Last Friday’s 1-1 draw against the visiting Houston Dash was a good reminder that this season’s first two opponents are either dreadful (Orlando) or riven by injury (Kansas City). To have stonked both by an aggregate 8-1 is more an artifact of their problems than of Portland’s power.
To drive that home to us came a Houston whose coaching staff had clearly paid attention to the Thorns’ early-second-half panic in Kansas City. The Dash came out pressing and the Thorns had a tough time with that.
Specifically, Coach Laity intended to make it difficult to play Sophia Smith though the middle. That worked – look at the passing diagrams below – and everything Portland pushed up had to go up the touchlines.
Individual skills (and some atrocious Houston defending – they’re not bad but they’re not that good, either, especially in back…) put the Thorns up a goal in the first quarter hour.
Then an individual error (and some atrocious Portland defending) shipped the equalizer before the half hour.
Then Portland spent rest of the next hour finding ways to 1) not connect the midfield to the front line and ways to 2) not put shots on frame when someone did manage to get the ball around the Houston goal.
What’s interesting is that the match looked worse to me live than it did when I watched the recording. After 180 minutes of that stuff I’ve decided that while Houston’s press was good, like Houston, it wasn’t that good, and Portland’s response wasn’t great but wasn’t nearly as hopeless as I’d thought from Section 204.
It was obvious that – at least after the break – Houston was playing for the draw, though, and the Thorns were having a tough time fighting through it.
Here’s a typical sequence, this from the 69th minute. It starts with Klingenberg trying to advance the ball up the left channel:
Notice all the orange shirts matched up with all the white ones; everybody in orange is “ball side/goal side” of a Thorn just like they tell you in the training videos.
There’s no obvious outlet for Kling to pass to, but she tries Sam Coffey, who’s got a bit of space open behind her…
…but it’s just too slow. Ally Prisock comes over to close Sam down while Caprice Dydasco is coming up from behind to double-team her. Coffey has to retreat…
…but that doesn’t help much, because though Dydasco runs past now Ordonez is closing in on her.
Notice all the other orange shirts are still nice and disciplined, holding their ground (except for someone (Sophie Schmidt?) who’s kinda ballwatching, but she’s still ball-side-goal-side…) so Coffey…
…has to go right back to Kling and we’re back where we started from.
All this was very frustrating because Portland was the better side for most of the match. Houston had a total of about 15 good minutes in three separate spells:
- between about the 20th and 25th minutes, when Houston got two clear chances and their goal,
- between about the 55th and 62nd minutes, which produced a terrific 61st Diana Ordonez run that created a 1v0 that Bella Bixby had to stone, and
- about three minutes between 79′ and 82′ which produced the Bixby fumble we’ll discuss below, and also a dangerous Chapman header.
That fumble was where the Thorns actually got tremendously lucky; Bella Bixby did not ever have possession when she came down on the ball off a blocked shot in the 80th minute and Courtney Peterson barged in to poke the ball into the net.
I think if center referee Alexandra Billeter had gone to VAR she would have reversed her foul call against Peterson and let what would have probably been the match-winning Houston goal stand.
So as frustrating as the draw is this one could well have been a loss, and that in turn provides a couple things to think about from this.
First, there’s some comfort in recalling that this wasn’t the Best Thorns XI. Coach Norris seems to have cut his internationals – returning from the FIFA window – some slack and started a rotated squad, possibly also with the upcoming midweek Cup tie in mind.
That had several follow-ons. It probably had a lot to do with the group playing something like a pick-up squad when pressed, mishitting passes and failing to move to space. And one of the rotating-in players was Reyna Reyes in her pro debut and the Maria Sanchez matchup was utterly unfair to the rookie.
Second, this points out what happens when the Thorns, and specifically Smith, can’t create chances, or when they do don’t convert, or, worse, don’t even put shots on frame. Twenty-two shots, five on goal? That ain’t gonna feed the bulldog, gals.
Here’s Arielle Dror’s “xG race” plot:
Over 2xG and only one goal? And I’m thinking that Dror is being stingy. Olivia Moultrie missed a third minute sitter, Weaver went off the post, Smith off the crossbar and both Dunn and Rodriguez barely over the bar. That’s a lot of chances and a lot of woodwork.
Being that wasteful with a better team is not likely to get lucky.
So back to Earth with a thud, and now it’s a short week; a Cup tie in San Diego on Wednesday, and then quickly back here for Louisville next weekend. That means even more rotation, and more miles on tired legs.
The other coaches will watch this match and stroke their chins. If this is what happens when you press the Thorns? How they look if you can lock down the middle? If you take Smith out of the picture?
