Thorns FC: Badly Drawn

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SCENE: VISITOR’S LOCKER ROOM, SeatGeek Stadium, Bridgeview, Illinois

The PORTLAND THORNS are assembled in full kit as COACH WILKINSON wraps up her prematch briefing.

COACH WILKINSON: “…and Natu, you especially need to remember to keep Pugh in front of you. She’s…”

Natalia “NATU” KUIKKA: “Coach, I…I’m a little…are you sure about this?”


KUIKKA: “Well, I’m…this playing out on the left…should we…I wonder if..?”

WILKINSON: “You wonder what? Do you have a problem!?

Becky SAUERBRUNN: “Coach, I…”
KUIKKA: “No, it’s just that…my right foot is stronger, and…”

WILKINSON: ‘Brunn, stay out of this. Natu, do you have a problem with playing on the left?”

KUIKKA: “I…well, I’m better on my right foot, so…”

WILKINSON:So..? Are you the coach here? Do you understand what we’re doing? Can you see how we have to try a few different ways to get some of our players on the field? Just to see how they handle it? And I think they’re doing very well. Very well! Obviously not on a side you’re used to playing on, but I expect a strong game from Janine on the right and I expect you to do just as well on the left. Do you understand? Do you understand who is the coach here, little missy? Are you going to play for me, or not!?”

KUIKKA: Yes, coach! Yes! I will play.

WILKINSON: (after a long silent look around the room) Good. Now we’re working together. Now. Let’s go play some soccer.”

The THORNS led by WILKINSON clatter out the room and down the tunnel. KUIKKA is one of the last, along with rookie Hanna BETFORT.

BETFORT: Holy shit, Natu! What the fuck was that about?

KUIKKA: Vittujen kevät ja kyrpien takatalvi! I…I don’t think I want to know!


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Normally a road point is the acceptable minimum for a professional team, so since the Thorns got the road point, we’re all good, right?


Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

The Thorns created fuck-all in Chicago, getting two goals off corner kicks. But “the 2022 Thorns get nothing other than from Sophia Smith” has already become a sort of NFT or Internet meme, so I kinda figured, meh, okay, same shit different day.

I did not have “the Thorns defense completely breaks down and ships two crap goals”, but, then, I’m not the person who sent a right back out to try and left back or a right winger to try and right back, so maybe that’s on me.

I’m a geologist who writes about soccer in his spare time, but given the Thorns’ roster it seems to me that there’s a pretty fucking obvious matchday XI there in Chicago already:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

The only real question marks I have are 1) whether Yazmeen Ryan is a better starter than Raquel Rodriguez. Ryan’s been doing well – she did well at Bridgeview, too – so I don’t have a hard and fast answer to that one, and 2) what you do if Meghan Klingenberg isn’t available (which I assume she wasn’t…)? I’d prefer Beckman over Meaghan Nally, but if that’s all you had, I’m willing to give things a try.

Instead here’s what we got:

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Another airing of the 3-5-2/5-3-2 only with Kuikka on her weak left side, Becky Sauerbrunn inexplicably swapping places with Nally, Janine Beckie where Kuikka should be, Ryan for Rodriguez, and Sam Coffey, Hina Sugita, Morgan Weaver, and Smith in their usual spots.

Christ, what a rat scramble. What a goddamn goat rodeo.

And the results were utterly predictable.

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The player in the circle is Beckie, caught all the way upfield as Mallory Pugh begins her run.

Kelli Hubly is about to get smoked – Hubs is not the paciest centerback that ever stepped – but what I want to point out is that it wasn’t just Hubly or Beckie.

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Pugh tees up and Nally strands herself, leaving Rachel Hill but failing to close down Pugh, and over near the PK spot Sauerbrunn is in an even worse position, opening the whole back post to Yuki Nagasato if Pugh wants to square across to her.

The defending was a mess, the attack was meager as usual, and when you combine those you’re goddamn lucky to get even a draw.

