Thorns FC: Deja Vu All Over Again

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

On a cold rainy evening NJ/NY Gotham FC comes to Portland.

Both clubs need wins, coming off rough outings and looking underprepared and overrun during their previous matches.

The game that evening is tough and tight.

Chances are few, and neither club can manage to put together enough final quality to finish the few they get.

Finally, with the game drawing down, one defensive error ships a Gotham goal that the Thorns have no answer for, and the match ends 0-1.

Thought you’d find that familiar.

The thing about last weekend was that it was damn near a replay of the 2023 semifinal in spirit if not in matchplay. As I said then: “In a match like this it was always going to come down to who had a moment of brilliance or a bolt of luck.” Or who made a mistake.

And once again, it did.

Still, there were some elements to this match that are worth discussing.

The Thorns Attack: the good and the bad…

In the comments after the match I read a lot of woe that the Thorns didn’t really try to play through the midfield, or even use their midfielders, preferring to go direct to Sophia Smith.

There’s a lot of truth to that.

The good side of having a Smith is it gives you a big fucking hammer.

When you have a big hammer, you swing the big hammer. But. The bad side is that it can make it tempting to neglect the other weapons, and if your opponent can figure out how to block the swing you can end up disarmed.

The Thorns need more weapons, and need to use them better.

But there’s more to it that just that. Because the Thorns could show some pretty team play. The weapons are there, if the club remembers to use them.

I’m talking about stuff like this sequence, from the 68th minute, which I loved so much I screenshotted it.

It begins with a Marie Muller throw-in along the west touchline.

Becky Sauerbrunn is open for a lateral throw but the only other Thorn nearby is Morgan Weaver, who’s well covered fore and aft and, as we discussed, forward throw-ins are the lowest-percentage of the throw-in options.

But Muller is pretty good at this throwing stuff, so she hucks it and dimes Weaver, who does a little Weaver magic; sticking out a boot and sidefooting it inside and forward to Sam Coffey, who anticipates the pass and runs onto it.

Notice that what helps is Emily Sonnett (hi, Sonny! Thanks for that!) is caught pushing up anticipating Weaver going inside (or just hoofing it away, or just Sonny goofing as one does…) giving Coffey a ton of space:

Coffey then finds Christine Sinclair moving to space and slides the ball up to her.

Sinc is, as some of you may have noticed, not pacey anymore and can’t break lines the way she once did. She has to circle back and reverse direction, evading the Gotham midfield as it collapses on her, looking for an outlet.

The Gotham backline is well-disciplined, and are holding Olivia Moultrie, Jessie Fleming, and (on the far side) Sophia Smith with the trap. Only Weaver has room to run as Sinc dribbles back towards the west touchline.

Still looking for an outlet, Sinc passes out wide to Weaver and – here’s the important part – turns inside herself and makes a upfield run.

Weaver picks that up and plays the 1-2 through ball to Sinc, who’s burning (as fast as she can burn these days, anyway…) to the byline.

With the headstart Sinc gets to the byline and sees Jessie Fleming steaming up into the penalty area.

Now I give Sinc a lot of stick, but she’s got a shit-ton of soccer intelligence and experience so this cross is one she can create in her sleep.

She does, knocking in the drop-cross as Fleming arrives near the top of the six.

Here, though, is where the “good team play – up to a point” issue comes clumping in.

Because Fleming is alone.

There’s no other Thorn crashing the box, to give Sinc another option or, better yet, to draw Gotham defenders off Fleming. Instead there’s a blue shirt pasted on her Canadian butt like a bad maple leaf tattoo.

Moultrie and Weaver are way behind the play, and Smith is too far off the back post to draw any defensive attention.

So Fleming’s defender bundles her off the ball…

…and a thankful Cassie Miller bolts off her line and collects.

But goddamn if that’s not a nice team buildup!

Seven touches between four players over sixteen seconds and spanning half the pitch, and resulting in an if-there-was-a-Hina Sugita-to-make-an-off-the-ball-run away from a dangerous chance or half-chance.

So it’s not that the Thorns can’t do this sort of stuff.