I hope Coach Norris and his staff are thinking about this stuff, too, and devising an answer for all that.
Because I’m gonna bet we’re going to see a lot of that from now on.
Here’s Dror’s passing matrix – note that it cuts off at the break, so we’re missing the second half, but if anything the Thorns passing got choppier after the intermission, so we’re kind of seeing the “best case”.
We’ll talk more in the comments, but you can see how lopsided the attack is. Klingenberg is hoofing like a Derby winner up to Weaver to Smith and through Moultrie into the midfield.
On the right, though? Vasconcelos is utterly nerfed, and Reyes is an empty space.
There’s a LOT of dink-dink-boot; unsurprising when you look back up at the way Houston set up to defend in depth and deny runner. In the 78th minute I was so bothered by this I wrote down one pass sequence.
Starting with the ball under Kelli Hubly’s boot Hubs…
– squared to Becky Sauerbrunn…
– ‘Brunn tried to go forward to Raquel Rodriguez, but Rocky was marked tightly and had to…
– drop back to ‘Brunn.
– Bruno then tried going up the near touchline to Meghan Klingenberg,
– Kling saw an opening and squared to Rocky…
– who was still smothered – and the ball went right back to Sauerbrunn.
– At this point ‘Brunn gave up, hoofed a big rainbow up to Weaver who was also covered like a cat under a blanket, was tackled and lost possession.
Ugh. That’s typical “dink-dink-boot” and a typical result. That’s why I hate to see it.
At least the Thorns completed something like 350 of their 470 passes (75%); Houston managed only about 270 of 409 attempted (68%).
Their passing (to the 64th minute) is shown below:
All that red along the left Houston flank is poor Reyes getting torched. Notice that Kling is doing a good job of turning Caprice Dydasco back along the other side, tho.
In midfield? Marisa Viggiano (and to a lesser extent Joelle Anderson) are getting through to Sanchez who’s feeding Salmon and Ordonez. So while they’re not passing well, they’re connecting just enough to be threatening where and when they need to be.
Hence the draw.
Eight. One first half, seven second, seven long into the box, one short
|28′||Moultrie||Long||Cleared but recycled, eventually out to Coffey whose poor shot went wide left.|
|46′||Klingenberg||Long||Cleared out to Dunn, whose shot was blocked over the byline for another corner.|
|47′||Klingenberg||Long||Cleared up high, then all the way back to midfield|
|49′||Klingenberg||Long||Hit Vasconcelos on the head; her meh header was cleared over the byline|
|49′||Klingenberg||Long||Headed clearance looped high and fell to Dunn; her looping pass to Smith produced a fairly tame shot that Jane Campbell gathered easily|
|56′||Klingenberg||Short||To Dunn, who passed back to Kling, who passed back to Dunn who was tackled but the ball went into touch for a Portland throw|
|73′||Kuikka||Long||Cleared away, recycled but came to nothing|
|89′||Klingenberg||Long||Nice Sauerbrunn flick to the back post; Weaver came storming in but was fairly tightly marked and could only managed to drive the shot close but wide right|
So nothing much, although the final Weaver attempt could have been truly dangerous had Weaver had a bit more space and started sooner.
For the second match in a row I’ve tallied Portland throw-ins. This time I kept track all game instead of cutting off at halftime.
The Thorns took a total of 29 throw-ins over 90+ minutes; eight in the first half, the other 21 in the second.
