Thorns FC: Six of One

For the second consecutive match the Thorns scored three and conceded three.

At least this time it was a road point rather than a home draw. Cold comfort.

Because we saw the same deja vu against ACFC all over again:

Struggles in midfield.

Sam Coffey is the only current starting midfielder who can reliably defend. Crystal Dunn is a perfectly decent tackler and marker – she’s a fullback for the Nats, FFS! – but with the Thorns she principally wants to attack and does – she’s pushed up most of the time.

Christine Sinclair was a forward most of her career, and now she’s got other issues which we’ll talk about in her comment.

So the midfield is often overrun which in turn exposes the backline, and that largely the centerbacks, since Norris has continued the fullbacks-up tactics that the squad has been using since Parsons’ time. So at least one fullback is caught upfield when our midfield turns the ball over or is torched.

What the midfield currently lacks is a true #8, a BTB midfielder who can keep possession, shuttle the ball, and distribute up to the forwards and out to the wingbacks.

In other words…nobody has replaced Lindsey Horan, and the result is an imbalanced, awkward midfield that minimizes the effectiveness of one of the game’s best #6 CDMs and is being outplayed by less talented units.

Technical errors in goal.

Sure. You can make excuses for her. Bella Bixby was blinded by the sun and surprised by a close range deflection off of Emily Menges in the first minute. Kerolin hit a perfectly placed low hard shot in the 26th. Emily Menges (why do I keep writing your name, EM..?) was viciously megged just outside the near post in the 83rd minute allowing Olivia Wingate to tap a centering pass to Victoria Pickett unmarked in the six for the easy lay-up.

The bottom line, though?

Image by Arielle Dror

Bixby has conceded six goals in the past 180+ minutes on a combined xG-against of 2.12 (0.97 xGa in the Angel City match, 1.07 xGa for this one) a horrific defensive differential of -3.88G, or almost two goals more per game than her opponent’s chances suggest she should have conceded.

You know I’m a Bixby fan. I’ve defended her here when some of our punters were howling for her head because she’s gawky in the air and seems hesitant to come off her line. To me her stats have been speaking for themselves.

The past two games?

Those stats are telling a reeeeeeal ugly story.

Disorganization in the backline.

We can agree that the midfield isn’t helping.

But the defenders themselves are often poorly organized and undisciplined, and that’s even without the sort of individual errors we’ve already mentioned.

Look at the screenshot above. Needing to simply lock down the road point, what the fuck are Coffey, Menges, and Hubly doing? I know Kerolin is dangerous, but it takes three of you? And while y’all are having a staff meeting over in Kerolin’s cube who the hell’s got Wingate?

Since what happened was that Kerolin slid the pass over and Coffey had to make a panic slide and Bixby a big block to prevent the third goal, the right answer is “nobody”.

Or stuff like this?

Christ, that looks like a junior high school recess. Five white shirts around Kerolin (three of them already left in the artificial dust…) and Kelli Hubly tear-assing randomly towards her own goal while Rieke Madsen runs wild and free as the wind off the Skagerrak.

I’d love to blame this on Sauerbrunn’s absence, but go back and look at the backline PMR’s against Houston and Kansas City while she was on the pitch. They’re not pretty:

KC – Kuikka +11/-14, Hubly +11/-10, ‘Brunn +10/-3, Kling +9/-8
HOU – Reyes (45′) +3/-6, Kuikka (45′) +7/-3, Hubly +6/-7, ‘Brunn +9/-3, Kling +9/-14

That’s not one individual, it’s the whole unit at one time or another. It’s not like losing ‘Brunn sent the backline into the toilet; they were struggling with her out there, and the Thorns have Emily Menges if veteran leadership is needed.

Remember, Menges ran the top defense in the league in 2016 and 2017. She was touted for the Nats. But that Menges isn’t recognizable in the player who was repeatedly skinned in Cary last weekend.

It’s a tribute to the strength of this roster that despite shipping six goals in the past two matches the Thorns still took two points and sit second on a very tight table.

Because through all of that other stuff this club can still do things like this:

That’s Christine Sinclair threading a pass up to Sophia Smith at the top of the 18. Smith has a defender on her back, but she also has Meghan Klingenberg steaming through the penalty area to her right. And keep an eye on Crystal Dunn.

