Thorns FC: Burdened

"My bones are broke
My tongue is tied
The moon is swaying back and forth
Against the navy sky
Is all I can see
My body is trembling on my knees
Just have a little mercy on me"
~ from "When I Lay My Burden Down"

Couple of things.

First, this weekend’s meeting with San Diego is bearing down on us, so I’m going to be brief about the midweek loss to The Damned Courage in Cary, and,

Second, I had a late day at work that day, so was unable to watch live and had to follow on my phone as well as through the comments on the Stumptown match thread.

Where I learned from that not only was Rhian Wilkinson responsible for single-handedly disgracing the game of soccer but numerous Thorns appeared to have forgotten, or never learned, how to actually mark, tackle, or kick the ball in a straight line.

Without visuals, by a short time into the match the overall mental image I got from the viewership looked something like this:

Then I got to sit down and watch the replay.

I won’t disagree with some of the others’ assessments. Coach Wilkinson didn’t do terrific work either with the XI or the substitutions. And some players did, indeed, have very off days.

But overall? What I got was; tired.

The Thorns, many individually, and as a squad, just looked whipped. Slow. Confused. Disconnected. Making the sort of poor decisions you make when your legs feel dead and your chest is tight and your lungs burning.

Compare the sort of spacing that Carolina had in the Thorns midfield…

…with all the time and space in the world to sprint through – remember, this is Carolina, Team Speed, right? – and pass through…

…while on the other end of the pitch the Thorns would pass slowly out of the back only to find…

…that Carolina had already beaten them to the defensive third and was leaving them nothing; no time, no space, nothing but hard work trying to break down the block.

On the other end?

Nothing there, either. Sophia Smith spent her entire shift stranded, desperately tussling with Kayleigh Kurtz and Abby Erceg for hopeful long lobs or lead passes. Her supposed strike partners Yazmeen Ryan and Janine Beckie lumbered along far downfield.

That worked about as well as you’d think.

Without any other options, Smith was utterly nerfed. Worked hard, did all her usual good things…nothing.

All that might have been enough to secure a scoreless point on the road, except the once-formidable Thorns defense was an utter shitshow.

You can point fingers at individuals (Meaghan Nally is not a good fullback and Rhian Wilkinson is not a good coach for putting her out there as one) but the failure was comprehensive and team-wide.

Things looked pretty ugly by halftime in my tape review. How’d that look from the stands?

Got it. Yeah, okay, not so good.

Again, we’ll talk about this more in the player comments, but when you leave Diana Ordonez wide open at the back post, Kling…

…or Debinha wide open at the back post, Nally…

…or just moments earlier utterly fail to pick up Ryan Williams’ run, Natu…

…or let Debinha run through your whole backline, Kelli Hubly and Becky Sauerbrunn…

…or just four of you cluster around in a gormless mob and leave two opponents wide open in front of your goal, defenders and DMs…

…and your opponent isn’t a tomato can – and The Damned have struggled on the pitch but on the roster they’re not a can – you’re going to get punished for it, and you did.

This looks to me like a tired, poorly managed squad stumbling through their third match in a week, coming off two losses (in the ridiculous “WICC” cash-grab) and a win in D.C. that was very poorly played for damn near 80 minutes.

Check back with our observers in the stands. How’s was this one looking to you guys?

Kinda grim.

There’s a lot of blame to go around.

To the league, for going ahead with the damn WICC in the middle of the NWSL season, and for rescheduling last Wednesday’s match between the WICC and this coming weekend’s top-of-table match.

To the coach, who – while admittedly having to scramble to deal with the overload of fixtures – could have played it smart and tanked the idiotic “third place” match last Saturday and rested everyone she needed for this one and tomorrow.

And to some of the players, who just didn’t have either the reserves of stamina or the burning desire to go beyond their reserves, and as a result were schooled for damn near the fourth time in a row.

Well.

That was that. The Damned ran off with all the points (and, credit where it’s due, played a hell of a match, the rat bastards…) and now the Thorns have to pull up their big player shorts and take the game to The Wave.

And we’ll see tomorrow whether they can do that.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Virtually identical to the passing stats from the Thorns-Washington game – OPTA has the Thorns at about 77% and Carolina at 80%. That’s a statistically insignificant difference, and shows both sides pretty tidy in possession.

