By halftime I was as nervous as a cat:
By the 73rd minute I had chewed my nails to the elbow, and then in the next minute this happened:
That’s Jess Fishlock in the white circle having just split Kelli Hubly and Hina Sugita – the latter holding down the left back position because Natalia Kuikka had tracked Bethany Balcer’s run across the top of the box – with a pinpoint pass to Rose Lavelle.
Lavelle made a short run at goal and…
…boom!, beat Abby Smith to her near post side to put the Dandelions up a goal that stood up for the next quarter hour and handed Portland it’s first loss of the new season.
And y’know what’s so damn frustrating about that?
That’s all fucking Seattle had!
Don’t believe me? Here’s Arielle Dror:
0.56xG. That’s it. Barely two-thirds of a goddamn goal, and damn near half of that was the single 74th minute play. Two shots on goal, one goal.
The frustrating part about that is that at the other end the Thorns created half-chances and sort-kinda opportunities all over the place, but almost all of which involved either 1) Kuikka cracking a shot at goal, or 2) Sophia Smith trying to run past (or through) a crowd of defenders.
All that worked about as well as you’d think.
Someone last weekend – if I recall correctly it was Greg Vanney, head coach of the LA Galaxy, who spanked the other Portland pro soccer team 1-3 on Sunday (this past weekend kinda sucked for Portland soccer…) – said something to the effect of how he always knew what the Timbers would be like, how they always looked the same and did the same things. That preparing for them was easy because of that.
And y’know what? It’s only four games into 2022 and we can say the same thing about the Rhian Wilkinson Thorns. Every game it’s always “pack the backline, play it wide, get the ball in to Smith.”
Smith is a terrific forward.
But right now she’s the Thorns’ only terrific forward.
Having an “attack” that consists of one forward and only one forward is like making every meal from a cookbook entitled “1,001 Favorite Green Bean Recipes!”
Hey, no haters! I like freaking green beans. Just not every goddamn meal.
The bottom line last Saturday was that the Thorns did enough to win against a tomato can, but found out the hard way that if you can’t score – which we couldn’t against a possessing Seattle midfield and a tough Seattle defense – all you have to do is get knifed by one good buildup and a keeper error and you lose.
Cans can’t do that. But Seattle can, and did. And so can Washington, and The Damned Courage.
We’ll talk more about this in the comments, but the 5-3-2 isn’t a fluid attacking formation unless you have supremely fast and athletic fullbacks and a midfield general that can tie them into a functional strike partnership.
Right now we lack that outside pace. We have no effective #10. And the strikers, well…we’ll get to that in a bit.
Passing the Passing Test: Seattle was clean on the ball – over 80% – but had trouble in the Thorns third. The Thorns…weren’t so clean, only about 76%, and the forwards were stranded. Again, especially Weaver, who if she ever leaves the club can sue them for non-support.
Here’s Arielle Dror’s passing network chart for Portland:
What’s interesting is look at the positioning. Beckman, who came in for Madison Pogarch at left back at the half, is damn near in the Reign goalmouth. Kuikka is doing her usual kickass work, as is Sam Coffey; it’s Sugita that’s struggling, and Christine Sinclair, well…
Oh, and here’s Seattle:
You’ll note the Dandelions had similar problems: Ally Watt and Balcer are stranded, Veronica Latsko is getting a bit more service but still, damn little overall. Angelina is pushed way up and Fishlock and Quinn are doing a lot of heavy lifting in midfield but not making connections up front.
Nervous, tight, unproductive match from both clubs. But one got a goal and the other couldn’t.
Five corners again? What is this, now, a meme? One first half, four in the second. All “long” directly into the box.
|Began a fun sequence that started with a clearance back to Po. She passed to Coffey, who crossed in but the Reign cleared it again. Fell to Kuikka who looped to Hubly who found Sugita near the top of the 18. Sugita’s shot was blocked but ran to Smith, who passed out wide to Po, who dropped to Meghan Nally whose cross looped wide to Kuikka at the back post. Natu took a delicious little looping touch and ran onto her own ball for a punishing volley, but the angle was too tight and she got only side netting.
|Onto the head of Raquel Rodriguez, who rose up over Angelina to head down into the box. Smith poked it into the goal! But…shit, we’ll talk about that in the Rodriguez comment, but damn you, Elijio Arreguin, you porch thief.
|Cleared out but no further than Morgan Weaver, who dropped to Beckman, whose long cross was easily taken by Tullis-Joyce
|Tullis-Joyce came out to take but fumbled the catch down to her feet. She reached for it at the same time that Sophia Smith poked it out of her hands to Moultrie as the play was blown dead for the “in the grasp” foul
|Cleared out for a throw but the recycle went nowhere.