Smith rolls a cheeky backheel (as my compa Richard Hamje asks; why are backheels always “cheeky”? Is it because “naughty” sounds, well, naughty?) into Kling’s path.

So far nothing looks real promising. Yet. Lots of blue shirts around the ball, though Dunn and at the far post Hina Sugita are lurking.

But Kling is in top gear; she crashes to the top edge of the six and lays a low cross just as Dunn breaks for the goalmouth

The tactics nerd in me nods with approval at the sight of Smith and Hina following the attack ready to clean up deflections or defensive misplays. But there’s no need; Dunn plays the cross cleanly around Casey Murphy and it’s all square again at two.

I wanted to include these to have something to feel good about.

Because this team can create a team goal this beautiful. Because this squad – for all the issues we’ve discussed – didn’t hang their heads after falling behind; they kept fighting and clawed points (points that, admittedly, they’d also done a lot to drop!) back.

But these two games also made the issues above brutally, inescapably obvious.

Will the club have the competence – and the nerve – to deal with them?

Short Passes

The Thorns 74.9% completion was worse than The Damned’s 77.4%, but not by much.

Of the total of 427 total passes per OPTA the Thorns attempted a total of 165 “attacking” passes, which I defined as a pass that was:

  • Intended to move the run of play towards the opposing 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 85 in the first half, 80 in the second, and the Thorns completed about a total of 38%; 32 (~38%) in the first half, 31 (~39%) in the second. As we discussed earlier, I think 50% is probably pretty good for these “attacking” passes, so the Thorns are still having trouble connecting in the final third

At least the connections themselves are more balanced that last week’s bizarre Kandinsky drawing.

Now the front three look right, the midfield three are pushed way the hell up as are the fullbacks…in fact the whole club is showing a massively high line, which is as it should be against a club as poor overall as The Damned are this season.

And speaking of the Damned:

That’s pretty ugly, a club back on it’s heels much of the game, which just emphasizes how freakishly hard the Thorns midfield and backline and keeper had to derp to ship this fucking club three goals.

Corner Kicks

Four total, one in the first half, three in the second, all long

29′KlingenbergLongInto the scrum and cleared, recycled but NCC forechecked it out for a throw
61′CoffeyLongAgain into the pack and cleared to Dunn, who cycled it around. Another lob in was cleared out to Kerolin, who outran Coffey to begin the defensive clusterfuck pictured above
74′CoffeyLongFar post and cleared, recycled, Kling lobbed a dime onto Moultrie’s head but her header was wide
87′CoffeyLongAnother long floater that got cleared and recycled, Moultrie tried a long shot that curled wide

The 74th minute corner was promising, while the 61st minute one was a flaming disaster created by not having a pacey defender deep (plus a lot of WTF?). Not much there, really.


Fifth match tracking Portland throw-ins, tho I’ve removed the KC game where I stopped tracking at halftime.

The Thorns took a total of 29 throw-ins over 90+ minutes in Cary; 14 in the first half, 15 in the second.

I’m going to omit the detailed table and just give you the summary. Of the 29 total throw-ins, 10 – about 35% – resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. Eight – about 27.5% – were poorly taken and went against Portland, and the other roughly 38% were just neutral, neither advantageous nor distressing.

Here’s how that’s going:

OpponentAdvantage gainedAdvantage LostNeutral

So a bit better that the past two games, and the Houston game is starting to look like and outlier, with much fewer “neutral” throws that any of the other three.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+11/-8 : +6/-3 : +17/-11) Not…”bad”…but some pretty questionable passing and decision-making; all but one of Smith’s minuses are for passes lost, heavy touches, dribbling into traffic and getting dispossessed, or misplaced crosses.

The thing with Smith is that she’s playing at such a high level right now that even a “not bad” game means she’s doing what, say, Savannah McCaskill can only dream of.

Weaver (76′- +6/-1 : +4/-2 : +10/-3) Like Smith, a good match overall without being able to be the Chaos Muppet game-changer, largely, I think, because Ryan Williams and Tyler Lussi did good work with her.

Leon (14′ – +1/-0) No real impact, despite some nice touches.

Sinclair (67′ – +6/-4 : +3/-0 : +9/-4) Here’s what I see as the problem.

