Thorns FC: Obstruction

It’s a short turnaround week, so I’m going to be brief.

The Thorns struggled to a 1-1 draw with the visiting Washington Spirit last Wednesday, the second home draw in a row, leaving the club with less than two points per game from the first three games of the four-match homestand.

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Mind you, it could and probably should have been worse. Here’s Arielle Dror:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Portland created effectively nothing going forward until a bit of individual brilliance from Sophia Smith nicked the opening goal whilst the Spirit came damn close in the 43rd minute.

After that the honors were pretty much even…but (as we’ll discuss) it took some freakishly good luck, the lack of VAR, and another show of individual awesomeness to see out even the home point.

A big part of the problem was that Rhian Wilkinson 1) insisted on going with the 3-5-2 again, while 2) starting Christine Sinclair up top with Smith.

That ensured that the forwards were out of synch, and Sinclair’s now-almost-complete-lack of foot speed left Smith stranded, and isolated by Washington’s press:

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That’s the fourth minute; Raquel Rodriguez is about to get dispossessed, largely because all her potential outlets are covered like cats under a blanket. But it could have been almost any point in the match up to the final twenty minutes or so. Here’s twenty-five minutes later:

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Still no space, and without a strike partner to help disrupt that lockdown – you’ll note than Sinc is nearly in the center circle while Smith is out of the screenshot and isolated – there’s just nothing there.

Another part of this was that the Thorns midfield was somewhere between meh (Sam Coffey) and having a really off night (Rodriguez and Hina Sugita).

And the whole club looked gassed – I lost track of how many lazy passes went short, went into touch, or went directly to a white shirt.

On the other end, the Thorns defense was…ummm…not having a terrific evening.

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Here’s Anna Heilferty playing out of the Spirit’s deep defensive end. Check the bottom of the screenshot – that’s Natalia Kuikka positioned to overwatch Camryn Biegalski who’s taking off up the west touchline.

Trinity Rodman dummies the pass, sucks in Kelli Hubly (who’s supposed to be marking Bayley Feist) and Sam Coffey.

Feist turns and takes off, but Emily Menges is well positioned to slow her run. Notice, though, that Biegalski has blown past Kuikka, who’s fixated on Feist.

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Here’s where the fuckup happens.

There are two Spirit attackers on the left flank, Feist and Biegalski, and two Thorns defenders, Menges and Kuikka. Commonsense would suggest that the Thorns each need to take a white shirt.

So either Menges needs to front up Feist, or she needs to drop off to cover Biegalski’s run and Kuikka can run down Feist.

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Instead Menges lingers in front of Feist as Kuikka runs her down from behind. Neither one either cuts off the passing lane or covers Biegalski’s run, who’s free down the touchline and perfectly positioned to receive Feist’s pass when it zips through.

Luckily Biegalski’s shot was weak and right at Bella Bixby and the danger passed.

But that was kind of the backline’s night.

Credit where it’s due; Wilkinson saw the inert mass she had created and subbed out Rodriguez for Morgan Weaver at the half (and Becky Sauerbrunn for Meghan Nally, but that was frankly kind of a wash) as well as bringing on Janine Beckie for Kuikka in the 58th minute.

(Look back up at Dror’s “xG race” plot above. Notice something? Yeah; the xG ratio is about Washington 0.8 – Portland 0.1 up to the 60th minute. After that? More like Washington 0.5 – Portland 1.1. Beckie was a monster and should have been on from the opening whistle)

Washington has a ton of attacking talent. It’s not shocking to settle for a draw against them. But it’s troubling in that the long opening homestand means a lot of road games further on, and as always the mantra is “win at home/draw on the road”. Drawing at home means setting yourself a big hill to climb later.

This was a tough draw to swallow, and now we have the Houston Dash coming in only a point adrift and surely hoping to steal the win and jump the Thorns in the standings.

A home win today? That’s really the only acceptable result.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Per OPTA both teams were only fair, hovering around 75% (the Thorns just below, the Spirit just above). InStat, as usual, had both better and the Thorns at nearly 80%.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

You can see the impact of the Beckie sub; suddenly Weaver is all over the Spirit backline. Until then it’s Sinclair-to-Weaver and not much there to trouble Washington’s defense.

