Thorns FC: Taking the CTA to Crazytown

Whatever else you could say, you sure as hell could say “it wasn’t boring”.

Photo credit: Thorns FC on Facebook

On Matchday 2 the Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns combined for eight goals – including a penalty conversion each.

Exciting? It was surely that. It had everything that makes soccer a great sport. Great team and individual skill. Multiple lead changes, including a dramatic injury-time equalizer. Moments of great drama, including sheer brilliance, grinding hard work…and some head-hanging despair.

Oh, and Chicago’s awesome new Chicago Transit Authority-inspired jersey! Did I mention that? (The broadcast announcers sure as hell did, as did Katelyn Best in the linked article below).

So…drama? Exultation? Heartbreak? Cool shirts? Was it really the Greatest NWSL Game Ever Played?

Well, that kinda depends on where you sit, I suppose.

from low high to high low

Going in this match worried me more than any of the other six on the opening road swing. Chicago is good, and I was prepared to accept a defeat (if the Thorns fought hard) and by kickoff time was willing to take the road point.

But after the final whistle I was immensely frustrated that the team managed to get only a single point out of four goals, a Christine Sinclair hat trick, and – in particular – going up a goal with only three minutes and injury time left in the match.

Is that unfair? Probably. But that’s how I came away; more irked dropping two points than gaining the third.

As for the match itself, well, I thought we’d see a midfield trench war and, sure enough, for about 75 minutes it was. Almost everything going forward went down the flanks, or in the air because both teams were hammering anything going through the middle of the pitch.

Here’s what it looked like for Portland going forward:

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use

Chicago’s Alyssa Mautz, Danielle Colaprico, and Julie Ertz jammed up space. Poor passing didn’t help – both sides pass completion rates were in the low-to-mid sixties – and one big attack-killer was Coach Parsons’ decision to sit Lindsey Horan deep. Here’s Horan’s heat map against Orlando compared to her positioning against Chicago:

Image by in public domain

Look close at the heat maps – it’s the yellow and yellow-green tint that are critical – that’s where Horan spent most of her time.

Against Orlando the yellow/green is largely in the left side of Portland’s attacking half, with big splotches all over the Orlando side of the field including inside their penalty area.

Against Chicago? Nearly all in the left defensive half. Some along the left touchline forward of midfield. But almost nothing in Chicago’s 18-yard box, or in the central and right sides of Chicago’s half.

Mind you, Portland’s midfield – that included both Horan and Celeste Boureille as DMs – didn’t give Chicago much joy, either, and the Thorns started playing the aggressive forward defending that had so disorganized Orlando:

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use

For most of the first half – except a panicked ten minutes between the 17th and 27th minutes when Chicago got both their goals – Portland defended stoutly, forechecked well, and kept the Red Stars pinned back; the Chicago goals came on a penalty (on a pretty dubious handball call against Ellie Carpenter) and an appalling defensive error.

During that time Portland had four significant attacks and two goals; a Horan-to-Sinclair lob that Sinc finished with a neat chip, and an Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic header tucking in a pretty Meghan Klingenberg service.

All square 2-2 at the half.

The first half-hour or so of the second half was much the same; both midfields canceling each other out, but Portland’s forwards breaking up Chicago attacks and working the ball around the perimeter to find chances. Chicago largely struggling around the perimeter. In the 51st minute another lovely Klingenberg serve that AMC dummied and Sinc finished with a thumping far-post run put Portland up 2-3.

Then, after the hour mark, the substitutes began to come on.

For Portland, Gabby Seiler for Klingenberg at 67′, Midge Purce for AMC at 79′, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir for Boureille at 89′

Rory Dames sent Morgan Brian on for Mautz at 64′, and then swapped in two players at the 75th-76th minute mark; Michele Vasconcelos for Casey Short, and Vanessa DiBernardo for Colaprico.

And, well…the picture tells the story. Chicago won the Battle of the Subs.

Image by in public domain

Winning the battle of the substitutes helped Chicago’s forwards win the late-match war, too:

Image by in public domain

Vasconcelos got the 3-3 equalizer, and though a Purce run drew a Short foul and put Portland up 3-4 the Chicago pressure became more and more dangerous. Portland’s defending grew more and more panicked and less and less effective. The Thorns sagged back late in the match, as they had in Orlando, and Chicago stormed forward.

defense? what defense?

Here’s Chicago’s fourth, and the game’s final, goal.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

The amount of utterly useless standing around in that screenshot is bad enough, but worse begins when the Red Stars begin striking for goal.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

There’s just way too much space to give good opponents to operate. Chicago used that room to pass neatly around and through Portland’s defenders like so many white plastic practice cones.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

Over at Slide Rule Pass I used to get a lot of stick from people who said I harped on ballwatching as the Big Defensive No-no, but, really; this is ridiculous.

