Thorns FC: Just Play

“Just play. No thinking about playing. No trying to play. Just playing. That’s when we’re at our best” ~ Meghan Klingenberg, 5/21/23

Well, Kling, it helps when you just play Chicago; a team in free-fall…but, yeah. Sometimes you just have to go out and thump something to feel good about yourself.

Four-nil. Outshot 22-8 (none on goal), Chicago was hopeless and Portland looked like Garrincha’s Brazil. Chris Henderson summed Chicago’s attack in a one-word comment above his xG/PS-xG graph:

Zero? Yeah, pretty much.

Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch…

In the 7th minute Sophia Smith was clattered 25 yards from the Chicago goal; Sam Coffey’s dime dropped to Kelli Hubly’s feet and Hubs finished at a crazy tight angle, 1-nil,

Seven minutes later the Thorns worked a pretty team goal capped with a low Hina Sugita cross for Crystal Dunn to finish, 2-nil, and,

Two minutes after that Dunn returned the favor, slipping a pass through Chicago’s backline for Olivia Moultrie to run onto and tap past Alyssa Naeher, 3-nil and lights out.

I want to review the Dunn goal for what it said about both squads last Sunday. The play started with a tightly-marked Moultrie finding Dunn and passing through the center circle:

Dunn turned and found Smith running through the Chicago backline and tried to thread a pass up to her, but…

…found, instead, Tierna Davidson’s heel.

That was a theme Sunday, as it’s been for a while; the Thorns trying to get to Smith and the pass either going astray or being picked off by the blanket the opponent had thrown over Smith.

But, Chicago being Chicago, instead of turning the ball over Davidson clanked it right back to Dunn, who got to the top of the eighteen with Chicago’s “defense” showing her lots of options:

Morgan Weaver is free to her left, Moultrie in the penalty arc, and Hina-san wide right. Dunn goes to Moultrie as the most versatile option. Moultrie turns and goes to the west, finally passing out wide to Sugita.

Note where the white shirts are now. Yuki Nagasato is moving wide to close off Moultrie’s pass back inside, while Arin Wright has her covered goal-side. That’s where they are when Sugita gets possession. Inside Casey Krueger has bodied up on Smith, while Weaver and Dunn are largely cut off.

At this point Sugita doesn’t have a lot of options. She can try and loft a cross over to her teammates, who are well covered. Or she can try and dribble to the byline to see if anything opens up, either for a shot or a cross.

Instead, interestingly, she dribbles back in towards Moultrie.

In response, Nagasato could move to body up on Moultrie and let Wright take Sugita…

…or they could both converge behind Moultrie and tangle each other up, leaving Sugita to use her teammate as a sort of pick for a pick-and-roll:

That’s what happens; the Chicago defenders have taken themselves out of the play as Sugita spins towards the near post.

From there it’s a pinpoint cross and a clinical finish for Dunn.

This game can be two different things at the same time.

It can be a heartening win at a time when the Thorns seem to have needed one; a “just play” sort of statement to put some starch back into people’s spirits.

It can also be a misleadingly lopsided beatdown of a really poor opponent that makes the Thorns look much better than they are (see: Orlando on Opening Day…).

Because even Chicago found some joy against Portland’s backline. Here’s Ella Stevens with the ball inside the Portland eighteen – she’s just recovered her own blocked shot that came off Coffey right back to her feet – and note Bianca St. Georges as the Double Bird flies through the immense gap left by Emily Menges ballwatching:

Kling’s caught flatfooted, too, as Stevens bloops a pass in front of St. Georges who bores in with only Bella Bixby to beat. Bella doesn’t give her much – she gets big and is tight on her near post – but leaves just enough…

…for the shot to go under her arm and bang off the post. But look at the Thorns backline!

We can give Kling sort of a pass – she’s been chasing St. Georges – but what the hell are Menges and Reyna Reyes and Natalia Kuikka and even Sam Coffey doing? What if the ball hadn’t gone well out of the box and instead fallen to Stevens and Ava Cook lurking on the far side of the penalty spot?

So all’s I’m saying is that there’s still some things the Thorns are doing that worked like a mechanical ass-kicker against Chicago but miiiiiight not do so well against a team that can actually, y’know, play soccer.

Like San Diego.

But that’s for this coming Friday. For now? Let’s just play.

Short Passes

Both sides were tidy on the ball; Portland with almost 82% completion just a touch better than Chicago’s 81%.

Of the total of 422 total passes per OPTA the Thorns attempted a total of 154 “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’d have to check, but that attacking total – 36% of all passes – is likely the highest percentage I’ve seen so far. A whopping 91 in the first half, 63 in the second, and the Thorns completed about a total of about 41%; 37 (40.6%) in the first half, 26 (41.2%) in the second.

I know I thought that 50% is the “target”, but after five games I wonder; maybe 40% and above really is the “good attacking pass” completion target. We’ll keep going with this.

You get that from Arielle Dror’s passing plot for the first hour, too. But it’s got an interesting twist:

Lopsided! Right side – Natu Kuikka, Dunn, Hina-san? Lit! Lots going to and from Smith, as well.

