Picture yourself, if you will, as an NWSL head coach, couchbound with the Plague, whilst your club goes on the road to play the worst team in your group needing only a road point to advance to the knockout round.
Mind you, the club is as hurting as you are, only by missing five of your best players instead of nursing an achy head and scratchy throat.
In the front of your mind, between pondering where to put the Vicks-Vap-O-Rub, is the question; how the hell do I nick this point?
Your primary – when you’re being honest with yourself you admit your only effective – striker is in the out-with-COVID-group, so your chances of banging three goals past this tomato can the way you did here in Portland look slim.
You’re also missing the heart of your midfield; your two best midfielders – hell, one of them one of your best all-around starters – are out, too.
You still have the best defense in the league (yeah, yeah, the Damndelions only shipped five goals, too, whatever, fuck, your head feels like the inside of somebody pounding on a freaking taiko drum…) and if you don’t concede the worst your team can do is draw and that’ll see you through.
So whaddya do? Call the assistant that’ll be running your technical area in Los Angeles and recommend he set the team up in a low block? Play for the clean sheet, grind out the scoreless draw and escape with the road point?
I’m giving Coach Wilkinson stick about this because she was isolating, not immured in the Chateau d’If. She should have been able to ensure her assistant Mike Norris set this club up to draw ugly.
Instead, after a back-and-forth quarter hour or so Angel City FC took it to Portland and knocked the Thorns out of the Challenge Cup.
Couple of things about that.
First, I realize that the FO and coaching staff have been treating this largely as “preseason”. I’m sure if they could have won it they’d have taken that, but I get the feeling that tuning up the club for the regular season was the objective. So I’m not sure that the players didn’t run out in LA with a sort of “whatever…” in the back of their minds. Win? Great! Draw? Okay. Lose? Wellllll…not the End of the World.
Second, given the COVID losses – which included Sophia Smith, Meaghan Nally, Hina Sugita, and Sam Coffey – I’m not shocked that the Thorns lineup struggled in LA, regardless of the players’ attitude or the manager’s game plan. No Smith, no goals; that’s become clear already (not that I’m thrilled with that, mind…). Coffey has become the lockdown #6 and Sugita the two-way engine in midfield.
Depth on this club is already an issue. Once you get past the regular starters things kind go to hell in a hurry.
So when I turned on the computer and saw this…
…I was stunned.
I’ve had questions about our coach’s substitutions before this, but never a real reason to wonder about her match-management skills.
But leaving this kind of space open to your opponent, when all you need to do is bunker and keep them out of your net?
Okay, well. The Cup is over for the Thorns. Now comes this weekend, Kansas City, and the regular season and we’ll see how well this “preseason” has set this team up.
Passing the Passing Test: Per OPTA both teams had a slightly-better-than decent 75-76%, while InStat had both sides a trifle better at about 78%. The critical issue for Portland was who was passing and who was receiving, and where.
Here’s Arielle Dror:
Morgan Weaver is barely halfway to the goal, Janine Beckie even further back. Christine Sinclair, the notional forward, is damn near in the center circle.
We knew that without Smith the attack would be hampered. I think the coaching staff assumed “Oh, it’s a can, we’ll figure things out.” and that didn’t happen. The attack wasn’t just hampered; it was gone.
Guess the number of corners and win this valuable prize!
All long directly into the box.
|6′||Klingenberg||Long||To Sinclair, whose cheeky little heel-flick Didi Haracic had to launch strong to save. This was the play where Weaver went down with a shove from behind that we’ll discuss in her comment|
|7′||Klingenberg||Long||Outswinger to the top of the 18, where Menges tried a drive that went our wide to the right of goal|
|18′||Klingenberg||Long||Cleared out quickly, recycled but came to nothing.|
|64′||Klingenberg||Long||Cleared out and eventually went to Madison Pogarch, whose long pass went nowhere.|
|89′||Klingenberg||Long||Desperation time brought Bella Bixby into the Angel’s box, but the ball was cleared out for a Thorns throw that eventually petered out.|
The 6th minute effort was terrific, AND there was a legitimate penalty shout on the play. None of the other four really went anywhere.
Player Ratings and Comments
Let me preface this by saying that while I understand how the gutted roster struggled against the Angels, this was a genuinely poor outing and I say that as someone who sat all the way through the away meltdown in Boston in 2015, the match where Kat Tarr got a DOGSO straight red. Nobody’s going to come off looking very good, and I’m not trying to be harsh, but what happened on the Angel City pitch wasn’t pretty and there’s no way to disguise it.