So, yes, the Thorns got the road point, but not by being a good team. Two individual pieces of skill – Sugita-senshu finishing from a ridiculously tight angle…

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…and a bit of ridiculously gorgeous trickery from Smith, juggling, spinning, and scoring off another corner kick – nicked the point after a series of rec-league-coaching-level choices put the club in a prime position to lose their second match in a row.

We’ll talk a lot more about that when we get to the bottom of this piece.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: OPTA had the Thorns as 77% completion, which matches the eye test which picked out a lot of lazy passes and giveaways. Here’s Dror’s passing chart:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

That Beckie wasn’t terrific at right wing isn’t shocking, but she was at least better connecting to her forwards than Kuikka, who was a mess working off her left foot (well, supposedly – in fact typically her first touch was to turn the ball back to her right. Here she is in the first half:

Image by

And here she is in the second:

Per OPTA Kuikka had 31 passes. Of those a total of 8 went forward (4 in each half). Three never left her own half. Two of the remaining five were incomplete, meaning that the player who was supposed to be providing attack from the left wide spaces managed a total of 9.6% successful attacking passes.

Go back up to the passing chart and you’ll see how that worked for the forwards.

Here’s Chicago, per OPTA at 81%:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

The sad part is that Chicago isn’t really doing much of anything, either. Their goals came off Portland breakdowns, not their attacking mojo.

Corner Kicks

Six corners. All long into the box

7′CoffeyLongOver the mob to Ryan, who flicked it down outside the far post where Sugita finished from practically over the byline, 1-1.
23′CoffeyLongAll the way to the back post again, headed out for another corner.
23′CoffeyLongWay over everybody until Sugita picked it up, recycled until it came back up to Sugita, who fed Smith who was tackled for loss.
35′CoffeyLongCleared but out to Kuikka, whose long shot was wide left.
47′CoffeyLongOne of the defenders – either Milazzo or Nagasato – headed the ball down but right to Smith, who juggled it neatly, turned, and scored, 2-2
78′CoffeyLongFell into the crowd and was cleared

Nothing from four but two goals from the other two; 33% conversion rate? From a play that usually results in a goal something like 1-3% of the time?

Well, okay then.

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Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+8/-3 : +8/-2 : +16/-5) Smith’s night was exemplified by this play in the 70th minute. Ryan had put her through along the right channel, and Smith had juked Tatum Milazzo to leave only Alyssa Naeher between her and the go-ahead goal.

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To her left Smith has three teammates arriving, and her options are pretty tight; shoot right at Naeher, or drop to one of the other white shirts. Knowing Smith, what do you think happened?

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Yep. She shot right at Naeher, instead of side-footing the ball to Sinc for the tap-in.

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Remember how last week I said something about how we never see a Thorn score an easy tap-in off a teammate’s square pass?

Yeah, well, to do that you have to have attackers with their heads up and looking for those teammates and that square pass.

Sinc sure let Smith know that after Naeher gathered the ball in.

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Smith worked as hard as she always does, and put in a bunch of intelligent runs and good attacks. But without a team working with her? It’s damn deadly difficult to roll that rock uphill, and she did what she could. It wasn’t her issues that let the team down.

Weaver (64′ – +4/-2 : +2/-1: +6/-3) Tried all her Chaos Muppet tricks, but her best effort – a 26th minute header that Naeher had to dive full stretch to turn around her post – was ruled offside.

Did little else to threaten the Chicago goal so not really a very good game, despite her energy.

Sinclair (26′ – +2/-4) For all that Weaver couldn’t do much, Sinclair did even less. I’m not going to go into a longwinded excursion on InStat’s “Index”, but let’s just agree that it’s can be used as a relative measure of player quality. Here’s the match Index for the Thorns through Matchday Five:

Image by Chris Henderson on Twitter

That’s an ugly look for both Weaver and Sinclair.

Sinclair is simply aging out; she’s become too slow to succeed in her coach’s role for her. She should know that and act accordingly, but she at least has the excuse.

Weaver’s issues, on the other hand, reflect the large and increasing gap between her professional growth and Smith’s. Both are young, both have tremendous energy and attacking flair.

