Last Tuesday night the Sophia Smith Stomp-Down made the Thorns look like runaway Shield winners. Smith ran wild, the team around her looked smooth and connected, the passes clicked, the possession was entirely Portland’s…the future looked incandescent.
Friday night brought all that back to Earth.
The Thorns beat the Chicago Red Stars 1-nil on a flukey 73rd minute goal off the boot of Sam Coffey that beat Alyssa Naeher to her top left corner. The goal was nicely taken, and was effectively created by Sophia Smith who was, as she was Tuesday, the engine of what attack the Thorns created.
That silky passing and effective-movement-to-space from Tuesday, though?
Instead the Thorns looked like they had against Seattle the previous Saturday; lots of Route One, lots of lateral passes, lots of people struggling to connect with each other and mishitting passes or getting tackled for loss.
And keep in mind Chicago has not looked particularly good in this preseason tournament; held scoreless by the junior Nats, who put on a good show against them…
…and losing – and looking mostly ineffective – to Seattle. For a team that was last season’s runner-up they’ve been shaken hard, losing their head coach in a spectacularly awful fashion.
Friday night they had nothing going forward, really; the Thorns outshot them something like 19 to 20 to 9 and the shots on frame were similarly lopsided.
But possession was nearly equal; I kept track of possession time over several five-minute stretches and it ranged from roughly 50-50 to 60-40 Portland, but with a particularly rough patch between the 25th and 30th minute when the Thorns couldn’t hold onto the ball – Chicago had it for nearly 4 of the 5 minutes.
Other than the result this match reminded us of several promising developments we’ve seen over the past week. In particular, several new Thorns have shown real promise over this preseason stretch.
Sam Coffey has looked active, aggressive, and dangerous; her goal Friday was just reward for the good forechecking pressure and clever passing she’s shown throughout.
Taylor Porter has done well, making intelligent runs and defensive actions.
Natalie Beckman has been solid defensively and contributed some effective passing.
Gabby Provenzano has been sturdy in back.
Overall the club looks solid defensively (as it should be, with five in the backline when the ball is coming at them..!)
But the question whether the squad is effectively learning the attacking part of Coach Wilkinson’s 3-5-2 system, whether they can consistently score on good opponents?
I’m going to say that’s very much open.
Is the club at least decent all around? Yes. I saw no glaring holes anywhere, no one who looked incapable of professional play, no obvious systemic failures, except..
…I didn’t see an answer to the “where are the goals going to consistently come from?” question we kept asking last season.
If Smith is the only answer, well…it’s not all that hard to mark a single player out of a match, and without Smith the rest of the Thorns attack is…still questionable. I don’t think this tournament has helped us assess how well this club will convert against decent opposition when the games begin to count.
Which is…(checks notes), goddammit, next week!?
Hold on. Holy shit. This might be a reeeeeeal wild ride.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith, S. (+5/-3 : +8/-3 : +13/-6) Well, Chicago is still okay defensively (just okay, mind…), so not the human wrecking ball she was against the juniors, but Sophia Smith looks head-and-shoulders better than she did last season. Her runs are just as effective, but she’s smacking the ball with authority and putting those shots on frame more often. Hammered a shot off the top far corner just two minutes before her left-post banger set up Coffey.
Coach Wilkinson still needs to find her help to make her even more effective. The squad is obviously trying, but the bugs haven’t been worked out, and perhaps the most obvious example I saw last night was in the 22nd minute. Smith had made another of her signature strong runs into the left side of the Chicago box, but had drawn two defenders and was looking for an outlet. Christine Sinclair and Hina Sugita rushed the 18 to provide that, but rushed the same spot, nearly collided, and were tangled up long enough for the Red Star defenders to pick Smith’s pocket.
There’s been quite a bit of that; players not being able to coordinate their movements to pass around defenders or out of trouble. Raquel Rodriguez looked terrific doing that Tuesday night, but either it’s an only-Rodriguez thing or (unfortunately) it’s more about the juniors’ skill level.
Sinclair (64′ – +3/-1 : +0/-0 : +3/-1) Troubling. Struggled heavily to get forward, again without a shot, and the smooth connection with Smith looks increasingly like an artifact of her experience versus the inexperience of the juniors’ defenders. Even dropping deep to gain possession Sinc wasn’t able to turn that into completed passes with the Red Stars midfield up in her grille. As I’ll discuss below; this may be a thorny issue and one that will require all of Coach Wilkinson’s skills to address.
Weaver (26′ – +2/-1) Christ, I might as well just mimeograph my Weaver comment and paste it every match (anyone else recall “mimeographs”? They were the copy of choice when I was in high school, and you knew who worked in the office because they always smelled faintly of the sweetly pungent aroma of the purple-ink paper).
