Thorns FC: Olive-green Shoots

Finally! After three months and fifteen days (but hey, who’s counting..?) the Thorns took the Civic Stadium pitch again in their first preseason match of the 2022 season, this one against the now-Seattle-again Reign.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Instead of the purported 2022 kits spied at Dick’s Sporting Goods the Thorns ran out in an olive green shirt highly reminiscent of the t-shirt I was issued at Ft. Bragg back in 1983. I’m not sure if this is this season’s warmup top (the actual warmups were conducted in the plain blacks that have been a preseasons mainstay since the middle Teens…) but if it isn’t, at least it was a good indicator of things to come; plain, kind of boring, workaday.

I’d been lolling about in the sun with my pricey beer and notebook since midafternoon, enjoying being back in the old barn on a gorgeous early spring day and watching the Chicago Red Stars and the US U-23s play to a scoreless draw.

It should have clued me in, because both teams looked unready for prime time. The passing was off, the attack wasn’t really there. Lots of energy and random bootball, but without a Macario-grade talent the U-23s are just a bunch of college all-stars and the Red Stars looked, well, about like you’d expect.

Couple of Red Stars notes;

  1. Naeher is still goddamn outstanding, and she needed to be because
  2. Tatumn Milazzo had a really rough outing. Some nice 1v1 defending, but got skinned several times and just looked out of sorts all afternoon.
  3. On the other end, though, Bianca St. Georges had a pretty good outing; got in behind the WNT defense repeatedly and had she had any sort of service might well have made something of it, but didn’t, largely because
  4. Yuki Nagisato couldn’t find anyone to connect with, and so repeatedly tried to take players off the dribble and was dispossessed.

Anyway, that was the opener.

The book on the Dandelions was that their vulnerability was in goal. Claudia Dickey wore the gloves for the Reign, and we still don’t know whether she’s their weak point, because the Thorns’ “attack” was utterly absent for the better part of an hour.

Largely because Coach Wilkinson ran them out in what I think was supposed to be a 3-5-2, but which in practice looked more like a really squat 5-3-2 “christmas tree”:

I think her plan was to push the strong side fullback up the touchline. If so it worked like a lead pool float. The Reign pressed aggressively and forced the ball inside quickly, where the combination of Jess Fishlock and Quinn had pretty much locked down the combination of Sam Coffey, Raquel Rodriguez, and and Yazmeen Ryan that Wilkinson had sent out to try and connect the backline with the forwards.

Who, unsurprisingly, were starved all night. Portland didn’t have a shot from the run of play until the 23rd minute, and finished with only seven. We’ll talk about this in the player comments, but the combination of Hannah Betfort and Morgan Weaver wasn’t really a felicitous one.

The Thorns did lift their game a bit after the hour, when wholesale substitutions brought on;

  • Meghan Nally for Kuikka,
  • Natalie Beckman for Klingenberg at 62′,
  • Sophia Smith for Betfort,
  • Gabby Provenzno for Sauerbrunn at 74′, and
  • Hina Sugita for Rodriguez at 75′

That produced the one real quality chance the Thorns created from the run of play, a nice sequence that began in the final minute of second half injury time with Nally restarting and feeding Smith, whose run drew the Reign defense and allowed her to slip a pretty lead pass to a running Weaver.

Weaver cut towards the goal before lofting a neat little chipped pass to Beckman, waiting unmarked at the far edge of the area, and Beckman’s quick little rasper forced Dickey to get up quickly to turn the ball over the crossbar.

The ensuing corner went nowhere, though, and the whistle blew and that was it.

Early days yet. But, hopefully, we won’t see this defensive a set much in the future; it may suit the current roster, but it didn’t look all that promising last night.

There’s a lot of discussion over at Stumptown about how well individual players did Saturday, and that’s all well and good.

But – as I keep repeating – soccer is the team-y-est of team sports and short of a Pele-grade talent (which the Thorns lack at this point) no individual or even group of individuals can take hold of a match to change the outcome. So what’s critical is how the team is set up to win as a team.

That’s a coaching issue. So what we’re really grading here is Coach Wilkinson’s ability to set up the team to win.

Saturday? Enh…I’d give her a C, or maybe a C-minus.

The defense was generally solid despite Emily Menges having a horrifically off day and Seattle lacking it’s big offensive weapons. The Reign didn’t score, and didn’t really create many opportunities to score, so that’s normally an A.

The midfield was largely stifled despite good individual efforts; it couldn’t connect with the forwards, and was pretty much ineffective at creating chances on goal itself. That’s maybe a C or even a D, depending on whether you consider the wingbacks part of the midfield – if so, definitely a D, since both Kuikka and Klingenberg were largely pinned back and had little effect when they did go forward.

