Thorns FC: Ippon-shobu

I’m not sure if I have mentioned this before, but one of my interests is kendo, the traditional sport of fencing in Japanese style, the lineal descendent of kenjutsu, the “way of the sword” that evolved during the Sengoku Jidai.

The one sport’s matchday priors forcibly impressed themselves on me as I sat through a match of a different sport, the Thorns drab 2-0 away loss to The Damned Courage in Cary.

That’s because of the way kendoka dress.

There’s no distinguishing rank symbols. No belts, no colors. All who pick up the wooden sword wear the same clothing.

But when they meet, it’s quickly obvious who is the experienced and proficient fencer and who is the novice. Who is in control of the match, and who is struggling to simply participate.

Watching Sean Nahas’ Carolina effortlessly dissect and defeat Mike Norris’ Portland was like watching a hachidan sparring with a rokkyu; the highest level of skill against the rawest student. Expert against novice. Learned against unlearned.

There simply was no comparison. One had a style, a method, an objective they understood, and the skills and training to carry it out swiftly and brutally.

The other flailed about, hopelessly trying the same things again and again, failing, without understanding how and why they failed. And, obviously, lacking direction from the technical box to help them figure things out.

Perfect examples; here’s Carolina attacking in the 24th minute:

O’Sullivan in possession. To her right Tyler Lussi has a ton of space along the touchline because Reyna Reyes has marked up Manaka Matsukubo (but is cheating outside and forward of her, so Manaka is still available for the through-ball).

Inside is Hailey Hopkins, alone in a big pocket of space for the square pass.

As O’Sullivan continues her run Portland closes Hopkins down but still can’t shut off Lussi, who now has even more space wide, or Manaka, who has a beautiful diagonal run inside of Becky Sauerbrunn for O’Sullivan to put her through on Shelby Hogan.

Portland? Here’s Janine Beckie down the right wing about five minutes later. Two defenders closing her down, what’s her options?

Well…Sophia Smith is way over by the penalty arch and masked by O’Sullivan. She’d have to drop eight yards (as shown) to be open for a square pass.

Notice the touchline, where Lussi was for Carolina? Yeah. Nobody there overlapping.

Perhaps the saddest illustration of the difference between the squads came in the 54th minute, as Portland tried again to find a way through the disciplined Carolina backline. Smith tried, as she’d tried all match, to run at goal and was swarmed. She cut to her right just as Olivia Moultrie turned back to her left.

Ba-donk! The two collided, the ball ran loose, the crowd guffawed at the comedy soccer, and another Thorns “attack” went away.

I mean, Christ on a crutch, look at this:

What the fuck is that conga line? Width? What’s that? Wide areas? Where are they, again? What a fucking goat rodeo. This does not look like professional soccer.

Want more?

Here’s Carolina in attack in the 9th minute. Feli Rauch has just dodged Hina Sugita, putting the normally deft Hina-san on her denbu.

Notice the space in front of Rauch? The Thorns have pushed everyone up and inside, so Rauch has all sorts of time and space. Who’s marking Manaka? Who’s marking Ashley Sanchez?

Finally Marie Muller arrives and Sam Coffey slides out wide as Rauch passes up to Narumi Miura. But remember “who’s marking Sanchez”?

Nobody. Nobody’s marking Hopkins, either, so Miura splits the Thorns defenders and hits her on the run. Notice the ginormous space between the Thorns pushed-up midfield and backline? Notice who’s running into that space, Lussi and Sanchez?


Now the Thorns backline is overloaded, and reflexively shifts to the ball-side, Reyes cheating in and uncovering Lussi for the easy diagonal pass with acres of open greensward in front of her.

It’s like Carolina was putting on a fucking clinic, with Portland playing the practice cones. It’s just women against girls here. Jesus wept.

I could go on, but why, it’s…wait. I do want to mention this, because it got me. It’s late in the first half, Portland chasing, and Smith sees the opportunity to try and press the Carolina defense. She comes steaming in on Malia Berkely…

…who has to cross to her counterpart Kailey Kurtz. Smith pursues.

Okay, well…forechecking pressure, right? Great! Good idea! You’ve gotta get possession and score to turn this around, right? So…what’s every other Dorito-shirt-wearer doing?

Sorta following the play. Okay. What else?

Fuck all is what else. Look at the options Kurtz has:

She picks Sanchez, who plays a quick 1-2 wide to Ryan Williams…

…who starts the Carolina move upfield.

I just don’t know what more to say. These are both teams of experienced professionals. One was missing it’s primary attacking piece (Kerolin from The Damned), the other…I don’t know. But it’s missing something pretty crucial.

It wasn’t a fight. It was Carolina with the headshot and Portland going down helpless.

This mess is hard to untangle. Is it tactics? Yes. Is it coaching failure? Yes. Is it individual execution problems? Yes. Is it poor-roster-fit-to-tactical-system? Yes. Is it inter-player communication and coordination?

Yes, yes, yes.

This is a Portland squad that is troubled on multiple levels.

