Thorns FC: Just like watching Brazil

When last seen, Sophia Smith was tear-ass running down part of the old MAC Club grounds located southwest of 18th and Morrison, pursued by a mob of angry Spirits like some sort of weird soccer anime:

Of course a striker of Smith’s quality is always going to draw a crowd of defenders…

…so the only question is; will the numbers do the defenders any good?


After the grinding Battle of Bridgetown we talked about how the Thorns needed a statement win over Washington if they wanted to remain in consideration for the season title.

They sure as hell got the win.

We’re going to talk about how much of a statement it was. But it was a big win, a true-six pointer, and the win was largely because when you give Sophia Smith a soccer ball she becomes an utterly insane force of Nature.

Here’s from my notes:

11′ – Coffey ——> Smith, runs through three defenders, beats Kingsbury far post, 1-0

22′ – Sugita heads on into crowd, somebody (Sullivan?) boots wide, Smith runs on – four defenders (one more arrives before shot) but smokes everyone, crossgoal finish, 2-1

48′ – Sugita tackle for gain, sweet lob to Smith who’s blowing thru backline, left side run, finishes across goal 3-2

Morgan Weaver added a 63rd minute insurance goal, but the bottom line is that the scoreline was: Sophia Smith 3, Washington Spirit 2.

Which is not to say there were no other Thorns having a good game, or that the Thorns (and Coach Norris) made some adjustments that helped manage the match and secure the win.

And it didn’t hurt that Spirit striker Trinity Rodman – Washington’s #2 scorer, with 4 goals on the season – was having an epic off night; three shots, none on goal, no goals.

But the bottom line is that Smith effectively beat Washington, making two goals out of nothing and a third with some tōshi from Hina-san.

The must have been something more, though, right? We had Smith in Chicago and Orlando and we barely beat the one and lost to the other. What else did the team do that helped make this look so much better than Chicago?

Formation Issues?

When I saw fullback Reyna Reyes playing way the hell up here in the first half…

…and then having to race frantically (and uselessly) back to try and run down the Rodman run her pushed-up position had made her helpless to stop…

…I was mad enough to spit.


Smith was busy putting the match out of reach and finally someone – the players, the coach, both – started pulling people back to defend the lead.

Finally – less than a quarter hour from time, up 4-2 – the Thorns had eight players behind the ball:

Okay then! That’s better, right?

Mind you…“push up!” seems to be baked into this squad. Here they are only four minutes earlier…

…with all six usual suspects (except Olivia Moultrie who’d come on for Christine Sinclair in the 67th minute) pushed up past the center circle with the ball in the Thorns backline.


How’d the formation look to Arielle Dror?

Hmmm….well, okay, Sam Coffey, Sinclair, and the centerbacks are sitting a little bit deeper, and Dunn continued inching backwards from where she was in Orlando.

But the fullbacks?

Sigh. Well…I guess you can’t change everything all at once.

So not perfect, but…better. Good enough when Washington’s attack was having an iffy night.


Much better.

If you recall, against Orlando the Thorns coughed up the ball 18 times, including two goals and five more dangerous Orlando attacks.

Chicago also got 18 gifts, but, being Chicago, could only turn three of those into danger, and none led to goals.

Against Washington the Thorns turned the ball over only 10 times. One was truly ugly, Sinclair in her own penalty area booting directly to Ashley Sanchez for the second Washington goal? Ouch.

Another – a 43rd minute Kelli Hubly pass to Rodman at the top of the 18 – led to a spell of scary Washington possession around the Thorns penalty area but led to nothing in the end because the Thorns packed behind the ball and Washington was still struggling to find some sort of attack with Rodman out of the frame.

None of the rest were truly dire; indeed, three of the turnovers were well inside the Washington third. Killed off attacks, sure, but when you’ve got a Sophia Smith who needs that shit?

Outlet Passes?

See the Smith comment above.

Kidding aside, the Thorns did much better moving the ball out of the backline. Obviously a big part of that was that the Spirit midfield had to play with their chins on their shoulders worrying that Smith would latch onto the ball and take off.

