Thorns FC: Chipped Shot

After a pleasantly surprising road win in Louisville the Thorns returned to the Left Coast to host the surprisingly annoying Gotham. The ungrateful visitors used a combination of sturdy defending, decent goalkeeping (from their backup, Didi Haracic), and piss-poor Portland finishing to grab a scoreless draw and road point and scamper away, probably still pissing and moaning about the officiating.

(In their defense, center referee Tori Penso really was dire, perhaps most shockingly so between the 72nd and 82nd minutes, when she 1) turned a painfully obvious Gotham corner into a Portland goal kick, and 2) turned an Olivia Moultrie takeout slide into Allie Long into a foul by Long, which resulted in tart dry Harry Whine that could be heard by dogs all over southwest Portland.)

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Don’t get me wrong; I sip the draft of Long rage-tears like a vintage. But Gotham did have a point; Penso had an off day and the visitors largely came off the worse for it.

Portland was frsutrated, too, and certainly not the first Gotham opponent to come off the pitch frustrated. The really frustrating thing for Portland supporters, though, was that the Thorns created a ridiculous bucketful of chances – more than a goal-and-a-half’s-worth – and couldn’t finish a damn one of them.

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

Take this 28th minute attack, for example. Raquel Rodriguez pushes the ball up to Marissa Everett, who sends a gorgeous ball through to put a running Morgan Weaver in 1v0 on Haracic.

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Weaver has Haracic dead to rights. She can do a Di Maria and flick a sweet little chip over the keeper…

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…or Weaver can bluff the shot, force Haracic to go to ground, and then dribble around her.

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Worst case? Haracic has to tackle her and draws the foul and the PK.

Instead, Weaver tries to five-hole Haracic, who gets down quickly and blocks the ball away.

How about you, Simone Charley, put through in the 53rd minute by another sleek Everett pass! You gonna chip that keeper?

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Or are you going to put your head down and try and blast it through Haracic like the way the cannonball goes through Yosemite Sam in a Bugs Bunny cartoon?

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Hint; real life isn’t like a fucking Bugs Bunny cartoon.

When the Thorns weren’t failing to show clever ball skills whilst playing direct, they showed that they don’t seem to do a lot of give-and-goes or short runs into the box off defenders’ shoulders, either. The Thorns’ deliberate attack seems to involve a lot of…standing around waiting for something to happen.

Here’s just one example, from the 34th minute. It starts with Rodriguez in possession at the top of the Gotham box.

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Typical slow developing Portland “deliberate attack” situation, right? Gotham holding the offside trap line along the top edge of their box, Thorns attackers pushed up right against that line with a couple of distributors at the top of midfield.

How can Rodriguez make something out of this?

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Well…she and Angela Salem could play a run-and-quick diagonal pass as Everett and Celeste Boureille break for the goal to take the through-ball in stride. Or…

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…maybe Natalie Kuikka and Charley could make darting diagonal runs to draw defenders as Rodriguez loops a pass into a running Weaver’s head at the back post.

Or…

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…maybe Salem and Rocky could just pass back and forth while everyone else stands around. Until Charley takes a wide pass and makes a run up the touchline, turns inside, manages to break through two defenders only to find that the Gotham defense has collapsed towards their goal as the Thorns advance slowly, so when Charley puts in a cross it’s cleared quickly away to safety.

This is a coaching issue.

You play the way you train. So if the Thorns non-Route-One attack consists of lots of people standing there dinking passes back and forth…

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…which it often does – you’ll note the small number of people in black who aren’t jogging or even walking slowly in the screenshot above – instead of people running to space and other people pinging quick passes to those runners, it’s because that’s how those players trained.

When a player with an option to use a ball skill, like chipping or quick touches around an opponent, chooses instead to blast a direct shot? It’s because that’s how that player trained.

And, as often as not, how that player was coached in training, because that’s who sets the training standards. The coaches.

