Thorns FC: Boom

If we’re continuing the “family game night” theme I’m not sure what the hell kind of game to call Saturday’s 1-2 away win over OL Reign.

It wasn’t a Monopoly slog; there were more than a few close calls and exciting plays.

It wasn’t a tonk-like smackdown, like the last time we played these people.

It had some stalemate elements – there were moments, especially in the first hour, when it seemed that it could have gone either way – but was hardly a guaranteed draw.

It certainly wasn’t what I’d call a chess match; both teams were physical in defense and wasteful in attack. Both Portland goals came from the spot (and the second call seemed at least arguably soft; Lindsey Horan went down amid a clatter of bodies under a corner kick) and all three were scored – or facilitated by fouls – by Amber Brooks.

Maybe it was something like…ummm…”Exploding Kittens”; you play and play and play and, suddenly, boom!

The kitten explodes, all your opponents blow up, game over, and you won.

Regardless of the how, the Thorns scratched out a win at Cheney Stadium – something they’d never managed before – and got through the “Fall Series” unbeaten. The team which finished the “group stage” in the Challenge Cup dead last won what passed for the Shield of the bizarre 2020 season.

If “you’re as good as your record says you are” then the Thorns are the best in the league.

So let’s just be happy and celebrate the achievement, enjoy our Thorns’ success, and we’ll save the deep thoughts for the end of the piece.

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on Facebook

SHORT PASSES

Passing the Passing Test: 70%. That’s really only just-okay. Tacoma was crap though – 66% – so we lost the race to the passing bottom. Still; have to do better than that.

Okay, remember: only dangerous attacking and possession-gain (or -loss) passes count. A “1” is a pass to and from feet. “L” is a long pass, “H” a headed one, “F” a free kick, “X” a cross. For goalkeepers “GK” is a goal kick, “P” is a punt, and otherwise they are rated like the field players.

If a pass was exceptionally good – a “key pass”? – I’ve added bold and italic and underlined to the symbol in the “completed” column. The same iconography in the “missed” column means a very bad pass, one that leads directly to danger or a concession.

Got it? Let’s go.

PlayerCompletedMissed
CharleyX1L
Smith11X1
SinclairHL11
Rodriguez1HL
HoranLLLH1
SalemLH1LL
WestphalL1LLL1LL
MengesLLF
Sauerbrunn1LL
KlingenbergLLXLL1F
EckerstromLLP1GGGC
Weaver
LussiX
Hubly11
OgleL

The Thorns were…well, I’m not sure what the adjective I’d use here, but it’d have to be somewhere between “largely” and “insanely” direct in Tacoma. By my count 24 of the total of 53 “significant” attacking passes were long passes. That’s…pretty damn direct.

And against the Reign, that worked, I think because it got the ball over the midfield, where Allie Long was enforcing the blockade like a big blonde goldfish patrolling her tank.

I’m not sure whether that works against a team with a better backline, though.

Corner Kicks

The Thorns won seven corners. This time “long” – that is, typical direct-into-the-box-type corners – predominated, making up five of the seven.

None of the setpieces resulted in a Portland shot, let alone a shot on goal. Three were cleared immediately by OL Reign (one for a subsequent corner, though), Murphy collected two, and one was whistled dead for a Portland foul.

The seventh earned the matchwinning penalty, though.

Hmmm.

PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

Charley (86’ – +6/-4 : +6/-2 : +12/-6) I know Sinclair bagged all the goals, but I’m going to give Simone Charley my Woman of the Match for being a huge, relentless pest all night and creating the first penalty kick out of sheer bloody persistence. Si-money feasts on direct play, there was (as I think I mentions…) a LOT of direct play in Tacoma, so it’s unsurprising that she had lots to do last Saturday evening.

And when I say “sheer bloody persistence”, “bloody” almost wasn’t an exaggeration:

Video by Twitch/CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

I want to call out Benstiti’s gangsters for their pure thuggery here. Brooks arrives first, to lay a body on Charley as they go up for the looping ball; fair enough.

But then Kristen McNabb arrives with a couple of forearm shots and a straight right to the back of Charley’s head, and as Si-money reels under the assault Brooks returns with the backheel trip and then sticks in the knife.

