“Hand me down my walkin’ cane,
Hand me down my hat.
Hurry now and don’t be late
‘Cause we ain’t got time to chat.“
I know, I know. I keep saying that “soccer is the team-y-est of team sports”.
But there are times when a single player changes that.
When a player takes the game and just grabs it and shakes it up, shakes it loose, becomes less a part of a team – mind you, it helps if that player is part of a good team – than a human wrecking ball, a monster, a primal force of nature.
That has to be, frankly, terrifying for their opponents. What the hell do you do with a player like that? Minefields? Brass knuckles? Beg for mercy?
What do you do when a player does things like this, beginning when Sophia Smith spins past Jenna Winebrenner in the 83rd minute:
Smith has some options for a pass into the top of the box, but she’s not having any of that; she bores in towards the byline.
Winebrenner is left chasing as CDM Alexis Loera gives tackling Smith a shot and gets shouldered aside like a little sister trying to snatch at her big sister’s lollipop.
Kate del Fava is steaming in from the inside with a notion to dispossess Smith before she can drive into the six.
Yeah, well that shit didn’t work, either.
Smith takes on del Fava and just blows past her like she isn’t there.
The Current now has only Adrianna Franch and Gabrielle Robinson between Smith and the goal.
How’d that go?
Well, Robinson comes in hard, Franch gets big, Smith comes on, rides Robinson’s tackle and shoots, and…
…the ball rolls between Robinsons legs and under Franch’s outstretched leg into the far side of the goal and it’s 1-3 Thorns and this one’s pretty much over.
You’ve just thrown damn near half your team at one player.
And she flat out just whipped your entire ass.
What the hell do you do with a player like that?
If you’re her opponent?
You fear her.
If you’re her team? If you’re her fans?
You just have to honor that sort of unearthly talent. Mere applause isn’t right; you kind of have to stand silent in the presence of true athletic greatness.
That’s goddamn inhuman.
“Oh, Lord, this gal is outta sight.
Everything she does
seems to come out right.
Once I went to see her play“The Rubberband Man”; Bell and Creed, 1976
At a club outside of town.
I was so surprised, I was hypnotized
By the stuff this cat’s puttin’ down.“
Was this a flawless complete romp like last week’s demolition of the Shame?
The first half? Yes.
A sweet third minute Crystal Dunn strike off a corner kick and a barrage of attacks – driven by a savagely effective forechecking press – kept the Current on their heels for the first forty-five minutes.
The battered Kansas City backline had to keep fouling to try to stop Smith, Weaver, Dunn, and Sugita from just running through them like goose shit through a tin horn, and that finally paid off for the Thorns when a beaten Robinson tapped Smith from behind and brought her down inside the 18 and Smith tucked the spot-kick inside the right post and underneath Franch’s outstretched arm.
Up 0-2 at the half and seemingly in control, the same squads came out in the second half, and the Current jumped on Portland like a wild monkey on a Bengali tourist bus.
It looked like this:
Smith’s 57th minute shot – outlined in yellow – was the only real sign of life from Portland for almost fifteen minutes after the restart, and at the other end Kansas City was hammering the Thorns goal.
Their three scariest chances are highlighted in red; if Cece Kizer (twice!) and del Fava could put their shots on frame instead of Row XX the Thorns could easily have already been a goal or two to the bad before Bella Bixby made a horrific read on the Loera free kick that gave Kizer a headed sitter that brought the Current roaring back into the match.
Take a look at Arielle Dror’s “xG race” plot:
That pretty much says it, dunnit? Portland all over the first half, Kansas City on the floor helpless with a Portland boot on their neck.
Then the second half whistle blows and suddenly it’s fucking all Current; now it’s the Thorns xG trendline that’s flat and Kansas City that’s rocketing upwards as the Current is pounding on the door practically from the restart to the hour mark.
That was a scary quarter hour.
Then Coach Norris made three substitutions on the hour:
Olivia Moultrie for Crystal Dunn,
Izzy S’Aquila for Hina Sugita, and
Michelle Vasconcelos for Morgan Weaver.
I won’t kid you; I was practically flying off the couch at this point. This seemed like the worst sort of Wilkinson preprogrammed sub. Taking off Dunn, who’d been a pacey, active menace through the first half. D’Aquila for Hina-san? And Vasconcelos – again?! – for the Happy Warrior? WTF???
But here’s the thing.
It worked because it was the right thing to do.
Weaver is the least-likely victim, but when she came off she’d gone from +14/-4 in the first half to +6/-0.
Dunn had gone from +16/-2 to +0/-4, and Sugita from +10/-1 to +3/-1.
Two of the three were visibly tired and chasing – ineffectively – and Norris put in fresh legs to stop the slide.