Smith, though, has the light touch, tactical creativity, and soccer intelligence to make something out of nothing. Even without her team helping out, she can create goals.

Weaver is just a wrecking ball; all her energy goes straight ahead. If there’s no one around her to help her find space and time, she will just run straight into a wall. And that’s what she’s been doing. She needs coaching, and the vision and adaptability to grow. I hope she can.

Beckie (+8/-4 : +6/-7 : +14/-11) The thing is that Janine Beckie didn’t really have a bad match – going forward. She provided good service; Nine of her pluses are for dangerous attacking passes. As a fullback, she’s a hell of a good winger.

Here’s a fanpost that lines out how Manchester City Women used Beckie at fullback:

“Cushing has tried alleviating this issue by trying to use the midfielders to provide sufficient cover when Beckie bombs forward. Cushing employed a 4-2-2-2 formation…however, in reality, this was transitioned between a 4-2-2-2 in possession to an asymmetrical shape with Beckie turning into an auxiliary right-winger. When Mannion played, the two full-backs were balanced with Megan Campbell or Demi Stokes playing a more conservative role. With Caroline Weir and Kiera Walsh play as conservative number ‘8s’ to give City protection in midfield. Walsh and Scott were tasked with providing extra cover on the right-hand side when Beckie made attacking runs down the flank.”

~ Abdullah (2020)

So basically Man City had to pull midfielders back to cover Beckie’s runs out of the back – which the Thorns can’t imitate because they need their midfielders to help distribute – and City had a massive advantage in possession that the Thorns are unlikely to share.

Beckie was smoked like a cheap cigar on the Hill goal, too. That was brutal.

Ryan (79′ – +7/-3 : +9/-2 : +16/-5) Ryan was the best attacker in white on Saturday and was still strong in the second half. Which makes pulling her off when you have eleven minutes left to try and find a winner fairly inexplicable.

Moultrie (11′ – +3/-2) A decent shift, but…why?

Coffey (+2/-3 : +6/-2 : +8/-5) When she could get involved Sam Coffey did good work. Because the Thorns played wide she was seldom involved in the attack, and because Chicago attacked – when they attacked – wide through Mal Pugh and Bianca St. Georges much of the Red Stars passing went around her as well. So her numbers reflect how big a struggle Coffey had to get involved

Sugita (+6/-0 : +6/-2 : +12-2) See the comment above.

Kuikka (90+1 – +6/-7 : +2/-9 : +8/-16) Well, paska.

Pogarch (1′ – no rating) Timewasting? I have no idea.

Sauerbrunn (64′ – +4/-5 : +2/-1 : +6/-6) Not bad, exactly, but no better that the rest of her backline. Still, not sure what was gained from replacing her with…

Klingenberg (26′ – +3/-5) Had Kling been providing the sort of service she had been in seasons past it might have made sense to try and get more attack by sticking her out on the pitch. She hasn’t, and she didn’t at Bridgetown, either.

Hubly (+1/-3 : +5/-3 : +6/-6) Utterly exposed on the Pugh goal, and in general by having to be the “forward” centerback because Sauerbrunn has to stay home to prevent being caught in another time zone when the Red Stars ventured forward. Hubs just doesn’t have the wheels for that.

Nally (+2/-2 : +2/-2 : +4/-4) I thought young Nally did pretty well, so it’s nice to see the InStat tovarisches agree. Good tackles in the 57th and 75th minutes to turn back Chicago attacks.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Bixby (+1/-2 : +2/-0 : +3/-2) I thought Bixby could have done better on the Pugh goal; beat to her near post isn’t a great look. On the Hill goal Bixby did what she’s supposed to; came out late and hard and made herself big, but Hill five-holed her, and that’s not great, either.

Did make good saves off Pugh in the 57th and Jillienne Aguilera in the 79th minute. Overall, more let down by her defenders than at fault on the concessions.

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Coach Wilkinson: Well.

You got a road point.

Your team is now sitting on 1.2 points/game and is barely perched in 8th place, ahead of Washington and Gotham only on goal difference. Four of the Thorns next five games are on the road.

