Thorns FC: Point Taken

Since the 2014 season Seattle has been Where Thorns Hopes Go To Die, so it was discouraging but not exactly surprising that a Hina Sugita strike was overwhelmed by goals from Phoebe McClernon, rookie Olivia Athens, and perennial Thorns-pesterer Bethany Balcer in yet another rough outing at…wait. Say again? What!?

McClernon scored on her own goal? The Thorns nicked a point at the Clink?

Well…how about that!

The actual result – a 2-2 draw – was one of those ‘simultaneously welcome and frustrating” kinds of matches; welcome for the road point, frustrating because not only did the Thorns concede the equalizer twice, the ways they conceded were galling.

After the McClernon OG opened the scoring Kelli Hubly and Megan Nally combined for a horrific defensive derp less than a minute later.

Then, after opening the second half with a terrific quarter hour of pressure that produced the Sugita goal, the Thorns dropped back and let OLR roam at will around their defensive third until the inevitable occurred and Balcer equalized again.

Given that Seattle was playing at home and the Thorns roster was stripmined for international talent, the Thorns played well, well enough to win, save for two issues that we’ve seen all season.

Arielle Dror sums this one up in graphic form:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

There’s a little more there than meets the eye, though, so I’ve given Dror a bit of an assist:

The two things that went so far to turn a “52% chance of a Thorns away win” to a draw were:

Morgan Weaver’s inability to convert is becoming the single biggest characteristic of her game.

The bottom line is that the Thorns forward depth chart looks like this:

There’s a hundred-foot high vertical talent-cliff below Smith, and Weaver’s massive engine and delightfully aggro attitude doesn’t change the fact that she just can’t seem to transition out of the “run fast and blast straight-ahead” college striker mode.

I’m not giving up. Yet. But someone – Christine Sinclair, the coaching staff, KK – has got to take her in hand and show her that a professional forward has got to have more tricks than just the one.

The other issue is more complicated, but it can be summed up in the long flat red line inside the “Parking the Bus” box that, in turn, was composed of two items; coaching and roster.

The coaching issue was straightforward; teams that go ahead often tend to let off the gas, and it’s part of the coach’s job to prevent that, and after the Sugita goal the Thorns did and Coach Wilkinson didn’t.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s just lazy defending and it’s hardly surprising that Seattle was able to find Balcer for the second equalizer, what with Hubly, Gabby Provenzano, and Madison Pogarch all sort of just loafing around the Thorns 18.

But that’s kind of the point; it’s the coach’s job to ensure that every defender is marking tight and every attacker is holding possession and forcing the opponent to chase rather than the other way around. Last Sunday that didn’t happen.

But the other factor was simply that Laura Harvey, who started a very young and inexperienced squad, had Veronica Latsko and Ally Watt to bring on after the hour, while Rhian Wilkinson had only Hannah Betfort, Provenzano, and Natalie Beckman to send in ten minutes later.

The Thorns thin roster set up a late-match substitution mis-match: Harvey’s pair made her side better, while Wilkinson’s trio didn’t.

Combine that with the failure to hoick her horses on that saw the Damnedelions flip the possession-and-aggression switch? That turned a potential shockingly-brilliant-road-win into a okay-we’ll-take-the-road-point-fine draw.

It was a point in Seattle, though, and it kept the Thorns solidly in third in a tight top-five table. So…fine.

The next three games, though?

Gotham here, Louisville away, and The Damned Courage here.

That’s nine points for the picking.

Let’s pick ’em.

Image by Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Interestingly OPTA has the Thorns, at 77%, completing significantly more of their 470-odd passes than OLR’s 71% of their 360-something. Which passes the eye-test; Portland looked the better team in possession for long periods.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

For once Weaver can’t complain that her teammates weren’t feeding her – Hina-san was getting her the ball whenever she could. It was Weaver not converting rather than the usual “why doesn’t anyone pass her the ball”.

Note that the other forward, Yazmeen Ryan, is getting a lot of love from everyone else, including Kling, Marissa Everett, Hubly, and Olivia Moultrie. Again, that Ryan ended up with only one off-target shot for her 73 minutes can’t be laid on her team. They tried, she just couldn’t do anything with that service.

Note the cold color of Po’s circle. That’s what 62% percent completion looks like, and we’ll have more to say when we get to her comment.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Pretty much what you’d expect; less passing, and Balcer, Lauren Barnes, and the two centerbacks doing much of it.

Kind of shocking to see Fishlock’s g+ so small, given that on screen she looked like she popped up everywhere, but thats just kind of her thing; she’s one of those players that if she’s yours she’s a tartar but if she’s not she’s a blister and a pest. She’s not ours. So.

