Thorns FC: Bad Afternoon

In his postmortem of the 1916 Battle of Jutland Winston Churchill wrote of the commander of the British fleet that Sir John Jellicoe was “…the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

His fellow Brit Mike Norris beat Sir John to that by more than a tick, losing the Thorns’ opener to the Kansas City Current in only about half an hour.

There were some bright moments – the Thorns came back from 5-1 down to finish within a goal – but the squad never looked really put together and dangerous as a unit, the backline and keeper were a shambles in the first half, and the Thorns goals were largely the result of individual hero-ball from two players.


This group needs to get to work, and quickly, because Gotham is here this coming weekend looking for a turnabout after losing the Charity Shield (wait, that was the “Challenge Cup”? Well, I’ll be damned…) to San Diego.

We’ll go into depth in the player comments, but the bigger problems we saw in Kansas City were largely on coaching.


I honestly don’t have any sense for what Norris’ tactical plan was last weekend. It looked narrow and underdeveloped – which is on him – and disconnected – which was partially in the players – but also on Vlatko because KC did a good job disrupting the Thorns. Some horrific turnover problems didn’t help, either, which also seems more than likely on Norris’ for lack of preparation as it is on the players.

Credit to KCC for pressing high and disrupting what plan there was. The Current kept their shape and forced Portland to a standstill much of the match…

…and produced a lot of this:

Jessie Fleming brings the ball forward…but nobody’s making a run. She tries to push it up to Olivia Moultrie.

But Moultrie has no options forward either; Sinc is behind her, Weaver is too far left and Smith is marked. She dinks it back out to Sinclair for lack of a better idea.

That doesn’t get the Thorns anywhere; Sinc is standing still and the problems in front are still there. So back to Coffey.

Coffey has another go, this time inside to Jessie Fleming who’s moved up into some open space.

This is potentially dangerous, since Fleming has room to turn, so the Current defender immediately closes her down (and Fleming is too slow releasing the ball) and tackles Fleming, forcing her backwards.

Fleming holds on to the ball for Portland, but only by dropping all the way back to Hubly and we’ve spent five or ten seconds getting nowhere.

There was a lot of that, and a lot of turnovers, and what little I could see of actual attack looked like more of what we saw a lot of last season; Sophia Smith (or Janine Beckie) hero-ball, wherein the other Thorns would try and huck the ball up to (or in to) Smith – who was usually smothered by a couple of red shirts or three – for the poor woman to try and do magic with. OR one or the other hit a rasper from distance.

As you can see…

…it worked about as well as you’d expect.

Four goals on a PSxG of about two and a half, so mostly low-percentage shots that were brilliant or lucky or a bit of both.

At least three of Thorns four goals came from either Smith and Beckie personal heroism:
43′ – Jessie Fleming picks Lo’eau LaBonta’s pocket and feeds Smith, whose shot from 20 yards out beats Adrianna Franch to her near post, 3-1
70′ – A Sam Coffey corner is flicked on (by Isabella Obaze, I think…) to Janine Beckie at the back post. Beckie near-posts Franch, 5-2
74′ – Kelli Hubly strokes a long rainbow up to Beckie. Beckie turns and is tackled, but the KC defender can’t clear and the ball runs to Smith, who dribbles across the box against two defenders and slides a pretty strike the opposite way, beating Franch to her far corner, 5-3, and
90+1 – Beckie fires a 23-yard golazo over Franch into the far top corner, 5-4.

I suppose you can call the Beckie corner a team goal if you want, but the other three were pure individual brilliance. Smith and Beckie had a hell of a day. The rest of the team? Enh…let’s just say that they weren’t set up to help out much.


Player Selection

Norris started his usual 4-3-3 with an XI that had some real Norris-ball issues, issues we’ve seen before.

