Thorns FC: Rise and Fall

It’s been a hell of a week for the NWSL; for all of us – the players, the fans, the clubs, the league.

If you’re here I’m sure I don’t have to break it down for you, but to sum up it’s been seven days of woe; pain and heartbreak, hope and fear. We’ve seen the depth of human depravity and the heights of courage and resilience.

And, finally, after that long dark week, we had soccer again.

Before we bother to discuss that, let me stop at the sixth minute of every match that was played last Wednesday and simply gaze in wonder.

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I’m not sure if I can say it better than I did that night:

The brave moment in the 6th minute of last night’s match was a reminder of what these players are doing. I got tears watching; it felt like hope, like the first glow of dawn after a dark cold night…long after we’ve forgotten the scoreline I hope we’ll remember that moment, the tangible beginning of these great players rising, lifting themselves and everyone who follows after them. To put an end to the lies, to the cruelty and the callous exploitation of these superlative talents.

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It was a reminder that these games are played with the flesh and blood and dreams of hundreds of young athletes, women who just want the shot at glory, and that we as fans – caught up as we are in the playoff races and wins and losses – are also their support and their livelihoods. As they give their bodies, we give them support; our money pays them, our enthusiasm lends them attention and encouragement.

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It’s all twined together in the dream of a league of, by, and for these women. And this was a reminder that we lose sight of that at our – all of our – peril.

But there was also soccer.

And that didn’t go quite so well for our Thorns.

There’s several pieces of this loss that are frustrating; first, because overall the Thorns played fairly well:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

The trouble came because Houston did one thing in particular that the Thorns didn’t do well with, and that was the high press:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

The Dash came out pressing ferociously, and then the other thing that the Thorns didn’t do well showed up; the backline began turning over the ball.

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Perfect example here in the 21st minute. Look at the chain of orange shirts practically parked at the top of Portland’s 18. Emily Menges is in possession, and has several options, almost none of them good. Becky Sauerbrunn is cut off, as are Angela Salem and Lindsey Horan. Natalia Kuikka is penned against the touchline.

As it happened, Menges had to go back to Bella Bixby who had to belt it down the park where the ball ran into touch.

The Dash were all over Portland’s backline from the opening whistle and it payed off big.

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Portland can play Route One and has successfully this season, but for some reason Parsons chose to continue to try and force the ball up from the back through the whole first half, and this resulted in the repeated turnovers directly from the Houston press. Here they are, with the victims and the match time:

Sauerbrunn (3rd minute)
Menges (9th minute)
Rodriguez (14th minute)
Kuikka (16th minute – regained possession and was stripped again)
Rodriguez (20th minute)
Salem (21st minute)
Bixby (27th minute)
Kuikka (37th minute)
Sauerbrunn (43rd minute)
Kuikka (45+2 minute)
Sauerbrunn (45+2 minute)
Sauerbrunn (88th minute)
Menges (88th minute)

Mind you…these weren’t ALL the turnovers, just the immediate tackled-for-loss Portland players dispossessed by a pressing Houston player.

The biggest return Houston got from the press was between the 15th and 30th minutes, when the ball remained in Portland’s defensive end for a full quarter hour and two Houston goals.

The first was, frankly, just atrocious officiating. In the 17th minute Nichelle Prince blasted a shot into the scrum in front of the Portland goal, and hit Becky Sauerbrunn on the back of the right elbow and center referee Natalie Simon immediately pointed to the penalty spot.

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Now…c’mon!! Arm in tight to the torso, leaning away from the shot? That’s never a penalty, never, not 99 times out of 100. Don’t believe me? Ask Meghan Klingenberg.

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But the referee was unmoved, Rachel Daly stepped up to the ball and slotted it home, and it was 0-1.

Five minutes later Simon butted in again. Pressured by Klingenberg, Shea Groom tripped over the ball and Simon whistled Kling for the foul. The initial free kick was cleared, but only to Haley Hanson, who lobbed the ball over a static backline that had missed Kristie Mewis’ turn off Menges’ shoulder. Bixby was too slow and could only stab out a one-legged lunge as Mewis knocked the ball in to put Houston up by two.

I normally don’t whine about officiating, I figure it’s like weather, or the condition of the pitch; it is what it is and you have to deal with it.

But this? This was bad enough to change the match, and a referee should never want to be featured in the discussion titled “Keys to the Match”.