Your preferred formation is supposed to be defensively sturdy, but the last two games have shipped four goals on turnovers and defensive breakdowns. Your defensive unit, the best in the league last season, has shipped more goals than the top four teams and is tied with Racing, Washington, and Gotham for fifth-worst concessions.

Your best scorer, Smith, has an 18% conversion rate, and the club’s 6 goals is more than 2 goals below it’s xG; as we saw against Houston, the scoring opportunities the Thorns are generating are often poor quality ones.

Perhaps the worst part of all this was to hear you say after the draw at Bridgetown that this is all still an experiment, that this is “…(trying) a few different ways to get some of our players on the field just to see how they handle it”.


We’re five games into a 22-game season, almost a quarter of the way to the playoffs! The whole “trying different ways” is supposed to be what you do in workups, practices, and in preseason.

You’re responsible for setting up the team – crafting formations, managing minutes, setting matchups and tactics – to win the season. Not to be experimenting with lineups to see who can play wingback.

Not on Matchday Five, goddammit.

You formation is not working with your roster, your lineup in Chicago was a dumpster fire, and your substitutions ran from inexplicable to disastrous. That’s the trifecta, that’s as comprehensive a soccer-manager-fail as I’ve ever seen.

There’s still time left. But it may be later than you think; if I’m wondering your players have to be wondering, too.

How long before they go from wondering to distrusting?

You need to solve this. Now.

Or pretty soon you’re not gonna have to worry about solving anything, because you’re gonna be fighting with this freak for his job and be damn lucky if you get it.

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A Note On Content

Those of you who are familiar with the site may have noticed that we’re not playing the Thorns Prediction Game this season.

And that there hasn’t been a podcast since December of last year.

It’s my sad duty to confirm that those features are gone; at least for this season, and possibly forever.

I’m not in a position to explain, other than that I’m the only one still here. The others who made this site what it was are still in the background helping to keep the lights on, but for the foreseeable future Thorns FC: is the content of the site.

I regret that more than I can say.

But I AM still here, and will be. This is my team, as Portland is my town. So I’ll see you here again after the Angels fall next week to hope we’re seeing better things.

John Lawes
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15 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Badly Drawn

    1. Fixed.

      Either way, it’s far too late in the NWSL year to be tinkering with lineups and positions.

      If the club had simply decided that after Parsons left to strip it down to the studs and rebuild, accepting that meant more-or-less tanking this season I could get it. It’d have meant retiring Sinc, shopping for an expensive replacement #10, and then fitting the veterans with the youngsters in at various places on the pitch to see how they did.

      But that’s not the sense I get. I think the problem was that the FO missed on the big signings they wanted in 2020 and either didn’t have a plan to replace Horan or had a plan that didn’t work out.

      And I think they had a similar issue with replacing Parsons; if they had an eye on a Krikorian-grade NCAA or big-name international coach it didn’t work out, and so we ended up with what amounts to an assistant with some juniors experience trying to run a club with a bunch of marquee players.

      Most critically that includes a Canada legend who is sort of the patrona of the new coach (in the pro cycling sense – the “patrons being the old heads of the peleton, the big stars who not just COMmand but DEmand respect from the footsoldiers…) and who can’t be coached – at least not by her former teammate – unless the legend agrees to it.

      So either Sinc is refusing to be benched, or Wilkinson is a) too intimidated or b) too star-struck to bench her.

      I’m not sure how this gets fixed, but if the club is going to have a successful season this season, time’s running out…

      1. I put Sinc’s continued play on Wilkinson, not Sinc. *Every* player wants to play, all the time, and it’s the coach’s job to tell them how much they can. Sinc is (justifiably) a national hero in Canada, and that’s coloring RW’s view of her play quality.

        1. Yep.
          The thing about great players that helps make them great is for what might seem to us normies an almost insane level of self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. And as their coach, I WANT that! I want them convinced that they can always be a game-changer, always be the one who pots the 95th minute matchwinner, make the gamesaving tackle.