The difference was in where those passes came from and went. Here’s the Thorns:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter.

That’s insanely compressed. Smith is, as noted, on an island. Her supposed wingers Beckie and Ryan had to track back damn near to the center circle to receive, and were not giving service forward.

And in back the defense was pushing a crazy high line. Nally and Kling are pushed way up, Hubly almost to the center spot…no wonder Carolina went over the top and up the touchlines so much, and those tired legs had a tough time tracking back.

Here’s Carolina:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Much better; lots of space, lots of good connections both forward and laterally. The space the Damned had in midfield shows up like a bonfire in the night.

Corner Kicks

Five; all second half. Four long into the box (with another of those low line-drives), one short.

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
46′SmithLongLong looping ball to the back post, cleared but recycled, the hopeful rainbow to Ryan found her offside.
62′RyanLine DriveRight into the front of the scrum and cleared over the byline for another corner.
63′RyanLongDimed Raquel Rodriguez, who rose high and slammed the header past Murphy to pull a goal back, 2-1
87′RyanShortTo Kuikka who played a 1-2; Ryan looped to Morgan Weaver at the far post. Weaver’s putback was cleared to Ryan, but Ryan’s shot was well over.
90+3′RyanLongAll the way over everyone and the final whistle blew.

So a lovely setpiece goal in the 63rd, but nothing from the rest; still, not a bad return with 20% of the attempts.

Player Ratings and Comments

S. Smith (64′ – +13/-2 : +1/-1 : +14/-3) Sometimes I think Sophia Smith must feel like she’s playing futsal 1-v-4, and this was one of those times. Struggled homerically against a crowd of defenders, got no help, and was finally yanked (I think) to try and save some gas in her tank for San Diego. She burned so many candles in this one I’m not sure that will work. We’ll see.

Betfort (26 – +3/-1) And to remind us how steep the cliff is on the forward depth chart, down two goals replacing a tired Smith with a fresh Hannah Betfort is like replacing your dull carving knife with a salmon club.

Here’s Dror’s “xG race” – watch the Thorns like after the 64th minute:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

There’s not much going on earlier – the Thorns are still only at about 0.4xG at the hour – but after the Rodriguez goal the progression goes utterly flat – 0.1xG for the final 25 minutes.

Betfort is a good trooper and worked as hard as she could, but the sacred fire is just not in her.

Ryan (+7/-1 : +7/-2 : +14/-3) And you can say the same for Yazmeen Ryan. Hard worker, leaves it on the pitch, but just doesn’t have that intangible nous that separates a journeywomen forward from someone like Alex Morgan or Sophia Smith. Ryan has one goal in 718 minutes over 8 starts and 13 appearances, and that kind of says it all.

Is also better on the right wing but was started on the left; kind of a headshaker there with Sugiata-senshu available (see below…).

Beckie (45′ – +4/-8) Janine Beckie took a lot of stick in the Stumptown comments for loafing. I didn’t really see it. She looked tired and confused. She still has not developed any sort of real connection with Smith or Ryan, but I’d put that down as much to the random way those three have been used as to Beckie’s skillset.

She’s NOT a good defender and never has been, and if you sit her over top of Nally? That’s an invitation to your opponent to hammer you on the counter. That’s not so much a “Beckie” issue as her manager not doing something to minimize a known weakness in Beckie’s game.

Rodriguez (45′ – +5/-3) Goal, and a good a shift as anyone had on a night when nothing much went well.

Sugita (78′ – +8/-4 : +3/-3 : +11/-7) Part of Hina-san’s rough outing was that she was started out of position – she’s left footed, and instead started out on the right wing – and another was, I think, just fatigue and her teammates’ fatigue. Faded badly in the second half, which is not like her, so possibly even more tired than she looked.

Weaver (12′ – No rating) In a match that Carolina was running through the tired Thorns like goose shit through a tin horn, starting – or subbing in early – one of your fastest, most energetic forwards would seem like a no-brainer. I’ll just leave that here.

