Thorns FC: Critical Racing Theory

Turns out that when you’re playing Racing Louisville 2-nil is not the “most dangerous lead in soccer”. Turns out that you can kind of slip-slop around, toss a bunch of good chances (and passes) away, and still sort of stroll to three points over the bourbon-bashing Droopy Draw-ers.

You think I’m kidding? Well, Arielle Dror isn’t:

From what I saw last weekend she’d being generous to Racing. In something like 100 minutes they had:

  • A 22nd minute gift from Bella Bixby, who cleared out directly to a white shirt, but the putback to Savannah DeMelo went nowhere when DeMelo scuffed her touch directly to Reyna Reyes,
  • A freakish 35th minute Ary Borges shot from 23 yards that was only dangerous because Becky Sauerbrunn made a hideous own-goal-grade error, deflecting the ball as it megged her, but luckily Bixby got down well to push wide,
  • Another Borges drive, a good stonk from distance in the 53rd minute, but Bixby got up strong to box over her bar,
  • A couple of late half-chances; a 79th minute DeMelo shot wide right, a long ball pitched up to Katie Monaghan running down the middle that Kelli Hubly had to make a surgical tackle to dispossess, and then an Abby Erceg header that Meghan Klingenberg had to boot off the goalline.

That’s it, and that’s pretty weak sauce. Louisville was supposed to be better than this. The Stumptown prematch rundown said:

“They have one of the best young midfield cores in the league with Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell. Their new and improved backline is going to make it difficult to score especially with Lund in goal. This is going to be a tough game against a rapidly improving team that looks ready to take that big leap.”

Stumptown Footy: Match Preview: Portland Thorns vs Racing Louisville

I’d call that one-for-three; yes – as we’ll see when we look at the passing, the Racing midfield was excellent. But no, the Racing backline was crap, and Katie Lund was unspectacular, and, no, it wasn’t a tough game so much as a sort of messy slog characterized by missed chances, poor passing and turnovers, and Sophia Smith, but we’ll get there in the comments.

Three points are three points. But…meh. Let’s go through some stats and we’ll talk about this one as a whole at the end.

Short Passes

Louisville had slightly the better of the passing; 78% completion to about 77% for Portland. That wasn’t really the problem.

OPTA says Portland attempted 417 total passes. I thought the squad looked extraordinarily sloppy passing forward, so when I ran tape I kept track of attacking passes, which I defined as:

  • Intended to move the run of play towards the Racing goal; included lateral passes or drops if they were designed to put the receiver in an improved tactical position. Note that this meant that
  • A drop or a square pass that was purely to play out of traffic or to switch fields didn’t count; it had to be part of an actual attack, and the pass
  • Was either made within the attacking half or was completed across the midfield stripe.

By this definition and by my count, out of 417 total passes the Thorns tried a total of 76 “attacking” passes, 43 in the first half, 33 in the second. Those included four “long” – from out of the back to the attacking half – and two crosses.

(Which is a good reminder of how many little backpasses and little dinks and fullback-to-centerback-to-keeper-to-fullback passes bulk up the “completion” stat: something more than 80% of all passes are more or less filler, just speculation to move the ball around without creating danger)

Of those attacking passes the Thorns completed about 54%; 26 of 43 (60.4%) in the first half, 15 of 33 (45.5%) in the second.

That’s probably not awful; I’ll need a bigger data set, but my guess is that the success rate of attacking passes is typically well below 60% – that’s where your opponents will be trying hardest to cut off the pass or mark the target out of the play. Getting more than half complete is probably outstanding.

But it’s also a reminder that the Thorns still have a midfield-to-forward problem – here’s Dror’s passing chart.

That’s as lopsided as a dog with two legs. Sam Coffey – and we’ll discuss her in her comment – isn’t helping the ball forward. Hina Sugita is on an island somewhere near the midfield stripe. Christine Sinclair and Crystal Dunn are trying, but the cool blue of Dunn’s circle is testimony to how her efforts worked.

Sinc was a monster, Kling is doing good work, and the Morgan Weaver-to-Sophia Smith connection is lit.

