Thorns FC: Three goals forward, two goals back

Now that Lyon B has pretty much relegated the Thorns to playing for “best second place team in the group stage” Portland had to take care of business. Which meant wringing all six points out of the remaining two matches against the tomato cans.

They managed to do the first half of that last Sunday by hanging three goals on the visiting San Diego Wave by halftime.

But.

Then the Thorns conceded two goals in about fifteen minutes and needed to hang on desperately for damn near half an hour to nick all the points.

Arielle Dror’s “xG race” chart does a nice job of pointing out the difference between the halves:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Looking at that it’s pretty easy to see how the two teams swapped over at halftime. From the opening whistle to halftime Portland was running wild and the Ripples were barely a bathtub slosh. After the second half kickoff? It’s Portland with nothing going forward and San Diego taking the ball to the rim over and over.

The troubling thing about this was that last Sunday, for the first time this season, Coach Wilkinson scrapped the 5-3-2 and ran out a 4-3-3 with Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver, and Christine Sinclair all upfront.

Calloo! Callay! Oh frabjous day! The wingbacks are dead! Long live the front three!

For the first three quarters of an hour the match was as fun as we’d all hoped it would be when there was less 5-3-2 on the pitch.

The expected happy swarming guns-blazing attack ran riot over San Diego. Smith scored. Hina Sugita scored (twice!). Weaver blasted at goal, Sinclair unleashed a hammer. San Diego was just overrun like a tired armadillo caught in the headlights along Highway 80. There was no possible reason to believe that this would change after the break.

But it did. Utterly. Completely. Like, night-and-day it changed.

What the holy Hell happened!?

I think a couple of things, largely coaching things, changed the game state.

One, Rhian Wilkinson pulled Meghan Nally and sent Madison Pogarch on. Because Po can’t play right fullback, that meant that Meghan Klingenberg had to swap places with her. Which, in turn, meant that Pogarch was defending against Sofia Jakobsson.

Kling had shut Jakobsson down in the first half like a woman flipping off a lightswitch. Here’s Jakobsson in the first half:

Pogarch was a wreck (we’ll get to you in the comments, Po…), and here’s Jakobsson in the second with only Po in front of her:

All of a sudden those red lines and red figures turn green – that’s Pogarch getting schooled and Jakobsson imposing herself on the match.

Two, Casey Stoney pulled Jodie Taylor, who’d been utterly useless…

…for Kelsey Turnbow, who was lightning in a bottle.

Wilkinson tried a couple of substitutions herself after the hour – Yazmeen Ryan for Smith, Olivia Moultrie for Raquel Rodriguez – which, much like her substitutions the previous week against Seattle, were either no help or actively made things worse for the Thorns.

Suddenly the Portland midfield was invisible, the possession and attack the Thorns had enjoyed for the first forty-five minutes disappeared…

…the connections between the backline, midfield, and forwards vanished, and it was Portland that was under the cosh for the final period.

Brrrr. That’s just ugly.

Good teams don’t do that. Good teams don’t fold like that, or get outcoached like that. Good teams are merciless, and keep their boot on your throat from whistle to whistle. Instead San Diego nearly nicked a point – and did hammer the Thorns goal differential – so now Portland can’t afford a mistake or random piece of bad luck on the final group matchday against the other tomato can, Angel City.

I’m not sure the degree of seriousness to which Wilkinson is taking these Cup matches. I’m sure she wants to win them and the Cup, as well. But enough to refrain from fiddling with lineups, substitutions, and formations? To not take chances or be complacent but play every match like a Final?

I dunno.

Suffice to say that it sure didn’t look like she was all that arsed to punt this one into the long grass when her gang was up 3-nil, so now we’re going to have to sweat out one final “group stage” match – just to see if we’re gonna keep putzing around with this jackanapes Cup after the regular season starts in less than a fortnight.

Ugh. I’m ready to be done with this damn thing. Let’s get the season going.

SHORT PASSES

Passing the Passing Test: Kind of depends on you you believe. OPTA had Portland and San Diego just about even with B-minus sorts of passing around 75% (actually the Ripples came in at only 73%). Henderson’s InStat tovarisches thought that Portland’s passing was markedly better – 81% accurate – to San Diego’s 78%.