It’s because – it’s my guess, anyway – they’re being coached to do this sort of stuff, instead, like they did in the 38th minute:

Fleming sees Smith bolting upfield and slots a good ball through the midfield. Smith takes it in stride and begins to do Sophia Smith Things:

Go, go, Speed Racer. She’s beating both Sonnett and Neely Martin like redheaded stepchildren. Only the backline awaits.

But the Gotham backline is waiting, just like Coach Amoros has set it up; Tierna Davidson is there, cuts Smith’s run short, and forces her to turn outside towards the corner flag.

Notice a similarity with the first sequence at this point, though?

Yeah. There’s no other pinkish-red-Dorito-shirts to be seen.

Finally one does arrive, Janine Beckie to the outside…but giving Smith just an overlap and not much of one at that.

Where’s the teammate(s) to Smith’s right, pulling defenders or offering a square or lead pass?

Nowhere, is where.

Smith is forced to shoot and shoots wide with Miller, who’s covering her near post like a rug, and the play is over.

The bottom line for the Thorns attack was not that it was too direct per se – it was – but that it had only one weapon most of the time.

Amoros’ set his squad up to defend Smith – to wrap up the Big Hammer in yards and yards of bubble wrap – and most of the time it worked, because Smith was often the only dangerous part of the Thorns attack.

And when Amoros cunning plan didn’t work…

…and the Offside

The Thorns’ timing was off.

Smith was offside when she did score.


Here’s the first callback; third minute, Weaver puts Smith through along the east touchline, Smith beats everyone (including Miller), and it’s 1-nil.

Except…well, you tell me. The screenshot above sure looks to me like a Gotham arm is keeping Smith onside.

The AR and CR disagreed with me, and theirs are the only votes that count.

Then there was the 60th minute.

Oh, my, the 60th minute.

Smith fought through the Gotham backline and hit a goddamn golazo.

I mean it; Goal of the Week stuff, far top corner, just pretty enough to frame. It had the old barn exploding in cheers and smoke.


Well, shit. Yep. That’s offside. Hell, Smith, and Moultrie and Beckie are all offside.


Offside is one of those “if you’re not cheating you’re not trying, but if you get caught you’re not trying hard enough” things. Good forwards are going to get called, often several times a game.

In this game, as we saw above, the Thorns attack still has some issues; often too single-optioned, with Smith lacking consistent support, the result one-dimension and uncreative.

But the thing is, even then, the talent on the pitch in players like Weaver and Smith is such that it still can work. Two tough (and possibly one iffy) offside calls and two goals are wiped away.

Sometimes it’s not all on the Thorns; sometimes its sheer bad luck and timing and – let’s give credit where it’s due – a disciplined and well-coached opponent.

Anything else?

Impact Subs: got some?

Janine Beckie isn’t 90-minutes fit, and so Mike Norris had to make one of his Hour Subs. He needed some firepower, what with his squad trying to break down Amoros’ Wall.

Who’d he have on the bench..?

I know, I know.

We cringe at Sinc now…but what the fuck were his other options? Here’s his 3/24 bench in the 65th minute:
1 keeper (Kozal),
1 veteran midfielder (Sugita),
1 veteran fullback (Klingenberg),
1 sophomore forward who has been utterly ineffective for over a year (D’Aquila), and
4 rookies or new signings (Mackenzie, Wade-Katoa, Obaze, and Sheva)

So an aging forward, and aging fullback, a gifted midfielder (but not a striker or a huge goalscoring threat), a young forward who has shown NO real evidence of quality, and four players who have a total of less than 90 minutes in Thorns red between them.

In the small-roster world of the NWSL it’s hellaciously difficult to keep a dangerous player on the bench. If they can play, they will be playing.

But there has to be some quality in reserve…and right now?

That reserve quality, that game-changing impact sub, just isn’t there. I’m not saying Norris’ roster decisions have been terrific. They were better last weekend than in Kansas City, but there’s still some problems that we’ll discuss in the Comments.

But some of the problem is the same as it was last season; once you get past the starting XI, there’s a big drop-off, and there’s only so much the guy has to work with.

Defending; it’s a full-time job

So the Thorns had problems creating, and when they didn’t, the timing was off just enough. Sucks to be us, then.