          BUT…then it’s up to the manager/coach to tell that player “Okay, it’s time for you to sit out this one” or “we’re going to move you to the bench, and I need you there ready to be an impact sub”…or even “you aren’t helping us the way you are now, and we need to talk about how to change that”.

          I’m not sure why Wilkinson can’t seem to do that; maybe it’s Sinc’s status as an icon. Maybe it’s personal and they’re too close. Maybe it’s something else, or a combination of things. But it’s hurting her team, and as coach, it’s her job. She needs to do her job. Now.

  1. One thing that occurred to me as I was reading the post-match comment thread over at Stumptown.

    Remember that before RW came here her “bright lights” coaching gig was working with the Canada juniors. A big part of coaching younger players is getting them to stretch themselves, to try new things and push their self-imposed limits. You accept that sometimes it won’t work for the times it succeeds and helps the youngsters develop.

    Not sure that’s the best way to work with a squad that’s heavy with veterans who have already DONE that stretching and found their best role. But I think that in stressful situations we all tend to default to doing what we know best, and that may be what’s happening here.

    I think a lot is riding on how she’s doing with the locker room. If she’s managing to sell the players, or a critical mass of the players, on her vision then she might just make it work. She’s going to start having to get results, mind – no pro athlete is going to be looney enough to buy her coach’s “vision” when their club is tussling over the Wooden Spoon – but she might string them along until they do.

    But if the players are already wondering WTF she’s doing? THAT might spell The End pretty quick…

  2. Thanks yet again, John, for hanging in there. (I was curious about the Prediction Game and the podcast, and it’s good to know that the whole site isn’t shutting down.) I always appreciate your careful analysis and insights; whether I agree or disagree on a particular point, they make me think.

    One point to consider when thinking of the decision to hire Wilkinson: I think Paulson and the FO felt the new coach had to be a woman, in the vain hope of making peace with at least some of the detractors. Whatever you think of the hire, I think you have to take into account that the field was narrowed by that earlier decision. I’m still hopeful that Wilkinson will grow into the job, although her post-game happy talk is worrying.

    Anyway, I mainly just wanted to thank you for providing substantial Thorns coverage every game. As long as you’re doing that, I’ll be here reading it. Portland is my town, and the Thorns are my team too.

    1. Agree that the fallout from the Riley scandal forced the FO’s hand. But there are SOME experienced professionals coaching in Europe, or Asia, as well as big-program college coaches. One thing that has always distinguished the Peregrine organization is a very powerful loyalty to former players and coaches. I wonder how much influence Wilkinson’s history with the club, along with her connection with the other Canadians here had? I hate to suggest she’s nothing but a “legacy hire”, but…

      I’m gonna keep hoping that she can adjust her formation and tactics to her roster, rather than keep banging her head against the “3-5-2 with Sinc at F” wall…

  3. They need to go back to a 4 back with Kuikka in the right side. Preferably Kling on the left, but open to others. Our CB’s are great in limited space, but this experiment has failed. I’m fine with going with a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 with Beckie up front.

    If Weaver is not emerging, she replaces Morgan in a 4-4-2. Part of me wants to do the 4-3-3 and plan for Dunn to be in the 9 when she comes back. What she was doing to prep pre birth suggests she’s serious about coming back as soon as physically possible.

    Please for the love of god kill the Sinclair as a forward experiment. She can’t keep up with the pace and frankly Smith’s pace is a strength of this attack that you are knowingly minimizing by putting a slow forward next to her. Sinc is the GOAT, but this is painful to watch. It’s making me want her to retire and I still believe in the right role, she’s useful

    1. You’re probably the 30-zillionth person to suggest reverting to the four-back set (I was in there somewhere, too…), but there’s only one that counts and so far she’s shown no sign of relenting.

      I understand the continued hopes for Dunn; I was hugely chuffed when we picked her up. Her 2021 tempered that enthusiasm…a lot. Part of the issue was using her at the #8, but even when she got the chance to go forward, she looked pawky and out of sorts. She looked nothing like her old self with the Damned Courage, and it’s entirely possible that she is a player like AMC, who’s successful in a certain position only with a certain squad or conditions. I hope she can come back strong…but I’m not nearly as enthused as I was.

