Thorns FC: The Eternal Note of Sadness

“Sophocles long ago
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.”

~ Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

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



Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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.

And didn’t.

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…

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Portland won the passing competition 79% to 72%, but let’s look at the matrix:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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:

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

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.

Corner Kicks

Five. Two first half, three second, all long, but one a sort of line drive.

1′CoffeyLong/lowLow drive that went all the way through the box without a boot to it; recycled out to Coffey, who lost possession.
45+1′SmithLongDimed Weaver, but her weak header went right to Sheridan.
46′SmithLongAll the way over to the back post, was cleared out for a throw-in but petered out.
51′CoffeyLongSinclair headed down into the scrum, but it was cleared, repeatedly recycled but finally lost.
70′SmithLongThrough 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?

Or this?

Or this?

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.

Rough night.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

And we?

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

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

15 thoughts on “Thorns FC: The Eternal Note of Sadness

    1. Not now, no.

      For one thing, we’re only five matches and playoffs from the end of 2022. There’s nobody who could come in and turn things around at this point.

      For another, there’s no obvious replacement on the horizon.

      But after this season? I think the club needs a hard look at what RW did this season and her prospects for the next

  1. I think the first goal was down to poor communication between Kuikka and Bixby. It looked to me like Kuikka could have easily booted the ball far away, but she was expecting Bixby to come out to claim the ball – which was, after all, within reach. But if there’s one thing about Bix that frustrates me, it’s her proclivity to remain rooted to her line at the first whiff of danger. She didn’t come out to claim, and when Kuikka realized this, she started toward the ball to kick it out – and slipped and fell. Then she was madly trying to do something, *anything* to stop Morgan from kicking the ball straight into the goal, which Kuikka managed to do – but only as far as letting Morgan tee up Kristen McNabb for the goal.

    If Kuikka and Bixby communicate better on that play, the goal just doesn’t happen. Credit to SD for taking advantage of our error.

    1. Kuikka was on the ball with opponents closing in; her job is to belt it away, not dither waiting for her goalkeeper (who’s behind her so she can’t see her…) I won’t disagree with your characterization of Bixby’s control of her penalty area issues, but that wasn’t one of them. Kuikka should have put her boot through it, and instead tripped and gifted Morgan the ball. That’s totally on her.

  2. Also, I think “What are we going to do now?” was a rhetorical question from Wilkinson, since she immediately answers it.

    1. With a statement – claiming that the solution is more and better crosses and dimingpeople at the back post – that suggests she wasn’t watching the same game we were. I get that the question was rhetorical; what it shows me is that she’s not really thinking about what the club could and should be doing now.

  3. Stoney is a good coach, who knew? (sarcasm) after she left MU, I was betting it was for the Thorns. We could have had that talent here. Instead, we chose an unproven 1st time head coach. I’m not sure why. Maybe no one wanted the job with all the off field drama surrounding the club. Big picture, we have only lost 3 games so far this season, a year in which many of us thought we be a rebuilding. A top six finish probably gives RW another year. Sadly, I’m not sure Sophia is will stick around long term with a coach/team that can’t figure it out. If things don’t change, I would guess when her contact is up, she will leave for greener pastures.

    1. I was really,really NOT on the Stoney train when she left MUFC – I DIDN’T think she was a very good coach; she got one of the rich England clubs promoted (this was before we found out about the shitty way the Glaziers had been running the women’s side…) and then finished fourth twice in what amounts to a four-team league. I thought she was very “meh”, so I’m goddamn impressed with her work at SD. She IS a good coach, which I had immense doubts about before this season.

      I tend to agree that if RW gets in the top six she’ll get another year. Dunno how I feel about that yet. She’s done better than I thought she might…but she’s also got some really infuriating blind spots.

      Smith? Keep in mind that free agency changes everything, so that might be a factor. But I think a lot depends on what the club offers her and how she feels about her teammates.

  4. Does the new drop from Oregon Live change your want to write your own piece.

    Law Firm unable to interview players/coach as league conducting their own investigation asked them not to.

    Team still didn’t do enough when firing for cause after an 8 day investigation.

    Some more information on the Mana/Gavin talk. Her boss’ boss pulls her aside to try to get them to not talk about group sex on social media and be professional is icky enough.