  1. Up front he started Christine Sinclair at right wing with both Hina Sugita and Janine Beckie on the bench. Despite being in as fresh as “early-season form legs” gets Sinc was too slow to impact the match; her pace looked as glacial as it did in October 2023.
  2. His midfield was largely ineffective (but I think that was more on Vlatko’s midfield being the usual nuisances), and
  3. The backline was a cobbled-together kludge. Nicole Payne started at RB (where Marie Muller had played in what we saw of preseason), Muller at LB (with Reyna Reyes on the bench), and Obaze in the LCB-Becky Sauerbrunn spot (understandable given ‘Brunn’s recent minutes with the Nats).

There was a huge issue between the sticks, but we’ll get there in a bit.

The real trainwreck was in back, where the defenders played like what they were, a pickup unit of players who’d barely shaken hands with each other. Two of the first three Kansas City goals – the goals that effectively knocked Portland on their heels and won KCC the match – were on the backline or the keeper or both.

Some of this was individuals having bad days. The first KC goal was a poster child for this; starting with a long pass down the right channel, with Obaze well ahead of a pursuing Debinha on the way to the byline. Shelby Hogan is drifting wide just in case.

As the ball, Obaze, and Hogan converge there’s a moment of weird confusion of the sort of thing that happens when teammates haven’t worked together enough to know who’s going to do what.

Is Hogan going to come out and clear? Obaze thinks she might, so she slows up. Is Obaze going to gain possession and pass out or clear away? Hogan isn’t sure, so she pulls up. Only Debinha knows what she’s doing, and continues steaming towards the ball.

Obaze realizes Hogan can’t collect, so she hustles back and squares the ball to Hogan. Debinha immediately bores in on the keeper.

Hogan is kind of stuck. Hubly has a player on her back, there’s no other outlet, so, instead, Hogan brainfarts and passes right back to Obaze – or, rather, to Debinha, who’s right in between them.

Debinha is spoiled for choice. She’s got Zanaretto for the drop and teammates arriving at the far post for the cross, but instead she bores in and shoots.

Hogan has the near post covered, but the ball skips off her arm and across the goal to Vanessa DiBernardo arriving at the far side of the goal for the tap-in, 1-nil.

Note all the unmarked red shirts in the box, too? Yeah, that.

But there was a lot of team problems involved. The five Current goals other than this one included:
25′ – A long cross that Muller headed away…but into the path of an unmarked Ellis Wheeler, 2-nil,
34′ – A well-worked goal from a DiBernardo through-ball to Zanaretto who had skinned Obaze and scored, 3-nil
64′ – an ugly collision between Hogan coming out to claim and Temwa Chawinga that jarred the ball loose. Kelli Hubly was in position to block Chawinga out but failed to check her six and let the Malawian blow past her, allowing Kristen Hamilton to pot the loose ball, 4-1, and
68′ – A cross in from Kristen Hamilton that Chawinga chested down for Alexandra Pfeiffer to put past Hogan, 5-1.

So two pretty nice team goals…but three pretty brutal concessions. Troubles in all places, and some people having a bad afternoon…

But I think this came down to management problems.

That included; 1) a lack of tactical direction that set the attack up to be stymied in the opening half-hour and led to, 2) a series of individual and collective errors that shipped crap goals and shook the already-shaky squad’s confidence, and then 3) failure from the gaffer to settle the squad down, either through direction from the sideline or through substitution, before the hole was too deep.

By the time the Thorns fought back into the match it was just little, too late.

We can take heart from the Thorns’ refusal to hang their collective heads.

But the bottom line is that Portland was thoroughly outplayed for a crucial half-hour and that resulted in Portland dropped their opening match for the first time since 2018.

Short Passes

Portland was not good on the ball, between unforced errors and the KC press; 76.8% completion. KCC was barely worse – about 75% – so both teams looked pretty sloppy.

Sadly, Arielle Dror no longer posts those lovely passing diagrams, but Sofascore points out that several Thorns had unusually poor nights passing; Weaver at 54% completion was dreadful, but Coffey’s 78% is almost shockingly low for her. Even the better passers all hovered around 75-78%.

Here’s the SofaScore position diagram for Portland; starters on the left, subs on the right:

Payne is a typical Norrisball pushed-up fullback, but Muller isn’t and we’ll talk about why in her comment. Notice the narrow first half midfield that spreads out a bit once Olivia Wade-Katoa and Hina Sugita come on.

