Thorns FC: To Everything There Is a Preseason

Last night we had some soccer.

The Sunday afternoon-evening was blustery and cold, the rain came and went like the form and connections of the squads on the pitch, and the crowd was sparse and quiet.

These preseason “tournament” games are pure fun for me. No pressure, no stress, no worries. Lose? Who cares! Win? Whatever.

It’s simply a chance to reconnect with the place and the team and the city I love. To sip from a cold brew, or – on a night like this one – a paper cup full of coffee that warms my hands while it steams my breath. To hear the sounds of rain on the old roof and the sharp, high cries of the players on the field, wheeling like gulls.

To revel in the return of the game.

Oh, yeah, the game? Right, right. Sorry. Let’s talk about that.

Life intervened to make me late for the first game. When I arrived late in the first half Seattle was bossing the junior Nats, already up 2-nil and never really troubled. Even after Laura Harvey began swapping out her regular starters in the second half the juniors were helpless.

Without their best players (like Thompson) who are already with their pro clubs the U-23s are just a sorta-kinda college all-star team and not anywhere near professional quality, something worth remembering when we see them against the Thorns this Wednesday.

They ended up losing 3-nil and looked thoroughly whipped in the doing.

Then Louisville and the Thorns played the nightcap.

It was…very preseason.

Let’s start with this, though; even for preseason Louisville was fucking dire.

We talked about them back in February, and I concluded that:

“Will they be dangerous? I don’t think so. They still don’t look like they have a real golden-boot-grade striker, and I’ll need to see them defending before I believe they’re still not a sieve in back.”

Well, I didn’t see anything from them that changed my mind.

Outshot 16-7 and otherwise outworked and outplayed all across the pitch by a Thorns team (that as we’ll discuss) is far from even early-season form themselves.

Racing had a grand total of two moments – a missed Jaelin Howell header off a late first half corner, and a rasper from Jess McDonald in the 79th minute – but I didn’t see much of anything else.

Here’s their lineup in the 4-3-3:
Goalkeeper: Katie Lund;
Defenders: Carson Pickett, Abby Erceg, Elli Pikkujämsä (56’ Rebecca Holloway), Lauren Milliet;
Midfleiders: Jaelin Howell (c), Savannah DeMelo, Ary Borges (64’ Kayla Fischer);
Forwards: Paige Monaghan (64’ Jess McDonald), Kirsten Davis (85’ Parker Goins), Wang Shuang (64’ Alex Chidiac)

That’s pretty much last year’s squad, and Racing’s big new signing at striker, Shuang, was reeeeeally invisible for her hour. Louisville improved when McDonald came on for her, but nowhere near enough…so it’s worth noting that any sort of “team performance” measures for the Thorns have to be measured against this dross.

As for Portland.


Frankly, the match was an even-more-preseason-y-than-the- usual-preseason-scramble.

It was hard for me to get any sort of handle on tactics and techniques because the squad was so ragged. Better than Racing, but still nowhere near a finished product, which is what you’d expect in mid-March.

So Portland dominated but couldn’t finish and got lucky to nick a goal. This one should have ended scoreless except for that Janine Beckie delivered a well-placed 86th minute free kick to Kelli Hubly’s head, and Hubs played a nice ball back across the six-yard box to Meaghan Nally, who headed down from a yard out with Katie Lund helpless and two Louisville defenders getting in each others’ way.

Other than that? Enh. I don’t think we can really generalize from it. It was just fun and a good look at the Thorns roster. Speaking of which, here’s who we saw for Portland, also in a 4-3-3:
Goalkeeper: Bella Bixby (c);
Defenders: Meghan Klingenburg (72’ Natalie Beckman), Emily Menges (46’ Gabby Provenzano), Kelly Hubly, Natalie Kuikka (62’ Meaghan Nally);
Midfielders: Sam Coffey (72’ Taylor Porter) Rocky Rodriguez (62’ Christine Sinclair), Olivia Moultrie;
Forwards: Hina Sugita (72’ Hannah Betfort), Sophia Smith (62’ Izzy D’Aquila), Michele Vasconcelos (62’ Janine Beckie

How’d they do? We’ll discuss in the comments.

