I’ve said this here before: soccer is a cruel game.
There are times, however, when the cruelty all descends on your opponents and you can be the one to just smile and smile and be a villain.
So it was last Sunday, when the Portland Thorns crushed Rory Dames and the hapless Chicago Red Stars, drove the visitors before them, and heard the lamentations of the women of the Windy City. This match was over in 16 minutes.
While the Thorns had everything, Chicago had…nothing. We knew the Red Stars were, ahem, “offensively challenged” after watching them struggle in preseason – three goals in four games (two in the wild final match in Tacoma) – but this was ridiculous (Chicago at top, Portland at bottom):
This may well have been the most comprehensively awful performance I’ve ever seen from a Dames squad, and I’ve been watching his teams since 2013.
Which to take nothing away from Portland’s game Sunday. Having pissed and moaned about the Thorns’ charity towards Gotham in the Chaos Cup Final the preceding week I had nothing to cavil about last Sunday; the Bande Nere put their boots on Chicago’s necks in the fourth minute and were still striking at goal in second half injury time.
That’s merciless. That’s what champions do to the weak, the crippled, and the hopeless.
I’m not ready to crown this year’s Thorns the NWSL champs just yet.
This was, after all, Chicago (and a Chicago without Julie Ertz for much of the match, too…). A Chicago which has lost it’s only goalscorer and is rapidly aging out. SactoRick made this point in the comment thread on one of the Stumptown posts about this match:
“…Chicago at Portland in 2016, where Sinc and Nadim each scored in a 2-0 win. On defense for Chicago were DeBernardo, Colaprico, Short/Kruger, (and) Johnston/Ertz.
(This past) Sunday on defense for Chicago were DeBernardo, Colaprico, (Short/)Kruger, (and Johnston/)Ertz.”
So this wasn’t exactly laying five goals on Barcelona or PSG. Or The Damned Courage
But as an opening statement to the league that the Thorns are here?
It was pretty damn emphatic.
Now let’s see what happens.
Passing the Passing Test: 78.2%. That’s outstanding, and particularly compared to Chicago’s atrocious 69%. One of the biggest reasons that Chicago’s attack was so dire is that most of the time the Red Stars booted the ball away long before it got up to Pugh or Johnson or Watt. And when it did the Thorns’ defenders were there.
Okay, remember: only dangerous attacking and possession-gain (or -loss) passes count. A “1” is a pass to and from feet. “L” is a long pass, “H” a headed one, “F” a free kick, “X” a cross. For goalkeepers “G” is a goal kick, “P” is a punt, and otherwise they are rated like the field players.
If a pass was exceptionally good – a “key pass”? – I’ve added bold and italic and underlined to the symbol in the “completed” column. The same iconography in the “missed” column means a very bad pass, one that leads directly to danger or a concession.
Got it? Let’s go.
Hard to say who gets the brass ring here. Was it Horan, with her sweet flick-header to a running Weaver for Smith’s second goal? Or Franch, with the hockey assist on the long punt to – who else – a running Weaver on Smith’s first goal? Or Weaver herself, with perhaps one of the most gorgeous volleyed crossfield passes I’ve ever seen to spring Smith in the 16th minute?
I thought that Parsons made an interesting choice starting Westphal over Kuikka, but Westphal’s forward passing was a huge part of what made the attack so prolific on Sunday. It’ll be interesting to see who Parsons starts against Tacoma this coming Sunday, though. Rapinoe is a much more dangerous piece than Watt, and I’m not sure that the primary mission of the Thorns’ right back won’t be more defensive.
The Thorns won 10 corners. Of these three were taken short and seven were “long” – that is, typical direct-into-the-box-type corners.
The 4th minute short corner developed into a scuffle in the southeast corner that turned into Smith’s shross and the Davidson own-goal. A long Klingenberg service in the 26th minute went right to Naeher. At 33 minutes Westphal went short to Weaver, who lofted a ball into the mixer where it was cleared and Horan took a boot to the face.
In the 39th minute Westphal lofted a corner kick onto Horan’s head; Horan hit it down hard but should have done better than stonk it wide right. Another Kling looper in the 45th minute was easily cleared. In the 50th minute a Westphal conventional corner went all the way through the crowd to an unmarked Sinclair, but Sinc’s shot went well over.
In the 53rd minute Westphal’s corner dimed Rodriguez near the penalty spot, who struck a gorgeous volley that Alyssa Naeher did well to turn around her post – that may have been the closest the Thorns came to scoring off a corner kick. On the subsequent corner Westphal served long again, but Sauerbrunn’s header was pretty tame and Naeher collected it without trouble.
In the 70th minute Klingenberg’s short corner went to Sauerbrunn, but her looping cross was safely cleared. The last Thorns corner of the match went long from Klingenberg to Horan in the 80th minute, but Horan headed right at Naeher who, for a change, held on.