And the forwards were not a factor, not their own fault entirely but part of the overall failure to set up connections between the units or exploit individual matchups. So certainly no better than a D.

Cumulative grade…well, A+C/D+D is hard to make into anything better than a low-middling average.

We’ll see this week if this is just a bad semester or whether our new coach goes on academic probation heading into the Challenge Cup.

Player Ratings and Comments

First, since this is the first “player rating” section of the new season, an explanation of how these “plus-minus ratings” things work is in order. So;

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

Okay, then, so:

Weaver (+5/-0 : +5/-2 : +10/-2) Morgan Weaver picked up right where she left off last November; fast, energetic, creative, intelligent, couldn’t hit water if she fell out of a boat.

We’ve talked about this to death, but the positives and negatives Weaver brings are all still there. She’s a wrecking ball that disorganizes enemy defenses, but her shooting is appalling and what she needs is a strike partner who can be in the right place at the right time to feast off that chaos Weaver makes. Instead, last night Weaver had…

Betfort (74′ – +1/-1 : +2/-2 : +3/-3) In the match thread at Stumptown kielbj had what I thought was the best summation of Betfort last night I can think of: “…a bigger Tyler Lussi…” and that is a good description, because Betfort did a lot of Lussi things; made strong runs, got into good places, created half-chances and then got nothing much from them.

She did put the ball into the Reign goal – off a Klingenberg corner in the 8th minute – but it was 1) the only time that Dickey did actually look like a bad keeper, and 2) called back for a Thorns foul in the box.

Overall, though, a wingback attack calls for target forwards who can get on the end of crosses and through-balls, and – while I’m not sure if Betfort is that forward or not – Betfort sure as hell wasn’t that forward last night.

Smith (16′ – +1/-0) Improved the movement up front, and helped create the nice 90+3 chance described above. I’d like to see a full 90 with her and Weaver to see if Wilkinson has helped them raise their attacking game.

Ryan (+2/-1 : +3/-0 : +5/-1) When we come to the midfield I think the critical PMR numbers to look at aren’t the pluses or minuses but the total values. For ninety minutes of play Ryan had only six actions visible enough to be worth noting. Five were “good”…but that’s not a particularly impactful performance, and that really was the issue.

Klingenberg, in particular, isn’t a “bomb forward and cross” sort of wingback. She has always depended on having a midfielder to play off of; first Heath, then Horan. Last night that connection wasn’t there. I hope it was just preseason rust. But for the tactical setup Wilkinson showed us to succeed, it has to show up at some point. And Ryan, the Ryan we saw last night, can’t do with Kling what Heath and Horan did. That’s a problem.

Coffey (+3/-2 : +2/-1 : +5/-3) One thing that a lot of Thorns fans seem to love is promising rookies. Well, okay; Coffey was promising last night. Nice touch on the ball, and a firm idea of what her role was supposed to be.

Unfortunately her numbers show the same issue Ryan had; she just couldn’t get involved enough to make an impact. That’s not on her; that’s a team issue. But we need to see her again once she does get more involved to get a sense of whether this promise can be converted into goals and wins. So at the monent? “Promising” is all there is, and as Billy Martin is supposed to have said, “‘promising’ is what gets you fired”.

Rodriguez (75′ – +4/-2 : +5/-1 : +9/-3) Rocky worked her Tica tail off and her reward was to get kicked around and roughed up all night by anyone in white but largely by Fishlock and Sophia Huerta. She had a slew of nice runs and crisp passes, but the Dandelion’s press kept her efforts from really generating attack; Rocky’s pass would connect and immediately Betfort or Weaver would be closed down.

Still…a good outing, and hopefully one we’ll see more of.

Sugita (14′ – +1/-0) Another victim of the rough play last night, the newest international really didn’t have much impact on the match largely because she spent a lot of time running from beatings trying to make some space and time.

What didn’t help was the pick-up nature of the squad in the final quarter-hour, with multiple substitutes trying to mesh with each other. As with Smith, I’d like to see Sugita over a full match to see how she can work with her teammates. But in her shift last night, a lot of sweat for very little gain.

So the midfield worked hard but got no joy. How about the backline?

Kuikka (61′ – +4: -1 :+1/-1 : +5/-2) Kuikka is better at the whole “push up and cross” thing, but that requires a target on the receiving end and, as noted above, the target wasn’t really there last night. I’m not sure if that’s a preseason issue or a player personnel issue, so we’ll have to see how the squad looks after a couple of matches.

On the defensive side Kuikka pretty much owned Bethany Balcer. Balcer was such a nonfactor that Laura Harvey yanked her at halftime. Hakkaa Päälle!

