Thorns FC: Hakkaa Päälle!

Sunday evening the Portland Thorns went top of table with a 2-1 win over the visiting Orlando Pride.

The scoreline actually flatters the Pride, who had nothing for most of the night; slow and sloppy defending, overwhelmed in midfield, and starved up top. The Orlando forwards between them had three shots, only one on target, and Sydney Leroux and Taylor Kornieck were nerfed by team defense that started with aggressive forechecking.

This was a good win. Overall I was terrifically pleased with the Thorns, and can’t say enough good about a whole bunch of players. Morgan Weaver was the usual sparky bundle of energy all evening until a Gunny Jonsdottir hack from behind banjaxed her ankle. Sophia Smith scored a golazo. Marissa Everett was her now-usual provider of lovely service.

In midfield Raquel Rodriguez, Celeste Boureille, and Angela Salem were ruthless; marking Erika Tymrak, and Korneick out of the match (CelBee versus Korneick was a spectacular kaiju battle, with the shorter beast whipping the taller).

Because of the aggressive work of the forwards and midfielders the Thorns backline was largely untroubled, which allowed both Natalia Kuikka and Meghan Klingenberg to push up and do good work. Kuikka in particular was terrific again, making good tackles and holding her ground, forcing Orlando back.

That said, I wanted to look hard at where this Thorns team can do better.

Doing Better: Attacking

The Thorns still struggled with finishing. Here’s the “xG race” chart (these little graphics are a product of the estimable Arielle Dror, whose work I cannot recommend enough):

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

It’s the risers to watch instead of the treads; the Thorns did little in front of goal in the first half hour. Instead, a Sophia Smith individual run and wonderstrike put Portland up a goal in the 26th minute.

Let me call out Rodriguez here for a moment. One thing that frustrates me about this Thorns squad is that outside Yasmeen Ryan there are few Thorns with a really silken first touch. I see a lot of “passes” that should be better clank off people’s shins because the passer is in too big a hurry or lacks foot skills and boots the ball into next week.

Here Rocky calmly settles a long Orlando free kick and steers it precisely to an open Smith.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Smith has way too much time – Orlando’s midfield was pictured on the side of a milk carton, remember? – and space, and tears upfield. Orlando’s defenders don’t close her down, either, so she gets to line up the goal and hit an absolute beauty of a golazo, beating Ashlyn Harris to her near post.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

At which point you’d think that with Orlando chasing Portland could nick a bagful of goals and, indeed, they should have.

But instead, we got a lot of this. This is from earlier in the match:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Smith has an open channel in front of her, and two potential runners; Morgan Weaver wide left and Marissa Everett centrally. Easy-peasy, right? Practiced this a dozen times on the training ground – Smith slots the ball thru the backline, Weaver runs onto it with Everett giving her a square option if the direct shot for Weaver isn’t on..?

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Yeahno. The ball does go through, but neither Thorn moves and the threat disappears.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here in the 43rd minute; another “attack”, another lone Thorn – Weaver – on the backline to give Smith an option. Why aren’t Everett and Rodriguez bolting thru the Orlando backline?

Again, this isn’t individuals. This is how the team trains, and even at the top of the table there’s room for improvement. This one-off stuff is potentially risky; it’s too easy to shut down. A swarming attack means that the Thorns don’t have to rely on luck or individual brilliance to win games.

That kind of swarming attack doesn’t just happen, though. It gets drilled into the squad on the practice pitch, so that when a Thorn shoots on goal, like Smith does, again!, as she does in the 48th minute here:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

…at least one of the three Thorns in front of the goal would be crashing; Klingenberg, in particular, was in a perfect position for a back post run and tap-in.

That didn’t happen, and instead the ball ran all the way through and out for a goal kick.

C’mon, Thorns. You can do better with this.

Doing Better: Defending

We’ll talk about this some more in the Parsons comment, but the other kvetch I had about this match was giving up a goal in second half injury time.

There was no need; all Portland had to do was hold possession, play keepaway, and run out the clock to hand Orlando a crushing goalless loss. Bella Bixby was a rock all match and deserved her clean sheet rose and would have had it had her field players just kept the match under control and the Pride in front of them.

Instead the Thorns were pushing up and left open at the back, and, sure enough, Orlando found a way to work a goal.

