink your free throws, Si-money.

Foord (70′ – +3/-5 : +1/-0 : +4/-5) When she was traded here I thought we’d see her as a winger. Since then we’ve seen her used mostly as a conventional center-forward or inside-left, and as such she’s been utterly unimpressive.

At this point I don’t understand why she 1) isn’t being tried as a genuine left-wing, or 2) is still starting at all. She’s not effective being used the way she is now, and I have no idea whether that’s because she’s just not effective, period, or whether she’s not effective being used the way she is now. That’s a coaching issue, and we’re going to talk about coaching at the end of this discussion.

Crnogorcevic (20′ – +0/-3) See the Foord comment above; what she’s doing, or Coach Parsons is doing with her, isn’t working. She either needs to be used differently, or she needs to go somewhere where she can be useful. She’s utterly wasted here.

Sinclair (+3/-5 : +2/-6 : +5/-11) I love our captain like a sister but she didn’t play well in Tacoma, and she hasn’t played particularly well against Tacoma all season. She was a net -2 (+6/-8) in both the earlier matches against RFC and this was her worst outing, both against the Reign and equal to her worst of the season against The Damned here in September.

Sinc is tremendously fit, but she’s also on the downside of thirty. Playing her a full ninety may be suboptimal, and the Front Office should be thinking of that, soon, so that there isn’t a hole left in midfield when she is finally done.

And at the moment Sinc is a hole in midfield against Tacoma and The Damned, so perhaps soon is now, at least against these two.

Brynjarsdottir (+5/-2 : +4/-5 : +9/-9) Fought Long to a standstill, but that meant she didn’t have much to offer going forward. Dagny provided a lot of defense, and she cleaned up her passing quite a bit – well done, stelpa vinur!

The Thorns’ problem in Cheney owes a lot to that the midfield three aren’t really “role-defined”; there’s no clear-cut “attacking midfielder”, no “lock-down DM”, no “midfield general”. All three – Sinclair, Horan, and Brynjarsdottir – are a little of everything. As I mentioned last time in my Dagny comment, against many opponents – the Houstons, the Sky Blues, the Chicagos – that seems to work.

Against Tacoma and Carolina, it doesn’t, and it didn’t this time, either.

Horan (+3/-2 : +9/-4 : +12/-6) Lindsey Horan benefited the most from the Reynolds-for-Purce-go-to-three-back swap in the second half. The support of Kling and Carpenter swarming forward pulled the Reign midfield a bit wider, allowed Horan more freedom and better service, and so she looked much more herself than she had in the first half when she was dropping back to gain possession and trying to force passes to covered forwards inside that had no chance of connecting.

That said…Horan is still not playing up to her potential, and I’m not sure why. Nagging injury? Post-World-Cup-blues? Just some mis-fits with her teammates?

Whatever the reasons, there is literally no time left to work them out. If this team is going to win the last three games of the season – and they need to do that – Horan needs to be Great Again.

Carpenter (+2/-5 : +5/-4 : +7/-9) After bossing her in last season’s semifinal Carpenter was back to struggling with defending Rapinoe, and the purple-headed warrior got the better of her several times last weekend. Add to that her defensive unit conceding two goals and you have a pretty sketchy afternoon.

The ESPN crew made a good point during the broadcast; using Carpenter and Raso to attack the RFC left would have forced Rapinoe to play defense…but the Thorns did very little on the right flank, and I’m not sure why.

Sonnett (+5/-3 : +2/-2 : +7/-5) As with the rest of the backline…hard to give Sonnett big props when conceding two goals, and yet, Sonnett made some huge plays. The ninth minute block, another in the 42nd minute when Sonnet stepped in to make a huge tackle to strip Catley as she was arrowing for the Thorns goal.

Of the Thorns defenders Sonnett probably had the best day in Tacoma. That’s kind of damning with faint praise.

Menges (+1/-4 : +5/-4 : +6/-8) The other half of the Wall-Formerly-Known-As-Great had a pretty awful day. Critical defensive errors on the Taylor goal and lots of other goofs, from passing directly to Rapinoe in the 9th minute to missing her mark on Balcer on the goal in the 81st minute…just brutal.

Klingenberg (+3/-6 : +1/-3 : +4/9) If Sonnett had the best day of the defenders, Kling pretty much had the worst half. The Reynolds sub helped free her up to go forward more in the second half. The problem was that she – and Carpenter, who was pushed forward as well – couldn’t really do anything to help find an equalizer, let alone a winner. Both fullbacks put in a crap-ton of crosses…

Image by NWSL.co, in public domain

…neither found anything of value at the end of them.

Franch (+1/-3 : +1/-1 : +2/-4) A.D. Franch looked surprisingly shaky in Tacoma. The first concession wasn’t awful, but it was the culmination of a first half full of hesitation and errors.

