Thorns FC: Second Time as Farce

Okay, that might well have been the most utterly whack soccer experience I’ve ever had and I was there for Cal FC and the Double Post game and the freakish no-goal win over The Damned Courage back in 2018 and particularly for Michelle Betos’ header against FCKC to salvage a point in the match where Zerboni got sent off for using Shea Groom as a welcome mat.

That’s a one-off, I remember thinking at the time. Fun, in a freaky way, sure, but I’ll never see that shit again.

What’s the saying about never saying never?

I’m not sure what else there is to say about the 3-3 draw against Angel City that hasn’t already been said.

I’ll say this, though; at the time I thought the Thorns were way more dire that the stats make them look. Here’s Arielle Dror’s “xG race” plot:

Up in the west stands with the Hina Sugita Deadly Viper Cheer Section (and that’s a story in itself)…

…what I could see of the match around the damn roof beam didn’t look terrific; lots of misplayed passes (again…), lots of trouble playing out of the press (again…), lots of no conversions (again…)

Now that I’ve watched the replay?

I’m not quite as critical.

No, the passing wasn’t great and was really strange, too (and we’ll get to that). The response to the press was just okay – better than it looked – and the conversions? The Thorns who had genuinely decent opportunities took them (and the other “chances”? Not really much of anything, and we’ll talk a bit about that, too).

I guess what I’m left with is a sort of vague frustration that the coaching staff seems to be unable, or unwilling, to fiddle with the engine a bit. To develop incisive attacking tactics, to put the players I’d like to see in the positions I’d like to see them, and find a way to manage Christine Sinclair’s minutes or at least figure out how to use her better.

The result of this lack-of-pruning is what I see as a weedy sort of struggle to get results. At least a harder struggle than the strength of this roster would suggest should be the case.

And struggling to stamp themselves on the opponents early and often means that when lightning strikes – stuff like bad luck, bad calls, bad team or bad individual decisions happen – it can turn out to be costly.

Here’s just one example from last Saturday, beginning with Julie Ertz in possession in the 36th minute. Ertz sees Jasmyne Spenser breaking for the byline. Unfortunately, Meghan Klingenberg does not.

That kinda sucks, but at least all the Thorns defenders are marked up nice and tight, so things are under control, right?

Well, at least until Spenser gets to the byline and lofts a speculative cross to the back post.

For some bizarre reason Emily Menges has 1) drifted away from Claire Emslie, who’s making a central run while Menges has 2) decided to ballwatch Spenser, who’s no longer involved in the play, and ignore what Emslie’s doing.

The receiver – Alyssa Thompson? Couldn’t be sure, but whoever – fights over Natalia Kuikka and…

…heads the ball down to Emslie, who’s now utterly unmarked at the penalty spot. Emslie cranks up and whales the living hell out of the ball, fortunately right into…

…Kelli Hubly’s backside, which is nice enough to block the shot and prevent the goal. Thanks, Hubly’s butt!

Outside of Thompson ACFC kinda had nothing. Their other attacking players were Emslie (who was a pest but didn’t work a good look and ended up with no SOG) and Savannah McCaskill, who was McCaskill – meaning lots of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Jun Endo? One shot off target. Dani Weatherholt? Three shots off target.

There’s no reason for the Thorns to give up this 36th minute sort of opportunity to ACFC short of pure Thompson magic. They’re just not that good.

I’d like to blame it on the lack of Becky Sauerbrunn, but Menges was organizing the Thorns backline in 2017 when you couldn’t punch through them with a panzerfaust. She should have been able to prevent this sort of mess.

I’m not sure what’s up with the backline this season, but they’re giving up these sorts of looks way too much, along with having the usual Thorns issues with set-pieces; the third ACFC goal was just that; leaving Ertz unmarked to run to the near post and flick on a point blank header.

Speaking of which, why was she even on the pitch? After stuff like this?

And this?

I’m a big Ertz fan in general, but last Saturday night she was out of fucking control. The fouls on Dunn and Bixby were bad enough but she was doing stuff like this…

…all game to anyone she could catch. Hell, the last thing she did before limping off in the 84th minute was to try and clatter Olivia Moultrie from behind.

The Thorns weren’t terrific. But they weren’t that bad, and they didn’t deserve to lose by being thugged around by Julie Goddamn Ertz.

So I’m glad that Bixby repeated history, even as farce, and stole the two points from ACFC. Sometimes you have to get lucky and run like a thief.

