Thorns FC: It’s Complicated

The good news is that it was a win after two dispiriting losses, and it was three points at a time when the Thorns desperately needed points to stay in the playoff hunt.

The bad news?

Well, it’s complicated.

First let’s talk about what came in with the two teams last Saturday.

…were scrabbling desperately for playoff position. Utah had knocked them down two weeks earlier, and then The Damned had knocked them out of the Shield the following midweek. Portland was scoreless over those two matches and, worse, had looked utterly overwhelmed in the home defeat to Carolina.

A Chicago win combined with the Portland loss had tumbled the Thorns all the way down to third and, with Utah and Tacoma chasing, looked in danger of dropping Portland even further if the Thorns were unable to get a result against Houston here.

…despite the valiant attempt of the Yahoo! Announcers to pretend otherwise, was just playing out the string, at 25 points hopeless of a chance at the postseason after yet another season of disappointment. When the only motivation was pride, Houston couldn’t let themselves be humiliated by five goals as they had during their previous visit.

The Dash had played – and lost to – The Damned earlier in midweek on a ridiculously soft penalty.

But…it was only the one penalty.

Houston had given up any pretense of winning, bunkered back in a 4-1-4-1, and had dared The Damned to come at them. They did – Carolina had their usual double-figure shot total – but couldn’t break down the Dash until the center referee stepped in so The Damned could steal the points by playing 12-on-11.

So it was inevitable that Houston would run out here in the same defensive bunker…

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use

…and dare Thorns FC to have a go at them.

And for about 85 minutes the Thorns couldn’t do any better than Carolina could.

Eight-nine minutes and a throw-in

Portland did generate a crap-ton of shots – most of them, like Carolina’s, off-target – and some sorta-kinda half-chances:

11’ – Emily Sonnett lofts a good long lead pass to Ellie Carpenter. Carpenter crosses into the crowd in front of goal and the ball pings from Hayley Raso to Midge Purce to Christine Sinclair, who feeds Purce for a pointblank shot that was blocked away for a corner, which is finally gathered in by Jane Campbell.

16’ – Carpenter plays a nice 1-2 with Raso and then crosses into the crowd again; the block falls again to Purce, whose shot is blocked…again.

32’ – Sinclair flicks on a Tobin Heath corner kick, but Lindsey Horan’s header is well off-target.

36’ – Another scrummage in front of goal that ends when Meghan Klingenberg plays Dagny Brynjarsdottir in on Campbell with a pretty chip, but Dagny’s shot goes wide.

46’ – Horan plays Raso through with a slide-rule lead pass, but Raso shoots tamely at Campbell.

Finally, in the 48th minute, Portland worked a goal out of nothing more than a simple throw-in.

Horan dimed Raso, whose run drew a defensive crowd and opened up Sinc for the cross. Sinclair tried to play out wide right, but Sam Mewis got to the ball and cleared it over the east touchline for a Carpenter throw-in.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use

I’m always surprised and a bit disappointed how little money the Thorns seem to make out of Carpenter’s throws. She’s got terrific arm strength and can reach well into the 18-yard box with a throw, but we seldom get anything productive out of that skill the way The Damned seem to profit from McDonald’s strong throws.

This time, however, Lindsey Horan made the money with a brilliant little run in behind the two Houston defenders fixated on Carpenter. Carpenter lobbed to Horan and she had a clear run at the goal.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use

On set-pieces it’s usually Horan’s job to get free of her marker and score. This time, however, she provided the service and Tobin Heath slid into the open space and redirected Horan’s cross into the net for the winning goal.

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use

The Thorns had a couple more chances before full time; Purce hit a nice curving long shot that floated several inches over the top corner in the 59th minute, and Horan had a soft header in the 85th that looked like it might loop inside the near post had Campbell not risen to take it.

But the Thorns never really looked likely to score again for the next 42 minutes and change. Twenty-five shots, nine dangerous chances, three shots on goal, and only one goal – over 94 minutes. Against a team that gave Portland something like 60% possession.

And a team that could easily have nicked a cheap equalizer, either on Mewis’ 53rd minute shot that A.D. Franch parried strongly away, or on Jamia Fields’ powerful 64th minute run onto a Huerta cross – full credit to Sonnett for the good work poking the ball over the byline.

The Yahoo! Announcers kept remarking on how much better Portland looked than they had against The Damned, which is like them saying that I look much more like a champion MMA fighter while beating up on a sleeping wino than when matched against the WBA welterweight title-holder.

Sure we looked better; we damn well should have.

So what? We got the points, right?

Here’s the thing.

The Thorns needed points. Houston didn’t care about the win– they just didn’t want to get punked, and so played defense all game. The Thorns made a creative little throw-in play, the Dash couldn’t stop it, and the Thorns got the points and Houston wasn’t humiliated.

That’s great.

Hopefully everybody got an orange slice.

That clinched a playoff spot.

That’s great, too.