Poorly done, Simon.

That said, Portland clawed back into the match, first with a thundering Christine Sinclair blast in the 30th minute:

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We can fret about Sinc’s age and pace and the ravages of time. But it’s good to remember that she’s not ready for retirement yet, and can still power through an opposing backline like the Wrath of God.

In the 59th minute Bella Bixby dimed Morgan Weaver with a punt, and Weaver looped a little pass to Lindsey Horan. Horan took off towards goal and deftly slipped a slide-rule pass to Sophia Smith who was breaking the backline, With a defender on her back Smith ran into space, stumbled, recovered, and slotted the ball through Jane Campbell’s legs to equalize.

But…that was as close as they came, and in the end the Thorns couldn’t see the draw out.

At the time I thought it was Parsons’ substitutions; in the 63rd minute he swapped out Weaver for Crystal Dunn and Angela Salem for Yazmeen Ryan. The drop in pace was noticeable, and it looked to me like that let Houston push up and threaten the winner.

Watching the replay, though…Portland had all the possession and all the attack between the 63rd and 78th minutes. This possession didn’t produce much of any danger – without Weaver the Thorns stopped running at goal – and settled instead into the slow, deliberate passing-around-the-18 game Portland seems to pick up when Dunn is on the pitch. But it didn’t let Houston threaten or muscle back ahead.

No, the problem was simply that Houston worked a couple of corners against the run of play and on the second Sophie Schmidt looped a cross onto Daly’s head with Sauerbrunn standing lost and forlorn, and Daly headed over Bixby’s outstretched arm for the matchwinner.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

So not a disaster, just a loss…but at a particularly bad time. The Damned won last Wednesday, cutting their gap to six, and now we’re in a position to pretty much have to win out to take the Shield. That’s frustrating, but it happens sometimes. Little things; errors in the back…smothered by the high press…missing chances…and suddenly you’re looking at a pretty scary October.

I’m tight on time (it’s a short-rest week for me, too), so this week we’re going to skip the Passing Test and Corner Kicks and go straight to…

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+3/-1 : +6/-6 : +9/-7) Terrific goal, lots of great work in front of goal, like this in the 15th minute, beginning with a seeing-eye pass from Raquel Rodriguez up to a running Sinclair.

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What’s clever here is that as Sinc runs into the penalty arch from left to right Smith sees that she’s dragging her defenders with her and so crosses the top of the 18 right to left.

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Sinc squares the ball to Smith, who draws a crowd of orange shirts, but also sees the hole in the crowd and her teammate Sinclair that the orange mob has forgotten. So she hits a perfect through-ball into the opening and to Sinc.

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This time Portland is unlucky; Sinc slips down trying to run onto the ball and Campbell gratefully hustles out to take.

But Smith does this kind of thing all the time, though, which is incredible for a player of her relative inexperience. She’s doing terrific, which is good, because right now we can use a lot of terrific.

One thing I would like to see her work on is her precision. She had several terrific opportunities for a crack at goal in the second half and finished only the one of them – four of her six second-half minuses are for poor shots. Finish those and we’re telling a much different story.

Weaver (63′ – +5/-0 : +6/-1 : +11/-1) Another fast-paced outing for Weaver, unfortunately another with a goal. Wonderful opportunity in the 5th minute, when Campbell palmed her strong header wide. The cute little bloop pass to Horan on the Smith goal…it was a whole night like that.

I’m still unsure how Weaver will develop. Right now she looks to be a provider/second striker rather than a true #9. But she may find her shooting boots and suddenly she could be a line-breaking striker in the Wambach mode. We’ll have to see…but for now, she’s big fun to watch.

Dunn (27′ – +4/-3) Another entry in the “Dunn Dilemma” ledger. Not awful, but not really any sort of positive attacker, especially coming on for Weaver. The problem is that she needed to spark the attack, coming on as she did fresh legs with a half hour to find the matchwinner, and instead added pretty much nothing.

I’m not sure what to do with her at this point, but I’m coming more and more to the opinion that she needs to sit for a bit while we try other attacking options.

Sinclair (+3/-1 : +8/-3 : +11/-4) Monster goal…but otherwise a sort of minor key of good. Turned towards passing and creating more in the second half, which she did brilliantly…but nobody could turn her support into goals. Probably a frustrating night for the captain.