Nally (29′ – +1/-2) I thought Nally did decently overall. She’s not as good as Kuikka, which is why she’s not starting over her, but as a neo-pro she shows some of the same skillset. Needs a bit more seasoning to move on from defensive positioning and tackling issues, but all-in-all not a discreditable shift.

Sauerbrunn (74′ – +3/-6 : +1/-1 : +4/-7) I may be too hard on Sauerbrunn – her unit kept the clean sheet, after all – but for a professional of her experience I’m always disappointed to see her doing things like “clearing” balls straight up in the air, or passing out of the back directly to an opponent, and she does that sort of stuff a surprising number of times per match.

Brunn is still a solid centerback. It’s just that I’d like to see her be even MORE solid and cut down on the Sonnett-goofs. Again, hopefully this was just offseason rust lingering.

Provenzano (16′ – no rating) Literally didn’t notice her. Not sure if that is on her, or me. Did help keep the sheet clean, though, so…

Hubly (+8/-3 : +2/-1 : +10/-4) Did a lot of good work – and all sorts of work on both sides of the ball – in the middle of the defense; I have her first-half “pluses” as including two passes, two runs, two defensive plays, a gain, and a clearance. Less active in the second half largely because the Thorns defense wasn’t under as much pressure. Overall, a solid outing from a solid squad player.

Menges (+1/-8 : +1/-2 : +2/-10) Shockingly poor outing, all the more because it’s Emily Menges, forchrissakes! Stuff like colliding with Bella Bixby in the 30th minute going for a cross. It’s not like those two are just now playing together; that’s not an understandable mistake from either player.

That’s just not Menges, and I’m going to write it off as a bad day and expect better this Wednesday and from today forward.

Klingenberg (61′ – +3/-4 : +3/-0 : +6/-4) Solid defending, trouble connecting with her forwards, kind of the story of the match writ small.

One moment in the 60th minute is a good reminder that Kling brings it every match. She passed inside to Weaver, who launched one of her signature runs before dishing to Rodriguez. Meanwhile Kling was ghosting through the Reign defense before bursting forward into the top left hand corner of the box; Rocky’s pass was just a trifle too late and Kling was whistled offside. But you get the idea.

Beckman (39′ – +2/-0) Had the same problems getting service the other forwards had. Well positioned, well-taken shot to cap off the night, but need to see more of her to get a sense of what she can do over a full match.

Bixby (+5/-1 : +5/-1 : +10/-2) When your keeper is getting double-digit plus numbers? That’s not a good thing. That means she’s being forced to make a lot of saves, and so Bixby was. She was up to the job, so, good, but still…

One scary moment in the 77th minute when she went up for a high cross and it went right through Bixby’s hands. The ball ran out harmlessly, so no blood no foul…but we’ve seen that before from Bixby, and, again, hopefully just an early season hiccup.

Laura Harvey glowers down at the Red Stars’ futility

Coach Wilkinson: We had a long discussion already, but in general it’s really hard to generalize much from this one, early days and all.

Certainly it appeared that her statement about wanting more width from the team resulted in a wingback scheme that didn’t really work all that well for a number of reasons, not the least of them Laura Harvey and her squad.

I don’t want to slag off on RW for last night. These matches are there for the express purpose of trying things out and seeing how they work. Did the 3-5-2 not work all that well? Okay…let’s see if there are some tweaks that will help. Let’s see if moving a player here or there will make a difference. Let’s see if maybe the formation itself isn’t working and needs to be swapped out for something else.

Some things remain from last season, though, that Wilkinson needs to work on. Weaver needs better shot selection and needs to convert more. Wilkinson needs to help her with that.

The midfield needs a true #10, a string-puller. Is that Sugita? Is that Rodriguez? Wilkinson needs to figure that out.

But there’s worlds enough and time for all that. This team is no more set that those drab olive drab tops are the final statement in Thorns matchday fashion.

Let’s see what turns up Wednesday. Onward, Rose City!

Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

11 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Olive-green Shoots

  1. Great summary John! My only comment is that actually Fishlock and Quin are two of the best midfielders in the league and I thought they did a pretty good job of making it tough for not only Rocky but the newbies as well. I came away not discouraged because Seattle is pretty good.

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  2. As I stated over at STF I seem to be in the minority on this one but I thought Weaver had a pretty good game. Didn’t get a ton of touches but when she did she was good and made good things happen. Watching Yaz it seemed she struggled. I said at the other place she was abysmal. That was probably a little harsh. To me Rocky was good to very good. I agree with the majority on Coffey and the other rooks.