Dror’s chart also points up what a rubbish evening Sugita was having, and the utter nerf-dom represented by wherever space Rodriguez was occupying at the time.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

That’s scary looking, except that the Thorns seem to have been sent out to smother Trinity Rodman and did, so, good. But Hatch and Sanchez were beasts, and Heilferty and Biegalski roamed the touchlines like fucking kaiju. Yikes.

Corner Kicks

Whew! Thank the Soccer Gods that order and decency (and five corner kicks per match!) have returned!

Only one in the whole first half – pointing, again, at how sterile the Thorns “attack” was until the break – and all but the penultimate one long into the box.

5′KlingenbergLongRan through without a touch and lost to Washington
56′KlingenbergLongWashington’s defense cleared the ball but no further than Coffey. She dropped to Kuikka who tried a long putback that Aubrey Kingsbury took easily out of the air.
61′KlingenbergLongCleared out quickly, Menges tried a shot that was blocked and then the ball ran to a white shirt
73′CoffeyShortTo Beckie. She dropped to Menges, whose long cross dimed Weaver, but Washington had her well marked and her header was only able to loop over the byline
90+4′KlingenbergLongWent long to the back post, headed clear to Menges, who attempted yet another rainbow that Kingsbury gathered in calmly.

The only even potentially dangerous effort was the 73rd minute short corner, and Weaver would have had to have had superpowers to have done anything truly dangerous with that ball.

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Player Ratings and comments

Smith (+4/-6 : +10/-5 : +14/-10) Brilliant goal, and damn near a second only three minutes later. Not her fault that she was pretty much playing one-v-two or -three for much of the match.

Sinclair (87′ – +2/-3 : +2/-3 : +4/-6) With Sinclair at this point the hopes for a truly game-changing outing are nearly gone. We’re left with “has a decent match and contributes” alternating with “looks gassed from the opening whistle and has to hope to get lucky”.

This one was Door #2.

The thing is…Sinc very nearly did get lucky Wednesday; Kingsbury passed directly to her in the 36th minute. Sinc teed the ball up and chipped the horrified Kingsbury only to rattle off the crossbar and out.

Moving Sinclair back to the #10 in the second half helped…but she was still doing stuff like backpassing directly to Sanchez on her own 18-yard-line in the 59th minute, nearly half an hour before finally coming off the pitch.

That’s just not fair; not to Sinc, who can still contribute under the right limited circumstances, and not to her teammates.

Moultrie (3′ – +1/-0) Virtually invisible, and seems to be actually invisible to Coach Wilkinson, whose use of her has decreased as the season progresses. Not sure if it’s something personal, issues in training, or fit with the XI, but Moultrie, whose star looked very much like it was rising during Mark Parsons’ last season, is, if that star is not exactly setting, at the very least no longer shining so brightly.

Sugita (+2/-5 : +5/-5 : +7/-10) The first genuinely poor outing I’ve seen from Hina-san, and brutally out of synch with Rodriguez. Sugita was also getting beefed around by the visitors, too, and getting no help at all from center referee Brad Jensen. Better in the second half, but not a night she’ll remember fondly.

Coffey (+4/-4 : +3/-1 : +7/-1) Like Sugita, Coffey didn’t have a great outing. Best of the midfielders, but couldn’t do much to contribute until the match opened up in the final half-hour, and even then was muted.

Rodriguez (45′ – +4/-5) On matchday I was appalled; I think I commented something about how done I was with Rocky. After reviewing the match, I think she was better – not terrifically better, but better – than I’d thought at the time.

Still. She’s not really a game-changer, and she is 1) utterly disconnected from her midfield and forward teammates right now, and 2) occupying the space that is best suited for Sinclair.

Since Wilkinson seems unwilling or unable to bench Sinc, having Rodriguez in midfield means Sinclair up front, and last Wednesday showed up how absolutely, positively little we want that.

That’s a problem; for Rodriguez, her coach, and her team.

Weaver (45′ – +5/-3) Unleash the Chaos Muppet!

All her usual pluses…and all her usual minuses; should really have done better with the 89th minute Beckie cross she weirdly tried to play with her right foot. The ball was bouncing and Weaver had to do some sort of bizarre clog-dancing move to try and take it with her right foot.

Almost any other move – a hip-bump, a bowing header, even just bundling the ball forward with her whole body – would have worked better than the right foot did.

But young player gonna young player.