But overall? This isn’t a squad playing a lot of Barcelona triangles, and it was against a very meh opponent. I think they can do better, and I think they should. Will they? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, here’s Racing:

Christ but that midfield is terrifying.

If their forwards could have played worth a lick I think the Thorns might have had a bit more of a fight on their hands. But DeMelo is the only one doing anything; Jess McDonald is stranded, Kirsten Davis better but she didn’t have a shot in 84 minutes. The supposed big new signing, Wang Shuang? Nothing, no shots either, and subbed off before the hour.

So you can be pretty sloppy so long as your opponent is pretty lame.

Seattle ain’t that. Neither is San Diego.

Corner Kicks

Five total, three in the first 20 minutes, then two in the second half. Four long, one short

12′KlingenbergLongAll the way to the back post and cleared over the byline
12′KlingenbergLongInto the scrum, pinged about and cleared.
20′CoffeyLongTo the back post, cleared, recycled, got knocked around the box a bit, but finally ‘Brunn blooped a long cross over the byline.
50′CoffeyShortIn to Smith, who played a 1-2 with Coffey, who tried Dunn, who was covered tightly and lost the ball
60′KlingenbergLongRight to Lund for the easy take.

Not a damn thing.


For the third match in a row I’ve tracked Portland throw-ins.

The Thorns took a total of 21 throw-ins over 90+ minutes; ten in the first half, 11 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 Louisville 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′KlingenbergCoffeyRight back to Klingenberg, who passed right to Louisville
7′KlingenbergSauerbrunnWent 1-2 between them then Brunn cycled across the back
8′KlingenbergCoffeyDropped to Brunn and cycled across the backline
17′KlingenbergCoffeyQuick throw that went back to Kling and then to Dunn, but Dunn’s pass went astray
30′KlingenbergCoffeyBack to Kling, dropped into the backline
34′ReyesDunnBack to Reyes who lost possession in the Thorns defensive half
35′WeaverSmithRight back to Weaver, who looped in a good attacking cross
37′ReyesSmithBack to Reyes who dropped into the backline
44′SugitaSmithSmith went forward to Dunn; Dunn mishit the pass but a good idea
45′KlingenbergDunnDunn headed to Sinclair, who squared across to start the attack
46′KlingenbergWeaverDeep in Racing’s half. Kling stood there 20 seconds trying to find a target, and Weaver immediately gave the ball away, so WTF?
48′NallyWeaverCycled up and down the east touchline, finally lost
49′KlingenbergSugitaPlayed 1-2 and then Kling found Smith. Soph was tackled for loss, but potentially a good attack
61′NallyLouisville Weak throw that DeMelo intercepted…but passed right back to Nally who found Smith for an attacking run!
65′KlingenbergSinclairBack to Menges and across the back
75′NallyD’Aquila1-2 with Nally deep in the Racing half, knocked out for another throw
75′NallySinclairPoor pass, lost to Racing
86′NallyHublyHubly lost possession almost immediately
90+1′NallyRodriguez1-2 with Nally who banged a long pass to the Racing byline – well defended but a good effort
90+6′NallyD’AquilaD’Aquila flicked on directly to a white shirt
90+9′KlingenbergD’AquilaLost but deep in Racing’s half at the death, so meh

Of the 21 total throw-ins, five – about 24% – resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position; three of ten (30%) in the first half, two of 11 (about 18%) in the second.

That kind of matches the eye-test. In the first half Portland was much more aggressive – go back and look at Dror’s xG race; 1.4 of 1.8 xG before halftime – in the second, well, they still tried. But not very hard.

Racing took advantage of poor throws about 28% of the time, and the other roughly 50% were just kinda okay; didn’t lose possession, but didn’t really go anywhere, either .

Starting this coming weekend we’re going to start a running tally of how well the Thorns do on throws by match.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (73′ – +13/-5 : +7/-2 : +20/-7) Two assists, and all her usual other seal-clubbing goodness. Her minutes were piling up by the hour, though, and I kind of wish Coach Norris had yanked her earlier to give young D’Aquila a bit of experience; Racing was just thrashing around as hopeless as a gaffed carp, so why not?

Another excellent Smith outing.