The thing is, Portland’s backline had been living dangerously for much of the match. It was the forwards and midfield that starved Leroux of service. When she got it – as she did in the 42nd minute…

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

…she had space.

Hell, all the lionesses running at goal had space. Look at ’em! Four Thorns defenders marking space (and ballwatching Courtney Peterson…) when if they’d been where they should have been –

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

– ball-side/goal-side of their marks- they’d at least have forced Leroux to go over Menges to get her head to that ball.

C’mon defenders. This isn’t hard. It just means keeping your head in the game for the full 90-plus.

We’re Good. But We Can Be Better!

I want to circle back and say again; this was a good win. This is a good squad, and has the potential to stay at the top of the table if they keep playing as well as they are now.

But they could be even better, and I’d love to see that.

SHORT PASSES

Passing the Passing Test: About 72%; decent but not terrific. Orlando only had 70%, which helped kill a lot of their own attacks.

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
Smith1
Everett111
Weaver1
Boureille1
Salem1
Rodriguez1111H1
Klingenberg1XXF11X
HublyLL11
MengesL
Kuikka1L1LL
BixbyPG
Charley
Ryan
Pogarch1

Lots of good stuff here; Everett, Rocky, Kling, and Kuikka all were clinical and provided some key service. Kelli Hubly had one scary moment; she dinked a lazy crossfield pass in the 42nd minute that Leroux pounced on but, fortunately shanked long and lost. But otherwise…good passing

Klingenberg’s passing looks sketchy, but most of it was trying to force passes to people who were well covered deep in Orlando’s end, so no real danger came from not connecting. Her misses were largely on her teammates, not on her.

Corner Kicks

The Thorns worked a crap-ton of corners; twelve. Of those ten went long into the box, two went short.

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
5′KlingenbergLongHeaded up in the air several times, finally Everett gained possession, passed up to Kling, whose long ball went right to Harris
22′KlingenbergLongCleared out to Kuikka, who put a long lob over the byline
24′SalemLongFell in traffic to Boureille who tapped to Hubly; Hubly had a great look but booted way over the crossbar
45+2′KlingenbergLongActually dropped fairly short into the near top corner of the box. Rodriguez gained possession in a crowd but was tackled for loss
47′SalemLongAgain went short to the top of the box, dropped out to Kling whose lob was cleared
48′KlingenbergShortWent to Salem, her lob was cleared but recycled for a long time and eventually to Smith whose shot is pictured above – several Thorns were in position to tap-in but didn’t/couldn’t
58′SalemShortWent to Kuikka, whose lob was cleared but recycled to Kling, whose rainbow found Everett’s head for the second Thorns goal
61′KlingenbergLongCleared quickly, recycled, but cleared again
63′SalemLongCleared but only as far as Kling, whose poor shot went wide left
79′KlingenbergLongCleared, recycled but went nowhere
89′KlingenbergLongCleared out to Menges whose shot was blocked, fell to Klingenberg who got to the byline and put in a cross that was cleared out behind for the next corner
90′KlingenbergLongWent to Rodriguez’ head, but Rocky’s soft header was easily taken by Harris

Out of this circus I see two clear “from a corner” chances – the 24th minute Hubly miss and the 90th minute Rocky header.

Smith’s 48th minute shot, while a half-chance coming after a corner, wasn’t closely related to the corner; it was really more from the run of play after the recycle.

The second goal, though, emerged from the roiling crowd in front of Orlando’s goal that was directly related to the corner. Which was, just like the second goal in Louisville, from a short corner.

I know that a good number of Thorns fans don’t like them, but short corners are looking productive for the Thorns lately, so perhaps we need to rethink our preconceptions.

Image by Twitch. Since I have to watch these damn ads while I review the tape, now you do, too. This one isn’t the worst, either, it’s actually kinda cute, but, c’mon, NWSL. Twitch? Seriously?

PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

Smith (62′ – +8/-2 : +0/-0 : +8/-2) Spectacular goal. Worked hard, and looked better than she has lately.

Still has issues; shanked a 1v0 in first half injury time that should have been the second goal (well, really the third, but we’ll talk about that in the Rodriguez comment…) and then faded badly in the second half.

A good match overall and, hopefully, the goal will give her the confidence to try and succeed more going forward.

