Thorns FC: ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς

Plutarch’s Moralia contains this quote, supposed offered to her son by a Spartan mother as she handed him his aspis, the famous round shield carried by Greek soldiers; “ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς”

“Son, either with this, or on this.”

So when you marched out with Leonidas & Co you carried all your kit, including the big shield. You lost, and your dead ass was laid down on it. You were supposed to win, or die; there was no in-between.

Fun folks, those Spartans.

Last Sunday the stakes weren’t nearly as desperate, but there was a Shield involved – the NWSL Supporters’ Shield for the best team over the regular season. Our pals the Dandilions had helped us out earlier in the weekend by getting thoroughly hammered, giving up two goals to Washington.

Now the Thorns had their mission; beat the Houston Dash and win the Shield.

Lose or draw to the Dash? Get knocked down, and find themselves at the mercy of Gotham winning out and snatching the top honor on the last day of the season.

Image by Thorns FC: on Facebook

As you surely know, the Thorns took the Shield in a scrappy match that saw only one goal, a Lindsey Horan rocket in the 43rd minute.

The Thorns’ play mirrored in many respects the previous match against Tacoma except without the bad penalty call, and…wait. What?

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In the second minute Coach Parsons and the Thorns – surely supercharged after the antics of Simon and Penso in the preceding week – were howling for a penalty shout as Horan and Katie Naughton body-slammed and Horan went to ground.

Seconds later the shout went out at center referee Luis Guardia again…

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…when Sophie Schmidt stuck out a foot and Christine Sinclair went rolling to the turf.

Twenty-four minutes later a third collision got the Thorns arsed up…

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…as yet another Houston body – I think it was Abby Dahlkemper but I’m not certain – shoved Lindsey Horan down during the scrum in front of a free kick.

How do these look to me?

The first Horan collision seems the most unlikely; both Horan and Naughton were coming together looking up at the ball. Naughton is retreating back and sideways and so Horan gets a bump and goes to ground. Seems “incidental” to me.

The Schmidt toe-poke looks a little more culpable; certainly I’ve seen stabs like that punished before. The difficulty is trying to pick out the force of the actual contact; it looked pretty minimal from Row XX in the screenshot above, but you don’t need to stomp on someone’s ankle like a mad clog-dancer to hack them down. Call that one a definite “maybe”.

To me the third, the 26th minute contact, looks the most punishable. The Houston defender comes in hard from behind, with an arm out, and Horan gets pushed down. Me? I’d have called that one.

Guardia called none of them, however, and so the Thorns had to rely on Horan not to draw the foul but to hammer the ball into the net like the Wrath of God.

The goal was set up, though, by – who else? – Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver.

Smith with the strong left-side run finished with a cross in to Weaver in the box. Weaver was covered like a blanket so she dropped the ball into the open space behind her where two Thorns were hovering; Horan and Natalia Kuikka.

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This is where I almost vapor-locked.

I love me some Kuikka; since May she’s become among the best of Portland’s backs. She does it all; marks, tackles, pulls strings and passes. But there’s one thing about her I don’t love quite so much:

Shooting.

A typical Kuikka shot is a blast from distance that goes either 1) at the keeper, or 2) six feet over the crossbar. As the loose ball rolled back towards them I had a mental image of that rising shot headed for low Earth orbit. Noooooooo! I was getting ready to moan, when…

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…Kuikka pulled up, Horan loaded and fired, and it was 0-1 and that was all Portland needed.

The xG chart shows why:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

We’ll talk more about the “why” when we get to the comments.

Suffice to say, though, that the Thorns returned to Portland with their Shield.

Εις υγείαν, Thorns!

SHORT PASSES

Passing the Passing Test: Both teams were sloppy in Houston; the Dash won the race to the bottom with 68% completion, but the Thorns only managed 69%, so nobody came off looking slick.

Here’s Arielle Dror’s passing network chart, and you can see who was doing the heavy lifting – the fullbacks and Raquel Rodriguez. Both centerbacks pushed passes up a fair bit but with some connection issues, and at the top of midfield both Horan and Sinclair weren’t connecting very well either.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

When you look at the other Portland stats – only 48% possession, and less than 400 passes – that all kind of makes sense. This wasn’t a fast passing game or one where Portland ran Houston off the pitch. Both teams dug in and slugged it out; one converted, the other didn’t.

Corner Kicks

The Thorns took six corners in Houston; five long into the box, one short.