Short Passes

Here’s where we miss the invaluable Arielle Dror. The NWSL doesn’t bother with OPTA for preseason, and neither do the Thorns FO. I can’t find passing stats for either team. Certainly both looked pretty rugged, so I’m guessing neither completed more than about 70% (if that) and my guess is that Portland was a trifle tidier with the ball that Racing. But not by much. Call it 70% to about 65%. Fine, that’ll do.

Corner Kicks

Four. all long into the box, one first half, three second

20′KlingenbergLongInto the crowd, headed clear to the far side of the box.
60′KlingenbergLongAnother effort that fell into the scrum and was cleared.
86′BeckieLongInto the scrum and headed over the byline by Racing for another corner from the opposite side.
86′BeckieLongFloated to Hubly at the back post side of the six; Hubly’s return header dropped on Nally who headed home the matchwinner

One goal out of four attempts; 25% conversion is a terrific result for corners.

Player Ratings and Comments

This is probably a good time to go over “What the hell is a ‘PMR’?”.

Got it now? Okay, here we go.

Smith (62’ – +4/-3 : +1/-0 : +4/-4) Unfortunately Sunday was the return of the “put your head down and dribble into traffic” Smith, tho in her defense she was getting nothing from her teammates.

Had what I thought was a fairly legit penalty shout in the 42nd minute – Smith tried to bullrush two defenders and went down – but in the first NWSL VAR ever seen at Providence Park the call was overturned on review.

Early days for officials too.

I hope this was just rust. Smith had worked out a decent set of connections with her midfield and wingers last season and, no, it wasn’t primarily with the missing Morgan Weaver but Yazmeen Ryan at RW and Hina Sugita and Raquel Rodriguez in ACM. Vasconcelos is the anti-Ryan (we’ll talk…) and neither Hina nor Rocky looked in any sort of form. So maybe this is just a “sum-of-the-parts” issue that will improve with practice.

D’Aquila (28’ – +1/-1) For an utter rook’s first professional minutes Izzy D’Aquila looked fine; composed, pacey, with a nose for open space. Promising.

Vasconcelos (62’ – +1/-3 : +0/-2 : +1/-5) A hot mess. Smith seemed to grow increasingly frustrated with her until the sub off, too, suggesting that there’s one vote for “let’s not try this again”. The bottom line with Vasconcelos is that if she was good enough to start she’d be starting somewhere. She’s not, so it shouldn’t be surprising that she wasn’t.

My guess is that Coach Norris wanted to see if she could bring something. Presumably he’s seen what he needs to see and we won’t have to watch another hour like that.

Beckie (28’ – +2/-1) The hour subs – and this goes for all of them – weren’t shockingly good as individuals and their PMRs, including Beckie’s, show that.

(In fact, the PMRs show that the Thorns as a team were struggling to be effective. A player having a typical “good game” produces a PMR something like a +15/-5 over 90 minutes. Instead you’ll note that lots of Thorns have +8/-2 or +4/-4 or even less. That’s just a sign of a club playing their first real match of 2023 and struggling to get involved, to impact the match. The numbers will come. They just haven’t come yet…)

As a group, though, they kicked the intensity up, got a goal, and that’s kind of the whole idea.

One of my gripes with both Parsons and Wilkinson was that their substitutions, both the players and the timing; they often seemed to make no difference in the game state or even make the squad look worse.

Last night Norris’ subs helped put the sword to a fading and disorganized Louisville team, and that’s the textbook definition of how subs are supposed to work. Well done, Thorns and well done, coach.

Sugita (72’ – +5/-1 : +3/-1 : +8/-1) Hina-san had an odd night.

She was one of the most efficient, in-form looking Thorns on the pitch, bringing her usual sleek passing, clever on-the-ball movement, and vision.

Out at left wing, however, she wasn’t particularly effective and only more effective than Vasconcelos because Vasconcelos was a freaking tire fire. Hina-as-LW is a Wilkinson thing that I disliked when Wilkinson deployed it and I still don’t.