Rodriguez (+1/-2 : +8/-3 : +9/-5) Largely stifled by the press in the first half, shook loose and started connecting passes in the second. Decent match in general; needed direction from the technical area to deal with the press sooner and didn’t seem to get it.

Salem (63′ – +2/-2 : +1/-1 : +3/-3) Similar to Rodriguez; troubled by pressure in the first half, but was lifted before the Thorns started really making space in the second, hence the low PMR.

Horan (+14/-3 : +10/-4 : +24/-7) Everything but a goal; great passing, tough tackling, and two assists. A genuine Great Horan performance, the first one we’ve seen in a long, long while. A welcome sight, and hopefully harbinger of more to come.

Klingenberg (83′ – +4/-1 : +5/-1 : +9/-2) We’ve come to the backline, and it’s worth beginning here, with the defender who had perhaps the best evening of all four, by noting that the Thorns defense in general did not have a great outing. Too many turnovers, too much ballwatching and lax marking…you ship three goals and no defender should expect to get much praise.

That said…Kling did have a solid match, and was her usual fierce self both defending and pushing up. Definitely the best of the defenders.

Charley (7′ – No rating) As I noted above; initially I was pretty negative on Parsons’ subs. But watching the match more closely a second time gave me more appreciation of what he was trying to do.

But this one? What the hell was Si-money going to do in seven minutes? Chasing the game this can’t have been timewasting, so I’m not sure what the point was. Desperation? Kind of looks like it.

Sauerbrunn (+1/-2 : +1/-4 : +2/-6) Not at fault on the PK, but this was the first match I’ve seen ‘Brunn look overwhelmed; slow, indecisive, and physically overmatched. Not a good night for her.

Menges (+2/-4 : +3/-3 : +5/-7) Same with Menges; stuff like passing out of the back directly to Rachel Daly in the 27th minute that forced Bixby to damn near collide with Daly to prevent a gimme goal. Both Portland centerbacks had rough nights.

Kuikka (+8/-7 : +4/-3 : +12/-10) Like the rest of her squadmates, lots of turnovers…but also mixed with some terrific passes and defending. Not as culpable as the centerbacks, but not a great match.

Bixby (+4/-3 : +3/-0 : +7/-3) One shocking blunder, on the Mewis goal, undid a lot of good work commanding her penalty area and stopping shots. Not as fault on either of the other two concessions, though, and didn’t look the kind of shaky she did against Chicago.

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Coach Parsons: Hard to hammer too hard on the coach, given that his team played fairly well. My original gripe – his substitutes – faded after tape review.

Still, the bottom line is that the Thorns really needed this match. To shake off the string of defeats from Tacoma and Chicago. To position themselves to deal handily with the challengers below them. To emerge confident from a week of turmoil and tragedy.

But that didn’t happen, and now it’s a madly crowded week; at KC this weekend, home to Tacoma midweek, then away to Houston next weekend.

Whatever is left behind from this match the Thorns need to shake off. As I watched this match Wednesday it was hard to avoid creepy “Black Autumn 2019” vibes. We can’t afford that.

We’ve got the Wooden Spoon this weekend. That’s a good place to turn things around.

Let’s do that. Let’s beat KC like drum and head into the Tacoma match on the upswing,

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2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Rise and Fall

  1. Great article John and your post on Stumptown was just perfect.
    The statistics back up what we saw on the field. Forgetting about the refs, the score was about right given the xGs. I was happy even after the loss because I thought the Thorns played pretty well. Their inability to handle the high press made me feel optimistic when the Dash went up 2-0 because I thought that the high press is what is killing the Thorns and if the Dash park the bus now we will get back into this. The backline, except for Kling, let the side down and if I were the Courage and the Reign, I think the Dash wrote a game plan for them. I don’t think KC has the players to do what the Dash did.
    Houston is good and will be hard to defeat in Houston. One out of four is doable and 2 out of four is probably possible, three out of four looks tough. One thing the Thorns have going for them in this brutal four game stretch is depth, and boy are they are going to need it.

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    1. I’m not really “happy”; Parsons should have a tactical adjustment to teams playing a high press against us – hell, Chicago did the exact same damn thing and got the same result. I’m glad that Horan got her mojo back and that the squad less the backline looked decent. But overall? This was a winnable match and should have BEEN a win.

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