Porter (+4/-5 : +5/-4 : +9/-9) Poor Taylor Porter. She’s a decent young squad player. She’s also just a young squad player, and she was asked to try and slow down the track meet that is Carolina’s midfield. That was never going to end well barring a miracle and the Thorns had no miracles in their pockets in Cary.

Moultrie (+5/-1 : +5/-1 : +10/-2) I think her numbers are deceptive. Olivia Moultrie started well, closed down a number of loose balls and completed some clever passes. But she’s not super pacey, and Carolina quickly figured out that if they played around her she couldn’t catch them. So when she did, she did well. But a lot of the time Moultrie spent chasing futilely.

Damn near scored from distance in late injury time, tho.

Which, BTW, brings this up. That’s the Thorns shooting towards the top, Carolina towards the bottom. Note where the bulk of their respective shots come from?

Yeah. Give your opponent enough of those point-blank attempts and damn if they won’t convert them. And not being able to penetrate and having to blast away from distance? Mmmm…yeah.

Klingenberg (45′ – +2/-2) As much as I’d fault the Beckie-Nally right flank for defense, on the left Ryan and Kling were getting torched. Kling has developed a much better appreciation for her own pace and come up with some positioning and anticipation workarounds to compensate for it.

But tired, and facing the Damned? Those didn’t work, and Kerolina and Ordonez and Williams and Debinha kind of ran all over the Thorns left.

Not a good shift on a day when the entire Thorns defense was getting handed their ass, but at least Kling didn’t have the sort of day that…

Kuikka (45′ – +3/-13) …had.

Holy shit, what a mess. Since the Euros Natu has been a tire fire. The gaffer doesn’t help by weirdly insisting on playing on her weak left foot (why, with Teagan McGrady on the bench..?) but a lot of this was on Kuikka; slow, poor positioning, bad decisionmaking. Ugh.

I really like this player. I hope this is just a down phase and she’ll shake it off. Soon.

Sauerbrunn (64′ – +5/-1 : +1/-0 : +6/-1) Normally I’d be fine with ‘Brunn’s shift. She defended well in general and didn’t put a foot egregiously wrong at anytime.

But she’s the patron, the big name and leader of the backline, and the Thorns backline was a horrific mess in Cary. That’s got to count against her, and if there’s a dark cloud to the Thorns 2022 season silver lining (hey, we’re still top of table with only two losses!) it’s the cratering of our once-feared defense when smart, fast, well-managed teams like Carolina attack it.

Menges (26′ – +2/-3) Great to see you back, EM. Here’s hoping you can help your unit pull itself together.

Hubly (+2/-2 : +5/-4 : +7/-6) Hub’s numbers are deceptive, too, since four of her six minuses are for hopeful passes that went to a blue shirt as Hubly tried desperately to dime someone downfield. On an evening when her unit struggled and did poorly, Hubs was the best of the defenders, and her tackle off Debinha’s foot in the 68th minute almost surely prevented another goal.

One question, though. What’s with the short-shorts?

In the white kit like this you look like you just woke up and ran out in the long T-shirt you sleep in. So why the tied-up shorts thing? Is it that you hate the shorts hems rubbing when you run? Fashionista and just don’t like the baggy look? What?

Nally (+3/-8 : +3/-3 : +6/-11) Young Nally just isn’t a fullback. Full stop. She doesn’t have the wheels, she’s not a good 1v1 defender, and she can’t pass well enough to be valuable going forward. She did fine as a centerback, and I’m not sure why her coach doesn’t see the difference.

A. Smith (+2/-2 : +3/-0 : +5/-0) I was skeptical of the trade because while AbbySmith had huge saves in the 20th, 57th, 70th, and 83rd minutes (and can’t really be faulted for the concessions, which were largely on her defense…) she still does stuff like this:

That’s her getting stripped by Debinha caught dinking around with the ball at her feet, and only an insane slide tackle from Porter…

…bailed her out as a Debinha-fed Kerolin teed the ball up at the penalty spot.

Smith is a decent technical keeper, as her saves in this one testify. But she still seems to have these weird headspace problems, and that continues to worry me. With Bixby seemingly having issues and Smith not entirely safe hands…well, that’s not reassuring.

Coach Wilkinson: Look, I get it.

