Thorns FC: Dropped

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.

Short Passes

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.

Corner Kicks

Eight. One first half, seven second, seven long into the box, one short

28′MoultrieLongCleared but recycled, eventually out to Coffey whose poor shot went wide left.
46′KlingenbergLongCleared out to Dunn, whose shot was blocked over the byline for another corner.
47′KlingenbergLongCleared up high, then all the way back to midfield
49′KlingenbergLongHit Vasconcelos on the head; her meh header was cleared over the byline
49′KlingenbergLongHeaded clearance looped high and fell to Dunn; her looping pass to Smith produced a fairly tame shot that Jane Campbell gathered easily
56′KlingenbergShortTo 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′KuikkaLongCleared away, recycled but came to nothing
89′KlingenbergLongNice 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…)

TimePlayer throwing inPlayer receivingOutcome
1′ReyesSmithDeep in Houston’s end, but Smith was covered and tackled for loss
4′KlingenbergSmithSmith heavy touch, Houston throw
6′WeaverKlingenbergCycled across the backline
23′KlingenbergSmithTackled for loss in the Portland half
26′ReyesMoultrieMoultrie turned and tried a long probing ball but nobody was there and the pass went over the byline. Good idea, tho
33′KlingenbergCoffeyBack to Kling who passed forward to start an attack
38′ReyesVasconcelosBack to Reyes, who was tackled for loss in the Thorns half
44′ReyesMoultrieDropped into the backline and across
47′KlingenbergKuikkaDropped back to Bixby
49′KlingenbergDunnBack to Kling who was tackled for loss
51′KuikkaCoffeyBack to Kuikka who was forced to retreat and drop to Bixby
51′KlingenbergSmithWell covered and immediately tackled for loss
52′KlingenbergDunnDunn was marked but made a brilliant pass to Coffey to start an attack
56′KlingenbergMoultrieLots of space, Moultrie turned and ran at goal
59′KlingenbergMoultrieMoultrie passed right to an orange shirt in the Thorns half
61′KlingenbergDunnBack to Kling and across the back
69′KuikkaCoffeyBack to Kuikka then Smith then Coffey to attack
69′KlingenbergSmithLong throw forward, Smith well marked and had to drop back to Kling to switch across, good idea
70′KuikkaCoffeyPassed up to Smith who took off an an amazing run that beat her defender to the byline
71′KlingenbergCoffeyQuick throw-in that let Coffey turn and attack
77′KuikkaRodriguezKuikka-Rodriguez 1-2-3 then to Smith who attacked
86′KuikkaSmithBack to Kuikka who passed to Houston
86′KlingenbergRodriguezFrom Rocky to Klingenberg, who passed to Houston in her own half
87′WeaverBetfortGood quick throw deep in Houston’s half but Betfort was well covered and tackled for loss
87′Klingenberg BetfortDropped to Coffey who cycled it across
89′KuikkaCoffeyCoffey with space to turn and start an attack
90+3′Kuikka????CBS cut away, but whoever received turned the ball upfield
90+5′CoffeyKuikkaKuikka made a poor pass, turnover
90+5′ KlingenbergA Houston playerDeep 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.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

7 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Dropped

  1. If I’m the coach, its all B-team for the Wednesday match. Let the young ones stretch their legs and see what its gonna looking like during the world cup (god help us).

    from my seat, Reyes looked like a decent rookie making rookie mistakes. I was hoping for better given the build up I was hearing online. They cant all be Coffey I guess.

    This teams is missing a good talent scout to find the hidden gems. Parsons seems to have taken that skill with him.

    1. Agree; I hope to see HEAVY rotation tonight.

      I’m not sure who the “hidden gems” are that were mined with Parson’s Magic Shovel. First, much as I hate to admit it, it was a team of Parsons and The Evil Gavin. Second, while Parsons had some great drafts and deals, he also had AMC, Foord, and Andressinha. And lost Raso and Carpenter. And…

      I mean, it’s hard to slag off on the KK/Wilkinson/Norris crew completely. They had a pretty stacked deck. Yes, the whole Nasello thing was a fuckup. But so far Provenzano and Beckman have been decent depth, D’Aquila looks fine, Reyes is likely to get minutes and we’ll see how she does – but, as I said, I like her toolkit – and Kozal didn’t work out just like Savannah Jordan and Sandra Yu, shit happens.