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
28′SalemLongNaughton headed clear.
29′KlingenbergLongCleared out but no further than Menges, who blasted a shot four yards over the bar.
51′SalemLongRolled all the way through the box; Sauerbrunn attacked the ball and her blast was deflected wide for another corner.
51′WeaverShortTrying for the quick restart Weaver went short to Smith, who was fouled. On the subsequent free kick Horan blasted high over the bar.
67′KlingenbergLongCleared, recycled, cleared again, recycled…finally Horan found herself in possession, but the defense help up and the play went nowhere
74′KuikkaLongShowing why she doesn’t take these, Kuikka curled her corner directly over the byline

So…nothing, really. The 54th minute corner was an interesting variation, but if there was supposed to be a pre-set play on the foul cut it off before it could develop. Other than that, we’re still not really making anything off these setpieces, a trend that we’ve seen all season to date.

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PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS

Smith (75′ – +7/-1 : +5/-2 : +12/-3) Helped make the goal, and all of the usual Smith positives; forechecking and disrupting the Houston backline, and creating good chances. Unfortunately also the usual Smith negative; four shots, none on frame.

So far we’ve been lucky and when we’ve needed them other Thorns have found the goals Smith hasn’t been scoring. At some point – hopefully soon – Smith will find where in the back of the locker she hid her shooting boots, because at some point we’re going to actually need them.

Charley (15′ – +6/-2) Simone Charley was part of the sub pattern that Coach Parsons seems to have developed against Tacoma and continued into this match. Which makes sense; same game state, similar opponents, so Charley did in Houston what she’d done here on Wednesday – ran around making as much havoc as possible. It worked, too, so I’d call that pretty cunning.

Weaver (87′ – +10/-1 ” +4/-3 : +14/-4) Picked up the assist, and, as with Smith, all the usual positives that her speed and energy bring. Also not doing much to directly threaten the goal (although one of her two shots was on frame…) and it’d be nice to see a bit more of that.

Still…good shift, and was fading towards the end, so well subbed off.

Lussi (1′ – +0/-3) At some point on of the veteran forwards needs to take Tyler Lussi aside and explain that when it’s deep in injury time the coach shouts “Corner! Take it to the corner!” what he means is that he wants you to dribble into the opponent’s corner and then stand over the ball and fight for it; make the opponent boot it into touch, or over the byline.

Just dribbling to the corner and letting the ball roll immediately over the touchline? That spoils the whole strategy! It’s supposed to be time-wasting, not turning the ball over directly to the opponent.

You’d think that Lussi had known about this before. But she did it twice in three minutes in second half injury time, so…WTF?

Sinclair (75′ – +8/-2 : +4/-0 : +12/-2) In the 68th minute Sinc did something that was crazy skilled even for Sinc, and I thought I’d seen her do everything. Klingenberg served up a looping cross into the box as Sinc made a diagonal run;

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The Dash defender had Sinclair pretty well marked up; she headed the ball high into the air, though, and when it came down Sinc got it on her foot as Jane Campbell charged out down on her.

And then…Sinc did some sort of wild crazy spin-move and cut the ball back 180 degrees against the direction of her run, under Campbell, and into the goalmouth.

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It was an insanely tight angle, and Sinc was moving so fast the other direction the shot didn’t have a ton of pace on it. But that was the only thing that saved Houston. Campbell was flat-out beat, and had Allysha Chapman not been in front of goal it could very easily have been 0-2.

I know she’s gotta be headed for retirement, but…it’s this kind of stuff that keeps me from just handing her the shawl and the rocker.

Dunn (15′ – +1/-1) So this appears to be the system; it’s either Dunn or Sinclair, and one starts and plays the first hour or so, the other takes over and sees out the match. Didn’t do much of anything for good or ill, so hard to say how valuable as a late-match defensive sub Dunn was. Didn’t actively interfere with Sinclair, tho, so there’s that.

Horan (+4/-3 : +6/-3 : +10/-6) Obviously good with the matchwinner, and generally solid all game. Not “great” but didn’t really have to be just because this was a team effort and her team was taking care of business.

Salem (+3/-1 : +5/-3 : +8/-4) It looks increasingly likely that Angela Salem will win the Supporters’ Player of the Year. That’s fine; she’s been rock-solid at the back of midfield all season.

