Thorns FC: A Fetid Petro-swamp

Well, it was three points.

That said, for all that…
1) …Portland had a solid tactical plan and executed it well, and…
2) …Houston wasn’t nearly the tire fire their record says that are…
3) …this one could just as easily have been a 2-4 Portland win…but could also have ended a 2-2 draw or even a 3-2 loss if a couple of goalposts had been slightly to one side or the other, or a defender or two had been a bit more alert.

The xG plots make it look like a beating. Here’s Beyond the Vaudevillian Cane’s version:

I’m not so sure this matches the eye test. Here’s Henderson’s, whose plot matches what I saw a bit more closely:

Houston had two really good chances nearly back to back; a long 46th minute cross to the feet of Diana Ordonez (who spun Marie Muller like a Spielzeug-oberteil) but Ordonez’ shot rang off the right post with Shelby Hogan helpless…then, a minute later, another cross in to Ramona Bachmann, whose strong header forced a good save out of Hogan.

Those are the big riser in the Henderson plot right after halftime. But they weren’t the only chances. Houston got looks in the 6th minute, the 33rd, a minute into first half injury time, the 72nd minute, and again two minutes into second half added time.

They got their looks. Like Seattle here the previous week, Houston just couldn’t finish them.

On the other end?

For almost an hour it felt like Portland had the same problem.

Sophia Smith’s terrific 7th minute run freed Janine Beckie to drive in on Jane Campbell, but Campbell kick-saved Beckie’s rasper clear.

Nine minutes later, Beckie, again, but her shot banged off the post.

In the 40th minute Smith drew the defense with another punishing run, crossed in to Ana Dias whose pointblank hammer was blocked by a Houston blue shirt.

Dias again nine minutes later; this time Olivia Moultrie provided the run, and Campbell the block.

The sides went in a halftime scoreless, and at that point I thought it might end that way. Nobody seemed to have the key to unlock the goals. Lots of looks, but nothing more.

Then, eleven minutes after the restart, Reyna Reyes and Hina Sugita and Ana Dias reminded Fran Alonso & Company that THERE’S NO OFFSIDE ON A THROW!!

I know we kind of beat up on this in the “throw-in” piece we did back in March, concluding that upfield throws are largely unsuccessful.


There’s exceptions to even the strictest rule, and this was one because:
1) Reyes and Sugita were a single simultaneously brilliant hive-mind; Hina-san made the darting run, Reyes was on her and dimed a perfect toss that Sugita could run onto, and
2) Cece Kizer and Courtney Petersen took a nap, or just assumed that Sugita was offside – which, had the pass been from anything else other than a throw-in, she surely was – and just let her go.

Too late the Houston backline scrambled to close Sugita-senshu down, and in the process uncovered Dias for the simple drop and sleek finish. Nil-one, and suddenly all those early Houston misses looked pretty damning.

Then in the 68th minute Amanda West (Kizer’s replacement) and Petersen did the same favor to Moultrie, woolgathering as Livvy ran onto Beckie’s pretty lead pass and fired past Campbell’s near-post side to stick in the dagger, nil-two, game, set, match.

So this match could be both a solidly well-planned and executed outing from the Thorns, and more dangerously close than the scoreline and xG plots indicate. Had Houston been a bit better than they are, and Portland a bit less organized and fortunate than they were, this one could have been a draw or even a “tough loss”.

And why is that important?




Short Passes

Both sides were decent but only that; OPTA says Houston was a smitch better (79% completion) than Portland’s 77%. My impression based purely on the visuals was that Houston tended to be sloppy when they needed it least, giving away possession during buildup. Portland was generally a bit tidier as the turnover tally suggests.

Here’s the BVC passing matrix:

My takeaways are 1) yep, and 2) look at where Hina, Coffey, Reyes, and Muller are playing. We’ll get to this when we talk about coaching, but I think we’re starting to see some critical differences between the old gaffer and the new one.

Here’s Houston:

I think there’s an explanation for that centerline cluster. We’ll discuss in a bit.

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
Houston (W)No data
Chicago (W)No data
Bay FC (W)41
Washington (W)26
Seattle (W)20
Houston (W)21

Ten turnovers on the first half, eleven in the second. This neatness seems to be another hallmark of KenBall and one I’m very please to see.

So the third good match in a row. Sophia Smith – as the passing matrix shows – was isolated and often have very poor or no options, so she ended up passing away more than anyone, five passes for loss. Muller gave away four times, tho mostly on long downfield boots, meaning rarely dangerous. Moultrie coughed up three times, and no one else more than two.

Corner Kicks

Seven, including three short corners and a “line drive”. Four first half, three second.

FWIW, the announcers seemed to think that all the short corners were a planned response to Houston’s setpiece defense. I don’t have the stat to back that up, but given the Thorns’ typical corner kick preferences that sounds reasonable.