To win the title, though, the Thorns need to show they can beat The Damned at full strength. This match tells us nothing about whether we can do that.

That’s…not so great.

So the good news is that we’re going to the playoffs.

The bad news…is that we still don’t know if we’ll go anywhere once we get there..


Passing the Passing Test: 75%. Respectable. (Houston was only around 66%, so well done, Thorns.

Remember; significant passes only – possession gains or attacking passes, no little dinks or drops. The symbols all mean a type of pass; a “1” is a pass from foot to foot, “H” is a header, “X”, a cross, “C” a corner kick, “F” a free kick, “P” a goalkeeper punt, and “G” a goal kick. I’ve also add a “L” for a long pass, whether headed or off a boot.


Sinclair and Horan were hitting targets all over the pitch. Klingenberg was doing well, too, while Menges was accurate but not passing far upfield out of the back – no point, really, given the bunker.

Sonnett and Carpenter were a bit of here-and-there.

Heath, as always, preferred to dribble into attacking position.

Dagny…oh, dear. You really need to clean up your attack/possession passing.

The Thorns completed 54% – 46 of 85 – of their “significant” passes overall. It’s worth noting that if you take Dagny out of the picture you get 41 complete passes of 70 attempts, or 58%. That’s significant, and it just emphasizes how helpful it would be if the shieldmatron would tighten up her passing shot group.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook


Purce (87’ – +2/-2 : +3/-2 : +5/-4) Midge Purce isn’t a hold-up forward, and she isn’t a target forward, either. She’s more of an attacking midfielder who needs teammates running alongside or ahead of her to play off, or behind her to provide a lead pass. When the opponent parks the bus – and Houston jammed an SUV and a couple of sedans in there behind it – Purce doesn’t have the fox-in-the-box ability to create in tight space, or the height and strength to get above the ruck, and score.

When the Thorns had a gang of quick young players like Simone Charley and Madison Pogarch on the pitch during the World Cup break Purce could run wild through enemy defenses. Now that Heath and Horan and Sinc are back the Thorns’ pace is slower, and Purce isn’t nearly as dangerous.

Right now the Thorns are trying to play Route One with a nimble little sports car up front instead of a big banger of a Range Rover. We can either drive that road, in which case we need a different rig, or we can take a route that suits our little sports car better. I’m fine either way.

But it’s not Purce’s fault she’s no longer the MVP candidate she was in midseason. It’s how we play.

Foord (3’ – +1/-3) Pretty much just timewasting. Looked unlikely to score but given the game state at that point that’s not a problem. Given her body of work this season, sadly, that’s also not unexpected.

Raso (79’ – +5/-2 : +3/-5 : +8/-7) Lots of action, with all the usual Raso energy, and had a couple of close ones early in the first half. Also took a lot of abuse, as she tends to, so looked to be tiring late and was subbed off at a good moment. Good shift, and good overall.

Crnogorcevic (11’ – +0/-1) I wonder how it feels to be an international player reduced to scrambling for garbage minutes for a foreign club team? If I was AMC I’d be fizzing like a shaken-up pop bottle to get the hell out of Portland to somewhere where my skillset is useful.

The odd thing is that purely physically she looks like she could be the fox/six-yard-box banger Portland could pitch up to. But we tried that, and she’s not, and we don’t have a pure striker she could create for as she does for Switzerland.

AMC frustrates me, not because of what she is (because if you looked at her record you could see what she is) but because the Thorns FO looked at that record and seems to have seen something completely different. That’s unfortunate.

Sinclair (+7/-0 : +4/-3 : +10/-1) Lots – and I mean LOTS – of good passing; look back at her “significant” pass matrix above. Plus all the other usual good work linking and defending in central midfield. This sort of slow-paced game lets our captain show her quality.

Heath (+5/-1 : +5/-4 : +10/-5) Well, the Notorious Tobin Fucking Heath bagged the lone goal and it was a lovely goal (it got “Goal of the Week”), so there’s that.

Unfortunately she also had some issues finding her teammates – look back up at her pass matrix; ouch! – and tended to get lost in her dribbling game at times.

I’d like to see Heath connect with her teammates more. She can do that – in 2016 she was a monster at that – and when she does, she makes a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. But she’s got her own thing going on right now, and it looks like we’re just going to have to work with that.

Brynjarsdottir (+4/-3 : +5/-4 : +9/-7) There are a handful of players who make the game look more difficult and dramatic than it is, and Dagny is one of them.

Soccer really is a simple game. You kick the ball. You shoot the ball. You run, you tackle, you pass.

Dagny makes every match into a nerve-wracking struggle. Every pass is a moment of sudden peril. Will it go to a teammate? Or an opponent? Or where will it go, spinning wildly into the Void..? Will Dagny be tackled, or will she tackle? Will she be a wall, or will she be a welcome mat?

