Thorns FC: Canned!

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?

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

Apparently not.

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…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

…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.

Short Passes

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:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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.

Corner Kicks

Guess the number of corners and win this valuable prize!

All long directly into the box.

6′KlingenbergLongTo 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′KlingenbergLongOutswinger to the top of the 18, where Menges tried a drive that went our wide to the right of goal
18′KlingenbergLongCleared out quickly, recycled but came to nothing.
64′KlingenbergLongCleared out and eventually went to Madison Pogarch, whose long pass went nowhere.
89′KlingenbergLongDesperation 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.

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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:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

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.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

And here she is…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

..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:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

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.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

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?

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

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?

John Lawes
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8 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Canned!

  1. Thanks for the writeup, John. I always appreciate the work you put into dissecting the game, but this one must have been especially trying, so extra appreciation for taking it on. I have a couple of thoughts.

    Coaching objectives: Wilkinson was asked in one of the pressers whether she was more focused on winning the CC or preparing for the season; her response was immediate and unequivocal, preparing for the season. I think she may have felt that sticking to the formation and approach she wanted to use in the regular season outweighed the result of this game. That said, it’s hard to see more than limited value in a game where you try but fail to apply your desired approach. Maybe it was more fear of disrupting a fragile grasp of the formation.

    Mike Norris: He was hired to coach technique and tactics. I haven’t looked into his background, so I have no idea whether he has any experience at managing games.

    The Po puzzle: I was a big fan of Pogarch when she first arrived; her energy! her enthusiasm! her speed! My admiration, however, was really based on her potential, on the idea that her soccer brain would develop and improve. As far as I can see, that is not happening. I have no idea what the obstacle is. As for why she continues to get minutes over players who are palpably more useful on the field, I can only guess that she shows something in training that we aren’t seeing in games.

    I’m very interested to find out whether we’ll see changes in approach as the season starts; will the CC turn out to have produced significant changes in tactics, strategy, lineups, substitutions? Or was it just tinkering?

    1. Again, it’s very likely that at some point in the regular season the Thorns will have a depleted roster and will need to grind out a scoreless away draw. This seemed like a great opportunity to practice that.

      I don’t see how Wilkinson is so incapacitated that she can’t give Norris direction, including even in real time as she watches the stream and calls in direction to him.

      I dunno what the hell’s going on with Po. I wish I did. She’s not the sharpest pencil in the drawer, but the last two games she’s been a complete tire fire.

  2. Agree with CW on Po…I remain hopeful, but am losing faith.

    Also can’t figure out why Kuikka got so few minutes. Starting Po over Kuikka makes no sense to me. I assume this has to do with her recent international games, but I’d think a 10 day break would be enough for someone of her fortitude to play a full match.

    On a lighter note, it’s clear I need to stop picking aliases with a shelf life…really thought Wall-of-Emilies would endure…and 4-4-2? Why mess with that? Not sure I can go with “3-5-2/5-3-2 that sometimes looks like a 4-3-3” as an alias….time to get creative.

    1. Kuikka had missed the last game with “illness”. I assumed she wasn’t yet 90 minutes fit.

      For your alias, you could be non-commital: “?Formation?” or “d-m-f”. ;>)

    2. Had we been set up to bunker Kuikka would have probably been a big help. The way we DID play, well…she couldn’t really do much in the final 20 minutes, I’m not sure she’d have been much more help earlier.

      And 4-4-2 is a classic. Never mess with a classic.

  3. Thanks John for the analysis. This had to be a hard one to watch. There have been few other games where the Thorns have looked as bad. But I think these absences were really disorienting. The team’s average In Stat score for this game was 155 and has averaged 174 for the previous games. So a total team break down, Menges and Bixby were the only ones who had typical In Stat numbers, but as you noted those two had some problems as well.
    I don’t see this game as an indication that this is not a good team or is not a deep team. They have a good defense and when all the players are available; a good midfield. I am confident in the attack when Smith is on the field and I think Beckie, Weaver and Ryan will only improve. Beckie and Ryan seemed to be trying to avoid mistakes and Weaver had practically no service. When the internationals are gone the team will take a hit, but the defense should be OK. A bunker and counter strategy could get them through.
    I started out thinking the Thorns were the second or third best team in the league. However, they could be the fourth best, I am fine with that as long as they play better than this game. I remember in 2016 during the Olympics they hosted a Seattle that was better and I was hoping that it wouldn’t be a blow-out. The Thorns won on a Nadia Nadim header and Mana Shim provided the nice assist. They bunkered and Nadia was the only player in the attack.

    1. I think the starting XI is well within the mean for the better NWSL teams. Depth? I think this match shows how thin we are. Once you get past #1 on the depth chart things go to hell in a hurry.

  4. Well last nights result suggests that perhaps the west group was stronger than than just Seattle and Portland. LA did not luck out last night, they beat the Courage. They were even on shots, SOGs, corners and out dueled them. They owned the flanks against what arguably are the two best full backs in the league (Daniels and Mathias). The Courage had more possession, but that is not always an important statistic. I think San Diego right now is better than LA, but these two expansion sides could be better than Orlando and Houston. Even if LA and San Diego have more problems when they get on the road, last night was a special moment for LA and for the NWSL.
    Also a shout out to David Anderson who was impressed with both Endo and Sugita. From what I have seen those two are going to do just fine in NWSL.


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