Thorns FC: One and Done

What was so shocking about the end of the Thorns’ 2019 season wasn’t that it came so soon, in only the 8th minute of the semifinal match in Chicago.

Or that it began with a couple of individual mistakes, beginning either with Emily Menges’ mishit pass or Tobin Heath’s inexplicable phantom-backheel-to nobody, take your pick:

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The ball ran through…not to nobody but to Sarah Gordon, who immediately passed forward to Yuki Nagasato…

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…who, in turn, lofted a long pass to a running Sam Kerr.

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As the ball descended Menges raced back to try and recover Kerr and as she did made another critical error; she left her feet to try and dink the ball up and over Kerr.

She missed, however, and with that lost any chance of keeping contact with Kerr, who ran onto the ball and closed down on A.D. Franch.

Franch was trapped; she couldn’t come out hard or Kerr would chip her, but if she didn’t close down the angles Kerr had both sides of the goal to pick out.

As you recall, Kerr picked her left, and beat Franch to the far post for the only goal of the match.

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That was all Chicago needed. The Thorns’ attack was as sterile as it had been for the preceding five matches, and the Thorns never really threatened the Red Stars’ lead.

No, those weren’t the shocking things.

What was so shocking was how inevitable it seemed.

I may be Eeyore, but I always hope that the Thorns will prove me wrong. I hoped that the team had some hidden reservoir of greatness that they would open in the semifinal and let it wash over them and us into the Final like a mighty stream.

Instead, the Thorns trickled into the playoffs scoreless and faded out the same way, baffled by their own inability to create or finish, and sinking meekly before the Chicago side they had torn apart three goals to nil less than two months earlier.

Something very bad happened to this team at the end of this season, and I’m not sure what it was.

After the road loss to Utah and the six-goal Destruction of Army Group Damned something seemed to break inside the team, and whatever it was nobody – not Coach Parsons, not the team leaders, not the management, or the trainers, or the person who bags up the balls after practice – seemed able to find it and fix it.

What was worse to me was that I got the sense that the coach never even seemed to sense there was a problem.

Go back and look at the first screenshot above.

In the August win against Chicago Parsons dropped his backline almost to the mouth of their own goal and used his midfield to control the tempo. The backs had one assignment; keep Sam Kerr the hell in front of you!

They did, and Kerr and Nagasato were shut out.

Playing on the road, in a knockout match, why is Menges pushed up so high?

And if she is…who the hell has Kerr in her pocket? The other two backs should be staying home. The minute the ball turns over one should be hunting down Kerr and pasting herself to Kerr’s butt like one of those stick-on tattoos of a heart with a dagger through it.

Who’s doing that? Obviously not Menges. But certainly not Reynolds, or Sonnett, either – they’re nowhere near the Australian in the third screencap as she tears off down the pitch to boot her team into the Final.

That’s not an individual error. A centerback pushing up that high is part of an offensive system. That’s a coaching decision. The bad pass is on Menges. The positioning, of both Menges and of her fellow centerbacks?

That’s a coaching problem.

Not convinced? Look at this mess…

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Parsons should have been screaming at his backline and midfield minutes before the concession. There were obvious problems all over the pitch from the opening whistle of the semifinal.

Here’s Nagasato in possession near the center circle just three minutes after the goal.

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Where’s the pressure? The Thorns are chasing now – they can’t afford to let Chicago wander around with the ball; they have to press and gain possession and turn that into goals.

Instead Nagasato has all the time and space – and options -she could ask for.

At the other end, here’s the Thorns’ “attack”:

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Heath has dribbled into the top corner of the box, but there’s a blue wall in front of her, and where can she go?

No one’s making a run. Sinclair is cut off by Brian, and Sonnett is way over at the other corner and pretty well marked by Short. There’s a drop to Klingenberg and another to Andressinha…but going forward?

Nothing.

Heath will eventually drop to Klingenberg, who dropped to Sonnett, who had to reset the attack all over again.

That next attack went nowhere, too.