Speaking of young players…while I loves me some Sophia Smith…girlfriend, lookie here: there’s you and there’s the ball and there’s your teammate Sugita

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…just begging for the simple square pass that frees her to run at goal. You’ve even got Weaver running into space at the back post. Did you make that pass?

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You absolutely did not. Instead you tried to dribble through three white shirts and surprising approximately no one, got your pocket picked.

Si jeunesse savait. But learn from this. Learn!

Kuikka (58 – +3/-4 : +4/-1 : +7/-5) Decent enough shift and gets an undeserved assist on the Smith goal, but the real problem was that because of the initial “Sinclair at F – Rodriguez in MF” starting XI had to be subbed off to get Beckie on.

A 4-3-3 with Beckie-Smith-Weaver across the top, Coffey-Sinclair-Sugita in the middle?

Solves that whole problem, right, Coach?

Just sayin’.

Beckie (32′ – +10/-0) That works out to something like +30/-0 over 90 minutes.

That’s fucking insane.

Terrific match from the Canadian, and see the comment above for my whole take on that issue.

Hubly (+5/-5 : +1/-0 : +6/-5) Probably the best of the defenders, but that’s sort of damning with faint praise, because the Thorns defense had one of the rockiest outings I’ve seen from them in a long time and largely because of…

Menges (+3/-7 : +3/-4 : +6/-11) …Emily Menges being a hot mess, and I never thought I’d say that. Never. Never.

The Spirit scored twice actually once and sorta-again, as we’ll discuss – and Menges was culpable on both of them.

First, on the Hatch goal in the 63rd minute, Menges looks like she’s doing just fine as Heilferty winds up:

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She’s ball-side/goal-side on Hatch. All good.

But as the ball floats in, Menges inexplicably spins to her left, leaving Hatch space.

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Bixby comes out too late, but it hardly matters; Hatch has the free header and scores the most Ashley Hatch goal conceivable with Menges wandering around on the six-yard line like a lost pup.

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The other “goal”? Comes off a Sam Staab corner in the 73rd minute, and, once again, Menges fails to stick her mark and gives Hatch the free header:

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Hatch heads down into the goalmouth crowd, Bixby comes out but misses, Meghan Klingenberg clears off the line but only to a Washington player (I think it was Hiatt but I’m not sure…) who taps the ball to Emily Sonnett who toe-pokes it across the goalline.

Only to be called offside.

Now. The play was pretty chaotic, but the rule is that if there’s two defenders in front of you when the pass is made, you’re onside.

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That sure looks like two defenders to me.

I think we’re damn lucky the NWSL has refused to sink coin into VAR, because I’ll bet that one would have been called good after video review.

But, hey, we don’t, and so we still have the point. Yay.

But…damn, Em. That’s just not like you. What’s going on?

Sauerbrunn (45′ – +3/-4) Saving toe-touch-clearance in the 43rd minute chaos, and otherwise fine on a rough night for her unit.

Nally (45′ – +3/-1) Pretty much same-same as “Brunn. Decent enough, tough night for the squad.

Klingenberg (+6/-1 : +3/-3 : +9/-6) Had a terrific chance to score her first goal since something like 1982 in the 77th minute but could only hit a weak roller right at Kingsbury.

Other than that did good work, particularly nerfing Rodman, and providing service.

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Bixby (+0/-1 : +3/-1 : +3/-2) Her PMR is a bit deceptive.

Her minuses are trivial – a lazy take that came off her hands in the 43rd minute chaos, and a weak punt in the 61st.

Her pluses are match-saving; Huge saves, first off a dipping Sanchez drive in the 67th minute that Bixby had to get up strong to turn over the bar. Then an insane double save in the 81st minute when an appalling Menges turnover inside the defensive third (I’m not kidding – she was a mess Wednesday night…) let Rodman in 1v0.

Bixby stoned Rodman with the hockey kick-save, and then, as shown above, dove full stretch to palm the Sanchez knuckler off the rebound around her post, literally saving the point twice.

Ciao, Bella!

Image by Thorns FC: on Facebook

Coach Wilkinson: A thorn for failing, again, to see that you can’t make the 3-5-2 with Sinclair up top work against a decent team.

A rose for making the changes you needed to make to change that.

