After a long week’s layoff we finally arrive at the final match of the “group stage” Monday when the Thorns take on Olympique Tacoma.
For the record, at the time or writing (Saturday, 7/11) Portland lies second-bottom of the NWSL table, 0-1-2, 2pts, goal differential -1.
Tacoma (okay, fine, “OL Reign“…), 1-1-1, is one of five teams sitting on 4 points but is fourth of those five – fifth position overall – because of the similar GD.
Since there’s really nothing at stake Monday other than seeding in the knockouts it’s probably not productive to discuss winning and losing, other than one has to wonder whether going nine matches without a win has gotten into the team’s heads.
I’m not sure it has, though. The end of 2019 was a shitshow, but I get a strong feeling that Coach Parsons is using – and has sold to his squad – this “group stage” as preseason 2020 and is more concerned with evaluating the roster and tactics than putting up points. The degree to which that is working with the team…I’m unsure. But I don’t see the same kind of frustration and despair I saw in the semifinal, so, maybe it’s working okay.
So before the next match I just want to kick around some thoughts about who has looked good over the first three matches and who hasn’t.
Probably the “story” of Portland’s first three games has been goalkeeper Bella Bixby. She’s been terrific as a shot-stopper, her distribution and control of her backline have been generally effective and poised, and she looks remarkably solid for a player with 270 total professional minutes.
Portland’s “problem”, if you will, is that assuming that this is her true form the Thorns now have three starting, or close-to-starting, quality goalkeepers, and it’s likely that all three know that.
It’s not easy to juggle those ambitions; all three likely feel – justifiably – that they should be making starter’s wages, but only one can be the regular starting keeper. As problems go that’s a good problem to have…but it’s still a problem that Portland will have to solve, especially if expansion happens as scheduled before 2021.
Lindsey Horan is in terrific form, and that’s terrific news; her descent from MVP in 2018 to futile and frustrated in 2019 was worrisome. She’s pretty much carrying the team at this point.
Raquel Rodriguez has proved to be a valuable piece of the midfield, both doing decent work behind the ball as well as providing service, especially to Horan. Parsons seems to see her more as a provider and shuttler than a direct threat on goal, however, which might not be the best use of her skills. I’m curious to see if, as she gets better integrated with the team, Rodriguez starts taking a crack at goal more often.
Morgan Weaver has been showing the sort of attacking presence she was touted for in the draft, and she seems like a useful piece of the frontline. She has yet to produce a truly dangerous opportunity – putting only 2 of 4 total shots on goal over 163 minutes – and has also rather troublingly duplicated her 2019 NCAA passing issues in the pros. Her completion rate for her senior year at WSU was only 56%; her passing in Utah has been…57%.
But she still has an outstanding gift for finding that sweet final pass; at Wazzu she completed 1.3 “key passes” per 90 minutes, in Utah she’s raised that to 1.8 – and that’s a critical skill for a winger. Hopefully she’ll find her shooting boots soon, as well.
A surprisingly – to me, anyway, who saw her as washed-up trade makeweight – bright showing from Christen Westphal has helped mitigate the damage that the loss of Ellie Carpenter did to the right flank. Westphal is been terrific on defense – winning 70% of her duels and all three of her tackles, as well as being strong in the air. She’s also turned into a fine creator, dropping even more “key passes” than Weaver – 6 in three games.
Although perhaps not “troubled” per se…Christine Sinclair has looked subdued and, at times, outright struggling for pace as she tries to find a role in the squad. At least in theory she’s an attacker – she’s been listed as a forward in all three matches – but she hasn’t played, or looked, like a forward. She’s fired off only one shot per game and put none on frame.
I’m not sure, frankly, where she goes now. Perhaps way up top, a true poaching #9? Certainly Horan could use a genuine striker to help make havoc and disrupt the opposing backline (and possibly even score!) and take some of the load off. Could Sinc find space there; she’s never been a poacher, largely finding her goals running at the defense. But she seems to have lost so much pace that placing her as a lone DM risks getting the back of midfield overrun by
The Damned any speedy opponent.
I’m not counting her out; Sinc’s been at this business too long, and has been too good, to disregard her now. But she’s having a tough tournament and a tough time figuring out what her role is.
All the other forwards – including Marissa Everett and Simone Charley but especially Tyler Lussi – have been underwhelming. With 407 minutes between them they’ve produced 8 shots, 3 on goal (0.67 SOG/game) and only a single goal, Charley’s bundle off a Horan rebound against The Damned Courage on Matchday 1.
As I said; right now Portland is the Horan and Friends Show. That’s fine…until an opponent stops Horan. For the Thorns to be more dangerous than they are now the team needs to produce more and better chances, and finish them.
Obviously, the huge “what-ifs” are the injury to Sophia Smith and the absence of Heath. The plan for this rebuild seems to have been to have the young forwards running at goal with Horan swarming behind them and Heath and Rodriguez serving in. Without two of those four pieces…well, the team just hasn’t looked that dangerous going forward
Madison Pogarch, unfortunately, hasn’t shown to great advantage in this tournament. Her loss of position greatly contributed the second Carolina goal, and she’s made some rookie-giveaway-sorts of errors that as second-season pro she shouldn’t make. Her passing is below 70%. She’s still very, very green…but she needs to pull herself together and play better, because the squad is too thin to allow for passengers.
OL Reign looks like a team in trouble; in 270 minutes-plus of soccer they waited until the 271st minute to score, a matchwinning header from Bethany Balcer to take all three points from Utah. They played SBFC to a scoreless draw on Matchday 1 and were thumped by Houston 2-nil on Matchday 2.
OLR suffers from a lot of the same problems Portland is suffering from; missing important pieces (Fishlock, Huerta, Rapinoe) and getting little production out of the frontline (Taylor and Jenkins have been noticeably absent…).
Benstiti seems to want to try and play out of the back and possess, but what little success the Reign had against Utah came from going direct.
Houston’s press utterly destroyed them.
This one, unfortunately, shows all the signs of a scoreless draw. The difference may come down to rest; Portland is coming off a full week, while Tacoma played mid-week and will come in with only four days. So the Thorns might eke out a goal somewhere a tired Reign defender fails to mark tight, or doesn’t see the pass coming until too late.
We’ll meet in the comments during the match and see how it goes…