But after a five-goal rout, a scoreless draw is better, no?

Well…to do that you kinda gotta see off every danger, and so when in the 72nd minute…

…Gotham substitute right back Brunina has possession and tons of space to pick out substitute forward Yazmeen Ryan and hit a long pass up to her the game is afoot.

Muller and Sauerbrunn have the run covered pretty well, though, so Ryan has to dribble to the byline looking for a hopeful cross in.

There’s not many teammates coming up in support. Just Esther Gonzales near the penalty spot.

Looks like the Thorns backline is still organized and on the alert, until…

…Gonzales pops up inside a little square of Doritos, utterly unmarked, to take the cross and pot the easy goal.

Well, shit. (I seem to be saying that a lot about this match).

If you force me, I’ll blame Kelli Hubly for this derp; everyone around Esther is ballwatching, but it’s Hubly who stabs at the cross, suggesting she realizes too late that she should be as tight on Esther as her counterpart was on Fleming just four minutes earlier.

Defending should be be boring, a relentless game-long slog. You don’t get – sorry, Hubs – to switch off for a moment until the final whistle.

The Thorns’ backline did. It didn’t cost them three points – the issues up front and the offside flag saw to that – but it cost them the one they were hanging on to.


Kansas City was just a shitshow. Tactically, technically, player selection, just a cascading clusterfuck of poor coaching ideas and poor player execution.

This…was not.

Just like the semifinal, this match could easily have gone either way. Both clubs looked well prepared, both played well in general. Amoros’ Gotham had the discipline, the persistence, the luck, and the help of Portland’s defense taking a nap, and made it count.

The real question is; now what?

Short Passes

Both teams were pretty meh; 72%. Sam Coffey’s work had improved mightily from Kansas City; up to 86% completion, Fleming was outstanding at 88% and Muller was a solid 75%. The troubled players were Beckie (60%) and Sinc (54%).

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

The Kansas City plots were ugly; narrow and clumped in midfield. The spacing in a lot better here, and it showed in play.

The right-hand plot points out the Sinclair Problem; she was supposed to replace Smith at center-forward with Smith moving into Beckie’s right-wing spot.

But Smith is a center-forward, and so she ends up jamming the top of the arch where Sinc is playing, too.

That’s not really productive-looking, and it wasn’t.


Holy Packing The Back, Batman! Can you say “Low Block”, kids? That second half is bruuu-tal.

Turnover and over.

Here’s how things are going

Opponent (Result) – 2024Turnovers
Kansas City (L)43
Gotham (L)30

We noted last time that when the Thorns turned the ball over more than roughly 30 times in a match they’d probably lose.

In Kansas City two weeks ago? 43 turnovers and a loss.

This was better, but just on the balance-point. Not really tidy, not all over hell like Matchday One, still a loss.

The Biggest Loser last weekend was Moultrie; seven giveaways. Beckie lost the ball five times, Smith and Muller four, nobody else with more than two. Hogan was much improved.

Corner Kicks

Three. One long, two short, two first half, one second.

10′CoffeyShortTo Moultrie, who dropped to Muller. Muller put a nice cross on Beckie’s head but the header went wide left.
45+1′MoultrieLongInto the crowd and cleared away.
90+2′CoffeyShortTo Moultrie and then back to Coffey. Coffey’s long cross found Sinc this time for a decent chance, but the angle was tight and the header went to Miller.

Another good evening for the results of setpiece practice; two good looks from three attempts? That’s fine.


Second full match tracking Portland throw-ins in 2024.

I had the Thorns taking a total of 35 throw-ins; 20 in the first half, 15 in the second. Gotham took 21 total; 11 first half, 10 second.

Of Portland’s throws 22 (62.8%) resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. 8 (22.8%) were poorly taken and went against Portland. The other 5, (14.2%) were either neutral – that is, kept possession but produced nothing going forward – or I was unable to see.

The broadcast directors have an annoying habit of cutting away from play during throw-ins to show random players, coaches, or fans, and this match was particularly bad for that.

The Current got an advantage from 12 of 21 (57.1%) and lost 8 (38%); one wasn’t observed.