Hina-san is a string-puller and a midfield general, a true #10. She doesn’t have the straight-ahead speed to beat a pacey fullback to the byline and turn the corner, so when she does receive a pass out on the wing she tends to turn directly inside. That slows down an already-slow-paced Thorns midfield and lets the defenders collapse on them and it did last night.

Unfortunately I think that Norris sees Hina-san as a LW the way his former boss did, so I’m afraid we’ll see more of her there.

If so, the squad needs to think this. She needs a really pacey fullback to overlap her there, and Klingenberg is still a lot of good things but “pacey fullback” isn’t one of them.

Rodriguez (62’ – +3/-1 : +3/-2 : +6/-3) Rocky had kind of an odd game, too.

She was “good” in the sense that she was individually skilled on both sides of the ball; her pluses include three passes, a run, and two tackles-for-gain.

As a part of the whole, though? She was largely invisible much of the match. No connection with Smith, and little with Hina or Vasconcelos.

My guess is that this was a combination of 1) slow rounding into form while 2) her wingers were struggling – Hina forced out too wide, Vasconcelos just struggling, period. My hope is that with more time both of those issues will be resolved.

Sinclair (28’ – +0/-1) Well…she wasn’t awful.

But we’ve seen this last season. At the start of the year Sinc is fresh, her legs are strong, and she tends to show well – she’s the remains of one of the greatest in the game, so, no, duh – but as fatigue and knocks accumulate her performance starts to drop.

Last night, though, she was a useful part of the last-hour substitute group. So, fine.

For the Soccer Gods’ sakes, though…manage her minutes! She can’t start regularly and be effective. That’s over. She needs to come off the bench, and only in certain game states. She can’t really help chase anymore, and her defending isn’t good enough to help protect a one-goal lead.

Let’s not see her staggering into September as we did last year – and she’ll be coming off a World Cup this year, too!

Coffey (72’ – +4/-0 : +1/-1 : +5/-1) All her usual positives in the first half, and by the second Racing was gassed and gave her very little to do. Didn’t have much success connecting with the frontline but then nobody else did, either.

Porter (18’ – +1/-0) Saw out the win, so fine, but hard to say much else other than “not a trainwreck”. Porter is still kind of deep depth IMO, and I didn’t see anything last night to change my mind about that.

Moultrie (+2/-1 : +2/-2 : +4/-3) Overall? Decent work…not really a factor as much as I’d like to see her but, again, early days and rust.

Moultrie is a solid starter as a utility/center midfielder. I think she lacks the vision to be a successful #10, but she has the chops to be a very good #8, and last night was no exception. Given her long outing we might not see her Wednesday, but next weekend I’ll be intrigued to see her against the Auld Enemies, Fishlock and Quinn.

Klingenberg (72’ – +3/-4 : +1/-0 : +4/-4) A bit sloppy passing out of the back, but made up by being solid defensively. Solid, as usual.

FWIW, the squad tried to play out of the left side of the backline quite a bit and it wasn’t particularly successful. None of the players there – not Kling, not Moultrie, not Hina – are particularly speedy. Not slow, but not going to torch you regularly, either. So Racing was able to shut that tactic down more often than not. Might want to rethink that against Seattle…

Beckman (18’ – no rating) I’m still not sold on the “Beckman-to-fullback” experiment. I think she lacks the defensive skillset. Last night her shift was too short and Racing too poor to really provide a data point for evaluating that experiment.

Hubly (+5/-1 : +4/-1 : +9/-2) An assist and a damn fine evening defending. When she’s like this Hubs is among the best centerbacks in the league.

Menges (45’ – +2/-1) In her first post-injury outing Menges looked like her old self; quick, incisive, commanding her defensive zone. Good to see you back, EM. Let’s stay healthy, please.

Provenzano (45’ – +2/-0) Took over from Menges without a hitch. Again, hard to really assess the backline with Racing so hopeless, but didn’t put a foot wrong, which is fine. Might see how she looks against Seattle before being more definitive.

Kuikka (62’ – +4/-3 : +1/-1 : +5/-4) One thing that bugged me about Natalia Kuikka last season was her tendency to shift waaaay over inside when the ball was on the Thorns’ left. Kuikka is pretty speedy, but a long switch could catch her out of position and Racing figured that out and bombed her several times last night.