And a huge WTF??? for how the hell you fix Emily Menges – a player who’s been a rock, a player once seriously mentioned as a potential national team defender – having a nightmare evening and a rough season to date.

That’s not the coach’s fault.

But it raises the question; why are we playing the three-centerback set when one of the CBs is struggling and it forces us to drop one of our three best attackers and forces our legendary captain into an uncomfortable and visibly unworkable position?


Bottom line: this club needs a statement win.

Today would be a good day to get it.

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

This is the third match in a row I’ve posted one of these rants, and I’m kind of chapped that it’s getting to be a thing, but…

This ain’t exactly a fucking whodunnit, Mister Jensen, sir.

This used to be a huge pet peeve of mine; the utter failure of referees large and small to call this what it is. It used to be called “obstruction”. The new version of Law 12 calls it “impeding”. But either one is as obvious as it is here.

Emily Sonnett is a fun player, and I have a soft spot in my heart for her.

But she used to do derpy stuff like this all the time, still does, and fortunately she does it for other people so I don’t have to have a cow about it.

But, goddammit, if this isn’t “impeding” or “obstruction” or whatever you call it, what the fuck is it?

I know, I know. It’s a futile effort to try and get this called. It’s a practical dead letter, like the rule in baseball that supposedly prohibits the catcher setting up halfway up the third baseline without the ball in hand. It’s on the books but is never, ever called.

But sometimes that is so obviously, visibly a problem that it’s hard not to get irked about it all over again.

Because here’s the bigger issue – leaving a rule on the books but not enforcing it?

That’s a ticking bomb.

And speaking of baseball…there’s a famous (or infamous) play in baseball history called “Merkle’s Boner” that’s still legendary even after almost 100 years.

The story is that a New York Giants player named Fred Merkle was on first when a teammate singled to center off the Chicago Cubs pitcher, scoring the guy from third and apparently winning the game. Fans mobbed the field, and Merkle stopped short of second and turned back to the bench.

A Cubs infielder called for the ball, tagged second, and forced Merkle out to negate the run, tying the game, forcing a replay (which Chicago won), and denying the Giants the pennant.

Bill James makes the point that Merkle’s actions were entirely consistent with National League play up to that point. The convention had been that the player didn’t have to touch the base after the run scored. Game over, let’s just go home.

The rule – that if they didn’t touch the base and the fielder tagged the bag it was a force-out that negated the run scored – was always there.

But it was never enforced.

Until that day in 1908. In a critical game. That impacted a championship.

Soccer has the same problem with this rule.

If it’s in the rules? Enforce it.

If you’re not going to enforce it? Take it out of the rules.

Because right now it’s there, referees, league officials; waiting for some critical moment in some championship game when it’s going to have a catastrophic effect one way or the other, and you’ll be sorry you didn’t think and do something about this sooner.

Plus you pissed me off again on Wednesday night, and that’s even worse.

John Lawes
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8 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Obstruction

  1. Thanks, John, for an excellent writeup. You nailed all the things that drove me nuts about that game. And remind me, which team was it who had played 5 games in 18 days and has another this weekend?

    Let’s just hope that all the energy the Thorns didn’t expend on Wednesday is in the bank for today against Houston.

    1. Instead it sounds like today was, if anything, worse; the attack was nerfed and the defense broke down at critical moments again. How the hell do you play Sinclair 90 minutes today after playing her 87 minutes Wednesday?

      I won’t say I’ve got a hand hovering over the red DEFCON-1 button.

      But I’ve definitely put my coffee cup down and my feet down off the desk, and am staring hard at the screen hoping like hell what I’m seeing is just swamp gas or UFOs and not a volley of incoming ICBMs.

  2. My first thought pre-game was “wow, what a strong lineup”. Just looking at the names on the field. Shortly into the first half, my thoughts changed to “they are kicking our butts” and “we look tired and disorganized”
    After the subs,I thought “game on.” My final thought was “not a bad draw, but we should have gotten a win.”
    Im a little down on the coach right now. I seems like with all the challenge cup games, she should have figured out her best 11 by now.
    I know she says she wants to keep switching things up to create advantages. I get the philosophy of creating mis-matches or surprising an opponent. However, I dont see the advantage happening on the field. I see frustration, disorganization and bad passing.

  3. Bill James liked to tell the story about – I think it was – Earl Weaver, who had issues with some of his star players. And Weaver knew that benching the guys would cost him games.