2′CoffeyShort…to Sugita. who bumped it over to Moultrie, whose long huck went over the byline.
7′CoffeyLongOnto Beckie’s head but headed wide.
21′CoffeyLongInto the scrum and cleared away.
45+4′CoffeyLongInto the scrum again. Headed clear, recycled and hucked in again but Campbell came out strong to take.
86′CoffeyShort…to Sugita, then cycled around, lobbed into the box, cleared out and sort of drifted away.
87′ CoffeyShort…to Reyes, but again sort of just nothing.
89′CoffeyLine driveinto the near side of the scrum. Cleared out to Smith, who tried to hit a running Linnehan, called offside

Not much. Beckie’s 7th minute header was pretty far off-frame, and that was the only real attempt


Eighth full match tracking Portland throw-ins in 2024 minus the lost data from Houston and in Chicago.

The opposite of the Seattle match; crap-tons of throws – Portland with 28 (18 first half, ten second), Houston with 33 (17 and 16, respectively).

Of Portland’s throws 19 (67.8%) resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. Seven (25%) were poorly taken and went against Portland. This match director had the annoying habit of cutting away to random shots of players walking around or coaches gesticulating during throw-ins, so I missed two Portland throw-ins.

Houston gained from 23 of 33 (69.6%) and lost on 10 (30.3%).

Here’s how that’s going:

OpponentAdvantage gainedAdvantage lostOpponent gainOpponent loss
Kansas City62.5%8.3%59.2%40.1%
Bay FC64.2%28.5%71.4%28.5%

No real advantage in general, though the 56th minute throw-in that led directly to the Dias goal does a lot of work here.

Worth noting that Houston also worked a dangerous chance off a throw-in in the 72nd minute; a short-ish diagonal forward throw to Alozie, who turned on the ball, drew the Thorns defense before squaring to Bachmann. In turn Bachmann found an unmarked West crashing the far corner of the penalty area, but fortunately West blasted straight at Hogan.

(Based on the broadcast cutaways it was Bark in the Park Night in Houston. And, yeah, I mean, who’s not up for cute doggies..?)

Player Ratings and Comments

Smith (93′ – +13/-3 : +14/-0 : +27/-3) Woman of the Match; as our vaudevillian blogger pointed out, Smith is a force of nature whether she’s scoring, assisting, or just wreaking havoc on opposing backlines as she did in Houston.

Sheva (5′ – +3/-0) Good hard work to see out the win. Damn close to a goal, too, poaching a Campbell spill in the 97th minute.

Dias (60′ – +7/-0 : +1/-0 : +8/-0) Lots of danger-creation in the first half, including the goal. Faded late so subbed off at good time. Her first forty-five alone justified her start, and I’d like to see if she can produce a similarly effective full match.

Sinclair (30′ – +6/-2) Another “effective use of Sinc” outing. Interestingly, she’s becoming the Queen of the Flick-on Header; I wonder if the squad is training on this? Hasn’t connected for a goal with it yet, but I like the idea.

Beckie (69′ – +9/-2 : +3/-1 : +12/-3) Like Sinc, Beckie seems to be thriving under the New Boss. Assist and within the width of a post from a golazo.

Linnehan (21′ – +10/-1) Making a hell of a case for Rookie of the Year.

Moultrie (69′ – +8/-2 : +3/-0 : +11/-2) Apparently Tobin Heath has been talking Moultrie up in Heath’s podcast; touted her as the best player in the Thorns midfield after the Seattle match.

I’d disagree with that…but not for this one; besides the goal Moultrie was all over Houston in the first hour or so, and still looked effective when she came off. Excellent shift.

Worth noting that along with everything else Moultrie had what I’d consider a legitimate penalty shout in the 23rd minute:

That’s not a dead lock, but I’d say it’s at least as legit as the Huerta handball call, and the product of hard work instead of bad luck and coincidence, so, there.

Fleming (21′ – +4/-2) Hmm. So, good match. But…still not seeing what I expected given her play when she’s with the CWNT. Frankly given the other midfielders’ work since the sacking Fleming is where she belongs, on the bench. Seems like a spendy sub, but there’s no real reason to start her over anyone, at least at the moment.

Coffey (+1/-1 : +1/-0 : +2/-1) Weird numbers.

Watching this one I didn’t get the sense that Coffey was having a bad game, or was doing anything different. My guess is that 1) she didn’t have to do a lot of providing because Moultrie, Sugita, and the forwards were doing that, and 2) Houston was jamming themselves up in the center of the pitch trying to avoid Coffey.