Because they were Racing they couldn’t really do anything with the advantage they got that way. But that quirk of hers to leave the right touchline unguarded was part of her midseason slump last year, and I wasn’t thrilled to see it again last night.

She’s still a damn good defender, mind. But c’mon, Natu. You’ve got pace but not THAT much pace. Hold your ground a bit more, please.

Nally (28’ – +4/-0) I hope the squad bought young Nally all the drinks last night. She may never score again, so I hope she got to enjoy the hell out of it. An otherwise quiet half hour.

Bixby (+2/-2 : +0/-0 : +2/-2) Utterly untroubled; could have taken the night off.

Coach Norris: Well…at least he didn’t run out a fucking 3-5-2.

Kidding aside, as I’ve been saying all through this piece, it’s damn hard to really do much more than throw up your hands over this one. The coach seems to have had no real ideas of how to dice up Racing, but he wasn’t over matched, either. His substitutions seemed timely, though I’d have been done with Vasconcelos at the half (and if we see as much from her later this week I’ll be irked) and the team got the win and the clean sheet. Low bar, given Racing? Maybe.

But it’s a beginning. We’ll have to see how things look next weekend when we play those wenches from Seattle. That’ll be the real test.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: To Everything There Is a Preseason

  1. My memory is that Vasconsuelos had a dark horse, stand out year a while ago and then not much after that. I had a niggling hope that after being waived & brought back by the Thorns she would somehow tap some wellspring of talent and wow us all. But I most definitely have not see that.
    Doesn’t Hina play left wing for her national team? Gives some support for putting her there.
    When we were watching the game we chatted w/people nearby about Horan. We all had very different thoughts about her return. I am putting on my rose-Thorn colored glasses & think she’ll be back this season. How about you?

    1. I’m utterly unfamiliar with Vasconcelos. Looked her up and her Wiki entry suggests that if she had ever been anything but a marginal bench player it would have been for Chicago in 2018 when she appeared in 20 games. But her record shows that she only started half of those games and averaged only 45 minutes a match. So not really a starter, and since then she’s appeared in 20 games over three years.

      She’s Mormon, went to BYU, and her family is based in SLC, so maybe the Thorns can use her as expansion draft protection. Other than garbage minutes I don’t see any other use for her here.

      Last time I saw Hina-san play for the Nadeshiko she was a LB! So left side, yes, but not certain she’s a LW there. And remember that the national team has Yui Hasegawa as their primary #10 (as well as Jun Endo as ACM/F) so her role there is more second option and (in attack) a winger. We’re currently struggling here to find a playmaker, so my thought is that she’d be a better fit there and let Weaver run the LW…

      Ah, the Eternal Sunshine of the Hope-for Horan. Well…

      My skepticism comes from all the things that suggest that she doesn’t have any particular reason to return to Portland:
      – she’s won an MVP, a Shield, and a Championship. There’s no hills left for her to climb here.
      – she’s not a Portland or Oregon native. Her husband is Tyler Heaps, who works for AS Monaco, and her family is in Colorado.
      – If you look at her socials, her Instagram is all OL and USWNT. She has one tweet about the Thorns – it’s the Dunn golazo from the semi – but there’s nothing about the Final or the star.
      – I don’t really have a sense that she has any good friends on the current squad. I think most of her pals were in the 2016-2018 squad, and the players remaining from that group are Sinc, Menges, Hubly, and Kling. I’m not sure if she was real pals with any of those four except maybe Hubs.

      So I guess my question would be, turn it around; why should she WANT to be here? I mean, other than pure professionalism, if you were her, what about this team and this league would make you want to bust your butt to be here in September?

      And I say that because she’s got OL until the end of May. The UEFA Champions League Final is June 3. The WC begins the third week of July, meaning that the USWNT camp will open in mid-to-late June. The WC Final is the end of August.

      So we’re talking five games; from 9/2/23 to 10/15/23.

      If I was her?

      I’d want to kick back, swap my cleats for flip-flops and lie on a beach for a month instead of grind out the end of the NWSL season sweating on the Civic Stadium turf.

      But maybe that’s just me…


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