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!
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?
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:
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:
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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:
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:
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%:
The sad part is that Chicago isn’t really doing much of anything, either. Their goals came off Portland breakdowns, not their attacking mojo.
Six corners. All long into the box
|7′||Coffey||Long||Over the mob to Ryan, who flicked it down outside the far post where Sugita finished from practically over the byline, 1-1.|
|23′||Coffey||Long||All the way to the back post again, headed out for another corner.|
|23′||Coffey||Long||Way over everybody until Sugita picked it up, recycled until it came back up to Sugita, who fed Smith who was tackled for loss.|
|35′||Coffey||Long||Cleared but out to Kuikka, whose long shot was wide left.|
|47′||Coffey||Long||One 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′||Coffey||Long||Fell 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.
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.
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?
Yep. She shot right at Naeher, instead of side-footing the ball to Sinc for the tap-in.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.