I won’t kid you. This one was hard to do.
It was hard to watch the semifinal again. Hard to see Bella Bixby hung on the cross of grief again. Hard to watch for a second time the end of the wild and crazy season that was 2021. Hard to write about – as you can tell, I kept putting this one further and further off, hoping that if I did the end of the story would be different.
But it wasn’t. When the end came – again – it seemed almost as inevitable as the first time.
The 2021 Thorns were the Team That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. In a season where all the NWSL clubs had difficulty finding the back of the net, the Thorns were the poster kids for Winning Without Goals; their 30 goals-for are the lowest a Shield winner has posted in the short history of the league.
Oh, sure…they scored more than anyone except Tacoma…but that was a one-eyed-queen-in-the-land-of-the-blind sort of thing.
The Thorns won with lockdown defense; they had trouble all year putting the biscuit in the basket.
So when the Chicago Red Stars rolled into town they, like Cylons, had a plan for the semifinal, a plan that me and you and Mark Parsons and his pet cat and everyone west of the Willamette River knew.
Sit deep, press in midfield, work ferociously to keep the ball in front of them, and keep their shape…
…just like that. Hope to nick a cheap goal on the counter and then bunker in to defend it.
And that worked like a mechanical ass-kicker.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you.
When I wrote the draft of this piece – before I re-watched the match – this was the next sentence after “…like a mechanical ass-kicker”:
“The Thorns threw everything they could at the Chicago defense and couldn’t score. The Red Stars shot five times and scored twice.”
Because that’s how I remembered thinking, about the first half in particular; that the Thorns were roaring forward and bombing the Chicago goal and were just getting stoned or unlucky.
And then I watched the tape.
Instead of what I’d thought I’d seen from the ADA seats in Section 109, the CBS cameras threw a pitiless relief on the fact that for thirty of the first thirty-seven minutes the Thorns generated almost nothing.
They were disconnected and random, their forwards tiptoeing around the Chicago half of the pitch like winos trying to sneak a bottle of Night Train past the Safeway night clerk.
The Thorns generated only four, relatively indifferent, half-chances in the first half hour:
In the 2nd minute Morgan Weaver ran at goal but put her slow shot wide of the left post.
In the 14th minute Sophia Smith fired a tame effort from the top of the 18 that went right to Miller for the easy take.
In the 16th minute Raquel Rodriguez fired ten yards over the crossbar.
In the 25th minute Smith hit another shot, a lazy dribbler that rolled to Miller like a pup to its dinner.
Finally after the stroke of the half hour the home side produced two half-decent attacks. In the 31st minute Christine Sinclair passed out of the back to a running Smith. Smith smoked Tatumn Milazzo to get free on Miller, but put her hard shot far outside the right post.
Then a minute later the Thorns worked the ball nicely around the Chicago 18, but the final effort was only a soft Rodriguez header that Miller claimed easily.
And then nothing, until the 37th minute.
When Chicago’s Katie Johnson worked her way deep into Portland’s defensive zone and belted a weird eight-ball-in-the-corner-pocket shot high into the near corner of the goal that Bella Bixby got a hand to.
Bixby jumped strangely; weak and slow and without force, more of a sort of stretch than a jump. The ball caromed off her hand, off the intersection of the post and crossbar, and into the goal.
Suddenly Portland was chasing -not effectively, but, still, chasing – and that opened up an opportunity for Sarah Woldmoe in the 59th minute.
Christine Sinclair – and we’ll talk about Sinc when we get to the player ratings and comments – who should have been marking her sagged off Woldmoe, who teed up and hit a solid strike but one that was saveable with a strong dive to the left.
Instead Bixby again dove too slow and too late and it was 0-2 and the match was effectively over and the Thorns’ season done.
To their credit the home side kept throwing balls forward, kept attacking, as you can see from the xG chart, generated enough chances to make a goal happen…but they didn’t make it happen.
The second half is best left unspoken.
After the Woldmoe goal Chicago wasn’t even trying to play soccer; they were just running around kicking things to disrupt the rhythm of the match and succeeded. The Thorns were utterly undone. They could do nothing and did nothing of value.
Whatever tactical plan Parsons had was gone, the Thorns were simply trying anything in hopes it would work.
Only after the final whistle, and her collapse on the pitch, did we find out that Bixby was playing under a crushing burden of grief for her father, who had died by his own hand the week before.