Salem always seems to me to the the ultimate “team defender”. She seldom makes big tackles or brilliant passes, she seldom step out into the light as an individual. Instead she’s always with a teammate; applying pressure, forcing turnovers, picking up loose balls, making little passes in the midfield.

She’s not Amandine Henry. That’s okay – nobody is – but she’s doing the Henry job this season, and doing it pretty damn well.

Rodriguez (90+3′ – +5/-3 : +5/-3 : +10/-6) Continuing her excellent work from the Tacoma match, Rodriguez was a mixture of solid tackling and marking, ball-hawking, and sleek passing and dribbling. Not quite at the WotM level as Wednesday…but an excellent outing and solid on both sides of the ball.

Ryan (<1′ – no rating) Pure timewasting.

Klingenberg (90′ – +7/-0 : +5/-1 : +12/-1) This match marked the return of something we’d come to expect from Kling and had been missing for a while; service from setpieces as well as providing service in general. Got forward effectively as well as good cover defensively, in particular in nerfing Nichelle Prince. Prince took four shots and put three on goal, but because of Kling all three were straight at Bella Bixby and easily handled.

Hubly (4′ – no rating)

Sauerbrunn (+1/-0 : +3/-3 : +4/-3) Much better than her PMR suggests, and as against Tacoma, even sturdier as a centerback wall with her partner Menges. Something has changed that has let ‘Brunn off the leash, and she’s now getting forward to cut off passes and tackle away dangerous attacks. I’m not sure what, but I’m happy to see it.

Menges (+9/-4 : +4/-3 : +13/-7) While ‘Brunn was good, Menges was outstanding, particularly aggressively defending, ranging out wide to cut out Houston attacks before they could directly threaten the goal. Excellent match.

Kuikka (+9/-2 : +6/-3 : +15/-5) My pick for Woman of the Match; tireless on both sides of the ball, and great passing vision.

Bixby (+3/-0 : +3/-0 : +6/-0) Bixby was doing stuff like this…

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…all evening, including saves in the 27th, 42nd, 70th, and 84th minutes and strong takes on crosses in the 46th and 86th minutes (this is the latter). Tied the league record for clean sheets with this one.

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Coach Parsons: I think Parsons is still seething about the penalty calls; he really wanted the 2nd minute penalty/penalties and was just kind of grumpy and fussy all match which, given the tense nature of the game, I kinda get.

Once again he crafted a tactical setup that stymied Houston and executed substitutions to support that setup, and in so doing set the “wins” record for NWSL coaches and secured the second Supporters’ Shield of his tenure.

Now comes the hard part.

Coach and club have to scatter and play a bunch of international fixtures and then regroup here in two weeks to play the final, more-or-less-meaningless-for-Portland-match against the Damned Courage, a club that has been undergoing what in commercial aviation is called a “controlled flight into terrain” since Riley was canned.

I’m not sure how seriously the club will take that match. It’s a great opportunity for major rotation and to get players like Everett and Pogarch minutes.

On the other hand, it’s The Damned, and nobody likes backing into the playoffs. So we may see the full squad.

Until then, though, we can celebrate.

I’m weird in that I actually care about the Shield. For me it is “winning the league”; playoffs are fun and make money, but being the best club over a full season is the true measure of quality.

And this season, that measure is here in Portland.

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7 thoughts on “Thorns FC: ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς

  1. – The passing didn’t look so bad to me this game. There was less safe horizontal passing among the centerbacks, which usually raises the completion rate but has little effect on the game, and more attempted forward passing, which can be dangerous but is much more likely to get intercepted. I’m fine with a pass getting picked off when it’s in service of a good attacking move. That said, our passing wasn’t GOOD – merely, um, passable.

    – In taking the ball to the corner, Lussi looked like she was paying attention to the lurking Dash players much more than the ball, and consequently let the ball slip. You can almost hear her thinking “Oh shit!” when it rolled out on her.

    – Lots of players had really good PMRs! But I’m surprised Horan’s PMR isn’t higher, as I thought she had a really good match.

    – NCC more resembles an *uncontrolled* flight into terrain these days. Hope it continues next game, as I’d be more than happy if they missed the playoffs.

    – Big kudos to Parsons. I completely agree that the NWSL Shield is the more meaningful trophy, the one more indicative of a team’s quality than a series of single-game wins in the playoffs, which are heavily colored by luck. The Shield comes to us courtesy of a rock-solid defense, possibly tied for the best in NWSL history statistically speaking – NCC let in only 17 goals in 2018, a mark we’ll tie if we keep another clean sheet. Solid defense is a sign of good players AND good coaching; you can score a bunch of goals just by having really good attackers, but preventing goals takes organization and practice, and arranging those are the coach’s job. So well done, Mark!

