Thorns FC: The Team That Wasn’t There

“The other day upon the stair
I met a Thorn that wasn’t there.
She wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish she’d go away.”

I’ve been using the “Plus-Minus Rating” system since about halfway through the 2016 Thorns season. If you’re a regular reader here you know the system, and if not, here’s how it works:

(What the heck is a PMR? Player ratings explained)

So over that time a typical Thorns match produces a bunch of final PMR values (for the big names and regular starters) in the double figures.

A Great Horan match will yield a +20/-7, say, while a solid outing from Angela Salem or Raquel Rodriguez will produce something like +11/-5 or +15/-9. Some single-digit values for the squad players, but even then the numbers are more like +8/-5.

Even a late match sub with usually end up with something like a +3/-1 or thereabouts.

Last Saturday in Bridgeview?

We’ll go into this in detail in the Ratings and Comments section, but Christine Sinclair was the best on the squad at +8/-1, Crystal Dunn the worst at +6/-12 (she collected a LOT of minuses in the last quarter hour for shitty shots and dropped passes).

But those were the highest values.

Nobody else was in double figures, plus or minus, outside Dunn. Shitloads of LOW single-digit values; +3/-5’s and +4/-7’s. That sort of PMR pretty much happens when you stroll around picking grass and acting tame. You aren’t making an impact on the match at all, for good or ill

In six years of using this rating scheme I’ve never seen anything like it.

It’s like the whole Thorns squad barely showed up and when they did nobody did anything of real soccer value for over an hour and a half. The squad might just as well hung out in the parking lot and had a weenie roast over the burning bus engine.

Did the Thorns really travel to Chicago and play the Red Stars? Or was it just a fever dream?

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter


First, let’s give credit where it’s due: Chicago played a hell of a match, perhaps the best I’ve seen them this season. In her post-match presser Rachel Hill said that the 5-nil thrashing they took on Matchday One was important; the Red Stars wanted to prove that was a one-off.

And so they did. Hill ate the Thorns left-side defense for lunch. Kealia Watt and Mallory Pugh were constantly dangerous and effective in front. Casey Krueger was an utter beast. Tierna Davidson, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Morgan Gautrat bossed the midfield.

The Stars put together the full meal; pressing effectively from forechecking to the backline, passing around the Thorns midfield like practice cones, and getting consistent good looks at goal.

In response?

The Thorns had nothing, absolutely nothing, and picked a pretty wretched time to drop another clanger, with the Dandilions going on a French Connection tear, suddenly discovering how wonderful it can be when you can just say “fuck the salary cap rules! Whee!”


Well, c’mon. Let’s take a longer look at this dog.


Passing the Passing Test: Per OPTA the Thorns completed 79% of their passes.

We’re going to use the system we tried in the writeup of the Carolina match; a diagram of who was doing the passing and who was receiving. Completed passes in blue, significant passes in yellow, incomplete passes in red. Here’s the first half

Where in Cary it was Smith that was the target, at Bridgeview it was Weaver, through the first half, anyway. She was well marked, though – as we’ll discuss – and even the completed passes didn’t produce anything dangerous.

The fullbacks tried to push up but without much effect. Westphal in particular was kind of a mess, spraying long passes downfield that simply went to a dark shirt or into touch,

Here’s the second half:

The addition of Smith spreads out the attacking passes…but the real bad news is that the passing just isn’t there. There’s little or no effective attacking passes. It’s all invisible little lateral dinks and backpasses and scrambles.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one says just one; stymied.

Corner Kicks

The Thorns earned ten corner kicks in this match. All but one were “long”, conventional rainbows into the box.

2′SalemLongMiller easy take.
18′KlingenbergLongLooked like a planned play; hit well out to the top of the 18, where Sauerbrunn knocked a strong header but wide of the right post.
53′SalemLongLong and wide, easily cleared.
56′KlingenbergLongTo Sauerbrunn’s head; powerful downward header but cleared off the line, recycled, Rodriguez wins a second corner
57′SalemLongCleared, recycled, cleared again, finally lost without a shot.
72′SalemLongCleared, recycled but eventually lost into touch.
82′KlingenbergLongPinged around, cleared, no shot, recycled but lost.
83′SalemLongWent wide and cleared, recycled, Miller boxed over byline
83′Salem Long Another Sauerbrunn header, this time deflected out for the final corner.
84′SalemShortTo Kuikka, who lofted in a cross that was quickly cleared, recycled, cleared again, finally Miller take.

Clearly the idea was to try and get Sauerbrunn’s head and the ball in the same space at the same time. And the 56th minute attempt was a good one!

But, like so much else with this match…just no joy for the Thorns.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use,


Sinclair (+7/-1 : +1/-0 : +8/-1) That was a pretty goal, wasn’t it?

Unfortunately, that was pretty much all the Thorns had, and after Chicago started possessing and passing around the Thorns – as Sinc’s second half numbers testify – it was pretty much game over.