It’s hard to imagine that the Thorns’ keeper could play at all, let alone well.
No matter; the semifinal received but didn’t need that extra dose of tragedy. A ferocious defense against an attack that couldn’t score and cheap goals against the run of play was all Chicago needed to move on to another defeat in the Final.
But by then the Thorns would be gone, the last roses of their year scattered to the cold November turf.
Passing the Passing Test: Both teams were utterly dire. Portland completed just under 70% (69.5%, to be exact), Chicago less than 60%. Mind you, a lot of Chicago’s numbers are because they were just playing bootball after the hour and kicking everything away.
Here’s Arielle Dror’s passing network chart for Portland. Looks good, right? Everyone was passing up a storm – particularly Natalia Kuikka.
But…you’ll note that all that passing is feeding Sophia Smith.. Which was, frankly, all the Thorns had – “pitch it up to Smith and hope for a miracle”.
Smith is the sort of skilled player that can work miracles. But by definition those are rare, and there were none on offer that day.
Meanwhile, here’s Chicago:
Holy shit, that’s just awful (other than you, Morgan Gautrat, dammit – you were on fire!) and the lack of penetration? Ugh.
Chicago was the better team on the day, but not for passing, that’s for damn sure.
The Thorns took seven corners. Four in the first half and three in the second, all conventional “long” corners direct into the box
|Landed in the scrum, eventually Sauerbrunn booted the ball high in the air where it was cleared but recycled to Smith, whose weak shot rolled right to Miller
|Miller claimed the ball immediately
|Fell to Rodriguez who was swarmed and couldn’t shoot, was cleared and recycled, Klingenberg put in a cross that landed on Rodriguez’ head, but her weak header was cleared to Salem, whose hard shot was partially blocked and Miller cleaned up the mess.
|Went out to the top of the 18 and fell to Sinclair, but her shot went high.
|Another ball that went out to the top of the 18, Klingenberg put in a cross that was cleared out to Kuikka, whose shot went high.
|To Charley, who struck a medium-soft header right at Miller
|Dropped into the crowd; Rodriguez got a high boot to it, but not a shot and Chicago cleared the ball away.
Not much of anything. You could count Charley’s header as a decently pacey attempt, I suppose, but it was poorly placed. Nobody else could so much as put laces through the ball.
At one point the announcers talked about Portland generating chances off set-pieces, but this season I would say this team has been the least dangerous off corner kicks that I can recall in years.
One of the many projects for Rhian Wilkenson will be to find a way to make the Thorns dangerous on set-pieces again.
PLAYER RATINGS AND COMMENTS
Smith (+4/-8 : +3/-7 : +7/-15) Let’s get this out of the way.
Portland’s attack plan – such as it was – relied on Sophia Smith. That’s all Parsons had; get it to Smith and score. Instead Smith had her worst game of the season. None of her attempts was remotely close to a goal; those which were on frame – two of the five – were pillow-soft and easily dealt with.
Portland failed largely because Smith failed.
Smith has had finishing issues all season, and that will be a massive project for 2022. Smith simply has to be capable of scoring, or she will need to be supported with a striker-quality #9. Until that happens the Thorns will continue to struggle up front.
Weaver (59′ – +1/-3 : +0/-0 : +1/-3) Largely invisible. Certainly the Chicago defense had something to do with that, but part of the issue had to be Weaver also having a poor outing. Which was troubling, because with both forwards imploding the Thorns had no plan B.
One troubling aspect of this was the utter disconnect between Weaver and Smith, and Weaver and Sinclair. Soccer is supposed to be a team sport. On semifinal Sunday the Thorns forwards looked like they had never met before.
Charley (31′ – +2/-1) Ran a lot, with her usual nose for trouble made some good trouble, but by the third half hour the Thorns were all in pieces, so got no real service and was as a result ineffective.
Sinclair (+1/-1 : +2/-2 : +3/-3) If Smith had the worst match of her 2021, Sinclair had the most devastating performance on the team that day. She was everything her detractors say she’s become; slow, out of ideas, dragging her teammates down with her lack of pace.
I think that even with the extra week of rest, Sinclair was gassed. Done for the year. Worn down by weeks of punishing mileage. The final blow was realizing too late that Woldmoe was going to tee one up and closing her down too slowly.
That’s not vintage Sinclair. That’s a tired older player struggling to stay on the pitch.