If the Thorns attack lacks rapid movement and passing? That’s because the Thorns haven’t trained on rapid movement and passing; that sort of coordination doesn’t just emerge on matchday. It’s the result of hours and hours of practicing those moves and passes on the training ground. If it’s not there on the matchday pitch it’s because it wasn’t there on the practice field, either.

The Thorns squad as it stands today has two forms of attack; long direct balls to running forwards – usually Charley and Weaver – and a slow, deliberate, static pass-progression that tries to work the ball around the top or side of the opponent’s box before lofting in a cross or trying to force a pass into traffic.

The absurd thing is that the player-quality that Portland has allows this stuff to work as often as not! We’re top of the league for goals-scored alongside the Damned Courage. We can still score goals when things go absolutely right, as we often do against poorer opponents.

But when those attacks come up against an opponent that can deal with them, as Gotham did last Sunday or as Carolina did two weeks ago, they go nowhere, and so they didn’t in Cary and so they didn’t last Sunday.

I realize that these are First World Problems. The Thorns are a comfortable third, level on points with the teams above them, and with a game in hand on Orlando. The defending has been mostly, and we’ll talk about that in the centerbacks’ comments, excellent, and the club has been, mostly, winning the winnable matches.

It just chips at me that there seems to be another level right there, waiting to be unlocked, with the right combination of hard work, guile, and skills. And it’s games like this one, where that shiny loot crate is right there for the taking and isn’t taken, that chips out another damn piece of my expectations.

SHORT PASSES

Passing the Passing Test: About 75%; decent, and better than Gotham’s very marginal 73%.

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
Smith
Weaver111111
Everett1111
Boureille11111
Rodriguez11111
Salem1111L
KlingenbergLX1F1
HublyHL1
MengesL111
KuikkaLLLLXLL1
Bixby1
Smith
Ryan1
Moultrie11

Four players were excellent with the ball against Gotham: Weaver, who continued her excellent run of form in passing along with everything else (outside of scoring…); Everett, who had three insanely good “key passes”, the two we’ve already talked about plus a second lead pass that put Charley on goal in the 36th minute; Celeste Boureille, who had a quietly effective afternoon, and Rodriguez, with several dangerous passes including a 67th minute feed to Smith that should have resulted in a better shot.

Kuikka had a very good match overall but was a trifle sloppy in passing forward. Klingenberg continued her run of very muted passing; the Kling of “diming people left and right” seems to have taken a vacation.

Corner Kicks

Weird; just like Louisville – eight total; seven long, one short:

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
1′SalemLongDrifted far outside the box, Klingenberg looped back in, but dinked around and eventually cleared out
13′KlingenbergLongTo Rodriguez whose weak header was cleared out for another corner
14′SalemLongFell into a crowd in front of goal and eventually to Hubly, who hit a good shot that Haracic dove hard to her left and saved and then was cleared out to Charley who won a free kick; that was cleared out to Kuikka, whose looping cross Haracic took
28′KlingenbergShortOut to Menges, whose pass reached Weaver only to be tackled away
30′KlingenbergLongAgain to Rodriguez’ head, but the short header was easily cleared
35′SalemLongImmediately cleared and hit Boureille in the hand, free kick Gotham.
54′KlingenbergLongQuickly cleared away
70′KlingenbergLongTo Rodriguez, whose strong header was well over the bar; should have done better with the free header

Several half-chances and one very good one, the 14th minute shot that Haracic did really well to save. Rodriguez was in her Lindsey Horan get-into-the-box-on-setpieces mode but not in her Lindsey Horan scoring mode; had three headers, two were poor and the third, while powerful, was way off target.

Just like the rest of Portland’s attack, the corners couldn’t produce a result.

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PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

Charley (57′ – +4/-5 : +1/-1 : +5/-4) What does your opponent have to do, Si-money? Invite you to sit down and have some nice kombucha and score a goal? Christ, Gotham almost did. In the fourth minute you bored in and created what is, apparently, a Gotham fan meme; “Haracic-makes-her-once-a-game-massively-ridiculous-error”.

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The ball ran a bit long, but this is where you needed the skill to turn on it and snap a shot past Haracic:

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She’s beat, and you have an open goal at your mercy if you can just turn on the ball right now!