    – Great screen capture of a seething Parsons! I felt the same way.

    – Now that we’ve won the Shield the seething feeling has abated, and I’m just grateful that the bad calls and non-calls didn’t deny us that trophy. Although I’m aware of the Gambler’s Fallacy, part of me hopes that our bad luck with officiating has loaded our karmic account and we’ll get some favorable calls in the playoffs, when they matter a lot more.

    – That final match against the Courage is the only one we have before our playoffs start around Nov. 14. That’s almost four weeks without a Thorns game…. Will our players have forgotten how to work off each other? Hopefully our preferred XI plays at least some minutes together in the final game, though our various internationals will be tired and beat up from national-team games and travel. Maybe we’ll see 45′ for most of the nats and 90′ for everyone else, though we have 7 nats – Sauerbrunn, Dunn, Horan, Smith, Sinclair, Rocky, Kuikka – so we can’t sub them all out. (Substitutions like Dunn for Sinclair would help solve this.) PLEASE no one get injured during the break!

    P.S. Gotham laid that 3-0 on the Courage. It was the Spirit that beat OL Reign, 2-0, and made it possible for us to claim the Shield with a game remaining.

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    1. Neither team was able to pass around the other with any sort of celerity. This was a “grind it out” sort of game and it showed. The low completion owed a lot to players trying to force passes into tight spaces or covered teammates and failing.

      The point of timewasting is to waste time; if it’d been the once I get it, shit happens. But she did the exact same thing twice, suggesting that she doesn’t get it. Somebody needs to explain it to her…

      Horan ran around a lot, but didn’t actually get involved in much. She wasn’t bad, but her impact outside the goal was fairly limited.

      So this season the defense has conceded 17 goals in 23 games, or 0.74 goals per game, well below the 0.95 g/G in 2016. Now…2016 wasn’t the best defensive season in Thorns history. That would be 2017, when the squad conceded only 20 goals in 24 games, 0.83g/G. So the 2021 edition is on track to be the best in the club’s history assuming we don’t completely sandbag against Carolina on Matchday 24.

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  2. John thank you for the analysis and the laughs. You are very funny. Yes Kuikka was awesome and I don’t like her crosses as much as you don’t like her shots. But everything else about that woman is Super Woman. I didn’t think the team played as well as they did against the Reign the previous week and the numbers you present on passing and time of possession support that. But it was good enough.
    For the Courage match I think he needs to give the Nats a start and then bring on subs early in the second half. The Courage are struggling not only from the loss of Mewis, Dunn and Dahlkemper, but also the mid season trade (ARod for three Courage players) that didn’t workout well. Erceg mentioned on Twitter (see below) that the trade hurt. Evidently her and Rowlands were close. For Hamilton this had been her only professional team and she gets traded to the Wooden Spoon team. Thanks Coach! Mace was probably happy because I think Riley could have been on her case about fitness, I am just guessing, but she has been playing better. When Riley was with the Thorns a significant number of fans thought he over trained. Now we know more about Riley’s motivational techniques, I am not sure Dahlkemper and Mewis would have wanted to come back. No matter how great the new coach is this team’s chemistry is damaged.

    (Courage captain Erceg, currently on Olympic duty will return from Tokyo to likely a new roommate. On Twitter, Erceg retweeted the Courage’s farewell/thank you video, with the comment, “Love you guys forever. This one strikes deep into the heart.”Jul 22, 2021)

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  3. Thanks for another interesting and amusing analysis, John. Since I didn’t have an actual stroke, I can say I really enjoyed the game.
    I hesitate to appear critical of your wordsmithing, which is consistently entertaining, but I wonder if you would consider a modest proposal. Since OL Reign has largely displaced NC this season as the Thorns’ bete noir, and, as you’ve written, the generic lion crest is a downgrade from the Queen, I suggest an elaboration of your Dandilions – some variation on “Damned de Lyon” – maybe Damndelyons. What do you think?

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    1. That’s not bad…tho I think perhaps we need something a bit more perjorative.

      Let me think on that for a bit. In the long layoff over the next couple of weeks I’m going to have a bit of a grab-bag piece, and scouting suggestions for a nickname for Tacoma is likely to be included.

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