Another task for the incoming coach; having The Talk with Captain Sinclair.
We all know what that Talk will be about.
I just hope Sinc is willing to listen.
Ryan (+6/-5 : +2/-2 : +8/-7) When I watched this match live I thought that the lack of Lindsey Horan was hampering the midfield. Horan is tenacious on the ball, and is nearly impossible to dispossess; she will nearly always find an outlet.
From the stands it looked like Ryan and Salem and Rodriguez were constantly being pressed hard and dispossessed easily because Horan wasn’t there to hold up the ball.
The tape made things look a little less simple.
Yes, the Horan-less midfield was having trouble distributing. But the problem was only partially Chicago pressure. The biggest problem was their teammates.
When a Thorns midfielder took a pass she almost never had an immediate outlet. Players were poorly spaced, cut off, or failing to move to open space, especially towards the Chicago goal, so the passes had to go sideways, or backwards. And the midfielders were passing poorly when they did get the opportunity.
Ryan, in particular, had problems with something she usually aces; her touch. Three of her seven minuses are for heavy touches that ran to a white shirt, two for poor passing, one for a weak shot, and only one for being tackled for loss.
Salem (+2/-0 : +0/-2 : +2/-2) Since Chicago hardly attacked, Salem had little to do and her PMR reflects that. Spent much of her match chasing phantoms around midfield.
Rodriguez (+0/-4 : +3/-3 : +3/-7) Rocky’s PMR took a beating for her shooting. Her passing suffered from the same problems discussed in the Ryan comment. Not a good match from her, but as much because her team was falling apart as her own problems.
Klingenberg (+5/-0 : +2/-2 : +7/-4) Your year is done, small, scrappy fighter. You never gave up. You never gave in. You left it all on the pitch. Two years or more ago I had given up on you, but you never gave up on yourself. May you wear your years with honor and glory.
We look forward to seeing what you bring next season.
Sauerbrunn (+2/-4 : +4/-1 : +6/-5) The centerbacks had a weird game. Neither of the concessions were their fault, Chicago barely got inside the 18, much less near the Thorns goal. But the team shipped two goals and lost, and that’s tough for a defender to stomach.
Menges (+5/-0 : +2/-1 : +7/-1) See the Sauerbrunn comment; good match in a losing cause.
Kuikka (+6/-6 : +3/-2 : +9/-8) Lots of passes, some good, some not. Nearly all Kuikka’s PMR depends on her passing; as noted above, Chicago’s “attack” was risible, and what defending she did was fine. Generally effective going forward but just not enough to change the game state…which is what the team needed.
Bixby (+0/-1 : +0/-1 : +0/-2) Sometimes there is nothing but pain and endless grief.
Coach Parsons: It seems just mean and graceless to slag off on a man who has given so many gifts to his players, his team, his fans, and his city as he leaves for the last time.
So let’s just agree that, while Mark Parsons the coach does many things well, preparing his teams for knockout matches hasn’t been the strongest of them.
Parsons himself talks about his methods as holistic, as more focused on the players as complete individuals and as a group in the context of team culture. I suspect a coach like that is not the sort of coach who will hammer his players to fit into a tactical mold. I suspect he works indirectly, gives the team and the team leaders a general idea and points them towards ways to accomplish it.
The term you’re looking for is Auftragstaktik.
But as Clausewitz (drink!) says; in soccer, everything is simple but the simplest thing is incredibly difficult.
The problem with a nondirective approach when your opponent has a rock-solid plan is that when the players don’t figure out the plan they can be left flailing, confused and frustrated. I think that happened in Chicago in 2019 and I think it happened again this season.
In 2019 Emily Menges made a shockingly uncharacteristic mistake, Sam Kerr did Sam Kerr things, and the Thorns couldn’t score.
This season the pressure was on Bella Bixby, Katie Johnson did Kealia Watt things, the Thorns still couldn’t score, and Chicago ran off the better team on the day.
I think we’re going to see many, many changes before we see our Thorns again.
But let’s take a moment to remember, and enjoy, the moments of excitement, of drama, of effort and achievement that the 2021 Thorns gave to us. We will not see this team again until the spring.
In what was in many ways a dark and troubled year, the players in red and black gave us some bright moments and some precious memories that will warm us through the darkness into the dawn of a new season.
I’ll meet you there.