Corner Kicks

OPTA says three but my notes say four total, two in each half. Two long, one short, one a weird line-drive that was short but not on purpose

28′RyanLongWeaver got her head to it but only to dink it up in the air. Fell to Sugita who dropped to Pogarch, recycled, but kind of petered out without a shot after that.
42′KlingenbergLongLost in a pixellated mess; ended up going out for a goal kick, so someone – maybe Ryan – got to it. But impossible to say because of the shitty Twitch stream.
58′KlingenbergShortTo Pogarch, who slugged in a cross that was cleared quickly; Thorns recycled but went nowhere.
85′PorterLine driveBounced off a blue shirt (Little?) back to Porter, who took a shot that was blocked again and this time ran to Ally Watt.

While something might have come from the 42nd minute effort I didn’t get any sort of sense of danger from the announcers’ voices, so I’m guessing pretty much nothing from anything.

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on Facebook

Player Ratings and Comments

Weaver (73′ – +3/-1 : +4/-3 : +7/-4) I think we’ve hit on the single big thing this match said about Weaver. I know we think of her as a “young player” but she’s been here three seasons.

There is one thing I saw that bugged me:

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

In the dying seconds of the first half Weaver fed Marissa Everett unmarked near the penalty spot. Everett did nothing with that opportunity, blasting right into Tullis-Joyce’s hands.

The part that bugged me was that after the pass Weaver just pulled up, leaving herself offside, instead of running to space to give Everett a return pass, or following the shot in case it pinged off T-J.

And this plays into my “Weaver isn’t becoming the professional I’d hoped” issue. The terrific thing about watching Sophia Smith has been watching her develop her physical skills because she’s applying her mental ones to her game.

Weaver, instead, seems to be all muscle. She doesn’t seem to be picking up the little tricks and habits that make a pro striker a good one. I don’t know why not, but it bugs me.

Betfort (17′ – +3/-0) I know a lot of people are not high on her, but one thing I saw from Betfort in LA was a fierce willingness to tackle. She did good forechecking, and for this match, with Weaver ineffective and running out of gas the substitution made sense on those terms.

But she’s not Ally Watt, so there’s that. Took a hell of a hard shot from Tullis-Joyce in second half injury time to the point where she had to come off. Hope she’s okay.

Everett (81′ – +3/-1 : +0/-0 : +3/-1) I like Everett’s work ethic, but that’s about all there is to say about her. She seems like a good teammate and she tries, but she simply lacks the edge and bite she needs to be a good striker.

Porter (9′ – +2/-1) Wasn’t able to help find a late matchwinner, but helped hang on to the road point so there’s that.

Ryan (71′ – +5/-4 : +2/-1 : +7/-5) I keep trying to come up with something sharply positive or even critical to say about her, but when I think of Ryan my brain is filled with a fog of “meh”.

Not horrible – even brilliant at times, as in the 96th minute in LA – not awful…kind of a useful sort of player without any real superlatives. A good squad player and every squad needs them.

But when the other striker is Weaver and not Smith? Then you got no goals.

Beckman (17′ – no rating) As discussed; not the problem, but a problem in the sense that Wilkinson just doesn’t have impact subs when the internationals are gone, and that’s on the FO. Not discreditable, but couldn’t help hang onto the three points.

Moultrie (+5/-2 : +4/-1 : +9/-3) Young Moultrie had to contend with a midfield full of cunning old veterans like Kim Little and Fishlock and though the rogues did have their way with her at times I thought Moultrie didn’t come off looking schooled.

She’s turning into a remarkably tough tackler and has a nose for the good forward pass. I’d like to see her shoot a bit more and a bit better, but a good day out overall.

Sugita (+8/-3 : +11/-3 : +19/-6) Woman of the Match. Plus there’s this:

That’s brilliant, and we’re going to miss the hell out of her over the next month while she plays with the Nadeshiko.

Coffey (+6/-3 : +6/-3 : +12/-6) Same as with Sugita – the USWNT callup is going to hurt. I don’t begrudge Sam Coffey the opportunity, but I wish to hell the club could tell the Nats to fuck right off. We need her more than they do, goddamn it.

Pogarch (+4/-5 : +5/-11 : +9/-16) Holy shit, a turnover machine! Twelve of her minuses are for passing, including the 78th minute right-at-Balcer derp that resulted in a pointblank Fishlock header and a massive Bella Bixby save.

That’s not acceptable and moments like her insane 6th minute recovery run and tackle on Fishlock…

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

…can’t make up for that.

C’mon, Po. We need you to…not be awesome, but at least not be doing this stuff.

Nally (73′ – +2/-2 : +0/-1 : +2/-3) I can only give so many minuses for a single play, but Nally’s insane 13th minute bounce-the-ball-off-Hubly error led directly to the Athens goal. Almost invisible other than that.

