“Sophocles long ago~ Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.”
Since I know you all expect an Eeyore-ish mope of woe and negation, I thought I’d lead off this recapitulation of last Saturday’s nil-2 loss to the now-top-of-table San Diego Wave on a positive, appreciative note.
I had been hesitant to accept the praise, unsure of whether her success was merely a run of good luck or early-season form, but…
…it’s impossible now to ignore the terrific work that Casey Stoney is doing in San Diego.
Last Saturday the Wave pretty much didn’t put a foot wrong after the first thirty seconds. Solid, fucking solid execution of defend-and-counter tactics, taking advantage of Portland rec league defending, great spacing and passing and pressing the Thorns attack, such as it was.
Credit where it’s due; they were the better side, Stoney was the better coach, they deserved the win and the scoreline that produced it.
On a night when neither side was creating much in the way of chances Stoney’s troops saw their opportunities and took ’em, and gave Portland
Now, Portland, on the other hand…
We’ll talk about defending mostly in the comments. But the Thorns have been castigated as “Sophia Smith and a bunch of extras” and that certainly looked the case last Saturday.
Smith was isolated…
…and her teammates could do nothing to change that even when they tried, and there wasn’t really a whole lot of successful trying. The “attack” was slow and static, and it allowed San Diego eons of time to smother Smith like a big white fire blanket.
Here’s a perfect example; Smith is running at goal in the 41st minute.
She’s got Raquel Rodriguez trailing and Morgan Weaver running into space on her right, with Hina Sugita pacing her up the middle.
But none of her teammates manage to move to space where Smith can hit them. By the time the defenders close Smith down…
…Weaver has overrun the play and into coverage, and Hina-san has been cut off and isn’t an option, either. Smith is tackled for loss and the attack dies.
And this was when the Thorns actually ran at the San Diego goal! Most of the time the “attack” might have begun like this:
That’s Natalia Kuikka bringing the ball up at speed with her teammates running in alongside her and Smith pushing into the San Diego backline up ahead.
Everything looks fast and dangerous until…
…Smith has to retreat, Kuikka pulls up, her teammates – except for Weaver on the far side – slow down and the exercise becomes another slowly-dink-around-the-outside-of-the-18 that eventually faded away without a shot.
I can’t look into the coach’s or the players’ heads, and I can’t feel how the players’ bodies felt, but last Saturday looked like a coach out of ideas and players out of gas.
Last week I ended the recap of the North Carolina loss with this:
“I can’t really say anything more fraught that that; tomorrow might put the season on the line.”
Then in the biggest match of the season to date, coach and team needed to overcome fatigue and disappointment and rise to meet their opponents.
We can blame who and what we want; the league schedulers, the coach’s lack of preparation (and roster churn, and failure to prioritize league match play over a series of friendlies…). or the players inability to seize the game.
But the question now is; where to from here?
This has to have been a gutting loss after a month of Hell. This, could, indeed, knock the team so hard that they might slide out of playoff contention; the loss combined with a Houston draw and a Kansas City win knocked Portland down to fourth, with Seattle a point back and Chicago two points behind.
The Thorns have five games remaining:
At Orlando 9/9
At Kansas City 9/18
Home to Louisville 9/21
Home to Chicago 9/25, and
At Gotham 10/1
Win out and the worst they can finish is fourth and into a first-round playoff.
But if not…
Passing the Passing Test: Portland won the passing competition 79% to 72%, but let’s look at the matrix:
Look at the thickness of the threads; not a particularly productive connection anywhere. Smith, as we’ve noted, was stranded. Weaver was getting and giving service but…we’ll talk about her in the comments. It says something when the best passing was coming from your stay-home centerback.
Here’s San Diego:
Taylor Korneick to Alex Morgan. Hmmm…whoodathunkit? (Not our centerbacks, apparently…)
Other than that? Not a whole lot more than Portland had. It wasn’t about dominance. It was about making the best of the handful of chances they had.
Five. Two first half, three second, all long, but one a sort of line drive.
|1′||Coffey||Long/low||Low drive that went all the way through the box without a boot to it; recycled out to Coffey, who lost possession.|
|45+1′||Smith||Long||Dimed Weaver, but her weak header went right to Sheridan.|
|46′||Smith||Long||All the way over to the back post, was cleared out for a throw-in but petered out.|
|51′||Coffey||Long||Sinclair headed down into the scrum, but it was cleared, repeatedly recycled but finally lost.|
|70′||Smith||Long||Through the boxx to Coffey; her looping putback found Weaver’s head, but soft and right to Sheridan.|
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith (+8/-2 : +5/-3 : +12/-5) In Cary Smith worked hard and got unlucky. Against San Diego Smith never even got close enough to be unlucky. a shot just over the bar from outside the top of the 18 in the 34th minute was as close as she came all night.
As much as Cary had to be frustrating, this one had to be worse; all the same hard work and not even the consolation of a near-miss.
Weaver (+4/-5 : +4/-4 : +8/-9) Lots of energy, little precision; seven of her nine minuses were for passes that went to a white shirt, and one other was for a poor shot.
I hate this. I think Weaver could be a genuinely good, perhaps even a great, player. But she needs to start playing with her head, she needs to harness that amazing engine to better steering and navigating. She’s been a professional for nearly three seasons now. It’s time.