But I didn’t record any extended periods of dink-dink-boot. My guess is it had a lot to do with Dunn and Coffey dropping deeper to pick the pass up, plus – as we’ll see – Washington’s midfield packed back near the midfield stripe.

Whatever the reasons, that’s much better.

Defensive disorganization?

Well…better. Sorta. Still had some iffy moments.

Here’s one, in just the 4th minute.

Rodman lofts a kind of hopeless cross into the six – notice the lack of white shirts there – and Shelby Hogan’s air-defense radar spins up and locks onto the sucker. Just as she starts to come off her line…

…Emily Menges comes steaming in and robs her own keeper to head the ball over the byline, needlessly conceding the corner.

That’s pure Bixby-panic, IMO. The backs have gotten rattled to the point where they don’t trust their own keeper to safely claim balls in the air, and that’s a problem.

Hogan was solid all match, and hopefully that’ll help settle her backline. But right now the level of tightness is kind of worrisome.

Now here’s the Thorns defense in the 89th minute. Up two goals, needing just to see out the win, right? Ashley Sanchez is in possession along the touchline but Dunn has her fronted up and forced to turn back. Natalia Kuikka has Rodman well marked.

But substitute Nicole Douglas is unmarked at the top of the 18 and is calling for the ball.

Instead Sanchez sees Andi Sullivan coming up from midfield as Sam Coffey hustles out to mark Douglas.

Notice there’s no pressure on Sullivan. Hina is kind of loafing, and there’s four other Thorns in the box, three of them clustered around one white shirt.

When Coffey sees the ball going out to Sullivan she stops and turns to front up the ball…and lets Douglas go.

But Coffey can’t pick off the pass, nobody else is there to pressure Sullivan as she takes the ball in and Douglas turns for goal. Coffey is stranded and there’s no coverage, either to pressure Sullivan or stay with Douglas.

So when Sullivan then slots the return pass in to a running unmarked Douglas and all Coffey can do is spin in place, beaten.

Luckily for Portland Douglas fumbled the dribble, Emily Menges slid over, Shelby Hogan got big, and Douglas dinked a harmless little dribbler that Menges could boot away.


So…still some derps. Not a lot, and not awful (okay, well, the defending on the concessions was pretty awful – Sinc we’ve talked about, and in the Hatch goal both Menges and Hubly were out of position on the long cross in, Kuikka stepped away from Sanchez to let her settle the ball, and then Hubly lost Hatch on Sanchez’ cross for the easy goal…) but, still, some things to work on.

But when you play Brazil, who cares about defense? You score six? Quem dá a mínima? They’ll score seven!

Or Sophia Smith will.

Which is kind of the same thing around here.

So it was a big win, a good win, a Sophia-Smith-is-working-on-an-MVP-kind-of-season win. The attack was prolific as you’d expect, given that, and the defense held up – enough – to see out the match.

But we’ve seen this before.

Seattle, right?

Looked awesome, complete game, attacking persistence, defensive sturdiness, substitutions working perfectly.

Then Orlando and the whole fucking roof fell in.

Short Passes

Neither team was outstanding. Washington’s 78% completion was better than Portland’s 75%. The passing diagrams are…interesting. Let’s look first at Portland’s again:

This matches the OPTA passing numbers; low numbers overall, and lots of people – Reyes, Sinc, Menges, Hubly – were having very off days connecting passes.

Luckily Dunn and Coffey are lit, and Smith is…well, you know.

Positionally, we’ve discussed; it’s a Norris thing.

We’ll talk about this in just a bit, but what doesn’t show here is that when the Thorns needed to hit their attackers they could. It wasn’t a lot of passes overall but effective passing in the Washington half and that made a difference; see below.

Here’s Washington:

That’s just…bizarre. Tons of width but no depth. Backs pushed way up, but the forwards are squashed back near – and Hatch and Rodman into – the center circle!

I’m not sure whether this was good work by Sam Coffey and the Thorns backline, or some sort of problem with Washington’s forward line. I suspect maybe a bit of both.

Ridiculously one-sided, too; note that Gabi Carle, Sam Staab, and Sullivan are doing good work on the left/Thorns right, while Tara McKeown, Ines Jaurena, and Dorian Bailey are stone cold on the right.

