PTFC v OLR: Match thread and post-match discussion

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.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

The Good

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.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

The Troubled

Although perhaps not “troubled” per seChristine 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.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

The Match

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…

John Lawes
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20 thoughts on “PTFC v OLR: Match thread and post-match discussion

  1. I hear you on Pogarch. But the first Carolina goal happened before she subbed in. On the second, she stepped up to a player in the midfield and let the ball get played in behind her. I don’t know who should’ve been covering the player in midfield instead, I don’t remember seeing that part of the field.

    1. Good catch, and corrected.

      I want her to be better than she is now. I liked what I saw in her limited minutes last season, but she hasn’t had a good tournament so far. One thing that’s difficult to guess at is how well each player managed to keep in shape during the lockdown, so perhaps she’s just not in great physical form. But the errors she’s making are more tactical than technical, so perhaps this is exposing some game-intelligence issues she has as a very inexperience player…

      1. Fair enough. I wanted to expect better from her, especially once she switched to Carpenter’s old jersey number.

        1. Well…there’s no getting around that losing Carpenter is a problem. There’s simply no player who can match her for skillset and future. But we need the player who fills her spot not to make brutal errors, and Pogarch hasn’t look good in that respect.

          1. We will need to use allocation money to bring in a viable replacement at full back. Maybe target Keisha Buchanan coming back home to North America.

          2. I would assume that Buchanan, as a CWNT player, goes through allocation, yes? And that’s assuming she or OL voids her existing contract, which runs through 2022…so I’m not sure that’s a likely option. If it was…I’d be pleased with it. She’s a tough, smart defender.

  2. Re: the FB’s, luckily as John pointed out, Westphal has been a very pleasant surprise at Carpenter’s old spot at RB. Aside from her stats that John pointed out, she just looks competent and comfortable out there, knowing where to be on defense, where the pass should go on offense.
    On the left side, left-footed Pogarch is probably the current heir-apparent to Klingenberg. And for the same reasons Westphal has looked good, Pogarch hasn’t. But since Parsons doesn’t seem in a hurry to push the older players out of the lineup anyway, at least the good news is that Pogarch would have another year or two to sit, train and watch Klingenberg, and get better, if she can.
    All in all, if the starters are all in there, it’s not a terrible back line, but with both Klingenberg and Sauerbrunn out there, it’s awfully slow. The one scenario I would hate to see is that the team decides to spend big on improving the back line, and because they can’t bring themselves to take Klingenberg or Sauerbrunn out of the lineup , they either bring in a CB and push Menges to RB, or bring in a RB and bench Westphal. Unless that new CB/RB is a superstar, the upgrade over Westphal in the lineup would only help so much and we’ll still be old and slow overall in the back line.
    Hate to say it because i’ve enjoyed watching Klingenberg’s hustle, attitude and service for so long, but i think clinically, the best use of the Thorns’ spending big on a new player would be to upgrade the LB with someone good and fast enough to cover for Sauerbrunn, let her stay home and direct traffic. That, all of a sudden, would be a really good back 4.

  3. I should note…remember how we were pissing and moaning about finishing? Well, the xG/goal numbers are ridiculous; 1.99 against Carolina, 2.1 against Chicago, and easily 1.5-1.8 against Washington. So on an xG of well over 4 we’ve nailed 2, and one of those was a messy goalmouth scramble that could easily have been cleared.

    All four forwards other than Sinc have put something like 5 SOG in three games and scored one goal. That ain’t gonna beat The Damned. Yes, I know; we’re missing Smith. But we need SOME production out of the frontline other than Smith.

  4. Starting XI:

    Westphal, Hubly, Reynolds, Kling
    Boureille, Salem, Rodriguez
    Sinc, Charley, Weaver

    Horan not even in the 18.

    Parsons TOTALLY tanking this one; going with deep depth and just hoping for the result. Resting (?) Horan for the knockouts? Got the plan to take down NCC in the QF? I got nothin’ here; this is a complete black swan.

  5. Correction: IR says Menges w calf injury, Horan injured but no indication of what. So not tanking…dealing with injury

  6. High press is pinning OLR back well, but our attack just can’t seem to find that final pass or good shot. Getting decent possession but lacking patience to make that possession pay off in quality chances. But MAKING chances – and as I typed this Weaver serves a nice cross that Sinc hammers…but right at Betos. Nice work, tho…

  7. Pretty dominant half with the press working like a mechanical ass-kicker; OLR really with nothing going forward until the final minutes.

