Since “the first match in San Diego since 2003” (as the Paramount+ announcers kept reminding us) turned into a 0-1 Thorns road win, I wanted to lead with this because it’s 1) why the Thorns won, and 2) the prettiest team goal I’ve seen the Thorns score in a loooooong time.
It begins with Emily Menges playing out of the back to Hina Sugita in midfield.
Sugita pushes the ball forward to Christine Sinclair, who slips a clever backheel on to an overlapping Yazmeen Ryan…
Ryan is closed down quickly, but manages to pop a looping ball ahead to Sugita, who has continued her run. Notice Sophia Smith lurking along the Wave backline watching Naomi Girma watching the ball.
Sugita runs onto Ryan’s blooper as Smith breaks forward, Sinc moves into space, and keep your eye on Natalia Kuikka on the near touchline.
Also notice where the San Diego defenders are; not along the wide spaces, and as Sugita passes up to Smith, mostly in a blue clot stuck behind the play. Sugita plays forward to Smith…
…now…here’s where Portland gets a bit lucky but also is a bit crafty, too.
Kristin McNabb does a good job of quickly closing down on Smith. That’s actually the lucky part – we’ll get to that in a moment – but the crafty bit is how everyone is continuing to run at San Diego’s goal, especially Kuikka, who blows the doors off Sofia Jakobsson.
Here’s the luck; McNabb actually tackles the ball away from Smith but then promptly plays it backwards directly to the feet of Sinclair. Oopsie!
For a moment things look sticky, though; despite being in possession, the three Thorns are jammed up in front of goal with the San Diego defenders reassembling behind them and to their left.
But Jakobsson is ballwatching again – having caught up to Kuikka as the Finn slowed in anticipation of having to retreat after McNabb’s tackle – and when McNabb derps Kuikka breaks towards goal as Jakobsson dithers.
The San Diego defense has kettled the three Thorns and cut off Ryan and Meghan Klingenberg moving up on the left.
But Jakobsson has now completely lost any hope of catching Kuikka, who’s running free down the right channel.
Sugita has the ball at her feet, and plays a little 1-2 dink with Sinclair as the captain moves to the right. Sinc picks out Kuikka and slips a perfect slide-rule pass into her path as Kuikka runs free while – to her left, Smith breaks towards the goal.
Jakobsson isn’t the only Wave who’s screwing up on this one; Abby Dahlkemper (who had a pretty meh game overall but really derped it here) is loafing as Smith blows by her like a Maserati.
Kuikka slots a pinpoint cross into Smith’s trajectory, and…
…boom, goal Smith, and it’s all the goals Portland will need.
Portland’s first half in San Diego was a world and more better than the entire match at the Clink the week before. Part of that was on the Wave; they looked more like Ripples, as random as you’d expect an expansion side and, as we’ve already seen, they also made critical individual errors at the worst times.
San Diego’s Casey Stoney made the inexplicable choice not to send her squad out to press Portland despite the effect that Seattle’s press had the previous week. The match stayed wide open, a state that suited Portland’s improved connections better than it did San Diego’s embryonic passing and spasmodic movement.
Perhaps she thought her side simply wasn’t capable of that level of skill, or perhaps the idea was a Brazilian sort of “never mind, we’ll just outscore them”, but the effect was to open the match up and the Thorns took that sucker and ran wild with it for 45 minutes.
So everything was well in hand, the expansion club was looking like the expansion club it was, the one-goal lead looked safe as houses…
…and then in the 61st minute Coach Wilkinson subbed Smith off for Morgan Weaver and Sugita off for Olivia Moultrie and stuff started to happen.
Here’s my notes from the last 23 minutes and change of the first half (Portland actions on the left, San Diego on the right)…
…and here’s from 60 minutes to the final whistle:
The worst of this period was between the 79th and the 83rd minute, when San Diego had Portland under the cosh, making a run at goal every minute that included three dangerous chances or half-chances between 79′ and 81′.
Up just a goal this was pretty scary. The second half drop-off wasn’t just visible on the field – it showed up everywhere in the metrics, too. Here’s Kuikka’s passing divided between the halves (Portland attacking towards the top):
I’m not entirely sure why this happened. Some was obviously Smith – as always, she was 95% of the attack, and Kuikka was feeding her – and Sugita coming off.