In my admittedly biased opinion the Thorns had the first goal in the 57th minute, plus good attacks in the 36th minute, and the 89th minute scramble could have been productive – Tullis-Joyce made the sort of error she was predicted to make before the Cup began but got lucky catching her own drop – so not bad for only five corners.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith, S. (+6/-2 : +6/-1 : +12/-3) This match showed, more than the previous three, that the “Smith and Sinclair” forward pairing is not good for either player. Here’s a perfect example; in the 30th minute. The Thorns have just turned the ball over off a Reign corner kick, and Pogarch sees Smith breaking upfield…
…and knocks a long lead pass in front of her.
Meanwhile, where’s Smith’s strike partner, Sinclair? She’s way back at the edge of the 18, having dropped deep to defend the corner.
Smith kicks in the ‘burners and runs the length of the field with only a single Seattle back in front of her. But that back, Sam Hiatt, does a good job of keeping herself between Smith and her goal, fronting her up and forcing her to try and dribble around, which enables Angelina to make up the ground and tackle the ball away.
And where is Smith’s strike partner? Still twenty yards back chugging hard to try and catch up to the play.
Part of this was Sinc having her worst match of the Cup to date. But a big part of this is that the two just aren’t really a good partnership. They don’t have any real simpatico, there’s nothing there that’s more than their individual skills. Smith doesn’t lift Sinc, Sinc doesn’t lift Smith. When they do combine it’s almost an accident, like the Sinclair goal off the Smith rebound in San Diego.
This is a coaching issue, and we’ll get there in a bit.
Other than that? Smith had a hell of a game for someone who often seemed to be playing 1 v 10 most of the time. All her usual positives, and should have had a goal before the hour, but…yeah.
Sinclair (59′ – +2/-5 : +0/-2 : +2/-7) So what we were talking about a moment ago? Here’s Sinclair in possession running at goal in the 44th minute:
She;s got a defender on her back and a lovely opening to her right front to slice a lead pass into the path of Smith running free on goal. Instead…
…Sinc bends the pass too short, Smith has to slow up to meet it, and Fishlock chowders her from behind, knocking the ball and several of Smith’s teeth loose.
I hate to slag off on Sinc; she’s a wonderful person and has had a great career. But her limits really hit the team hard in this match, and it’s been pretty obvious that the connection between her and Smith is pretty tenuous in general. I don’t know what needs to happen, but something does, and soon.
Weaver (31′ – +6/-6) Struggled again. Struggled to get service. Struggled against a pressing Reign defense (four of her six minuses are being tackled for loss). Struggled to get a shot on frame, again.
One disturbing thing was to see her on the field with Smith for an half an hour and see this sort of thing; Weaver in possession along the west touchline in the 85th minute. The Thorns are throwing everything forward and the game is end-to-end – notice Smith running into space to Weaver’s left.
With the byline open and Smith scorching towards the 18…
…Weaver instead turns back downfield, is trapped by the two white shirts, and dispossessed.
Weaver is another attacking mystery. You’d think she and Smith could combine well. They haven’t – as the screenshots above show, I think it’s that they haven’t had time to figure each other out. Weaver isn’t combining with the wingbacks, or the midfield, either.
I’m not sure what Coach Wilkinson needs to do to get her untracked. But she needs to do something, and before Weaver gets vapor-locked with frustration.
Sugita (81′ – +7/-1 : +6/-1 : +13/-2) Damn but I love what I see from our Himawari more every match. Sweet passer, tough tackler, great marker…what steel the Thorns have in midfield is largely tamahagane (玉鋼). Good match on a tough night, ganbare, Hina-san!
Everett (9′ – no rating) So invisible I barely noticed she was on the pitch; caught her #21 in a screenshot and had to stop and think “Oh, yeah, that’s Everett…” because I’d forgotten she’d subbed on.
Coffey (+3/-2 : +5/-1 : +8/-3) Coffey suffered from Coach Wilkinson’s unwillingness to play through the midfield, but when she did get a chance to play she played well; her passing was particularly good. Solid defender, too. Like Sugita, a decent match on a night when the team just couldn’t push the rock uphill.
Rodriguez (59′ – +3/-1 : +1/-2 : +4/-3) I tried to find a good screenshot of the 57th minute foul on Rodriguez that got the opening goal called back and I couldn’t get the stream to resolve clearly enough to show it, so I’ll just let my friend Hubly here give you my tl:dr version:
That was a soft, soft foul. Goddamn soft. Soft as church music. Ridiculously soft. I’ve seen kids in daycare throw elbows harder than the one that Rodriguez supposedly threw at Angelina as she came down behind her.
What a robbery.
Outside of that, though? Rodriguez has been back for two matches now and still looks to be finding her feet. She’s not often involved in the play, and often not effective when she is. Had some nice moments – she’s still a good player – but not enough and not good enough to overcome the structural issues.
Moultrie (31′ – +3/-0) Very like Rodriguez (and we’ll talk about this when we get to the coach…); good, worked hard, but couldn’t get involved enough or, when she did, do something so powerful as to change the game state. Honorable work, but on a hard night.
Kuikka (81′ – +4/-1 : +7/-4 : +11/-5) What does it say when your right back has four of the team’s twelve shots, while no one else had more than two?
