Thorns FC: Houston, you have a problem

Last Sunday the problem was that the Dash were missing their three best players; Rachel Daly, Nichelle Prince, and Sophie Schmidt.

Then Portland came to town off a frustrating 2-2 draw in San Diego looking for something to beat on.

And found it in Houston; a four-goal clean-sheet win for the visitors that made a home side that had gone undefeated since opening day – and had beaten Portland in Portland less than a month earlier – look very, very, very bad.

How bad? This bad:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Holy Impotence In Front of Goal, Batman! I suspect that the Dash couldn’t have scored had the entire Portland squad just lost interest and wandered away in the thirtieth minute.

So it’s hard to say, really, whether the 2022 Thorns are the team that looked so bad losing to this Houston team in May or the one that looked so badass throttled them last weekend.

I suspect it’s somewhere in-between.

One roster move that seems to have helped was the sudden replacement of Christine Sinclair with Olivia Moultrie at forward. Sinc pulled up lame in warmups and Moultrie was thrown into her first start of the season.

We’ll talk about her in the comments, but the result was a thoroughly pleasant…well, “surprise” might be a bit harsh on Moultrie, but happily better than we’ve seen from her to date.

The other was a change in formation, although if you asked me to nail down what the formation was I’d have to scratch my head a bit. At times it looked much like a conventional 4-4-2:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Madison Pogarch-Becky Sauerbrunn-Kelli Hubly-Natalia Kuikka across the back, Hina Sugita-Raquel Rodriguez-Samantha Coffey-Janine Beckie through midfield with Sophia Smith and Moultrie up top.

At times it looked more like a 4-2-3-1:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Same backline, Sugita and Coffey as DMs, Beckie-Rocky-Moultrie as AMs with Smith the lone forward.

In the excitement of seeing something other than the dreaded 3-5-2, though, it’s worth noting that none of this tactical experimentation was exactly releasing the hounds. Three of the Thorns goals came off 1) a freakish own-goal deflection off Katie Naughton, 2) a penalty, and 3) a horrific Naughton giveaway.

The Dash were crashing, so I don’t want to talk this one up too much. It was a much-needed win with the international absences coming soon. But whether it’s a change in fortune, or merely a combination of one team having a great day while the other has an awful one…I don’t know.

Sometimes it doesn’t have to be anything more than just a win.

Sometimes it’s just enough to enjoy the team having fun and winning, to enjoy Hannah Betfort’s goofing…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Careful, Betfort! Coffey really is the baddest one-chick hit-squad to ever hit town. She will bite that finger.

Fun to watch the skill; Smith bagging the brace, Moultrie scoring, Smith assisting…and, if we’re going with movie tropes, this Smith assist…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

…is freaking Shaolin Soccer..!

(It’s really Smith back-heeling Sugita’s service to Moultrie for the goal, but it might as well have been the Five Finger Palm Exploding Heart Technique for what it did to Houston’s defense…)

…some nice possession and playing out the win comfortably.

It was good to see.

There were a few things, though.

It’s the 60th minute, Thorns leading comfortably, but a long Houston pass clanks off ‘Brunn’s head right to Brianna Visalli.

Visalli takes off upfield, Brunn – in the yellow circle – turns in to stop her run, but in so doing exposes the whole Thorns left to Michaela Abam and Maria Sanchez because Po has been caught way upfield.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

The thing is, though…’Brunn doesn’t need to make this tackle; Hubly is keeping Visalli to her front and Kuikka is cutting off the Houston runner left. ‘Brunn should see that the danger is behind and to her right; she should be here:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

…because if she’s not, Visalli is going to slot the pass to Abam…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

…who’s going to drive 1v0 right at Bella Bixby!

(Or, since this was Houston without Daly & Co., not; instead she’s going to shank a sad effort wide of the near post. But you get the idea…)

C’mon, ‘Brunn. You’re supposed to be leading this backline.

One other thing and I’ll quit carping; why did we pay to get Janine Beckie if 1) we already have a right fullback/wingback and 2) Beckie can’t use her left foot?

Here she is, in possession, attacking up the left touchline with teammates open for the forward/crossfield pass:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Take your pick; long up top to Smith, into the top of midfield to Moultrie, or the big switch to Sugita. What does Beckie do?

