Thorns FC: Merciless

There’s a saying that I think is probably as old as Sumer. It goes like this:

“When your enemy is drowning, throw them an anvil.”

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Or whatever they used for anvils in Sumer.

C’mon. You get the idea.

Last Sunday the Chicago Red Stars came to Portland trailing smoke after two ugly losses to the worst teams in the league and heading for what the airline biz calls a “controlled flight into terrain”.

The Thorns obliged them by smashing them down hard with two goals in the first half hour and napalming the crash site until the 3-nil final whistle.

You probably watched the match, or read the writeups, and so I’m not going to make this a conventional match report. Suffice to say that the Thorns buried their chances while “Lump it up to Samantha Kerr and hope something wonderful happens” worked like shit against the two cellar dwellers, so why Rory Dames thought it’d work against the league leaders I dunno.

What I want to highlight are a combination of familiar craftswomanship and pleasant surprises from the hiding we gave Chicago.

Attack the Block!

The first Thorns goal starts with some pretty nifty passing and moving in front of the Chicago penalty area…

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…as Midge Purce runs to the corner of the arc and pushes the ball out wide to Meghan Klingenberg.

So far, so-the-same; we’ve seen this a gajillion times from the Thorns. Typically Kling will loft a long cross into the six and try to hit someone on the head.

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But not this time!

Kling sees three Thorns crashing the top of the box (a fourth – Christine Sinclair, is lurking along the 18-yard, line, too…but we’ll see more of her later).

This is something that I’ve been wheezing about all season. Don’t come tiptoeing into the enemy’s gates – crash them, dammit! Troubles for enemy backlines come not as single spies but in battalions! Make the defense scramble and something good can happen.

As the Thorns do, here, opening up a huge space for Kling to put a lovely slide-rule pass in to Tobin Heath’s feet.

But Heath is blanketed, with no hope to turn to goal.

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Here’s where I stop to give Heath her props.

I complain about her love for her own trickiness, and the way she often dribbles into trouble because she can’t believe that any one defender – or two, or three! – can take the ball off her feet.

But consider the skills and the soccer intelligence on display here.

Heath recognizes she has no option herself. She picks out Sinclair running open into space to her left. She one-touches Kling’s service perfectly into Sinc’s run. All in about a tenth of a second.

That’s fucking soccer, goddamn it. That’s some sort of Fermiesque physical genius, the First Touch of a Goddess.

You’ll note three other things;

First, Purce sees she’s going to be just a touch offside if she keeps going, so she stops right where she is and holds her spot, in case there’s a rebound or a tackle she can poach.

(We’ll see that again later…)

Second, Hayley Raso is lurking out wide right, with the same bad intent for Chicago that Purce has.

And, third, Lindsey Horan is offside, waaaaaay offside.

So when she sees what’s going to happen she races wide out of the play. Remember last week, how I mentioned that play Sinclair made to take herself out of an offside position? Well, this is about as smart and just as effective.

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And from there it’s all over but the hugging. Sinclair finishes – the poachers are there, but just decoration – and that’s all the goals the Thorns needed.


Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Menges 6 : Kerr 2

After the first goal Chicago went to their plan – lump the ball up to Sam Kerr. Here’s what happened:

17′ – Long pass up to Kerr, Menges cuts off, clears; Menges 1, Kerr 0
19′ – Long pass up to Kerr, Menges and Sonnett close her down, tackles away, Kling clears; Sonnett 1, Menges 2, Kerr 0
21′ – Long pass up to Kerr, she shields off Menges and squares to McKaskill; Menges 2, Kerr 1
21′ – Brian high pass up to Kerr, Menges heads clear, Menges 3, Kerr 1
25′ – Long pass up to Kerr, Menges heads clear; Menges 4, Kerr 1
29′ – Long pass up to Kerr, Menges blocks her out, Franch take; Menges 5, Kerr 1
30′ – Kerr runs deep into right corner, tries to turn inside, Menges turns her back; Menges 6, Kerr 1
31′ – Kerr takes possession, backheels inside to McKaskill; Menges 6, Kerr 2.