You do that shit down at the Portway Tavern and you’re getting a Rainier bottle over the back of the skull before you turn around, little missy. Charley doesn’t faint like a romance novel heroine, though; she fights through and forces the Tacomites to make their thuggery unmissable to even a PRO referee.

That’s how you draw a penalty. Smart AND tough? I like that in a striker.

Charley might have got a goal of her own in the 69th minute if she could jump more than a single Lego-block high vertically, but in the goalmouth scramble her tiny hop was barely enough to get a forehead-tap to a bounding ball that was cleared away harmlessly

Hell of a good night for Charley.

Lussi (4’ – +1/-0) Pretty much just timewasting.

Smith (75’ – +7/-3 : +4/-2 : +11/-5) Another evening of what we’ve come to expect from Sophia Smith; lots of energy, intelligent positioning, creative and incisive attack…and the occasional rookie mistakes, in particular her insistence in trying to force through a set defender or defenders off the dribble. Four of her five minuses are for being tackled for loss, typically as she either tried to turn or ran directly at an opponent.

Smith was involved in a terrific opportunity in the 14th minute when she ran onto a slick Klingenberg through ball and snapped a shot that ticked off the far post with Murphy beaten. Half a foot to the left and that’s the opening goal, and off a sweet piece of play. Four minutes earlier she took the ball off Brooks’ foot, turned, and slotted her own lead pass that Horan should have buried in a 1v0 but that Murphy got a fingertip to. That’s the kind of stuff she brings.

One of the very positive takeaways from this Fall Series has been a good look at Smith, and I think we have to like what we’ve seen. She has tremendous potential, and the task now is to continue to integrate that into the rest of the team and keep her healthy and in the XI. But from what we’ve seen, the 2020 draft is looking better all the time.

Weaver (15’ – +3/-0) Much the same can be said about Morgan Weaver. Fast, intelligent, creative. Perfect example; in the 87th minute Britt Eckerstrom delivered a monster punt that dimed a running Weaver perfectly. Murphy had to sprint off her line because Weaver had both centerbacks skinned. Weaver and Murphy collided, Weaver staggered but stayed on her feet, spun, and shot – which was blocked by the desperately scrambling goalkeeper. Eventually the attack petered out, but it’s just that sort of thing that Weaver brings.

Eventually we need to see both these two players on the pitch together for the full ninety minutes, because what I want is to see the whole being more than the sum of the parts. But we’re going to have to wait another half-year for that.

Sinclair (+4/-2 : +3/-2 : +7/-4) Because of the direct play the captain spent a lot of the match jogging around midfield. In between jogs, though, she scored both goals, and in her usual efficient fashion, too (I should really look up Sinc’s penalty conversion rate. I’m going to guess it’s immense, and that’s given that I think the typical conversion for spot-kicks is over 70%.

Rodriguez (89’ – +4/-3 : +1/-1 : +5/-4) Again, not nearly as much to do as if she’d had her team playing through her. Not a great shift, not a poor one, just there doing what her team needed.

My one gripe with her is that Rodriguez tends to get her pocket picked a lot. I’m not sure what she needs to do to change that, but she should talk to Horan, because Horan gets as much opponent attention as Rodriguez and is notably not often tackled for loss.

Actually, no, I have another gripe.

One thing the Thorns don’t have and haven’t had for some time is a player who can shoot accurately from distance. Allie Long used to do this, Sinc can but hasn’t much lately, our nemesis Debinha does it, and well, all the time.

I think Rodriguez could, too, and I’d like to see her take a crack more often. For one thing, it would help keep opposing defenses honest. They’d have to close down our attackers – at least, Rodriguez – sooner and that would open space for players like Sinc and Weaver and Smith. Just saying that it’s worth thinking about.

Ogle (1’- no rating) Same as Lussi, just timewasting.

Horan (+4/-5 : +7/-2 : +11/-7) Having just said that she doesn’t get stripped of the ball a lot, Horan was mousetrapped several times in the first half, often in dangerous positions.

Saturday was a Good But Only Good Horan evening. Had a couple of half-chances she couldn’t finish and was generally effective without being the game-changer she is when she’s in Great Mode.

Salem (+1/-6 : +3/-0 : +4/-6) Angela Salem was a welter of poor passes, heavy touches, lost balls, and tackles-for-loss until the intermission. Once the Thorns went ahead she seemed to stabilize, but as much of that might have been both teams going over or around the midfield as her ownself.