Here’s Arielle Dror’s passing network chart for Portland:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Nice to see Morgan Weaver getting some love! Sinclair actually did some decent passing work, Kelli Hubly and Emily Menges drilled it out of the back, and Samantha Coffey was carrying a lot of water in the center of midfield.

Interesting to see how the change in formation changed the lanes, too; the fullbacks (other than Klingenberg, who drifted centrally a lot…) were just sort of noodling around out along the touchlines. It all went through the middle (until it didn’t…).

Olivia Moultrie, sigh…well, we’ll got to her in a bit.

By way of contrast, here’s the Ripples:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Unsung hero of the afternoon was Naomi Girma, doing a ton of diming people out of the defensive third. Alex Morgan was her dangerous self, too, and the chart really picks out the difference Turnbow made replacing Taylor.

Pretty even overall, which is kind of 1) what you’d expect from watching the match, and 2) worrying if you’re Portland; these people shouldn’t be anywhere close at this point.

Maybe in August? But now they should be road pizza under the wheels of Thorns FC. They made a game of it in the second half, and that’s a bit nerve-wracking.

Corner Kicks

Okay, now it’s official; “Five corner kicks!” is a Thorns 2022 matchday meme. Goddamn. Backwards distribution from Seattle here; four first half, one in the second. For the first time this season more short than long directly into the box.

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
10′CoffeyLongDropped the in-swinger onto Raquel Rodriguez’ head; Rocky nodded the ball down and Sugita cleared it out to Klingenberg at the top of the 18. Kling lobbed it back in to Rodriguez, whose soft header Carly Telford easily collected.
15′KlingenbergShortKling and Coffey played a couple of 1-2s out on the left corner before Coffey squared in to Smith. Smith’s shot was blocked out high but the ball looped over to Nally. Nally passed right back to Smith, whose good shot was barely wide left.
30′CoffeyLongCleared out quickly, recycled but came to nothing.
40′CoffeyShortLong attacking sequence began with the short corner and 1-2 with Nally before Coffey crossed the ball into the box. The ball was cleared but recycled, eventually getting to Smith, whose run and smash of a shot rocketed off Telford to Sinclair. Sinclair’s shot was blocked, too, but right back to her. Sinc looped a cross that fell short, but Kristen McNabb flicked it short to the back post, where Sugita was lurking to poke it home and put the Thorns up 3-nil.
47′KlingenbergShort…to Coffey, who tried a 1-2 with Kling but Coffey was caught offside.

A goal, two more chances including a decent one; not bad for five corners. The second half slump is noticeable, though, and as concerning here as it is everywhere else.

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Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (63′ – +8/-2 : +4/-2 : +12/-4) The engine of the attack, but this time she had some aftermarket boosters to help. All her usual positives.

Her goal was very weird. I was sitting high in 202, so almost dead in line, and when the ball left Smith’s boot…

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…I wasn’t sure if it was a cross or not – it couldn’t have been, there was nobody to cross to – but it sure didn’t look like a shot. The ball floated like it had zero pace on it, and it sort of knuckled around in the air. I think it fooled Telford, too…

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..because I think if she’d have just stepped out she could have fielded it. Instead she stood on her line almost like she thought the ball would go wide, or sail high, and then flapped helplessly at it as it passed on the way to tucking inside her far post.

I’m still not sure if I saw a brilliant piece of ball skill or just a freakish shot and goalkeeper error. They all count, tho, so, yay!

I should also say probably something about this:

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That’s Kristen Westphal and Smith colliding in the 50th minute just inside the San Diego byline. The contact was hard to suss out live, but the replay sure made it look like Westphal had whipped Smith’s legs out from under her and should have been blown up for the foul and a penalty kick.

The NWSL has no VAR, though, so the play went on, Smith got up, and the score remained 3-1.

There are times when officiating is so bad – Marco Vega in the ’16 semifinal, Natalie Simon and Tori Penso last season – that it distorts the game so violently no team can over come the referee’s errors, incompetence, or both.

I don’t see that Ricardo Fierro was that big a problem last Sunday.

I do, however, think he got this call wrong, and had the penalty been awarded would have likely put the Thorns back two goals up and might well have taken a lot of the rip-curl out of the Ripples.

It’s a small thing, but it really is time for the league to pony up the money for video review.

Ryan (27′ – +1/-3) Utterly ineffective, but I can get wanting to rest Smith, who has been a beast and could probably use the break. But another reminder that our depth isn’t terrific anywhere across the pitch.