Of the total of 313 total passes per OPTA I tallied the Thorns attempting a total of only 56 “attacking” passes (17.8% of total passes, compared to about 16.5% in Chicago, 18% is Orlando and 16% in Seattle).

I defined these 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.

Twenty-eight attacking passes in each half, and the Thorns completed about a total of about 76%; 23 (82.1%) in the first half, 20 (71.4%) in the second. Note that two of these were assists, the definition of “critical pass”.

That’s the best “attacking pass” completion we’ve seen. So, like I said above, despite the thin passing network, when the Thorns needed attacking passes they found them.

Corner Kicks

Only three, all in the second half, two long, one short

69′CoffeyLongKingsbury boxed out of the scrum to Weaver, whose shot was blocked. Kuikka turned the ball oer
73′CoffeyLongWay over the pack to Sugita, who couldn’t hold it and it was cleared
87′CoffeyShort…to Dunn; tried to pass around the deep corner just to waste time



Eleventh full match tracking Portland throw-ins.

I had the Thorns taking a whopping total of 25 throw-ins over 90+ minutes; 15 first half, 10 second; Washington took the same total number, but 11 in the first half, 14 in the second.

Of Portland’s throws nine (36%) resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. Decent – the running average is around 34% – and much better than the last two games

Five – 20% – were poorly taken and went against Portland. The remaining 11 – 44% – were just neutral.

Here’s how that’s going:

OpponentAdvantage gainedAdvantage LostNeutral
San Diego39%22%39%

Washington was roughly equal to Portland at throw-ins; 10 (40%) were effective improving their game state. Only two (8%) were turned over, though. The remaining 13 – 52% – were “neutral”.

One thing I do want to mention while we’re talking about throw-ins; Sam Staab.

That’s Staab about to huck a throw damn near 35 yards into the Thorns near post.

I first noticed this with Jessica McDonald; she can do this, too, and when she or Staab are within 18 yards of the goal it’s as good as a free or corner kick, and that’s a damn dangerous weapon.

How come we don’t have anyone who works the weight rooms hard enough to do this?

Seriously. That’s a hell of a weapon, and we should think about it.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+10/-2 : +9/-1 : +19/-3) Seriously? What more can I even say?

Weaver (79′ – +5/-0 : +5/-2 : +10/2) This is always the funnest part of Chaos Muppet:

She’s just such a goddamn Happy Warrior.

Nicely taken goal (though her only two minuses were shots that were more Weaveresquely off-target, so keep staying late for shooting drills, Weav…) and the devastatingly fast and dangerous winger match we’ve come to expect.

Vasconcelos (11′ – no rating)

Sugita (89′ – +12/-1 : +3/-0 : +15/-1) I can’t embed these little gifs, but it’s worth a look to go to the link to see the sort of 残心 that Hina-san embodies every match. The term is pronounced zanshin, and it means “…the continued state of spirit, mental alertness and physical readiness to meet an opponent…”

That’s Hina Soccer.

The lobbed assist on Smith’s third was a piece of art, too.

Porter (1′ – no rating) Pure timewasting.

Dunn (+7/-2 : +10/-0 : +17/-2) Remember in Chicago I wondered why – as good as she’s playing – Crystal Dunn didn’t seem to have a bigger impact on matches?

Well, she obviously got pissed off reading that, because she kicked this one’s ass. Terrific work on both sides of the ball, but particularly helping Coffey defensively and showing to take inlet passes.

There’s also this, in the 61st minute.

Looks like a legit penalty shout to me.

But Koroleva, so play on.

Sinclair (67′ – +7/-2 : +1/-2 : +8/-4) I want to give Sinc a pat on the head for having a decent first half. Not astounding, not really impactful, not terrific, just…decent. Some nice passes, some solid defending, a good workwomanlike shift in general.

And then I think; “…wait. This is Christine Sinclair. The legend. The GOAT.” and that just makes me sad.

Moultrie (23′ – +3/-0) Works out to something like +12/-0 over 90. So, good shift.

Coffey (+4/-0 : +5/-2 : +9/-2) Well played; the relatively low PMR owes a lot to Coffey getting actual help for a change.