Other than the lack of width there’s not much here to see here; we’ve seen this from Norris all last season.

Here’s the Current:

Jamming up the midfield?

Yep. That’s Vlatko; make things crowded and ugly.

Goalkeeper Distribution

I had the two keepers fairly even; Hogan with about 6 long balls, Franch with 4.

Here’s Hogan:

Hogan obviously gets massive stick for the short lateral turnover pass in the 22nd minute.

But she also had a very poor goal kick in the 78th minute that Hailey Mace picked off OWK’s foot, skinned Reina Reyes, and crossed, luckily to nobody. Other than that, no real issues other than none of her long kicks or punts stayed with Portland, especially the three that went to or past midfield.

Hogan is not a great distributor (no Angerer keeper is, or was) but I’m not convinced that’s really an issue, but she certainly didn’t change that last weekend.

Franch had quieter, and better, day.

Three completed downfield passes of four attempts.

Again; we’re seeing the effect of the whole “goalkeeper distribution depends on the field players more than anything else and is seldom decisive one way or the other” factor.

Turnover and over.

Here’s last season’s table

Opponent (Result) – 2023Turnovers
Orlando (L)18
Chicago (W)18
Washington (W)10
Kansas City (L)27
Gotham (L)33
Carolina (W)17
Washington (D)36
Louisville (L)43
Seattle (W)15
San Diego (L)49
NJ/NY Gotham (W)21
Angel City (L)60
Gotham (L)37 (17)

Here’s the first entry in the 2024 table:

Opponent (Result) – 2024Turnovers
Kansas City (L)43

The Thorns showed last season that if they turned the ball over more than roughly 30 times in a match they’d probably lose; Washington away was the outlier, and even that was a 1-1 draw.

In Kansas City last weekend they proofed the rule; 43 turnovers – 27 in the first half – and a loss.

The big offender was Fleming; 10, five in each half. Sam Coffey shipped in eight, a horrible day for the usually tidy DM. Both fullbacks coughed up five apiece, Weaver four, and Hubly four as well. Hogan’s single error was catastrophic, so numbers aren’t everything.

Corner Kicks

Six. All long, two first half, four second.

2′CoffeyLine driveTo Weaver, whose heavy touch went out for a goal kick.
41′CoffeyLongAgain to Weaver, who knocked it down to Hubly, whose blast rang off the far post! Unlucky, recycled, but Weaver’s header went to Franch.
46′CoffeyLongInto the crowd and cleared easily.
58′CoffeyLongPoorly placed; too close to Franch for the easy take.
67′CoffeyLongHeaded to Franch by a teammate.
70′CoffeyLongObaze headed on to Beckie, who scored to bring the match to 5-2.

A goal and a damn-near-goal in six attempts is outstanding production from corner kicks.


First full match tracking Portland throw-ins in 2024.

I had the Thorns taking a total of 24 throw-ins; 12 in each half. KCC took 27 total; 15 first half, 12 second.

Of Portland’s throws 15 (62.5%) resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. 7 (29%) were poorly taken and went against Portland. The other 2, (8.3%) were just neutral; kept possession but nothing going forward.

The Current got an advantage from 16 of 27 (59.2) and lost 9 (40.8); none were neutral.

Here’s how that’s going:

OpponentAdvantage gainedAdvantage lostOpponent gainOpponent loss
Kansas City62.5%8.3%59.2%40.1%

That’s terrific; one of the best throw-in days the Thorns have had during the period I’ve been tracking this.

I tracked the full suite of throw-in data I used in the “Tossup” post in order to do a similar analysis at the end of this season, so that’ll be coming along before the end of the year.

Tifo fund ran a trifle short?

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (75′ – +4/-0 : +8/-2 : +12/-2) Rough day at the office for Sophia Smith, who worked like a beast to get the brace and still couldn’t drag three points out of this. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes…

D’Aquila (15′ – no rating) Another invisible D’Aquila outing.

Weaver (+7/-4 : +7/-2 : +14/-6) Lots of her usual hard work, not much to show for it, to some extent because her passing was so off. I didn’t see her usual synergy with Smith from this one, and I wonder if the truncated preseason wasn’t enough to knock off the rust.

