Thorns FC: DEFCON-3

After slogging drearily through two home draws in less than a week the bottom finally fell out of the Thorns’ young season last Saturday, when they dropped a 0-2 loss to the visiting Houston Dash.

I didn’t see it live. I took the weekend off from soccer, did a ton of yardwork, lolled in the sunshine, visited the Japanese Garden and the Flower Show at the Forestry Center, so it wasn’t until Sunday and yesterday I got a look at the match.

And it was…one very weird business, starting with the Thorns XI.

Apparently young Sophia Smith needs rest after going 90 minutes two days earlier, but damn-near-fortysomething Christine Sinclair doesn’t?

Then throw in the difference between the raw number of Thorns chances and actual chance quality.

The Thorns had a crap-ton of “chances”; Yazmeen Ryan had a run at goal (11′), Morgan Weaver was put in behind the defense (16′), Weaver got another run at Jane Campbell (37′), Ryan got a free header (58′), and Janine Beckie hucked a decent shot from distance (73′).

After the loss Coach Wilkinson chose to focus on the failure to finish. But, in my view? Most of those chances were at best “problematic” and more like “real sketchy”.

Ryan’s first attempt was a frantic rush put through by a nice lead pass from Sinclair…

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

…but, as you can see, she had two defenders on her back and no time to do anything subtle; she had to blast the shot at Campbell, and 99.9% of the time you’re not going to beat Campbell like that.

The Weaver attempt five minutes later was another tough piece of work. Samantha Coffey lofted a pretty little rainbow that found Weaver running off the shoulders of the Dash centerbacks. But here, too, the defenders were right there, and Weaver had no time to pick her target;

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

…she had to spin and shoot and though she beat Campbell Weaver was unlucky that Katie Naughton was there to clear off the line.

Weaver might have done better if she’d waited and picked an open spot…or, if she’d waited, might have been closed down and dispossessed. Hard to be sure.

Much the same situation in the 37th minute as in the 11th; Sinclair lead pass, Thorns runner – Weaver that time instead of Ryan – and two Dash defenders right there giving the Thorn no chance to be tricksy…

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Now.

Here’s where the whole “young player gonna young player” thing we talked about last week comes in. Could Weaver have done better? Sure! Chip the keeper!

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But that’s a hell of a learned piece of skill. Campbell is doing just what she ought – coming out late and hard – and Weaver has to hustle because there’s Naughton right on her tail.

A ten-year veteran might have known there was only one real option there and would have tucked a toe under the ball and lofted it up and over, 1-nil Portland and the Dash are chasing.

But Weaver’s just a sophomore. She scored in college blasting at college keepers, so she blasts at Campbell – who’s a six-year veteran pro – and unsurprisingly gets stoned.

No shame; young player gonna young player.

Now, the Ryan header? That she should have finished.

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Part of that’s a young player thing again. After another three or four seasons Ryan gets up higher and heads down and away at the far post instead of high and off the crossbar.

Saturday? Nope.

So all these chances? They weren’t that good. They barely generated over 1 xG:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

The best of the lot is the Weaver 37th minute attempt, but there’s nothing there much over 0.4xG.

Despite her insistence on finishing in her post-match presser, finishing was one of Rhian Wilkinson’s problems, but not the problem.

No. The problems last weekend seem to be brutally obvious to anyone not named Rhian Wilkinson.

First, the wrong people were playing 90 minutes.

Image by Marc Lamberts on Twitter

You’ve got your highest g+-rated player on the bench for an hour, while your lowest rated – and not by a smidge, but by a shitload – is out there for the full 90?

That ain’t gonna work.

And, second, while the Dash wasn’t doing jack – look at the xG chart; take out the Daly goal and the visitors’ xG is like 0.7 through the final whistle – your defense was imploding.

Largely because of stuff like this:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Nichelle Prince is about to take possession, and Emily Menges has her pretty well marked, so it’s not just useless for Kelli Hubly to step to them, it’s dangerous, because that leaves Rachel Daly utterly free to zip up the left channel.

Prince – who was a caution all afternoon – easily finds Daly in space and puts her in on Bella Bixby.

But Daly doesn’t bore in; 0.7xG, remember? She dinks around, taking little touches and cutting back inside, and that lets Menges come steaming back down on her with a great recovery run, and…

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

miss the tackle and sprawl dead on her ass while Daly casually picks her spot and sinks the easy putt.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

All Menges has to do is stay on her feet, get up in Daly’s grille, and hold her until more help arrives.

Look at the screenshot above – there’s no real obvious option for Daly other than the shot. Menges gets touch-tight on her, ball-side/goal-side? Daly’s got trouble.