And here’s the thing: Carolina weren’t really trying that hard! Look at Henderson’s xG plots:

Two goals on a post-shot xG of less than half? Fuckadoo! The Damned nicked their goals and then just sat back and took a drink, and dared the Thorns to bring it.

Portland tried – the xG shows they got into dangerous positions – but the post-shot xG shows that they couldn’t do a goddamned thing once they did. The shots went wide, or high, or right at Casey Murphy.

Problems? Portland? Ohhellyes.

This match exposed them all. It was “ippon-shobu“, a one-shot, one-hit, one-point loss; one-sided, one-dimensional, one side clearly in control, the other one utterly adrift.

Short Passes

Both sides were pretty tidy; Portland 85% completion, Carolina about 80%.

Thanks to friend-of-the-blog ABell4 for finding the delightful little blog “behind the vaudevillian cane” from whom I unblushingly stole these little passing diagrams.

Absolutely. Carolina was all Barca tika-taka triangles. Someone was always moving into space, and Portland gave them the space and time to use it. Like I said; it was like an exhibition by Nahas’ club as the Globetrotters with Portland playing the Washington Generals.

Which just points – again – to the multiple levels of issues. Tactics. Roster-fit. Player coordination.

This is not a healthy club right now.

Turnover and over.

Here’s how things are going

Opponent (Result) – 2024Turnovers
Kansas City (L)43
Gotham (L)30
Louisville (D)54
Carolina (L)34

Given the one-sided beating you’d think the total would be higher. But Portland just didn’t see that much of the ball; 462 passes to 565, so it wasn’t lack of skill so much as lack of opportunity.

Olivia Moultrie was the Biggest Loser – 6.5 giveaways (remember, if two players were involved each got half a turnover). Three players (Beckie, Muller, and Weaver) lost 3.5. Sauerbrunn and Hogan coughed up three each, Smith and Sugita 2.5 each.

Turnovers were a problem, but not the problem.

Corner Kicks

Six. All long, one first half, five second.

38′CoffeyLongOn Weaver’s head; good sharp downward header but wide of the near post.
53′CoffeyLongCleared over the bar for another corner.
53′CoffeyLongCleared out to Smith (this was where the screenshot of her and Moultrie colliding occurred) – play continued until Carolina fouled. The ensuing free kick was on Beckie’s head – another good header that was cleared over the byline
55′CoffeyLongInto the scrum and cleared easily.
85′CoffeyLongFell to Weaver; her shot was blocked for another corner.
86′CoffeyLongMurphy boxed away; recycled, but Hubly booted it into the stratosphere.

Nothing much. Nice Weaver effort on the 38th minute play, as well as Weaver again in the 85th, but nothing really dangerous


Fourth full match tracking Portland throw-ins in 2024.

I had the Thorns taking a total of 31 throw-ins; 13 in the first half, 18 in the second. Carolina had 26 total; only 10 in the first half, 16 in the second.

Of Portland’s throws 22 (70.9%) resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. The remaining 9 (29.1%) were poorly taken and went against Portland. None I could see were neutral – that is, kept possession but produced nothing going forward – or I was unable to see.

The Damned got an advantage from 19 of 26 (73%) and lost 7 (27%). Worth noting that of the “good” throws four in a row, or 15% of the total, were a series of deep-attacking end throws between the 89th and 90th minutes that were a form of effective time-wasting.

Here’s how that’s going:

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

Still looking good for Portland on throw-ins, at least.

Mmmm. Dippin’ dots.

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (+4/-3 : +3/-6 : +7/-9) For Smith that’s shockingly poor. Five of her nine minuses are for desperation shots off-target. She’s being pressured to win these all by herself, and it shows.

Weaver (+6/-3 : +2/-2 : +8/-5) Betcha wish you had this one back, eh? Open goal twelve yards away?

But you take one too many touches, and guess what?

Yeah, that.

Beckie (59′ – +1/-4 : +2/-0 : +3/-4) Not so much “poor” as simply ineffective because disconnected and adrift from her teammates…just like everyone else. But she’s been slumping back to her pre-injury/low-impact mean since Kansas City.

Fleming (31′ – +3/-1) There’s no room in Norris’ “system” such as it is for Fleming to be the workhorse she is for the CWNT, and instead she looks more like the marginal piece Emma Hayes castigated her for at Chel$ki. Not looking like a bargain given we dealt Raquel Rodriguez to afford her.

Moultrie (72′ – +6/-1 : +3/-3 : +9/-6) Decent shift but in all the wrong places. She’s not a good defender, so she’s not a #8. But Norris plays her as an eight…so she’s often out of place and can seldom use her attacking skills to advantage. Got utterly schooled by Manaka several times, making her look worse than she was doing, but not a successful use of her talents.

Sinclair (18′ – no rating) That’s just kind of sad,

Coffey (+3/-2 : +3/-0 : +6/-2) When Sam Coffey’s PMR numbers are single digits? She’s not getting into the match, and she wasn’t; Carolina, knowing her danger, passed around her like a practice cone. It wasn’t Coffey, it was her place in Norris’ dysfunctional system being owned by Nahas’ functional one.