Chicago took seventeen shots. They put two – two – on goal. Their danger women came off the field at full time looking like this:

Kerr: 3 shots, 0 shots on goal
Ertz: 6 shots, 1 on goal
Nagasato: 1 shot, 0 on goal
McKaskill: 1 shot, 0 on goal
Brian: 2 shots, 0 on goal

Hell, defender Tierna Davidson had half the SOG of the whole team.

Some of this was poor play, and poor finishing.

But a lot of this was fine team defending from the Thorns midfield and backline. Menges stood out. But the whole defensive unit had a good match, and it showed on the pitch, and in the recordbook.

Mind you, there were still some little problems…

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That’s Zoey Goralski making a completely unmarked run as Kerr has all the time and space in this sector of the galaxy to feed her a lead pass.

Luckily for A.D. Franch’s clean sheet Goralski fumbled the delivery just long enough to let Heath slide over and dispossess her. But look at the shot/xG charts:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

Chicago had some shockingly good chances. They couldn’t put a shot on goal to save their lives, but they were getting half-chances enough to have scored a goal and change, had they been able to finish…had the Thorns defense been a little softer…and had A.D. Franch had a goof or two.

They didn’t, it wasn’t, and she didn’t, so the Girls in Red and all of us Thorns fans went home happy.

You can say that the Thorns got some luck. But that’s what good teams do; they make their own luck. They jump on the weak and the sick and they take them down.

And that’s what happened here last Sunday.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test. Well…a little frustrating.

Below 70% again – 69% per InStat, only 63% according to Opta (mind you, Opta had Chicago below 70% – 68% – as well…). And, more frustratingly, a lot of those were not passes that missed by an inch or were cut off by an alert defender, but were mishit and went spinning wildly off into the Void.

I tracked the “critical” passing in this match. By “critical” I mean I didn’t count little intra-player dinks like short crossfield or easy backpasses, only forward passes or attempts to gain possession – and here’s how it looked:

Total:54 (9 headed) (60.6%)35 (15 headed) (39.4%)

Each “1” is a pass from and to a foot; each “H” is a headed pass, either to another head or to feet, divided into completed passes and those that went either directly to an opponent, or went into space and were picked up by a Chicago player.

The completion rate for these attempts is close to the same as the overall completion percentage for the match, with the clear break that headed passes are significantly less successful – 37% completed versus 63% astray – than those played on the ground, a not entirely surprising statistic.

A rough measure, but it conforms to a lot of what we’ve been seeing on the pitch lately; Sinclair, Heath, and Klingenberg are precise, and Sinclair and Kling, in particular, are also prolific (Heath tends to try and dribble through defenses rather than pass, so her numbers are lower).

Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Horan are also busy but…not quite as accurate.

Dagny, in particular, tends to send as many or more headers off-target as on. She wins a lot of aerial battles, but the Thorns don’t always profit from them because she has trouble directing her headed passes (and her passes in general).

If there was any single thing I’d like to see the Thorns do better, it’s this.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Player Ratings and Comments

Purce (62′ – +7/-0 : +6/-0 : +13/-0) Who, watching the Midgey and Charley Show at the height of its popularity, would have thought that the spin-off would be Midgey the Poacher?

I didn’t, that’s for certain. But Purce played the Fox in the Box to perfection, her brace and her net +13 makes her my pick for Woman of the Match.

Charley (28′ – +6/-1) I thought that the InStat boys were desperately hard assigning her the lowest Index of anyone on the pitch. Instead I thought Simone Charley did a lot to see out the win, staying high, forcing Chicago’s backs to stay home, and forechecking when the Red Stars had possession in their third.

Raso (85′ – +7/-3 : +4/-2 : +11/-5) Lots of good work from Ribbons in this one, including the gorgeous volley that created Purce’s first goal. Raso was perhaps the single most victimized Thorn when Chicago got chippy in the second half, but kept pushing up and creating havoc. Well played.