But Menges couldn’t do that, and that was about how much of the Thorns defending worked Saturday.

Everything from Madison Pogarch conceding a handball-in-the-box (which we avoided, Thank-you-NWSL-being-too-cheap-for-VAR!) to this sort of stuff:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s our captain, looking like an old lady rummaging the sofa cushions searching for her reading glasses, but instead it’s Sinc ballwatching the 1-2 exchange between Sophie Schmidt and Haley Hanson, in the process leaving Schmidt to blow by on the way to topholing Bixby for the insurance goal.

So, nope. Sorry, coach; it wasn’t on your players not finishing

Finishing was and is a problem.

(But here’s something to ponder; ever notice how seldom we see a Thorns attacker score an easy tap-in off a strike partner’s goalmouth square pass? Like…ever? Every chance seems to be an individual rushing at goal or Smith making something out of nothing. When was the last time you saw a Thorns attack methodically pass and run through a defense and produce an easy finish? It’s all monumental, jaw-clenching, eye-bulging, thew-straining effort. Makes me tired just watching us.)

But finishing is not the only problem, and not even, at this point, the worst problem.

What’s troubling to me about this is that Wilkinson seems to share Mark Parsons’ blindness to team issues.

In 2019 it was brutally obvious that the Thorns attack was sterile; we all saw it come to a head on the final regular season match…except for the coach (and the team), who seemed to think that the goals would just come from somewhere in the semifinal and Final.

Except the club went to Chicago, and the goals didn’t.

This season it’s brutally obvious that Sinc is a boat anchor as a forward and the defense is train-wrecking; we’ve all seen it, both last Wednesday against Washington and again this past weekend…except the coach, who seems to think that it’s just a finishing problem.

The club is not in a good shape right now, and it’s largely on the coaching and management. Which means that it’s largely on the coaching and management to fix it.

Can they? Early days yet, so there’s time. But can they even see what they need to fix?

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: OPTA had the Thorns as 78% and Houston at 74%. Looking at Dror’s passing chart…

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

…what’s interesting about this is:
1) Damn near everything is going through Hubly and Beckie on the right side; Nally is passing poorly and Pogarch and then Kuikka are barely passing at all.
2) For all that, there’s no real connection through the flanks; service is going up the gut from Sinclair to Weaver. Ryan is basically a midfielder. Which suggests that if Coach Wilkinson thinks that her wingbacks are getting her width? She’s mistaken.
3) Rodriguez had another match as a nonfactor. Taylor Porter can fall back on “I’m just a noob”. What’s Rocky’s excuse?

Meanwhile, here’s Houston:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Holy Hell, that’s a whole lot of nothin’. There’s Daly and pretty much nobody else. Remind me again how these jokers got all three points?

Jesus wept.

Corner Kicks

Inspired by their return to “five corner kicks per match” on Wednesday the Thorns decided to up their corner kick game and wriggled their way to eight in this one.

Two first half, six second, and all but one long into the box.

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
16′CoffeyLongWent all the way through to Sinclair at the back post, but Sinc’s heavy touch ran right over the byline for a goal kick.
43′CoffeyLongWent into the scrum, where a Houston defender chested it back to Campbell.
46′RyanLongLine drive to the near post, where it was cleared and recycled out to Beckie along the deep westside corner. Beckie got to the byline and crossed, but the ball was cleared.
52′RyanLongHeaded clear, but out to Kuikka, whose speculative shot was well wide left.
56′RyanLongCampbell got up for the easy take
74′Ryan?ShortTo Beckie, who crossed in to Sinclair; Sinc’s pointblank shot was blocked by Campbell and the ball was cleared, but recycled to Smith, whose long shot was over and wide left.
90+3′SmithLongFell into the scrum and was repeatedly headed into the air. Finally cleared and the Thorns recycled, but petered out.
90+5′SmithLongAll the way over the crowd and Ally Prisock controlled.

The 74th minute furball might have produced something – Sinc’s shot was hard and Campbell couldn’t control it – but nobody else could get to it. Sinclair could and should have done better with the 16th minute service.

Otherwise, nothing.

Image by Thorns FC on Facebook

Player Ratings and Comments

Weaver (+2/-2 : +3/-0 : +5/-2) As discussed above. Weaver is still overly-reliant on speed and strength and needs to be learning some of that whole “age and guile will overcome youth and strength” thing. But, as her numbers show, she also got damn little service, and everything she got came through Beckie. The Thorns “attack” Saturday was desperately unbalanced, and Houston saw that and stifled it.