Here’s how that’s going:

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

N = 2 is pretty small. But so far it sure looks like either the squad has been working on throws…or Muller is making a big difference.

We’ll keep tracking this.

Sadly, they only flowed the wrong direction…

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+14/-1 : +11/-6 : +25/-7) Obvious choice for Woman of the Match. Everything we discussed above. Smith is, at this point, arguably the best player in the league.

The big news is that, with free agency ahead at the end of the season and a rocky opening to this year’s campaign Smith signed a one year contract extension.

That’s a hell of a huge vote of confidence in the club and the new ownership.

Now the club and the owners have to justify that confidence.

Weaver (+8/-4 : +9/-6 : +17/-10) Morgan Weaver is listed as taking two shots and putting one on frame in more than 100 minutes.

Shit, Sinclair had two and one in less than half of that time.

I’m not sure why Weaver isn’t getting looks, but without her adding firepower the whole Smith Defending thing becomes a whole lot easier for our opponents.

Beckie (64′ – +9/-5 : +0/-0 : +9/-5) Passing issues, and gassed in the second half. After Kansas City she kind of gets a pass for this one, but, like Weaver, Smith needs more help from her than this going forward.

Sinclair (26′ – +7/-1) In her own right? A good shift. As an indicator of team issues? Troubling.

Moultrie (+7/-7 : +10/-4 : +17/-11) Like Sinclair, a decent individual game. Also like Sinclair, a puzzling indicator of things not working right for the club. For all her quality Moultrie didn’t make the Thorns midfield look more lethal.

That suggests it’s more on coaching that individual quality. It’s up to Mike Norris to fit these pieces together to work best, as well as to outwit his opponents’ plan to take them apart. His plan didn’t even begin in Kansas City, and here didn’t survive contact with the enemy. That’s gotta change for the club to climb the table.

Fleming (78′ – +7/-2 : +3/-1 : +10/-3) Very much like Moultrie; good shift, not productive as part of a group.

As we discussed, part of that is tactical; Norris has been playing his squad direct up to Smith, meaning the midfield is muted. But part of that is seeing things like the 68th minute and wondering why the midfield can’t or won’t play that way more often.

Sugita (12′ – +4/-1) That extrapolates out to +30/-7 over 90 minutes.

At this point I’m not sure the rationale for starting either Fleming or Moultrie over Sugita. Neither of the two has been awful, but neither has shown any sort of synergy. Hina-san was electric for much of last season, and this midfield needs a jump-start. Worth a shot, anyway.

Coffey (+6/-1 : +6/-0 : +12/-1) “See: midfield”, above. Good individual work? Check. Troubling as part of a unit? Check.

Reyes (+9/-3 : +2/-1 : +11/-4) It’s difficult to pump a backline when you lose 0-1, but Reyes did a hell of a job, bossing both Midge Purce and Crystal Dunn until the first limped off and the second was yanked after an hour with no shots and 68% passing on only 19 attempts. That’s the sort of defending that just gives me a big warm fuzzy.

Hubly (+5/-1 : +4/-2 : +9/-3) You Can’t. Switch. Off.


(Picking up where she left off last season. Hubs has reverted to the “89 minutes of solid defending, one minute of sheer terror” issue she had for several seasons as a reserve and spot starter. I’m not sure why, but it’s sure ugly when that minute arrives…)

Sauerbrunn (+3/-1 : +5/-3 : +8/-4) Solid defensive shift; the minuses are all for passing.

Muller (+7/-3 : +13/-3 : +20/-6) Hell of a match from a player I like more every time I see her. Intelligent pushing up (which, since this is Norrisball, she has to be) and a rock in back. Almost never caught upfield, which is another Norrisball-must.

Hogan (+0/-1 : +0/-3 : +0/-4) Not really at fault on the concession, which was on her backline, but Shelby Hogan still doesn’t look composed. Perfect example; 65th minute, Jenna Nighswonger (?) strikes a long free kick that Hogan tracks all the way in…then fumbles the take, spilling the ball with a Gotham player at her doorstep.

Fortunately for Hogan the ball ran past the Batwoman (Stengal? Couldn’t make out a number) and Hogan scurried out to make the pickup.