Sinc’s PMR is emblematic of the game as a whole.

Weaver (79′ – +4/-5 : +0/-2 : +4/-7) Tried all her usual bag of Weaver tricks, but two things happened.

First, Ekaterina Koroleva was the center referee, meaning that anything short of a gunshot or 40 stitches meant play on. The match wasn’t exactly rough, but physical play didn’t get called tightly (or much at all…), and…

Second, Tierna Davidson took the rook to school. Wily old pro that she is Davidson knew to the joule how much force she would use to beef Weaver around and not get called for it. Weaver didn’t, kept appealing for fouls, and didn’t have the guile to adapt when she didn’t get them.

Well, that’s how you learn. Hope Weaver did, because otherwise she got nothing out of this one.

Lussi (11′ – +0/-1) No impact.

Dunn (+2/-2 : +4/-10 : +6/-12) Unable to get involved in the first half, and then in the second, when she did, a welter of poor passes, turnovers, and (especially) shots.

We talked about the Horan Quandry. Perhaps it’s time to discuss the Dunn Dilemma.

Dunn simply isn’t working for Portland with now, outside of the random and/or occasional moments. I’m not sure why; positional mismatch? Individual skillset dropoff? Lack of chemistry? Whatever the reason, it was a real problem in this match, and with Tacoma coming this weekend, looks to be another problem soon.

I’m not sure how to fix it. But that’s Parsons’ job, and he needs to figure it out.

Moultrie (45′ – +3/-2) Largely uninvolved and ineffective when she was, much like her teammates.

Kuikka (45′ – +7/-4) Kuikka for Westphal (which was the real swap) helped, largely by cutting down a lot of wasted passes. But Kuikka’s effectiveness keys on finding Smith and/or Weaver running free into space, and Chicago was making sure that wasn’t happening or was covered when it did. Good effort…just not enough and too late.

Salem (+1/-2 : +0/-1 : +1/-3) Invisible, which is kind of shocking for typical Salem but not for this match, where Salem was unable to effectively contain Gautrat or DiBernardo and when in possession couldn’t find an unlocking pass forward.

Boureille (45′ – +4/-5) Not a great match from CelBee, whose pace was repeatedly exposed and who also developed a bad case of giveaways. We’ll discuss more in the Parsons comment.

Rodriguez (45′ – +4/-1) Similar to Kuikka; an improvement on CelBee but not enough to affect the match.

Klingenberg (+4/-2 : +4/-4 : +8/-6) A decent enough match had her teammates had anything going. As it was, was badly exposed by Hill several times, conceding crosses and, obviously, on the goal. Tough day for Kling, who worked hard and got little or nothing in return.

Sauerbrunn (+3/-3 : +2/-1 : +5/-4) Came close with that header! but otherwise a rough outing against a Chicago who pretty much did what they wanted to.

Menges (+5/-2 : +1/-1 : +6/-3) See “Sauerbrunn” (except without the headers).

Westphal (45′ – +3/-5) Too many wasted passes, but otherwise not a discreditable shift. But the team needed more punch, so lifted for…

Smith (45′ – +3/-3) Like Weaver, tried her usual bag of tricks. Like Weaver, found that Chicago was ready for them. Can’t knock her effort…but just couldn’t make things happen without her team and, as we’ve noted…the team simply disappeared.

Bixby (+2/-1 : +0/-0 : +2/-1) That lone minus does a lot of work here. Bixby seldom makes mistakes like that, coming late and slow for a rolling cross, diving too soon, and then booting it directly to her opponent. It would be easy to hang the loss on Bixby’s howler except that 1) Sinc’s golazo was a fluke, too, so 2) it’s easily possible that the game goes 1-nil on the Hill goal (which was entirely on Bixby’s backline). Not a great match, given the error, but not the nail in the coffin.

image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

Coach Parsons: Kind of inevitable we’d end up here, eh?

When your entire team is invisible. When your players seem to have no identifiable game plan or tactical scheme…or the one they’re given is smashed within moments of the opening whistle to leave them playing little dinks around the back exchanging “okay…now what?” looks…it all has to come back to the person in charge.

For this one I think that’s entirely correct.

The coach sent out a makeshift XI – supposedly with the intent to rest some players – that were visibly not in synch. Some of his individual choices were errors – Boureille was visibly in trouble from the opening whistle – and the others simply had no chemistry. There was no sense of any kind of tactical plan to open up Chicago.

He pulled the makeshifts at halftime but the lack of a coherent tactical scheme didn’t change. It was obvious that whatever Parsons wanted them to do (and I’m not sure what that was, frankly…) his troops couldn’t do it. If there was a plan there it was thoroughly overrun by Chicago’s quicker movement and better execution.

Remember at the beginning of the season, we wondered how good this team really is?

Well, I’m wondering again.

Good? Obviously “good”; you don’t stay top of table when you’re a bad team.