That was pretty much the game. The Thorns in Chicago looked stymied; disorganized in defense, soft in midfield, punchless in attack. I’m not sure whether it was coaching or playing or both, but nothing was working, for Heath or for Coach Parsons.

And as Parsons and Heath went, so went Portland.

As Dames and Kerr went, so went Chicago.

Image by ESPN. Licensed under Fair Use.

And so went the Thorns’ 2019 season.

What now?

Well, first, we need to consider just how truly bad Black Autumn 2019 was. The last six matches of this season were an epic of futility that the Thorns have only matched or exceeded once in team history. Here’s the worst 6-match stretch from each season:

2013 – Matchday 12 through Matchday 17: 1-2-3, 6 points
2014 – Matchday 9 through Matchday 14: 2-4-0, 6 points
2015 – Matchday 3 through Matchday 8: 0-3-3, 3 points
2016 – Matchday 12 through Matchday 17: 3-3-0, 9 points
2017 – Matchday 8 through Matchday 13: 2-3-1, 7 points
2018 – Matchday 4 through Matchday 9: 1-2-3, 6 points
2019 – Matchday 20 through Semifinal: 1-4-1, 4 points.

The worst was in 2015, the only season that the Thorns finished below the red line. And that season cost Paul Riley his job.

But the next-worst was this year, and it wasn’t in early or midseason; it was at the worst possible time, the runup to the playoffs. The goals disappeared. The defense conceded. The team lost and kept losing all the way into the postseason.

This wasn’t just a problem.

It was THE problem.

So if Mark Parsons wants to keep his job, he needs to figure out what went to hell after the first week of September, and fix it.

And we’ll talk about that in a bit.

SHORT PASSES

Passing the passing game: 78%, That’s fine.

The problem? Not many successful “dangerous” passes, and just not many attacking passes, period.

Here’s the matrix (remember – a “1” is a pass to and from feet, “L” is a long pass, “X” a cross, “H” a headed pass, “C” a corner kick, “F” a free kick, “G” a goal kick, and “P” a punt…and only “attacking” and passes to gain possession are counted)

PlayerCompletedMissed
SinclairH11H1L
Heath111FL1L
Andressinha1LL1LL1
PurceH
HoranHHHH11
BrynjarsdottirHL111
Ball1HLX
RasoX
Reynolds1LLLLL
Menges111
SonnettL1
KlingenbergL1LX
Foord1
FranchGLP1LGFP

Andressinha attempted the most attacking passes of any Thorns; unfortunately, she connected only about 12 percent of the time.

No one else had any genuine impact on the match passing forward into the attacking third. Either the passes didn’t connect, or the receiver couldn’t get open. I’ll give Dagny some credit for cutting down on her random headers; well done.

Otherwise? Meh.

Just another piece of the attacking breakdown that killed the Thorns in the final games of this year.

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PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

(What the heck is a PMR? Player ratings explained)

Sinclair (+4/-2 : +5/-5 : +9/-7) Nearly invisible, and that says some very troublesome things, about both Sinc and the team as a whole. One shot off-frame, and no substantial impact on the match, is not a “typical” big-game Sinclair performance. I’m not sure if it was just fatigue, or something more, but I think this season should be a warning bell for both the captain and her club.

Heath (+3/-9 : +4/-2 : +7/-11) A showcase of all the worst elements of the Notorious Tobin Fucking Heath’s game; pointless ball trickery and a failure to pick out teammates, along with dribbling into dead ends and throwing her arms up to appear for fouls to an unimpressed Danielle Chesky.

Heath is, for better or worse, a leader on this team. She is looked to as someone who solves problems and finds solutions. When the attack dropped off the table her teammates must have looked to her to make something happen. She couldn’t.

You don’t have to blame her for that.

But that’s what sports stars do; that’s their job – to be heroes.

And when they can’t, well…

Andressinha (67’-  +2/-4 : +1/-2 : +3/-6) Since she was in the starting XI to create attack, and didn’t create attack, her afternoon in Chicago has to be considered an unsuccessful one.