Given that she did a lot of hard work for the team that went 3-0-1 and won the Shield it’s hard to slag off on Salem. I still wish she was better, and I’m not sure what she’s doing in practice to start ahead of Gabby Seiler, who looked significantly better than she did last season. But Parsons must see something I don’t, and we’re just going to have to cross our fingers and hope she lifts her game.

Westphal (86’ – +7/-2 : +3/-2 : +10/-4) In the 48th minute Jazmyne Spencer – who, to give credit where it’s due, was a menace and a nuisance all evening – won the ball off Sophia Smith, lit up both Becky Sauerbrunn and Raquel Rodriguez, and was boring in on Eckerstrom when Westphal tackled the ball off her and cleared away the danger. That alone payed her shot for the evening.

But other than that Westphal had a hell of a good night on both sides of the ball. For me she’s been the revelation of this season, and I’m looking forward to seeing her lock down the right back slot in the future.

Hubly (4’ – +1/-1) Sort of an odd substitution; was Westphal tiring? Was this just more timewasting? I honestly have no idea, but it was nice to see Kelli Hubly, who is rapidly becoming a regular and one of my favorite defenders, show her chops at outside back. Nice, Hubs. Take ten bucks out of petty cash.

Menges (+3/-3 : +3/-1 : +6/-4) Since the beginning of this Fall Series I think we’ve seen two things emerge. First, the centerback roles are reversed from the Great Wall of Emily Era. Now Sauerbrunn stays home and Menges goes forward.

Second…I’m not sure that Menges is benefitting from that. She’s still got pace to burn, but Menges is making what before now I’d call “uncharacteristic” positional and defensive mistakes and making some poor passing choices.

Here’s a perfect example, from the 25th minute:

Image by Twitch/CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Balcer receives a long pass from the left midfield, and immediately looks inside to see if she’s got a pass; she does, to Sofia Huerta. Westphal has dropped off Spencer to close Balcer down, which is okay.

But Menges also moves towards Balcer. Not quickly enough to close the lane to Huerta, or to tackle Balcer, but she also 1) leaves a crap-ton of space open behind her, and 2) takes herself out of the flow of the play, moving forward as the Reign attacks flow around her, and, sure enough…

Image by Twitch/CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

…Balcer plays a one-two with Huerta and she’s running free towards goal with Menges sprinting to catch her.

In this case, Becky Sauerbrunn bailed her partner out with a recovery run and tackle. But, still…the Menges I know wouldn’t make those kind of mistakes (that was sort of a Sonnett thing…)

That said…this is only the fourth match the two centerbacks have played together. So perhaps this is just part of the adjustment period, and Menges will steady up once she and ‘Brunn have more minutes together. I’d be shocked if our best defender suddenly imploded, so I have to think that’s the case.

Sauerbrunn (+3/-5 : +0/-0 : +3/-5) Sauerbrunn is an interesting player to watch, because she does good, fun things you don’t expect but also has some weird issues you wouldn’t.

She stays home, mostly, but will suddenly make this darting run into the space in front of the penalty area to hawk a loose ball or tackle for gain. It’s damn effective when it works, which is most of the time. She’s also what you’d expect from a veteran international defender; a solid marker and tough tackler.

But she occasionally gets caught out of position, which is almost shocking given her c.v. That led to two Carolina goals back in July and has persisted at a less-troubling level ever since. I’m not sure if it’s because she isn’t adjusting to her new team, or some individual physical thing. It doesn’t seem to be pace, because I’ve been pleasantly surprised that ‘Brunn still has pretty good wheels when she needs them.

As with all the other defenders, it’s hard to give Sauerbrunn too much stick just because the team defense has been generally solid.

But…I still have some questions that we’ll get to at the end of the piece.

Klingenberg (+7/-1 : +4/-1 : +11/-2) Hell of a night from the original owner of the Fountain of Youth, playing like she was a mere slip of a girl when all the fields were green and all the skies cloudless.

As mentioned in the Smith comment, could easily have had an assist with the slide-rule pass in the 14th minute, and had several other dimes, while sending some long balls adrift as long balls are wont to do. Overall, though, solid as she’s been all season. Yes, Kling. Nom nom nom. I’m still eating.

