Thorns FC: Tabletop

Two things can be true at the same time:

Last Wednesday night the Thorns slammed their way to the top of the league table with a statement 3-nil win over the visiting Racing Louisville.

Last Wednesday night Racing Louisville was so utterly dire that a decent rec league team would probably have run them off the pitch.

Seriously, though. We’ve seen the Thorns lay some almighty beatings in crap teams this season. Six-nil over Orlando. Five-nil over Gotham.

But this? This might have been Peak Crap. Epic Crap.

0.29xG crap

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

Totally dominated in all statistic categories crap.

Outshot 28-to-7 and 14-to-1-on-goal crap.

This wasn’t even a beat-down simply because the victim was never standing upright to begin with. The only opponent the Thorns needed to beat Wednesday night was…themselves.

Just as they had in Kansas City, the Thorns spent the entire first half thundering and roaring in front of the opposing goal but got nothing out of it.

Sixteen shots. Eight on goal. Goalline clearances, first by Gemma Bonner off Yazmeen Ryan in the 14th minute, and then a minute later when Nadia Nadim headed out a naaaaasty Raquel Rodriguez header.

Yes, Racing got lucky.

But Portland got nothing – and to make things look even shakier, came damn close to conceding in the 35th minute when Emina Ekic thumped a free kick – luckily off the top of the crossbar – and then again, in the 43rd minute when Meghan Klingenberg passed straight to Kirsten Davis near the Thorns penalty spot but luckily Davis’ touch was heavy and the ball ran back to the Thorns.

So when the squads went in at halftime things were looking pretty shaky for Portland.

I ran a “squad plus-minus” for each quarter hour in the first half, and it wasn’t pretty:
0-15′ – +7/-11 (net -3, interval net -3)
15-30′ – +20/-20 (net 0, interval net +4)
30-45′ – +28/-30 (net -2, interval net -2)

Short the middle period, that wasn’t a good half for Portland.

I don’t know what Coach Wilkinson said to her troops at halftime.

Whatever it was, it worked like a shot of Red Bull and Benzedrine straight in the vein.

Because in the 47th minute Kelli Hubly went old-school Route One and Bonner – who had a perfectly awful night – tried to head the ball…

…and missed, putting Sophia Smith – who’d been having a pretty crap night herself until then – in 1v0 on poor hapless Katie Lund.

A simple rounding of the keeper later and it was 1-nil.

Ninety seconds later the two teams combined to make another, beginning with Ryan feeding Rocky near midfield. Note the two Racing defenders waiting for Rodriguez to come at them.

She does, and Rodriguez proceeds to run straight through three white shirts in a display of stunning defensive ineptitude.

Rocky sees Olivia Moultrie running free to her right and hits her. Moultrie does the same to Natalia Kuikka along the east touchline.

Kuikka picks out Sam Coffey and feeds her, but Coffey is surrounded by defenders.

That doesn’t matter; Wednesday night Racing couldn’t stop water running uphill. The defense fumbles and faffs around as Coffey and the ball roll past them and, in a final gesture of perfectly abject submission, Satara Murray tees the ball up.

And Coffey knocks in her first NWSL goal.

And there was Great Rejoicing.

Finally, in the 55th minute, Klingenberg looped a pass onto Rodriguez’ head, and Rocky flicked on to Moultrie who had worked a bit of space inside the Racing box.

The Racing Defensive Derps weren’t done, though.

Bonner and Emily Fox, the two closest white shirts, dallied and pondered and gave young Moultrie geologic time and geographic space to neatly settle the ball, pick her spot, and finish before the two philosophers stopped pondering Eternal Truth and decided to, y’know, actually defend.

And that was that, Racing lost yet another match in their heroic effort to nick Gotham for the Wooden Spoon and Portland went top of table.

The second half was fun. The first…hmmm.

Oh, and while I’m here; the Marco Vega Silver Crap Whistle Award goes to center referee J.C. Griggs for stuff like this:

This was Savannah DeMelo drawing a foul – or “foul” – in the 64th minute with a footdrag that wouldn’t have drawn a whistle from a Serie B ref with 20,000 lire in his pocket.

Fortunately for the Thorns clean sheet the resulting free kick pinged off the outside of the left post.