Sinclair (+1/-2: +0;-2 : +1/-4) I’m not sure which is more damning; the -3 net or the total “significant” action total of five for a full 90.
Sinc worked her tail off, dropping deep into midfield for much of the match as the passing chart shows, and got nothing for it. Looking slow and out of ideas, the captain was simply not a factor in a match where the Thorns needed all hands on deck.
Why she remained on the field for the full match is a question that needs pondering. If the answer is “there was no one better” then the FO’s unwillingness to hunt down and sign better players is called into question. If the answer is “Sinclair doesn’t come out until she wants to come out” then the bigger question is “who’s running this team?”.
Weaver (+4/-4 : +4/-4 : +8/-8) Her pace meant that Weaver got involved more than Sinclair. Her heavy touch, lack of connection with her teammates, and Angel City’s aggressive forechecking meant that her involvement didn’t produce any real advantage for Portland.
Dror’s “xG race” gives a good, if ugly, picture of what happened to the Thorns’ attack in LA:
The Thorns created one chance in the 40th minute – not a great chance, but at 0.2xG their best of the match – and after that?
And here’s a big reason why:
Look at the empty spaces. Pogarch tries a long lob to Weaver running at the back post. But why isn’t Beckie giving her an option at the top corner of the 18, or in front of the box? Why isn’t Sinclair running through the backline?
The Thorns attackers seldom took advantage of open space, and seldom moved quickly enough to prevent the Angels from closing that space down when they tried.
So. The penalty non-call.
There’s no question that with the magic of replay and slow-motion the foul on Weaver inside the Angels’ penalty area was brutally obvious.
In the moment, with Sinclair’s shot screaming, Haracic diving, bodies flying, was it shocking that JC Griggs missed that foul?
It was hard on Portland; a PK goal might have secured the point (or not – look back at the xG plot; ACFC was tearing things up in front of the Thorns goal).
What it really does, though, is pound again on the need for the league to put up the jack for VAR. A video referee would have had the same replay and slo-mo we had at home, and could have had Griggs on speed-dial before the ball was put back in play.
There’s no real excuse for a professional soccer league not to have video review. None.
Beckie (+3/-8 : +2/-6 : +5/-14) That 40th minute chance on the xG plot? That was Beckie, alone on goal with only Haracic in front of her and no defenders within six yards, blasting a Palmer Moonshot fifteen yards over the crossbar.
After a brief flourish in the opening half-hour Beckie got lost in a welter of poor passes and getting tackled for loss. As a total noob she couldn’t be expected to have a terrific nous with her teammates. But her troubles in LA weren’t mostly a team problem, they were mostly a personal problem, and hopefully they were just first-match nerves and we’ll see better for her in the future.
Ryan (+2/-2 : +2/-2 : +4/-4) Unable to make an impact, disconnected like the rest of the midfield, too much time trying to go forward, too little success, while opening too much space for the Angels midfielders.
Rodriguez (80′ – +2/-5 : +3/-5 : +5/-10) Another midfielder having a tough match.
I wrote this on a comment at Stumptown, and I think it does a good job summing up my assessment of Rocky (referring to another commentor’s observation that they had never seen her struggle so much as she did last Sunday:
“I’d put it another way; I’ve seldom seen a game from her that has made me go “WOW!“. Put it this way; Sugita has played a total of 6 matches this season and she’s already had more games that made me sit up than Rodriguez has since she’s been here.
She’s not good tonight, but I’ve never been wow’ed by her. She’s been decent but seldom more than that. Her really outstanding games have been few and far between.
That seems harsh but it’s true; Rodriguez is usually good but seldom great. That’s fine when she has better players around her. But last Sunday she didn’t, and it showed.
Beckman (10′ – +1/-1) No impact.
Moultrie (65′ – +5/-2 : +3/-4 : +8/-6) Olivia Moultrie took a lot of stick for last Sunday, and she did make some truly awful passes as well as get stripped of the ball a lot. The Angels seemed to sense that she would fold if she got beefed around, so they did, and she did.
Though Moultrie wasn’t great she wasn’t a boat anchor, either; I think this goes back to the match-management. The coaches sent this depleted club out to try and run with the Angels like we had our first XI on the pitch. But Moultrie isn’t Sugita and Ryan isn’t Coffey, so the result was as much a failure of planning and tactics as individual errors.
Moultrie was A problem, but Moultrie wasn’t THE problem.