Charley (28′ – +4/-3) Si-money wasn’t particularly dangerous to Orlando’s goal, but the Thorns were already up two when she came on, so all she really needed to do was help hold the lead and see out the win.

That happened, so, good enough.

Everett (62′ – +5/-2 : +1/-0 : +6/-2) The past couple of games featured Marissa Everett as provider and passer of silken delicacy, so I mused that perhaps her role would be creator rather than goalscorer.

Ummm…okay, then.

Lovely header, and a very good shift. Well done, Everett.

Ryan (28′ – +3/-1) See the “Charley” comment above.

Weaver (84′ – +4/-2 : +6/-1 : +10/-3) Once again, Morgan Weaver was the huge Engine of Defense Destruction she’s been over the past several matches. Once again, however, she has yet to figure out where she left her shooting boots. In particular she should have done better in the 72nd minute when she had Harris in her gunsight and belted high and wide.

On the receiving end of a brutal dual tackle in the 82nd minute, taking a forearm shot to the head from Phoebe McClernon and an ankle hack from Jonsdottir that forced her to limp off and put her on crutches during the walkaround.

This is where I have a hard word to say about center referee Laura Rodriguez.

Rodriguez handed out four yellow cards (including one to McClernon for the forearm) but not until after an hour and not until the final ten minutes for three of the four.

Until the final thirty minutes the referee tolerated a lot of rough play. Not criminal or brutal play, but more than the usual “tough” physical play, and it was clear to me by halftime that both teams were not happy with each other and the Pride, in particular, were getting frustrated. Jonsdottir was almost out of hand before the hour, even though she wasn’t one of the four carded.

The players cannot protect themselves if the referee does not protect them through strict and swift punishment for play that exceeds a reasonable standard of physical contact.

Rodriguez did not do that effectively Sunday evening, and two players, one from each team, ended the match on crutches.

That’s on her, and PRO. I spent a big chunk of the top of this post talking about how the Thorns can do better. PRO, and the officials it represents, should and can do better, as well.

Pogarch (6′ – +1/-2) Occasionally I’m reminded that one thing I’ve had trouble with is understanding Parsons’ substitutions. This is one of them.

I’m not a huge Po fan. I think she shows some promising features; she’s crazy fast, and isn’t afraid to go in and tackle hard. She’s got an engine. But I’m not sure about her soccer intelligence, I’ve seen her rookie naiveté hang on longer than it should, and her speed often seems to be spent in running around randomly; kielbj on the Stumptown thread for this match called Po an “exciting headless chicken” and that does a good job of summing up how I think of her.

When she came on in the 84th minute the Thorns were cruising to a two-goal win and had kept the boot on Orlando’s neck through the whole match. All Portland needed to do was to stay organized and disciplined and limit Orlando’s looks at goal through possession and solid defending.

None of those things scream “Pogarch!” to me.

What’s even more baffling is that Parsons had Christen Westphal on the bench. You need calm and control to see out a win and who do you go with? The exciting headless chicken, or the boring but steady veteran?

Hmmm.

Boureille (+9/-2 : +6/-1 : +15/-3) CelBee was simply terrific against Orlando; as I mentioned above, she cut down Korneick like tall timber. As part of the Thorns midfield, she helped starve Orlando’s forwards. Perhaps her best outing of the season to date.

Salem (+2/-0 : +5/-1 : +7/-1) Salem tends to be the “stay-home” #6, so with Boureille and Rodriguez and the forwards hammering Orlando as soon as they tried to bring the ball out of the back Salem had a bit of a day off. Still did well then called on both sides of the ball.

Rodriguez (+10/-3 : +6/-1 : +16/-4) Along with the assist on the Smith goal Rodriguez had perhaps the best match in terms of everything that happened on the pitch-side of the goalmouth; pressing, tackling and marking, passing, and control of the pace and shape of the match.

Her only shortfall was her shooting. Rodriguez’ 39th minute penalty shot was both poorly placed – too close to Harris – and lacked pace. Rocky had several other opportunities to put the biscuit in the basket during the run of play; none of them succeeded and none were particularly close to succeeding.

Klingenberg (+10/-2 : +4/-3 : +14/-5) We’ll talk about this in Kuikka’s comment, but the Thorns’ tactical system requires the fullbacks to get up the touchlines quickly to provide service and then get back quickly when possession is lost.

