Thorns FC: Set up to fail

That run-of-winning-party-night that kicked off the Ken Era sure was fun, wasn’t it?

Well…now the morning after has arrived, the same one we pretty much dreaded when we saw this:

It was those last three names that gave us the shivers:

Olivia Moultrie; on a run of fine form but perhaps the least-pacey of the frontrunners not from Canada,

Janine Beckie; struggling to find the danger she provides the CWNT and still barely in synch with her teammates, and

Christine Sinclair, whose runs can be timed with a sundial.

In the stuffy heat of the Florida swamps, without Sophia Smith, the gaffer fielded a slow attack, a front three without any sort of ability to run at one of the best defenses in the league, or the craft to play possession against a team with Barbara Banda, one of the most dangerous strikers in the league.

Which, in turn, meant that if clogging the midfield and isolating Banda failed at some point she would be turned loose on a Portland backline that had been repeatedly exposed by individually-gifted strikers…without the Smith dynamite that would allow Portland to blow up the Pride defense to win 4 to 5 if they were.

And that is indeed what happened:

Orlando bossed the first half, and kept their boot on Portland’s neck just enough to survive a better-from-Portland (but with the massive caveat that injury had forced Banda off at halftime)-but-still-not-good-enough second half.

What’s so frustrating is the way this match highlighted all the things we’ve been seeing so far this season:
1) The attack is still hugely dependent on Smith. Smother her (or put her on the sideline with a knock) and you nerf the Thorns…

2) Play through the midfield is still weirdly disconnected, so there’s way too much Route One,
3) The defending is better sitting deeper and countering, but there are still critical breakdowns that give opponents good looks, and
4) Individual errors have been lethal.

The end result was on full display last week; a Portland squad that has the horses, but still needs a better jockey. As it is the table tells it all: the Thorns aren’t as good as Orlando and Kansas City, are comparable to the Spirit, and will need to be fully on point to stay ahead of Gotham.

What does that mean?

In a word; coaching. It’s instructive to look at Orlando. Here’s the graphic that the broadcasters threw up before the match…

…which doesn’t even tell the half of it. Here’s the FULL point totals by season:

Clif’s Notes version? For the overwhelming bulk of its history the Orlando franchise has been a dumpster fire, despite having players like Marta and Alex Morgan in purple. The semifinal under Tom Sermanni in 2017 was a freak; this club has been awful for years.

Until they hired Seb Hines to direct tactics and oversee the roster. Last season they missed the playoffs on goal differential. This year? They have to be the favorites for the Shield.

So note to the Bhathals; don’t stop the head coach headhunting. Ken’s been fun. But last Friday “fun” met “smart” and guess who won?

Short Passes

Both sides passed well; the Thorns a bit tidier at 84%, the Pride at 81%, but Portland’s total is massively inflated by the enormous number of these:

I lost track of how many times Kelli Hubly and Becky Sauerbrunn played catch, back and forth endlessly presumably because they had nothing going forward.

Here’s the BVC passing matrix for Portland that shows just that:

Everything’s going laterally, with the forwards forced to track back to try and get possession. The fullbacks are withdrawn – KenBall is “defend and counter”, so, yeah – and the midfield is jammed up to try and slow Orlando down. It worked, but…

…here’s Orlando:

Sometimes one player just grabs the match by the throat. And sometimes a player…

…steps on her poncho and helps the opponent do just that, as Hubly does here cutting Hina Sugita’s legs off and springing Marta.

Well, fuck, Hubs.

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
Orlando (L)28

Twenty turnovers on the first half, eight in the second. Normally this would have been at least good enough. But it includes a horrific Sam Coffey 25th minute giveaway that damn near gave Banda her first goal as well as a constant drizzle of turnovers that kept killing off Thorns possession and exposing the defense to constant pressure.

Beckie was the Biggest Loser (six) followed shockingly by Coffey with four turnovers. Sugita was another uncharacteristically-poor passer, losing three-and-a-half. Nobody else coughed up more than two.

Corner Kicks

Only two, both in the second half, highlighting the utter barrenness of the Thorns’ first half. Both long into the box.

48′CoffeyLongInto the scrum, headed clear, recycled, cleared again, then lost on a foul.
61′CoffeyLongInto the near post crowd and cleared away



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

Most of the first half was played inside the touchlines; each team took ten throw-ins. Huge uptick in the second as Portland tried to push up and Orlando tried to waste time; Portland took 15, Orlando 16 for totals of 25 and 26, respectively.

Of Portland’s throws 19 (76%) resulted in an improvement in Portland’s tactical position. Seven (24%) were poorly taken and went against Portland. None were “neutral” (neither advancing nor losing possession) and cutaways were brief enough that I didn’t miss seeing a Portland throw.

Houston gained from 19 of 26 (73%) and lost on 8 (30.7%). One was lost to a replay showing.

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 here to either side, though worth noting tactically that Orlando forced a ton of late corners – 14 by both sides after the 80th minute – in order to waste time successfully.