Kuikka (+6/-5 : +4/-2 : +10/-7) Kind of like Sinc; not a terrific performance but so much better than her last couple of outings that I want to high-five her for being unremarkably solid, especially defending – six of her seven minuses are for passes or touches.

She’s on my Naughty List for turnovers, but all three were deep in Washington territory so were pretty much just irritating rather than harrowing.

Hubly (+5/-4 : +1/-2 : +6/-6) Same goes for Hubly; not perfect, but good, and with Smith running wild at the other end, good enough.

Menges (+2/-2 : +3/-4 : +5/-6) Couple of reeeeeally ugly moments (including one we’ll get to in just a sec) but like the rest of her backline sisters; good enough.

Still…these little derps in the middle of a solid win are what make me a bit nervous. It’s like Seattle; I’m worried that the fundamental issues are still there, just better for this one match. So I’m still keeping a hard eye on the backline.

Reyes (+2/-1 : +2/-1 :+4/-2) Had to handle Rodman, so had a lot to do and generally did that defending well, so good work, rook.

Hogan (+1/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0) Refreshingly boring.

This, mind you…

…is a terrific save. 76th minute, up by two but still lots of time, and Menges has made utter hash of “defending” Hatch. Hogan gets an arm out at pointblank range and is strong enough to block the shot, and blocks it wide rather than back in front of her goal.

I don’t know whether Bixby is done for the season. The risk is there; her confidence looked shaken in Chicago and then she’s sat for this one.

If she is done we’ll get a chance to see whether Hogan has the makings of a starter. I think so…but that’s a big step, and it’ll be fun to see if she can make it.

Coach Norris: Well, marra, your outfit won.

That’s a big deal, and I gotta give you props for that.

Now. This raises the real question I’ve been asking all post, the one for which I’m still unsure of the answer; did you learn things from Orlando and Chicago that helped with this one, or was this just Smith having a great day, Rodman having a crap one, and dumb luck? I still see lingering things about formations, tactics, and defending that might return to bite you in the ass.

I don’t think we have an answer. Yet.

And we still may not by next week, since the gawdawful Kansas City Current come to town to stick their Wooden Spoon in our pudding bowl. The internationals should be gone, so we’ll see how that impacts the match; KC will be missing only Desiree’ Scott, while Portland loses Smith, Dunn, and Sinclair from the starting list.

That’s for another day.

Today is just to enjoy a gift from Sophia Smith. Thanks. It was lovely.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Just like watching Brazil

  1. Great post and analysis John! I was starting to feel like the Thorns were the re-embodiment of Brazil, but you spotted some of the mistakes I saw but forgot about after the game was over. Also, thank you for the GIF of Hina’s fabulous play that Wowed the crowd and caused the play-by-play announcer to say it is great when the fans recognize the brilliance on the field and these fans do!
    I wasn’t surprised to see Bixby replaced and I hope that she can recover from that. I think there is a reason one of Nadine’s nicknames for her is “soft egg.” She is a good keeper and I know she will be back. Hogan did well too, but she needs to communicate better with her defenders.
    Now is the big test. Can Weaver step up even more; can Vasconselos go a full 90 and will we see prime Izzy? Reyes continues to impress. Our midfield will miss Sugita and Dunn’s contribution and Sinc’s gravitas, but I can see having Kling, Natu, Reyes and McGrady on the field at the same time. Porter and Nally are going to have to come up big. It won’t be the same offense without Smith. Even with a big strong, fast Weaver racing down the sideline wide open four players were focused on Smith.
    You are right about the long throw in Stabb’s were great but her teammates were not taking advantage. Weaver is capable, but I am not sureshe is good for 30 yards yet.

    1. I don’t want to be Debbie Downer. This WAS a good match, and while there were some things the squad could have done better, that’s always true. For me the real questions are 1) can they keep that level of effort up now that 2) the internationals are gone, so who’s gonna step up?

      I’m not sure on Bixby. I think it’s gonna depend on her own headspace and how this was handled by Angerer and Norris, and whether she’s going to return to league play or becomes the Cup starter.

      Washington did a decent job on those Staab throws, but they don’t seem to have plays written for them the way Carolina had for McDonald; if they do, then that could get sketchy quick…


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