Thorns FC: One and Done

Thorns FC 2014 season ended in Kansas City in the fourth week of August when the eventual 2014 Champions FCKC stifled the Girls in Red 2-0.

I was on a family vacation far from a television set, so it wasn’t until this week that I had a chance to watch the match.  The notes from my belated review of the Thorns final game of 2014 are brief, and I will post them verbatim (with explanation of timing or event not obvious from text in italics) and then make some observations on the match in general.

First Half:

Teams look very even.  FCKC solid in back/midfield.  PTFC no movement upfront – Morgan stranded.  PTFC relying on through balls – FCKC backs doing great job cutting them off, Morgan ineffective.  Where the hell is Sinc?  Vero getting stick from Buczkowski/Sauerbrunn, still operating but no help from Heath, Long too deep.  Heat sucks, slowing pace, brutal.  First goal is gonna win this…gotta beat Barnhart, girl looks very cool.  How the hell does Riley stand that RCR scarf in this freaking heat?  Angerer looks hot, cranky.  Damn! (Vero off post!)  Both teams clearly ready for cold showers.  Whistle.  No score

Half time: No real choice here between sides here.  PTFC looking slower.  No service, less attack.  Sinc not in match.  No help for Vero – midfield not overrun but FCKC better technically – lots of short passes.  PTFC tending to play bootball (heat?)  FCKC looking very disciplined in back, better short passes through middle but PTFC managing to cover when they had to.  Heat awful.  PKs?  Ugh.

Second Half:

Still looks pretty even but PTFC even less service.  Where the hell are you, Brooksie, Sinc?  Vero under the cosh, Morgan invisible.  FUCK! (this was the Rodriguez goal)  Gorgeous combination play from FCKC – Holiday holding, PTFC backline caught by Rod. run.  Angerer slow, clumsy (heat again?), going to ground weakly.  OK, Heath for McDonald, let’s push up.  Damn, Jess has a heavy touch.  PTFC looking tired, more bootball.  Possession dies outside FCKC 18.   Vero head down (this was after Sauerbrunn tackled her for loss – she slumped and shook her head, clearly frustrated).  Where FCKC getting this energy?  Lots of nice short passes.  Damn right that’s a yellow! (on Nikki Phillips for foul on Vero) C’mon, Vero, dammit! (after second free kick miss – first curled wide right, this one into wall).  No time left w this energy.  That’s it.  Shit.  Over. (Holiday goal)  FCKC on rampage – won’t stop attacking.  Ando pissed – telling them to play keepaway.  OK, that’s done.  Sorry, Girls, better team won.

Full time:  FCKC way stronger in second half, better passing, defense terrific.  This team is REALLY well organized, backline, midfield are terrific.  PTFC has nobody – no group of players – with the combined skills of FCKC’s groups; their backline stronger as group, the upfront combination of Holiday-Tymrak-Rodriguez plays off each other, moves off ball in way we don’t.  Sinc invisible today, Morgan, too.  Veo operating in vacuum, no help, no runs.

Bottom line is you’re good as your record and FCKC was as much better today as their season record was better than PTFC.

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From the match reports I read the week after this match I had thought that Andonovski had sicced Buczkowski on Vero and shut her down and that had gone a long way to shutting down Thorns FC offense.  But after watching the match I disagree.  Vero – though between Buczkowski and Sauerbrunn she was harassed and diminished all game – was still able to work her magic in a minor key.  Instead it was her teammates that were shut down, and let her down.

Christine Sinclair concluded a troubled season with a match where she was so insignificant as to be practically invisible.  Coach Riley clearly saw that, too, in lifting her for McDonald in the 79′.  Long did good work sitting back but, as always, playing DM grossly diminshed her effectiveness going forward.  Brooks and Heath were both nonfactors in the attack.  Becca Moros, though listed as a midfielder, played like a D/M, tracking back as much as going forward, and neither she nor Catley on the other wing were able to get much space from the FCKC fullbacks.  FCKC didn’t so much win the battle for midfield as PTFC just didn’t provide much of a fight there.  This match highlighted the dropoff from Vero to “the rest” of the PTFC midfield and the lack of steady communication between Vero and the forwards.

After attempting several good runs early in the match Morgan drifted out of the game; I’ve noticed her do that when she doesn’t get support or service.  She needs another forward or an attacking midfielder to draw defensive attention and give her space to move.  When she’s marked tightly she tends to slow down and back outside – she’s not a fighter like McDonald.  But McDonald isn’t good with the ball at her feet, and she has a dreadful touch more often than not.  The two just aren’t better as a pair than they are as individuals.