I think that the drama is actually overblown. Dagny isn’t a precise passer and gives the ball up a lot. She’s also a tough tackler and a smart positional defender, so as often as not she takes the ball back after she gives it away; the mental and emotional costs of her play are greater than the actual physical ones.

I don’t think that Celeste Boureille would be a significant upgrade in player, but she’s much less…dramatic, and that’s an upgrade for my blood pressure.

Dagny did fine against Houston. I just wish she could do fine with a little less…flair.

Horan (+5/-4 : +7/-1 : +12/-5) My pick for Woman of the Match. She really cooked up the goal. Carpenter got the fixings from the market and Heath put it on the plate and served it, but Horan doesn’t make that little run it’s just so much compost.

The Great Horan took over in the second half and did a ton of work keeping Houston penned in its own half to the extent they were. As her pass matrix shows; a load of pinpoint passing in the final half, as well. Well done.

Carpenter (89’ – +6/-2 : +8/-3 : +14/-5) Ellie Carpenter had a very, very fine match against Houston. Some of that has to be related to the glacial pace of the Houston “attack”. Unlike the Damned, Houston wasn’t going to catch Carpenter upfield and roast her – although she was nowhere to be found on Mewis’ dangerous 78th minute run because Mewis did outkick her – but Carpenter did just fine defensively against the Dash.

Carpenter provided a ton of attack, too, which goes a long way to excuse any defensive lapses provided her backline could cover for her, which they did when they had to.

Reynolds (1’ – no rating)

Sonnett (+4/-2 : +3/-3 : +7/-5) It’s difficult to assess the Thorns’ backline against Houston because the Dash did so little to test them. Sonnett provided some lovely forward passing and made no obvious boneheaded errors in back, so pretty much “fine” is all I can come up with.

She did seem to want to play very aggressively, either to prove something after her absence against The Damned, or because, like a fierce small predator, Houston’s cower triggered some sort of atavistic kill-reflex in her. My cat is kind of like that, too.

Menges (+3/-3 : +4/-1 : +7/-4) Like Sonnett only without the whole “small domestic predator” thing. Good shift, clean sheet…that’s just fine.

Klingenberg (+8/-2 : +5/-2 : +13/-4) Hell of a match from Kling, including some absolute dimes. But my favorite moment was in the 85th minute, when Houston was trying to play through the center of the pitch. The ball went to Rachel Daly, and so did Kling, driving her back, harassing Daly mercilessly at the same time giving her no time to pick her head up and pass out of danger. Having ridden her ten yards upfield like a pony Kling finally got bored with toying with her (see the Sonnett comment: “small domestic predator”), nicked the ball out from under Daly’s feet, and pushed up to feed Purce.

Damn, Kling. When you’re good, you’re good.

Franch (+0/-0 : +2/-0 : +2/-0) As noted, terrific save from Mewis to keep the sheet clean. Otherwise largely untroubled.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Coach Parsons – Got the win, clinched the playoffs. Well done; Level One unlocked.

That said…sitting back after the goal was not really optimal. Had Houston gotten lucky, or the Thorns unlucky, we’d be griping and grousing all the way to Tacoma.

My point after the Damned Loss still stands; Coach Parsons has one job this season – unlock The Damned. This one was important as a win, but as an indicator of anything more?


Now the question is; where do we want to go into the playoffs?


Then it’s simple; we need to win out.

Third or fourth? That’s different; we can afford a draw in Tacoma.

But…do we really want to meet The Damned in the semifinal?

I know I wouldn’t.

If we’re gonna beat The Damned, let’s do it like we did in 2017, in the Final.

Let’s get the brass ring out of it.

John Lawes
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2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: It’s Complicated

  1. Great analysis John. Since the Reign took out Utah, the game in Tacoma will be very important. While I am a little troubled that more of the Thorn’s shots did not turn into goals, the one they scored was a perfect example of how you beat a bunker. You pass to players with the same color shirt. Not complicated. Crosses to nobody hoping a friendly will get to it don’t seem to be working. They actually had a couple like the successful one blocked by good goal keeping or not making it harder for the goal keeper.

    1. The fun thing was that Horan’s little run was absolutely perfect and a textbook of “how do you make a goal out of a deep throw-in”. Typically what I see is that the throwing team will position one player in front of the defender and play a 1-2 with the player throwing in. That usually “works” in the sense that it keeps possession…but it almost never turns into anything more.

      In this case Horan saw that Houston had two defenders (?) in front of Carpenter and a huge hole of open space behind them and in front of the rest of the mob in the box that was there assuming that Carpenter would do her usual long throw. She made the run and Heath ghosted into space, bing-bang-goal.

      But I agree that all this run-up-the-touchline-and-huck-in-a-cross isn’t really going to work with the team we have. That requires either a poaching forward or a couple of box-crashers, and we don’t have a big brute of a six-yard-box banger; that was kind of my point on Purce.

      Last season we had Horan and Sonnett getting up and knocking in corners and crosses. This year, not so much, and I’m not sure why…


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