I’ve tracked the outcomes the same way as the last match: in the “Outcome” box I’ve bolded those throws that resulted in a Thorns advantage. I’ve italicized those that Houston 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|
|1′||Reyes||Smith||Deep in Houston’s end, but Smith was covered and tackled for loss|
|4′||Klingenberg||Smith||Smith heavy touch, Houston throw|
|6′||Weaver||Klingenberg||Cycled across the backline|
|23′||Klingenberg||Smith||Tackled for loss in the Portland half|
|26′||Reyes||Moultrie||Moultrie turned and tried a long probing ball but nobody was there and the pass went over the byline. Good idea, tho|
|33′||Klingenberg||Coffey||Back to Kling who passed forward to start an attack|
|38′||Reyes||Vasconcelos||Back to Reyes, who was tackled for loss in the Thorns half|
|44′||Reyes||Moultrie||Dropped into the backline and across|
|47′||Klingenberg||Kuikka||Dropped back to Bixby|
|49′||Klingenberg||Dunn||Back to Kling who was tackled for loss|
|51′||Kuikka||Coffey||Back to Kuikka who was forced to retreat and drop to Bixby|
|51′||Klingenberg||Smith||Well covered and immediately tackled for loss|
|52′||Klingenberg||Dunn||Dunn was marked but made a brilliant pass to Coffey to start an attack|
|56′||Klingenberg||Moultrie||Lots of space, Moultrie turned and ran at goal|
|59′||Klingenberg||Moultrie||Moultrie passed right to an orange shirt in the Thorns half|
|61′||Klingenberg||Dunn||Back to Kling and across the back|
|69′||Kuikka||Coffey||Back to Kuikka then Smith then Coffey to attack|
|69′||Klingenberg||Smith||Long throw forward, Smith well marked and had to drop back to Kling to switch across, good idea|
|70′||Kuikka||Coffey||Passed up to Smith who took off an an amazing run that beat her defender to the byline|
|71′||Klingenberg||Coffey||Quick throw-in that let Coffey turn and attack|
|77′||Kuikka||Rodriguez||Kuikka-Rodriguez 1-2-3 then to Smith who attacked|
|86′||Kuikka||Smith||Back to Kuikka who passed to Houston|
|86′||Klingenberg||Rodriguez||From Rocky to Klingenberg, who passed to Houston in her own half|
|87′||Weaver||Betfort||Good quick throw deep in Houston’s half but Betfort was well covered and tackled for loss|
|87′||Klingenberg||Betfort||Dropped to Coffey who cycled it across|
|89′||Kuikka||Coffey||Coffey with space to turn and start an attack|
|90+3′||Kuikka||????||CBS cut away, but whoever received turned the ball upfield|
|90+5′||Coffey||Kuikka||Kuikka made a poor pass, turnover|
|90+5′||Klingenberg||A Houston player||Deep in Portland’s half, luckily at this point Laity was playing for the draw so Houston just took the ball into the southwest corner|
Of the 29 total throw-ins, 11 resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position; two of eight (25%) in the first half, nine of 21 (about 43%) in the second, so the Thorns got better results as the match went on.
The opposite was the case for Houston; they turned four of the first half throws back at Portland but only seven in the second half, so from 50% to 33%.
The “neutral” throws remained near 25% through the match.
So the Thorns looked better from over the touchline in this one; from about 10% “positive” throw-in results in Kansas City to from 25% rising to over 40% against Houston. Hard to blame the opposition, since Kansas City (as their 4-1 thumping in Chicago this past weekend reminded us) is a hot mess.
We’ll see how things go next weekend.
Player Ratings and Comments
Smith (79′ – +11/-4 : +9/-5 : +20/-9) “Sophia Smith doing amazing things” is kind of SSDD at this point. Her setup run and drop for Dunn on the goal, and her insane endline turn in the 70th minute would have made her bones for this one even without everything else like her 32nd minute crossbar.
That said, I think Houston was playing whack-a-Smith all match and she was gassed by the hour or so. On that 70′ run? When Smith turned the corner she had Hina-san unmarked eight yards from goal, but dropped instead to Moultrie, who was outside the 18 and had to sprint to make contact, which gave Houston’s backline the time to step in and block her shot.
But the problem with subbing Smith off is…
Betfort (11′ – no rating) …just a reminder how steep the drop-off at the #9 spot is behind Smith. So Smith has to stay on, gassed or not.
Vasconcelos (64′ – +7/-5 : +1/-0 : +8/-6) I’m trying to be charitable to Michelle Vasconcelos. She works hard, she’s always running, and she leaves it all on the pitch, and that’s terrific.
She’s also just not really that skilled. She loses possession fairly often, either by poor passing or getting tackled and losing the duel. I get that she’s a veteran and that’s reassuring, but I’m not sure what the point of not trying D’Aquila as a starter is. I hope we’ll see her get 90 here Wednesday.
Sugita (26′ – +1/-0) Hina-san didn’t really click in this group, and for the first time I’ve seen in a while the physical play really put her off her game.
Weaver (+5/-3 : +15/-7 : +20/-10) From a typically hard-working first half Weaver exploded in the second…but with all her usual issues with finishing. Powerful attacking runs, good passes and crosses, if Weaver could figure out how to take a little off the ball and finesse a chip or two? Christ, she’d be terrifying. Good match, but…
Moultrie (79′ – +8/-3 : +1/-2 : +9/-5) As discussed above, the Thorns midfield looked disconnected, both with each other and with the forwards; Moultrie connected some terrific attacking passes, but overall couldn’t quite make enough impact to shift the match. Missed an absolute sitter in the 3rd minute I’ll bet she wants back.