Sinclair (+7/-6 : +6/-3 : +13/-9) Another part of the Second Half Implosion was Sinc just running out of gas. It’s not that she played “badly” – she was still linking some pretty passes even in the dying minutes. But she wasn’t linking many, and she was also dinking random little drops to no one and failing to get to through balls and service.

The problem now is that Sinc at her absolute best is about 90% of Peak Sinc, and she’s not at her absolute best much of the time. And 60% of Peak Sinc – or 40% – just isn’t really an outstanding player.

I really hope that 1) Wilkinson sticks with the 4-3-3 and 2) Wilkinson can convince Sinc to sit against Angel City and starts Janine Beckie in her place. Sinc is a legend, but sometimes what becomes a legend most is knowing when to gracefully step over the touchline.

Weaver (93′ – +11/-3 : +3/-0 : +24/-3) Are you familiar with Dahlia Lithwick’s Muppet Theory? Yes? Well, then:

Weaver is the Ultimate Soccer Chaos Muppet.

The great thing about last Sunday was seeing her Chaos Muppet energy creating havoc and disorder that, for the first time, her team was able to thrive on.

(You understand that this implies that Bixby and Sinclair and Menges are Order Muppets. Pogarch is probably a Chaos Muppet, too, while the jury is still out on Sugita. Klingenberg? Faux Chaos Muppet; no question.)

She was lit, her joy was unconfined, and for the first forty-five minutes she was a Force of Nature and Ripples fell before her like a rotten tree that has been struck by lightning.

Then came the second half, her service went adrift, and she continued her mad runs but without result, like lightning over a stony plain; dry and fallow.

Let’s hope to see more First Half and a lot less Second over the next season.

Beckman (2′ – no rating) Timewasting.

Rodriguez (63′ – +2/-2 : +4/-1 : +6/-3) Rodriguez had a weird game, and I wonder how much of that had to do with her work over the international break.

She did all the “right” things; ran hard, got in good positions, marked and tackled, passed…and somehow the runs were a trifle late, the passes didn’t connect, the tackles didn’t stick, and the positions were just a skosh off.

Not a bad shift. Just not really effective. So long as Sugita and Coffey were carrying the load and Turnbow was nowhere in sight that was okay.

Once that changed, well…not.

Here’s the thing about Rocky, though; I’m going to pick on Moultrie for losing Korneick on the second goal, so I gotta pick on you for losing Isabella Briede on the first, because here you are marking her, touch-tight as the Ripples play in from the east touchline throw-in.

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Someone – couldn’t catch their number – strokes a great long pass through to Morgan who’s struggling with Menges, and look who’s snuck away from you? Yep. Briede. You’re doing something (admiring Morgan’s poise? What?) while Briede has looped around you and got clear goal-side.

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Morgan wrestles free of Menges and sees Briede running at goal and, being Morgan, finds a way to feed her. Meanwhile you, my dear Rocky? Where are you..?

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

Oh, dear. Oh, dear, dear me. How unfortunate.

Ska-DOOSH! Briede slams it home and it’s 3-1 Portland and the slide has begun.

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A couple of people at Stumptown were pretty critical of Bella Bixby’s technique on the concessions. I didn’t see anything gross – her defenders hung her out – but I did wonder about her dive on this one.

As a keeper you’re taught to fall to the side and then shove out hard with your bottom leg, swinging your top leg over and shooting your arms out strongly to add power to your dive. The idea is to launch yourself straight – either straight and level for a low shot, or straight out and up for a high one.

Instead, Bixby makes a very odd sort of loopy, flopping dive, bending her whole body, arcing to her left and coming down well short of the ball. Admittedly she begins way over guarding her near post, so even a perfect effort would likely not have saved that shot.

That wasn’t a very great dive though, all’s I’m saying.

But you were kinda lame there, too, Rodriguez. So losing the second half was a team effort, and not a great one.

Moultrie (27′ – +1/-4) I always need to be careful when discussing young Moultrie. She’s a big favorite of a lot of other Thorns fans because of her age and promise, and my reaction is always to be more cautious about using superlatives for her rather than less, so I come off like a hater. I’m not; she is promising. I just think she’s also got a lot of growing to do. I look at her and so far see “decent squad player”, and that chaps some folks.