    Considering Shim had not been talking about group sex but had been talking about polyamory, of course Shim would take it differently then what Gavin intended. It was probably a conversation that should never have happened anyway.

    We now have some of a time line for Finley/Riley. Riley deleting at least one ema out of his inbox. For these accusations the Wilkinson is being exonerated on this report.

    They still have the praise for Riley tweets and all he is doing years after that will forever look bad and the whole mess on the Men’s side for domestic violence.

    1. The “big thing” I got from the piece was that the league and USSF, in particular, reeeeeally wanted to just brush over the “bad Riley stuff” – the sex with players, the drinking with players, the whole “totally inappropriate for your boss to be doing” stuff that seems to have been going on, and made it very clear to the club management here that they would come down hard on anyone who made a fuss about it.

      ISTM that given what Riley (spit!) was doing that’d have been a hill I would have been willing to die on…but I’m also not an executive of a multimillion-dollar company. I’m not sure I’d be so courageous if it was my six-figure job on the line. I’d like to think so, but…

      Anyway, it still leaves us with the question; what as fans can and should we do to make our club better? I don’t like the idea that Mike Golub still has the chance to act like an alpha-jock dick to the people who work for him…but how can I as a fan do something to change that?

      That’s what I might just discuss.

  5. Other ideas for possible discussion during this break…

    Free agency and how that may specifically affect the Thorns, or any fun speculation on who we’d like to see show up on our doorstep? But also, maybe a bit more how it works for folks like me who don’t know a ton about the business end of free agency. Like, if a free agent wants to come here, is the club still allowed to ultimately decide it does/doesn’t want that specific player? I imagine now there are CA teams, Portland won’t be THEE premier destination, but there could still be folks that have always wanted to be here. Do we have to take them in? Looking at the free agency list….I don’t really see a whole lot of folks I’d like to see in a Thorns kit.

    Second, and totally unrelated…maybe a deeper dive into our draws this season? I can totally go look into this more on my own, but I’ve been wondering if our draws have been more games we genuinely should’ve lost, or more games we genuinely should’ve won. Did we net valuable points hanging onto a draw? Did we drop valuable points we should’ve won? Maybe it would give us a better idea of how this season is actually going, since our wins this season have looked like…

    Our wins this season: opening game vs. a pretty depleted KC, very early season game vs. an expansion team (Angel City), vs. a depleted Houston, vs. a very sad Orlando, game vs. a very very sad Gotham, vs. Racing (and we prob could’ve drawn/lost with how many shots were saved; Sugita got the winner on a rebound)*, vs. a Spirit who’ve cratered all season and we played poorly for 80 mins and got lucky in stoppage time. (By depleted, I mean lots of starters out for the other team).
    *Can I also note all 4 of Sugita’s goals have come on the L wing and are from the exact same area of the box

    The two most recent wins were unconvincing wins that should’ve been draws or maybe even losses. The rest of the wins? Against terrible teams and/or were missing lots of starting quality players and we took advantage/steamrolled over. Honestly, I feel like we’re lucky to not be more mid-table at this point. Also notable, of the 7 games we’ve won this season, Sinc has not played in 4 of them. Of the 3 she has played in…2 were early season (#1 and #4, in which we played a 352), and the other was recently vs. Spirit, and that should’ve been a draw that we looked poor in for 80 mins (vs. a near last place team.) Significant? I feel like combined with it being early season, Sinc was maybe the only player that benefitted from the 352 (aside from maybe Kuikka), because it allowed more bodies in midfield and masked her slow movement. Her lack of speed and coverage is much more obvious in a 433.

    (posting in STF as well for more discussion)

    1. I’m not really all that intrigued about a deep dive into free agency, but the bottom line is and always has been…money. A player who is in demand will be able to use free agent status to get clubs to bid for her services. Bid the highest? Get the player…assuming that the player is willing to put money first (my understanding, for example, is that the Trailblazers have trouble landing big-name free agents because for pro ballplayers Portland is a boring hick town when you have LA, Chicago, Miami, etc. to choose from…)

      Then there’s the checkbook part. How much of daddy’s money can L’il Merritt spend? We’ve seen this play out between the Sounders and Timbers – the Sounders ownership group has deeper pockets (and I think their FO is a better judge of DP-level talent than the Peregrine staff (meaning largely GW…) so they get people like Lodiero and Ruidiaz and we get Fernandez and Yimmy Chara.