D’Aquila (11′ – +1/-1) Too late to make a difference; by the 80th minute Houston was parking the bus and neither d”Aquila nor her teammates could find and release the e-brake.
Dunn (64′ – +8/-6 : +2/-1 : +10/-7) Poacher’s goal, but lofted over the bar in the 34th minute that should have gone in. Faded badly in the second half. Good evening in general, but like her teammates, couldn’t find the extra gear when Houston jammed things up and made them walk to school uphill both directions.
Rodriguez (26′ – +2/-1) Same problem as with D’Aquila; needed more time, an opponent not playing just for the road point, and more of the betterrstarters around her. As it was, not shameful, but her PMR shows how little she impacted the match.
Coffey (+5/-2 : +6/-0 : +11/-2) Individually an excellent match, both defensively controlling deep midfield and passing around the center of the pitch.
As part of the team, however, she was pressed hard by Houston and was unable to make as many, or as good, attacking passes as she needed to creaee more dangerous chances for her forwards, and her AMs were not clicking. Well-played on a tough night.
Reyes (45′ – +3/-6) I didn’t see Reyes as the tire fire she’s been portrayed elsewhere in the comments about this game. Yes, the bizarre step-over on the Sanchez goal was appalling, and no, she didn’t have a good outing. Trying to defend an attacker like Sanchez? With Salmon and Ordonez running alongside her? If I was a pure rook I’s refuse to step over the touchine to face that unless my coach let me carry a set of brass knuckles and a billyclub.
I think she’s got good tools. If she can learn from outings like last Friday’s she’ll become a fine defender.
Kuikka (45′ – +7/-3) Came on to lock down her flank, and did. Plus the usual good attacking passing. Terrific shift, as we’ve come to expect.
Sauerbrunn (+3/-1 : +6/-2 : +9/3) ‘Brunn sometimes bugs me for stuff like this; in the 80th minute, under no pressure at all, she passed directly to Tiffany Salmon. Salmon’s run and shot forced the Bixby fumble that could have cost the Thorns the game if the referee had seen that play differently.
For 89 minutes ‘Brunn is a rock and I love her to death. But every so often she does stuff like this. From Emily Sonnett? Sure! But Sonnett is a goof and free spirit and a wild child. Sauerbrunn is the dictionary definition of “steady veteran” so she shouldn’t do Sonnett-stuff. And yet…
Wassup wit dat?
Hubly (+5/-2 : +1/-5 : +6/-7) Hubs gets dinged in PMRs for being the “boot” in a lot of dink-dink-boot where her long rainbows went to an orange shirt, and she also got torched on the 61st minute attack, caught behind Prisock to give her an easy header to put Ordonez in on Bixby and force a huge save. Not a bad game overall, but caught up with many of the same problems as the rest of the squad.
Klingenberg (+6/-9 : +3/-9 : +9/-18) Hubly on steroids; 11 of her 18 minuses are for passes thrown away. Had to try and force balls into Vasconcelos, so most went right to Houston. Tough outing going forward, but solid tracking back (Houston didn’t target her until the second half, mind, so there’s that…). Overall not a bad match.
Bixby (+1/-2 : +3/-2 : +4/-4) Huge saves in the 23rd, 61st, and 81st minutes.
But, as we’ve discussed, lack of safe hands could have coughed up a disastrous late concession. In my biased opinion I think Bix might have done better on the Sanchez goal had she gotten down sooner and stronger, too. That was a rasper, so, but still would have liked to at least see a dive and didn’t.
So. Not awful, but my impression is that this was not her best, either, and I think she’d agree.
Coach Norris: I think he was worried about other things. Returning internationals. Cup ties. Tired legs. Makeshift squads.
In so doing he overlooked an opponent who came in, like Cylons, with a plan; to jam up his troops and play for the draw and scamper off with a win if they got lucky.
It took a lot of pressing, some wasteful shooting, and a big-ass helping of luck (both ways!), but the visitors’ plan worked, so the Thorns are top by barely a point and only on goal difference over the surprising Washington Spirit.
Now they have to sprint down the Pacific coast to play in LA, and then right back to meet the Louisville Droopy Draw-ers. That’ll mean even more questions about rotation and tired legs and we’ll see how well our coach and squad handle those.
Challenge Cup? Nope, not here!
I want to note that I’m not going to do full TFC writeups for these Cup matches; I have real life and a strong disapprobation for this Cup nonsense this season.
I will post a brief discussion afterwards for those who want to comment and revisit, but I gotta sleep sometime, y’know.