Thorns FC: She’s Out of Control

I’ve said – and I’ll stand by what I said – that soccer is among the most team-centric of team sports.


Every so often a single player grabs hold of a game and shakes it like a terrier with a chew-toy.

That’s what Sophia Smith did to the poor U-23s on Tuesday night.

Now…let’s start by agreeing that the U-23s are what they are; a college all-star team and one that currently lacks the sort of monster talent that made them so deadly when Catarina Macario played for them.

Tuesday night was literally women-against-girls (okay, well, “older-professional-women-against-younger-nonprofessional-women”, anyway). The Thorns out-shot the juniors 20-1 in the first half. Five corners to one. I don’t have possession numbers but it must have easily been something like 70-30. The match was less a match than a one-sided beatdown.

But, still…Smith ran absolutely wild and the junior Nats had no answer to her. She bagged a hat trick in something like 16 minutes, with goals in the 21st, 23rd, and 37th minutes.

Image by Thorns FC: on Facebook

That was just fun, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come. What pleased me more, though, was the performance of the team around her.

The Thorns ran out in the 3-5-2 that looked more like a 5-3-2 whenever the juniors had possession:

In the first half it was Natalie Beckman at LW, then Meaghan Nally-Emily Menges-Gabby Provenzano across the centerback line, with Natalia Kuikka at RW.

In the middle Wilkinson sat Taylor Porter over the CBs as defensive midfielder, with Raquel Rodriguez to her left and Yazmeen Ryan to her left. Up top were Smith and Christine Sinclair.

The formation was the same as we saw last weekend; the team, utterly different from the disjointed performance we saw against the Dandelions last Saturday.

Thorns were moving to space and teammates were picking out the movement and passing to those spaces. Porter, in particular, was a treat passing out of deep midfield, and Rodriguez was the Tica I’d wanted to see since she was signed; slipping in and out of tight spaces, finding passing lanes and sliding pinpoint passes through them.

Christine Sinclair looked like she had shed ten years; rather than struggle to get a shot off she concentrated on providing – crisply connecting on everything from short passes and little flicks to diming Smith with a twenty-yard rainbow for the hat. Smith still had to make the finish, but given Sinc’s pass it was easy-peasy to just stick her boot out and steer the ball into the goal.

Could it be that a rested, fresh Sinc can still be an impact player, a string-pulling #10? Hmmm…Coach Wilkinson, can we discuss “managing Sinc’s minutes..?”

We’ll talk more about this in the player comments, but while Tuesday was Sophia Smith Night, it was also a much better night for the whole team, and a promising step up from last weekend.

Now we have to wait and watch what happens Friday, for two reasons.

First; how will Seattle do against the juniors? If they pummel them the way the Thorns did Tuesday it might suggest that the improvement we saw last night was as much or more on the quality of the opponent than the Thorns themselves.

Second; can and will the Thorns repeat this performance against a professional team? Yes, it’s Chicago – who looked very ordinary outside a single run at goal against Seattle in Tuesday’s opener – but they’re still professionals.

I’ll be back Friday to talk about all that.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (45′ – +12/-1) A Force of Nature, like a typhoon or an earthquake. What was even more impressive was how differently she scored each goal:

21′ – Starting with a simple square from Sinc, Smith beat her marker to make a strong run through the top left corner of the box into open space between the 18 and the 6, where – with four white shirts closing in – she fired a thunderbolt into the far top corner. 1-nil Thorns.

23′ – This started with when the U-23 left centerback Smith was pressing hit an awful forward pass. Smith stuck out a foot and deflected it back towards the goal. The ball ran perfectly; not far enough for the appalled junior’s keeper to take, but far enough to be out of reach of the poor stunned centerback. Smith ran onto it, took a touch or two, and slotted it home low and to the keeper’s left. 2-nil Thorns.

37′ – The pass from Sinclair we’ve discussed. Rodriguez pushed the ball up to Sinc, and the captain dropped that sucker within an inch on the toe of Smith’s right boot.