But it’s better to be good, and we’ll talk about that in the comments.

Short Passes

The Thorns were nearly 80% (79.5%), noticeably better than ACFC’s 73.4%.

Of the total of 469 total passes per OPTA the Thorns attempted a total of 103 “attacking” passes, which I defined as a pass that was:

  • 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.

I counted 40 in the first half, 63 in the second, and the Thorns completed about a total of 37%; 16 of 40 (40%) in the first half, 22 of 63 (34.9%) in the second.

That’s pretty poor, and it explains a lot about the whole conversion problem.

What explains even more is Dror’s passing chart, which is as weird as the rest of this game.

Who the hell is the center forward? It’s a 4-3-3 so there should be one, right? Your guess on who comes closest. It’s sure as hell not Hina-san, utterly isolated and wasted out at right wing. Weaver is an utter beast – and she was! – but what the hell are Dunn and Sinclair doing?

I think Sinc was supposed to be the nine. But she never looked it on the pitch, and Dror’s chart shows how misplaced and useless she was in that role.

Everyone else seems to be doing good work…but the connection to the front of the goal just isn’t there, Sinc is off doolally, and the formation is utterly one-sided and out of whack.

Here’s ACFC:

That looks a hell of a lot more balanced, and looks a lot more dangerous than Portland’s, especially from midfield-to-forwards, where Emslie and Thompson and Jun Endo are making little triangles with Savannah McCaskill.

Lucky for us McCaskill is McCaskill and Ertz’s passing is more volume than quality.

Frankly, the visitors looked a lot better organized passing around, and that’s never a good sign.

Corner Kicks

Five total, two in the first half, three in the second, all long

8′KlingenbergLongInto the scrum and cleared out to Coffey for a recycle, but Kuikka’s shot was well over the bar
28′KlingenbergLongInto the pack again but pinged around; Kuikka had a shot blocked, Rocky had a shot blocked, finally Weaver blasted over the bar. Dangerous chance(s)
59′KlingenbergLongInto the scrum, headed clear, recycled but just for another shot well over.
90+5′KlingenbergLongHeaded past the far post to Smith; AC forced to put over the byline for another corner
90+7′CoffeyLongInto the pack; Haracic tried to claim but barged into her own defender and spilled the ball to Bixby’s feet for the equalizer.

Two dangerous opportunities and a goal, so call it 40% chances, 20% conversions, and as we’ve discussed many times, that’s hugely productive.


Fourth match in a row I’ve tracked Portland throw-ins.

The Thorns took a total of 25 throw-ins over 90+ minutes; ten in the first half, 15 in the second.

I’ve tracked the outcomes the same way as the earlier three matches: 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
2′KuikkaDunnBack to Kuikka to start an attack
4′KlingenbergRodriguezTo Dunn to begin an attack
7′KlingenbergRodriguezImmediately tackled for loss
7′KlingenbergRodriguezBack to Kling who passed to ACFC deep in the Thorns half
8′KlingenbergMengesCycled around the backline
11′KlingenbergRodriguezBack to Kling who lost possession in the Thorns defensive half
12′KuikkaDunnTightly marked, tackled for loss in Thorns half
20′KlingenbergRodriguezBack to Kling the cycled around the back
23′KlingenbergRodriguezBack to Menges who turned the ball over on a long forward pass
41′KuikkaDunnDunn passed Sinclair to start the attack
42′SugitaMengesCycled around the back
50′KlingenbergMengesJust back and forth thru the backline
51′KlingenbergSinclairPlayed 1-2 and then Sinclair crossed to Dunn who flicked a nice header just wide
55′KlingenbergRodriguezBack to Kling, then to Sinc for a promising attack but well defended, no shot
56′KlingenbergRodriguezRocky turned over but deep in AC’s half
59′KlingenbergSmithPoor idea; Smith was smothered and lost possession
61′KuikkaSmithWent out wide, Kling had a crack but way over
69′KuikkaSinclair1-2 and then cycled around the back
70′KuikkaCoffeyDropped into the backline, across
70′KlingenbergRodriguez1-2 and then up the touchline to begin attack
80′KlingenbergRodriguezBack to Kling in tight space, lost
81′KuikkaMoultrieImmediately dispossessed but deep in AC’s half
84′ KlingenbergRodriguezTurned to attack, made a bit of progress but well defended, turned over
87′KlingenbergMoultrieto D’Aquila to start an attack
87′KlingenbergNallyDropped into the backline

Of the 25 total throw-ins, eight – about 30% – resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. Six – about 25% – were poorly taken and went against Portland, and the other roughly 45% were just neutral, neither advantageous nor distressing.