Last game, though? No reason to bite my tongue for this one; Moultrie flat-out wasn’t good.

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Her ballwatching in the 67th minute freed Taylor Kornieck for a free header. You can argue whether or not Moultrie should have had the assignment to mark that beanpole. But Kornieck was her mark, she fell asleep, and Kornieck scored. Throw in a whole bunch of poor passes, slow reactions, and bad decisions and this is an outing Moultrie is going to want to quickly forget.

Sugita (63′ – +9/-2 : +2/-1 : +11/-3) I like Sugita for Woman of the Match for two reasons: the brace – because, well, a brace! – and this:

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That’s Sinclair booming a shot (off the crossbar, not the post, my bad…). Notice the relative positions of Sugita in the yellow circle and Westphal in the white.

Here they are second later as the ball bangs off the bar:

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Westphal was loafing near the top of the 18 as Sugita does what my old coach used to scream at his attackers: “Follow the shot! Follow the goddamn shot! Goddamn it, goddamn follow the goddamn shot!!”

She followed the goddamn shot, and…

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…boom!, 2-nil.

Starved like the other Portland players as they lost control of the match in the second half, though, so that’s not great. Still, followed the goddamn shot and had a hell of hell of a half. Ganbare, Sugita-san!

Coffey (+11/-2 : +4/-2 : +15/-4) Terrific half, and a decent match, from young Sam Coffey. She’s really setting into the #6 nicely. Brilliant tackle in the 69th minute to stop a dangerous Turnbow attack. Well played.

Klingenberg (+8/-4 : +5/-3 : +13/-9) As discussed above, completely took Jakobsson out of the game for a half, and had more effect passing forward and attacking than she’s had for a while, perhaps a benefit of her returning to the more familiar 4-3-3.

Hubly (+5/-0 : +4/-3 : +9/-3) Immaculate in the first half, and did as well as could be done in the second with the Ripples coming in like the fucking tide.

Menges (+7/-0 : +6/-6 : +13/-6) Her PMR is a bit confusing because Menges is primarily a defender and defensively she was sound; 7 of her 13 pluses are for defensive actions. She had a tough time passing out of the back, though; four of her six minuses are for poor passes.

Nally (45′ – +6/-3) I read a lot of stick shaken at Nally, and I am a trifle surprised. She’s not polished, but she was a rock defensively in the first half, and made some outstanding defensive plays against Alex Morgan, among others, that included an absolute beauty of a 12th minute tackle on the byline that left Morgan utterly bereft. Excellent shift from the young defender. Which served to highlight…

Pogarch (45′ – +1/-10) Holy shit, where to start. A defensive trainwreck, making critical positional or judgemental errors in the 53rd, 56th, and 63rd minutes. Was bossed by Jakobsson like a small child – half the time I think Po had no idea where the Swede even was.

Her passing wasn’t awful, but, then, she didn’t contribute much going forward, either. Taken altogether, perhaps the worst match I’ve seen from her and that’s saying something.

Po is, like Moultrie, a real fan favorite because of her energy and hard-nosed approach to the game. I’ve never really warmed to her because I think those attributes replace a lot of soccer intelligence.

When I lived in Philadelphia the Phillies baseball team had a player named Dykstra. Lennie Dykstra. He had tons of energy and boy, was he hard, hard as nails. That was his nickname; Nails.

He was a “run every grounder out full sprint” and “crash into walls chasing fly balls” (he was a center fielder) kind of guy and the crowds loved him for it. He played every game like it was the seventh game of the World Series, and that made him a huge fan favorite, kind of like Po.

Bill James, who knew something about baseball, used to say that the problem with that was that there was always another game tomorrow, so breaking your hand crashing into a wall making one out, sprinting out a hopeless grounder and pulling a hammy, maybe that wasn’t really a smart way to play baseball.

I like Pogarch’s energy, too. I like her toughness, and her willingness to go in on every 50-50 ball. Those are a young player’s skills, and she has lots of time to grow.

But there’s also room for patience. Judgement. Foresight. That has to be part of the growing, because too much running into walls and too little thinking about the percentages is a low-payoff long-term strategy. I’d like to see some growing.

Bixby (+1/-0 : +1/-1 : +2/-1) We’ve discussed the Briede goal; I think Bixby could have done better. Almost no chance on the Korneick header, and her backline and defense in the second half was a fire drill half the time, so she had to have been feeling like the smallest terrier in the dog pound for the last forty-five minutes. Hung on for the win, though, so we’ll nod and move on.