Left side? Brrrr…cold as ice! Weaver stranded, Moultrie doing good work but little volume, and Kling spraying misses all over southwest Portland.

Weird, and I’m not sure why. Worked against Chicago, though, so, fine.

Chicago (in the first half only):

That’s an ugly mess, and one that’s penned into it’s own half, too. Worse that that, actually – at 34 minutes the announcers noted that something like 40% of the play to that point had been in Chicago’s defensive final third – and just a reminder that this was one of those clubbing-baby-seal wins.


Corner Kicks

Eight. Three first half, five second, one short, the others long into the box.

4′CoffeyLong (line drive)Into the scrum and cleared, recycled but Kling hoofed it over the byline
19′KlingenbergLongTo Hubly, whose strong header forced a good save out of Naeher
41′CoffeyLongOver the scrum and cleared out, recycled out to Kling, whose put-back cross found someone’s head, but the header went wide
47′CoffeyLongWent back post and was sorta-cleared, but not far enough; came back to Coffey, whose long cross found Kuikka back post to put the Thorns up 4-nil
51′KlingenbergShortTo Smith, who worked the ball into Dunn but Dunn’s shot was high and wide
79′CoffeyLongOver the scrum, cleared, recycled, cleared again and sort of petered out
81′KlingenbergLongNaeher boxed away out to Menges, whose speculative shot went over the byline
83′CoffeyLongNice dime to D’Aquila but the header went wide left

So a sorta-goal (Kuikka), dangerous header from Hubly, and another good look from Izzy D’Aquila. That’s pretty productive, but, Chicago, so clearing lines = not their thing. Still, well done.


Sixth full match tracking Portland throw-ins.

Following up with the tidy passing this one had very few throw-ins; the Thorns took a total of 17 throw-ins over 90+ minutes; 11 in the first half, only six in the second. Chicago was barely in double figures; four in the first half, seven in the second.

Of Portland’s 17, only four – about 23% – resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position…but only one was poorly taken and went against Portland. The other whopping 70.5% were just neutral.

Here’s how that’s going:

OpponentAdvantage gainedAdvantage LostNeutral

So weird; not lots of “good” throws but Chicago, amiright? so few going against Portland. Lots of just sorta “pass it back and around”. Hmmm.

FWIW, Chicago’s “good throw” numbers – 6/11, 54.5% – suggest that either they’re better at this throw-in thing or that Portland wasn’t really worried enough to press them hard.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+10/-5 : +9/-0 : +19/-5) I’ll bet Sophia Smith is getting goddamn sick and tired of this shit:

That’s her getting drilled going up for a high pass, and center referee Tori “I Agree: Just Play!” Penso letting Whack-a-Smith go unpunished.

Smith is learning the Lesson Good Strikers Learn: if your opponents can’t stop you legally, they;ll foul the living hell out of you and dare the referee to stop them.

This being the NWSL and PRO, that isn’t happening enough.

Luckily the Thorns are using their opponents’ fascination with Smith to find goals elsewhere, but that’s gotta be pretty miserable for Smith.

Weaver (73′ – +10/-4 : +8/-2 : +18/-6) Lots of good Chaos Muppeteering, but no real good looks at goal and the one she had – a great shot in the 43rd minute – forced a hell of a great save out of Naeher. Good shift on a day when a lot of people were having good shifts.

D’Aquila (17′ – +3/-2) Good enough.

Sugita (+15/-0 : +8/-1 : +23/-1) Hands down my Woman of the Match.

Hina-san and Dunn seem to have worked out a thing where they sort of swap positions around; Dunn drifts out to the wing, Hina inside, and then back. It’s interesting, it worked against Chicago, and I’m really curious to see how it works this Friday against San Diego.

Moultrie (62′ – +7/-0 : +2/-0 : +9/-0) As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to start Moultrie in midfield every match. She’s proved herself, she makes the midfield better on both sides of the ball, c’mon coach, let’s do this.

Sinclair (28′ – +4/-2) Well, her entry coincided with Chicago getting more space and control in midfield, and an uptick in their xG, so there’s that, and we know that’s coming in with her; Sinc just can’t cover ground and get to attackers so the opponent’s attack prospers from Sinc’s lack of pace.

But at the same time, she can still play when she has time to get into place, witness her cute little 82nd minute pass to Smith that set up a Sugita post (and only by a massive full-stretch Naeher palm).

There’s a pretty amazing soccer intelligence there. It just isn’t being supported by a pair of aging legs. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

Coffey (+12/-2 : +8/-0 : +20/-2) Helluva match from the Rock of Morrison Street.

Dunn (62′ – +11/-0 : +1/-1 : +12/-1) If she’d have been able to keep up the intensity of her first half she’d give Sugita a solid run for WotM. Faded in the second, so well relieved. Fine shift and another good outing; I’m reeeeeally liking the 2023 model Dunn, a Lamborghini to 2021’s Chevy K-car.

