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…
…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;
…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…
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!
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.
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.
So all these chances? They weren’t that good. They barely generated over 1 xG:
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.
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:
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…
…miss the tackle and sprawl dead on her ass while Daly casually picks her spot and sinks the easy putt.
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:
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?
Passing the Passing Test: OPTA had the Thorns as 78% and Houston at 74%. Looking at Dror’s passing chart…
…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:
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?
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.
|Went all the way through to Sinclair at the back post, but Sinc’s heavy touch ran right over the byline for a goal kick.
|Went into the scrum, where a Houston defender chested it back to Campbell.
|Line 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.
|Headed clear, but out to Kuikka, whose speculative shot was well wide left.
|Campbell got up for the easy take
|To 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.
|Fell into the scrum and was repeatedly headed into the air. Finally cleared and the Thorns recycled, but petered out.
|All 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.