    Reign dominated the first half. I think we had the advantage in the second half. Overall I’d say a good outing for our first foray into the season considering all our new players and the quality we lost over the off season

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  3. I just added a long piece to the end of the general discussion, but to me these preseason games aren’t about individual players but the team as a whole.

    Did Weaver have a good game? (My PMRs suggest she did…) Coffey? Ryan? Betfort?

    Does that matter, if the team struggled to a scoreless draw against a Reign lacking it’s most dangerous offensive weapons?

    I’d say “no”. The sum of the parts is what matters. And the sum of the Thorns parts – regardless of individual performance – was underwhelming Saturday.

    The real question this week is “Can Coach Wilkinson set the team up to win?”. The answer Saturday was “No, but they didn’t lose, either”, so it’s kind of a low average, maybe a C or C-minus.

    Now…this was in effect the first quiz of a long semester. You can always bring your cume up with a series of “A’s” after getting a C-minus on the first test. So…that’s what’s important here; not this match but the progression through the week and into the Cup. Can Wilkinson find a way to harness all the individual positives to create a winning team?

    We won’t know until more tests go into the gradebook.

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    1. Fair enough. Although I would say these preseason games are just as much about evaluating player performance. We haven’t seen these players play in an actual game yet. Maybe the Thorns’ staff has seen them in actual game situations a little bit in some closed door type things but they have to be still evaluating who is filling what position

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      1. That’s for the coaching staff; it’s their job to evaluate the individual players. I’d add that OUR evaluations are skewed because we don’t know what the coaches are looking for or what they want – we may say “wow, Coffey has a really nice touch on the ball” while Wilkinson is fuming “Goddamn it, Coffey, you’re supposed playing DM! How the hell did Ally Watt get past you again?!?”

        So, yes; for the coaches individual evaluation is important.

        For us, as fans, it’s about the team as a whole. We want the coaches’ evaluations and responses to make the team into a cohesive, dangerous unit. I’d say we didn’t see that Saturday…but also that it was also the first of many trials the coaches need to see to determine what those evaluations mean and what their responses should be.

        I say that simply to remind all of us of the oldest cliche in the sport world; a good team beats a team of good players.

        What we want, and what hopefully these games are helping the coaches create, is a good team.

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        1. Ok, ok. I thought as fans our job was to over analyze, fret every touch, pick apart how they tie their boots, and generally act ridiculous. Oh…maybe that’s just me. Hahaha!

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  4. He deserves the shoutout, but because Bill Cornett responded via email rather than here I have to add what he said under my login:

    “Dude—

    Pretty sure Kelli Hubly played about 94 minutes, and yet I see no mention of her in the Player Ratings section of Olive Green Shoots. Has a player ever done that and not accumulated some 1234 +/- PMR mojo?

    Me, I thought she looked pretty solid, particularly in the first half, but I was a liberal arts major so math confuses me. As does logging in to comment, so I thought I’d reach out and say, “Ummmm?”

    Always enjoy reading your analysis, even when I think you’re daft. 😉

    Bill Cornett”

    I spaced – I had Hubly’s numbers but just didn’t post them. Mr. Cornett made a good catch, and I’ve added them (Hubly had a damn good game, BTW…). Thanks for the correction.

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    1. Bill added the following:

      “Too many damn Defenders, what with the substitutions!

      One thing I wished for after the game was a passing map to either confirm or refute my sense of how unconnected the MF’s were with each other. I’d expect to see really light, thin lines there, with Ryan’s being the flimsiest, but maybe my sense of what happened is wrong.

      Missing tomorrow’s games, so I look forward to your report. Back in my seat Friday.

      Bill”

      One source I use a lot during the season is Arielle Dror, but she works off tape, and so without streaming she can’t do the work. I have the same problem; trying to keep track of anything other than the simplest of actions is damn deadly difficult without tape to re-run.

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  5. Yes Hubly did have a good game. I think we have to remember Wilkenson played 17 players that makes getting some sort of cohesion difficult. I hope she starts what she is expecting to be our starting 11 in the next game. I don’t expect this U-23 to be as tough as the past U-23 teams have been going back to 2017.
    Neither Smith nor Weaver scored; one thing I saw in the warm-up drills was that both Smith and Weaver were hit miss on placement, but both were absolutely hammering the ball.
    I didn’t think Ryan had that bad a game, but Seattle’s midfield really had a good game with Quinn and Fishlock and some help from Huerta, but yes Klingenberg is missing Horan and Salem right now.

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  6. There is simply no way to replace Horan-Dunn-Salem, but Sugita was supposed to be a start & what I saw at the game worried me- she looked like a rag doll being pushed around the field. Actually- worse than a rag doll because she looked so tiny & breakable. I’m hoping I’m wrong (so hard), I don’t want another Andessina

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