So if you’re keeping score, the tally looks like this:
Short corners (4th, 33rd, 70th minutes): a goal (after a series of short passes), and two Chicago clearances.
Conventional corners (26th, 39th, 45th, 50th, 53rd/54th, 80th): Five shots (3 on goal), two defensive wins (one take, one clearance).
So the relative value of short versus long corners would seem to depend on how much value you place on the Smith/Davidson opening goal. Yes, the only goal from 10 corners came off a short delivery. On the other hand, 70% of the conventional corners – half of all corners – produced a shot, including a shot on goal 30% of the time, and Rodriguez’ chance was an excellent one.
PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS
Smith (62′ – +8/-1 : +2/-0 : +10/-1) Having been unable to put the ball past Didi Haracic Sophia Smith beat Alyssa Naeher like a redheaded stepchild. She was everything I’d hoped to see against Gotham, and her connections with her teammates – especially Weaver, were terrific. She also turns out to be pretty damn good at running Route One. Here’s her first goal;
Franch takes possession, punts two-thirds the length of the field, Weaver volleys a diagonal that Smith touches on and slots under Naeher, two-nil.
And here’s her second:
It’s said that you can’t step into the same river twice, but, damn; that’s pretty much right up the same fucking creek.
I love some pretty short passing; it’s an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
But sometimes a big ol’ direct club works juuuuust fine.
Charley (28′ – +3/-0) Nice turn and shot in the 64th minute, but just needed to keep the forechecking pressure in Chicago – which she did – and see them off in the final half hour, which she did. So that’s a good shift for Si-money.
Weaver (62′ – +8/-1 : +2/-0 : +10/-1) It’s also elegant that the two Thorns rookie forwards came off the field at the same time with the same PMRs. The sum of them was greater than their individual parts, although the parts worked pretty damn fine. Two goals for Smith, two assists for Weaver.
Weaver seems to becoming a second option/provider rather than the front-running striker she played at Washington State, and that’s working like a mechanical ass-kicker, so I’m okay with that. It will be intriguing to see what happens if Smith goes to Japan, however. Does Weaver fall into the same role with Simone Charley, who certainly seems capable of working the sort of runs that Smith scored on in this match? Or does Weaver step up into a more conventional striker role?
Lussi (28′- +6/-0) Well, the goal was kind of cleaning-up-the-trash, but Lussi was perhaps among the most effective of the Thorns forecheckers in the last half hour. Very effective, and nice to see her hard work – because she does work hard, all the time – pay off.
Sinclair (+5/-1 : +7/-1 : +12/-2) Converted her penalty kick with her usual precision and otherwise another solid match from the captain. It helped that Chicago’s midfield could barely get out of their own way, so her pace wasn’t tested, but otherwise dangerous in attack and respectable defending. Her hammer of a shot in the 72nd minute did as much as anything to gift Tyler Lussi her goal. Actually got stronger in attack late in the match; we’ll have to see whether that continues as the minutes add up in her legs this season. It was definitely not the case in 2019.
Dunn (+7/-1 : +6/-2 : +13/-3) Continuing the “utility midfielder/libero” role we’ve seen so far, Crystal Dunn ran wild over the Chicago midfield. We’ll talk about this in the Horan comment, but Dunn helped her partner #8 savage DiBernardo and Hill and neutralize Colaprico.
What’s interesting is that this seems to have reduced Dunn’s role in the attack; she still goes forward, but took only four shots. I’m curious to see if that’s going to be her role this season or whether she’s still finding her place on the pitch, and as she does her attacks will grow.
Rodriguez (62′ – +5/-2 : +2/-1 : +7/-3) I’m curious. My understanding was that the Thorns traded for Rodriguez as more of an attacking, or, at least, a box-to-box midfielder. Since she’s arrived, however, she’s been pretty much a conventional #6, and one that does even less forward distribution than the six she replaced, Angela Salem.
She does fine as a six, and did so last Sunday. She’s a good tackler and marker and especially an excellent passer, completing 83% of her attempts. But…Salem hit 85% of hers, and Salem connected 27 times in about half an hour compared to Rodriguez 36 completions in twice that time, and Salem has a longer leg – she can put the ball out wide to spread the field in ways that Rodriguez doesn’t seem to have.
I still like what Rodriguez does. But I wonder…what game state calls for her over Salem? What does she bring that Salem doesn’t? In other words…why does she start, and Salem doesn’t?
I’m not saying this to pound on Rodriguez, but because I’m honestly baffled. Both players seem to have really similar skillsets…but where one seems to have an advantage over the other, it seems to be Salem. So there must be something in Rodriguez that Parsons sees and I don’t. But…what?
Salem (28′ – +4/-0) See above. Her PMRs translate to +8/-0 over an hour. I’m obviously missing something here.