Sinclair has lost too much pace, and too much stamina, to be effective as whatever Norris wants her to be; I think it’s a sort of 8/10, but Sinc is so far out of the match flow much of the time it’s hard to tell.

That leaves Dunn – who’s mindset is nearly entirely attacking – to help out Coffey. That’s not enough, Coffey’s overloaded, and so the Thorns midfield is often insufficient supporting the attack and overrun in defense.

But Sinc’s not visibly bad enough to overcome her rep and some good early games.

Her net is +5. She provides occasional cute little bits like starting the Dunn goal pictured above. She’s still “Christine Sinclair”, and to bench her would take extraordinary effort and, like all things extraordinary, would require extraordinary evidence and that evidence isn’t there.


Simply because Sinc isn’t, either.

She’s not involved enough. Look not at her net but her total “significant” actions; half of Smith’s, or Dunn’s. She doesn’t manage to impact the run of play often enough, even when the times she can she does well enough.

That doesn’t give a gaffer who HAS to be getting pressure to play her enough reasons to sit her for Moultrie or Raquel Rodriguez. You’re benching the GOAT for a high school kid? Seriously?

I see this as an unsolveable problem. Sinc is too good to make those kind of errors that will get her benched. But she is no longer good enough to consistently impact matches, meaning that the Thorns often end up playing 10 v 11, and the player-down side is seldom successful.

And I can’t even get angry about this because, why? There’s nothing I can do, short of writing this here, to convince anyone who has any power to change things. That’s not enough and never will be.

Moultrie (23′ – +6/-0)

I’ll just leave that here.

Aside from the golazo, replacing Sinc with Moultrie helps balance the midfield. She defends better, and possesses better, so she takes some of the load off both Dunn and Coffey.

I don’t see any particular reason to put Sinclair higher that Moultrie on the midfield depth chart. The kid is ready to play. Put her in, coach.

Sugita (80′ – +3/-3 : +1/-2 : +4/-5) Just wasted at RW, like seeing a thoroughbred harnessed to a beer wagon.

D’Aquila (10′ – no rating) Like Moultrie, I’d like to see more from this player. She seems to have good tools and a head on her shoulders, but her minutes have been so few it’s difficult to tell.

Coffey (+6/-5 : +5/-2 : +11/-7) Ran around like a one-woman fire department trying to control access to Kerolin. I wouldn’t want that job, either. Tough match.

Dunn (+9/-5 : +7/-2 : +16/-7) The brace along with lots of good passing and even a tackle or three. Occasionally her touch betrays her – four of her seven minuses are for heavy touches or poor passes – but still my pick for Woman of the Match. The difference between 2023 Dunn and 2021 Dunn is night and day.

Klingenberg (+5/-5 : +3/-0 : +8/-5) Was fortunate that The Damned attack goes either through Madsen and Kerolin up the middle or the Thorns right. The one time Carolina went at her (in first half injury time ) she megged herself to begin a comedy “defense” sequence that included Menges getting pantsed hard enough to land on her butt and forcing Bixby to kicksave a point-blank shot from Miura Narumi.

I emphasize that only because Kling was a decent defender in general, but was bitten by the Derp like her unit has been. “Defenders, Don’t Derp!”, remember? Yeah, me, too.

Menges (76′ – +4/-5 : +1/-2 : +5/-7) I could weep.

Nally (14′ – +3/-1) Normally I’d treat the arrival of Nally for one of the other centerbacks that way von Stroheim’s Rommel describes his valuation of his Italian allies: “I count neither in, not on, the Italians…”

In this match Norris had to do something about Menges, who was a hot mess, and Nally did that so, fine. But it points out how difficult a position this squad will be in when Sauerbrunn is gone all through July and August.

Hubly (+8/-2 : +3/-2 : +11/-4) If you consider her overall performance, the best of the backline. Hubs didn’t have a major mis-step and was solid in general, though she’s not the line leader and organizer the backline needed and I’m not sure that’s in her skillset. Well played game.

Kuikka (+6/-1 : +4/-4 : +10/-5) Tough night getting hammered by Kerolin, finally got shirty and picked up a bad yellow, putting her in the team lead with two. Aside from the general issues with organization discussed to death above, like Hubly, a solid shift as an individual. Like Hubly, needs someone to sort out the defense as a unit and get them working together.

