Thorns FC: Bring Me No Roses

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…

Image from Jell Kassouf on Twitter

…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.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed by Fair Use.

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.

It didn’t.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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.

Image by Thorns FC on Facebook

SHORT PASSES

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.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Meanwhile, here’s Chicago:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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.

Corner Kicks

The Thorns took seven corners. Four in the first half and three in the second, all conventional “long” corners direct into the box

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
25′KlingenbergLongLanded 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
33′SalemLongMiller claimed the ball immediately
43′KlingenbergLongFell 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.
45+1′SalemLongWent out to the top of the 18 and fell to Sinclair, but her shot went high.
60′SalemLongAnother 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.
66′SalemLongTo Charley, who struck a medium-soft header right at Miller
85′SalemLongDropped 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.

Image by CBS. Licensed under Fair Use,

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.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Well.

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.

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9 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Bring Me No Roses

  1. In some respect, 2021 was a repeat of 2019. Backing into the playoffs on the record of our backups making hay during the international break.
    To be sure, losing our DPs for the match was not good, but Chicago was missing players as well.
    I thought we were getting a rebuild after 2019, now we are starting all over again. Clearly some bigger pieces need to move before real change happens.

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    1. I think we’ll see that movement – some positive, some we’ll regret (we’re gonna lose some good people to the California teams…) but the departure of Gunney gives me hope that Wilkinson is going to move the club in new directions. Whether that will be genius or disaster? We’ll have to wait and see.

      And, yes…in a lot of ways this season was dreadfully reminiscent of 2019. Stumbling into the playoffs including a dire draw on the final day, then stymied by Chicago in the semi.

      Like I said in the piece; Parsons’ strength is NOT preparation or matchday management of knockout games. He won the semis in 2017 and 2018 and the Final in 2017. Every other time he’s had problems either in the semi – every season other than those two and 2013 (which wasn’t really his team in Washington…) or in the Final in 2018. Even in 2017, I think you’d get a lot of argument from neutral fans that if the match had been called tightly we wouldn’t have won that Final. Even I have to admit that it was an ugly slog and it took some pretty brutal beatings to shake that star out of The Damned Courage…

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  2. John nice analysis. I don’t envy you watching that game again. I couldn’t face it, but your conclusions after watching the game at PP and seeing the tape are similar to mine after just watching it at PP. Chicago outplayed the Thorns and and Gautrat was excellent.
    I felt terrible when I saw Bella fall on the field in grief and after the game when I found out about her personal tragedy, the game was totally unimportant and I could only worry about how she would handle processing grief while on the great adventure to Australia. I follow the Thorns and the Nationals on Instagram and it appears she is doing fine, I sure hope so. I am glad she has four teammates there.
    Speaking of teammates, I was thinking what if there could be two more games where former Thorns could play the Matildas and the *USWNT. The Thorns team would be:
    Bixby GK, Carpenter, Sonnett, Sauerbrunn, Catley defenders; Polkinghorn, Horan and Foord, Midfielders; Raso, Weaver and Smith, Forwards.
    I think the Thorns beat the Matildas. After all PTFC would be taking four of their seven most dynamic players. The Thorns would have an awesome defense, a better midfield and a front line that has finishing problems, but would have some joy knowing that they only have to beat the goalie because Australia would have such a sorry defense without Catley and Carpenter. Alana Kennedy won’t be playing.
    Now the US, that is another matter, a close game perhaps, but I think the US wins.

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    1. Not sure what the Thorns Fantasy Team v Australia is about, but you’ve got a bit of a logjam front and back – Polkinghorn is a CB, and Foord is a forward, so you’ve got what amounts to a 5-1-5. Might be interesting to see how that’d work given that the Matildas are dire in back and dodgy in midfield, tho…

      And the WNT slapped the Aussies around handily, 3-nil, tho I’m reading that the MAtildas had a decent interval near the end of the first half…

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  3. I knew Polkinghorn was a defender, but ever since Alex Morgan turned Polks and Kennedy into turnstiles on her way to her 100th goal, I have only regarded both of them as ostensible CB’s. She shouldered Polks to the ground and juked Kennedy.
    For some reason the Matilda’s really have problems with that position. They put Catley in there during the WWC19 and she was killed. In the game this week , the US was terrorizing a 17 year old on her first cap and 19 year old with only four caps. In the second half Gustafsen moved Ellie Carpenter to CB. What a shame she was scorching the right side with her speed and kept Purce quiet. In the second half she only made one run from CB and Weaver who initially was caught by surprise quickly caught up and stayed on the field side slip stream and kept her out of trouble.
    Yes Foord is a forward, but so was Horan. I was seeing Foord as a Facsimile Rocky.
    An interesting thing about both Kennedy and Polkinghorn, they are both really valuable offensively in set piece situations.
    Yes the Aussies got better in second part of the first half. Murphy robbed Kerr and Fowler twice of goals and Foord once. And Logarzo, My God she shanked a shot that Aly Wagner said most forwards would put away probably 99 out of 100 times. Somebody on Twitter said that Logarzo missed the very definition of a sitter.
    Whoever is the US Goalie in the next game needs to be on fire and lucky; like Murphy was in this game. I don’t think Sam Kerr will be shut out again and Fowler is a serious baller despite her age.

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    1. And I think Foord is a different cat than Horan; she’s more of a winger than a true ACM – that’s where she played before she came to Portland, and she’s largely reverted to that type since then. But I’ll give you Foord as an outside mid…but Polkinghorn? Ugh. She was a disappointment here and I’ve never been that impressed with her since. Admittedly, the Matildas don’t have anyone better…but that’s pretty thin gruel.

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  4. Oops that was Kyah Simon not Logarzo on the missed sitter. Both those players are good so the US will have to have their A Game on for Tuesday. Evidently some of the Matildas had even a more exhausting commute from Europe to Sydney for the game

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    1. Wow! I’m kind of impressed at the deep dig you put into that friendly! I’ve never really been engaged by the US friendlies simply because I don’t think there’s a lot of want-to built in there. Things are different when there’s silverware on the line, as the WNT found out in Tokyo this past summer.

      Anyway…your enthusiasm has now got me curious enough to watch the Tuesday game just to see if the Aussies can make anything happen…

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  5. I haven’t seen the game last night, just the replays of a 1-1 tie, but when Australia gets the CB position worked out they are going to be deadly. Sam Kerr was having finishing issues , like she usually does against the US, but that game looked like a track meet with so much speed on the field. Last night Gustavsson tried Cately again at CB and it was mistake. Just as Sonnett is not an good RB, she is a good CB; similarly Cately and Carpenter are good and really good FBs and just not good CBs. And Kiah Simon redeemed herself with the tying goal.

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