Could probably have had another goal or two; hit a nasty swerving 4th minute shot into the upper A that the juniors keeper did well to push wide, and ran onto a lovely long ball from Kuikka that the juniors’ keeper had to grab off her foot.

It’s hard not to think that some of this was feasting on the relative inexperience of the U-23s. But it’d be nice to think that some is purely Smith finding her form. We’ll see if it’s more of the latter as we get closer to the season.

Sinclair (45′ – +11/-2) What was intriguing is that I don’t recall Sinc taking a shot all evening. Instead she would typically drop deep into midfield to take possession and bring the ball upfield, or would play the central pivot, taking a pass from Rodriguez or Porter and moving it on to Smith.

I’m not sure if this was intuition that Smith was bewitched and just needed the ball to do the magic, or whether Sinclair felt more comfortable facilitating and creating rather than striking. Whatever the reason, it worked nicely Tuesday night.

Ryan (45′ – +6/-1) In an interesting role reversal, normally-attacking-mid Ryan did a lot of defensive work from her outside mid position – four of her six “pluses” are tackles-for-gain – while the notional DM, Porter, was completing passes (three of her four pluses…). Coaching?

Betfort (45′ – +2/-2) Replacing Smith as halftime was always going to be a big hill to climb, but the Lussi half of the Chaos Twins wasn’t particularly on form Tuesday night which made it higher and steeper. She and her twin Weaver still haven’t either figured out how to work off each other’s energy or find the back of the net; Betfort skied an absolute sitter in the 62nd minute – that kind of typified her whole night.

Weaver (45′ – +8/-3) I wonder if the other Chaos Twin isn’t getting as tired of living the “Morgan Weaver brought tremendous energy and action to the pitch but still couldn’t figure out how to turn all that into goals” life as I am writing about it?

At least she came close this time; late substitute Marissa Everett fed her at the west side of the north penalty area in the waning moments of the second half, and Weaver hit an absolute piledriver that rang the crossbar with the keeper well beaten – so close! But, again…not to be.

Let’s hope she breaks this duck soon.

Coffey (45′ – +8/-3) Along with some silken passing, Coffey provided aggressive forechecking defense in midfield to shut down the juniors attacks in their own half. One scary moment when she made a rookie mistake and coughed up the ball near her own 18 in the 77th minute, but Hogan was up to the save and the danger passed.

Coffey was all over the juniors in the final ten minutes; i recorded her starting attacks in the 79th, 82nd, and 88th minutes, and these weren’t just feints; all three produced at least a half-chance. Overall, a very good shift.

Rodriguez (63′ – +6/-1 : +5/-1 : +11/-2) As discussed above; terrific hour’s work.

Porter (+4/-0 : +3/-1 : +7/-1) Haven’t seen enough of her to feel comfortable passing judgement, but from what I saw Tuesday, I’d like to see more.

Everett (22′ – +1/-0) Worked hard as fresh legs late in the match. Didn’t recognize her now that she’s swapped out her #40 for #21, thanks to Trail33 who recognized her.

Beckman (+4/-3 : +3/-0 :+7/-3) I’m not sure what to say about Beckman’s night. She was decent without being particularly noticeable or outstanding. My notes are full of mentions of Porter and Coffey and Rodriguez and Sinc (and Smith, of course…) but looking over her ninety minutes I find only this:

21′ – Beckman tackle-for-gain, pass to Sinclair… (her tackle started the first Smith goal sequence…)

I have her credited with good runs, two defensive stops, a forecheck, a pass…so she was doing good work. But apparently not in ways that grabbed my eye. Got upfield a lot, didn’t seem to create a lot from it other than the Smith goal. Hmmm.

Nally (+4/-1 : +4/-2 : +8/-3) Generally solid; a couple of rookie positional mistakes but held down her side of the backline pretty well, albeit against fairly meek attacking. Seemed to combine well with Beckman to her left.

Provenzano (+3/-1 : +6/-1 : +9/-2) Like the other defenders, not really challenged, but also like them played well, defensively solid and good passing going forward to help connect the team together.

