I can’t think of an image that sums up the 1-1 draw that opened the Thorns’ Challenge Cup campaign better than these two:
That’s left back Meghan Klingenberg deep in the OL Reign end, trying to find a teammate to throw in to. Note particularly the game clock time. Here’s screenshot of the actual throw:
Kling shuffled along the touchline, ball over her head, looking, looking, feinting now and then, as her teammates sort of wandered around trying to escape the Dandelions’ tight marking, for sixteen seconds until finally giving up and tossing the ball to the only outlet available, midfielder Hina Sugita. Sugita was immediately closed down and had to drop back to Meghan Nally, who cycled the ball around the Thorns backline for the umpteenth time that match.
Sixteen fucking seconds.
The Thorns have never been a particularly pacey team. Not for them the off-to-the-races style of Riley’s (spit!) Damned Courage. Deliberate passing, slow buildup…that’s the Thorns Way. The new coach has changed the formation but not the style.
That style relies on a midfield that can dime their way through tight pressing and forwards that can do a lot with very little space.
They used to have a Route One option with Simone Charley, but she’s gone and despite her pace I haven’t seen any real effort to try and pitch that sort of direct ball up to Morgan Weaver.
If those don’t or can’t happen? The Thorns have been known to struggle.
At Lumen Field last Friday we got a lot of this:
Hubly is already getting pressured, and everyone in front of her is bodied up by a white shirt. Klingenberg and Sophia Smith are open, but that would mean trying to knock a big switch across Lauren Barnes’ body.
Sugita is open, but the spacing is so tight that a forward pass to her doesn’t really gain the Thorns advantage, and there are two Seattlites poised to shut Sugita down if she is the target. Kuikka over by the right-hand touchline also has a couple of potential markers ready to close her down if Hubly goes that way.
As it happened, Hubly had no other option but Sugita, who was immediately pressured and had to drop to Emily Menges way back at the midfield stripe and the Thorns had to start all over again.
The Rhian Wilkinson Thorns are not by any means a finished product. A mix of old and new players are learning an entirely new formation and attacking system, and the rough fit shows; when I was a kid and was into building LEGOs my little sister had a name for the stage in the process where there were seemingly random bits of the structure lying around; “pieces parts”, she called it, and that’s what the Thorns looked like in Seattle Friday. Just pieces parts lacking an overall fit and direction.
The question before us is whether Coach Wilkinson can figure out a way to jigger these pieces parts to fit into a team that can generate attack.
The defending already looks decent, but the midfield was still in bits Friday and the attack…well, we’ll talk about that when we get to the player comments, but here’s Arielle Dror’s “xG race chart:
Note there’s something off about this; the Thorns didn’t have a shot – let alone a shot on goal – in the second half until the Smith miss at 78′. So I think the red line should be horizontal at about 0.38xG from 45′ to 78′ when it takes a jump (and I’d think that the Smith miss should be more than about 0.15xG, but that’s just me…) and then flat to full time.
Point is that the Thorns kept the Dandelions’ looks at goal below 1xG – the Sophia Heurta strike was a screamer through traffic from distance; not something I’d expect to see duplicated often (and it wasn’t) – but the Thorns couldn’t generate anything going forward, either. Sinc’s goal was also a sort of flukey thing created by Smith’s hammerstrike, the Reign defense collapsing on Smith, Tullis-Joyce scrambling, and a fortunate rebound that went right into Sinc’s path.
I don’t want to pull the panic cord.
These silly Cup ties are really just elaborate preseason games. But…they’re starting to count. And so far the Thorns aren’t showing a hell of a lot of growth; they looked disconnected in midfield and barren in attack against Chicago and Seattle here, and again at Lumen Friday.
At some point something needs to change. Before the real season begins and these games do begin to count.
Passing the Passing Test: Not terrible – about 75%. Worse than Seattle’s 80%, though, and more problematic was that the final or “critical” forward pass just wasn’t there. Here’s Arielle Dror’s passing matrix:
Compare this to her diagram for OLR:
That’s pretty ugly. The Reign is passing at will, and connecting through their wideouts – Barnes and Huerta – with their backline and up to all three of their forwards.