Everett (25′ – +2/-2) Like Beckman, no real effect on the match, more because of the team state than her own efforts.
Pogarch (70′ – +2/-13 : +2/-5 : +4/-18) Now. Having said that this was a management and team failure, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Madison Pogarch had an epically awful match.
Here she is, running at goal in the 32nd minute.
And here she is…
..leathering a six-yard “pass” into her captain’s breadbasket so hard that Sinclair doubles over and the ball runs to an Angel.
Po did that sort of headless-chicken stuff all through the first half. In the second the Thorns had trouble gaining possession and passing around so she simply had less chance to err, but she did when she got the chance.
Here’s the other thing Pogarch tells me; the coaching staff didn’t take the Angels as a serious points risk. They thought this thing would be a walkover. Why does Po tell me that?
Because nobody seriously worried about shipping goals and dropping points starts Pogarch when Beckman is on the bench. Pogarch is the ultimate high-risk player, and that she got the start tells me that Coach Wilkinson or whoever she gave her directions to wasn’t told to defend first and foremost.
Kuikka (20′ – +4/-5) She’s one of the best Thorns players. Unfortunately, she’s not one of the best Thorns strikers, and she came on when the team needed a goal more than anything else, and, unsurprisingly, Kuikka couldn’t get them that.
Hubly (+2/-7 : +1/-2 : +3/-9) Kelli Hubly had some pretty sketchy moments on defense – her horrific stab at Jun Endo’s 41st minute diagonal pass to Simone Charley was perhaps the worst defensive mistake I’ve seen her make in many, many games.
But the bulk of her minuses are for poor passes – five of the nine. That was kind of understandable; the midfield was barren, so the only option was to try to go Route One out of the back. But with a slow Sinclair, a noob Beckie, and a Weaver having an off night, that didn’t work, either.
Let’s face it; nothing worked.
Before we take the defenders further, this is worth another look:
Remember this? This is ACFC in the attack.
Who’s marking who here? Is anyone marking up? Look at all that green space around the black shirts! Pogarch is leaving Jazmyne Spencer acres of space along the far touchline, Endo and Savannah McCaskill have the top of the 18 to themselves. The whole Thorns squad is out of position. There’s no organization to the defense, at all.
This isn’t even failing a low block. This is just not good defending, period, and I’m not sure why the team couldn’t do that; none of the starting defenders were out of the lineup.
Anyway; back to the defenders.
Menges (+3/-3 : +0/-5 : +3/-8) Emily Menges lunged and missed a tackle against Charley that the former Thorn spun and took off upfield to begin the 32nd minute play that culminated in McCaskill alone in front of Bixby. Only a moment’s hesitation from McCaskill and a great save by Bixby prevented the Thorns going down by two.
That’s not the sort of mistake Menges usually makes.
But that was sort of the way this game went; people who are normally solid were tentative or adrift or frustrated. Which brings us to…
Klingenberg (+3/-3 : +3/-10 : +6/-13) As the Thorns got increasingly stymied and desperate in the second half Klingenberg began taking more and dangerous risks; speculative passes, aggressive tackles, headlong runs. Like her teammates’, Kling’s efforts came to naught.
Credit for her saving 75th minute clearance of a McCaskill header off the goalline. But overall, and especially in the second half, a rough night for our usually dependable team leader.
Bixby (+1/-1 : +1/-0 : +2/-1) Bella Bixby had a rough night, as well. Made the saving tackle off McCaskill’s feet in the 33rd minute described above. But also made a poor effort on a Vanessa Gilles header in the 36th minute that was only rescued by the offside flag.
The Gilles header was a good effort; hard and down and less than 6 yards out. But I think a keeper like Kailen Sheridan would have gotten more of her body in front of the ball; Bixby shot her left arm and leg out, but barely, and not strongly enough to keep the ball out.
Coach Norris/Coach Wilkinson: I think I’ve hammered on the gaffer(s) enough. A huge part of effective coaching is matching the tactics to the strategy. In this case the strategy was “nick a road point with a depleted roster” so the most sensible tactic would be “drop into a low block and bunker for a scoreless draw”.
That said, I’m not sure why a coach would not do that. Not caring whether the team advanced in the Cup? Underestimated the opponent? Simple thoughtlessness?
Whatever the reason, for the Thorns, preseason is over.
Now the season begins, and I don’t know about you, but still I have as many questions as answers.
Let’s see if the next couple of weeks bring some, shall we?