Menges (45′ – +4/-3) Still seems to be just a tiny bit…off. Nursing a knock? Just offseason rust? Interesting that she was pulled off at halftime.

Hubly (45′ – +2/-1) Had her usual composed, competent shift.

Kuikka (78′ – +3/-2 : +0/-0 : +3/-2) Didn’t push up the way she did against Seattle but, then again, didn’t have to. Something of a minor key for the Finn, but with Smith running out of control..? That was just fine.

Hogan (+1/-1 : +1/-1 : +2/-2) Had a couple really poor clearances and her distribution was iffy, but made the saves she needed to, controlled her area well and came out strong when needed. Good backup-keeper performance.

Coach Wilkinson: So I’m not sure what the gaffer did between Saturday and three days later. The team was set up the same way but with a different cast and a different opponent and the effect was to utterly transform the squad. Was it coaching? Was it personnel? Was it the opponent? Was it some combination of all three?

Whatever it was…the effect was big fun, and the team a hell of a lot more watchable than Saturday’s.

Now we have to wait until Friday to learn whether it was coaching and player skillsets, or whether it was an overmatched opponent, luck, and the effect of Sophia Smith taking wild flight, out of control and on fire like a star, like a delta ray, like the excited state of an electron gone mad.

John Lawes
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10 thoughts on “Thorns FC: She’s Out of Control

  1. Thanks so much for this summary John. I didn’t go to the game so I really appreciate it your summary. Not sure how much we can make of this game as this is not Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith, Tierna Davidson, Alana Cook or even Morgan Weaver’s U23 team. It does sounded like there were a couple of players on this team we will for sure be seeing in the NWSL.
    Before the Seattle game I was watching Smith and Weaver warm up. We have all worried about their finishing, but with Smith there was another worry; the weakness of her strikes. Prior to the Seattle game she was hammering the ball like she was mad at it. I remember Sinc once explaining a weak shot as “I hit that one with my purse.” Sophia seems to have increased the power of her shots all boot now. Happy to see that.

  2. No disagreement that Smith was a woman among girls out there, but the U23s first half performance was flat horrible.

    It takes two to tango, and Thorns did very well and U23s did very not-well.

    As you note, Sinc perfectly dimed Smith on the first and third goals. The keeper also had to pay some attention to Sinc as well as Smith on the second one.

    The U23s defense was atrocious, and Smith made Megan Bornkamp’s life a living hell.

    So give Smith all due credit for her creativity, ball control, vision, pace, aggressiveness, striking, and finishing – she absolutely earned it. But as good as she was, that’s how bad the U23s were.

    And… Smith definitely benefited from her partnership with Sinc, which was really fun to see. I’d love for Portland to be able to take much of the load off Sinc and just let her be a playmaker instead of having to do all the two-way work she’s been doing.

    Totally agree about Rocky, but she was a wrecking ball out there too. Love it!

    Finally… underrated player of the match for me – Kuikka! This was the first time I’ve seen her in the new formation. She covered so much ground and handled so many different responsibilities out there. It looks like she’s being allowed to go where she wants to go, basically. True, she didn’t push up as far as she always could have, but she has an incredible motor and just never stops.

    1. I thought Kuikka did fine. She didn’t really NEED to push up very high – Sinc and Rodriguez and Ryan and Smith were running through the U-23 defense like shit through a tin horn.

  3. I made it to both games, and while I try not to put too much stock in preseason, here are my takes:
    – Natalie Beckman looks like a soccer player. I cant explain it, but she makes me feel like Gabby and Simone did back in their preseason debuts. Optimistic.
    – Sinc / Smith combo up top looks deadly.
    – Weaver / Betfort combo looks lost. Understandable from Betfort relearning the forward spot, but Weaver should be better by now.
    – Lack of minutes for Hina so far is disappointing. Understandable, but disappointing. Maybe less of a plug and play and more of a project?
    – Coffey could be the second coming of Henry. Fingers crossed.
    – If our first game is any indication, I think we will struggle in the first part of the season getting to learn the new system.
    – Q: The Kling / Heath and Kling/Horan combos fun to watch. Why hasn’t the Kling / Rocky combo also caught on?