D’Aquila (17′ – +4/-1) I’m reading a lot of love for her, but she just looks like a promising youngster to me, with all the pluses and minuses that implies. I liked her sweet little turn along the byline in the 76th minute a lot! – she really has some nice skills – but other than that? She’s fine, and we’ll have a lot of time to see more of her in midsummer. Let’s see how she shows then before loading a bunch of expectation on her.

Sugita (58′ – +12/-2 : +0/-0 : +12/-3) Sugita-senshu is a good enough player that even out of her natural position she’d effective (huge props for the sweet little dummy on the Weaver goal) and credit to Coach Norris for being willing to let her roam a bit (look back up at her passing chart) rather than square-peg her at RW. I’d still like to see her at the ten, or as LW, but Weaver. Faded badly in the second half.

Leon (32′ – +3/-5) Adriana Leon almost had an assist on an almost-Weaver-brace in the 68th minute, but…

…VAR taketh away, too. Kind ticky-tacky but a handball all the same.

So far I like what Leon does. She’s pacey and looks intelligent, is seldom caught out of position. She’s still not on the same page as her new teammates – three of her five minuses are for passes that were lost or not having a teammate to pass to and getting stripped. But that should come; she looks like she’ll learn quickly.

Weaver (+12/-2 : +8/-6 : +20/-8) A very Weaveresque match; lots of energy, lots of disruption, lots of Chaos Muppet Happy Warrior energy, lots of bad shooting…but this time with a nice easy tap-in to get her goal and make her night. Still tends to just put a boot through the ball rather than work for a better shot, but against the Louisvilles of the world that works fine.

Sinclair (+11/-4 : +2/-3 : +13/-7) Here’s Sinc against Louisville in a box:

  • 2′ – scores with a seeing-eye shot that caroms off the near post.
  • 28′ – steams up behind Carson Pickett and cleans her out with a surgical tackle from behind.
  • 36′ – cleans up a Lund spill off Smith’s blast and hammers a shot that Lund can only block back to her, but…
  • 36′ – then blasts wide of the far post with Sugita unmarked 12 yards in front of the open net.
  • 38′ – Hina-san heads down a Dunn cross right to her feet but Sinc blasts the 10-yard shot five yards over the bar.
  • 45-90+9′ – turns up in my notes only twice; passing to Smith in the 47th minute, and cracking a shot in the 60th minute that’s blocked out for a corner.

So it’s entirely possible for two things to be true:

Sinc’s having a great early season.

Sinc can’t go anywhere near 90 minutes anymore. She struggles to the hour. Against Louisville she was making poor decisions within a half hour and was pretty much done at halftime.

Just sayin’.

Dunn (73′ – +12/-9 : +2/-1 : +14/-10) The part where I called the Thorns sloppy?

I was looking at you, Marcel’s mom.

Holy hell; if it wasn’t for poor passes you’d have been hands-down Woman of the Match. Seven of ten went right to Louisville (as did two heavy touches – Dunn’s only other minus was a weak shot). I’m loving your speed and craftiness, but your touch Saturday night? Like a mad clog dancer with weighted ammunition boots.

I know you’re better than that. Let’s call it just a bad night.

Rodriguez (17′ – +4/-1) Well, tidier on the ball than Dunn, but that’s a fucking low bar.

I get that with the Eternal Springtime of Captain Sinclair there’s just no place for Rocky in the midfield. But she doesn’t seem to be coming on as much of an impact sub, either. So I’m not sure what to do with her. Rodriguez is usually one of the better Thorns midfielders, and the Thorns midfield has – in my opinion – underperformed so far. Not “OMFG!” underperformed, but just hasn’t really done well building the attack; all the passing goes through the fullbacks up to the forwards (when it goes at all…).

So not a discreditable shift. But I’d like to see more.

Coffey (+4/-3 : +4/-4 : +8/-7) The Louisville game was the first time all season I can say without hesitation that Sam Coffey had a poor outing. Decent on the tackle and won her duels, but careless with the ball and not a factor going forward, which is kind of shocking. By “DM” standards not great, but by her own standards? Ugh.