Griggs let a ton of rough stuff go. This…

…is DeMelo’s version of a take-out slide that wasn’t even worthy of a yellow from our center referee. And worth noting that DeMelo was on a yellow when she chopped down Sauerbrunn, meaning that in a sane world the poor sad visitors should have been down a player, too, for the last half hour or so.

No matter. This was…not their night. It was the Thorns.

Today we’ll see if they can do the same to Chicago.

Short Passes

Passing the Passing Test: Another one-sided slugging, with Portland connecting over 80% while Racing struggled to complete 68%. The pass charts make things look even more lopsided.

Image by Arielle Dror on Twitter

It does show the struggle that Smith went through all evening, though; little service, and points out the frustrating issues with Morgan Weaver (we’ll discuss more in the comments). while highlighting the good work the backline was doing passing out as well as the heavy lifting Rocky and Coffey were doing in midfield.

On the other hand…

Damn. That’s gruesome.

Corner Kicks

Seven; five first half, two second (weirdly, given the goals…), all long

TimeTakerShort/Long?Result
8′CoffeyLongWent into the scrum and was cleared out to Klingenberg; her looping shoss went right to Lund
13′CoffeyLongInto the scrum, cleared out and recycled but nothing came of it until it went out for another corner
15′KlingenbergLongOn Rodriguez’ head; her header was hard and flat but Nadim was standing right there and headed it off the goal line
16′CoffeyLongHeaded into the air, cleared, Klingenberg settled and was fouled by Nadim near the southeast corner, but the free kick hit a Portland arm.
39′CoffeyLongPast the back post but headed back in to Janine Beckie, who was unable to head it down and biffed it over the crossbar, instead.
78′BeckieLongRight to Lund
90+2′BeckieLongBounced off Everett’s thigh to Saurebrunn; her shot was blocked and the ball was recycled to Sinclair, whose shot was well over.

For all the setpieces in the first quarter-hour the only real danger came from the Rodriguez header; it was a good effort and Racing barely escaped conceding early. The others, nothing, really.

I’d sure love to know what Sinc as saying. Whatever it was, it was cracking Klingenberg up, though.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (72′ – +3/-6 / +4/-2 : +7/-8) Wednesday was another match in which Sophia Smith looked bereft of inspiration for most of her shift. She’s running into traffic and trying to bullrush defenses and her numbers track with that, a string of tackles-for-loss, turnovers, and mishit passes.

Smith has quality over and above the rest of Portland’s forwards, so even 70% of Peak Smith is dangerous. But when you’re having to play dump-and-rush with Sophia Smith you’re using an Xacto-knife to carve wood. It works, but it’s more difficult and risks ruining the blade.

Everett (18′ – +1/-4) Unfortunately the forward depth chart is, as noted, shallow. Everett was her usual hardworking self but was unable to generate any sort of threat even playing the junior-high-school-recess that was Racing’s defense.

Beckie (+3/-4 : +5/-2 : +8/-6) Janine Beckie is a curious player for Portland.

She’s got skills; pace, decent field-vision, and passes fairly well. No, she doesn’t defend worth a lick, but as an attacking player that’s less of an issue.

Somehow, though, she seems less as the sum of the parts than she does as an individual on paper. Here Wednesday she was given the treat of running at Racing’s menage…but in my match notes she’s almost invisible, and I’m not really sure why. I don’t see enough of the Canadian team to have a sense of what she does there. Is she invisible for her country as she is for her club?

Moultrie (57′ – +2/-2 : +2/-1 : +4/-3) Another creditable outing for the youngest Thorn, including a clinical finish, dangerous attacks, and several nice passes.

Sinclair (33′ – +4/-6) The inevitable appearance of the captain coincided with a flatline on the xG chart and we all understand that’s not exactly a coincidence. Sinc now lacks the pace to participate in a mobile attack, and forcing her teammates to dial back to her pace results in a deliberate, pass-around-the-perimeter sort of buildup that even Racing could get enough defenders behind to neuter.

Ryan (57′ – +5/-2 : +0/-0 : +5/-2) Of the “Portland attackers who are not Sophia Smith” Yazmeen Ryan has been the best-of-the-rest, but again she seemed to run out of gas after the break.

Some of that may be Portland knocking in two quick goals and not needing more attack. But I wonder if the mileage is starting to get to legs late in the season?