The Thorns defenders would be well advised to watch a tape of this match to see how to defend runs at goal.  Instead of the organized movement FCKC showed whenever they were attacked Thorns defenders tended to run as individuals.  While the Holiday goal was largely individual skill the first goal was a direct result of ballwatching,  lack of patience and cooperation on the Thorns backline.  Holiday drew all the attention of the Portland centerbacks, who reacted desperately slowly to Rodriguez’s run.  No one went to Rodriguez once she had possession and Angerer, as she has several times earlier this season, showed her unfortunate tendency to commit early, collapsing weakly and giving Rodriguez the tap-in.

Overall?

I honestly don’t know which of the elements made FCKC just that much better.  Conditioning? (Did all Coach Riley’s “two-a-days” end up tiring players out instead of conditioning them?  Was it the cumulative effect of injuries?  The IV fluids the FCKC players took at halftime?)  Organization and training and individual skills? (Though clearly FCKC with Holiday is better at controlling possession and with Sauerbrunn better at organized defending, and as a team FCKC appears to have a more effective style of play and work better as a group).

But, honestly, I think the result was a good reflection of the Thorns 2014 season.  Not bad, not shameful, but not good enough to defend their title.  FCKC was just the better team; better skilled, better organized, better coached.

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So.  What now?  How can Thorns FC improve their chances for a run at the 2015 championship – keeping in mind that the 2015 NWSL season will be an oddity with the Women’s World Cup taking an immense bite from both the season and the services of the national team allocated players.

What I think hit the Thorns the hardest this season – outside of injuries, which are nearly impossible to prevent or anticipate – was the decision to depend on players that were known to be unavailable until mid-season.  While Vero, Catley, and Heath are all very good (or better than just “very good”) players their late arrivals meant that the team never really got themselves  together, developed a style, or achieved any sort of reproduceable form on the pitch.  Lineups changed constantly, tactics seemed to depend on who was available.  When things were clicking they were terrific…but I don’t think that at any point in the season you could have put this team on the field and be able to predict who would be where and do what in a given setting and I don’t think the team could, either.

Another critical element was Christine Sinclair’s loss of form.  Sinc just wasn’t the player she was last season, or has been in previous years.  I don’t know if this was just a horribly off year for her, or – as I fear – the beginning of her career-ending decline.  But the team depends a great deal on her and her problems were reflected in the team’s performance.

Other player problems were evident on the pitch, as well.  Sinead Farrelly never managed to perform to the degree she seemed to in Coach Riley’s estimation.  Nikki Marshall spent much of the season at centerback and Emily Menges at fullback, where neither looked fully comfortable.  Rachel Van Hollebeke looked slow and out of synch with Marshall and Tarr in the middle.  Nadine Angerer often looked less than imperial in goal, though how much of that was her own issues and how much was her often-porous defense is difficult to determine.

Coach Riley often seemed inable to field an XI that could play his desired tactics, or suit those tactics to his opponents, or adjust to his opponents’ tactics.

Let’s tackle the coaching issue first, since it seems to get the most people het up.

I don’t see a point in sacking Riley now.  Give the man another season to show what he can do.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not happy at the moment.  I think the man made some poor decisions.  Assembling the team in midseason (or agreeing to his team owner’s decision to do so) perhaps the worst.  But his player selections – in the overall roster, his XIs, and in substitutions – were troubling as well.  Why keep Acevedo using up a valuable roster spot if you’re not going to play her.  Pressure from the FMF forcing your hand?  That’s what phantom LCL injuries are for, man!  Dump her on the IR and get a forward you want!  Hanna Terry – late in the season you needed defenders and midfielders and you went for a striker?  WTF?  The Farrelly Experiment (tho the player improved noticibly over the season – I’m not a reflexive Farrelly Hater by any means).  Menges outside, Marshall inside.

Still.  He also had some awful breaks.  Morgan’s injury.  Sinclair’s loss of form.  Heath’s injury, RVH’s injury, Tarr’s injury.  The insanely packed schedule of June and July.  A statistically improbable run of goals saved off the line, or off the post, or by a keeper (damn you, Naeher!) playing like a woman possessed.

That said, I think we need to see some more from the man in the coming offseason and preseason.  He needs to come up with a plan to deal with the WWC break, and a roster that can play well together without the WWC stars.  He needs to look hard at his attack and develop a system and style to take advantage of his players’ skills.  He needs to take Sinclair in hand and help her make a hard decision about whether she can still play where and how she has – whether she was just in a slump this year or is genuinely in decline – or whether she needs to reshape her game, and if so, help her do that.  He needs to assemble a midfield that can use La Maestra’s tremendous skills to advantage.  He needs to better organize his backline.