But Sugita’s passing tells the same story; even before Sugita came out she was pushing up a lot less in the second half. Here’s her passing (with Moultrie added, since she took over from Sugita after the hour):
Did Wilkinson order the troops to drop deep and defend? Did they stop listening to her demands they keep possession and push up? Did Stoney’s substitutions make the difference? Were the Thorns wilting in the California heat? Some combination of all the above?
The Thorns pretty much took Alex Morgan out of the match; she had a couple of her signature runs – one in the 19th minute, the other in the 52nd – but in both Abby Smith was in place to keep the clean sheet. Jakobsson was largely ineffective, and late sub Jodie Taylor was her usual off-target self.
San Diego hadn’t really made anything all game until the last half hour or so. If the Thorns keep possession from then to the final whistle they stroll to the three points without so much as a nervy moment. They couldn’t, and San Diego fought back into a match they should have been out of by halftime.
Bottom line? The Thorns got the three points, and looked much more put-together and effective than they did a week ago.
Now the two pod leaders swap newbies – we get ACFC and Seattle gets the Ripples – and we’ll see whether the change is a change or just more of same, the veterans whipping up on the rookies like we saw this past weekend.
Passing the Passing Test: Both teams were only okay; Portland a skosh above 74%, the Ripples about 76% (although I thought at the time they looked worse – I think that was losing the final pass into the area).
Here’s Arielle Dror’s passing network chart for Portland.
Again, though…all the attacking passing is only feeding Sophia Smith. Weaver got nothing, again, same problem she had in Seattle, and I’m not sure why.
The other thing that really jumped out, both on the pitch and here, is how much less connection Klingenberg is making with the attack – note the difference between Kuikka’s hot orange circle – meaning good g+ numbers – and Kling’s cool blue. We’ll talk about that a bit more in the player ratings.
The Thorns took five corners. Four in the first half, only in the second (see what I told you about laying back..?) all but one conventional “long” corners direct into the box
|Headed clear, Menges tried to recycle the ball but San Diego knocked it into touch. Kuikka took the throw and tried to lob it long but Smith was offside.
|Cleared out again to Menges, who found Sugita out wide left; Sugita’s lead pass was too long, though, and went over the byline.
|…to Coffey, whose cross into the box was touched out for…
|Cleared out again, this time to Kuikka, who recycled out to Coffey. Her cross was headed out to Hubly, who was well defended and had to drop the ball all the way to the backline.
|Cleared out to Ryan, who began a recycle that went nowhere.
Not much of anything, not so much as a shot, let alone a shot on frame. Pretty much all a piece with the whole corner kick thing we talked about earlier.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith, S. (61′ – +12/-2 : +4/-0 : +16/-2) The choice for Woman of the Match was tough for this one, but I have to go with Smith not just for the goal, but for her entire first half. She was relentless and an utter misery for the Ripples, who had no answer for her.
Could easily have had a second in the second minute of first half injury time, when Kelli Hubly dimed her standing right on Kailen Sheridan’s doorstep. With the ball at her feet two yards from the goal it took a miracle – or a keeper of Sheridan’s quality – to keep the ball out of the net. Look at Dror’s “xG race” chart and note the massive jump in the red line just before halftime:
Damn near 0.8xG? That’s as close to a gimme putt as you could ask for, and Smith came that close. Damn you, Sheridan, you magnificent…Canuck.
Terrific half, and was still going at the hour when she came off. Hell of a match from Smith. We gotta have a song for her this season
Weaver (29′ – +4/-3) Sigh.
Here’s the thing. I’m not a hater; I like a lot about Weaver. I like her energy. I like her aggression, and I like her engine that runs in overdrive every moment she’s on the pitch.
Here’s what drives me crazy about her:
That’s Weaver in the 86th minute, alone in on goal with only Sheridan to beat, instead shanking her shot wide left.
I’m not sure what the problem is. Should she start, should she be on the pitch beside Smith instead of Sinclair? Should she have someone else who can work with her when she comes on late? Is this a team thing or a Weaver thing – can someone teach her to do things like chip people or force keepers to go to ground and round them for the tap-in instead of run-and-blast?
