Thorns FC: Kōchaku jōtai

Given that the last time Portland actually beat whatever you want to call the denizens of that fishing village in Puget Sound – Seattle, Tacoma, the Reign, OL Reign, Olympique Lyon B, the Damndelions – was three seasons ago, the scoreless draw that played out last Friday shouldn’t really have been a shock.

As the Sugita-oendan up in 221 that night might have called it, the stalemate – 膠着状態 (kochaku jotai) – was just another on the long string of recent successes that the once- and former-Queens of the North have had against the women of Stumptown.

Last time we actually beat them in a regular season?

The 2018 semifinal. Two-one, in case you forgot. Ah, thim was the days. Sigh.

Since then?

Three losses in 2019

Two losses and a draw – damn you, Tori Penso! – in 2021.

Now two draws and a loss – so far – in 2022.

And y’know what was even more frustrating? The Thorns played damn well last week, well enough to nick a goal, at least. Here’s Arielle Dror:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Between the 41st and 52nd minutes the Thorns created what could easily have been two goals. The combined xG for the two attempts is 0.6xG, more than half a goal and half the total xG for the night; those are the big step-risers either side of halftime.

The first starts in the 41st minute, when Hina Sugita feeds Morgan Weaver who, well-marked, drops to Christine Sinclair.

Notice Sophia Smith floating along the Reign backline, though…

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Sinc sees Smith running to space and splits the Reign centerbacks with a slide-rule pass.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s all it took; Smith is off to the races, with only Reign keeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce to beat.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Credit where it’s due – Tullis-Joyce gets out strong and makes herself big. But she’s still at Smith’s mercy. All our #9 has to do is tuck a toe under the ball and chip over the Reign keeper for the opening goal.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

But that’s a veteran’s trick, and Smith, as good as she is, is still just out of her rookie season. Instead she tries to smash the ball past Tullis-Joyce and gets stoned.

Here’s Smith again in the 52nd minute, ready to feed Weaver off a Samantha Coffey service:

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here’s the critical part that was hard to see live; Sam Hiatt – the Reign back at the far left in the screenshot above – makes a tiny but critical mistake.

Just for a moment she thinks she can intercept the pass, so she moves towards the ball instead of turning away to stay with Weaver, who’s already outrunning Lauren Barnes.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

By the time Hiatt realizes her bad decision…

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

…it’s too late and Weaver is onto the ball and in on goal with, again, only Tullis-Joyce before her.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

But here, again, a young player has young player skills.

Weaver has pace and strength but not craft or guile. Her touch is fast and strong, but not tricksy, and so rather than, say, chip Tullis-Joyce, or bluff the shot and force the keeper to ground and then round her…

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

…Weaver keeps coming on, dribbling, looking for the opening to smack a direct shot.

But Tullis-Joyce stays strong and Weaver runs out of time and space and when she has to launch it Barnes is sliding in to block the shot.

But…only up in the air and short of the goalmouth.

Weaver stays on her feet and – young player or no, goddammit, she’s a baller – follows her deflected shot as it knuckles towards the post.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here, in perhaps the most frustrating part of this whole frustrating stalemate, Weaver and the ball and the post all arrive at the same space-time.

For one brief, bright, hopeful moment they seem to approach singularity.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

A tenth of a microjoule less energy. A fraction of a inch-ounce less force. The slightest increase in air pressure, or rain intensity, or wind resistance…and that ball comes off the post onto Weaver’s head and she nods it right back into the goal.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

But it doesn’t.

It loops over Weaver and Tullis-Joyce and lands halfway out in the six-yard box until Alanna Cook comes in and clears it away.

Doomed, I tell you.

Fated not to be.

くそー!!

Mind you, the match wasn’t entirely one-sided. OLR had their moments to regret, too.

Lauren Fishlock was denied by the other post and Meghan Klingenberg’s head in the 31st minute.

Bethany Balcer headed strongly towards the top of the goal that Bella Bixby had to get up strong to turn over the crossbar in the 65th.

But oh, my, oh my…our two forwards and those two lovely, lovely chances.

I could just weep.