The Thorns aren’t making any sort of penetrating passes (they did, twice, which we’ll talk about in the ratings, but that was all…); it’s all back-and-forth across the midfield and drops.
Christine Sinclair, the notional second forward, is nowhere near the opposing goal – the only target up high is Smith, and even that’s damn sparse.
The problem wasn’t the passing per se; it was where the passes went and what they accomplished…which 1) wasn’t far enough forward and 2) wasn’t enough, period.
The Thorns worked a single corner all match, a 1st minute Klingenberg in-swinger that Reign keeper Tullis-Joyce easily went up for and claimed.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith (87′ – +4/-7 : +6/-3 : +10/-10) Smith seems to have gotten a lot of stick for this:
And it’s a bad miss. With the match for the taking, with Tullis-Joyce finally making the sort of huge error that she’s been predicted by everyone and Chris Henderson to make, with the goalmouth beckoning, Smith just shanked her shot wide to the right.
I have a certain sympathy for her.
Yes, she should have taken a settling touch and converted, but she was rushed and didn’t because all match she’d been dealing with this:
Where’s the black shirts? Hello? Anyone? Is this thing on? Hello?
Smith got absolutely zero fucking support all match. Go back and look at the passing chart. Smith. That was the Thorns attack, and she was probably thinking that she had to get that 78th minute shot off ASAP or she was going to get shut down just like she did in the 11th minute and damn near every other time she attacked the Seattle goal.
That’s got to be wearing her ass out, and picking on her for finishing – and she does need to finish, but – at this point is just rubbing salt in it.
Everett (3′ – no rating) Supposedly Marissa Everett played in this match. You could have fooled me; I never even saw her.
Sinclair (73′ – +6/-3 : +0/-4 : +6/-7) What’s frustrating is that because of the goal it’s kind of hard to slag off on Sinc for this one. But other than the goal and some decent passing in the first half? She did nothing much to put the ball in the back of the net. And she was toast by halftime and should have been yanked – she was visibly gassed and was passing poorly and being tackled for loss.
I don’t know what to say except this is something that the gaffer needs to deal with. Sinc is no longer 90-minutes-fit, and even with limited minutes isn’t doing the work as a 10 – assuming that’s what she’s doing out there – that the team needs her to be doing. And she needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.
Weaver (17′ – +0/-1) Ineffective. Did all her usual running around, got nothing out of it because by the final quarter hour her teammates appeared to be sitting deep playing for the road point.
Ryan (65′ – +4/-5 : +0/-2 : +4/-7) At the time I watched this live I was unhappy with Sugita because I thought her hard work – and she was working hard and doing well was doing the team no good. But reviewing tape I realized the the real passenger in midfield was Ryan.
Here’s Sugita (versus Quinn just to show you what was happening on the other side of midfield:
Sugita is clean as hell on the ball! But sparse, damn sparse, whereas Quinn is running wild.
Now here’s Ryan versus Jessica Fishlock:
There’s the problem; Ryan is just not in the match. Unable to get onto the ball, unable to pass when she does.
This 5th minute mess begins when Fishlock spins Ryan like a top, and then finds Veronica Latsko running at goal, and…
…Meghan Nally makes a horrific stab, misses, and Latsko is off to the races. Luckily for Portland Bella Bixby came out strong and big and Latsko’s chip went wide left.
Woof. That’s not just ugly but team-wide-ugly.
Moultrie (25′ – +3/-0) In her nearly-half-hour Olivia Moultrie did one really good thing – saw Smith breaking through the Dandelion backline and fed her a delicious through-ball.
Otherwise no real difference from the other Thorns midfielders; outplayed by Seattle’s midfield and just couldn’t and didn’t do enough to change the game shape.
Sugita (+8/-4 : +4/-1 : +12/-5) Frustrating because, as we saw above, Sugita was individually fine; clinical passing, tough tackling (four of her twelve pluses are tackles for gain), and overall active and intelligent.
The effects, though, were underwhelming. Go back up and look at the Dror passing diagram. There’s nothing threatening there; back and forth, little dink up to Sinc or out wide. Just more pieces parts not fitting into a dangerous whole.