Vasconcelos (28′ – +6/-4) I’m still not entirely sold on her; she’s got a nose for goal as witnessed by her sweet turn and drive that could easily have led to a Smith rebound-tap-in off her hard shot had Chicago’s entire backline not dropped on top of Smith like a wrestler coming off the top rope, the fuckers.

But she often has a stone first touch, and she can’t forecheck worth a lick. That wouldn’t have been an issue except she came on with Sinc, so the midfield behind her got slower and more porous.

Depth, fine. But we’ll see when she has to have more minutes this summer.

Klingenberg (+7/-1 : +4/-5 : +11/-6) I’ll bet you wish you had this one back:

A skosh to the right and you have the first goal of the match, your first…well, since, what, 2016? And that’d have been Big Fun.

Still…need to work on positioning and anticipation; four of your minuses are for defensive errors. Good shift, but…Chicago. San Diego won’t be that forgiving.

Menges (+1/-2 : +4/-2 : +5/-4) Same here; three of four minuses are for defending, and that’s your job. Largely untroubled until after the hour and didn’t need to scramble because Chicago. We’ll see how your unit looks Friday before drawing any conclusions.

Hubly (62′ – +8/-3 : +0/-1 : +8/-4) There’s nothing as fun as a Hubly goal.

But same caution as your teammates; you’re going to have to kick things up a notch the end of this week. So, there.

Reyes (28′ – +2/-1) No real metric. Well enough, I suppose.

Kuikka (86′ – +6/-3 : +5/-0 : +11/-3) The secret of Kuikka Scoring seems to be; don’t let her use her feet. Woman couldn’t hit water if she fell out of a boat when she shoots. But headers? Remember when I took stick to Weaver for not getting up and heading down? Okay, well, she needs to find a Finnish manual for heading, because Natu got up like a salmon over Willamette Falls. Nice.

Solid defending, as usual, with the caveat that a faster set of wingers means that Kuikka will need to be faster tracking back.

Nally (4′ – no rating) Caught wandering on a St. Georges possession three yards from goal, but Double Bird clanked the touch and Sinc cleaned up and cleared.

Bixby (+0/-1 : +2/-1 : +2/-2) Largely untroubled. But there’s this:

That’s in the 31st minute, and it plays into a lot of fans’ opinion of Bixby as poor in the air. That’s a textbook “box it clear” situation, and luckily for Bella her hapless flap wasn’t punished by Cari Roccaro, whose shot sailed into Row ZZ.

My recollection is that Nadine Angerer used to have some of these issues, so this may well be a coaching thing. But this isn’t that hard, and I’d like to see less of this sort of stuff.

Coach Norris: You do poorly, you get stick, you do well, you get kisses, eh, marra?

Your team needed a big win after a string of dispiriting draws and a bad loss, and you helped them get one.


Now, you need to go to San Diego and send your team out to put in ninety solid minutes and lock in that confidence.

Can you, and they, do that?

This was the funniest thing: right before kickoff, and for some reason known only to herself Allison Schlegel suddenly turned into El Toro the Bull of Chicago. The rest of the match wasn’t much fun for her, so I’m glad she had this little goof before things went completely to hell.
John Lawes
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5 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Just Play

  1. “Double Birds” brought me so much joy. This really was the weekend of the defender goals.

    John, I know this is pretty off topic, but I would love to hear your thoughts on what the hell is going on with Franch in KC.

    1. I actually like St. Georges; she’s a baller. But she’s gonna be “Double Bird” for the foreseeable future.

      As far as A.D. goes…only she truly knows. The priors are:
      1) Her team is a trainwreck, and in particular her defense is a tire fire, as useless for stopping opponent chances as a screen door keep out smoke.
      2) That said, Franch has conceded MORE goals than her xGa says she could have. That suggests errors on her part.
      3) A lot of goalkeeping is in your head. If your confidence is shaken, then it’s a slippery slope. You ship a crap goal. You get that in your head. You hesitate, or clutch, or make a bad decision because your head’s all fucked up…and you ship ANOTHER crap goal.

      Goalies have ups and downs, too. So it’s hard to tell if this is just a dip…or if she’s got a real issue. Or nursing a knock. Or…we just don’t know. But whatever it is, she’s got a tough job; fighting for her slot on a team that’s fighting not to be the Wooden Spoon. That’s brutal.

  2. That was fun to watch; but one has to remember Chicago is the worst team in the league; but on the other hand Naeher, Davidson, Wright, Krueger, St Georges, Nagasato and Roccaro all good players and half are Nationals; but on the other hand defense starts with the Forwards and that was a very inexperienced group, but then again the Thorns had a great starting eleven and looked like a good team.
    Well, I guess we will just half to wait and see Friday. I wonder if Dunn and Moultrie will get more respect from San Diego. I bet Sophia Smith would love to see single coverage rather than double or triple. But wait a second, San Diego is one team that has a defender that can cover Soph by herself, Girma. If Norris goes with he same starting 11, I think we will see both Dunn and Gotham’s Lynn Williams separate themselves from the pack and take the lead in the Golden Boot race.

    1. It’s always hard to generalize from clubbing the baby seals. I think Friday will tell us a lot.


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