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Coach Wilkinson: Good – scrapped the 5-3-2. Turned the Smith and Weaver hounds loose and they wreaked havoc. Has set up a solid starting midfield, and, in fact, the starting XI is good across the pitch.

Not So Good – Got outdueled on substitutes – again. Which points out how thin Portland is once you get past the XI; the dropoff in quality is significant, but there seems to be no urgency in the FO or on the technical area to consider possibilities to improve that situation.

Failed tactically or organizationally to counteract the introduction of Turnbow and Korneick (and Amirah Ali, who was a caution in her short shift and would likely have been more dangerous had she been on-field longer…).

Still unable or unwilling to deal with the Sinclair Issue.

Still…got the points. So overall? Good. Just fine.

We now have only four days until a trip to La-la Land and the final group game against the hapless Angelinos, whose hopes of a respectable start to 2022 vanished like a parking space in downtown LA.

As I mentioned above; if the Thorns win on the 24th they’re guaranteed a Cup playoff spot.

The regular season begins six days after that.

My question is; with a thin reserve and a tough season ahead, how badly do we want to keep playing in this thing?

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4 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Three goals forward, two goals back

  1. It was the best of halves and the worst of halves. Thank you Charles Dickens, and boy was it ever a tale of two halves. I felt the the formation had little to do with the great and poor performance, but I would like to hear what you think.
    To me it seemed to be every player Stoney brought in for the second half was better than the player they replaced and for the the Thorns the reverse was true. In addition, Thorns that played both halves either got tired like Weaver and Sinclair or became ineffective like Sugita and Coffey, who just were not able to play the way they were in the first half.
    I understand the coach wanting her team to be “hard to prepare for” so some lineup variations might be a good idea with a veteran team, maybe not so much with a team of younger players. Evidently Bonpastor is doing the same with OL using different formations depending on her personnel and the team they are playing. The 5-3-2 seems to be a defensive alignment and might be great for a team with a dangerous attack. I hope they can play like the first half for a whole game against AC.

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    1. I didn’t see anything organizational to explain the second half problems. As I said in the piece; I think a fair amount was individual matchups. Turnbow was MUCH better than Taylor had been, swapping Kling to the right freed up Jakobsson, and those two helped release Morgan, who’d been pretty much marked out of the match, and Sinc running out of gas meant the attack that had been going through her stopped.

      Wilkinson didn’t respond until after the hour, and her “response” was ineffective, largely, I think, simply because we don’t HAVE players in reserve who can effectively replace the starters. Moultrie just had a piss-poor game, but Ryan’s not Smith (well…nobody is…).

      I’d have like to see Kling and Nally stay on, or, if Nally HAD to come off, replace her with Beckerman and keep Kling on Jakobsson where she’d been doing a great job.

      I’d like to see Wilkinson stay with the 4-3-3, run Beckie in the Sinc spot, and hold Sinc in reserve to see if she can be an impact sub. Frankly, I doubt she’ll do it; Sinc has become our Wambach – she’s gonna start regardless of what that does to the team.

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    2. I should add that watching Wilkinson repeat the sort of inexplicable substitution fail that used to frustrate me with Parsons was possibly the most frustrating part of this match. Like I said in the piece; I get that this club isn’t deep, so her options are limited. But she HAD better options than the whole Po-for-Nally-switch-Kling-to-RB thing.

      Hopefully she’s just learning the ropes and will get better at this ASAP…

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  2. Yes that Po for Nally switch was a head scratcher. With someone as fast and experienced as Jacobsson, even with Po speed she would be at a big disadvantage in the crafty department. Plus Kling was really owning her match up with Jacobsson.
    Just watched the first half of Wolfsburg versus Barcelona in front of 91,000. Barcelona is on a different planet and I am so happy to see AMC play so well for them. She is on the front line with Martins out for four weeks and has looked great and has been a demon in the press. AMC’s problems here suggests she needed to be surrounded by massive talent to succeed as was the case with Foord. The Thorns had talent but neither Foord or AMC are main target forwards, but they have good skills and are showing that now. AMC has Hermoso, Putellas and Hansen and Foord has Miedema, Blackstenius and Beth Meade not even mentioning Tobin Heath who is coming in off the bench.

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