You know what she does because she does it all the time – she puts the ball on her right foot and turns it backwards:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

This is getting to be kind of ridiculous. I get that she’s really right-footed. But that’s really right-footed. If she can’t play with her left at all, why is she here, and how is that helping?

So that’s all; pretty minor gripes – as it should be for a comprehensive win.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Per OPTA, almost 86% completion, which passes the eye test as well; generally the Thorns were tidy with the ball. Here’s Dror’s passing chart:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Pogarch was diming everyone in sight, and Moultrie and Sugita were feeding Smith, as well they should have. In midfield Sam Coffey and Rocky Rodriguez were making effective connections. The odd Thorns out were Beckie, who was strangely standed, and Kuikka, who kept trying to feed the ball into midfield rather than up to the forwards.

Interesting to see that despite being listed at forward, Moultrie played more like Sinc does when she’s in her withdrawn-forward/ACM mode, and was quite effective doing so.

Houston is just a fucking hot mess.

Corner Kicks

Oddly, for outshooting the Dash 20-8 the Thorns nicked only two corner kicks. Probably because the shots were either right on frame or well wide enough to be left alone rather than blocked or deflected. Both in the second half, both long directly into the box.

64′SmithLongAll the way over the 18 to Sugita on the far side. Hina-san got possession but was tackled trying to fight inside and the ball was cleared.
81′SmithLongAgain to the far top corner of the box, again to Sugita, who forced the defense to clear out for a throw. That throw started the sequence that led to Smith’s second and Portland’s fourth goal.

So nothing from the first, but the second sorta led to a goal, so, not bad.

Image by Portland Thorns on Facebook

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (86′ – +9/-1 : +9/-4 : +18/-5) I’m not sure how Smith could be any better than she is when she’s on, but somehow she managed that in Houston. Unquestioned Woman of the Match. If she doesn’t get hurt, and she maintains this sort of production for another decade we may well be talking about her the way we now talk about players like Marta and Sinclair and Kerr.

Betfort (4′ – No rating)

Moultrie (+8/-0 : +9/-1 : +17/-1) I’ve been skeptical of hyping young Moultrie because she seemed merely decent. I hadn’t seen anything special, I hadn’t seen the sacred fire.

I saw it last Sunday.

On both sides of the ball Moultrie was clever, strong, fast, and decisive. She made good decisions, something of a revelation for a player this young. I’d like to see her repeat this against a better opponent, but even so; this was an outstanding performance.

Rodriguez (+5/-4 : +3/-3 : +8/-7) First, I thought that Rocky did well in Houston.

Second, though; you gotta finish this:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Other than that, some nice passing and tenacious defending. I’d still like to see Rocky look like more of a game-changer; she’s an international and was brought in to anchor the midfield. I think she can be better. Let’s see it.

Coffey (79′ – +4/-2 : +2/-1 : +6/-3) As always, much of the Thorns’ traffic goes up the wings. That leaves the midfield with less to do, and when you have an opponent as utterly hapless as Houston, the big plays aren’t there for the making. Good outing, though; nice passing and tough tackling when required.

Porter (11′ – no rating) With the Thorns in control, Porter had little to do. Still, fresh legs and saw out the sheet, so, fine.

Beckie (64′ – +3/-8 : +3/-2 : +6/-10) I’m not sure what you were thinking when Haley Hanson took you up the touchline…

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

…but I’m pretty sure “getting dumped on my ass” wasn’t it.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

If you were a forward your horrific defending wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue. But as a wingback/fullback? You gotta defend sometime, and holy Hell are you bad at it.

What’s frustrating is that you show flashes of creativity going forward. But unless your coach is willing to go to a 4-3-3 you’re stuck at wingback, and there you’re a defensive liability.

I like a lot about Beckie. She has some good attacking tools. But right now, she just doesn’t really seem to fit into this squad; she’s not bringing all that much to the attack and, as we discussed, she’s a minus defensively.

One of the things I read while the Thorns struggled through the Cup and into the regular season is “the Thorns managment – KK and RW – are over their heads, they don’t know what they’re doing.” I’m not sure I’ve seen enough this season to agree, but Beckie is the one roster move piece that does look like…when my kid was little he’d see a toy and want it. It didn’t matter whether it was a fun toy or he had one just like it or he really needed another toy like it. He just wanted it.