Crnogorcevic (5′ – +1/-0) Mostly timewasting, but also relief for an increasingly beat-up Raso and fresh legs to see out the long final minutes. Sort of sad to see her come down to this, but there’s no real reason for her to see more of the pitch at this point.

Heath (+10/-5 : +5/-3 : +15/-8) Should have made it 1-nil in the ninth minute; how the hell she missed the open header I have no idea. Lots of the usual Heath creativity, Lots of the usual Heath “wait, wait…just one more dribble..!”.

Don’t get me wrong; Heath works all match and has crazy mad skilz. It’s just that sometimes I want to shake her and remind her that soccer is a team sport, and she has a team packed with great players who can help her out when four opponents converge on her.

She doesn’t have to take on the whole opposing team to dribble out of every cul-de-sac.

Sinclair (+6/-2 : +6/-1 : +12/-3) Gorgeous goal from the run of play, and nearly a second on the shot that rebounded for Purce’s second. Hard work on both sides of the ball, as usual. Several brilliant passes.

Brynjarsdottir (+4/-1 : +7/-2 : +11/-3) As the passing chart above shows; tremendously active, and a confusing mixture of takeaways and giveaways. Good match overall, but, remember, the Thorns midfield has seen the like of Amandine Henry. That’s a high standard, and one I think Dagny can reach. But she needs to clean up her passing more than a bit, and start finding her teammates instead of opponents or the touchlines.

Horan (+8/-1 : +4/-4 : +12/-5) I thought that Horan had a decent match; tough defensively and creative in attack. That said, Horan seems to have lost…something…since the World Cup. She shows flashes of the Great Horan – often several times in a single match – but hasn’t sustained the same level of brilliance she had reached earlier in this season, or in earlier seasons. Still struggling with Post-World-Cup-Letdown-Disorder?

Carpenter (73′ – +4/-6 : +1/-0 : +5/-6) Solid overall along with the rest of the backline, Ellie Carpenter had some more passing troubles than some of her other teammates; four of her six minuses are for passes that went to a white shirt. Lots of good work to make up for that, though.

Menges (+5/-2 : +7/-3 : +12/-5) Marked Sam Kerr out of the match to the degree that Sam Kerr can ever be marked out of a match. Tremendous work, and led her backline on a day that needed her leadership with Chicago throwing everything but the ball bag up into the Portland penalty area in hopes of magic.

Sonnett (+3/-0 : +2/-1 : +5/-1) Stayed home and patrolled her penalty area like a big goldfish ruling her tank. Combined well with Menges to shut down Kerr and McKaskill. Nothing spectacular, but steady and sturdy and that was all that was needed.

Klingenberg (+4/-0 : +3/-1 : +7/-1) Terrific service , especially in the first half (five of her pluses are for passing), and generally tough on defense. Worth noting again that the Thorns defenders as a unit were a huge part of this win; they prevented Chicago getting enough good looks to keep the clean sheet.

Franch (+4/-0 : +3/-1 : +7/-1) Came up big against Julie Ertz in the 47th minute, but other than that didn’t have to make too many other critical saves.

Made up for that by coming out strongly to take lofted passes and crosses, including in the 37th, 46th, 49th, and 78th minutes, as well as picking the ball off Kerr’s feet in the 52nd.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Coach Parsons – Hard to say whether there was any real challenge in the substitutions, given the game state by the time the subs started coming in. The coach surely got his tactics and formations correct, got the team to the pitch ready to kick ass and take names, and got the lopsided win, so that’s pretty much the definition of “brilliant coaching”.

Now his job is to keep that focus tight for the ten-day layoff over the international break and prepare for a trip to another team that needs a win desperately; Utah. The Royals’ record over the last four has been bolstered by wins over Sky Blue and Orlando, featured a solid thumping of Tacoma, and a dreary nil-nil draw with Washington.

The last time the Royals beat a quality opponent was Chicago, way back in May.

But…this season Utah seems to have developed a gift for nullifying the Thorns; both matches ended in draws; scoreless here in Portland, 2-all in Salt Lake.

Can Portland’s coach and team figure out how to pick open this deadlock?

We have ten long days to find out.

John Lawes
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