Eckerstrom (+1/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0) Two big saves, off Bethany Balcer in the 27th minute, and a huge block on a mad scramble in front of goal to prevent Allie Long from getting revenge on her old team in the 87th minute. Hard to see how she’d have done better on the concession; that free kick was a screamer and Brooks’ touch was both weird and came out of a pack in front of goal. Good work in general.

Coach Parsons: Well, coach, you said you wanted to improve on the woeful Challenge Cup, and you certainly did that. Well done.

Now.

That said…I’m not sure we had the weakest “pod” in this Series, but if we didn’t it was damn close. Both Utah and OL Reign improved in the final two matches, but the quality of our opposition in general was…not high.

I think the Thorns are the kernel of a very good team. How good, though, is very difficult to tell without being able to see a full-strength Portland in action against a full-strength Carolina or Houston or Chicago or Tacoma.

We played a lot of direct long ball in September and October. How well that would work against a good defense like Houston’s, or a swarming midfield like Carolina’s is hard to say.

We’ve also got some pieces we need to figure out.

Assuming we have both Smith and Weaver on the pitch at the same time…where does Charley fit?

Will Tyler Lussi ever be more than depth? And, if so, where does Marissa Everett fit in?

Madison Pogarch seems like she needs minutes to improve. But right now her minutes are costly because she makes a lot of errors. How can we get her time on the pitch against good opponents without suffering from that?

 And I hope the front office is looking ahead of some of the current starters on this squad, as well. As well as they played this fall we’re going to need replacements for Klingenberg and Sinclair and Sauerbrunn and Kat Reynolds, and sooner rather than later.

We should be thinking about that.

But for now, hey – we won the league, such as it is!

Image by Meghan Klingenberg on Twitter in public domain

I hope those Budweisers tasted sweet, Thorns.

You earned them.

See ya next year!

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14 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Boom

  1. I couldn’t help but feel like we just won a pre-season tournament and the club is patting themselves on the back like it was the world cup. It feels like the FO will use this result as an excuse for inaction in the off season. If we do indeed have a 2021 season, we need a some solid veterans at forward and D-mid. And solid back ups for Kling and Sinc.

    1. I dunno. I think the club is pleased with the result, but I don’t get the sense that they’re blowing it too far out of proportion – I’m not seeing them tweeting out WE WON THE LEAGUE!!! or anything like that. And we have Paulson’s report that they’re still chasing that mystery international, whatever may have come of that.

      I think the real problem is that we DON’T have any really gaping holes to fill right now. The rooks are looking good up top. Rodriguez is settling into midfield fairly well. We have a replacement-level DM in either Salem or Seiler. The backline looks solid, and we have too many starting-quality keepers, if anything.

      I think you’re right, though, in I have this sneaking suspicion that we’re not as all-around solid as we think we are. That’s why I want to play a better quality of opponent. You don’t learn anything from beating tomato cans, and while OLR and Utah managed to be slightly better than that, they weren’t all THAT much better than that – only Orlando is down there with them. I think if we did we would find out if we’re as good as we think we are. We might be! But I don’t think we know enough yet to say that for sure.

  2. I have the impression that Salem is doing a better job than you give her credit for, but since I haven’t done the homework that’s all I have – an impression. It seems to me that she often gives the ball away right after improbably gaining possession, which is far from ideal but does break the momentum of the attack, somewhat like kicking the ball out of bounds.
    Seiler has been on the injury list, I think for the last two games.

    1. It’s not so much that I don’t think she’s doing a good job as much as I wish she could do a BETTER job. She seems like a competent, replacement-level DM. But she has no real pace, so she gets outrun (or, in possession, gets run down and tackled) a lot. Her passing is decent, but not outstanding. She’s just kinda of okay…which is fine, but 1) we’ve had a much higher level of DM here, and 2) against the Damned Courage a DM has to be on top of her game, and Salem’s just doesn’t seem to be that high.

      And Seiler seems to be having trouble staying healthy. She was just getting back from the ACL and now she’s listed as out with a “thigh” (muscle pull?) injury.