Then letting Balcer short-side her for the second was bad enough, but just moments before that she made a horrific error, a U-12-keeper sort of blunder, trying to play out of the back. Balcer lept into her pass and nearly juked Franch right in her own goalmouth.

Perhaps the worst outing of the season for Franch at a time when she really didn’t need to have a poor game.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Coach Parsons – It’s hard to give the coach much credit when his team needed to both get a road point and to break the Tacoma chokehold over the season and came away with nothing but more humiliation.

This season the Thorns have been stonked by Tacoma and the Damned. We’re 1-4-1 against them, and the only win was a freak. That’s got to get in the players’ heads. That’s gotta be a confidence destroyer. Why should we feel confident? We’ve scored a whopping one goal over those six games and been shut out four times.

We’ve done decently against Chicago, but we’ve looked awful against the other two playoff teams all season, and I think our confidence in beating them is shot.

That’s primarily a coaching issue, both in terms of morale and tactics.

The players need to be confident their tactical setup will work. When it doesn’t, they need to be confident their coach can and will make adjustments to make it work.

When that doesn’t happen it’s nearly inevitable that doubts will come creeping in.

I think that’s already happened.

I’m not saying that Parsons has “lost the team”. I’m saying that the team has lost itself; lost its’ faith and confidence in their ability to beat those two opponents. That’s damn deadly difficult to overcome.

And because of that Parsons now has a huge obstacle ahead of him; figuring out how to set the Thorns up to win out over three games; first over Washington and then over Chicago…and then over either Tacoma or the Damned, both of which have bossed us this season.

It sounds silly to make these three games critical for the team and coach, but I think they are.

I think the Thorns are in danger of getting locked into believing “we can’t win when it counts”.

The doubts about Parsons when he coached in Washington was that he could get his team into the playoffs…and then they’d choke. I thought that 2017 had killed those doubts. But then there was the 2018 Final…and that’s where this season comes in.

I think the Thorns have to finish strong this season, have to prove to themselves that they can win when they need to win, that they can win when it counts, that they can beat Carolina and Tacoma.

Or those doubts will return.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Update 10/4: Katelyn Best has a long-form piece at The Equalizer that posits the other problem is that the Thorns are just spun up too tight:

“A similar kind of desperation has been hanging over the team as a whole over the last month or two, visible in small moments and big ones — Midge Purce tearing her headband in half when she didn’t score on a breakaway, Caitlin Foord committing careless fouls at the halfway line, the team putting up 19 shots, three of them on goal, against Houston.

Something isn’t clicking into place, and they know it, and the harder they try to fix it, the worse it gets. The bow is wearing out.”

K. Best, “Something’s off with the Portland Thorns”

Read the whole thing…

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: Swept Away

  1. “I don’t know how to describe the Thorns’ defense here other than just a facepalm.”

    I can forgive that instance of bad positioning because we, meaning Menges, had just committed a horrendous turnover. Of course Carpenter was advanced, since that’s what she should do when we attack up the right like we were trying to. Of course Sonnett was way out right, because you can’t just let Rapinoe waltz into the box without any pressure, and Sonnett was the only one around to apply that pressure. The mistake on that play was the awful turnover by Menges, not what happened afterwards; when everyone is launching at attack, you CANNOT give the ball away close to goal. You cannot, but we did.

    Too many other times, though, we just looked like a shambles defensively. That one you highlighted, where both Sonnett and Franch fail to stop a ball rolling across a few feet from goal — that was particularly awful. It looks a lot like a defensive miscommunication in which Franch expected Sonnett to boot the ball out but didn’t tell her to (or Sonnett didn’t hear it), and Sonnett expected Franch to get the ball but didn’t hear any words to that effect and didn’t react correctly (didn’t boot it out) in the absence of those words.

    Internally I’m bracing myself for this season to be over shortly. I hope I’m wrong, but as you say, something just isn’t right with the team.

    1. I picked that particular play because it DIDN’T result in a goal, but it highlighted the degree to which the Thorns were pulled out of shape all match by a combination of the Reign’s swarming movement and their own inability to react quickly. You’re right, and all the players you call out had to be where they were because of individual matchups. But as a whole that’s a defense scrambling to cover gaps and react to pressure, not one that has thought out their tactics and is being well-directed. It’s not just the individuals; it’s the overall composure of the team and how they look under pressure.

      And, yeah…I hate to say it, but I’m expecting a semifinal exit if we go to Cary. If we go to Chicago we MIGHT have a chance at the Final – we’ve matched up well with the Red Stars this season – but we’ll need a bolt of lightning to win the Final against The Damned. And if RFC wins their semi? We could actually fall to them, as well, and that’s even more frustrating.

  2. “We’ve scored a whopping one goal over those six games and been shut out four times”

    This was confusing me (how can you score once in six games and not have five shutouts?), until I realized you didn’t count the two own-goals in our win over the Courage. Got it.

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