Good work, tough result.
Klingenberg (9′ – +1/-1) No real impact on the match…which is kind of a statement in itself, but we’ll get there in a bit.
Hubly (+1/-4 : +4/-5 : +5/-9) This PMR is really deceptive. Kelli Hubly had a solid match overall. Her minuses come from her repeated attempts to go long Route One out of the back; seven of her nine are for long passes that went right to a white shirt.
Hard to hand our roses when the team loses and gets shut out, but Hubly wasn’t at fault.
Menges (+2/-4 : +0/-1 : +2/-5) Menges, same problem as Hubly; too many long balls, too many turnovers.
Nally (+5/-5 : +2/-1 : +7/-6) Young Nally is doing a hell of a job given her situation. But I have to wonder if she’s not a symptom of a larger issue; what is she giving that requires a three-centerback set and a five-back formation? I’m not knocking her, but…is she that critical to the backline that a Kuikka-Hubly-Menges-Beckman back-four would mean a big letdown in defending quality?
Pogarch (45′ – +7/-4) Did well in her half – again, three of her four minuses are for attempted 80-yard passes that missed.
Beckman (45′ – +8/-3) Another of the young players who are looking good so far. Very aggressive for a fullback, but has recovery speed, so that’s okay.
Smith, A. (+0/-2 : +2/-1 : +2/-3) My book on AbbySmith is that “she’s a good technical keeper who has a brain-fart once every other game or so”, but a huge piece of the concession was on her technical errors.
As with the Rodriguez “foul” I couldn’t get a good screenshot of her movement on the Lavelle goal, but she 1) was still shifting her weight when Lavelle cranked up, 2) was off-balance backwards instead of up on the balls of her feet when the shot came at her, and 3) failed to close down the near post angle enough and so got short-sided. That’s Goalie Sin #1.
Had another scary moment when she went up for a routine cross in the 25th minute, fumbled the ball, and dropped it at her feet with Angelina practically standing on Smith’s shadow.
Dropped on the ball before Angelina could poke at it, but, still…not really a good performance from Smith. She’s the backup, so I’m not sure why she and Bixby are alternating unless Coach Wilkinson really is treating these as more preseason games.
Coach Wilkinson: Where to start? Hmmm. Okay, how about:
- Having seen the Reign high press at the Clink, RW made no formation or player adjustments, or attempted to find tactics, to elude or negate it,
- She’s still relying overmuch on Sophia Smith to make miracles, and hasn’t found a way to make the 5-3-2 generate any more consistent attack; her goals-for against the only decent team in the group is now 0.5, the same as it was against Chicago and Seattle in preseason-preseason, and;
- Wilkinson failed the substitution duel with Harvey last weekend; Whereas Balcer for Watt sparked the Reign attack, all the Portland subs were either like-for-like (Beckman for Pogarch, Moultrie for Rodriguez), less effective (Everett for Sugita, Klingenberg for Kuikka), or just troubled-but-what-the-hell-else-did-we-have (Weaver for Sinclair).
The other big questions for the coach are
- is the five-back is really worth retaining, given the results against Seattle?
- where is the attack going to come from, if not Smith? Where is the attack going to come from if an opponent – as Seattle did – shuts Smith down?
- what the hell should be done about Sinclair? Anything?
I don’t pretend to have the answers. That’s why she’s the head coach and I’m not; she has to find the answers. That’s her job.
Now we have damn near two weeks off, and the only remaining games in the group are against the cans; San Diego here on April 17th, and away at LA on April 24th. Meanwhile the Dandelions play the cans three times; in theory they can finish with 16 points, while the best the Thorns can do is 13.
We’re going to have to hope that one of the cans surprises Seattle while we don’t play down to their level and drop any more points.
That’s…sort of sad.
Update 4/15: And the corollary to “dropping points to Seattle” is “losing ground to Seattle when they curb-stomp the tomato cans“. Three goals in eleven minutes? Daaaaamn. That’s brutal.
I mean, at this point I think we can safely say:
- Wow, is San Diego shit right now, and
- Remember all the hype about how awesome Casey Stoney was gonna be? Because…ummm…reasons? That all looks pretty silly right now, dunnit?
- The Dandelions supposed weakness was in goal. Everybody said that they were stacked on the field, but they would leak goals because the keepers were questionable. Well, young Ms. Tullis-Joyce pretty much dragged that take out behind the dumpsters and clubbed it to death, didn’t she? These people look dangerous, and we need to start doing better against them.
Stoney’s San Diego looks marginally better than the dire Angel City, but neither one looks ready for prime time and unless their management can change things most quick smart look like tusslers for the coming season’s wooden spoon.
So now, because we’re not in control of our own destiny, all we can do is show up Sunday and stomp the Ripples and then hope like hell Tullis-Joyce develops a case of the dropsies against one or the other of the cans in the final two games of this group.
That’s not a good position to be in. But that’s where we are.