Sinclair (45′ – +3/-2) That the Thorns “lost” the first half 3-1 isn’t because Sinc was the RW. But Sinc at RW for 45 minutes sure as hell didn’t help; slow, static, and since the Thorns were largely immobile Sinc’s one real remaining skill – her flicks and through-balls – were negated. The waste of the half was driven home by her replacement…

Beckie (45′ – +10/-1) Woman of the Match for me; tireless, creative, and dangerous. Found the space that Sinc was too slow to find, and to exploit, and then exploited what she found. On a day the team wasn’t playing well Beckie was a pleasing exception.

Moultrie (62′ – +1/-3 : +2/-0 : +3/-3) Largely uninvolved and ineffective when she was, and I’m not sure why. Very muted outing from young Livvy.

Sugita (28′ – +3/-0) Unfortunately as Moultrie’s replacement Hina-san also had a mostly-ineffective outing. I suspect that had as much to do with the team’s overall dysfunction as a unit rather than with Sugita herself, as well as the short workup time.

Coffey (75′ – +5/-4 : +1/-1 : +6/-5) Another of the Thorns’ strugglers. Like Smith, possibly because she missed so much of the team’s workup this winter? Whatever the reasons, we need her back up to speed ASAP.

Olivia Wade-Katoa (15′ – +1/-2) Not much of a factor.

Fleming (+6/-4 : +4/-1 : +10/-5) Did a lot of hard work in the midfield but with no visible tactical direction not much to show for it. Issues with turnovers, as discussed. Not an awful outing as an individual, but will need more coordination with her teammates if the squad is going to improve from this.

Muller (+2/-12 : +5/-2 : +7/-14) What flaws didn’t Muller’s first half expose? Positioning? Anticipation? Ballwatching? All there! I’m not surprised she looked out of synch with her backline, given their lack of experience. It was the individual errors for a player with over 100 professional matches that was so shocking,

Tightened up in the second half, so, better. But my, my, that first 45 minutes were ug-lee.

Obaze (+4/-4 : +4/-1 : +8/-5) Of the three noobs in the backline Obaze did the best work of the job they had. I think having Hubly back there with her helped, but she looked as good as anyone did in back, which in this case is kind of damning with faint praise. Still, credit where it’s due, and she had some nice plays.

Hubly (+3/-1 : +9/-5 : +12/-6) When the Great Wall of Hubly is your Great Wall..?

Seriously, though; Hubs did what she could amid the flaming wreckage. Not her fault that the gaffer’s “plan” came apart within minutes of the kickoff.

Payne (75′ – +7/-7 : +2/-2 : +9/-9) Young Nicole Payne had some bright moments; I think Sofascore’s rating…

…is more than a trifle harsh. Not a great match for the loan from PSG, but worse than Sinc? Or Hogan?

Ouch. I thought Payne had some promise. Can do better, I think, but we’ll see.

Reyes (15′ – +2/-2) Another Thorn having an uncomfortable day, including some pretty rookie-looking defensive goofs, including a weird attempted headed-clearance in the 78th minute that put Chawinga in on goal. Not her usually composed self.

Hogan (+1/-2 : +0/-2 : +1/-4) Let’s be brutal; neither goalkeeper who played at CPKC Stadium last week had a good day:

As of today Shelby Hogan is statistically the worst goalkeeper in the league, Franch the next-worst. At least there’s lots of room for improvement.

Let’s call it the world’s worst case of rookie nerves and hope that the improvement comes quickly.

Coach Norris: Well. That was reet down the nettie, eh, man?

I know I’ve said this before, but the thing I want to see from you this season is learning.

Last season you were a sort of panic hire and had to work with what you found. There were consistent problems that you never seemed to solve; formations, rosters, tactics. But a lot of that had to have been making it up as you went along.

This year it’s your team. You had the offseason and preseason (such as it was) to work them up the way you want, and run them out to do what you believe will work.

If so, last weekend…wasn’t a very good example.