Terrific run and shot in the 86th minute that forced a big save out of Naeher, but still plays with more force than finesse. Hopefully one of these days someone – maybe the club can hire Sam Kerr during her WSL offseason – will show Morgan Weaver that there are other means of attack than “run real fast and shoot real hard and straight”. Until then, well…
Sugita (64′ – +4/-4 : +1/-0 : +5/-4) In what was to me a frustrating display of individual skill Hina Sugita showed some promisingly clever movement and passing Friday night. Frustrating because it typically went nowhere; she was often bullied out of the match by Chicago’s midfield and failed to find consistent connections to her teammates.
Clearly this is a skilled player. Also clearly she needs more time and work to become effective. Right now I don’t see a point to starting her over Rodriguez. I don’t want to bring up Andressinha here, but…
Porter (26 – +2/-0) As I noted above; Porter is one of the newer Thorns I think showed well in this tournament. Tough tackler and good marker, smart passes and off-the-ball movement. I’d like to see her signed.
Everett (45′ – +2/-1) Not able to shake free from Chicago pressure, and thus not very effective. I think her replacement at halftime suggests Coach Wilkinson thought so, too.
Ryan (45′ – +3/-1) All her usual strengths – activity, good defensive work and clever passing. Missed an absolute sitter in the 58th minute, tho.
Coffey (90+1 – +3/-2 : +8/-0 : +11/-2) After the last match Friend of the Blog Thornando compared Sam Coffey to Amandine Henry and I bridled like a terrified pit pony. That’s a hell of a huge load of expectation to lay on a youngster with two professional games on her c.v.! That said…
Friday night was a very Henryesque performance. Rock-solid defensively, dangerous going forward, sweetly taken goal..? That’s, well…nope. Nope. Nopenopenope. Not going to go there.
But I sure liked what I saw, and let’s hope to see more of that.
Miller (3′ – no rating)
Klingenberg (+2/-0 : +2/-0 : +4/-0) The wingback system requires Kling to push way up and then race back when the ball turns over. That’s a lot to ask, even for a player who seems to have some sort of Fountain of Youth in her waterbottle. So far Kling has done decently; just decently – she doesn’t seem to have formed the sorts of connections providing service to the current midfield that she had with Tobin Heath or Lindsey Horan. But we’ve yet to see her matched up against a truly pacey winger. Let’s put a pin in that and we’ll see what happens then.
Nally (64′ – +4/-2 : +0/-0 : +4/-2) The toothlessness of the Chicago “attack” makes it hard to grade the Thorns backline, but so far as I can tell Meaghan Nally did good work. She seems to have a knack for long passing, as well, so if she’s going to be a regular at centerback I think the Thorns are well set up there.
Provenzano (26 – +1/-0) I could pretty much paste the Nally comment in here; Provenzano has been effective in the backline…with the caveat that we haven’t seen our backline tested against a club like Washington – Seattle left their big attacking pieces out last Saturday – se we might have to see what happens next week at the Clink.
Menges (+1/-2 : +0/-1 : +1/-3) Bianca St. Georges beat her like a drum in the 47th minute and both she and Abby Smith were damn lucky St. Georges fired wide. Still not looking like her old self, and I have no idea why.
Hubly (+3/-1 : +2/-0 : +5/-1) Still a fine defensive starter, still doing all her usual good work. If the club is going to run a three-centerback set the depth at centerback is critical, and with Sauerbrunn, Menges, Hubly, Nally, and Provenzano so far that depth looks good to go.
Kuikka (64′ – +7/-1 : +1/-1 : +8/-2) Doing better at the whole “wingback” thing than Klingenberg, possibly because she’s profiting at having Smith on her side of the pitch. All the usual positives.
Beckman (26′ – +2/-1) Looking more and more like reliable depth at fullback, and at this stage in her career that’s just fine.
Smith, A. (+0/-0 : +2/-0 : +2/-0) Virtually untroubled all night, so hard to assess. Certainly not unreasonable as depth, still don’t see her moving up.
Coach Wilkinson: Well, we now have three games in the Wilkinson Era. What do we know?
- Wilkinson likes the wingback/3-5-2 set. Worked like magic against youthful opposition, struggled a bit against other professionals.
- Many young players are doing quite well. Suggesting that she is a good judge of and developer of young talent.
- Smith has flourished in two of those three games in ways that she didn’t for Parsons. How much that’s Wilkinson and how much Smith’s own growth for club and country is hard to separate, but my guess is that it’s more the latter.
- She hasn’t answered the question of “how do the Thorns score if not from Smith?” Against the other NWL clubs the Thorns scored 0.5G/game. That’s not going to do well going forward.
Frankly, I’d like to see Wilkinson put a bit more effort into dealing with Sinclair. Sinc is a difficult issue right now; she’s not “bad”, but she’s not really “good”, not consistently, and her role on the club is still in flux. I’d like to see her be successful on the field but, if she can’t, I’d like to see her willing to move to the reserves so her club can find out what the post-Sinclair Era looks like.
Maybe we’ll see that in Seattle next week!