    At the other end, PTFC generating a crap-ton of chances but, again, having issues with finishing. Sinc has looked more active and dangerous than she did in the first three matches, and Weaver is doing some good work. I’d love to see her or Charley make some diagonal runs through the Reign backline to see if Rodriguez or Sinc can thread a pass to them…

  8. Aaaaand…that’s it

    Scoreless draw. Hello, NCC.

    Frustrating – I’ll be curious to see the xG/goal numbers for PTFC; I’ll bet we’re looking at at least 1xG. I’m not sure whether to try and take hope from the chances created or be irked that they weren’t finished.

    OK, it’s “irked”

    The press did a great job of pinning OLR back; that should have set the table for the win, and, yes, the Thorns got forward consistently and created a crap ton of chances, including some genuine quality.

    But The. Finishing. Is. Awful.

    And that sorta makes it harder to swallow. The midfield did it’s job and the forwards forechecked well…but having set the table, we couldn’t eat their lunch. We couldn’t score when we had the chances, and it’s got to be getting into the players’ heads.

    Jesus but we need Horan back and a miracle to get past NCC in the QF.

  9. At this point I’m not sure but – short of a miraculous turnaround against The Damned Courage in the QF – this means we’re kind of back to Square One on the rebuild. Between injuries, and the absence of Heath, it’s hard to be sure. Certainly scoring is an issue…but it’s hard to say what the answer is. Smith? We haven’t seen her for a minute. Is it simply more time on the pitch for Weaver and Charley and Sinc and Rodriguez to work something out?

    Or is this a larger, team-wide tactical problem? Is this not a matter of slotting Player A in here and shifting Player B there…but a need to revamp the whole team?

  10. The way I see it is it is Weaver and Charley are getting great experience because Smith and Heath are not playing. Both are raw talents and according to Parsons are smashing them in the goal during practices. A game is a little different and Weaver might not be seeing a Lauren Barnes in practice. But this is all good. Playing today without Menges and Horan, even against a OL side that seemed to have few offensive ideas, I thought was a good showing. The players in the interview with Ann and Marian seemed upbeat, Parsons was a bit frustrated because he knows his team is better, but there was no reward, he felt particularly bad for Sinc because she had her best game. Bixby, Westphal and CB have been revelations. Rocky is a baller and Hubly has been more than good enough. Salem has recovered well from the ACL so I feel positive. But if the Courage beat us by three goals I will be as depressed as everybody else here.
    There must have been something in the air, the elevation or the heat but those players were gassed even at half-time.

    1. Well…I suppose that’s the “glass half full” way to look at it. And there have been some positive individual performances – Bixby and Horan, for sure, but Weaver has shown glimpses, Rodriguez looks productive. Our role players like Hubly and Salem have played their roles.

      I was kind of surprised that the players seemed so pleased about today, though. Beyond the individuals the team, as a team, didn’t have much luck against a Tacoma that the forechecking defending kept pretty much pinned back. I’d have thought there’d been more “we had them down…we just couldn’t knock them out, dammit!” sort of expressions.

      Anyway…it is what it is. We’ll see if there’s something fiercer tucked away somewhere to break out in the QF…

      1. That’s concerning that the players are okay with finishing dead last in the league. I would hope that if the coach of a professional team walked into a lockerroom and saw the players were feeling good about that game, that coach would lay into them until they didn’t. And i would hope that the owner of a professional team, if it seemed the coach himself was setting the tone with this being okay, would fire that coach before that kind of attitude became endemic, especially with so many impressionable young players, who could be key pieces in the future, watching.

        1. To me that says that Parsons has been talking up the group stage as a pre-season. He’s plainly been trying a lot of stuff out during these games, and presumably he told the players that he was taking this approach.

  11. I am not sure the players were content with a tie since in my opinion they kicked the Reign’s ass, but because of poor finishing had to settle with a tie and that left them dead last. But their being upbeat I think could have been due to the fact that they were missing six likely starters; Heath, Horan, Menges, Sauerbunn, Franch, and Sophia Smith. That is massive chunk of your team gone. Sure the Reign played without Pinoe; and Fishlock and Long only played about half the game.
    We are all concerned about finishing, especially those of us that remember 2014 and 2015 when key players seemed snakebit around the goal. I also think that they know they can do better and having Horan back will make a big difference and once the whole team is available that will take pressure off the green young ones.


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