Sinclair (+4/-4 : +2/-4 : +6/-8) Look, Coach.

Christine. Sinclair. Is. No. Longer. An. Effective. Forward.

She can’t go the full 90 anymore, either. She needs to be a super sub, and needs to accept that her days leading the line are done. I’m a 64-year-old geologist who’s connection with soccer is playing ten years of rec league keeper and writing about it as a hobby and I can see that as fucking clear as day.

How long is it going to take you?

Ryan (79′ – +5/-2 : +3/-5 : +8/-7) Yazmeen Ryan is the one Thorn I’d agree on calling out for finishing issues. The header we discussed, the run was a tough ask, but also missed a great look in the 40th minute. Faded badly in the second half as the Thorns were chasing and needed all hands, too, so that’s troubling.

One thing that’s starting to concern me (that didn’t before the season began) is depth. It seemed that we had a bunch of promising youngsters – Ryan, Coffey, Moultrie, Beckman, Provenzano, Betfort – that could be eased in behind the veterans.

But outside Coffey, they’ve been invisible. I’m not sure why Coach Wilkinson would choose to, say, play Kuikka out of position rather than sub in Beckman or Provenzano. But that seems to be the case and makes me wonder why.

Sugita (11′ – +2/-1) As a sub, a headscratcher. Two goals down, and you throw on one of the midfielders you’re supposed to be resting, and a distributor and facilitator, not a scorer? In an outcome that shocked exactly no one, Sugita-senshu was unable to impact the match and what effort she put into her legs went for nothing.

Coffey (45′ – +7/-2) One of the better Thorns on the day. Clearly the halftime sub was planned, but you’d think that conceding in first half injury time might make a coach reconsider the “plan” of pulling your #6 when your defenders have just utterly shat the bed. But, no, because instead we got…

Porter (45′ – +3/-2) …who wasn’t awful, but who was as raw as you’d expect and unable to be effective, especially when the team was chasing. An even more baffling sub than the Sugita-for-Ryan one.

Rodriguez (65′ – +4/-5 : +0/-1 : +4/-6) Rodriguez’ touch has become an abomination; four of her six minuses are for knocks that went straight to a white shirt. She still works hard, still can connect a pass or three, but for a player who was swapped for Midge Purce, well…

Smith (25′ – +4/-2) Remember the scene in The Last Starfighter where the hero kid is down to the last ditch, and presses the red button, the one you’re not supposed to press?

Sophia Smith was in total “Death Blossom” mode last Saturday. The woman ran and struggled and fought like a mad thing, but her club couldn’t provide her with attacking support any more than they had any of the other forwards in the first hour.

A waste of her time, and a waste of her team’s efforts.

Beckie (+4/-4 : +6/-1 : +1-/-5) Like Coffey, a decent outing in a losing effort. Why the obvious frontline of Weaver-Smith-Beckie seems so not-obvious to (ahem) some people, I don’t know.

I do have to show this, tho; sorry, Beckie:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s Maria Sanchez fitting you for a sombrero in the 22nd minute. It was a perfect little jewel of ball trickery, and you literally fell for it like a doug fir in a windstorm. Sorry; even as an opponent, I had to golf-clap for Sanchez there. Ouch.

Hubly (+5/-3 : +3/-0 : +8/-3) Decent work and the best of the defenders, tho had her moments, too, as illustrated above. Still…solid as she has been all season.

Menges (70′ – +5/-6 : +0/-0 : +5/-6) I’m not sure which is sadder, this:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

…or this:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

I’m going to blame Saturday on your bum ankle, because otherwise I have to wonder just what the hell is happening to you. This was the second match in a row that you were the most un-Menges I’ve ever seen you, and it just makes my heart hurt. You’ve been such a great player for so long, I don’t want to think that this isn’t just a little downswing and you’ll be back tackling people’s legs out from under them soon.

Sauerbrunn (20′ – +1/-2) Given the game state, her lack of impact is utterly understandable.

Nally (+0/-2 : +0/-2 : +0/-4) Her numbers reflect not how badly young Meghan Nally did, but how little. Houston just didn’t get much of anything. They converted, Portland couldn’t, but that wasn’t particularly Nally’s problem.

Still not a very good passer, though.

Pogarch (45′ – +5/-8) Po, girlfriend, let’s talk.

This, this right there? This is ballwatching.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Yeah, I know, I kinda beat that drum a lot. But letting Hanson just run past you as you gaze at the ball like it was a hypnotist’s pocketwatch?

That’s not a good look for you.