Well. That’s that; shikata ga nai (仕方がない), and it’s time to look ahead to a busy week.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: OPTA had the Thorns as 78% and OLR at 75%, InStat had Portland completing 80%, Seattle 77%.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Lots of good work being done in midfield by Coffey and Sugita, and Sinc, tho she’s making fewer connections, is red-hot when she does. Unfortunately Natalia Kuikka isn’t diming people like usual…but we’ll get to that in her comment.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

The Thorns backline’s hard work shows up here; compare Smith’s position above with her OLR counterpart Balcer. Jess Fishlock, ostensibly a midfielder, is leading the Seattle line here. The Damndelions’ shape is…well, out of shape, and while some of that is having played three games the week before and missing some key pieces, a lot of that is Portland’s hard work.

Corner Kicks

The whole “five corner kicks per match” NFT is not officially worthless. But although OPTA lists Portland with four corners I have records for only three, and – oh, trust me! we’ll get into that in a bit – they’re all in the second half

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
57′CoffeyLongTullis-Joyce easy take.
73′CoffeyLongFloated way over to the far top corner of the 18 and was cleared out to Kuikka. She put a nice cross back in but Tullis-Joyce came out strong to take.
83′Smith?ShortTo Coffey and from there to Beckie; Beckie’s strong shot forces Tullis-Joyce to parry high into the air. Sugita and Kelli Hubly crash the goal to try and make something of the loose ball, but so do the Reign defenders and in the scrum it goes off Sugita’s head for the goal kick.

So nothing, really; not sure what came of the 8th minute corner but the play-by-play doesn’t list anything until an 11th minute shot by Smith, so it doesn’t seem like any of the Thorns corners amounted to much.

Image by NWSL.com

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+6/-0 : +8/-5 : +14/-) As we saw in the sequences above, this match showed all the strengths but also the weaknesses of our two exciting young forwards. Smith is the complete package; fast, strong, clever, and possessing a shit-ton of “soccer intelligence”. She’s become the Thorns most dangerous weapon.

She’s also young, and doesn’t yet have the craft, the dark arts, of a veteran striker.

Obviously we all hope those will come in time, but for now, she’s a walking embodiment of si vielliesse pouvait, si jeunesse savait.

Weaver (87′ – +2/-3 : +9/-1 : +11/-4) See above.

If there’s one thing I have to whine about Weaver that Smith doesn’t share, it’s that Weaver’s touch is more often heavy. She coughs up balls that Smith has on a string. Part of that, though, is her faster pure foot speed; with those long legs she has a higher gear that Smith doesn’t quite have.

As with the guile, I’m hopeful that experience will teach her.

Ryan (7′ – +2/-1) Decent short shift, but also a sign that Coach Wilkinson had more-or-less decided to accept the draw; she was waaayyy more defensive than the player she replaced.

Sinclair (74′ – +7/-2 : +3/-0 : +10/-2) This evening was a page out of the Thorns bestseller Getting The Most Out Of Your Aging Player.

It showed that if you:
1) Give her extra rest (thanks, shitty NWSL scheduling!),
2) Play her in a deeper-lying, more static role where she’s,
3) Surrounded by younger, faster players who understand her game,
She can still be extremely effective

It was also a reminder that:
1) Sinc is aging quickly – she was gassed by the hour as her PMR shows, and
2) How thin the Thorns are at the #10, because…

Rodriguez (16′ – +2/-1) …once again Raquel Rodriguez came on and did more-or-less nothing.

Oh, she worked hard and had some nice defensive actions. But she was replacing a player who had been facilitating attack, and didn’t.

Rodriguez is a fine player; I’m not a hater. But she doesn’t seem to be able to really make an impact on matches outside of the odd match or two…which was my thought when we picked her up. She’s a top-grade journeywoman player. All teams need them. But while her floor is high her ceiling seems low.

Sugita (+3/-2 : +12/-2 : +15/-4) I’m not sure what was more fun; watching Hina-san do her silken stuff on the pitch…

…or watching the cheering section from the Japan-America Society of Oregon doing their oendan stuff high up in the southwestern stands. Extra fun-points for stonking the visiting fans; that side of the west stand is usually pretty quiet, so the Royal Rooters or whatever they’re called usually have the place to themselves.