If Wilkinson can figure out how to use her effectively Sugita as an individual player shows a lot of promise. This match, though, showed how you can have a great individual day and get nothing for your team out of it. As I keep saying; soccer is the team-y-est of team sports. If you can’t put the pieces parts together? All the good pieces in the world aren’t going to get you three points.
Coffey (+6/-2 : +7/-3 : +13/-5) Again, taken individually Sam Coffey had a decent match. As part of a midfield that had trouble finding space and time, though…not really effective.
At some point I hope all these good individual performances will result in a great team effort.
Klingenberg (+3/-3 : +2/-2 : +5/-5) Benefited from not having Tziarra King on her flank! Generally part of a backline that was sturdy enough barring the occasional mindboggling derp. Still not finding a midfielder or forward to work with in attack, so her service has been largely missing.
Nally (+3/-3 : +3/-0 : +6/-3) Outside the chest-clutching goof in the 5th minute was steady and effective – great defending on a dangerous Ally Watt run in the 64th minute. Weakest of the centerbacks passing forward, though.
Menges (+2/-1 : +1/-0 : +3/-1) The bulk of the Dandelions’ attack came down the touchlines so Menges. insulated in the center of the backline, had much less to do than her flanking teammates.
Hubly (+2/-3 : +6/-0 : +8/-3) Good work, particularly shutting down Lauren Barnes in the second half. Best passer of the centerbacks.
Kuikka (+11/-5 : +2/-3 : +13/-8) Homeric battle with King in the first half, and came off slightly the worst in it – Wilkinson swapped Kuikka and Klingenberg briefly to settle young King down a bit. All over the place in the first half; her pluses include two tackles-for-gain, a loose ball pickup, two duel wins, a smart tactical foul, a strong run and cross, and three passes, including the “critical” volley that put Smith through in the 28th minute.
Kuikka’s only ugly moment came on a Seattle free kick in the 25th minute when she and Nally got mixed up and neither marked Tziarra King at the back post. Luckily King banged the crossbar.
Bixby (+1/-2 : +0/-1 : +1/-3) Huge in the 5th minute, otherwise little tested. Beaten on both King’s 25th minute and Latsko’s 37th minute crossbars (those are her two first-half minuses – the third is a poor clearance in the second half…). Got a fingertip to Huerta’s goal, but not sure she could have done better; that shot was nasty.
Coach Wilkinson: Another match where a group of individual solid/decent performances didn’t add up to a win.
You can, if you will, give credit for the road point, and argue that things like Smith’s 78th minute “aren’t the coach’s fault” and you’d be technically right.
The coach’s job, though, is to find tactics and formations to make her players effective as a team, and to find the right players for those tactics and formations, and I’ll argue that we have yet to see that anywhere outside the what-now-looks-like-an-outlier U-23 match.
Smith is working her tail off but is usually isolated and throttled. The midfield is not clicking, either with each other or with the forwards. We still miss Salem at the #6. Sinc is…a problem. The backline is generally solid – though I was fascinated to hear Wilkinson say after this match that she was satisfied with the attack but thought the defending needed work.
We have nearly a week before the Thorns travel to sunny, funny San Diego to see what the noobs have got.
What will the Thorns bring?
After this one, I’m still unsure.
We’ll just have to see.
Update 3/22: This has been percolating in my brain since last Friday, and I had to let it out or it was threatening to strangle me with unvoiced rage.
This is a Seattle Reign kit:
Dark blue. Foofy Zulily logo. Dark, stern Queen of the North glowering down from the badge.
THIS is fucking Olympique Lyon:
This should not be:
If I was a Reign fan – and thank the Lord I’m not, sir! – I’d be goddamn furious.
Bad enough that your corporate master Aulas shoved his little butch lion where the Queen should be. But now the 2022 kit drives home the reality that the sellout is complete; the shirt is a sorry little knock-off of the OL kit, reminding every Reign supporter that the formerly proudly independent club is now a wholly-owned subsidiary and bondslave of the Monster of Lyon.
That the league allows this, let alone stood idly by while Aulas shit all over the cap rules last season, is a travesty, a joke, and an insult to the Reign supporters.
Since it’s Seattle I’m not sure whether to laugh or weep.