That’s the energy I get from Beckie; she’s someone that her Canadian pals wanted, and got, and now, like my kid, are staring at trying to figure out what to do with.

Weaver (26′ – +5/-2) Lots of her usual good Chaos Muppet energy, but also the usual issues; lack of finishing, sporadic connection with her teammates. It’s unfortunate that she can’t seem to break into the starting XI; I think with more time she could form a productive partnership with Smith or some of the AMs. She’s not getting that time, though, so that’s not happening.

Sugita (+6/-1 : +10/-2 : +16/-3) I could pretty much write my Sugita-senshu comment before the match; great field vision, neat on the ball, aggressive tackler and effective at pressuring. She’s just that good, and I enjoy watching her more every match.

Pogarch (+3/-4 : +6/-3 : +9/-7) I know I’ve given Po stick for exciting-headless-chicken stuff, but last Sunday she kept her head almost all match (that 67th minute, though? Ouch; bad backpass and a silly foul? Ummm…that’s not good.) and did well on both sides of the ball; solid defending and some nice distribution.

Maybe Po is one of these players that need minutes to be good. Let’s hope so, because she and the other reserves and bit-players are about to get them.

Sauerbrunn (64′ – +0/-0 : +2/-2 : +2/-2) Outside the goof in the screenshots above, the Dash did so little to trouble the Thorns backline that ‘Brunn and all the other defenders had little to do. Kept the clean sheet, so there’s that. But it’s difficult to tell whether a better opponent might not have taken advantage of some of those mistakes…

Beckman (26′ – no rating) Nothing much to do but ride out the lopsided win. That’s fine, but doesn’t tell us much about the individual player.

Hubly (+4/-2 : +1/-0 : +4/-2) See above. Did fine when called on, but seldom called on.

Kuikka (+2/-1 : +2/-1 : +4/-2) See above for defending. Surprisingly little service, though, which is somewhat odd. Decent match, but it’d be nice to see more impact.

Bixby (+1/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0) Utterly untroubled.

But that’s goalkeeping. You play a blinder, where shots are screaming at you like bullets, keep 49 of 51 out of the net, and lose 0-2. Then you stand around picking dandelions and watching the clouds pass by and get the clean sheet win.

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Coach Wilkinson: Can’t really rip the gaffer for a four-nil road win.

The real question is whether Wilkinson will see the difference Moultrie made in the Sinc-spot, or the better movement and passing the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 produced.

Whether she can produce this sort of performance against a better opponent.

And, soon, whether she has a plan for replacing the internationals when they’re called up in late June and July.

The fan sites – like this one – have been pretty hard on Wilkinson for her obsession with the3-5-2 and the seeming unsuitability of her roster to her preferred formation and tactics. It must be nice for her to cruise to an easy win and hear nothing but happy cries of joy and see blue skies and rainbows.

But the hard job of a manager is when the clouds are low and the storms come in. We’ll see how the coach does when the gray skies return.

Obligatory Post-TFC Rant: Paramount+, WTF?


Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use

Look at the two kits out there. Orange, yes. The other…does that look like red to you?

You’re supposed to be professional broadcasters.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

4 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Houston, you have a problem

  1. Thanks John for a great post. My biggest take away from this game was the more mature behavior late in the game when they had it won but calmly moved it away from the goal and up the field. I was disappointed in the San Diego game how in the last 30 minutes they seemed to be kicking the ball up field in a panic to nobody in particular.

    Moultrie and Rodriquez had the best games I have seen from either of them in awhile. On the other hand Sugita and Natu were, for those two anyway, relatively quiet. Sugita is a joy to watch anyway she had some nice touches. There wasn’t much Dash offense for Kuikka to search and destroy, so there was that.
    While I am happy that Moultrie has been called up for the U17 (or U20s?), I really wanted her to spend more quality time as a starter. I hope Ryan and Everett get well because this team will need them. I don’t think Weaver was totally match fit as of Sunday, but hopefully will be soon. Seeing Pogarch have a decent game was encouraging too.
    Now they need to take Orlando serious, they have some quality and the Thorns need to be careful because Orlando is fourth in fouls 11.4 per game and the Thorns are 12th at 7.6 per game.
    In the presser Smith was asked about that assist to Moultrie by Steph Yang. Sophia says she practices that because a forward should have that in their arsenal of moves.
    She is already armed and dangerous and keeps on perfecting her game. Love it!