How’s that look compared with the previous games?

OpponentAdvantage gainedAdvantage LostNeutral
KC (first half only)11%30%59%

IIRC the Thorns looked better in the second half against Kansas City, so that low advantage number is likely to be an artifact.

What does seem to be emerging so far is a rough parity of outcomes between the two sides, which seems peculiar given that throw-ins are a sort of setpiece where the throwing team can pick and choose how they play in.

But unlike a free kick, however, there’s no stand-off distance for the throw so there’s little space to make that choice without pressure from the opposition, and the pressure seems to be effective at restricting the danger from a throw.

In particular the lack of an offside on a throw-in seems to confer no advantage to the Thorns; nobody’s bolting downfield under a long throw-in.

Could longer throw-ins help gain an advantage in those situations? Jessica McDonald comes to mind; her throw-ins near the penalty area often seem as dangerous as free or corner kicks. We just saw her here with Louisville, though, and I don’t recall anything of that sort.

I’m still curious about this, so I’ll keep on keeping records and we’ll see if any more clarity can be had on the subject.

Player Ratings and Comments

Weaver (+11/-5 : +13/-2 : +24/-7) Woman of the Match, full stop.

Aside from her usual Chaos Muppet energy, the thing that caught my eye was her touch on the goal. Old Weaver would have shanked that ball into the side netting after clanking it off her toe or booted it straight over the byline. This newer version took a perfectly weighted touch to get past her defender but not too far to cut the ball back into the open goal.

On a night when a lot of Thorns were flailing Morgan Weaver was cutting like a Big Knife. Take a bow, you. Well done.

Sinclair (74′ – +4/-1 : +5/-2 : +9/-3) Taken out of context, Captain Sinclair had a decent match; some nice passing and decent runs.

In context? Sinc was invisible as what I believe she was supposed to be, the center forward. Literally; look at the passing diagram. She’s not where a #9 is supposed to be.

Sinc’s having a great spring in relative terms, which is to say that she’s not the boat anchor she’d become by the end of last season.

But she’s no longer an effective striker, we know that, Coach Norris has to know that, so even if Sophia Smith needed the rest, why start her over, say, Izzy D’Aquila?

The weird match papered over what could have been a bad outing for Sinc in context. That’s a ticking bomb, and all it’ll take is someone like Seattle or San Diego to set it off.

C’mon, coach. She’s doing well, let’s see what you can do to make it even better.

D’Aquila (14′ – +0/-2) Too late to be effective.

Sugita (56′ – +3/-1 : +1/-1 : +4/-2) I couldn’t be happier that her night was capped by a goal – neatly taken – and a meet-and-greet with her adoring littlest fans.

That said, Hina-san has so much more to offer than she can bring out at RW, and I’m not sure what it will take, if anything, to change that.

Smith (34′ – +5/-2) Looked frankly pawky and out of sorts coming in late, and wasn’t really effective at changing the game state – look back at the xG race plot. I’m not sure why she was used as an hour sub; if she wasn’t fit why play her? If she was, why not start her?

Dunn (56′ – +3/-3 : +2/-1 : +5/-4) Not a great outing. Lots of poor passes amid the decent ones, fast and shifty but not really dangerous going forward and not making connections with anyone else on the front line. Like much of the team, not exactly poor, but not really very effective, either.

Moultrie (34′ – +3/-1)

Sometimes one moment of brilliance pays the whole way.

See the Dunn comment only with the lovely slide-rule pass.

Coffey (+4/-1 : +5/-2 : +9/-3) Another match without a lot of impact going forward. If you look up at the passing diagram you’ll see why; Coffey kept trying to push the ball up to Sinc, who couldn’t do anything with it. All her usual solid defending, including a surgical tackle to nick the ball off Ertz’s feet.

Rodriguez (86′ – +3/-0 : +3/-6 : +6/-6) From merely ineffective in the first half Rocky turned into a tire fire of giveaways in the second. I can see why Norris yanked her, just not why he waited so long.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with Rodriguez, but she hasn’t really been effective coming off the bench. Maybe that’s why; some players need minutes to be sharp. Right now she’s not, and I’m not sure whether she needs more minutes or fewer.