      And, yes; I hate feeling frustrated and unhappy with Sinc. A season ago if she’d retired she’d have been a hero. This slow death of her rep here is just murder, and I hate it…

      1. Sinc is participating in the murder of her own reputation, because she wants to play for Canada in 2023.

        But… how often does a legend retire at just the right time, in storybook fashion?

        Hell, even Michael Jordan and Tom Brady couldn’t manage that one.

        Rather, you do it until you’ve been shown that you can’t do it, both by your own performance and by the fact that others are no longer willing to employ you.

        Save for Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Floyd Meriwether, I can think of almost no one who retired while still at All-World level. And only Sanders refused all temptation and ignored all folly; Brown and Meriwether at least flirted with comebacks.

        1. Yeah, I get the “why” on Sinc. It’s unfortunate that her supposed friends KK and RW can’t do some sort of reputation-intervention but, as you point out, why should she be different from the other greats who overstayed their greatness?

          The player that I’m thinking of now when I see Sinclair churning in what seems like slow motion up the pitch is Abby Wambach, who forced her teams – both WNY and the WNT – to play in ways that hurt the teams but kept Wambach on the field well past her sell-by date. It was pure selfishness and ego and was just as painful to watch. I’d hoped Sinc would spare us. But…no.

        2. Floyd Mayweather, not Meriwether. My bad. Still missing Meriwether’s and wondering if it’s ever coming back.

          But, yeah, the list of those who left on top, or even anywhere close to the top, is vanishingly small. And so usually that means you’ve gotta come for them with the sack and the stick.

          1. But that’s kind of my point. KK and RW are supposed to be Sinc’s buddies. That’s what friends DO; they intervene when they see their pal driving her reputation off a cliff. They take the heat for forcing her to look reality in the face.

            They’re not doing that, and it’s painful and ugly to watch.

  4. I have to wonder how high their expectations really are for this season, or if they’re just thinking next year they’ll have a full season of Dunn, Horan will join for the late season push, and you’ll have a year of development for the youngsters.

    Kling coming in for Brunn and staying at CB was most surprising. Could have switched to the 4-back at that point, or even just swap with Kuikka.

    I think more concerning than “just to see how they handle it” regarding Kuikka was the assessment that “she did very well.” If Rhian is satisfied with Beckie & Kuikka as simultaneous wing-backs after that match, I’ll really start to lose my usually more optimistic outlook.

    1. I can’t think that the FO was willing to write this season off as just a complete rebuild – for one thing, I don’t see the sort of roster moves you’d associate with that. I think they hoped they could sort of re-tool on the fly and still be competitive. I think what caught them by surprise was:
      1) Sinc’s form dropping off the table,
      2) Several players (esp. Weaver but also Rodriguez) failing to progress the way they’d hoped, and
      3) The current roster struggling with the 3-5-2 (tho I’m not sure why they thought that – the better roster in 2019 failed miserably with Parsons’ stab at the 3-5-2)

      And, yes; the really troubling thing is if Wilkinson really DID think that Kuikka and Beckie “did well” at Bridgetown? How the hell could she think that? Beckie was “decent” going forward but a dumpster fire defending and responsible for 1.5 of the 2 concessions. Kuikka was utterly ineffective – not “bad”, but not helpful at a time when the team really needed her help.

      A big part of soccer managing is seeing trouble BEFORE it starts hampering the team and making adjustments. This is…the opposite; seeing the troubles hampering the team and not seeing it. Parsons used to do that sometimes and it drove me nuts then. But this is an order of magnitude more blind, and I’m not sure WTF is going on. Regardless of her c.v. Wilkinson has been around the game most of her life. How can she NOT see these problems?

      The implication – to me – is that she is, but either 1) has no idea how to fix them, or 2) is convinced that she just needs to clap harder to make things work. Either one is…not reassuring.


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