Not last Friday. The Deadly Viper Sugita Cheer Squad quickly learned to bang up a loud “PT! FC!” as soon as the visitors began any of their efforts and it was worth the price of admission to hear the confusion and dismay amongst the travelers.

I think Hina-san enjoyed the warmth on a chilly wet evening. I know I did. いらっしゃいませ!Irasshaimase!, JASO!

Coffey (+2/-1 : +5/-1 : +7/-2) The other big piece in the Thorns midfield; Sam Coffey was a deadly efficient #6, locking down the top of the 18-yard box and poaching well forward to distribute. Sometimes it’s tough to remember that she’s played a whopping eight professional games.

Daaaaaaamn.

Kuikka (+5/-0 : +5/-0 : +10/-0) All her usual strengths.

I do want to mention a weakness, though, not so much for what it says about Kuikka but for what is says about the way the Thorns play. It starts with Emily Menges in possession ready to play out of the back. We all know where it’s going – to Kuikka out wide along the east touchline.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here’s the thing; look where Sugita is going (and Sam Coffey is, too…); running into space near the center circle.

If Kuikka looks up she will see that a one-touch pass will let her put the ball on Sugita’s feet in space. Then Sugita can either push up herself, or Kuikka can sprint up the touchline to play a 1-2 if Sugita is closed down.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

But Kuikka doesn’t do that. Instead she does what she (and Klingenberg) do as often as not; tries to make the run up the touchline. And – as often as not – she gets closed down and the attack stops.

Image by CBS Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.

One thing that I envy about the Reign midfield and wingers is their quick passing. It didn’t work last Friday, but it often does and it’s both fun (for their poor deluded fans) to watch and effective. I wish we’d do more of it.

Hubly (+4/-1 : +5/-5 : +9/-6) The Thorns defense was solid against Les Enfants Plutocrattes, so don’t let Hubly’s PMR fool you – most of her minuses are for passes that were too hopeful or small positioning goofs. Huge block on a Rapinoe shot in the 85th minute, too. Well done, Hubs.

Menges (+1/-1 : +5/-1 : +6/-2) Same here; good work, kept the clean sheet. The Reign didn’t manage to work the ball inside enough to give the Thorns centerbacks much trouble until Rapinoe came on, and they handled it when she did. So, there.

Nally (+2/-2 : +0/-4 : +2/-6) Nally’s numbers reflect the same issues as Hubly’s; lots of random long passing out of the back. Defensively fine, but put a lot of work into contributing to the attack and sometimes that’s risky.

Klingenberg (63′ – +5/-1 : +2/-1 : +7/-2) Picked up a knock early in the second half and had to be subbed out. Up until that point was doing fine, and her headed clearance in the 31st minute helped prevent another home loss to these wenches. Hope her shoulder is okay.

Beckie (27′ – +5/-6) Definitely a mixed bag. Had some nice moments, but was careless in possession at times and was clearly stifled offensively playing wingback even though she’s supposed to have experience there. Not really a factor, which is unfortunate given her c.v.

Bixby (+0/-2 : +3/-0 : +5/-2) Big save in the 65th minute, huge takes in the 68th and 69th. Also had one of those weirdly scary mad hands moments in the 37th minute where she appeared to go up to cleanly catch a Reign corner but then dropped it – fortunately right into her own path and away from anyone in white. But c’mon, Bix. Don’t do this stuff. My blood pressure can’t take it.

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on Facebook

Coach Wilkinson: Well…what do you say when your team plays well but the visitors’ plan works and you can’t break them down?

You pretty much have to shrug and move on. But the bottom line is that the Thorns are going to have to figure out how to beat these people if they’re going to the Final and beyond; that’s pretty much the definition of the coach’s job.

At the same time, no coach can hammer a veteran striker’s cunning into a player with less than 30 appearances as a professional. The coach can set the table, but the players have to finish the meal, and between them youth and Laura Harvey’s troops did enough to prevent that from happening.

Now we have a busy week, with the Washington Spirit coming in Wednesday night followed by Houston on Saturday. The Spirit dropped a one-goal loss to this season’s Houston, Angel City, while Houston are coming off a road draw in Louisville.

One thing to consider is that having three home games in a row early in the season means long road stretches later. So nicking points from this week?