There’s a term in wargaming for that; “mobilizing”. That’s where there’s a unit, or a weapons system, is so dangerous that an opponent will actively avoid it. If in attack they will try and go around it; if in defense they will displace rather than try and fight it. I think that may be what happened here, except…

Sugita (93′ – +2/-1 : +6/-0 : +8/-1) …kind of the same thing was happening with Sugita, especially in the first half. Better in the second, though mostly defending other than the already-mentioned throw-in play. So not quite sure what was going on in Houston, other than possibly tactics, which we’ll get to when we discuss the coaching.

Klingenberg (4′ – no rating)

Muller (+4/-1 : +8/-4 : +12/-5) Muller seems to lose focus late; made some real howlers after the half hour – ballwatching on the Bachmann strike in the 33rd, and spun by Ordonez in the 46th. Still, a lot more good than bad, so there’s that.

Needs to be on point for the full ninety tomorrow, though.

Hubly (+2/-1 : +3/-2 : +5/-3) Decent overall, though had a Hubly moment on the West shot in the 72nd, making a horrific stab at Bachmann and missing by a mile to take herself out of the play. Still, good enough for Houston. For Orlando? See above.

Sauerbrunn (+2/-0 : +3/-1 : +5/-1) Kind of the same as Hubly only without the one derp. Solid, so good enough for Houston. For Orlando..?

Reyes (+2/-0 : +4/-0 : +6/-0) Might have been the best of the backline. Big props for a hockey assist on The Throw-in, of course.

Hogan (+0/-1 : +3/-0 : +3/-1) Another good game; good positioning on the expected direct shot stopping, plus a big save on the Bachmann header in the 47th as well as coming out strong in the 61st and 93rd minutes. Looking better and better.

Coach Gale: So I think we can see the difference between GaleBall and NorrisBall:

  1. The attack still depends a lot on Sophia Smith. But Gale gets his wingers and AMs further up into the mixer. He’s varying up the buildup, playing more through midfield rather than up-the-flanks-and cross-in – worth noting that Houston out-crossed Portland 16/14.
  2. His fullbacks still push up – that’s kind of a “modern soccer given” – but not as recklessly as Norris’ scheme required. That’s because his overall scheme is…
  3. “Defend-and-counter”; the Thorns have become a counterattacking squad. Their primary mission is “keep the opponent in front of us”. That’s good, because, as we’ve seen, this Thorns squad gets skinned in a track meet. Keeping the enemy at bay makes that a LOT less likely.
  4. To do that Gale has been flexible with formations. He “officially” lines up in a 4-3-3, but his midfield and forwards respond to pressure by dropping into what looks more like a 4-2-3-1 and even a 4-1-4-1, with the lines tight to help force opponents to work the ball rather than blow through the midfield.

So that’s great!


Tomorrow we’re going to see how well that all works against the top of the table. Orlando has been a beast, and their defense a complete wall – their 9GA is the best in the league behind Gotham’s 7GA.

The Gale Era has been successful and fun so far.

Now comes the real test. As Tom Paine might have written in The Thorns Crisis #1:

“Orlando, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

7 thoughts on “Thorns FC: A Fetid Petro-swamp

  1. Linnehan has been terrific and might be a legitimate ROTY contender *except*:
    1) Not enough minutes
    2) Croix Bethune.

  2. I totally agree that the biggest difference between the coaches is that the team is focused on playing through the mid-field. It was baffling to me that with Coffey, Sugita, Fleming and Moultre on the team we would focus on playing through the wings. I also really like that the wingbacks are staying further back to help out more on defense, it just makes more sense based on the personnel of this team.
    I’m really looking forward to the Orlando game. Much like the Washington game, we are going to get a team playing well which should give us a nice viewpoint of how good this Thorns team really is. Finding a way to contain the Orlando attack is going to be critical, because I don’t think we are going to get early or cheap goals against them. But I think we will score against them, the team is playing so well on offense right now.

    1. For me the critical differences are the flexibility in reacting tactically to opponent and game state – Norris 4-3-3 was neither – and the resulting defensive sturdiness. We still play direct a lot and still play a lot of Smith hero-ball. But we’re not getting run through and routed, and that means being able to play more deliberately.

      Orlando is going to be a good test of whether those adjustments have really sunk in.

  3. Well today won’t be a fetid petro swamp, but it will be humid and uncomfortable. It will probably feel like 95, that is pretty awful.
    The Thorns are going to have to be better than they were in Houston and without Smith that is a tall order. While I am not completely sold on Gale if he can come out of this one with at least a point, that would be a big plus. Rotation and a sturdy defense. The front line will have to be good and lucky and the midfield solid.

    1. Given Orlando’s strikers I’ll be content with a scoreless draw. Even that will require a full 90 from everyone.

  4. Banda was everything advertised. Gale’s first half lineup not good for a lot of reasons. The second half was much better and I had the feeling for most of the last 20 that there would be a tie and both coaches would leave with egg on their face.


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