Tonight the Portland Thorns face up to the Washington Spirit in the third match of the “group stage” of the Challenge Cup.
Washington is 1-1-0 with a goal differential of -1, having lost to the Damned Courage 2-nil and beat Chicago 2-1.
Portland is 0-1-1, also with a GD of -1, having lost to the Damned 2-1 and drawn Chicago without a goal on either side.
At this point I think we have to question whether Coach Parsons will be looking for points, or still be doing what it appears he has been doing in the first two matches; experimenting with rosters and formations and using these “group stage” games as preseason to evaluate his options once the matches really count.
As in the Chicago draw, the Thorns will be down a striker (Smith), a centerback (Sauerbrunn), and a keeper (Franch); Kat Reynolds has been upgraded to “questionable”, although with a leg injury and the turf pitch in the offing I wouldn’t be surprised if she, too, remained on the bench.
The Thorns Attack
The statistics are pretty damning.
In two matches Portland has fired 26 shots. Six of them (23%) have been on frame. None have gone through the frame. The Thorns have now scored a total of two goals over the past eight matches going back to Matchday 20 in 2019 (including the semifinal; that’s 0.25g/game) over which time the team has posted a 1-5-2 record.
Goalscoring was supposed to be and was the focus of the offseason rebuild. Unfortunately even though Weaver has been attacking aggressively and Horan has looked much better than her woeful 2019 the goals still haven’t come. I’m concerned that at this point the issue has started to lock the attackers’ heads. Sometimes the problem with not scoring is it gets stuck in your brain that you’re jinxed, that you can’t score, and that has a way of getting into your game; you fire off that shot a moment too soon, or hold the ball a millisecond too long, and it goes astray rather than into the net.
Other than finishing? Here is what appears to be an issue, as well; the pass completion/successful dribble chart from the Chicago game:
This was Chicago, mind, not The Damned Courage’s high press. This was a team that mostly sat deep and dumped long balls downfield. There was no real reason for Portland forwards not to be running into Chicago’s penalty area, but the only successful pass is Tyler Lussi (#34) in the 80th minute, which didn’t result in a shot.
The only other pass that made it into Chicago’s 18 was a Rodriguez (#11) long ball in the 88th minute…
…that was picked off.
So scoring is only part of the problem; the other is that nobody is making successful runs, and when they are nobody is threading passes to them.
Put them together and you get 0.25 goals a game, and that ain’t gonna feed the bulldog. Whatever else Parsons is experimenting with during his preseason there in Utah, goalscoring is the single biggest thing that hasn’t worked.
The Thorns Defense
Frankly, it’s difficult at this point to figure out what the strong and weak points of the backline are, other than that young Bella Bixby has done very well so far…
(depending on how you run the numbers, Bixby has allowed two goals on an xG of roughly 2.5 to 3, so roughly -0.5 to -1G/xG. To put that in context last season Franch’s xG/G ratio was -0.25 and Eckerstrom’s was +0.08, so Bixby is looking better than both at this point.)
…and the Damned Courage can still blow past our backline on pure speed, which if you’re surprised is like being shocked the sun rises in the east.
My other random defensive thoughts would be, in no particular order;
Westphal has looked much better than I had hoped. I had her pegged as “washed-up trade-makeweight” and she’s done as well at right back as anyone outside of Ellie Carpenter could have done, particularly in getting the ball up the pitch. I’m still curious to see if Parsons tries Seiler there, if she’s healthy.
Losing Sauerbrunn so quickly is a real issue. We need to see if she can be better than she was against The Damned, and now we won’t, or won’t until some time later in the month.
We conceded a crap-ton of space wide against Carolina, and paid for it. We did better against Chicago, but, well, Chicago.
And speaking of Chicago, here’s Washington’s attack against the Red Stars a week ago Saturday:
See all that green down the Chicago defensive left flank? That’s Ashley Hatch (#33) and Kumi Yokoyama (#17) having Casey Short for lunch.
Short isn’t my beau idee’ of a LB, but she’s got a damn sight more pace than Kling at the moment.
Just a morsel for thought…
I’ll see you in the comments.