Pretty important, coach.

Obligatory post-TFC Mini-rant: WTF, NWSL?

One problem with this TFC:?

The tape review and PMRs are based only the last seventy of the ninety-plus minutes of this match.

Because for the first twenty CBS was showing this:

Image by CBS Sports, and you wanna sue me for this shit? Come at me, bro.

Now I’m an old white guy, so of course I loves me some American Tradition; God, guns, the Flag, motherhood, apple pie, Chevrolet (sound of eagle cry). Pestering livestock for profit is one of those traditions, yes, but…

Seriously?

Your “network deal” means that you get bumped to the streaming service (which fewer people even have than have the CBS Ocho cable channel…) by a bunch of goddamn cowboys, NWSL?

All I can think of is the scene in the original Rocky movie where Burgess Meredith as his manager asks Rock – who’s a dumbass and who before stardom Stallone was willing to portray as a dumbass – where he got this new robe with the meat company logo on the back. From da’ meat comp’ney, Rock replies. What else did they give you?, asks the manager. Rock has to think about that for a bit, and then he says I got da robe. like it settles it. And Burgess Meredith gives Rock the side-eye and says, in that wonderful gravely Burgess Meredith voice:

Shrewd.

So. You made a “deal” with CBS, NWSL, that let your product get knocked off the air for damn near half an hour by frigging steaks and new boots?

Shrewd.

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13 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Kōchaku jōtai

  1. Thanks John for the enjoyable recap. I was able to see the game yesterday on YouTube. On paper that was a very even game, but watching it I thought the Thorns were the better team. But statistics are weird. Kansas City versus the Timbers, wow the statistics were of no help whatsoever. KC had the best of every stat except SOG and Goals. KC had 4 SOG’s and 2 goals, not bad. OTH the Timbers 8 SOG’s and 7 goals. That is amazing! Using the the Timbers as a segue. I hope Smith and Weaver saw Santiago Moreno’s extra time goal. He is only 22, but has probably played more professional soccer than either of them, but he knows when you only have the goalie to beat you need to chip or as Moreno did go around.
    When Hatch came in the the league she took a lot of shots and made enough to win the Golden Boot and get a National team look, but her conversion rate was not good and she fell out of the National team picture. Now she is a great finisher and scary good poacher. But I would argue not as good as either Smith or Weaver making her own opportunities. In Sundays game against LA, Sanchez was on the bench in the first half and Rodman was having trouble shaking loose from WOTM Tyler Lussi. That effectively nerfed Hatch. She is hard to stop, but with no service….

    Rodman is being hyped as a possible MVP. I see three reasons that probably will not happen. Second year jinx, defenders taking her more seriously, and that contract will be like bulls eye with everybody including herself wanting proof. She seems pretty cool and level-headed and no doubt will be a super star for maybe a couple of decades, but I think this year will be hard.
    Watching the Thorns game I was really impressed again with Coffey and Sugita. They are so good. This is a good team, but the league is so balanced. Imagine if KC had Mewis and Williams and Chicago could count on Pugh and Guatrat healthy all year. Perhaps SD and LA are playing above there abilities, but to my eye both teams are well constructed and will not be tomato cans. In fact,Orlando and Houston are not as bad as I thought.

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    1. Color me shocked about LA and ACFC, too. Were they sandbagging in the Cup? Are they just overperforming now and will revert to the mean in time? Dunno, but they sure are running wild at the moment.

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      1. Do you mean SD and ACFC? I’m surprised about ACFC, as they seem to be Christen Press and not much else. But not so much about SD Wave – they have some good players and apparently a good coach. The west-coast teams are going to be good this year.

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        1. Yeah, mishit the Ripples.

          We’ll see if the expansion clubs have staying power. They looked pretty awful in the Cup, but might have been just taking longer than the established clubs to find themselves…or sandbagging. We’ll see what happens over the course of the season. One thing I’m seeing is that this year there may not be a single standout club that rules the league the way The Damned Courage did between 2016 and 2019. That may give the newbies room. Certainly Chicago has looked more fragile than I expected.