Sugita (79′ – +8/-1 : +0/-0 : +8/-1) When we first saw her we worried that she would be thrown around by brutal NWSL centerbacks. Instead Hina-san has turned out to be tough and durable, but I think even she hit the wall in this one. Was struggling by the time she came off.
Ryan (11′ – +2/-2) No impact.
Rodriguez (+5/-4 : +2/-2 : +7/-6) Three Thorns had more positive than negative PMRs (and had significant number of positive actions overall…): Smith, Sugita, and Rodriguez, and of the three Rodriguez had the hardest evening, largely because she had to cover the ground that Sinclair should have as well as her own.
Was supposed to be marking Kristen McNabb in the 17th minute:
…but wasn’t really the problem on that goal; that was a collective defensive failure to clear lines.
Coffey (+2/-4 : +2.-0 : +4.-4) Same problem Rodriguez had, overrun because she was playing 2-on-3, but not really a solid match by her own standards.
Sinclair (+2/-2 : +4/-1 : +6/-3) When I see things like this:
This is a player that has been a treasure and an example for both other players and fans alike. To see her colliding with her own teammates and lumbering around the pitch like she’s wading through a swamp…
“Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”
…is just to weep.
Kuikka (87′ – +1/-8 : +4/-4 : +5/-12) Where to start? The horrific 17th minute mishit that led to the first concession?
..the 65th minute backheel to Morgan that damn near conceded a third?
Or just the poor passing, slipshod defending, and overall lack of confidence and composure that continued the shocking descent of what was one of the best fullbacks in the league this spring?
I have no idea what the hell is happening. But I’m heartbroken to watch this player struggle. I’m not sure why, either, but her coach and teammates really need to help her out, because she doesn’t seem to be able to arrest her fall.
Moultrie (3′ – no rating) We’ll talk about this when we get to Coach Wilkinson.
Hubly (+3/-5 : +0/-0 : +3/-5) When you play Alex Morgan you pretty much know that you’re going to see an episode of the “Alex Morgan Runs Through The Backline Show”. So you’d have to wonder how the hell this;
…managed to catch Hubs and her centerback partner flat footed?
I generally like Hubly; she’s a solid professional who gives and takes no nonsense. But she was a mess against San Diego, her stab-and-miss was the dagger that made Morgan’s goal happen after the former Thorn damn near stripped her seven minutes earlier with only Bella Bixby between Morgan and the goal.
An exceptionally poor outing on a night when the whole defensive unit was utterly dire.
Sauerbrunn (+3/-2 : +1/-2 : +4/-4) It’s hard to praise a centerback when her defensive unit ships two shockingly bad goals and has the sort of off night that is recounted around campfires in years to come to terrify young defenders of the sort of horrors that lurk in the night.
But of the Thorns defenders ‘Brunn was the second-least-worst.
Klingenberg (79′ – +3/-1 : +3/-3 : +6/-4) Klingenberg, on the other hand, was fairly decent; didn’t add much going forward, but was solid in back. A low bar, but consider what we’ve been discussing.
Beckie (11′ – +2/-1) Not enough.
Bixby (+0/-0 : +0/-1 :+0/-1)
Not at fault on the concessions; let down by her defense.
Coach Wilkinson: Where to start?
I think when we saw the XI we all thought, great, RW has put her best squad on the pitch (well…Sinclair, but, yeah, that’s kind of impossible to escape) and we’re gonna see what they can do.
Instead, we got a reminder that if the best XI doesn’t actually routinely practice and play together – if, instead, they are mixed and matched differently every match – then the sum is less than the parts.
I’ve been hard on Wilkinson for her substitutions before, but this match was ridiculous. Down two at the half, with several players (Sinclair, Kuikka) struggling badly, no subs until after the 79th minute? And Moultrie in the 87th? Seriously? That’s almost a mockery.
And then we had this after the match. Footnotes are mine:
- See Arielle Dror’s xG chart, above. In a word, no; instead, the Thorns got no, zero, nothing in front of goal in the second half. They weren;t worse, but they were not better, and you’d think a coach would see that and not try and blow smoke about it.
- It’s the coach’s job to help her players by devising tactics to overcome things like double teams. Saying your star striker is going to “have to get used to it” is effectively saying you can’t do an important part of the job you’re paid to do.
- Isn’t that your job? To decide “what we’re going to do now”? Your team tried 25 crosses – high crosses, low crosses, short crosses, long crosses – against San Diego. Guess what? A tall defense with good spacing and mutual support is going to see off all types of crosses. If your only weapon is a hammer and your opponent is any good they’re not going to stand around offering you a nail.
Here’s the thing; August was hell for the team. Too many matches, and the coach didn’t manage them well.
But that’s not the end. That’s not even the beginning; there’s been a number of things that Coach Wilkinson isn’t managing well.
The constant roster juggling. The poor and inexplicable substitutions.
The seemingly random position swapping: Hina-san on the right. Kuikka on the left.
The obsessive devotion to not just finding Sinclair a starting spot but as often as not keeping her on the pitch for the full 90.
The uncreative tactics, and passively accepting things like the sort of defensive breakdowns was saw last Saturday.
I think this team has quality, but I’m not sure that it’s playing up to the level of that quality. And that seems like a management problem.
The squad has a couple of weeks to rest and regroup for the stretch drive. I think they need it. I think the gaffer needs to look hard at herself. I think the squad needs some time off, and needs a closed-door meeting and some hard looks at themselves, too.
All we can do is wait and hope.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new