Throw in your fortunately-overlooked 21st minute handball and it’s hard to see a big upside to playing you if you’re like this. You have a ton of energy and lots of straight-ahead speed, but your other limitations keep you from getting much value out of those things.

I like your energy. I like your speed. I’d like to see you be better. Can you?

Kuikka (45′ – +2/-7) Fatigue? Playing out of position? Whatever the reason, this may have been the worst single half of soccer I’ve ever seen from Kuikka. If this was what it looked like – a pre-planned sub – I’m not sure why it was made. If it was a reaction to Pogarch’s first half, well, Po is what she is, and her first half wasn’t anything like out of line for her current form so starting her in the first place was an odd choice.

Bixby (+1/-2 : +0/-0 : +1/-2) Big save in the 31st minute off Prince. Might have done better with the Daly goal, but not culpable on the second; that was a rocket and from point-blank range. Tough way to take a GAA-hammering, but that’s goalkeeping.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Coach Wilkinson: I’ve been really, really hesitant to get down on you this season.

You’ve got professional experience, I don’t. You’re coming in to a very high-pressure job, with a heavy load of expectation, at a time when your Front Office has had issues trying to find, or keep, the players you need.

But.

Your utter inability to see the obvious problems on the pitch in front of you were thrown into harsh relief by this match. Everything from formation to tactics to substitutions were either ineffective or actively made the game-state worse.

Yes, had one or two of those chances gone it it might have papered that over. But they didn’t, so the comprehensive coaching failure is hard to miss.

We’re only four games into the season. There’s a lot of time to learn from this and recover.

But there’s less time than we might think. It’s almost June. The season is packed, and the expansion teams I’d picked for this year’s tomato cans are looking dangerously competent. If things can’t be turned around this club could be out of contention by midsummer.

I’m not ready to press the panic button yet.

But my coffee is growing cold in the abandoned cup, and my feet are down off the desk as I lean in to stare at the monitor with increasing intensity, hoping against hope that what I’m seeing is just reflections off swamp gas and not a volley of incoming ICBMs.

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9 thoughts on “Thorns FC: DEFCON-3

  1. One time. Just one time I want to see Portland play it’s best lineup. I don’t think Parsons did one time. Looks like RW also is resistant to playing all our best players at the same time too. Not just the front line either. Why can’t we see our best midfielders at the same time? One time. I just want to see our best 11.

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    1. Weaver-Smith-Beckie? Sugita-Coffey-Rodriguez? Kuikka-Menges-Brunn-Kling?

      Yep. I’d like to see that for the full 90, too.

      Against OLR or San Diego or Washington. As much to see if we’re as good as I think we can be as to just see what happens.

      I’ll be really curious to see how we look in Chicago. You’d think that in a rational world the Houston loss would be a wake-up for the gaffer and we’d see something like the XI above. But Wilkinson has been pretty wedded to the 3-5-2 and pretty implacable about starting Sinclair. I’m not sure whether she’s ready to abandon that yet. I hope, but…

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      1. I don’t have a lot of hope yet. A Thorns website article* talks about what’s been going wrong, and Wilkinson’s comments are about “getting on the ball, finding the opposite sides…. Those secondary movements become critical, the rotation in the middle. We have to live on the ball. We have to live our identity and we’ve got to switch the point of attack and when things aren’t going well, we’re usually not doing those things.”

        There’s nothing in there about playing a slow near-39-year-old almost the full 90 three times in eight days, having that slow player be the striker in a formation that requires a fast player there, starting one (or two!) of her three best attackers on the bench, any of the stuff fans are complaining about.

        I am, however, willing to give her time to work it out. I’m really really hoping that she doesn’t have too much ego involved and is willing to learn from her mistakes and give up on the current system if it continues not working. She did start this last game with a 4-3-3, even if it had the wrong personnel, so at least she’s experimenting. I guess I’m not at DEFCON 3 yet, more like 2, with the major worry being her apparent attachment to the beloved but aging Sinclair. We’ll see.

        —————————————————–
        * https://www.timbers.com/thornsfc/news/after-a-frustrating-week-at-home-thorns-fc-look-to-get-back-on-track-against-chi

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        1. Coachspeak drives me nuts sometimes. We have to live on the ball”? WTF does that even mean?

          I’m more worried because she seems to be one of these rigid coaches that gives you my-way-or-the-highway on everything from lineups to tactics. You’d think that as a relative noob she’d be MORE flexible, but perhaps it’s the inexperience that makes her rigid, and as she gains more knowledge and confidence she’ll be more willing to tinker.

          That’s my hope, anyway.