I think we’re still looking for a full match from Hogan. That needs to happen, and soon.

Coach Norris: Hmmm.

Remember last week, when I said what I was looking for from you was “learning”?

Okay, well, this week was better. Lots better.

But it still ended in tears, and that needs to change most quick smart. Bottom line is that Amoros’ plan worked, yours didn’t – again – and we’re bottom of table with no points from two.

I understand the problems; it’s not easy and it’s not simple trying to assemble this squad on the fly with depth issues and new faces. But that’s your job.

This coming weekend we’ve got Louisville. They’re not great – 0-0-2, 2 points – but right now they’re better than we are, and we need to change that.

Your ball, coach.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

14 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Deja Vu All Over Again

  1. Agree with everything you said. Would add:
    * Gotham got four yellow cards for fouls on Soph Smith; hacking her was also part of the plan.
    * This is the role for Sinc to make a contribution. I’ve been critical of her when she starts but she made a difference off the bench.
    * Muller was excellent.
    * Hoping Linnehan might be an impact off the bench and maybe Dias too?

    1. So, in order:
      1) Physical force is always part of defending, so the cards are (and should be) expected. I think having more options going forward might help, since it’d force opponents to distribute their energy and spread the cards out among other Thorns.
      That said…PRO is far too lax allowing defenders to thug it up. Fans come to see goals and glory, not gifted players stretchered off.
      2) Yes and no. She had a good shift…but in hockey terms it was a -1; she couldn’t do enough to find the Thorns a goal and while she was on her defense shipped one.
      The thing with Sinc is that, while as a sub she’s still a decent squad player…that’s ALL she is. She’s no longer the gamebreaker she was five or ten years ago.
      We just don’t have that, and that’s part of the “Smith or Nothin'” problem.
      3) Yep.
      4) No idea. Rookies and noobs are black boxes. Could be peaches, could be lunch meat. Could one? Or both? Be huge? Sure! But that’s the coach’s JOB; to figure out if they can, and how they can, and make that happen. Right now all we have is hope (which, if you recall, is not a plan…)

  2. Im subbing Sinc for Moultrie, Starting Hina and subbing Beckie in for Hina or Weaver (depending on who needs it more). More of a 4-4-2 than the 4-3-3 we seem to be married to. Embrace the counter attack!

    1. In my perfect world Hina-san starts. Not sure if it’s for Moultrie or Fleming (or Beckie??) and whoever comes off joins Sinc as late match sub.

      As we discussed in the “Final Grades” post about the midfield, I’m fairly certain you won’t see a 4-4-2 – either the conventional or a diamond – from Norris. He’s got two formations; this one and the double pivot 4-2-3-1.
      But when he ran out the double pivot he tended to use either Dunn or Rodriguez for the other #6. True, he used Sugita, but only twice (and, frankly, Sugita is wasted at the six).

      I’d be curious to see how this team looks running a counter. Right now I’d be worried that the defense wouldn’t be able to withstand that long a period of pressure. But we’ll see if things change for Louisville.

  3. Regarding Weaver, do you think her roll will have to adjust with Mueller’s play? Mueller is a lot more mobile than Kling, who Weaver played in front of last year. Maybe Weaver hasn’t identified – or coaching has not provided a tactical plan for – where to best use her with Muller being able to get up and down the left side and provide service as well as she did this match.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. If those two could start playing together that left side would murderers alley. Kind of like the way Emily Fox plays on the National team with whoever is on the wing on her side. that would help pull play away from the center and give Soph more room to operate. Right now she is not getting a lot of help from Beckie or Weaver, but that is not due to a lack of speed. I think with Hina playing in the midfield instead of Moultrie we might see more stretching the field.
      Louisville has an experienced attack with Erceg, Pickett, and Wright, but they seem to be slowing down. Hopefully this weekend the Thorns can pick them apart. We will see!

      1. Oops Erceg, Pickett and Wright are defenders and three of my favorite non-Thorn defenders. All three are tall and Wright is pretty fast but last year Weaver had her number. When Raso was here Wright was one defender that completely nerfed her but that was five years, a baby and a different team ago for Arin Wright. I am hoping Weaver Smith and Beckie have a really good weekend.