Leon (4′ – no rating)

Kuikka (+3/-8 : +3/-7 : +6/-15) Holy shit.

This is perhaps as good a “worth a thousand words” as anything for Kuikka’s Saturday night:

This was the foul that set up Ertz’s goal. Beaten hollow, on a yellow, a straight push from behind? That’s not smart.

Kuikka seems to have confidence issues. That’s my guess since I don’t get the sense that she’s nursing a knock or some other physical problem. But, as she did in midseason last year after Rhian Wilkinson tooled her around a bit, Natu seems to get her headspace and timing unfixed when something isn’t working for her and when she does, the mess is ugly.

This came at the worst time last weekend, because Hubly needed help trying to rope and tie Thompson and Kuikka wasn’t providing it.

Our depth at fullback isn’t deep. So we need you to get untracked most quick smart.

Hubly (+3/-5 : +1/-5 : +4/-10) Nobody on Portland’s backline had a great Saturday night, either. Hubs got torched in the 9th minute, gave up a brutal turnover in the 67th minute that luckily Johnson fired wide, and her butt-saving block on the Emslie shot can’t erase everything else.

Saturday pretty much everyone had a not-great night – until then the backline issues were more or less random and more down to individual errors. When more than just one or two defenders have an off night, like last Saturday, though? Things get ugly quick.

Menges (56′ – +3/-2 : +1/-1 : +4/-3) Better than her backline sisters, so there’s that.

Still…EM coughed up a scary turnover right in front of the 18 in the 27th minute that put Thompson through past Hubly like a practice cone but luckily the rook could only hit side netting. We saw the 36th minute pictures of Menges wandering and ballwatching. Then EM yakked up another hairball in the 46th minute that anyone but McCaskill probably would have done better with but the Scourge of Sky Blue could only head wide.


The Great Wall of Emily Menges was, more than anything else, steady, disciplined, fast, and reliable. I’m not sure who this Menges is, but I want to believe the Great Wall version is still in there somewhere, even if she wasn’t Saturday night.

Nally (34′ – +2/-1) Unfortunate to be on the ice when her club conceded two goals, but they also scored twice, so her situational plus-minus is zero. Other than that…didn’t make any grotesque errors? So, good? Not exactly ringing praise, but, then, her unit didn’t really earn that.

Klingenberg (+1/-6 : +8/-4 : +9/-10) Aside from the 36th minute defensive gaffe all Kling’s first half minuses are for poor passes.

She cleaned that way up in the second, and threw in a much more aggressively effective defense.

On the other hand, there are two Thorns who should never shoot unless absolutely unavoidable. Kuikka is one (proving that despite what Russians might tell you, not all Finns are deadly snipers) and Kling is the other. Two shots, mere minutes apart, from nearly the exact same location, yet the second is the same ten yards over the bar that the first one was? Adjust fire, woman! Or, better yet, leave the shooting to the strikers.

Bixby (+0/-3 : +1/-1 : +1/-4) Well…

I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that Michelle Betos won Goalkeeper of the Year in 2015. But she scored The Goal, and for the GKoY voters that paid for the whole season.

Bixby saved a point in the 97th minute of this one which she’d done much to lose in the previous 96, including in the 9th, when she got down slow and weak on Thompson’s shot, and in the 78th, when she failed to get up high with her arms raised to make Ertz’s crime more obvious and let the cross go through.

Throw in her utter lack of response to McCaskill’s 16th minute drive – that fortunately clanged off her top corner – and failure to take a dangerous cross in the 38th minute on which Thompson’s foul bailed her out, and Bix’s night is hard to rescue, even with a cute little backheel.

You all know I’m a Bixby partisan. But this match was hard for me to stan her. Yes, she scored a fun goal and with it rescued one of those draws-that-fell-like-wins. No, she didn’t do well in preserving the actual win that her teammates had set up for her with two hard-earned goals.

Good goalkeeping (behind good defending) is boring. It buries opponents in a smothering blanket of tight marking, tough tackling, good positioning and strong control of the airspace around the goal.

How about let’s do that?

Coach Norris: I wasn’t super impressed.

We’ve kind of talked this one to death, so you know why. And the bottom line is that the squad nicked a point and remains top of table.

It’s just the niggling little tactics and roster and formation and Sinclair things I think could be worked better. This club has a roster the whole league wants or is frightened by. With it this club should flatten most opponents; only Seattle and San Diego (and, surprisingly, Gotham) should be real trouble.

