Thorns FC defeated the college-age women’s soccer players of the State of Arizona 15-0 on aggregate over the past weekend.
This is – in one sense – a good thing. A year ago today the Thorns scratched out a meager 2-1 win over the University of Portland Pilots in their sole preseason match. The team was without their national team players, in a hasty inaugural season’s training, and struggling with organizational and fitness issues that would soon appear on the pitch.
This season’s college-team warmups featured two very different teams than the 2013 Pilots. UA is frankly dire, ranked somewhere down in the mid-eighties in the nation, with a single winning season out of the last five. ASU is a much better side, having gone to the NCAA Finals in 2012 and barely missed out this past season. The difference may well reflect the scorelines; 10-0 against UA Friday, 5-0 over ASU this afternoon.
These were college teams in the offseason against a professional team that brought most of its professional players to the pitch. It would be difficult to describe these as anything but complete mismatches and beyond rash to try and infer results over KCFC and Sky Blue from these tune-ups, other than the obvious that it will be much more difficult to duplicate these results in the NWSL. The skill differential was vast to the point where UA did not manage a shot on goal and the Thorns defenders were pressing so high that She-Who-Was-The-Beuhldozer nicked a casual goal and everybody else, it seems, got a brace.
But right now these matches are all we have to go by. What, if anything, can we learn from the past weekend?
We learned who got a second look out of the open trials.
Courtney Niemiec – last played what appears to be defensive midfield (given that she had only 15 shots, no goals over 1,156 minutes in 2013) for La Salle University. Coach Riley appears to like her as a fullback, and seems to want a good look at her; she played the full UA match and the first half against ASU. Equalizer Soccer reported that she played more as a winger than a traditional fullback for the UA game.
Kat Tarr – veteran central defender with four years of Frauen Bundesliga experience. Also subbed in against UA and the full match against ASU. Appears to be a solid player but lost minutes with Essen after being a starting defender in the 2010/11 season, but Riley seems to be looking hard at her.
Hanna Terry – former Northeastern forward and Sweden U-23 international. Has had significant injuries in the recent past. Subbed on against UA but might not have impressed; didn’t play against ASU. What with the injuries and the stockpile at forward it’s kind of hard to see how she gets signed unless she’s struck by soccer lightning.
Michelle Cruz – former UP defender and the only name I knew up to this point; seems to have been an early selection for a hard look. Wasn’t even in the eighteen for UA but subbed in at halftime against ASU. Not sure if this means that her stock has fallen, or whether she’s such a lock that the coach didn’t need to see more of her.
We learned that Allie Long has been moved up the pitch.
Last season Thorns FC’s midfield woes forced Long into the backline for much of the second half of the season. With a pair of braces in the two Arizona games I think it’s safe to say that the D-mid chores have largely been passed over to Sinead Farelly. I think of this as a real positive; Long’s threat to shoot from distance stretched defenses last season and when Thorns FC lost that threat their opponents were able to man-mark Morgan and Sinclair out of the game. Freeing up Long to roam dangerously around the top of the midfield will help prevent that.
We learned that the term “possession soccer” actually means something under Coach Riley.
Given that against ASU Thorns FC had 85% of the possession and most of the team appears to have put a boot to the ball at some point. Both college teams – UA much more than ASU – were stifled, the former limited to a single off-target shot, the latter to five. That, combined with the distance that Thorns defenders were able to move up the pitch, suggests that Coach Riley really is implementing the system he said he would. Obviously PTFC won’t get 85% possession against Western New York or Seattle. But the stats from these two games suggest that the days of Route One Thorns appear to be, if not gone, limited to needs-must.
We learned that – as many of us suspected – Karina LeBlanc’s difficulties with distribution were a big part of the move to replace her with Nadine Angerer to facilitate the new play-to-feet-out-of-the-back style.
Coach Riley was open about that after Angerer played the UA match: “That’s the reason we made the change in goalkeeper and brought Nadine in. We wanted a more aggressive goalkeeper with her feet.”
Backup keeper Michelle Betos appears to have had a solid outing against ASU, but I’m not sure if we’ll see much of her, given Riley’s approach. The German national team keeper seems to have the mobility and vision that Riley was looking for.
We learned who we might see upfront with Christine Sinclair.
With Alex Morgan now reported out until early summer Thorns will probably have to show several different looks in front of goal, and the pairings at forward we saw in Arizona included McDonald-Sinclair, McDonald-Acevedo (against UA) and against ASU Acevedo-Sinclair, Acevedo-Sullivan, and possibly Acevedo-Sullivan-McDonald, as Jessica came on at the half for Farelly suggesting that Riley went with a more aggressive lineup late against the better Arizona side.
No real surprises there. Jackie Acevedo got a good look at forward, and Mana Shim also got up the pitch in her familiar style. The strong contender for dark horse may well be Jessica McDonald, who came on at the half against ASU and played 90 against UA, scoring in both matches. Throw in Long at attacking midfielder as well as Tobin Heath and it’s hard to say where Elizabeth Sullivan fits in with the abundance of attacking talent there.
We learned that the team still throws out the occasional Thorns Defensive Derp™
Against ASU Betos appears to have handled a backpass. Given her experience I suspect that this was the result of a panicked attempt at a clear or a mishit touch away, something we saw a bit of last season:
“The Sun Devils saw their best scoring opportunity in the fifth minute when miscommunication in the Thorns FC defense led to a free kick inside the penalty box after goalkeeper Michelle Betos accidentally handled a back pass. With nearly the entire team forming a wall on the goal line, ASU drilled the free kick into the defensive wall from nearly 10-yards out as Betos then saved the ensuing rebound attempt.”
Hopefully this one was just that – an early season gaffe that we won’t see once the team has settled into matchday form.
So. What have we learned?
Well, mostly, that if you’re a professional soccer player and you want to coast to some easy wins you get yourself a bunch of college players, and mediocre ones at that (Sky Blue could tell you about what happens when you try and pick on a genuine college power like North Carolina and the Washington Spirit might mention that playing University of Virginia ain’t exactly strolling along picking flowers, either).
These games, as games, really don’t give us a sense for the quality of play we’ll see against Houston in a couple of weeks.
But I think we learned a little about our Thorns.
And now all that remains is to wait impatiently for the second Saturday in April.