    But the parallel James uses is Jimmy Cagney as the police chief in Ragtime when the anarchists are holed up in the museum and the curator comes and tells Cagney that he mustn’t damage the museum. Why don’t you tell that to them guys in there, Cagney replies.

    Are you joking? The curator says. Do you know who I am? I’m the curator of this museum!

    Cagney says; so long as them guys are in there and you are out here, you aren’t the cu-ra-tor of anything.

    Which was James’ point; so long as the players were able to do whatever they wanted Weaver wasn’t the man-a-ger of anything. Weaver benched them, and took the heat when the team took the losses.

    I’m not saying it will be easy. But it this shitshow is not because Wilkinson thinks it’s a good idea to put 80+ minutes into an already slow 39-year-old’s legs in the first month of the season but because Sinc can’t put up with getting sat?

    Then Wilkinson isn’t he-ad-coach of anything.

  4. I am going to comment both on the Spirit and Dash game. The Spirit game I am not too upset, but a win was there to be had. Hatch is what we hope Weaver can turn into. She seems to be automatic for a goal or two and that is why she is back in the National team picture, but she had similar problems as Weaver when she came into the league. You are right about Smith sometimes she tries to do too much herself. But Wow she is a joy to watch. Weaver is too. She contributes a lot even when she doesn’t score.
    Houston, well starting with the good. I thought Kling, Sugita, Coffey and Rocky all had pretty good games and I would love to see them on the field longer together. Kuikka had a abnormally poor game, but she was on the wrong side of the field. I was over on the east and barely noticed her.
    Now the bad. The defense had a pretty bad game but that was because the midfield was so disjointed. I think Menges was nursing an injury and the foot injury that subbed her off may have exacerbated it. The attack was unlucky and impatient. But Beckie is impressing me a lot. She has great connection with Sinclair and she needs to be part of a front three of Beckie, Smith and Weaver. I want her and Kuika on the field at the same time not as an either or. Kuikka is a better defender and Beckie is a superior attacker.
    I listened to RW’s post game remarks and I get resting the players, but why rest 21 to 24 year olds when you are asking a 39 year old to go 87 and 90 as you noted.
    I would rather see the Thorn’s start with their best 11 and then work in the others in the second half. I maybe wrong, but when I saw the lineup to start I thought the Dash must think the Thorns were not respecting them. The Dash are not what they were but Daly, Groom, Prince and Sanchez are all dangerous. They have experienced midfielders and defenders and a great keeper. Schmidt and Chapman both played really well. That is not a game I will watch a replay of.

  5. There are lots of rules in soccer that aren’t enforced, and it bugs me too. To name a few that are enforced only sometimes, or never:
    – Yellow-card offenses in the first five minutes of a game.
    – Delaying a restart by tapping the ball away well after the whistle, walking in front of a ball on the ground and backing up very slowly, etc.
    – The keeper holding the ball for more than 6 seconds.
    – Throw-ins far from where the ball went across the touchline.
    – Free kicks taken five yards or more from where the foul occurred. Like throw-ins, usually this doesn’t matter but sometimes those yards make a huge difference.
    – As you point out, obstruction.

    There are lots more. It has become part of the culture of refereeing to ignore some of these in the name of game flow, but I wish it hadn’t.

    1. Both Washington and Houston played to delay. Washington I think came hoping and playing for a tie and got it. Houston with a lead played not to lose and didn’t so the delays worked for both of them. So it worked and the refs let them get away with that.
      I am less unhappy than I was on Sunday because I am thinking most of the teams in this league are thin on the bench. Particularly the expansion clubs that are doing surprisingly well at the moment. But at the end of the season I still think the top teams will be the Spirit, Reign, Thorns and Courage. So I am going to stop rending my shirts, gnashing my teeth and weeping. Yup there is a lot of parity and we say that every year but it seems like every year the same teams are in the finals. Chicago looked good yesterday but two key pieces Pugh and Guaterat are fragile and the Red Stars depend heavily on those two.

      1. Here’s the thing with parity:

        • Any team can flip from bad to good, and even win the league, any year
        • Every team is mediocre

        With EuroCash skimming off the best NWSL players every year, we are left watching teams of toilers with one stud and a couple promising rookies. Leaving a trail of unpredictable results and a mighty passel of throw-ins.


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