(In Weaver’s defense, Sheridan is the best keeper in the league and has been for a long time, and that was a tough shot to make. But, still…)
As I said in the comments from the last game; throwing her energy and drive against the wall again and again without some sort of scheme to make her more effective just risks getting her locked up with the yips.
I don’t hate on her. Just the opposite; she’s an exciting young player who I want to see happy and successful. Her smile is like a good deed in a weary world, and I’d love to see it more. C’mon, Coach. Help her figure how to do that.
Sinclair (+7/-2 : +1/-2 : +8/-4) Tidy little header off a Klingenberg cross in the 35th minute that Sheridan made a good save off, and a good first half generally; canny runs and accurate passes.
Looking gassed before the hour but left in to struggle on; no comment other than I wonder how much the second half drop-off owed to Sinc’s legs running out of battery?
Sugita (61′ – +13/-3 : +2/-1 : +15/-4) Remember how I said that picking WotM was tough? Sugita is a quarter of the reason why; she was all over the pitch and terrific in her first forty-five minutes. The complete package; tackles, marking, passes, picking up loose balls, shooting…an almost Henryesque level of midfield quality.
Now…mind, it helped not having the likes of Quinn in her face; San Diego’s midfield gave Sugita too much time and space. But the point is, Sugita used that time and space, and so was a big part of the road win.
Moultrie (29′ – +6/-2) Did good work in her half hour; nothing flashy, just solid defending at a time when the Thorns needed solid defending.
Ryan (77′ – +3/-1 : +6/-2 : +9/-4) Yazmeen Ryan’s PMR numbers look weird until you think about the squad and the game state. In the first half she was sort of a passenger, but largely because her teammates like Smith and Sugita and Kuikka and Coffey were carrying the load.
Suddenly after the hour the pressure was on her; Smith and Sugita wre off, Jakobsson was gone and Marleen Schimmer was in her spot and running wild. With Smith and Sugita gone Amirah Ali was finally imposing herself on the match. Ryan had to rise to that, and did. And she had a nice 75th minute crack that sailed just barely over the crossbar!
So I can’t ask for more. Well done, Ryan.
Porter (13′ – +2/-0) Fresh legs to see out the win. Did, so well done, too, Porter..!
Coffey (+6/-0 : +3/-1 : +9/-1) Samantha Coffey, like the other midfielders, benefited from San Diego’s attacks largely going through their wide positions and thus leaving her untroubled. That said, Coffey held down the #6 when she was called on, both defensively and going forward. Not at Sugita’s level, but not discreditably, either. Solid shift.
Klingenberg (84′ – +4/-3 : +2/-7 : +6/-10) Before we talk about the defenders as individuals, let’s talk about this; it’s a defensive sequence in the 27th minute, beginning with Jakobsson gaining possession after a heavy touch by Kuikka.
Jakobsson tries the touchline but Kuikka stays with her, harassing her, and eventually forcing her to try and pass inside to Morgan. Hubly anticipates the pass and arrives at the same time, forcing Morgan to cough up the ball that runs to Menges.
Menges tries a long pass out of the back, but it falls on the head of Girma, who lobs it back the other way but Kelsey Turnbow’s headed pass falls…
…right into the path of Sophia Smith, who hoovers the ball up and starts a Thorns attack.
My point is that several Thorns defenders weren’t tearing up the pitch Saturday night. But as a team, the Thorns kept it together and largely kept their boots on the necks of the Ripples’ danger women, Morgan and Jakobsson and Taylor. They may not have been individual defensive stars, but as a unit they were relentless. Everyone – as the sequence above shows – put in their shift and kept the Ripples out of the net.
The point of defense isn’t making every tackle and sticking every mark or winning every duel.
It’s keeping the clean sheet, and that’s what the Thorns defense did.
That said, Kling is having a bit of a struggle this spring. Not with defending; so far her marking and tackling have been at least decent or better (I don’t know how decent because fucking OPTA has nothing in her page at the league website; shame on you OPTA!). Her issue is that she’s still trying to serve the attack, and just hasn’t found anyone she can connect with consistently, so a lot of her passes are going astray – half of her minuses are for passes.
Kling is a terrific provider. I have to think she and…someone…will figure that out and she’ll be diming people all over the place again.
