Thorns FC: Not good enough

The Thorns have always had trouble getting results in Cary against the Damned Courage, and last Saturday’s 2-goal loss didn’t change that.

That wasn’t really the problem, though. It was the way the Thorns had trouble.

“Forwards, score! Defense, don’t derp!”

Sound familiar?

Well, the Thorns forwards didn’t score, the Thorns defenders did derp, and once again the Thorns leave Cary following a whipping that was worse than it should have been.

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter.

The Damned Courage had one functional weapon; Lynn Williams. Yes, the Thorns were missing Sophia Smith (whose injury troubles are becoming a trifle worrisome) and Lindsey Horan, but between them Simone Charley and Morgan Weaver and Christine Sinclair surely could scrounge up a road goal, and surely – since they already knew that the danger woman was Williams! – the defense would be touch-tight on her from the moment she slipped her shinguards into her socks to the final whistle to keep the sheet clean, right?

Wrong.

I said after the KC match that depending on the kindness of strangers for your goals was not a functional plan, and since Casey Murphy isn’t Abby Smith there was no such kindness on offer in Carolina.

Instead, we got a lot of this:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

(And that was actually one of the better chances the Thorns got; Natalia Kuikka’s 3rd minute rasper that Murphy misplayed and had to dive to recover.)

And a lot of this:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

Charley is stymied at the top of the Courage box. Rodriguez is behind her, and Dunn is screened by Sinclair. But she does have Sinclair to square the ball to and, better yet, Weaver lurking along the backline. But you notice what she doesn’t have?

Any teammates moving. Everyone is standing around waiting for the ball to come to them instead of moving into space. With eight blue shirts around four white ones, what odds that’s going to work?

Finally Weaver senses that she’s got some space to her left and begins to make a run, but…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

…it’s too late and Charley misplays the ball right to Kurtz, anyway.

I know this is heretical, but I wonder if having to rely on Sinclair as the drink-stirrer hurts the attack?

You can discredit the Damned for being prodigiously wasteful, and they are; a Carolina attack just throws as much McDonald and Williams and Mewis and O’Sullivan and Debinha at the goal as possible to see if something will go in.

But, dammit, they work. They’re fast. They’re always running, always pushing, always trying to slice through the defenders’ backline. Riley’s fanatic fitness kick often pays off for them, and a Courage player will run around all day in hope to break free of her marker just the one time.

Their defending has been a problem this season, but they’ve stiffened a bit with the return of Sam Mewis, and they still run-run-run at you all day.

On the other had, we get this:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

Angela Salem threads a crisp pass up to an unmarked Charley, who turns and runs at goal.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

She gets to the top corner of the box, but…who else is there? Three blue shirts…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

…but nobody else in white, not until after Charley’s cross is turned harmlessly away. Nobody’s running, nobody’s hustling, nobody’s crashing the box to overwhelm a still-very-flawed Courage defense.

We’ll talk about this in the player comments, but this match, for the first time, made the Thorns as a team look troubled, much moreso than the losses to Tacoma and Orlando. Tacoma was bad luck, Orlando was bad playing. This? This looked more like a system failure.

The Thorns Saturday looked like they often did in Black Autumn of 2019; couldn’t score, didn’t look like they thought they could score. Static in attack, poor shooting when they did attack, elementary mistakes on defense.

What’s even more frustrating about that is that the Damned Courage weren’t great. Look at the stats! Nearly even. They had Williams, we were missing Horan, but other than that? This was a beatable Carolina if the Thorns had had the wherewithal to beat them.

On our podcast last week we asked the question “How good are the Thorns?”

If last Saturday was the answer, then that answer would be; “Not quite good enough.”

Luckily for the Thorns, there’s still three-quarters of the season to play before we have to know the real answer to that question.

SHORT PASSES

Passing the Passing Test: Somewhere around 76%; Carolina with 77% so both sides were pretty careful with the ball. The real problem for Portland was that the “key passes”, the dangerous attacking passes, weren’t 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, “C” a corner kick, “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.