Sugita (87′ – +7/-0 : +1/-4 : +8/-4) Shockingly poor in the second half for this usually reliable senshu. Like Moultrie; not that poor as an individual but as part of a squad, not effective.

Dias (3′ – no rating) Why even?

Reyes (+3/-5 : +4/-0 : +7/-5) Evidence that the backline was dysfunctional as a unit; Reyes’ side was constantly overloaded and her centerback Sauerbrunn never adjusted to correct that, and Coach Norris did nothing to help there, either.

Sauerbrunn (+1/-1 : +0/-1 : +1/-2) Veteran leadership? Now would be a good time for some of that shit.

Obaze (59′ – +6/-1 : +2/-0 : +8/-1) On a poor day Isabella Obaze looked as decent as anyone in Doritos-orange. so why yank her for…

Hubly (31′ – +0/-2) ? I don’t get the advantage here. Hubs just filled in the space and hoofed long balls to nobody. The pressure was off; why even bother swapping centerbacks? You need goals, and you’re not getting them from The Hubs.

Muller (+2/-2 : +2/-1 : +4/-3) This…

…is why the coach tells you to stay “ball-side-goal side” when you’re marking close to your own goal. You’re not a rookie. You know better.

Hogan (+0/-0 : +0/-1 : +0/-1) Not really at fault, but…

I’m not ready to give up. But Hogan needs a stone hard blinder to regain her and her backline’s confidence. And it needs to be soon.

Coach Norris: I’m really sorry. I think you’re a decent guy.

But it’s not working out. It’s really not.

At this point I think the problems are so deep, and so complex, that this season might be on the verge of unsaveable. But at least there has to be a start, and soon.

And that – because the buck stops with you – means what we both know it means.

I’m sorry.

Travel Notes: Next two weekends I’ll be on the road, contract work in the Alaska panhandle, so there won’t be a TFC: until May. I’ve set up recodings for the two I’ll miss, so I will at least recap the games when I return.

Until then…Onward, Rose City!

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

6 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Ippon-shobu

  1. Thank you for doing the brutal assessment of what went on in the last game. If there is a simple explanation of the issues, it comes down to spacing. We saw the potential issues last year with the players in whatever position they were in, and now you can see the combination of bunching (why is Sauerbrunn and Coffey in the same place, ditto with Moultre and Weaver), and disconnected players (why is Sugita so far away from Coffey?). I also saw the collision between Moultre and Smith during the game, and just shook my head.
    I believe the team is talented enough to string together some wins, and really hope that it doesn’t paper over the coaching issues. The passing charts are really good indicators of how the team is playing, and that is what I want to see going forward.
    If I were coaching the team, the one thing I would focus on for the next stretch of games would be the defense. Play more compact defensively, don’t push the wingbacks up as far, and let Weaver and Smith play hero ball. Right the damn ship, and move forward. It wouldn’t be the prettiest style, but this team needs wins and the best way is to keep the opposition from scoring.

    1. So Norris is kicked upstairs, with Rob Gale in the interim job (why him and not Lowdon, who’s got more recent HC experience..?), so we’ll see what happens.

      I’m not sure if just grinding out nil-nil draws is a way forward. But that might have to come first.

      1. I get it, but with Smith and Weaver up front we can still win a few slugfests where we simply bomb the ball forward and let them do their thing. The defense has been objectively terrible this year, so that’s where I would start.

        1. Hmmm. Okay, I guess.

          I would simply note that we’ve tried that approach (hero-ball) and it’s 1) worked in KC (but needed a huge game from Beckie, whose shown nothing like that since), 2) sorta-worked against Louisville, and 3) failed utterly against Gotham and in Cary (shut out both times).

          So against a decently-coached side it’s 0-2. Might work against Houston, tho.

  2. Thanks John for that. It is nice to have some objective data to look at. Moultrie’s PMRs were not as bad as I thought she was playing. I thought Müller and Obaze had, fairly good games, but on the NC header, well Wow you are right she should have known better. Watching the game I thought Hopkins came charging in from literally nowhere and she had little time to react but it would have helped if she put more body on Hopkins.
    One other thing about Hogan is she needs to work with her distribution, I thought she was sending the ball out of bounds or to the opponent. The stats don’t show that, but your right she needs a great game to get her confidence back.

    1. Moultrie had some pretty ugly goofs, like the collision with Smith and Manaka just dumping her on her ass. That made her look bad, way worse than she should have.

      And nobody in the backline could have been said to have had a “good” game, really. Nobody was a trainwreck, but nobody really shone, either.

      Here’s the thing; I know I sound like a broken record about this, but goalkeeper distribution is NOT really a big deal unless they consistently put the ball into touch or play it out short. Hogan doesn’t do that consistently, and ALL keepers do occasionally. She’s not great – no Angerer keeper is, and Angerer herself wasn’t – but she’s not that far off the mean.

      But. She IS struggling with what looks like confidence, and keeping is massively about confidence. So, needs a good one,


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