One thing that no coach has tried after it failed for Riley (spit!) has been really working on conditioning. The various incarnations of The Damned – Western New York/Carolina – always seemed able to hurt the Thorns with their late-season fitness, though, so I wonder if there’s something there.

Weaver (33′ – +14/-4) Weaver, goddamn.

Look at that. That PMR is insane; projected out to +42 over a full match? I’ve never seen anything like that. And you had a terrific shift; crazy good runs, crosses, passing, forechecking defense…

And yet.

There always seems like a “but”.

But all that energy didn’t result in a goal or anything even close to a goal. Portland’s xG was 2.6 when you entered, and it was 2.95 when you heard the final whistle.

But did all that chaos energy actualy help improve Portland’s game state?

Well, you forced Lund into a turnover in the 73rd minute.

Then you ran onto a long Coffey rainbow right down near the Racing goalpost in the 75th, but you used the wrong foot and shanked the ball over the byline; Lund never even had to move.

Your strong 83rd minute run produced a nice cross but 1) there were no teammates in the box to profit from it and 2) it was close enough to the goalmouth for Lund to take it.

Three minutes later you fed Sinc with a pretty through-ball, but Sinc couldn’t control it and Lund, again, picked it up.

A minute after that you headed a ball pinging around the 18 out to Sinclair near the post, but the play developed too slowly and defenders bodies Sinc off the ball.

In the 90th minute you made another great run but your shot was poor and went wide left.

Finally, in the 91st minute you made yet another run, but your touch failed you at the end and the ball ran to a white shirt.

I love the energy Weaver brings. I love her Happy Warrior excitement. What I’d like to see, though, is something more productive coming from all that energy and excitement.

Frankly, I think the issue is coaching. I don’t think the staff is helping Weaver figure out a way to take all that unruly Chaos Muppet energy and apply control to it, to make it work with her teammates and not like Animal just hammering away on the drum kit randomly while the rest of the band is trying to play In The Mood

Coffey (79′ – +2/-2 : +6/-1 : +8/-3) Like her teammates, Sam Coffey struggled to find traction in the first half.

Like them, she broke out like a beast in the second and scored.

And if that doesn’t make you smile, you just can’t be happy about anything.

Dunn (11′ – +3/-4) The roar that greeted Crystal Dunn’s entrance was insane.

I hope that everyone cheering has a lower expectation of her than that roar suggested.

So far Dunn hasn’t looked unfit or out-of-sorts, but we’ve seen so little of her that it’s difficult to speculate beyond that. One of the commentors at Stumptown said something about how it takes time to return to form, and my reply was that given her 2021 form? It should take that long.

I really don’t see how she’s a factor this season outside minor appearances like this.

Rodriguez (+2/-2 : +4/-1 : +6/-3) Played alongside Coffey and, like Coffey, struggled in the first half. Better in the second…but here’s the thing;

If you’re a Thorns midfielder you’ve gotta figure out how to work with Sophia Smith. She’s the attacking engine. She’s going to make your goals 90% of the time.

Now look back up at the passing chart. See that?

Yeah. You, Smith, and Coach Wilkinson gotta figure that out, mi Chispa.

Klingenberg (72′ – +2/-2 : +2/-2 : +4/-4) This pretty much goes for all the Thorns defenders; Racing’s “attack” was so awful it was hard for the backline to do anything meaningful for good or ill. Together with Coffey and Rodriguez the defenders kept the clean sheet, so, fine, but hard to assess how a better team might have done.

One odd thing is that Kling had an unforced error – a slip and fall – as Jess McDonald blew by her in the 70th minute…and then was yanked. But…Wilkinson’s subs always seem preplanned. So was Kling struggling late and had to be pulled, or was the slip-and-subbed-off correlation not causation?

McGrady (18′ – +1/-0) Saw out the match. Fine.

Sauerbrunn (+1/-1 : +2/-0 : +3/-1) If the fullbacks had little to do the centerbacks had even less. Fine for what little they did.

Hubly (+5/-4 : +3/-3 : +8/-7) Hubly’s big PMR comes from her job as the “pushed-up” centerback responsible for hoofing the ball forward. That sort of long pass always risks going astray, and seven of them did, hence the minuses. On the other hand, four of them didn’t, including the one that started the Smith goal (Bonner’s goof robbed Hubs of the assist, but she deserved it in all but name…). So, good work.