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  2. Per e-mail, from Bill Cornett (I’ve taken the liberty of lightly editing):

    Good accounts of the week and Houston game—pretty much what I thought sitting in my seat. I decided to attend and enjoy the sunny day and cultivate a zen-like countenance after yelling myself hoarse at the officials Wednesday night.

    Funny, sometimes you sense something is the first domino—when Hubly bit upfield at the beginning of the Daly goal sequence I muttered, “Oh, Kelli” and even though a couple more (metaphorical and literal) topples produced the goal, you sensed it coming as it unfolded. Rule for playing Houston: Do not lay out a picnic blanket for Rachel Daly in your own box.

    A couple stray thoughts as I’ve pondered the homestand, and Wilkinson’s post-game remarks.

    Setting aside the issue of Sinclair’s playing time and effectiveness (prolonged sense of futility sigh…), the coach’s rationale for rotating the squad in the fashion she did seemed more appropriate for an approach to building a national team than a club team—it struck me as similar to comments Berhalter made a couple years ago, for instance (with some Jurgen K level justifications and player tossing sprinkled on top). Berhalter took a lot of heat early on for not playing his best players together, but given the timeframe he worked within, I think most people now see some method behind his muddling. (Whether the team does well at the World Cup likely depends more on the health of the elite players on the squad than on his roster research this time around, but we shall see…)

    But coaching a club team in that fashion…? These games aren’t the equivalent of friendlies. (And as Crystal Dunn recently noted, winning the Shield Which Should Be Larger Than A Dinner Plate is the hardest thing for a team to accomplish in the NWSL.) The coach seems to believe getting Taylor Porter—no criticism of Porter intended, as she played alright and made a couple excellent passes—45 minutes in May will result in points in September that will offset the missed points in the three game May homestand where the team she put on the pitch averaged (math pause) .67 points per game.

    We better whoop ass in Kansas City on September 18th, then. Just sayin’.

    Because we will likely need to if we hope to play beyond the end of the regular season.

    Speaking of yelling myself hoarse at inept officials—I doubt I was the only person who noted the juxtaposition of NWSL fining Washington Spirit at the coach and club level—let’s call those stacks of cash green cards for “dissent”— the same day ESPN published a biscuit toss story about chronic problems with NWSL officiating. It contains an eyebrow raising paragraph about our dear old friend turned blocking sled when it suits her, Emily Sonnett, suffering broken ribs (Orlando, naturally…) in the Challenge Cup, and the NWSL DisCo doing nothing in the aftermath because she, “finished the game.”

    Rhetorical Question Alert: Where is the leadership of US Soccer in this? She might be “Just A Flesh Wound!” Emily Sonnett, but she’s a National Team Player (and she needs to be able to breathe to be funny as hell) and if US Soccer no longer spends medium-sized bucks subsidizing players on rosters throughout the league, it might maybe oughta look at putting some money (characteristically, belatedly…) into paying for more training across the league’s officiating pool.

    As you noted in your summary of the Thorns-Spirit game, one of these days an officiating gaffe or oversight will happen at a humiliating moment for the league. The same point stands for the likelihood of a serious, career crashing injury occurring if cleats to the gut and leg sweeps from behind remain No Red Card Necessary level infractions.

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    1. Wellllll…

      Much as I agree on the general subject of PRO quality, I had a bit of a hard time hearing that from Ward, whose troops are a wrecking ball, between Hatch going in de Jong-style to Sonnett the continual shirt-tugger and arm-grabber, his club is the 2022 version of Vlatko’s KC Blues, the filthiest club in the league.

      I’m sure he and his people dislike taking it, but they should consider how much they dish out before getting all shirty about officiating…

      But, yes; the league needs to invest more in their officials. And pay for VAR.

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  3. Good post from Bill Cornett. A lot of NWSL fans are worried about the terrible officiating and the chances of players getting hurt. As RW says it is a long season and summer is coming. The league needs to protect these players.
    In terms of Rhian’s tactics, yes I would like to see an optimal lineup against Chicago. A fast start is what is needed in an away game. That being said I noticed tonight that the teams I thought would be five of the best six in the league are in the bottom six. The Courage have zero points and Orlando dropped two in extra time to tie Washington 2-2. My assessment of Orlando was the direst of the dire, but they are sitting in fourth place while the Spirit my expected best team in the league is seventh. So I don’t think I have any worthwhile opinions on who the Thorns best players are. Just win please!

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      1. Yeah that is what I meant, but said it awkwardly. Maybe instead of “dropped” I should have said Orlando popped two in extra time to tie Washington. That had to be tremendously disappointing for Washington even if Orlando is better or at least playing better than we expected.

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