Provenzano (17′ – +1/-2) Kind of a wash; huge clearance on a Watt cross with Fishlock (there’s that damn woman again!) waiting…but loafing on the Latsko-to-Balcer cross that conceded the equalizer. Not awful, not the reason, but as discussed, was on the ice when three points turned into one so part of the day’s outcome.

Hubly (+5/-5 : +1/-5 : +6/-10) Oh, dear. Not a good day for Kelli Hubly.

Part of this, I think, is that without Emily Menges and Becky Sauerbrunn Hubly is expected not just to play her position but to lead the backline. I think that may be too much to ask of her, so hopefully one or both of the other centerbacks will be back in the XI soon.

Klingenberg (+4/-7 : +2/-3 : +6/-10) Like Provenzano; one massive plus (the dime to Sugita for the assist and the go-ahead goal) and one huge minus (getting torched by Latsko’s run on the second equalizer). Kling has gotten good at anticipating opposing wingers’ runs and using positioning to offset her lack of pace, but this was a flat-out smoking. Unusual, and not well timed.

Almost burned again, when she stabbed at another Watt cross in the 92nd minute that Latsko was, fortunately, unable to get to.

It’s hard to slag off on Kling; she works so hard and is a huge part of the beating heart of this team. She’s also ageing out, though, and I don’t see an obvious replacement unless Crystal Dunn is willing to move to left back. Hmmm.

Bixby (+1/-1 : +2/-2) Another kind of “hmmm”. Terrific save in the 78th minute. But beaten to her near post by Athens, and a weird fumble in the 64th minute on a relatively tame cross to concede a corner. Still one of the best of the NWSL in goal, so the little goofs are head-scratching.

Image by Twitch. Licensed under Fair Use.

Coach Wilkinson: Got the road point? Good.

Could have taken three had the squad not parked the bus after the go-ahead goal? Well…yes, and we’ve discussed the issues with RW already.

I’ll give RW this; she’s learned from the early season and the 3-5-2 is gone. If we see it again late in the season? I’ll be less impressed.

The reality she has to live with is that when this team is at full strength they are hard to beat. That’s fun for a gaffer; just loll about the technical area and enjoy.

But when it’s not, well…it’s hard to make bricks without straw, and RW hasn’t been entirely convincing as she tries.

Let’s see how the next three matches go, though. The opponents are all eminently beatable; Gotham (that can’t score), Racing (that leaks goals), and The Damned (who are just kind of sucking right now). If Wilkinson can grab the points from them?

That’d go a long way to building her rep.

John Lawes
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2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Point Taken

  1. I agree the Thorns should have won this game, but I would not have bet on them prior to game because I thought Seattle had too much going for them. But I came away feeling a lot more optimistic about this team.
    Smith had some finishing issues last year and her shots late in the game were often soft, but she made a quantum leap this year in both departments and is statistically the second best striker in the league.
    Weaver has always been able to hammer the ball, but putting more attention in to putting it on frame and in a dangerous spot is still a problem. She has a great engine and causes havoc on both sides of the ball, so I am optimistic that her shot percentage will go up.
    I have seen Ryan improve a lot and I think she is a co-leader in assists in the league. So there is that.
    Beckie is improving in every game and I expect we will be be as glad to have her as we are now with Sugita.
    I remember after Hina’s first game against Seattle where she was being rag dolled all over the field, most of us were really concerned but Wow! She is a gem!
    I have a feeling Vasconcelos, who has had a pretty rough time in the NWSL up until now, could turn into a Westphal like gem. I agree Betfort has something, maybe just aggression, but I look forward to seeing her develop. What I like about Everett is she doesn’t seem to make mistakes and I see her as a classic poacher, she is out there and seems invisible until she pops up and pokes one in. She hasn’t played a lot so we haven’t seen that much, but I like her game.
    I guess I am an optimistic guy. Because I think this is a good team and that is only going to get better.

    1. Going in? I’d have been thrilled with the point. After going up on that gorgeous Sugita strike? Nope; I wanted to honor her by hanging on to the win.

      Actually converting is often the most difficult skill for a striker to perfect. Running around is easy; scoring is hard. I don’t see Weaver making strides there, And I want to. She’s got a terrific work ethic and I respect that in a player. But if she can’t convert she’s just Tyler Lussi, and we got rid of one of those.

      Ryan, Betfort, Everett… Vasconcelos, too!…are perfectly serviceable squad players and, like I keep saying, everyone needs squad players. But the level in quality drops pretty hard one you get past our starting XI. In the small-roster world of the NWSL that’s not a shock. But that calls for pretty good coaching, and I’m not sure that RW is up to it,


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