This coming weekend, though…you’ve got Gotham storming in with a stacked roster and a chip on their shoulders, and you can show them, and us, what you learned from this debacle.

Your team showed fight, damn near clawing back a fucking four goal deficit.

Now it’s on you to show them how they can play so’s not to have to do that.

Can you?

I guess we’ll see.

And as for Kansas City…glad we could help you have Big Fun, pals.

We’ll see you here in June to find out if we can wipe that goddamn smile off y’all’s faces.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

11 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Bad Afternoon

  1. Hello John. I think you were quite kind with your words about theThorns and those in charge. My son texted me after KC had 3, saying “the thorns are getting crushed.” He was kind as well

    As for this weekend’s game, Coach Norris better put his best most cohesive team on the field ready to play and win. The Bhatals will be watching again, with high expectations. Can’t imagine another loss would sit well. (Plus they need to get Smith on a new contract.)

    I could be wrong, of course, perhaps the Bhatals won’t pull any strings quickly. But they did invest a few dollars.

    Will be good to be back at PP.

    1. I think I made pretty clear that my read on this match was that 1) Norris made several damaging errors, including his XI, his “tactics” (such as they were) and his match-management (not doing something to stop the rout before the half…) and that 2) several players – more than a few players – were having very bad days. The first 30-40 minutes were what your son called it; a brutal beatdown (by a Current squad that I don’t think is really that much stronger!).

      That said…the Thorns DID keep on fighting. One issue I have had with this club in the past is that they tended to hang their heads when things went badly. Down by three or four goals is about as “bad” as it gets, but this squad didn’t check out. Had Hubly’s corner kick attempt been half a foot to the right we might have salvaged a (admittedly appalling) 5-5 draw…

      The thing we don’t and can’t know is how this weird and unusual preseason plays into this. Like I said in the post, I suspect that there was an unusually high degree of confusion and delay resulting from the inertia of the sale, the absence of the internationals and the lack of tune-up games. So Norris & Co. might have more rope than we’d otherwise believe. Gotham is going to be a load and they’ve had an additional week to prepare. If we lose? I won’t be shocked.

      But…yes. The squad can’t look like they did in Kansas City for too many more games. If we lose Sunday…that sucks. But if we get run out like we did for half an hour in KC? No, that’s not acceptable.

      We’ll just have to see,

      (And as a note…Smith has every reason in the world to wait until the end of the season to open negotiations re: extension. I wouldn’t stress if we don’t hear anything until then. If she wants to stay here in October? She’ll sign. But I’d be surprised if she did that in April.)

  2. Its ridiculous to think Norris may have tanked on purpose as a commentary on the quality (or lack thereof) of the new signings. But, that’s kind of what it looked like when the lineup came out. Of course no coach would do that, but it begs the question, how did we get here.
    I feel like this team has been bargain shopping for the last year; cutting expensive vets, signing no name int.s and rookies. Sticking with a bargain basement coach. Even our big signing from Canada couldn’t start in the WSL. The sins of the “Father” are coming home to roost this year. Its a shame that its during Smiths last year with us.

    1. As I noted, the issues we saw in KC were issues we saw in 2023. I didn’t see anything that suggested a newly-deep level of managerial dysfunction. That level needs to rise, though, and most quick smart.

      So the two big “expensive vet” departures from 2023 were Dunn – who (I think) had a case of the atomic red ass about her hubby getting shitcanned – and Kuikka, who I think was undervalued by LeBlanc and lost, so that was a gotcha. Menges wanted out for reasons related to her affair with the gaffer in ’22, and Rodriguez for Fleming is kind of a wash.

      The question now is 1) are the newcomers like Muller and Obaze and Dias and Mackenzie good enough to give the FO credit, and 2) is Norris really “bargain basement”?

      If he welds them into a successful club this season, the answers are “yes” and “no”.