What’s unfair about that is that Andressinha worked hard all day and tried repeatedly to connect with her teammates. But she simply didn’t have the game experience – this was only her seventh appearance all season – and the connections weren’t there.

We’re going to have to talk about this in the off-season, but as I’ve mentioned before; Andressinha simply doesn’t fit into the way the Thorns play now. Something is going to have to change; either the team, or Andressinha, or she will have to go where she can play effectively.

Purce (23’ – +2/-1) Too little, too late.

Horan (+2/-7 : +4/-2 : +6/-9) Sigh. There’s nothing more to say than that Lindsey Horan had a terrible match to bookend a disappointing season, and the task for her, and her coaches, is to determine what happened and why, and help her regain the form that won her last season’s MVP.

Brynjarsdottir (+5/-1 : +4/-3 : +9/-4) Lots of good tackling, but not much help going forward (56% passing? Really?) and Portland needed the help Sunday.

Dagny is another midfielder, like Andressinha, that is a quandry. As an individual player she’s good…but she doesn’t seem to add much to the team.

She’s better than Boureille, which is why she gets more minutes than Boureille. But she doesn’t have the attacking chops she had before 2018, and as a generic “midfielder” she’s useful but she’s not really all that useful.

As with Andressinha, she and the team need to figure out whether she can be more useful here and, if so, make her so. And if not, look to make a trade to make her valueable elsewhere.

Ball (45’ – +6/-7) Crazy busy in the first half, and while she was effective as a defender as a wingback she was expected to bring the heat going forward and couldn’t. Way too many mishit passes, and little or no connection with her teammates.

What is sad about this match is that Ball probably wasn’t the player I would have subbed out first. But the players who were having worse games – like Horan and Heath – are too central to the team to get yanked. And, frankly, the Thorns don’t have anyone better to replace them.

Which in itself is somewhat troubling.

Raso (45′ – +9/-6) Had perhaps the two closest moments the Thorns got to scoring; In the 63rd minute she beat Casey Short to the byline, drove into the six and fired off a shot that Alyssa Naeher could only parry wide in front of her goal…but no Thorns were crashing the box to hammer home the loose ball.

Then in the 79th minute she split the centerbacks and drove at goal, but Tierna Davidson and Julie Ertz played her perfectly, staying on their feet and squeezing her off the ball until it ran harmlessly to Naeher.

Lots of action, lots of energy, but not enough to change the game state by herself. Played a good half, just unlucky on a day when if not for shit luck the Thorns would have had no luck at all.

Reynolds (+0/-3 : +2/-1 : +2/-4) Had a couple of shaky moments, including getting completely skinned by Nagasato in the 92nd minute on a play that would have doubled Chicago’s lead had not Franch come up huge against Kerr.

Overall Reynolds’ backline had one job – prevent Kerr getting behind them – and they couldn’t do it, so it’s kinda hard to give any of the defenders a ton of credit after that.

That said…the defense was under the cosh for the first half because there was no Thorns attack. It’s hard enough keeping a player like Kerr under a net when her team is forced back to defend. When they are free to run wild? It’s damn deadly difficult, and so it proved.

Menges (+2/-4 : +0/-4 : +2/-8) As discussed above, responsible for critical errors on the goal, and an unimpressive afternoon on the whole. Also involved in the 92nd minute mess.

Menges was key when her backline beat Kerr in August, and if she couldn’t and didn’t remember what they did then, well, she paid for it.

Sonnett (+2/-6 : +3/-3 : +5/-9) Emily Sonnet’s partnership with Menges is looking increasingly like the Fred Meyer Parking Lot Speed Bump of Emilies.

Beaten by Kerr in the 6th and 7th minutes as Chicago pushed for the goal, again in the 24th minute, beaten by Nagasato in the 58th minute, and stabbed uselessly on the Nagasato cross to Kerr in the 92nd minute.

Disappointing end to an underwhelming season.