But now? Not yet.
Beckman (6′ – +2/-2) More than just timewasting, but not much more. Solid for her short shift, though, and saw out the shutout. So, fine.
Hubly (+9/-1 : +7/-5 : +16/-6) The third of my WotM candidates. Huge defensive plays, including a saving tackle off Jakobsson’s feet in the 31st minute and another in the 70th, getting her body up to shove Ali off-balance and force her headed shot wide.
Throw in some pretty passing from out of the backline, interceptions in deep midfield, and all the usual solid marking and positioning and Hubly was a beast in the backline all match. Did have a scary moment when her headed “clearance” dropped right to Jodie Taylor’s feet, but fortunately you can usually count on Taylor to be unable to hit the ground if she got drunk, passed out, and rolled off a table, and so it was in this case.
Menges (+1/-2 : +2/-4 : +3/-6) I think that the condition of the Torero Stadium pitch was bad, or the Thorns equipment people screwed in the wrong studs, because otherwise I’d have to have a moment of jaw-dropping disbelief at seeing this:
That’s Menges falling on her butt trying to take a slow rolling ball from Abby Smith.
In my 30-hour OSHA Construction Safety class I was told that “slips, trips, and falls” are among the most common industrial accidents. I’d hate to think that Menges had slept through that class and this was the result, but, goddamn!, this sure was freakish, and if it wasn’t the pitch and it wasn’t the boots it’s just another in the “WTF is going on with Menges this year?” questions she’s had me asking.
Helped keep the clean sheet, so that’s good. But sure not looking like the player she’s been before this season, and I have no clue what’s up with that.
Nally (+2/-4 : +7/-2 : +9/-6) Solid defensively, her first half negatives are all for passes. Stood up tall in the second half when the Ripples began bearing down and kept them scoreless. Good work, young Nally.
Kuikka (+14/-5 : +6/-0 : +20/-5) The fourth and my runner-up for WotM; just outstanding both defending and attacking including with the pinpoint cross assist on the goal. Pinned back deeper in the second half as the passing diagram shows but still defended like a one-woman Mannerheim Line. Hakkaa Päälle!
Smith, A. (+3/-0 : +2/-0 : +5/-0) I won’t kid you; my blood ran cold when I saw her name in the XI.
But Smith, Abby-type, had a hell of a fine match, with the huge save off Morgan in the 19th, another good take on Morgan’s drive a minute later, and more in the 40th and 79th minutes as well as a strong box away in the 80th minute.
Still has me a bit worried; the rap on her isn’t that she’s not a solid keeper in general but that she’ll give you 89 minutes of solid play and then one horrific, match-losing derp.
But no sign of that yesterday, so…well played, Abbysmith!
Coach Wilkinson: A big rose for the improvements over Seattle, sending squad out composed, connected, and dangerous through the first half.
A bit of a thorn, though, for not keeping them to the task through the second half and risking the equalizer. I think were damn lucky this was San Diego and not Seattle or The Damned.
The win is nice, but the bottom line is that these games are a work in progress, and the arc of that progress needs to be a steady improvement up until the beginning of the regular season.
Wilkinson has already made Smith look better in two matches than Parsons managed in a full season, and if she can figure out how to do that with Weaver, as well? The attack will be well sorted.
Sugita is proving to be the treasure we hoped, and the next step is to integrate her with Rodriguez when the latter returns and find a way to outplay the Reign midfield that throttled this team so badly at the Clink on Matchday 1.
The defense? Already looks pretty damn put together, so it’s just a matter of rubbing a little dirt on Emily Menges’ shin so she’ll be all better when the latest hot take out of LA arrives this Wednesday.
I’ll see you then.
(Oh, the weird title of this piece? That was Paramount+ spokesmodel Mike Watson in the 32nd minute. His random observation “This is a postcard.” was even more weird and random than the usual announcer babble to the point where I actually heard it (I usually find announcerbabble to be like elevator music; it’s background noise).
I think he was trying to say something about how this game was a postcard saying “Wish You Were Here For WoSo” or something. But he didn’t complete whatever the thought was that was rattling around inside his skull, so it just came out random and, well, weird.
But made for a great title for this one. So thanks, Mike!)