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.
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.