Horan (83′ – +8/-4 : +2/-2 : +10/-6) Despite her relatively modest PMR, Lindsey Horan was in Great Horan Mode last Sunday, especially on defense. Here’s the full match chart of “defensive actions” – tackles (won and lost), interceptions, blocks, recoveries, and clearances – of all the other Thorns midfielders who played serious minutes Sunday; Dunn, Rodriguez, and Salem.
And here’s Horan:
So while Horan was doing all this defending, she was also taking 93 touches and making 70 passes (81% completion, so 57 of 70 were good). And what were Chicago’s midfielders doing during this time?
Rachel Hill: 49 touches, 31 passes, 58% completion (18 complete passes)
Vanessa Di Bernardo: 48 touches, 37 passes, 59% completion (22 passes)
Danielle Colaprico: 30 touches, 26 passes, 77% completion (20 passes)
So Horan had 73% of the touches of the three Chicago midfielders combined. She had 74% of the passes, and 95% of the completed passes. Of three opponent midfielders. Combined.
That’s insane, but that’s where Horan was Sunday – all over the place. As noted, should have done better with her header in the 39th minute, but Smith and Sinclair were doing all the scoring, so, whatev’. This is the sort of thing Horan did in her MVP season three years ago. Hopefully that means she intends to do it again this season.
Boureille (7′ – +3/-0) Not quite timewasting, but close.
Westphal (+9/-5 : +4/-1 : +13/-6) Here’s another pairing I’m curious about: Kuikka and Westphal.
Purely on paper Kuikka should be a slam-dunk. International, seasoned pro, Krikorian product out of FSU – national champions! – with a Honda “best D1 player” award in her senior year…the Finn has the huge c.v.
But then you look at what they’re producing on the pitch (Westphal Sunday on the left, Kuikka in the Cup Final against Gotham on the right):
Both are down in the middle 60% range on completion, which isn’t great but is kind of understandable given the sorts of passes they’re attempting, and both are typically decent defenders. But the sheer volume of Westphal’s attacking production! Whassup with that? Why can’t Kuikka produce that sort of service?
I don’t know why the two look so different, and why the difference seems to tilt so strongly towards the player who was tossed aside by Tacoma as nothing more than a late-round makeweight. But Christen Westphal is doing a hell of a job here, and having two good right backs is a good problem to have.
Kealia Watt didn’t have much on Sunday, but Westphal and Hubly comfortably handled what she did have, and between that and ‘Brunn and Kling stifling Pugh on the other side, the Thorns had a pretty relaxed afternoon.
Hubly (+6/-0 : +0/-2 : +6/-2)
Sauerbrunn (+5/-0 : +4/-0 : +9/-0)
I tossed both the centerbacks into a single comment because they worked as a unit and as a unit worked well together; like Smith and Weaver, the sum of them was greater then their individual performance. Hubly did have a nervy moment late in the match when Krueger spun her and crashed the byline, but the rest of the defense was on it (we’ll discuss in the Franch comment, below) so no worries.
Nothing spectacular from either centerback…but also nothing shocking, which is pretty much the definition of “solid defense”. Because of the early lead Hubly wasn’t having to play out of the back last Sunday, so her passing pluses are down, and she didn’t have to push up much, either, and the reason for both was largely because Horan & Co. were killing it in midfield. ‘Brunn kept her defense organized and on the q.v. from whistle to whistle.
Now…as we’ve agreed; this was Chicago, who would have had trouble scoring on a decent U-12 squad. But, still…this was a solid outing, and a good sign for the future.
Klingenberg (82′ – +3/-2 : +2/-0 : +5/-2) Kling didn’t have to provide all her usual service because Smith was driving a big ol’ wrecker down Route One and the match was out of reach after the first quarter hour. Her aerobatics earned a penalty, so brava, Kling! and did a decent job on defense on Pugh, who looked uncomfortable all match.
Pogarch (8′ – +2/-1) Klingenberg’s late-match legs.
Franch (+3/-1 : +1/-0 :+4/-1) Two brilliant pieces of attacking goalkeeping in both the Smith goals just makes my heart so happy. Plus a critical diving parry in the 86th minute on the Krueger cross mentioned above to keep the sheet clean. Largely untroubled, but sometimes you get a clean sheet that way; it makes up for the times you have to stand on your head because your opponents are running wild on your backline like a fucking junior high school recess.
Coach Parsons: So this is the Last Season, is it, coach? Was part of this explosion of goals, this sudden plethora of goals, this wild outburst of power and strength, because your players wanted to show you what they could do, show you off in grand fashion?
Well, if so, thanks. That was a fun goddamn match.
Now we’ve got three matches in a week, including The Shame away on Wednesday 5/26 and at Gotham on 5/30. But before that Tacoma comes in here looking surprisingly perky; they got some good work out of Fishlock and a Rapinoe who looked more interested in playing for her club than she has in a long time. So we may well see very soon whether this romp was the just one swallow, or the first of a flock of goshawks screaming out of the Northwest woods to tear and flense the rest of the league.