Look at the white shirts. Every head – every single head – is turned to watch Kerr doing Kerr stuff. It’s like a bunch of albino cobras hypnotized by an Australian mongoose and, yes, I know mongeese are from India.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

At this point I’m pounding on the bar roaring “Cut the legs from under her, woman! What are you waiting for, permission?” but Kerr slices on, deep into the guts of the Portland defense.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

Here’s where bad luck piles on bad defending…

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

…and the result is a Chicago goal and two road points squashed flat like a squirrel on the Loop tracks.

Hard to believe, but this wasn’t the worst moment of the late-match defensive horrors for Portland. The screenshot below was typical of the final four minutes of added time; Chicago roaming forward at will and Portland farkling about marking space, spread all over the place and a step too slow.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

And the 94th minute…dear Lord, the 94th minute. Those of you with sensitive stomachs might want to look away.

Image by Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use.

Kerr has just driven the ball through the heart of the 18-yard box, three Red Stars are waiting like vultures, and the Thorns defenders are…well, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Not defending anyone or anything, is mostly what.

In the half-minute after the above screenshot, first DiBernardo hit the crossbar with Franch beaten, and then the rebound bounced out to Morgan Brian who blasted three feet over the goal. The Red Stars should, by all rights, have run off 5-4 winners. It was just that bad in the Portland backline.

Jesus wept.

fear should not be an option

Here’s what was most frustrating about this draw.

I’ve seen the Parson Thorns have bad days. Matchday 22 in Boston back in 2017? Remember that hot mess? So it’s not like I’m starry-eyed about the Thorns’ quality of play. It can be sketchy, like any other good team, on an off day.

What I saw in the last five minutes in Chicago last weekend was different. It looked to me like pure panic, a complete breakdown of team play and organization. From the restart after Portland’s fourth goal to the final whistle the Thorns looked frantic and defeated, a beaten boxer lolling helpless on the ropes simply waiting for the shot that puts them down.

I hope that these defensive breakdowns are only because Emily Menges isn’t out there kicking ass and taking names. And, if so, I hope to hell she feels better real soon. REAL soon. Because as troubled as the Thorns defense could be last season, I’ve never seen anything as awful as that.


Well. Okay. Deep breath. Let’s regroup.

Got the road point? Yes. Held one of the best teams in the league to a draw? Yes.

Got nothing but tomato cans in view? Ohhellyes. Sky Blue this coming weekend, then a bye week, then back to Orlando – with the US players gone – and then a swing through D.C. and Jersey with (I’m betting) the Matildas and Canadians and Kiwis and ladi-dadi-and-everybody gone, as well.

Let’s just not go through Crazytown again, though. Okay? My heart can’t take much more of that shit.

Player Ratings and comments

Foord (+6/-4 : +3/-4 : +9/-8) Frankly, a step back from her good work in Orlando, but hard to tell if it was largely her own issues or just playing a better team. One troubling stat was that she lost an overwhelming number of individual duels; 24 of 25 in attack according to InStat as reported by Chris Henderson. Sky Blue is a tire fire in back, so we’re likely to see which was the reason when we see her next week.

Crnogorcevic (79′ – +7/-1 : +4/-0 : +11/-1) Good to see her rewarded for her hard graft in the penalty area with a sweetly headed goal. Good shift.

Purce (11′ – +2/-1) Has to get credit for drawing the penalty, but overall not really a successful outing; she’s credited by Opta with a total of 9 “touches” in her 11 minutes. One of these is the PK foul. The rest? Six passes (33% completion), two dribbles (50% successful) and one recovery/possession gain. And during that time the Thorns were being overrun. And she was possibly the best of Parsons’ subs. Underwhelming.

Sinclair (+6/-2 : +12/-2 : +18/-4) Woman of the Match. Duh.

Heath (+5/-1 : +5/-1 : +10/-1) Casey Short always matches up well against the Notorious One, and last weekend was no exception. Good work on a hard day, but a reminder that Heath isn’t magic, and she can be handled by smart tactical defending. Or, as Paul Riley did in the ’16 semi, just getting thugged. Glad this was the former and not the latter.

Boureille (89′ – +4/-4 : +3/-3 : +7/-7) Her PMR numbers are deceptive, because Cee Bee had a solid match doing what she was there to do – destroy and break down attacks. Her value as such was thrown into harsh relief by her replacement, who alternated between merely ineffective to actively problematic. All her minuses are attempted passes, usually long passes, that went astray.

Brynjarsdottir (5′ – +0/-4) A total mess, and probably the most questionable of the subs given that Boureille didn’t look gassed. Poorly positioned most of the time, and beaten when she wasn’t, Chicago was another troubling point in the “Dagny as defender” dataset that includes the 2017 roasting by Rapinoe in Seattle. Ugh.

Horan (+4/-9 : +8/-7 : +12/-16) Troubling. Other than her bloop-pass to Sinc on the first goal not really a factor in the attack. Completed only 35 of 54 passes (64%). For a player set back as DM she didn’t have the expected impact; two recorded tackles, one lost. This was not the Great Horan, and as with Foord it’s hard for me to tell whether it was just a Thorn having an off day, or Chicago doing a terrific job shutting her down.