That hasn’t been the case, and we’ve yet to meet two of those three and dropped a Cup tie to the Wave with both clubs less than their best.

I really think this club can be the engine of destruction it seems possible to be. But that means dealing with those niggling issues head-on.

Can we do that?

Next Saturday we’re away in Cary, a wretched hive of scum and villainy we’ve traditionally had trouble with. That might be a great opportunity to bash all these little troubles into good order and roll like a mighty stream unvexed to the sea.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

8 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Second Time as Farce

  1. Why did it seem like ACFC had 20 players in the middle of the pitch to our 2? (Sarcasm) I can’t seem to understand why we can’t play thru the midfield. Is that just perception?

    1. The midfield is the Thorns’ biggest conundrum right now.

      Ideally we’d either be playing a 4-3-3 with Coffey at CDM, Dunn on one side, Beckie (or Leon, now…) on the other with Weaver-Smith- Sugita up top, or a 4-4-2 diamond (my preference) with Coffey in back, Dunn/Leon and Sugita at ACM, with Smith and Weaver top.

      Instead Coffey is the only fixed point with a rotating cast of subs and a badly imbalanced set of #8s. Either they’re all attack/little defense like Dunn and Moultrie, or they are just struggling, like Rodriguez.

      The trouble is there’s too many good forwards and AMs; if you start D’Aquila, who sits? Sugita? In an ideal world it’d be Sinc…but Sinc don’t sit and won’t until after the WC. So I think that Norris & Co. are desperately trying to find a solution to fit seven or eight pegs – some square – into six round holes.

      Dunno how that’ll work out.

      1. Thanks John.

        From where I sat, it felt like a 4-2-4 in offense from the start, with a huge gap between Kuikka and Sugita. Thompson’s goal came from a turnover and nice one-touch play through that gap, as did a dangerous chance a few minutes later.

        I don’t understand what Norris is doing out there. Might be trying to make the most out of a surplus of forwards and AMs, like you said. But also might be in over his pay grade.

        1. Again, we don’t have “utility” midfielders other that Rodriguez; Dunn and Sinclair (when she plays as a midfielder) are probably 80% attack. Moultrie is maybe less so but still much more forward. They are not particularly good “shuttlers” in the Horan style.

          That’d be okay if we were better at the sort of quick 1-2-3 one-touch passes that would move the ball quickly through midfield. We’re not, or we don’t do that. It’s all dribble, look around, tap a pass, dribble, tap…then (since the opponent has little trouble closing that down) a long downfield boot.

          So, yeah. Right now we’ve been lucky that Smith and Weaver have been beasting it up front. But we lose Smith in June along with a crap-ton of other internationals. What happens then?

          I don’t really like to think about…

  2. Thanks, John, I always enjoy reading your take on the game. This seemed to be a game where most players weren’t terrible, but almost all had at least one very poor moment at a very inopportune time. (Weaver was the outstanding exception.)

    Give Ertz credit, I guess, for recognizing immediately that the ref was going to let her do whatever she wanted. She should have had at least three yellows, and LA’s second goal should have been disallowed.

    On the Bixby goal (!!!) I’m not sure Haracic spilled it. It may have been headed out of her hands by her teammate, Clarisse Le Bihan. The possible header is at 4:47.

    You can see in another clip that it’s Le Bihan. What I can’t be sure of is whether she makes contact with the ball or checks herself with a couple of inches to spare.

    North Carolina seems beatable this year, even in Cary. Let’s do it.

    1. Haracic slammed into her teammate and the ball came loose. So it “spilled”, tho I can see how the term implies it was a Haracic misplay rather than just bad luck. Good luck for us, tho, and bad cess to Julie “Doug Hanson” Ertz.

      I’m hoping for good things in Cary. We have a long history of stumbling there, tho.

  3. I agree Weaver, woman of the match! That young woman has been working on her game!
    A great column from you as usual.
    Yes Ertz was a wrecking machine. Both she and Henry are commanding defensive mids, but Henry does it with more subtlety. Julie is going to have to smooth off the rough edges before the WC or she could get a costly red card. The tackle of Dunn was very dangerous.

    1. ALL her tackles were ugly – like I said, if she’d been able she’d have submarined Moultrie right through the achillies in the dying minutes!

      She was a menace, and if I was really excited about the USWNT I’d hope that Vlatko would have rung her up Sunday morning and advised her to chillax.


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