Kuikka (+3/-5 : +9/-1 : +12/-6) Same issues as everyone else; troubled first half, kick-ass second, particularly cleaning up the passing.

Thorns Throw-ins

Can I make a general comment here? Kuikka takes a lot of throw-ins, and she had one in the first half that was so poor as to get a minus for it. But Thorns throw-ins in general aren’t very good. It’s almost always the same pattern; find a teammate near the touchline, throw to her, you step onto the pitch and she dinks it back to you.

The defenders are always hovering around, so the ball often gets knocked back into touch, or turned over, or has to be drop-passed back into the defensive third. Even though there’s no offside on throw-ins the Thorns never take advantage of that. Jess McDonald’s long throws are a dangerous weapon (one of the few Racing has, poor dears)…but the Thorns have no one who has worked to try and emulate that.

I’m not sure this really makes a difference; I have no data on how many throw-ins are lost or whether the loss affects game state significantly. But I keep seeing this, and it bugs me.

Bixby (+0/-1 : +0/-0 : +0/-1) I remember as a keeper looking at the clean sheet stats and thinking how random they are. You have sheets where you work like a madman or a hero, parrying and blocking and catching, flying through the air like fucking Ms. Marvel. Then you have them like this one, where you stand around gazing into the middle distance while the match goes on away down the pitch.

And they all count exactly the same.

Coach Wilkinson: After the Smith and Coffey goals, one of the commentors on the Stumptown match thread typed: “Well that just saved RW’s job”.

I’m not so sure. But the first half sure was ugly; frantic and scoreless in front of a truly dire opponent…but one that also got crazy lucky with clearances off the line and final passes or shots.

And the second half, while better, still depended a lot on individual efforts and Racing defensive incompetence.

Well, today we’ll see a different sort of opponent, and we’ll see if the gaffer has a different sort of plan. It’s pretty simple; win today and likely clinch the Shield and a first-round bye.

Draw? That’s more fraught.

Lose?

Let’s not do that.

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11 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Tabletop

  1. Throw-ins: the thing that drives me nuts about Kuikka’s in particular is how long she takes, for no apparent reason. Sometimes you want to use a throw-in to slow the game down or break the momentum, but Kuikka *always* takes forever to get the ball back in play. Against Racing she just seemed to be unable to decide what to do, but in general she appears to wait until the Thorns are all static and the opponents have everyone marked. Klingenberg rarely does quick throws, but she fakes and bluffs so that the opponents show their intentions. Beckie’s throws were lightning quick and preserved the Thorns’ momentum – not always what you want, but often a good idea.

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    1. What’s interesting is that I saw Beckie take a throw-in late and thought “okay, now…THAT looks better!”. You’re right, she doesn’t dink around like the other players (and, yes, Kuikka is the slowest).

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  2. The match came down to a few moments. I suppose that’s true of many matches.

    You can look at the two clearances off the line from the Thorns perspective, or from the Racing perspective. It happens twice, maybe you get a bit discouraged or frustrated on the one side and fortified on the other.

    Toward the end of the half, Louisville had withstood everything from Portland and even had a little momentum.

    All it would take is another sterile performance in the second half from Portland and a crap goal from Louisville, and this Thorns team was going nowhere this year. The table is too jam-packed, and a loss or even a draw would kill the season both placement-wise and momentum-wise.

    Something definitely changed immediately after the half, for both teams. Portland, as you say, came out fired up. Louisville came out flat.

    Yes, Louisville were always the worse team, and yes Louisville have had a few of these kinds of lapses this year – hanging in there, hanging in there, then suddenly and completely falling apart. The players and coaching staff alike are pretty frustrated. Something isn’t working there (hint: Jaelin Howell isn’t a 6, and Satara Murray isn’t good).

    But here’s the thing you’re not seeing… the Louisville side of things.

    Nadim subbed off after going down with what Oregon Live described as a “serious leg injury” in the 23rd minute.

    Nadim is their captain, and she was doing not only Nadim-things but playing with additional intensity, heart, and pride because it was her first NWSL match back in Portland since (checks calendar) the Fall of 2017. She was involved in lots of dust-ups in her 23 minutes on the pitch.

    Nadim had returned from a major knee injury in less than 9 months and had scored 6 goals in 9 matches. Nadim and J-Mac had partnered pretty well; J-Mac is near the top of the league in assists.