The league shit on you, scheduling two meaningless friendlies and a makeup game inside eleven days inside the stretch run. Your roster planning and match management between a week before last Wednesday and this weekend has had to have been an utter nightmare.

So…why make it harder on yourself?

Why play Hina-san at RW and Ryan at LW? Why play Kuikka at LB and not McGrady? Why haven’t you settled on an “A” team and a “B” team and started playing them as units so the players in each get their roles and connections locked down? Why this still-constant fiddling with damn near three-quarters of the season gone?

I get that you had to at least make a show of effort in the WICC, but why play ANY of your principal players once Monterrey had knocked your club out of the “cup final”? Chelsea? Who cares? The fans want to see Sam Kerr and van de Donk; if you played a bunch of high school ringers in Thorns kit – Christ, you could have suited up yourself! – they’d have gotten the same entertainment value out of it.

I thought that one of the most perceptive comments in the Stumptown threads was the commenter’s thought that you’re managing like you’re still running a national team.

There you’ve got what amounts to an all-star team. Even your reserves are the best players from their club teams. And your opponents have the same. If you mix and match players, well, they’re all good, and your opponents are trying the same things, so, fine.

Here you don’t have that. You’ve got a couple – okay, one – superstar. You’ve got a handful of terrific players. You’ve got some good-to-decent squad players, and you’ve got some emergency fillers. You can’t swap out A-team for A-team; you’ve got to really think hard to develop matchups that minimize your squad’s weaknesses and make the best use of their strengths.

And I’m not sure you’ve figured that out.

Well, tomorrow you have a huge test; possibly a season-making or season-breaking one.

I can’t really say anything more fraught that that; tomorrow might put the season on the line.

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4 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Burdened

  1. What really stood out to me (and my son who watched the game with me until he couldn’t take it any longer) was how disorganized and dispirited our team was, pretty much from the opening whistle. It seemed like a team in the pre-season, not the team in first place over halfway through the season carrying a crazy high goal differential. I’m actually surprised our passing accuracy was as high as it was…

    Your reasons above are certainly the likely culprits – fatigue, travel, lack of consistent roster, lack of game strategy to deal with the Courage front line, out of position players, etc. However, I feel like this is a trend that has been happening since the 2nd half of the last time we played NCC…too much confusion on the field with no obvious relief in sight.

    And the WICC? Pick a strategy – either we’re in it to win and pay the price for it after, or we play the B/C squads only for the experience and plan ahead for the hellacious road trip that follows. Instead RW seemed to employ a hybrid strategy that was the worst of all worlds…just don’t get it.

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    1. I think not having a settled A-list roster really hurts. Too many faces in too many places, makes it hard to develop the sort of almost-instinctive knowledge of where your teammate will be and when, the kind of understanding that makes for quick 1-2s and no-look passes.

      The past week…well, that was kind of hard to work past. The damn WICC and the midweek game jammed everything up. I kinda get wanting to try and get something out of the Monterrey game… (well, I don’t, really – think of the opposite case; the Thorns call Chelsea and OL and propose a couple of friendlies in mid-April just as the two European clubs are in the middle of their stretch run and see how fast they laugh you off the phone. There was no reason to take those games seriously to begin with…)

      …but Saturday? Jesus wept, who CARES? Throw out every benchwarmer, trialist, and replacement player and let Chelsea walk over ’em so everyone i rested for this one.

      And, yeah. The squad hasn’t really been playing well since that home draw to Carolina in early August. After the Louisville match I wrote:

      “Over the next month or so we get shots at the cripples; Washington and the Damned Courage twice before we have to see San Diego at the end of August.

      If ever there was a good time to pick up some points, it’s this month.”

      Instead we took four out of nine possible. Less than 2ppg…isn’t great, and now we’ve got the Tsunami rolling in. Yike.

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  2. In seeing this roster ahead of the game, I had a similar feeling to the loss against the dash. The roster made no sense and seemed destined to fail. I agree with the hybrid comment.
    At this point in the season, I expect a lot more polish, especially from veterans. Instead I feel like a rec coach screaming “mark up” every time the opponent has the ball.
    Speaking of rec team, someone tell coach we don’t have to play everyone just because they are on the team. We shouldn’t be seeing the likes of Nally or betfort unless someone is injured.

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