Player Ratings and Comments

Moultrie (+8/-1 : +5/-0 : +13/-0) Individually fine. As part of the attack just not enough. Moultrie doesn’t break lines the way Smith does, so that helped Orlando contain her squad. She can hit from distance, but didn’t try her hand in Orlando, and is a clever provider as her assist on the D’Aquila goal proves, but wasn’t well positioned to do that until the second half subs moved her back to the #10 that suits her better.

This one wasn’t really on her, but…well, we’ll get there.

Sinclair (62′ – +2/-2 : +0/-2 : +2/-4) Well, Ken, what did you expect?

Granny spent an hour thrashing futilely in the steambath, which is what you’d expect given the miles on her legs and her age. Of the three starting forwards she was the least excusable. Again, not on her (other than refusing to hang ’em up).

Missed a semi-sitter in the 54th minute; skied a Beckie cross, but one that had taken a high bounce that required more flexibility than poor old Sinc has left in her leg. Should still have – and ten years ago would have – buried it.

D’Aquila (28′ – +5/-1) Two things can be true:
This was the best I’ve seen from Izzy D’Aquila for…well, almost forever; since preseason 2023, probably. But
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one poacher’s goal doesn’t make a striker. If she can continue to perform at this level? I’ll be thrilled. But that needs to happen before we announce The Return of Izzy.

Beckie (72′ – +4/-4 : +2/-2 : +6/-6) Active and energetic, but sloppy in possession and nothing dangerous; one good run and pass in the 35th minute (that was just too far ahead of Moultrie) but no shots and nothing else. Like Fleming, not doing for her club what she does for her country.

Dias (28′ – +1/-2) Chipped Moorhouse in the 83rd minute but off the crossbar for a missed opportunity. Other than that no real impact, which is a bit surprising given her palmares. You’d think a Portuguese international would have more impact, but I haven’t seen that yet.

Fleming (45′ – +2/-2) Same problems as always. I’m not sure why she seems so disconnected from her teammates, but Fleming is too expensive for the value she’s currently providing. Not sure if a better coach might unlock her? But she played under a pretty good gaffer at Chel$ki who couldn’t, so…

Linnehan (45′ – +8/-1) Damn fine shift, and at this point should be starting over whichever Canadian is on the depth chart in front of her. If not for Croix Bethune she’d be well into the Rookie of the Year conversation.

Sugita (+3/-0 : +5/-1 : +8/-1) As the passing chart shows, jammed up in midfield defending (four of her pluses are for tackles) so unable to contribute going forward, which hurt the attack as you’d expect.

Coffey (+2/-3 : +2/-0 : +4/-3) Same problem plus shockingly sloppy with her passing. Not great when the Thorns needed her to be.

Muller (72′ – +7/-0 : +2/-1 : +9/-1) Best of the backline, tho as usual kind of faded late, making some poor decisions and missing tackles. Fitness issues? Nursing a knock?

Klingenberg (18′ – no rating)

Sauerbrunn (+3/-4 : +1/-1 : +4/-5) Her unit was undone by 1) setpiece defending, and 2) individual errors. That’s not on ‘Brunn…but that’s also a very familiar refrain, and as the notional boss of the backline you’d think she’d want to cut down on that shit. Well?

Hubly (+5/-9 : +1/-1 : +6/-10) This is the Kelli Hubly that drove me nuts for years; 85 minutes of good defensive play interrupted with some sort of mind-bendingly awful mistake. In Orlando this included the Sugita-takeout-slide above, being caught ballwatching by Banda in the 6th minute, getting skinned by Banda in the 27th minute, and leaving her feet on the second Banda goal to leave Shelby Hogan to the Zambian’s lack of mercy.

Hubly would be playing her way off the pitch if Obaze were healthy.

Reyes (45′ – +6/-3) and Payne (45′ – +4/-2) Take your pick; at right back Reyes gives you better defending, Payne more going forward. With the lack of pace upfront Payne was probably the better starter, but I don’t know if she would have been enough given the matchups.

Hogan (+1/-3 : +1/-1 : +1/-4) Not much she could do on the concessions; the first Hogan blocked an initial shot and was sprawling when Banda headed in, on the second made a lunge that Banda rode expertly. Tough loss, because Hogan looked solid otherwise.

Coach Gale: Your fate was sealed before kickoff. Sinclair? With Beckie and Moultrie? Against one of the quickest, best-pressing defenses in the league?

What were you thinking?

I get it; without Smith you were up against it. And the plan to jam things up and stop Banda sorta worked. But you had other options, like Linnehan, who might have helped relieve the relentless pressure that finally, inevitably, broke your team down. You chose differently and paid for it. Hines’ plan worked, yours didn’t, and if that’s not outcoached I don’t know what is.

Now you have a long international break to think this one over.

We see these people here in October. But you only have about three weeks until Kansas City comes to visit. So you’ve got that long to figure how to do this better.

If you can?

You just might keep this job.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

6 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Set up to fail

  1. As usual you come up with a great one liner “fun” met “smart” and guess who won? Yep!
    I haven’t been on the RG bandwagon, but like Norris, I like the guy, but that starting lineup in Orlando was a total mistake, Sinc up front in that weather and her lack of speed and having all our midfield eggs in one basket in the first half. Our midfield should be Coffey, Sugita and either Moultrie or Fleming. Moultrie as a winger is not a good use of resources. Plus this was a game to test Linnehan’s endurance. We are going to need her for more than 45 soon, well at least until Weaver comes back fully.