Klingenberg (81’ – +5/-1 : +3/-3 : +8/-4) I have to disagree with the InStat tovarisches here, who handed Kling their third-lowest Index of players on the pitch (Tierna Davidison was second-worst, Heath won the Wooden Matryoshka). Yes, she had a horrible moment in the 58th minute when she overran Savannah McKaskill and gave her a free shot, but she had some great passes – her 89% completion was best on the club – and was active and troublesome on the wing as anyone on the Thorns.

Kling started red-hot this season and slowly cooled as fatigue (and, probably, age and mileage on her legs) wore her down.

But she still had a hell of a decent season – after I’d written her off – so I’m still eating my words, Kling. You keep on kicking ass, girlfriend.

Foord (9’ – +2/-0) Caitlin Foord had one nice moment, attacking and winning a corner in the 86th minute. Other than that, well…not enough.

But that’s kind of been her story all season, hasn’t it? Not enough goals, not enough assists, not enough attack, just…not enough.

Franch (+1/-2 : +3/-0 : +4/-2) Not at fault on the concession, although I’d have liked to see her make at least a dive for Kerr’s shot.

Made a couple of huge saves, one off a ripping DiBernardo shot in the 80th minute, the other on the Kerr effort in the 92nd.

Tough loss for a goalkeeper who has had a tough year.

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Coach Parsons – I honestly don’t know what the coach was thinking. The 3-5-2 was “tested” against an utterly disinterested Washington and couldn’t produce a goal. The Thorns stifled Kerr in August playing a conventional 4-4-2.

So why go to a three-back set with the wingbacks pushing up when the most critical imperative is “Keep Sam Kerr in Front of You”? And why think that the 3-5-2 would score on Chicago when it couldn’t score on Washington?

After the last match I said the coach had two big questions to answer:

“1) can Parsons figure out where the goals will come from in just over a week, show the team where they are, and then help the players haul them out and use them to win two straight matches in open play?

And, if not 2) can this season’s Thorns play 120 minutes of lock-down, full-on, total-madwoman defense and then go through on penalties?”

The answers, as we know now, were: “No.” and “No.”

Now the coach has an even steeper hill to climb. How does this team move forward?

It seems pretty simple; Mark Parsons needs to fix things.

But the problem I have with that is there’s so much to fix. I’m Parsons…where do I start?

Critical players like Horan, Sinclair, and Heath had troubled seasons. I need to help those players regain their form…but how? WHY were they so off-color? Emotional? Mental? Physical? Some combination of all three? How do I help them fix that?

I need to bring Angela Salem and Gabby Seiler back from injury and reintegrate them into the team.

Players like Caitlin Foord and Ana-maria Crnogorcevic and Andressinha never performed as they had been expected to do. How do I fit them in? Can I? Do I need to find a way to get value out of them in trade? For who?

The year was packed with bizarre one-offs; the schedule packed with early road matches, split by the World Cup, finishing with what should have been a strong homestand that was marred by the complete breakdown of the attack. Next year it’s the Olympics. How do I handle that? Will my internationals return looking gassed and demoralized and unable to get their form back? What happens if that happens – how can I deal with that better?

Goals! Where did they go? How can we rediscover them? We have to, because it was the collapse of the attack that led to Black Autumn and the semifinal loss. But how? Do I need to completely revamp the attack? Or was this just some important players having an off season, so if we go back to the basics they’ll start knocking ’em in?

Are the fixes in the roster?

In the tactics?

Both?

Or is it even more complex? Are the fixes in the heart? Is this a team that needs to be convinced of itself again? How do I do that? How do I convince a team that just cratered that they can beat the teams like The Damned and Utah that punked them in 2019?

I -as me – honestly don’t know, because I can’t know what happened off the pitch and inside the minds and hearts and bodies. That’s the secret that always lies between the coach and the players, and between the players among themselves.

But I – as Parsons – need to know, and solve – that mystery.

Starting last Sunday afternoon, Coach Parsons, the players, and the Thorns Front Office have the whole offseason to do that.

And we, the fans, have the rest of the autumn and the winter to renew our faith, and our hopes, to find our way back to the spring of the year and the promise of a new season

When the Thorns bloom again, in the silver rain of March, and on the green grass of April.

I’ll be there.

I hope you will, too.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

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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