Go look back at the play-by-play. The Current nicked another free kick in the 65th minute (that Hailie Mace smashed into the bottom right corner and Bixby saved with a good strong dive and smothered to prevent a rebound) – but that was about it.
The next twenty-odd minutes were back and forth, but the scary counterpress and good looks at goal that Kansas City was getting?
And then Sophia Smith grinned, toed a foot down into the patchy Children’s Mercy grass, and put the game out of reach.
Sometimes when your opponent is that good all you can do is shake your head, smile ruefully, and hope to do better the next time.
Decent; 76% to the Current’s 72%, and I’m going to bet that a lot of the Current’s statistical passing success comes from that scary quarter hour after the restart. The Thorns did a hell of a job cutting out passes and forcing turnovers in the first half and in the last half hour.
Here’s Dror’s passing matrix – note that it cuts off at the hour, so we’re missing a third of the passing.
Here’s what bugs me about this.
Morgan Weaver and Sophia Smith? I like! I like their connection, both in quantity and quality. Meghan Klingenberg and Natalia Kuikka are making the connections they should be, and Sam Coffey is linking through center midfield.
Y’know who’s stranded? Who’re NOT making connections?
Hina-san and Crystal Dunn.
I know this is a First World problem, but I still think that those two are swapped from where they could work better. I mean…yeah, yeah, can’t argue with success.
Let’s put a pin in that, though, and see how it looks going forward…
Now here’s Kansas City (same problem – only for the first hour):
The del Fava-Kizer-Michelle Cooper connection was really all the trouble Kansas City could manage. You’ll note that Lo’eau LaBonta – who was the Debinha-less Current’s supposed attacking hope – is nerfed near the center circle, and Coffey, Dunn, and Christine Sinclair are pinning Loera and Chardonnay Curran back of the center circle.
Not much of anything, really, which is consistent with the scoreline.
Five, all long into the box. Four first half, one second.
|2′||Coffey||Long||Dropped directly to Crystal Dunn, who took a touch, rode a clumsy tackle by Kizer, and blasted past Mace and Franch into the back of the net, 0-1 Thorns.|
|37′||Klingenberg||Long||Cleared but recycled, but Sauerbrunn’s lob was too strong and rolled over the byline.|
|38′||Klingenberg||Long||Headed over the byline.|
|39′||Klingenberg||Long||Dimed Sinclair, but her little dink header went to a defender and was headed out to Sugita. Hina-san’s shot was poor, going wide right.|
|71′||Klingenberg||Long||Looped all the way over the scrum, Debinha collected and started a counterattack.|
20 percent conversion is, as we’ve said before in this space, terrific production from corner kicks. Well Dunn, Thorns!
For some time I’ve wondered about how well the Thorns take throw-ins. It seems to me that very often the throws are short and into coverage and so either go nowhere or are coughed up. So I kept track of the first half throw-ins just to see what happened.
The Thorns took a total of 19 throw-ins in that half. Three were in the Thorns defensive half, the other 16 in the attacking end. Let’s break them down.
In the “Outcome” box I’ve bolded those throws that resulted in a Thorns advantage. I’ve italicized those that Kansas City turned over or advanced from. Regular text means that the result was “neutral”; neither team gained and advantage (I suppose you could say that if the Thorns retained possession it could be considered an “advantage” in the turnover, though typically all that possession consisted of was a series of passes across the backline…)
|Time||Player throwing in||Player receiving||Outcome|
|2′||Sugita||Dunn||Passes went Dunn-Sugita-Smith, whose run won the corner leading to the first goal.|
|4′||Sugita||Dunn||This time the ball went Dunn-Sugita-Kuikka and was switched across the back.|
|6′||Klingenberg||Sinclair||Sinc-Kling-Coffey and dropped into the backline.|
|10′||Klingenberg||Sauerbrunn||Switched across the back.|
|11′||Kuikka||Dunn||Dropped to Hubly, whose long crossfield pass was picked off by Cece Kizer.|
|13′||Kuikka||Smith||Smith was surrounded but got fouled for the free kick.|
|19′||Kuikka||Smith, sorta||Deep in the Thorns end, tried to go up the touchline to Smith but too long, lost to KC.|
|20′||Kuikka||???||CBS cut away before throw, returned to show the Thorns backline switching across.|
|20′||Kuikka||Sinclair||Dropped back to ‘Brunn, switched across.|
|22′||Kuikka||Coffey||Halfway into the Thorns half, and Coffey’s pass was poor and picked off in a dangerous spot.|
|25′||Kuikka||Sugita||Hina-san was marked tightly, but her clever pass went to Coffey, who began the switch across.|
|25′||Kuikka||Dunn||Dunn was immediately closed down and dispossessed.|
|27′||Klingenberg||Coffey||Dropped to ‘Brunn for the cycle across.|
|35′||Kuikka||Dunn||Back to Kuikka who was pressured into a poor pass for a KCC throw-in.|
|36′||Klingenberg||Coffey||Right back to Kling who started the cycle around the back.|
|43′||Kuikka||Sinclair||Dropped to Hubly, switched across.|
|44′||Klingenberg||Sugita||Deep in the Current end, Hina-san with a clever little flick to Weaver, but Weaver’s run was well defended and the ball ran to Franch.|
|45+2′||Kuikka||Sugita||Sugita was covered, and tackled for loss.|
So of the first half throw-ins only two – the 2nd minute near-side and the 44th minute far-side – resulted in a Thorns advantage.