    1. 1. Beckman did just fine.
      2. Agree on the connection Sinc and Smith had going.
      3. The Chaos twins need something. Dunno what, but something has to break for them. They’re spending a ton of energy and getting nowhere.
      4. Dunno what’s up with Sugita. I hope we’re not looking at another Andressinha.
      5. No. Just no. Amandine Henry is one of the top two or three CDMs in the game. Coffey is a rookie who’s played two professional preseason games. Do NOT load that sort of expectation on her. She played well and let’s see how much further she can go.
      6. We’ll have to see. It looked iffy Saturday, looked like Clockwork Orange Tuesday. The opposition is probably a big part of that.
      7. Rodriguez is a very different sort of player. I think she and Kling need some time on the pitch together to figure out how they can work together.

      1. I’ve already made the AndressHina and AndresSugita puns elsewhere, and they’re going to be apt comparisons. To wit:

        “I am a very thin and small person, so I will be having a good fight,” Sugita said of adjusting to NWSL. “I have to avoid contact at times as well, so that’s a challenge how to do that.”

        She has a massive learning curve and this can be a very physical league, but she’s made a 3-year commitment.

        Thorns have generally done well with internationals over the years. Even the ones who have underperformed haven’t been horrible, and most have been great additions to the club and the Rose City.

        Alas, Oregon Live, from which the previously-mentioned quote comes, seems to be off as to which Japanese nationals, and how many of them, are playing in the NWSL.

        Kawasumi and Yokoyama are still here, as is Nagasato (whom OL forgets). And then of course there’s Sugita and Endo joining the league this year. Meanwhile, Takarada went to Linkopings.

        BTW, I believe Yokoyama is the second transgender player in the NWSL, after Quinn. Can’t be easy being transgender when your country has no mechanisms for recognizing your existence as a transgender person.

  4. Sinclair False Hope Alert
    a season or so ago (2020 FallSeries?) Sinclair had a game or two like the one she just had vsthe U-23’s.,and the same “Is a rested Sinclair still a great player?” talk came up. The answer turned out to be “no.” Sinclair’s smarts are enough to allow her to easily beat “JV” teams- that’s all. Against full-strength NWSL competition, she doesn’t look that way.
    Even in the U-23 game, as dominating as PTFC was, she could only squeeze off one shot that i can remember, and that, like so many of her shot attempts anywhere near the goal, got immediately blocked – because she lacks any quickness to gain separation from defenders.
    I hate to be the one saying it because it sounds disrespectful to the GOAT, but i think the unfortunate truth is that right now, if you give Sinclair the ball, 1 v1 with a defender in front of her, she’ not a threat to score. And in order to be a passing threat, she has to find herself in the final third without a defender near enough to challenge before she can make a great pass.
    I think that’s why she plays so far back on the pitch- it’s the only place she can be open enough to be effective with the ball.

    1. Tonight’s showing against a second-tier Chicago suggests you’re right. The good work she did with Smith against the U-23s was completely absent; even dropping deep to gain possession didn’t really help.

    2. And it’s worth adding that:
      1) If Sinc is helping the team she doesn’t have to be a great player; she simply has to play her role well. Against the juniors she did, last night, not so much, and that’s a big negative indicator, and
      2) She doesn’t have to score if she’s playing the role of facilitator and creator. Again, against the juniors she looked effective in that role. Last night, not so much.

      I’m afraid we might be increasingly dissatisfied with her performance; Chicago is not a good team right now, and that suggests some issues.

      1. Yeah, as good as the individual U23 players might be, this group was at a huge disadvantage.

        For the January camp, 11 U23s were already pros. But for this particular call-up against the NWSLers, the entire roster consisted of college players.

        College players, I should add, without a lot of cohesion — only 5 of the 22 were carryovers from the January camp. 15 different college programs were represented among the 22 rostered players.

        So, basically, the Thorns were playing against a skilled but overmatched pick-up ball side.

        For the whole first half, it looked that way.


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