But with five games left to the playoffs the difference between “good” and “good” depends on how you do against the other playoff teams.

We’re 0-2 against Tacoma. We’re 1-1 against Carolina, and now 1-1 against Chicago.

If nothing else for the morale of this squad going into the playoffs the Thorns need wins against the first two clubs. Anything else risks backing into the post-season with a disheartening slump and, possibly, losing the Shield that has been parked here most of the summer.

Parsons & Co. have a week to make the first of those wins happen.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

8 thoughts on “Thorns FC: The Team That Wasn’t There

  1. I am generally more of a cup half full person after a loss than you are but I will have to say that was a terrible performance and agree with all your comments.
    CelB looked good before her injury; she seemed to be a credible replacement for Horan, but in this game she looked like she was trying to be invisible. Moultry wasn’t trying to be invisible, but she still sort of was. Salem early in the season was ignored. When you have Horan, Rodriquez, Sinclair and Dunn out there, teams were giving her the cold shoulder, but her great performances since have made her a target and she couldn’t seem to get going. Colprico, Gautrat,Pugh and Woldmoe were out-playing our mid field.
    Then that excellent Chicago back line of Arin Wright, Sarah Gordon, Casey Krueger and Davidson just made life miserable for Weaver, Smith, and Dunn. In the first game I was surprised at how good our young forwards played, but I don’t remember Davidson and Wright playing, but Gordon and Krueger, who are both good, got slammed.
    This was bad and I agree the lineup was crazy, but where was Hubly? She is a Chicago girl and would have kept a better lid on Hill. What was wrong with Bixby’s gloves? She was uncharacteristically sloppy. Was Parson’s angry at Horan? He made a comment in the presser that she looked healthy at Cannon Beach. Throwing some shade maybe??

    1. I’ve read the “Hubly” thing a couple of times now, and I’m baffled. Is the idea that Parsons should have pulled one of the other CBs for her? Centerback wasn’t a primary trouble spot in Bridgeview. Was it that he should have pulled Kling and gone with a 3-centerback line? I mean…Hubs has become a solid starter…but she’s not that much better than the other two, who were having decent games. So why Hubly?

      Nothing was wrong with Bixby’s handling I could see other than the concession. She faced several sizzling point-blank shots and did decently with them – the only other instance I can think of was when Hill had an open point-blank shot that went high; Bixby pawed at it but couldn’t hold it and it went over the byline. But that one, too, would have been a pretty spectacular grab if she’d made it – that was a rocket shot.

      Dunno about Horan. But I’m guessing that there’s something troublesome going on.

      1. The Hubly comment was more about letting the local girl play in front of family and friends, but also Rachel Hill was carving up the left side and even tho Kling > Hubly, well I just thought she could have given Kling a rest.
        Bixby didn’t seem to me quite as composed as usual, but I will defer to you if you think her handling was good.
        I hope there is no troublesome things going on. I remember the Long situation and before that at the Spirit, Parsons had Ali Krieger taking some time off for a wedding in the middle of a tight race for the league championship.
        Parsons wasn’t positive Horan would be available for the Reign game this weekend. The way the Reign are playing, the Thorns will need her in full Great Horan mode.

        1. Dunno if Hubly brings anything the defensive unit on the field didn’t have. To field her just because she’s visiting the ‘rents seems like a poor reason for subbing her.

          1. Your absolutely right John. Bringing on Hubly so her parents can see her play is pretty soppy futbol strategy. But in my defense, I have been binge watching Ted Lasso on Apple Plus and I think it has messed with my sense of what is important here. Sorry Ted success is about wins and losses.

            1. This comment didn’t age very well for me. Today’s story by Meg Linehan has just made me feel sick. I feel disgusted with Paul Riley, the NWSL, the Thorns organization, the Washington Spirit, etc etc.
              We felt we knew Sinaed and Mana, we liked them, we felt bad when we could see they were struggling and now we know part of the reason why. The failure of the league and the teams to protect these young women from the Richie Burkes and Paul Rileys of the world is beyond sad. Right now I don’t care about wins and losses. Yes maybe Ted Lasso is right wins and losses are unimportant, unimportant compared to giving these young people a chance to be the best and happiest versions of themselves.
              I love women’s soccer because of the skill and commitment, but even more because of the joy that these players have playing this beautiful game. Because for most of players they are not paid much and the least the league and the owners can do is make it safe for them.
              I also appreciate Alex Morgan, who was insulated somewhat by her stature as a super star, to get behind and back-up these more vulnerable team members.

  2. I’m writing the game off to excessive smoke inhalation and Tide pods consumed during team uniform all-nighter washing sessions.

    However, since you brought it up, how exactly are the Reign fielding a multi-million dollar roster when the NWSL team cap plus allocation $ is just under $1.1M? Might be worth an article at some point…

    1. Because the league is letting them shit all over the cap so that they can say that Le Sommer and Marozsan are playing here. It’s just that simple…


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