Six went to Kansas City, although of those only one – the near-side throw in the 22nd minute – resulted in any real danger to Portland and that was less on the throw-in than on Sam Coffey making an unforced error.
The remaining eleven were pretty much nothing, just a casual passing around the backline to switch fields.
Worth noting that during this time the Current took a total of six throw-ins, a fairly accurate mirror of the utter hiding Kansas City was receiving.
But of those six three produced some danger;
– a 22nd minute near-side throw that went long into the Thorns’ penalty area and forced a good defensive play out of Sauerbrunn,
– another long throw into midfield that sprung Loera in the 33rd minute, and
– a 35th minute midfield throw that also began a Current attack.
A fourth, in the 34th minute, was a good throw into the Thorns box that caught the other Current players asleep and was collected by Coffey without difficulty.
So something like 50% of the few Current throw-ins improved their field position compared to 10.5% of Portland’s.
So the first half at Children’s Mercy seems to confirm the “Thorns aren’t great at throw-ins” eye test. Why?
Well…1) there always seems to be a lot of people just standing around just waiting for the throw, 2) the throw typically goes short to one of those standing around (and usually right back to the thrower, so super predictable), and 3) the ball then usually either has to be dropped and switched across, or it gets lost to the opponent.
Maybe this was just one game, though; small data set = big randomness error.
I’ll revisit this next week and see if we learn anything more.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith (+17/-4 : +13/-3 : +30/-7) Otherworldly.
Obviously Woman of the Match, and her second goal should be a finalist in Goal of the Year. That was utterly nuts. My, oh my. Club, meet seal.
Weaver (61′ – +14/-4 : +6/-0 : +20/-4) Normally those sort of numbers are WotM-grade, but, well…
Still kind of a Weaverish outing. Lots of good; runs, passes, tackles, forechecking. Had two great shot opportunities and shanked them both – put the 9th minute one high and wide and the 42nd minute one way the hell up into the cheap seats.
Didn’t need to convert yesterday because Smith. But…c’mon. You’re gonna have to start putting the biscuit in the basket. Smith is gonna be gone in midsummer. Not too early to start now.
Vasconcelos (29′ – +5/-3) Not shameful. Not terrific, either. Of the three hour subs I’d call hers the least-effective. Again, with Smith taking the game by the neck not an issue, but…
Sugita (60′ – +10/-1 : +3/-1 : +13/-2) Hina-san raced around forechecking like an utter madwoman in the first half. Perhaps that tired her by the hour, because she was visibly fading and needed the rest. Again, the whole “Sugita-RW-Dunn-AM” thing bugs me, but so far it works, and if it works it works.
D’Aquila (30′ – +3/-2) For the first time this season Izzy D’Aquila looked kind of rookie-ish. Ran a lot, got into dangerous positions, but did not do much with them, either giving the ball away or getting tackled for loss. The fresh legs were useful, but, again, had Kansas City profited from their Terrifying Quarter-Hour I’m not sure I’d be so complacent.
Sinclair (78′ – +10/-4 : +5/-4 : +15/-8) Look, coach…I know she’s a legend. I know you and everyone on the club loves and respects her to death. But have you looked at her driver’s license lately?
Sinc is damn near 40. Running her 80 minutes last week and 78 minutes yesterday? That’s just punitive, and her PMR shows how that pounding is wearing her down as the matches wear on.
Sinc was a treat in the first half, and I especially wish her cheeky 10th minute lob had looped over Franch because that was pure old-school Sinc Fun. Lots of good work…but then she had another great run in the 35th minute to break open for the uncontested shot and she blooped high and wide. Was she already tiring?
Excellent half, fine, respectable match…but, damn. I hope she and you know something I don’t about how us old people can stand up under hard pounding.
Rodriguez (12′ – +4/-0) Rocky, too, is kind of suffering under the minutes Sinc is getting. She looks to be in good form when we see her, which is not-often. Good shift, and one I’d have liked to see twenty minutes sooner.