But I think he needs another year to show us whether he can do all that.  I think we’re not worse off, and possibly better off, keeping the coach for another season.  Then, if things are still a mess?  Fine.  Sack him.

Does this mean if Pia Sundhage suddenly announces her mad desire to coach in Portland we should blow her off?  Of course not.  But unless and until she – or Tony DiCicco, or Vlad Antonovski or Laura Harvey – does, I don’t see any value in Thorns FC going through three head coaches in three years.

The roster needs some adjustment.  I don’t see a wholesale housecleaning but this team still lacks some important parts and some changes need to be made in the roster, either by developing existing players or trading/signing new ones.

The semifinal game also displayed the several problems Thorns FC has shown for much of this season that suggest individual and collective player issues;

1.  Morgan – again – was often isolated and never did find a reliable player or players to work with as we saw in both the finalists; Seattle with Winters-Little-Fishlock-Kawasumi-Leroux and in Kansas City with Holiday-Tymrak-Rodriguez-Mathias.  She’s never had that in either of her seasons here, and this team needs to find her someone(s) she can productively partner with.  That may be Vero, or it may be Vero-and-Heath or it may be Vero-and-someone else.

2.  Vero also never developed a similar sort of relationship with her midfield or forwards.  Her skills are such that she still created both goals of her own as well as providing service for others.  But you seldom saw her consistently finding the same player in the same place, or making the same runs.  This was as much a result of lack of training time as her teammates.  But even with the limitations of her time with the team I never got the sense that she could anticipate where Morgan would be or Long would be or Sinclair would be in a given situation the way that the Seattle and FCKC players could with each other.  That needs to change.

3.  The backline just never really stabilized, the result of a succession of injuries and players trying to learn their positions during the match.  RVH and Angerer never managed their backline as Barnhart and Sauerbrunn did in KC and Solo and Barnes/Kendall/Reed did in Seattle.  Individual players did well, but as a unit the defense lacked some critical element either of leadership or technical skill, or both.

Taken together these issues make me think that upgrades at centerback and a creative outside midfielder are, at least, worth considering.  These upgrades may mean Heath and Vero playing a full season together, or RVH and Tarr doing the same.  Or it may mean trading Heath and Kerr or RVH for someone or two.  But I think at least some combination of training, or trading, or acquisitions, should be in the minds of the PTFC managment this off-season.

Another thing I would defintely recommend is the Portland management doing a very serious search for a defensive coach.  Paul Riley has admitted that defending is not his strong point, and the Thorns defending this season showed it.  If the gaffer isn’t going to bother with the backline this team needs someone who is, and much as I loved him as a player if Scot Thompson had the backline brief this season his work here was much less successful than his work at OES.  One way or another, if this team is to progress it must be better at defending.

The last issue is player availability and assembling the team; Thorns FC needs to be ready to go in April 2015, not June 2015.  This season showed that conventional wisdom is right; you can’t just throw players onto the pitch and expect them to win.  Laura Harvey in Seattle and Andonovski in Kansas City assembled their teams last year and rolled them out in April ready to play.  FCKC took a bit of time to gel, but the two sides showed that time, and training, together are key.  Portland was, instead, bashed to fit, filed to hide, painted to cover and that showed, too.  I don’t see how this will work next season, especially with turmoil we know is going to come with the WWC.

So.  I think the team and coach need tweaking, not rebuilding.  I think the heart of another championship season is here and just needs some refurbishing.

I know that this isn’t going to be a popular position with a lot of Thorns fans.  This season was a disappointment after the topgallant delight of the 2013 Championship, and its only human to want to blame the coach, or the team, for that.  But in my opinion a lot of the problems we saw were one-offs, and if this team, and this coach, have a full season together, from the start of training in March, and this coach can learn from this season, I believe that Thorns FC will be back next season strong and tough and ready to fight for the title again in 2015.

PTFC End of Season

I’ve been honored by Kevin, and C.I., and all of you readers for your support of my tenure as the Thorns “beat writer” for Slide Rule Pass again this year.  I love writing for this site.  I love our city, and I’m proud of our Thorns, and our supporters, and look forward to meeting you here again in 2015 for another NWSL campaign.

Onward, Rose City!

Thorns FC: Big

It’s been easy to piss and moan about how this season has gone for Thorns FC.  I know.  I have.  I’ve complained about the team’s strange inability to put away the bottom of the table.  Griped about the defensive lapses, the yips and the missed chances.  Bemoaned the lost opportunities, and the blighted hopes.

But… Continue reading