    2. I think it’s more a question of Norris figuring out how to use his attacking six as a unit, rather than “Smith and Five Coathangers”.

      I like what I’ve seen from Muller, but until this season Kling was in that spot and was pretty damn good at “getting up and down the left side”, so it’s not like Weaver hasn’t had fullback support before. Kling had a rapport with Tobin Heath and would feed her crosses and diagonal passes. Weaver doesn’t play like that; she doesn’t want to break fullback ankles, she wants to run at the left corner and cut inside, or make a diagonal run.

      Kling’s game worked with Heath’s trickery (and with Horan taking crosses inside) but I’m not sure how you work a fullback into Weaver’s strength’s.

      That’s why Mike Norris makes the big money, tho. He’s gotta figure something out.

  4. I said last week that all I wanted to see this week was improvement and some good team play, and we got that. So I should be satisfied, right? Only slightly, because of how *little* good team play was on display. Like you said, we have moments of it, but they’re only that – moments. So I’m happy we played better but still frustrated, and of course losing, and winding up in last place, just pours salt in the wound.

    Gotta beat Louisville.

  5. Why bring in Jessie when you’re going to go wide or kick the ball over the midfield? She’s gonna get the same rap Liv gets: “no impact,” “ can’t find the game,” “she disappears for long stretches” etc., etc., etc.

    1. Because she’s “a good player”.

      Seriously. I want to give LeBlanc her props, but I think we tend to look at the signings in isolation rather than as part of a unit designed to work in a system. This is where I’m still dissatisfied with Norris. I don’t get a sense he’s got a vision for his “system” other than “huck it up to Smith and hope”.

      He’s got some terrific talent in his midfield; Beckie, Moultrie, Fleming, Sugita, Coffey…even his rooks like Wade-Katoa look promising. But he doesn’t seem to have an idea how to assemble all that talent into a functioning group, to train them on tactics that will adhere their strengths together rather than use each of them as an individual.

      Paul Riley (spit!) did something similar.

      He would stock a roster with terrific players (Vero! Sinc! Morgan! McDonald! Beuhler! Heath!) but then seemed to have no idea how to put them together into a cohesive unit (or sell them on his vision, anyway; the story is that he wanted a hyper-fit club built around speed running the way he eventually built in Cary but the veterans didn’t buy in). I remember our then-discussions at Stumptown where we’d piss and moan about that, and the repeated complaint was “WTF does a “Riley team” even look like?!?!”

      I think we’re dealing with something similar here. Fleming has been a LeBlanc target for years because she’s “a good player”. But I don’t think that came or comes with a rider that says “…and this is what she’ll do here and how she’ll do it”.

      The key is answering that question. Right now, Norris hasn’t shown us that. If he can, this is a playoff club based on the roster. If he can’t…

      1. Thanks for the insight into what the thinking might be. Makes sense….though to me it just seems like the potential for exciting, fun to watch soccer is being shunted to the side (understanding many fans think route 1 to Soph is exciting soccer)

        1. That what what I meant by Smith as opportunity and hazard. Given her skills she CAN often create something out of nothing, so it’s tempting to run the attack direct through her. But that atrophies the other options unless the gaffer is relentless about driving practice towards getting the wingers and midfielders involved AND those players can figure out how to do that. That’s a LOT of hard work…and it’s not a route to surefire success.

          Look at the great possession teams from history, like the Clockwork Orange of the Seventies, or Barca in the Nineties and Oughts. There’s beauty and brilliance there…but it can also be sterile possession-without-purpose if the opponent plays them with the same sort of grinding physicality and discipline that Amoros Gotham showed.

          IMO a good team should be able to do both; got direct when the opponent and gamestate calls for it, and play tika-taka possession when it doesn’t.

          Right now I’d call Portland more “a team of good players” than “a good team”, and I think that shows in their inability to adapt and overcome when faced with a well-coached opponent.

          I won’t kid you; if going direct wins games? That goes a long way to fun and exciting for me. I’d love to see gorgeous team goals! But goals, however we can nick them and a rock-steady defense? I’ll take that, thanks!

          I’m a very bad soccer fan that way…


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