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    2. I thought exactly the same thing when I saw Moreno’s goal! Why didn’t Smith and Weaver do THAT?! I hope they are practicing getting around keepers for 3 days straight

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      1. And Santi isn’t exactly an old head, either. His goal was a perfect mirror image of what Weaver SHOULD have done (Smith had defenders spread out behind her and less room to cut outside).

        Hopefully they’ll learn. Hard to tell; the greatest of strikers combine an instinctive understanding of how to score with a learning arc that keeps them reaching for improvements while discarding failures. Are our strikers THAT striker? We can only hope and wait and see…

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  2. As always, thanks for the writeup. I really really wanted the Thorns to win this one – because we haven’t beaten them in so long, because OL, because we need to be accumulating points during this home stretch, because SD is streaking away with the league. Damn, or should I say “dayum” to fit with our pre- (and during-)game show.

    I too was *sure* Smith was going to score on that one-on-one. Hopefully a little more seasoning will calm the fires in her head when she gets in behind like that, and she’ll start using her craft to make sure the ball ends up in the net. Weaver has less craft to start with but I have high hopes for her too since she’s clearly a hard worker.

    Re Sugita, I believe the entire Thorns fanbase is rapidly joining the Deadly Viper Sugita Cheer Squad. She’s a joy to watch. Also I think her skills mesh really well with the team’s needs. In fact, I think they mesh better than they do with the Nadeshiko – if there’s one thing the JWNT lacks, it’s athleticism/physicality. For the Thorns, Sugita doesn’t need to supply that as much since other players do just fine at it, and she can use her refined touch and vision to drive the attack.

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    1. Some players can take your breath away. Heath did that often. Horan did that frequently, Smith can do that, and now Sugita. She is an absolute pleasure to watch. I hate comparing her to anyone.

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      1. What I enjoy about Sugita is that she just does her business. No fuss, no drama, just clean smooth skillful professionalism.

        Funny that you mention Heath, because for every time I gasped when Tobin would pull off some pretty piece of skill or break some poor fullback’s ankles I would groan when she would get caught up in doing fun ball things while a teammate begged for the open pass and didn’t get it.

        Perhaps the most Tobin thing I can recall is in one of the away games at Memorial she took the ball deep into the far left corner, sucked her marker in, and pulled off a sombrero, that little thing where the dribbler flicks the ball up over her head from behind and runs onto it?

        Anyway, it was utterly gorgeous and fun…and got her absolutely nowhere; the Reign defenders closed her down and all she could do was win a corner which Hope Solo took out of the air easily.

        So much as Heath is fun and exciting…I’ll take Hina-san any day.

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        1. I love Heath and Rapinoe, but I really hope they are not on WC23. There are some fantastic young players that I want to see play against the world. Press and Morgan are making convincing arguments that they still need to be included. Julie Ertz is another one who was great, but there are some real good sixes that are playing this year and I hope Vlatco liked what he saw from Sam Coffey. I have watched both Howell and Coffey and Sam appears to be the better at the moment. Howell may have a higher ceiling, but she doesn’t seem as sure of herself.
          Hina is found gold. I agree with you and also Rhian Wilkenson who said that Hina will change the league. Not sure what she meant; but just as Quinn has been redefining the six position, I think Hina will make a place on the field for tiny dancers, that wasn’t there when Vero and Andershina played.

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          1. Ertz staying on the USWNT will depend entirely on how her comeback from pregnancy goes. I hope it goes well, because she’s a defensive rock as a #6 and she’s a real threat with set-piece headers. Her passing isn’t great but her defense is so good that it frees up the rest of the team to attack. Who knows how pregnancy and childbearing will affect her body though. For some players it’s relatively mild, for others it really throws them off. In any case I hope she and the baby stay healthy.

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  3. Your right about Ertz on set pieces. She was really valuable there and as a field general she always seemed to be talking and organizing. Her leadership would be missed but by the time the baby comes and she recovers it will be (or seems like) two years away from the game. She was at the Olympics, but not her optimal self.
    On another note I wonder if Rhian will use one of our wingers as a Rodman spy as Lussi was used against the Spirit. That job was made easier because Press was helping on defense and on offense was giving Trinity plenty to think about and both Press and Lussi have speed to match. And also Sanchez didn’t play until the second half. That was presumably to save her legs for Portland.

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