Klingenberg went through a low point back in 2018 when it looked as though she’d lost too much pace to do this over a full 90 minutes, but since then has recovered much or all of that lost form. She has been consistently outstanding this season, and this match was no exception.

Provided the pinpoint delivery on the Everett goal and tried several other long passes or crosses that her teammates didn’t get open (or make the effort to get open) to receive.

Hubly (+4/-3 : +4/-1 : +8/-4) Several other observers thought the Kelli Hubly had a tough time against Orlando. I think that came from Hubly’s making one or two pretty spectacularly bad passes, especially the 42nd minute goof, that were both shocking and visible.

With the caveat that Orlando didn’t threaten the Thorns’ six-yard box very much, both Thorns centerbacks had solid evenings, and Hubly actually looked the better of the two, particularly tackling and passing.

Menges (+1/-5 : +4/-0 : +5/-5) Menges’ PMR is deceptive, because three of her five first-half minuses are for either poor passing or clearances, none of which were immediately dangerous. The other two, though, were for positional errors that were very un-Menges-like. Not sure why Menges has been making these sorts of goofs, but she tightened up in the second half (until injury time, oops) so good to go…for 94 minutes, anyway.

Kuikka (+7/-1 : +3/-1 : +10/-2) My pick for Woman of the Match.

Yes, Smith smacked a golazo, yes, Weaver raced around doing things, yes, Bixby damn near kept another clean sheet. But Kuikka was quietly terrific; tearing holes in Orlando’s attack with tackles and pressure, providing service for Portland going forward. What’s even more impressive is how she’s grown into her position and with this team.

When she first took the pitch she looked adrift. I didn’t understand why she had been brought in when Westphal was playing so well. Slowly Kuikka has overtaken her teammate and has become a vital part of the club. This match, perhaps her best to date, marks the arc of that ascent.

Hakkaa päälle!

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Bixby (+0/-1 : +4/-0 : +4/-1) Yeah, I’d have given my field players the fucking side-eye, too.

So close! 269 minutes of clean-sheet keeping…and a concession in the 90+5th minute!

Largely untroubled in the first half, but then strong takes in the 52nd and 86th minutes, a diving save in the 93rd, another claim in the 94th…and then it’s like a junior high school recess out in front of you and you’re picking the damn ball out of the net.

It’s enough to drive a woman to drink, I tell ya.

Coach Parsons: Top of table, clear on points, got the tiebreaker back from Orlando…yeah, I can piss and moan all I want, but the bottom line IS the bottom line; the coach has got the team back on top, and if there were some little things to bicker about? There’s no magic like success.

Now the team has to go to that outdoor steambath they call Houston and stay on top. We’ll see how that goes – the Thorns have had trouble getting results in sultry southcentral Texas. Going up early will be key. Get a quick goal. Better yet – get two! And then play keepaway and make the Dash chase and wear themselves out in the dog-mouth heat.

Can we do that?

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Lets.

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7 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Hakkaa Päälle!

  1. I remember when UCLA had a massive center named Mark Eaton that was over 7 foot and big, when 6’11 Steve Johnson ran circles around him and the
    Beavers won. An Oregonian newspaper sports writer said Eaton provided a new definition of lumbering in the Northwest. Korniek doesn’t lumber, she seems deft, but CelB and Salem really buzzed around her and kept her out of the game.
    I am really happy that Kuikka is showing her quality, but I want to see Westphal out there as well. I agree with you that Westphal could have come on rather than Pogarch. Much better choice. Given the climate in Houston I think we will see a lot of our bench out there. Get up by three goals and then bunker. Wait; No that is kind of cowardly.

    I have not watched the USWNT disaster in Tokoyo, but I am not too worried. My guess is Sweden identified certain tendencies and then applied a strategy to deny the US those tools. Abby Dahlkemper’s long service, Horan’s ability to hold the ball and control the midfield, Dunn and OHara getting getting forward aggressively and with no service Morgan, Heath and Press are irrelevant. Those tendencies are always there, but few teams have the quality to exploit them. No other team in their group will be able to exploit them. So Brazil and Sweden are the obstacles to the Gold. I trust Vlatco to come up with a solution, but he better be ready for Brazil to find weaknesses, they are more disciplined than in the past.