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But you couldn’t. By the time you had the ball underfoot Haracic was back in position. You had no help (hmmm…familiar theme there…) so all you could do was try and chip her, round her, or blast it through her.

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The chip was pretty tight – Haracic had that covered – so at least you tried to round her, but Haracic had gotten past her oopsie moment and dove strong to take the ball off your feet.

Well…shit.

Follow this with all the other futility, and…

The problem is that there’s no obvious “better option” than Charley right now. Weaver has similar strengths and, as of now, similar weaknesses. Smith seems to be struggling with both fitness and form. Everett looks increasingly like a provider instead of a scorer. Lussi is injured and wasn’t effective when she was healthy.

So Charley is going to have to lead the line until the internationals return. Which means, simply put, that she needs to be better than this.

Smith (33′ – +7/-3) As noted above; still struggling. Lots of energy, had some good ideas, but clearly missed being on the field with her teammates, because her timing was just that much off theirs. Hopefully is rounding back to fitness, because she needs more minutes to see if she’s the answer to the Scoring Problem.

Weaver (+6/-1 : +8/-4 : +14/-5) My pick for Woman of the Match for the second match in a row. We’ve already discussed her strengths and weaknesses to death, so as with Smith, the real question is whether she can make a big jump up in form, and how soon.

Everett (68′ – +2/-1 : +3/-1 : +5/-2) Both Everett’s shots were off target, and other than those her threat to the Gotham goal was all but invisible. But, as discussed in the passing segment, she was a monster in distribution. Is that her role? If so, she needs help from her teammates to turn those lovely passes into goals.

Moultrie (22′ – +2/-2) My pal Richard will talk about this more in this week’s podcast, but, given the long discursion we had about training, he was really disappointed to see Moultrie stand around uselessly rather than make a crashing near-post run towards Smith’s 76th minute cross. As Richard pointed out; Moultrie is the rookiest of rooks. Her actions on the field are – must be – more strongly directed by her coach’s training than any of her teammates.

That she didn’t automatically follow the ball into the goalmouth? That’s not a good sign.

Boureille (56′ – +3/-1 : +5/-0 : +8/-1) Another solid match from CelBee.

Ryan (34′ – +3/-3) Did a decent job in relief of Boureille.

Rodriguez (+3/-1 : +4/-2 : +7/-3) Probably should have done better given the opportunities she had with headers, especially in the 70th minute. Fine passing and good tackling and marking.

Salem (83′ – +5/-2 : +2/-2 : +7/4) Generally a good match; should have been tighter on Soo-Dam Lee in the 59th minute when the Gotham midfielder had an open crack at goal and fortunately for Portland fired over the bar, but other than that, did well enough at her job of keeping Gotham off the scoreboard.

Westphal (7′ – +0/-1) Not a factor.

Klingenberg (83′ – +5/-3 : +2/-1 : +7/-4) Good shot in the 13th minute that forced yet another good save from Haracic, and kept Purce largely in check all match, not always an easy task. Probably that was why she was less involved in the attack than usual.

Pogarch (7′ – +2/-0) Presumably to inject some fresh legs, but had little or no impact.

Hubly (+5/-1 : +2/-2 : +7/-3) Okay, so, you and Menges need to have a discussion about this little problem that Mr. Vizzini will explain to you:

“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: ‘Give Ifeoma Onumonu a free header late in the match!’”

Because we did this in the Chaos Cup Final and damn near paid for it, so what did you and your partner Emily Menges do in the 81st minute of this one?

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Without the help of Ms. Left Post and Onumonu’s utter inability to put a header on frame this would have been a very ugly end to a very sad tale. C’mon, centerbacks; 90 plus minutes of vigilance. That’s not a big ask.

Menges (+2/-6 : +3/-0 : +5/-6) Menges’ PMR is deceptive, because defensively she had a good match (other than the Iffy header thing…). Her minuses are nearly all – five of six – for poor passing, including some dangerous near-goal giveaways. Tightened up in the second half.