Reyes (45′ – +5/-4) Good shift, rook. Damn good shift.

Nally (45′ – +4/-1) OMG the Nally hate! From some of the comments online you’d think the woman came on the pitch every time juggling live grenades.

Look. She’s a squad player, depth, and, yes, she lacks the skills to play centerback. As a fullback? She’s a decent squad fullback, and she was against Racing.

Sauerbrunn (58′ – +2/-2 : +0/-1 : +2/-3) We’ve talked about her megging herself and forcing the Bixby dive at 35′. At 40′ coughed up a mishit pass in her own half that put Davis in 1v0 and required Hubly to bail her out.

Then hurt her foot and had to walk off.

I hope she’s okay; we’re not deep enough in centerbacks to do without her. But as I also complain a lot about her, I wish she’d stop doing this stuff. She’s supposed to be the “steady old veteran”. I don’t expect perfection. But I also don’t expect “Soccer 101”-type goofs.

Menges (32′ – +4/-1) Good to see healthy, and put in a solid shift. That’s outstanding; we’re going to need her healthy and in good form in summer.

Hubly (+6/-4 : +5/-2 : +11/-6) As usual, most of Hubs’ minuses are for long passes; her defense was solid (or better than solid, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times above). Good to see her return to her steady ways. Well played.

Klingenberg (+8/-1 : +4/-2 : +12/-3) A passing monster and largely good tracking back (tho WTF was going on in the 53rd minute when Wang was completely unmarked to head back to Borges? She’s your mark! You got a lot of help in looking good from Wang, who was rubbish all game except for that moment…) and a good match overall.

Bixby (+2/-1 : +2/-0 : +4/-1) I’ve mentioned pretty much all her good work…

..and a well deserved clean sheet.

Coach Norris: Can’t really fault the gaffer on this one. Three points, clean sheet? That’s pretty much ten of ten.

I do think he dodged a few bullets, mind.

Several players who got big minutes in San Diego were gassed by the hour (Dunn, Sugita) or before (Sinclair). Fortunately a combination of a deep bench and a clueless opponent prevented anything mischievous from happening from that.

The Thorns were wasteful in front of goal again. Twenty shots, only six on goal, two goals. Fortunately an opponent who couldn’t score if they got to keep playing twenty minutes after the other team walked off after the final whistle meant no trouble.

The Thorns were sloppy in possession again, and especially when pressed. The connection to the forwards through midfield still isn’t there. Fortunately their opponents – tho stronger in midfield – didn’t have that connection going forward, either.

Against the Louisvilles? That sort of stuff is fine.

And against Angel City next week? That’ll probably be fine, too.

But at San Diego in May? At Seattle in June?

When those two visit here in September?

I think you might want to put some thought into those things before then, coach.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

5 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Critical Racing Theory

  1. Sinclair *is* having a great season so far, much better than I expected based on last year. But. She definitely needs to come off at the half, not only because her quality falls off so much, but also because Rocky needs those minutes. Rocky is so much better when she’s playing more than 15-20 minutes per game.
    Maybe the idea with Sinclair is to build her stamina, but I’m concerned that the effect will be the opposite – that she’ll be worn down to the point where she’s ineffective all game.

    1. That’s been her arc for the past several seasons; less effective as the season goes on and her minutes pile up. I’m hoping that what we’re seeing is Norris’s thinking “well, I’m gonna lose her in midseason and she’ll be toast when she returns, so I’ll mule her now.”

      Because otherwise I don’t see how this ends well.

  2. Also, not an original thought, but nearly the whole team on the field was suffering from fatigue. I thought we were going to see more of the bench and rest the starters, at least for the Challenge Cup game. Smith was great, as always, but I think she would have scored if she hadn’t played so much (or at all) on Wednesday.

    1. I tend to agree, and I was hoping to see a heavier rotation last Wednesday. I think we got lucky that Louisville was so poor; a better team would likely have punished us harder…

  3. Agree with so much, and disappointed in the lack of rotation across the week. Can’t tell whether coach just *really* likes his starters or doesn’t really trust his depth. Hope he realizes soon that he’s got 7 full games this summer with just said depth.


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