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    1. The thing I DON’T want to see is Parsons parking the bus, especially against a decent attacking team. The Thorns defense simply hasn’t been good enough this season to be under the cosh for 60 minutes or more. They’re good, but not THAT good.

      No, the key is to do what we did to Orlando in the first 90 minutes; press effectively up high, take the midfield, keep possession when we can and force them to waste time and energy passing around the back when we can’t. If we can score quickly in Houston we should be able to do that. We’ll see.

      I was pretty shocked at the poor form the Nats showed against Sweden, but it’s possible they’ve seldom seen that level of energetic pressure – most of their opponents lack the quality needed to do that against the US. But I think this was also a weird one-off case of practically everyone on the team having a truly bad day. From what I’m reading (I didn’t watch more than a moment or two…) it sounds like the Nats were purely overrun and outplayed, and I can’t see that happening unless a LOT of US players weren’t on form.

      We’ll see, though. The blood is in the water now.

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  2. What is your take on the Courage trading away Mace, Hamilton and Rowland? In my opinion both Mace and Rowland are right away starters for KC and will improve with them a lot. Rowland is a decent number two GK or maybe Number 1. I am not sure how much ARod improves the Courage. I know Riley likes bite and ARod has bite so…. If I were Hamilton and Mace I would be thrilled with this trade. I think Mace has the skills to be an attacking mid. Hamilton is a proven scorer, but with Courage midfield gutted by the Olympics she hasn’t had many chances. ARod may have the same problem as Hamilton at the Courage and when the Nats come back she might be on the bench.

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    1. There’s way too many variables to say one way or the other until we’ve seen both clubs with their new players. The Kroyals have been dire, so anything has to help. Not sure what the point of ARod in Cary is – she’s underwhelmed for the Kroyals, so why she would suddenly go nuts for Carolina..? Except Riley’s done this before with other players like Jess McDonald and Sinead Farrelly, so…

      Anyway, we’ll have to see how they look in the next couple of weeks.

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  3. On Portland’s back-line defense: From what I see and can figure out, our back line defends zones, not players, most of the time. The back line players spread themselves out as evenly as possible, with the idea that for any lofted cross, someone can get to it, and for any attempted through-ball, someone can block it. That’s why, in the first image below “DOING BETTER: DEFENDING”, we’re not marking individual players as you suggest in the succeeding image; that’s not the tactic the Thorns use. The problem with the Thorns in that picture is the huge gap between the nearest two defenders of the back four (Menges and Kuikka I think) — a gap that Leroux is exactly in the middle of. (Leroux probably spotted that gap and moved to take advantage.) Zone defense requires strong positional skill and full-time attention, and the Thorns in that picture are displaying what happens when those things break down. Of course any system has to mark a player making a run toward goal on a ball over the back line, but with zone defending, it’s not a defender previously tasked with marking that runner, it’s the defender closest, or otherwise best-positioned, to the runner. Ditto for balls passed to a forward who’s near the back line — whoever is closest steps to that player and everyone else adjusts to cover the gap.

    I’m no defense expert, and I’ve always wondered about that transition between the zone line, where defenders are spread out evenly, and man-marking, when a defender has to leave their position in the line to go cover someone — either a runner or someone receiving a pass to feet just in front of the back line. How does the entire line manage that transition? How is it decided who’s going to cover the runner(s) and who’s going to shift to cover the gap(s)? What are the wrinkles that attackers try to exploit? That must a critical part of learning to defend effectively, at least in this system. I imagine Sauerbrunn, and maybe all our defenders, could teach a class in it.

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    1. My guess is that it has to change with distance to/from the goal; as the opposing player with the ball gets closer to the Thorns goal the defenders have to begin to pick out a mark and stick with them. Before that the defenders at least have to head-check to ensure they know where the attackers are, and communicate so they know who’s going to move to which defender when the pass or cross (or shot) is delivered.

      In the first of the “defense” screenshots Peterson is delivering the cross, so it’s past time for someone(s) to get touch-tight on their marks, and, as you note, they didn’t, and Leroux got the free header. The Thorns have had issues with this all season, leaving players unmarked and giving up good looks to opponents who, fortunately for the Thorns, have been inept at actually putting the ball into the goal…

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  4. “We’ll see how that goes – the Thorns have had trouble getting results in sultry southcentral Texas. Going up early will be key. Get a quick goal. ”

    Quick enough for you?

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