Kuikka (+6/-3 : +6/-2 : +12/-5) Best of the defenders against Gotham on both sides of the ball. Terrific tackle off Onumonu’s feet in the 44th minute to prevent a pointblank shot. Beginning to look like the player we worked so hard to get.

Bixby (+1/-1 : +3/-0 : +4/-1) Not nearly as troubled as Haracic, but came up big in the 73rd minute on a nasty low shot to her right, and came out strong to cover the Onumonu rebound off the post in the 81st minute.

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Coach Parsons: If the coach gets the credit for figuring out what it took to win in Louisville he has to take at least part of the blame for failing to find a key to Gotham here. Things like give-and-goes, overlaps, movement to space, quick pace and passing…those are all coaching things, and the coach gets credit if they work and blame if not.

The home draw was disappointing, but coming up is a match that is more than just a want-to. If the Thorns want to avoid a first-round playoff match they need to beat Orlando to wipe out the tiebreaker that the Pride now hold. That means coming up with plans to 1) score, and 2) keep the boot on Leroux and Korneick.

Let’s see if he and his club can do that.

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7 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Chipped Shot

  1. Love your columns John. Lots of good data and loads of chuckles. I agree I would love to see more quick passing like the Courage use and swarm attack. Richie Burke has set a goal of 600 passes for his team (that would be really hard, but achievable) but the goal is there and one of Hatch’s goals against the Courage was a thing of beauty, almost comparable to the Christen Press goal that wasn’t a goal because Chesky accidentally blew the whistle. The Thorns have good passers and they pass a lot, but they need to pass forward and fast. A crafty fast forward like Racing’s Ebony Salmon can break away from slower defenders, but if her teammates don’t come up to provide options she is left hoping she can beat the goalie. Against the Thorns Menges caught up to her slowed her down and she had nobody to pass to. So like many of Weaver and Charley’s exciting runs, there was no payoff.

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    1. I think a big part of this happens on the training ground, which is why I wish we could get a report of what the team does there. I think that for some reason the Thorns don’t train with multiple people attacking the goal. The single-striker approach relies on the striker to have some otherworldly finishing skills, and outside of players like Sinc and Horan and Heath we’ve never had that.

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  2. I’d rather Smith just be put on the injury list until she is 100%…or at least 90%…rather than see the disappointing performance we saw last weekend. With the rest of our forward line failing in the box time and time again we keep holding out for Smith to be our Sam Kerr (ideally without the whiny arrogance) – the brief moments of brilliance we saw a few months ago gave us hope! Now my wife and I keep giving each other this silent look of “We coulda had Ashley Sanchez”….

    I remember once talking with Meg Morris at some event about her injury and timeline to return – her response was along the lines of “I’m not sure, there’s so little cartilage left in my hip”. I never saw her on the field again. I know Smith isn’t there yet and will come back around…I’m willing to wait. But these disheartening teasers are not doing anyone any good.

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    1. I’m not sure what’s going on with Smith. I’m not convinced it’s injury; I think she may have hit a wall in her development, or hit a wall in her team-coordination. I’d like to think it’s just a hitch…but I’m closely watching her to see if she moves forward this summer; if ever there was a time for a player to repeat “Midge Purce in June 2019” it’s Smith this month…