    1. This match has all the makings of a “trap game”; coming off an easy win over a bad opponent against another bad opponent who’s desperate for points. I hope RW is preparing her squad mentally for this one.

      And, yes, Orlando under Cromwell (tho AFAIK she’s still suspended – dunno who which assistant will be running the tactical box Sunday…) has become this season’s FCKC, the filthiest team in the league. I didn’t have as much of a problem with Vlatko’s squad because they were also talented. Orlando can’t even make that weak claim to legitimacy; they’re just dirty.

  2. My usual random thoughts:
    – Agreed that the lopsided score exaggerated the Thorns’ quality. You can expect maybe one freakish goal from the sort of pressure the Thorns put the Dash under, but not three. Some days you’re just lucky.
    – This was hands down Moultrie’s best game as a Thorn. If she keeps playing like this she’s going to be really really good. She won’t, of course – player development is invariably a matter of two steps forward, one step back.
    – Same for Smith – she’ll have some periods of regression too, and we’ll wonder what happened to the Smith we all used to see. Then she’ll pick back up again.
    – Given where she plays, Moultrie’s negative PMR of only -1 is really incredible. Attackers naturally make riskier passes than defenders and therefore get nicked with minuses more often. Only 1 negative for Young Olivia is terrific.
    – Sugita is remarkably consistent.
    – So is Coffey, which is even more remarkable since she’s a rookie.
    – That backheel by Smith wasn’t actually her assist pass, since the ball eventually found its way to her and she was the one who scored. But she did have a beautiful cutback to Moultrie for an assist.
    – It would be great if Smith (and every other Thorns forward) could learn to chip. Then the opposing keeper would be damned if they came out and damned if they didn’t. It’s a very tough shot to execute at speed though; most often they’re overhit.
    – What did Katie Naughton do that so displeased the soccer gods? Not only did she score the own goal, she also had the giveaway to Smith that led to Moultrie’s goal AND she got the wind knocked out of her – bad enough to stop the game – by a hard shot in the second half. Whew.
    – Sophia Smith is the most fun to watch of anyone in the NWSL. Sure Morgan is scoring a few more goals, but she doesn’t do the tekkers that Smith is throwing down all the time. Keep it up!
    – Kuikka has quieted down these last couple of games. Is that because opponents have figured out they need to devote more resources to stopping her? I noticed more double-teams on her when she had the ball here than in previous games.
    – Bixby did have one good save, on a rip that she had to tip over the bar, as well as a couple of crosses that she did well to swat out of the far side of the box. So she wasn’t *entirely* idle. Just mostly.
    – I thought both Coffey and Rodríguez were better than their PMRs here indicate – Coffey via her usual tidiness on the ball and effectiveness at getting the team out of pressure, and Rocky for her advancing the ball upfield through the middle.
    – I laughed out loud when that orange/red thing appeared on the screen. The Thorns were clad in white from head to toe – white jersey, white shorts, white socks, white boots. Even Coffey’s hair ribbon was white. Then I noticed that the words HOU and POR score on the screen had orange and red backgrounds, respectively, and thought, “How helpful of them! There might be a colorblind person watching the game and s/he is desperate to know the background colors in the scoreline!”
    – I’m praying this means the end of the 3-5-2, but I’m pretty sure it won’t. Wilkinson seems fixated on it, and it’s easy, and perhaps justified, to write the Thorns’ performance off to Houston’s dreadfulness. A more realistic hope is that it makes RW experiment with other formations more and they continue working. Naturally, that’s all going to get messed up by the internationals leaving.

    1. I agree that the midfielders’ numbers aren’t really representative of how they did against Houston. I think a lot of that was a combination of working the ball out wide from the central midfield, so they often didn’t make direct attacking passes that would earn a plus, and the hot mess that was Houston, so they didn’t often have to make good defensive plays. So their good passing didn’t earn them points because they were tactical passes rather than direct attacking passes, and the Dash usually gave away the ball under the slightest pressure, so no big point-earning tackles.

      One thing I’m a bit concerned about for Sunday is that Orlando is likely to come at players in possession, and press hard up to foul-level strength. If we get a Koroleva-grade CR (and I don’t know the Samantha Martinez who’s listed…) it could be a long, difficult afternoon…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.