      But we’re just going to have to see what happens,

  3. That was a brutal game to watch. The lack of communication on the back line was particularly galling, especially from a group that should have been practicing all pre-season long. The midfield being a mess was more understandable, since they really had no time in the pre-season to work together. Even with Coffey and Moultre on the National Team, it probably didn’t give them much time to work together. If there is one thing that the coaching staff needs to focus on for the next game its getting the backline to talk to one another.
    Some random thoughts from me, Obaze looked decent out there. She made errors, sure, but she didn’t look out of place. Payne was another issue. Really nice pace, but I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to do. Mueller got better throughout the game. But she looks out of place on defense. These comments don’t bode well for the upcoming season.

    1. As I noted, there’s real questions about what “all pre-season long” consisted of. The Nats were away for a ton of it, the sale banjaxed things until January, there was only one serious tune-up match (maybe two if the Reign scrimmage here was taken seriously). I suspect that Norris & Co. had a lot less time than they’d have liked to get ready for opening day. A lot of the hero-ball may have been because there just wasn’t enough time for this group to practice more sophisticated tactics…

      Still doesn’t excuse the gross malfunctions. A player of Muller’s experience shouldn’t have looked that pollaxed for three-quarters of an hour. Hogan shouldn’t have been making grotesque Goalkeeping 101 errors. Why play Muller on the left (Reyes!) and Payne on the right (Muller!). Why start Sinc over Beckie?

      Now it’s important that the coaching staff see these issues and fix them. If they can, and do? The season might be just fine.

      But we’ll see over the next month or so whether that happens…

  4. Nice analysis. I’m no fan of Norris, but I think he was partially hamstrung in this match by not having the national team players until two days before the game. It’s hard to get a team to play coherently in that time. On the flip side, he didn’t need to start that backline (why start Reyes on the bench?!), and his blinder about Sinclair continues from last year.

    I can’t see us doing well against Gotham, though their injury list gives a smidgen of hope. My expectations are low: I just want to see us playing more as a *team* than we saw last week.

    P.S. In the “Tactics” section, the second screenshot shows Fleming, not Coffey, passing up to Moultrie.

    1. Yes to both your observations. Norris & Co. were hemmed in, not having the Nats and also, I think, having a short and insufficient set of tune-ups. But his XI was a self-inflicted wound, and his tactics seemed no different than the hero-ball we played a shot-ton of last season.

      Good catch on the screenshot. I’ll fix that.

  5. I think if Norris starts Sinclair Sunday he is, I don’t know maybe delusional. I love Sinc, but looking at your player ratings 7 of the starters had a better second half than their first half. The player (Beckie) who replaced Sinc had an awesome second half. The players whose second half was not better were Hogan, Coffey and Payne.
    Starting Sinc was one problem, the backline positions were another and both Liv and Coffey looked like they were playing with heavy legs. Sam had an excellent Gold Cup, but the work she did against Brazil should have been factored in. Hina did not look her best and maybe she had a knock and a horrendous commute. I think either Fleming, Kling or who ever has been playing 6 while Sam was on National team duty should have started at the six, because the midfield was a mess. So there were issues with other players. Müller’s face at the end of the game showed that she knew she she had a rough outing, I think we will see better from her this week.
    I said on STF that I feel optimistic about this team. But I have one disclaimer: quoting you… Can this coach make an egg salad salad sandwich with an egg, mayonnaise and bread? I will allow it was the first game some players had little time in preseason together, but Come on Mike!

    1. Unfortunately I think we’re gonna see more Sinc; she’s obviously not going to sit until someone forces her, and nobody in the current management seems willing to do that.

      Kling was kind of a mess at the six when we tried that with the Replacements last summer. Fleming is an AM, and the other backup DM (Provenzano) is on the SEI list. I don’t think Norris had another good option there.

      Just like last season, on paper this is a pretty decent (i.e. playoff quality) roster, so it’s not unrealistic to be hopeful about their chances overall. But (I know, broken record…) a team of lions led by a donkey..? We know how that goes.

      I hope to see a win tomorrow. But, at the very least, a LOT better team play than this. If we still look this random…

      1. I will remember this at the end of the season if the Thorns are not at least in the semi-finals because I think they are one of the four best teams in the league in terms of starting talent.
        This will be my lament: “A team of lions led by a donkey..? We know how that goes.”
        That was perfect!


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