      I like a lot about Parsons. But I’m not ready to anoint him the Next Laura Harvey yet.

  2. I have yet to see a good replay but the rule for control with a keeper is very generous to reduce chances of goalkeepers getting kicked . All that is needed is 2 points of contact. 2 hands, hand and chest, hand and leg, and in this situation the ground counts as 1 of the 2 points of contact. If she had a body part pining the ball to the ground that is all the control she needs. Having made her body a turtle shell for the ball as she did, most referees will call that control unless it slips out due to GK error or teammate interference. Sticking the foot in a collapsed keeper and ball is 9 out of 10 times going to get the whistle in the keepers favor especially if the ball isn’t bouncing.

    1. Yeah I think the whistle on that play was on Peterson, the attacker, for kicking/crashing into Bixby. And after watching replays, I think I agree with it.

      Incidentally it’s not usually the center ref who “goes to VAR” for a check. VAR reviews *every* questionable play that’s VARable (goals, red cards, PKs, etc.), undoubtedly including this one. Apparently they didn’t see enough to overturn the on-field ref’s call, or even enough to invite her over to the pitch-side monitor for a second look.

    2. I get the whole “protect the keeper” thing; yes, particularly US referees tend to be over protective of goalkeepers on plays like this. And I get the “in the grasp” flexibility – I’ve had “goals” against called back when I had a hand pinning the ball to the ground and had it booted out from under my glove.

      But I watched and re-watched that replay, and at no point did Bixby ever have anything even close to control of that ball. She pulled it down, dropped it, it rolled down between her body and arms loosely, at which point Peterson arrived and poked it out. I didn’t see the contact as violent or as some sort of collision; Peterson pulled up and poked at the ball with her toe – Bixby didn’t fall backwards or sideways.

      I agree that it would have been MORE unlikely for Billieter to have reversed her call…but if I’d been the VAR official I’d have been screaming in her ear to go look at the replay, at the very least. And that’s my point; Bixby’s defense gave up a point-blank shot when they were sitting in a home draw, and Bixby didn’t box or parry away but chose to try and make the catch and did poorly with it, giving Houston a lifeline and relying on the official to bail them out.

      She did, so, fine. But why let yourself get in that position? Finish, FFS! Then you can bunker up and dare the Dash to try and break you down. But instead – like I said – the squad put themselves in a position where things could have been worse. That’s suboptimal.

  3. I wasn’t able to get to the game and I haven’t seen a replay yet. But, several things have popped in my mind as I read your discussion of the game and comments on the new STF. It seems like Hina was ghosted out of the match. I don’t remember such a low score for her. This year it seems she is being roughed up more than at anytime since the first Seattle game last year. Do you think our opponents have latched on to something that nerfs poor Hina? Like throw her around or was it something else like jet lag?
    I get that the Challenge Cup is not that important to the coaches and maybe the hard core fans. But what about the players? That prize money would look really good to a the players, particularly the bench players and players without bigger contracts.
    So maybe these Challenge Cup games could feature more of the players who would relatively benefit the most. Those players could really put their mark on the trophy, if the Thorns win it. I know Soph is a huge part of our offense, but I would really like the coach to save her for Louisville and give D’Aquila more minutes against the Wave. She could get more minutes because it sounded like Vasconselos picked up an injury. But I hope she won’t be pushed to the bench by Leon, who right now is a better and way more experienced player.
    The best thing he could do for Reyes confidence is give Kling a rest for this one, start her at LB. At LB Reyna would have Weaver as a backup and she would be closer to Becky. I would also like to see Coffey get more rest in this one. Porter is definitely a serviceable 6. San Diego is more dangerous, but I think the Louisville game is more important.

    1. So, in order:
      I think it’s been a rough three games for Sugita. Played in her least-effective position, and often with a makeshift XI around her, and, yes, I think that at least Orlando and Houston have played her (no more than anyone else, but…) very physical.

      I hope to see better, but we’ll see…

      My feeling on the Cup is mine alone. The damn thing carries a huge slug of prize money and if I was a player, hell to the yeah I want that. My problem is the actual format; it’s just the regular season v1.5. We’re not going to see anyone new or different or interesting, it’s the same old clubs. Why even bother? We can see San Diego in the regular season!

      So we’ll see by the rotation how seriously the club(s) are taking this thing. I’m not.


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