      Either one seems perfectly adequate to me…but just that. It’d be nice to have a bit more quality there, or to have one or the other step her game up a bit…

        1. All reasonable asks. My thought is that the hardest to find might well be the DM. I mean, there’s a lot of Salem/Seiler quality players out there. But to upgrade you’d be looking for a Julie Ertz-level player, and those are damn few and far between.

          1. Dunn says – and Merritt confirms – that she’s going to be pushed up. So perhaps this Finnish player we’re reading about may be the new DM…

  3. Sinclair has now scored 9 straight penalty kicks. That’s 9 scores out of the 10 attempts that are available on the NWSL website; for some reason their stat tables don’t cover years before 2016. Nadim was taking most of the PKs when she was here (2016-17), but I don’t remember if Sinclair took them before that.

    1. Thing is, I don’t recall Sinc EVER missing a PK. I recall Nadim missing one (but scoring the rebound) but Sinc? No. I’m sure she must have – all players miss one eventually – but I just don’t ever remember seeing it.

      The statistical records are problematic.

      FBRef has her with a total of 8PK goals through 2019 out of 9 attempts; she’s listed as having taken one and missed it in 2017. But the table for that season shows her with 8 total goals, and I know she scored 9 – she’s been on 9 goals/season for the past three seasons – and the NWSL site lists that as her goal total. In the “game log” page at the NWSL site it has her goal total – 9 – correct but shows no PKs attempted or missed, which totally makes sense given that Nadim was taking all the spot-kicks that season.

      So I’m not entirely sure about the 2017 miss listed at FBRef.

      FWIW, on the FBRef table she’s shown as converting 2 for 2 in 2013; Sinc was the designated penalty taker that season,.

      So if the FBRef table is correct otherwise, Sinc has attempted 12 PKs in the NWSL and has converted 11 of them, a conversion rate of 91.6 percent. Compare that to the top PK numbers I could find:

      Cristiano Ronaldo: 83.3% (110/132)
      Allesandro Del Piero: 83.52% (76/91)
      James Milner : 84.375% (27/32)
      Steven Gerrard: 85.18% (46/54)
      Frank Lampard: 85.71% (60/70)
      Michael Ballack: 93.55% (29/31)
      Alan Shearer: 96.92% (63/65)
      Matt Le Tissier: 98.15% (53/54)

      You’ll note that of the three players above her only Shearer (Howay the Lad!) attempted more than 60. Le Tiss was a monster (along with being kind of a dick…) and was in a class of his own regarding spot-kicks. So Sinc’s in pretty exalted company there.

      But I’m not entirely sure that the FBRef table IS right…suggesting that Sinc has taken 11 and converted them all, which is pretty amazing. And to think we called Nadim the “penalty kick assassin”..!

      1. FWIW, FBref says she has never missed a PK in international competition – 6 for 6. It amazes me that she only has 6 PKs yet holds the world record for scoring.

        In the old days (before 2019) PK calls were very rare in NWSL and WoSo in general. Probably an ethic of “ladylikeness” combined with mediocre refs.

  4. For Canada I believe Sinc missed one at the Algarve Cup before the WC19 and that is why she let Beckie take the penalty kick that Beckie missed (then Canada lost) and there were a lot of questions why the Captain didn’t take that important penalty. So she does occasionally miss but in the NWSL, no I can’t remember a miss.

  5. The North Carolina Courage announced today the acquisition of OL Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy and allocation money for Crystal Dunn. The allocation money will be paid over two years, $65,000 in 2021, $75,000 in 2022

    Portland Thorns FC today announced that the club has acquired midfielder Crystal Dunn from OL Reign in exchange for allocation money, an international roster spot for the 2021 season and Portland’s natural first-round pick in the 2022 NWSL College Draft.

    OL Reign will receive $150,000 in allocation money upon execution of the trade, $50,000 on January 1, 2021 and additional allocation money conditioned upon Dunn’s future playing status in the NWSL.

    Now the 5PM east coast deadline has passed we should know about any trades but this is the only 1 announced.

    I don’t have the time to track down how much commish bucks we have used but I have a feeling with Sauerbrunn, Weaver, Dunn, and Smith it is above the 300,000 we are supposed to have. Maybe we got something for Carpenter, but part of me feels like a deficit is to be made from some other trade or the league let us dip into future year monies now since we are in the between season limbo period.

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