PlayerCompletedMissed
Charley
DunnXL111XL1
Weaver1L
Rodriguez1
Salem1L1C11
Sinclair11
KuikkaLLL1
MengesL11
Sauerbrunn1L
KlingenbergL
Franch1
RyanH

Of the Thorns Salem had the best day passing. Dunn, as we’ll discuss, was kind of a mess. Nobody else really did much of anything of value, and that was kind of the Thorns’ day right there.

Corner Kicks

Another indicator of how barren the Thorns’ attack was; only three corners (Carolina only worked four, so, there…). Two went short, the third long

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
1′KlingenbergShortGot passes around a bit and finally resulted in a Kuikka shot right at Murphy
5′KlingenbergShortAgain, after a few passes was lofted into the box but ran long for a goal kick
42′SalemLongRight to Charley’s head, but Si-money skied the free header way over the crossbar

So what should have been a good chance off the long service in the 42nd minute but nothing else of value. Which, again, was sort of Portland’s day in Cary writ small.

Dammit.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

Charley (79′ – +2/-6 : +3/-5 : +5/-11) Simone Charley had possibly the worst day I’ve even seen from her in Thorns kit. Poor judgement, bad shooting, missed passes…her day was just ugly.

Her coach made it worse by continuing to try and hoof long passes up to her when it was obvious that Riley had read his goddamn book.

I don’t want to generalize from what might be one bad day, but this was a really, really bad day from Charley. With the internationals leaving the team can’t afford for her to be like this again.

Everett (11′ – +0/-1) Not a factor.

Weaver (70′ – +1/-2 : +7/-1 : +8/-3) Typical Weaver shift; lots of hard work, good effort, no goals. Came damn close in the 52nd minute when Raquel Rodriguez put her through 1v0 on Murphy, but the goalkeeper came out big and forced Weaver wide, and when Weaver crossed Sinc scuffed the shot.

Had perhaps the weirdest moment of the match in the 46th minute. Made a strong run up the right channel. Abby Erceg was stride-for-stride with her, though, forcing Weaver wide.

Suddenly, when about even with the middle of the box, Weaver just put her foot on the ball and stopped it – while she kept on running! It was dead simple for Erceg, who has better brakes, to turn and nip up the sitting ball to head back the other way with Weaver tagging along behind.

The male Paramount+ announcer – who was a huge Carolina homer so presumably part of the local broadcast team – crowed “Great defense from Abby Erceg!” which probably would have humiliated the hell out of Erceg had she heard it.

What a goatscrew all around. Ugh.

Ryan (20′ – +3/-1) Not a bad little shift from one of this year’s draftees.

Dunn (+7/-9 : +3/-2 : +10/-11) Crystal Dunn in Cary was all things Crystal Dunn; high-energy, aggressive, and hard-working. She was also kind of a hot mess, especially in the first half, spraying poor passes and losing possession all over the pitch. In the second she was simply ineffective, which is something I never thought I’d write. Over the ninety minutes Dunn played the least valuable match she has in Thorns kit, and at the time when they needed her best. Not a great valediction before the Games.

Sinclair (+3/-4 : +1/-2 : +4/-6) Unlike Dunn, the captain was just dour, outside of the popping up for an occasional nifty tackle for gain. Belted several attempts well over the bar but wasn’t otherwise really involved in the attack.

Sinc’s day was sort of a piece with the rest of the team; not dire, not even very bad, just not quite good enough.

Rodriguez (+3/-2 : +3/-3 : +6/-5) Again…not horrible, but not all that good. Got utterly wrecked by Debinha in the 40th minute when their Brazilian beat our Costa Rican the way the Panamanians did in the Coto War of 1921, but otherwise a decent shift. I’d like to see better, but perhaps while the other internationals are gone?