Klingenberg (67′ – +7/-3 : +2/-0 : +9/-3) Have you been listening to Riveting! the podcast, Kling? Did you seethe as you heard me slag off on you, bristle, and tell yourself “Okay, asshole, here’s a nice hot helping of your words to eat!”? Because this is the second match in a row you went out and tore up the pitch. Two assists, tough-as-nails defending, great passing…you killed it out there on a day when your teammates were often struggling.

Oh, look! A nice hot plate of harsh words. Nom nom nom.

Seiler (23′ – +3/-4) Underwhelming shift from Gabby Seiler. First, because she replaced Kling, the Hot-Plate-Of-Harsh-Words-Serving-Monster. Second, because the team fell apart while she was on the pitch. Third, her individual work was relatively ineffective on its own terms, and worse in comparison with She Who Was Making Me Eat My Words. Hard to say if all this was correlation or causation, but not a “I really deserve more minutes” statement from Seiler.

Sonnett (+2/-4 : +2/-4 : +4/-8)

Image from Yahoo! Sports: licensed under Fair Use

Well, goddamn it, Sonnett.

Reynolds (+4/-2 : +2/-1 : +6/-3) Part of the collective defensive meltdown at the death, but, before that, good work. Two of her three minuses are attempted long passes. Typically well positioned (until the Final Panic); a poor reflection on her lavishly-paid center back partner that this supposed journeywoman looked much better than she did.

Carpenter (+6/-5 : +4/-5 : +10/-10) A lot of Chicago attack went at Carpenter’s side and her PMR numbers show it. Made some tough plays, but was also exposed badly, not a shocking condition for a young player. Should really have done better with her shot in the 40th minute, but she’s primarily a defender, so, okay. We’re going to miss the hell out of her in a couple of weeks, because the depth behind her is…questionable.

Franch (+0/-5 : +2/-2 : +2/-7) Bad day at the office for A.D. Franch. 42.8% save percentage? (well, 50% if you discount the PK, but her effort on the penalty was quite poor…) Ouch. Probably could have done better on the Kerr goal, too, though that was a brutal situation for a keeper to be placed in. Plus some really ugly distribution, even in the first half when she had the stiff wind behind her

Coach Parsons: Not your best work, coach. Dames owned the sub game, as we’ve discussed, and your team utterly collapsed in the final minutes. Yes, Chicago is good. Yes, you stole away with a road point. But that collapse was sudden, unexpected, and frightening. Genuinely solid teams don’t do that, and given that your Thorns teams have been generally solid I’m surprised and a bit worried, and a lot “hoping that this was a freakish one-off” and that the troops will rally to put a massive hurt on the crippled herd animal that is Sky Blue.

Photo credit: Thorns FC on Facebook
John Lawes
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3 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Taking the CTA to Crazytown

  1. I really hate to be negative, but I have to admit your comments really put words my vague unease watching this game. The three players Parsons put in, as you said, did not do much.

    Dagny has always impressed me as a player with a lot of confidence on the ball. I thought I saw that again in the Chicago game preseason, but I have not seen that since. She needs to get her confidence back or maybe she is a little distracted. Being a mother is pretty tough gig to do part-time.
    Actually, Purse getting taken out in the box was a really bad move by the Chicago defender, because my money would have been on Naeher in a one v one against Purse.

    Seiler I think is more of a centerback and seemed better in the previous game against Chicago because she had Kling on one side and Sonnett on the other barking instructions along with Parsons and Britt. She looked uncertain.

    It was exciting, but boy I am worried if Menges is injured for much longer. They need to work on closing out a game.

  2. And the scary thing about the subs is that it says one of two things, neither very reassuring.

    One possibility is that Parsons chose the players he did because he felt they were the best choices for the game state. If so, clearly his matchday judgement was poor. None of his choices did “well”. Seiler did “not awful”, Purce was good-news-bad-news, Dagny was just pretty much nothing.

    The other is that Cee Bee and Kling really were gassed and he had to swap them out, and the three players he picked were the best he had. In THAT case it shines a harsh light on the FO; that’s the best we have on the bench? While Brian and Vasconcelos and DiBernardo are kicking ass and taking names our three are picking grass and acting tame. That’s…suboptimal for the World Cup interval, isn’t it?

  3. And, for the record, I don’t enjoy writing these critical pieces, either.

    I’d love to just celebrate Sinc’s Greatness and Kling making me eat my words with her sudden renaissance and AMC’s sweet header and the Thorns doing all the good things they did last weekend. I’d love to write a story that was just a big insufferable gloat.

    But so far this year we have two matches and four points, but both showed some potentially serious issues with the defense; Orlando was the foreshock but Chicago was an outright M9 earthquake. Which is what I ended up having to focus on, because those were the “big stories” of those games, the things that might have an outsized impact on Portland’s title campaign.

    With any sort of luck the coaches and the team will solve them, and I’ll be able to write that sunny, happy piece about whaling the living tar out of Sky Blue this coming weekend…


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