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      1. The subject of what is going on with player is enticing to think about, but I generally try not to go there. When Alli Long took her long break in 2017, I think everybody was wondering what is going on, “I am studying” just was not an answer. We really don’t know and everything we think might have been going on is an educated guess. Sinclair and Morgan both losing their shooting eye in 2014 and 2015. I had some guesses. Morgan had some injuries, but I think her confidence was a little shaky after the WC15 and she descended pretty steep after 2012 and Sinclair seemed tired and her Dad was very sick, but we don’t know. Then there was Horan’s late 2019 loss of form. Again, we can guess, but it just happened.
        Same with Smith, we can speculate, but we don’t know. Here is what I think I know. Smith was the player the Thorn’s wanted and the consensus first pick. Ashley Sanchez didn’t tick the boxes and nobody else in the first five was a better choice. Her appearances so far have shown that she is a dangerous and clever attacker. She was excellent at scoring from impossibly tight angles in college. She played on an excellent college team with some of the best players in college including Macario. She has played with the uber talented USWNT. She has shown, especially against Chicago, she can score in this league. We also know she has missed more time because of Nat call-ups than Charley and Weaver. She has had some little injuries that required caution when she was on that bubble. She seems well liked and Horan has taken her under her wing. Sinclair at the beginning of the season noted that the team had a lot of talented attacking players, so the team knew playing time would be shared.
        And then there is this, forwards, like shooting guards in basketball, are streaky. Finishing is hard, just ask Lynn Williams, Amy Rodriquez, Keiliah Watt, Hell ask Sinclair, Cristen Press and Alex Morgan. Adjusting to a new team is hard; Sam Kerr in the WSL can attest to that. I am not going to wonder if she is bummed about not going to the Olympics, she could see at camp those odds were stacked against her.
        But I am going to speculate that real soon Sophia is going to really start killing it. With Weaver, even if she doesn’t score this season, the Thorn’s scored big in getting her and Charley is damn good and getting better.

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        1. Smith has shown way too much talent not to mature into a superstar…45 goals in 58 games from 2017-2019 (U20 and Stanford)…her performance in the 2019 College championship was nothing short of remarkable. I’d have taken her over Sanchez as well. So I’m with you on the expectation that she’ll emerge from whatever cloud she’s under…if nothing else, she needs to earn that spot on the WC23 roster.

          I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Lawes isn’t correct in his assessment that there is a coaching problem with the Thorns right now. While they continue to play the most beautiful soccer in the league, there are moments where things simply feel…off. Confused even…almost as if the players are uncomfortable on the field. Smith’s half hour (which felt like much less) embodied that lack of confidence – there was hesitation and what felt like an inability to trust in her instincts.

          Despite an overall decent performance, I continue to feel we’re in a transition year, building cohesion and chemistry in a roster that is over 50% new. My hopes for a run at the Shield/Star lay in 2022, but with the exit of Parsons & Horan (and potentially other team leaders) it will be interesting to see how things develop. Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing Smith become a fundamental part of that future.

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        2. Development of an athlete is perhaps the most utter crapshoot imaginable. For every ten superstars at 16 five are squad players at 18 and nine are out of the game at 22. There’s an almost unimaginable gauntlet of obstacles to run; injury, obviously, but physical and mental maturity, attitude, intelligence, coaching…the story of the “failed youth star” is a cliche’ for a reason.

          At this point all we can say is that Smith 1) has done well in the past, 2) has shown glimmers of potential, and 3) seems to have had some of the same struggles with injury she had in her college years.

          Obviously because I’m a Thorns fan I want you both to be right and for Smith to develop into the Kerr or Marta or Morgan of 2024. But I’m not nearly as confident that her past is a predictor of her future. In 2014 I would have said that Mana Shim was going to be the Kim Little of 2017. But it turned out that Shim had to struggle with problems we never knew she had.

          So all I can say is; I hope.

          And I do think the team has coaching issues. I would argue that this team seldom plays “beautiful” soccer, far less than the MOST beautiful in the NWSL. Far too often we see the Thorns either going Route One – in fact, much of this season’s success has gone down that road – or spending endless moments farkling about in a welter of poor passes and bad decisions. Like I said above; I wish that wasn’t true. But it’s hard to think of a match outside of Chicago or Louisville 1 where the Thorns were visibly, dominantly the better side and got a result from that.

          Our attack is too often predictable and ineffective; our xG/goals is running over -3; it’s our defending that’s keeping us in the hunt – as I mentioned; take away the two beatdowns and we’re looking at 0.85goals/game. That’s not supportable, and I’m frustrated that Parsons seems to be okay with that – at least, he’s not trying anything unusual or different. It’s not all about individual issues; it’s a team thing, and the solution needs to be a team thing, as well. And, of course, that’s on the coach.

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