Bixby (+1/-2 : +2/-0 : +3/-2) We’ve talked her to bits. I’m not sure that this isn’t just a string of bad luck and freakish moments. The sun. The deeflection. The Ertz foul.

But. At this point I think the club has to seriously consider the options.

If this isn’t just freakish bad luck and instead really is a harbinger of genuinely troublesome keeper issues for Bixby? Sitting her now for Shelby Hogan might well destroy her confidence and lose her for the season, if not beyond.

Playing her risks the problems detailed above. Keepers are funny things, and a lot of their play happens inside their heads. A string of bad losses can lead to…more losses. Ask A.D. Franch how that works out.

I don’t envy coaches Norris and Angerer their decision.

Coach Norris: We’ve pretty much laid out the situation. That, in turn, makes the choices pretty clear as well.

What we can’t and don’t know is what institutional pressure Mike Norris is getting.

Is the Canadian federation leaning on Paulson and LeBlanc who are leaning on Norris to keep Sinclair on the pitch? How is Angerer seeing her keepers, and what is she saying about that? What options are visible from the training ground to try and get the defenders in better form?

The club has seven games before the internationals depart and everything goes utterly random. Those include Seattle in Seattle and Washington here in June.

I’m not exactly “worried”.

But I’m not sure I’m exactly “confident”, either.

Help us out, coach. You can see the solutions. Make them.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

7 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Six of One

  1. We are 3 wins and three draws in.
    3 wins 2 at home Orlando and Racing. 1 away at Kansas City
    3 draws 2 at home Angel City and Houston, 1 away North Carolina.

    2022 we were 2 wins 3 draws and 1 loss:

    1 loss Houston at Portland.
    2 Wins at home over Angel City and Kansas City
    3 draws
    At home Spirit, Reign,
    Away Red Stars.

    Sitting on 12 points in 2023 and 9 points in 2022 at this point.

    This year we have the World Cup. That will likely throw a wrench in this no league/playoff loss since August streak. We are going well when the potential for greatness is there. It is frustrating, but it is not new. I am enjoying the ride and the confidence they will find a way tobnor give up.

    1. Not quite sure where you’re going with this. Six games into 2022 I was tearing my hair (what little I have…) like a lot of other fans because of the disastrous 3-5-2 Experiment was visibly failing. Here’s what I wrote about RW after the Houston loss on Matchday 4:

      “Your utter inability to see the obvious problems on the pitch in front of you were thrown into harsh relief by this match. Everything from formation to tactics to substitutions were either ineffective or actively made the game-state worse.”

      So I’m not feeling comfortable that we’re doing better than that shitshow.

      I agree; there’s a lot of quality here. But as Seattle would have told you after last season’s semfinal; that and $8’ll get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

      There’s some pretty obvious issues…and some really obvious fixes for those issues, the Sinclair Problem in particular. I’m not saying “easy” – benching a legend will never be easy! – but “obvious”, and we have some hard fights ahead against Seattle and Washington. We need to shed every ounce of deadweight we can before then.

      Can we? How well we turn that potential into active greatness will depend a lot on that…

  2. Strongly agree with your remarks on benching Bixby – to do that I think you have to be prepared to start Hogan for the rest of the year. All keepers (all players, really) have ups and downs, streaks and slumps; when Sinclair was Sinclair, she had a couple of cold streaks, and the universally accepted remedy was, keep shooting. (And she did eventually start scoring again.) Also, as you note, Bixby had a lot working against her in this game; the sun, poor protection by her defenders (I almost wrote “from her defenders”), and a breakout game by Kerolin. You can certainly add bad luck to that list, but I’m not sure you even need to.

    1. Like I said; I’ve stood behind Bixby all along. I think that her “issues” are largely an eye-test thing and her work stands up to scrutiny when you look at it as a body.

      The last couple of matches, though…ugh.

      And that sort of thing can, as I said, get inside a keeper’s head. We’ll have to see if she can pull herself together in Houston. I hope so; I think she’s a solid backstop.

  3. In reference to the title of your piece, when I was a kid I liked that phrase, but I would sometimes garble it so that it came out, “Half of one, six dozen of the other”. That’s kind of how these last two games have felt.


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