Salem (77′ – +5/-2 : +2/-1 : +7/-3) Good work in a losing effort, including the nice dime on the corner kick discussed above. Salem is a very solid player; I’m not sure she’s the long-term answer at the #6, but she’s doing well enough until and unless we find someone markedly better.

Boureille (11′ – +1/-0) Not a factor.

Kuikka (+5/-6 : +3/-7 : +8/-13) I’m told that Kuikka doesn’t understand and is frustrated by her benching in favor of Westphal. Well, I suggest she look at the tape of this match. Other than her thumping drive in the 3rd minute, her outing was largely a mess of defensive errors, including:
– getting spun by Williams in the 21st minute to concede a dangerous cross,
– getting split and burned (along with Menges) on a Williams run a minute later that failed to ship a goal only because McDonald scuffed the shot off Williams’ cross,
– failing to get goal-side of Williams on her first goal in the 59th minute,
– spun by Williams a minute later that let Williams shoot and forced a good save from Franch, and
– failing to close down Pickett on the cross that led to Williams’ second goal.

I really want to like her more. She hustles and she does bring more than Westphal going forward, but a back’s first job is to defend, and Kuikka is just not a good defender, especially for someone with her pedigree. She needs to change that if she wants to change her place on the depth chart.

Menges (+2/-2 : +2/-3 : +4/-5) Decently competent as an individual (but if her clumsily-headed 36th minute “clearance” banged off Salem had bounced into the goal we wouldn’t be saying that!) and otherwise a decent shift.

Sauerbrunn (+2/-3 : +3/-2 : +5/-5) As with Menges; not a bad match herself but let down by her defensive unit.

Klingenberg (61′ – +1/-2 : +0/-1 : +1/-3) Said to have been nursing a hip problem, which might account for her muted showing.

Pogarch (29′ – +2/-4)

“You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia’ – but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Fail to mark Lynn Williams when the game is on the line!'”

Pogarch always gets a lot of love from fans because 1) she’s blazingly fast, and 2) she’s a hard-nosed player who loves to get stuck in.

But she’s also tremendously raw with a penchant for making the Big Errors, like 1) ball-watching, 2) mistiming her jump, while 3) not staying tight on Williams at the back post, all in the 66th minute. Result? Down by two and out.

I’d like to think that Po will be better, and soon. But now? She’s not anywhere near starting or even long-relieving quality.

Franch (+1/-0 : +1/-1 : +2/-1) I think she could have done better on Williams’ second; she was well positioned, and there wasn’t much chance that the ball was going across the face of goal. But no chance on the first and that was all the Damned Courage needed. Solid save off Williams’ drive in the 59th minute.

Remember I said that Weaver was involved in the weirdest thing Saturday? That’s not true.

This…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

…is the weirdest thing. Because that little garden? Became…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

…this. That’s…just weird. And that wasn’t the only weird photoshop thing. Flapping “cards” where there were people in real life? And the images were opaque, so when the ball would fly through them it would just…disappear. Some sponsor paid for that crap? Seriously?

Like I said. Weird. And, let’s be honest; when it comes to all things Weird and Damned, nothing comes close to the Sahlen Meatbomber:

Coach Parsons: I’m not sure who had a worse day in Cary, coach or players.

Their PMRs tell the story; most of the Thorns were not individually good. Way too many people (sorry, Si-money, Po, Kuikka, looking mostly at you) failed to do their jobs.

But the team, as a team, looked bereft of ideas; slow, disconnected, and adrift. To do well against the Damned the Thorns’ needs were obvious; score early, press effectively, mark tight, and keep the energy level high. I saw none of those things happen, and that’s not a player issue, that’s coaching.

Now the Thorns have to travel to a Racing Louisville who did a three-goal-clean-sheet number on a death-spiraling Chicago; this does not appear to the the same Racing that the Thorns took to the woodshed on Matchday 5.

If the forgettable match in Cary is to get put behind them both coach and team are going to have to look hard at the problems that were cast in such harsh light by the long shadows of a soft Carolina evening.

Image from North Carolina Courage on Facebook
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