Coffey (+12/-2 : +2/-6 : +14/-8) Like Hina-san and Dunn, I think Coffey ran her legs off in the first half; she was getting run past like a practice cone late in the second. Overall a good match, but seemed unable to pace herself, possibly because she exceeded her instructions to press early on. It worked, mind, but at what cost?
Dunn (60′ – +16/-2 : +0/-4 : +16/-6) Loved the goal, a true poacher’s strike, and fast and dangerous all through the first half.
I’d stop here and note that for all the whingeing I heard about the Smith penalty being soft (and agreeing that it was at least legitimately arguable) Kansas City had two other brutally obvious penalty area fouls that went unpunished, the first being a straight-out body check that Chardonnay Curran laid on Crystal Dunn in the 8th minute.
In the 27th minute Hailie Mace did this to Sugita as she crashed towards the far post on a Sinclair cross:
A two-handed shove in the back on a player getting into a position to score? Ummm…yeah, that’s kind of a straight-up penalty.
So the referee giveth and taketh away, and given how thoroughly Sophia Smith owned your ass you got no complaints about the PK calls, KCC.
Moultrie (30′ – +9/-2) Best of the hour subs and a damn fine shift. Stepped right in and helped regain control of the midfield that Kansas City had contested in the first quarter hour after the break, both defensively and going forward.
Kuikka (+7/-6 : +4/-8 : +11/-14) The Thorns were fortunate that for 75 minutes Kansas City couldn’t figure out how to find the Thorns goal if it’d had Christmas lights wrapped around the woodwork and a huge “This Way To The Goal” billboard set up along the far touchline.
Kuikka was uncharacteristically sloppy in possession. Seven of her minuses were for bad passes, two for being stripped, and another three for slack defending. Not a great day out, but the Thorns were pounding away up front and in midfield, so backline errors weren’t a deal-killer. Not sure if that’ll work against Seattle or San Diego, though.
Hubly (+7/-2: +4/-8 : +11/-10) Same with Kelli Hubly, including an utterly horrifying 47th minute tackle-for-loss that put Kizer in behind and was saved only by Michelle Cooper shooting like Ray Charles.
Another appalling mistake in the 78th minute that Natu bailed out with a last-second tackle. This was an unpleasant re-emergence of the old “high-risk” Hubly, who used to have one of these a match. Lots of good, but in back one awshit cancels all those attagirls, so let’s tighten up our shot group next week, Hubs, eh?
Sauerbrunn (+3/-1 : +7/-2 : +10/-3) Thank the soccer gods for Becky Sauerbrunn, who almost singlehandedly stemmed the second half panic and calmed her backline to the extent she could. Rock-solid in defense, her minuses are only for long passes that couldn’t quite reach their targets.
Klingenberg (89′ – +5/-4 : +4/-4 : +9/-8) Klingenberg was more like ‘Brunn than she was like her right-side counterparts; in general kept her flank nailed down and passed forward well.
Bixby (+0/-0 : +1/-4 : +1/-4) Made a strong dive (and good catch) on the 65th minute free kick. That’s the “good part”.
Misjudged the 58th minute Loera free kick as badly as I’ve ever seen a keeper get fooled; started forward, realized too late the ball was going long and to her right, and was stranded helplessly as Kizer nodded past her on the near post.
Then – and this as as much on D’Aquila, whose 63rd minute backpass was utter rubbish, as herownself – Bixby to sprint out to try and clear away from an onrushing Cooper and only managed to clank her clearance off Cooper’s butt.
Luckily Cooper must have a the world’s spongiest backside, because the ball just sort of dropped (instead of bounding past Bix into her own net!) and Bella was able to claim it.
Luckily Kansas City kinda had nothing else, so the Good Guys ran off winners. But, damn, Bix. Don’t do stuff like that. It scares the sponsors and gives me dyspepsia.
Coach Norris – Sent his troops out to lay down a crushing first half dominance, was pressured by a good post-halftime adjustment from Potter and his crew, and responded with timely substitutions to put the game away.
Plus I’ll bet he makes sure Smith gets all the orange slices, ensuring that shes up for clubbing opponents like those cute li’l seals as I think we’ve mentioned once or twice already this season.
Now let’s be real.
So far we’ve seen 1) The Shame, who are a trash fire, and 2) A Current squad decimated by injuries (and a crap backline that might have serious problems stopping Sophia Smith if you gave them each a shotgun and two live grenades).
In about two weeks we get Houston, who started the season with a dour scoreless draw against Louisville and this past weekend dropped the Red Stars 1-2 at Bridgeview.
They should be “better” than our first two opponents…but given the Thorns’ and Smith’s current forms, will that be “better” enough?
I’m not convinced. This Portland team looks completely and utterly lit right now…
(Umm, except, c’mon, backline, based on yesterday you still got some work to do)
…and I’m not sure anyone outside San Diego is quite there. Yet.