      So to me there’s no real value is saying “gee, it’d be awesome to get so-and-so” without knowing 1) how much so-and-so would cost, 2) how much we realistically have to spend, and 3) getting into so-and-so’s head to know whether she’d accept an offer from this organization.

      1. Yeah, here what I wrote at the time:
        Seattle(H) nil-nil: “The Thorns played damn well last week, well enough to nick a goal, at least. Between the 41st and 52nd minutes the Thorns created what could easily have been two goals. The combined xG for the two attempts is 0.6xG, more than half a goal and half the total xG for the night; those are the big step-risers either side of halftime. Both Smith and Weaver had great looks but played like rookies and couldn’t beat Tullis-Joyce.”

        Chicago(A) 2-2: “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.”

        San Diego(A) – 2-2: “For the second away match in a row the Thorns ran off the pitch with a 2-2 draw and a point.

        For the second away match in a row the point felt like a loss.

        In Chicago it was the lineup – the bizarre Beckie-for-Kuikka-swap – and the attacking sterility and the defensive breakdowns.

        This time it was in San Diego and the lineup was…well, what we’ve seen a lot of, the 3-5-2 with Christine Sinclair and Sophia Smith up top.

        But you get the idea; Chicago, San Diego, same shit, different pitch; meager attack, fire-drill defense, crap draws.

        We’ll get to this in the comments, but although some Thorns were off their game at Torero, this match wasn’t lost by individuals. As a team, the Thorns are struggling to score from the run of play and, shockingly, are defending like a rec league team.

        This is not a particularly good squad at the moment. Because it’s not just a player or players underperforming that has to be considered a collective – that is, a coaching – issue.”

        AC(A) – 1-1: “Ninety-four minutes of Thorns pickup soccer against Angel City organizational ineptitude later Madison Pogarch found Yazmeen Ryan’s head for the equalizer and the Thorns scratched out one of those “draws that feel like a win”…except the quality of play (especially in the second half) was so dire that it was hard to feel anything but a sort of exhausted relief that somehow Portland had scrabbled a point.

        Given the utter strip-mining that the international callups performed on the Thorns roster? I’m inclined to take the point and run. It could have been worse, and might well be worse if this bash-to-fit-file-to-hide-paint-to-cover roster can’t do better than they did in LA next week in Seattle.”

        Seattle(A) – 2-2: “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.”

        Carolina(H) 3-3: “Couple of things, first; just letting up and going easy in possession up two goals. I ranked on Coach Wilkinson for letting the squad do this in Seattle and letting the Damndelions back into the match.

        Well, it happened again here against Carolina.

        Another was some atrocious individual and team defending, which we’ll get into in the comments.

        A third was Wilkinson losing the battle of substitutions. Some were too early; yanking Raquel Rodriguez for Janine Beckie after the first concession when Rocky was hammering the Damned midfield and Beckie’s defending is…ummm…optional wasn’t particularly clever.

        But the worse was swapping Tegan McGrady – who was holding down Ryan Williams on the deep left side in the first half – for Natalia Kuikka and then swapping Meaghan Nally and Kuikka to keep Natu on her favored right side.”

        So…what I get out of that is that in all these draws we saw several recurring issues:
        1) Inability to convert, or, worse, inability to create,
        2) Appalling defending, and
        3) Inexplicable (or poor) roster, tactics, or substitution decisions.

        Not exactly a shock given what we’ve seen on the pitch this season, but…yeah. Same ol’ issues, and I agree with Daniel about AC, while the others? I think the Thorns were at least to some degree culpable in dropping the points.

    2. 0-0 Reign Unable to convert chances

      1-1 Spirit we were doing the 3-5-2 format Sinc up front and was not a lot going on minus one brilliance of Smith.

      2-2 Red Stars saw us claw back twice to get draw but was not a pretty game.

      2-2 Wave a 2 goal lead in the last 10% of the game.

      1-1 Angel City was a game we scraped a point at the last minute.

      2-2 Reign was a game that saw us dropping two leads probably should have been a win.

      3-3 Courage was a game that should have been won Dropping two leads.

      I would say we lost 2 points from Reign 2X, Courage, and Wave draws.

      Red Stars and Spirit are fair point each.

      I will say we stole a point from Angel City.


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