    Nadim is out today with “left leg.” Penultimate game. Although it hasn’t been declared such, she’s practically got an SEI (and may actually have one).

    So, let’s just say Louisville go into halftime feeling fairly good about themselves, all things considered, having survived the first half and even built a little momentum at the end. Portland was frustrated and, by the end of the half, not playing that well. Suddenly, Louisville have a puncher’s chance.

    But, say they encounter an injured Nadim and it’s more than a knock, or they hear some news about Nadim and it’s not good.

    That’s gonna take a bunch out of the sails of a young team that has been struggling all season long and that just got something going in the right direction (their 2-0 win over Orlando). Young teams, good or bad, are notoriously emotionally fragile.

    Now, came back out to play the 2nd half. On one side, a fired up Portland because Wilkinson (and maybe some others ) just chewed ass — I’ve never seen Wilkinson look like she did heading into the locker room. On the other side, a completely deflated Louisville, having sustained just one more emotional gut punch, from which it can’t recover.

    And then there are two goals in two minutes. Portland goes back to the top of the table instead of settling in at 5th place, looking up. And the game looks like a laugher from then on.

    I DO think it was that close. Two goals and two minutes changed fortunes here.

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    1. I agree that losing Nadim hurt Lousiville. But…the Louisville attack flatlined during the 20 minutes she was ON the field, so I’m not sure if having her would have made ENOUGH of a difference to save Racing. They’re a bad team; Nadim might make them less-bad, but they’re still pretty bad.

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  3. Different opponent, different reasons, but this one was shaping up as the KC match had in terms of scoreline. Tons of shot opportunities, nothing going in. That kind of thing can leave a team discouraged, frustrated, feeling snake-bitten. Especially when they know their season is on the line. And, as the saying goes, you can’t fire the players. So, yes, I do think those two goals may have saved Wilkinson’s job, because they kept Portland from risk of a total end-of-season tailspin.

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    1. That was a very, very weird injury. I didn’t see legs get tangled; it looked to me like just a shoulder-to-shoulder collision and the smaller player went tumbling. I wonder if Nadim caught a cleat in the rug or something..?

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      1. We’ve seen multiple ACL tears with no contact at all, so it clearly doesn’t take a lot of force. I couldn’t see exactly what happened in real time, and the video isn’t much better, but I’m not sure Hubly, or anyone, was at fault. Nadim was off-balance and probably twisting to try to get off the centering pass, and that might be all it took.
        I also thought at the time that Dr. Nadim immediately knew what it was, and that it was serious.

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  4. If I was coach for a day, I might convert Weaver to full back. She has the speed and plays decent defense. We need people who can finish up top. Maybe Moultrie or Sugita up top?

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  5. I will say this if you think RW should be fired before RL fire her still. Nothing has changed about her in game management, minute of players like Smith, the constant roster tinkering, it is all the same. If you were going to let her go, still let her go now. If you think an end of year spiral would see MP & KL to look for someone new I think you are wrong.

    I have also seen no interest in MP/GW in letting coaches go due to poor performances on the field. Mar Par had worse years. The team was/is still on track to match their 2016 counterpart of a 3 loss regular season, no season has had fewer. That year was a 20 game season, so this arguably our best year when it comes to not losing games since this is a 22 game season. This year’s main frustration has been the team high 8 ties in a year. I am much happier with those ties then if they were loses.

    The reason we know how easy it is for a number of shots to lead to nothing and then letting in a cheap late goal turn into a loss is such a real possibility, is because it happened so many times under Mar Par I can’t even count. It hace never once happened under KW. I am not going to say it is never going to happen, but just wanted to point out it has not.

    In the NWSL you can most certainly fire the players. Contracts are still short term and trades are a real thing. We have replaced half a starting line up a number of off seasons not just on expansion years.

    I do not believe this coach’s job was ever, or should have ever been even on the hot sear this year. I am disappointed the team will finish below the 2 points per game minimum I set every year as an arbitrary benchmark I stole from the champions league. Win at home at least draw away. Regardless of of Reign/Courage/other go on a tear I see that benchmark is a decent enough measure to judge was this an adequate season based off of the things in your control. I am happy we are in the shield fight late and in the playoffs again. The KC tie hurt but not as much as a 4th loss.

    Many NWSL seasons no one gets 2 points per game there and you just got to be the best you can in the chaos. This is one of those seasons.

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