    But in the second half after Izzy scored I really felt like the Thorn’s could win or tie it because without Banda and Orlando was seeming to play safe. So there was opportunity. Didn’t happen. So in this case “fun” wasn’t “lucky” either.

    1. The Thorns’ forwards outside Smith have had finishing issues, and this one was no different. Sinc’s miss, Dias’ crossbar…plus the numerous times the Thorns’ attack just sputtered out because their front three lack pace and coordination.

      Problems were worse before the break because Banda helped Orlando pound on the door. But if you look at the xG plot the only real risers in the second half are Sinc’s miss (0.5xG) and D’Aquila (0.85). Everyone else is less than 0.5.

      So the second half meant that Orlando mostly got worse rather than Portland getting better…

  2. Thanks for the analysis. I’d sum this game up as “Orlando had their MVP candidate and we didn’t.” It didn’t help that Gale handicapped our lineup the way you point out, but to me a loss was in the cards given the absence of Smith. I actually thought that given the circumstances (no Smith, away game, steam bath), we did pretty well to lose by only one goal, and I’m hopeful we can reverse this result here in October. OTOH Orlando might have Barbra Banda for a full game at that point so it will be tough.

    Their MVP candidate scored a couple of goals and we couldn’t catch up. So it goes.

    P.S. Banda is Zambian rather than Ghanaian. The Zambia women are in the midst of a golden generation right now, including Banda and Racheal Kundananji. But their federation and coach are effing it up to the point where FIFA might not let them play in the Olympics, to which they qualified. It’s completely distressing to watch. (FIFA is further degrading itself by potentially disqualifying Zambia not because the coach is allegedly abusing women, not because the Zambian federation treats its women’s team like crap, but because some political body *tried to stop the abuse* and FIFA claims it’s “interference in football” or something. FIFA is an embarrassment to the human race.)

    1. Thanks for the Banda catch. My bad for not doing the spadework instead of going with whatever was off the top of my head. And yes, 1) several CAF sides including South Africa, Ghana, and as you point out, especially Zambia (up +5 on the latest FIFA rankings) are seeing terrific surges in form while 2) the Zambian federation, like so many other national federations, is utter shit. SSDD; Argentina is being shitty to their WNT…AGAIN. It’s really infuriating.

      I’d kind of agree on your take on this game if Portland had shown any sort of buildup, communication, or possession before Banda came off.

      I mean, “MVP candidate” and “fast, high-pressing defense”, not black swans, amiright? So what you DON’T do, Coach Ken, is 1) put out your slowest, least-incisive forward line and 2) sit deep and soak up pressure from said MVP’s squad.

      Gale set the Thorns up to fail with his roster and tactics, and his second half adjustments suggest he figured that out too late. That’s pretty much “outcoached” for my mind. To beat this outfit in October we don’t just need Smith, we need a better overall plan. Same with KCC here in June; the stuff that worked against Houston and Seattle won’t cut it.

  3. I totally agree with this one. Gale got the lineup wrong, and based on how he set it up wasn’t able to adjust well at all. There are times you can start all four midfielders, but it really isn’t a great decision. Starting Moultre, Sinclair and Beckie up front means the forwards are super slow, with the exception of Beckie who isn’t going to force teams to contain her. I was okay with the back four, but I’m assuming that Obaze is still nursing an injury.
    The forward combination allowed Orlando to push forward without much concern about a counter attack. Without that release (or even just the potential release), the game got comfortable for them. I think that Gale was probably hoping that Sinclair would provide some sort of offensive action while she was out there, and that Moultre would be able to help the midfield control the ball. But with neither of those actions occuring, Orlando was free and clear to control the first half.
    I do think that the presence (or non-presence) of the MVP candidates totally affected the game. With Banda, Orlando was able to control the first half. Without Banda, Portland was able to work their way back into the game and had opportunities to get it back. It will be fascinating to see the rematch in Portland, with both Banda and Smith on the field. We have the talent on this team to be in the consideration as one of the best teams this year, but right now we are in the second tier.

    1. Obaze wasn’t on the DL, but she’s been consistently reported as having some sort of leg problem.

      The thing about Banda is…look at the passing plot. Ken’s plan was to jam up the passing lanes and cut her off, and it worked! Banda is on an island; she got no service, and her opportunities came off 1) a Coffey turnover in the 25th minute, 2) a setpiece, and 3) a piece of individual brilliance.

      So Portland’s problem was not so much that Banda gave Orlando the whip hand but that Portland’s inability to possess and generate attack gave Orlando the freedom to run wild. They pretty much kept that up in the second half but that swapping out Beckie and Sinc provided the attacking pressure to make Orlando sit back which, up two, they didn’t need much urging to do anyway. Banda was huge…but had Ken set up the Thorns differently this could easily have been a road point.

      October is a long way off. I’ll be fascinated to see how things look by then.


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