Thorns FC: Red Skies


Portland woke up gray and drizzly, probably looking very similar to the way Jim Gabarra and the gals from Sky Blue FC are feeling after dropping to third in the NWSL.

Wednesday night Portland Thorns FC did the business they couldn’t last Sunday and hung a 3-1 whipping on the Jersey Girls.

Mind you, in the larger sense all that did for PTFC was set up a huge match this coming Sunday with the league leaders, FC Kansas City.  But sufficient to the day is the soccer thereof.  Let’s just take a quick look at last night and see what might have made the difference between giving up two points to Chicago and hammering three out of SBFC.

Portland’s attack continues to be ferocious.  That was the biggest similarity between the two matches, the intensity of the revitalized Thorns strikers.  PTFC outshot SBFC 25-12, including 13-4 on goal but the numbers alone don’t really give a good sense of how different the two clubs looked last night.  Thorns FC threatened from the opening whistle – Shim was desperately unlucky not to score in the first minute – to the final one.  Sky Blue did what they could, given the depletion of their strike force, but relied largely on a counterattack that was generally well handled by PTFC.

While I’m here, let me shout out both Meleana Shim and Allie Long.  Shim was perfectly positioned to clean up the mess Alex Morgan made firing twice at SBFC’s keeper Loyden at pointblank range.  And Long got some karmic payback for Mautz’s golazo Sunday, crafting what amounted to the identical play with the identical result for Portland’s third goal.  Allie has been working her tail off on defense for the past month and it was nice to see her enjoy her beautiful strike.

And Alex Morgan.  Let’s just say that the Thorns’ marquee player had a fire and a ferocity I wish she’d display every match.  Her first half equalizing strike was beautifully taken, and Wednesday night she was in every way what Rose City supporters dreamed of and opposing fans feared; a game-changer and a force of nature.  Well played, Alex.

Portland’s midfield has been Tobinized.  I was skeptical, I admit it; I didn’t see how the addition of a single player, no matter the quality, would fix the problems Thorns FC had been displaying in midfield.  Well, for the record, I’m eating my words.  Heath has made a vast difference, and Thorns midfield is finally showing the cohesion and composure we’d hoped to see from the opening match.

From what I can see Heath does this both with her own skills and the way she plays off the others.  Her dribbling is far and away the most accomplished in the midfield and was really on display Wednesday night.  I lost count of how many times she danced between or within a brace or trio of Sky Blue defenders, but the effect was to repeatedly  draw pressure, like a black hole in a red jersey, and repeatedly free up space around her.

Then she would deploy her other talent, a gift for accurate passing.  Especially to her forwards, Heath is capable of providing the sort of deadly service that makes her every possession a threat to the opposing goal and forces the defenders to concentrate on her as SBFC had to and as a result opening up opportunities for the Thorns around her.  But she also makes her midfielders more effective, threading passes to them that would have been picked off three weeks ago.  Wednesday night the Thorns midfield was no longer a place where the Thorns’ attack went to die, and I give Heath a huge portion of the credit for that.

I’ve seen other players do this, raise their teammates to a higher level, but it’s been delightful to see it here.  Heath makes her midfield partners play better, gives her defenders a reliable outlet when pressed, and provides the service to make her forwards more deadly.  That’s pretty damn impressive for one player.  Well played, Tobin.

Portland’s defense did a vastly better job of avoiding the derps that cost them Sunday.  Not entirely; the lone Sky Blue tally was a 17th minute own-goal that combined poor positioning by Karina LeBlanc with a head-scratching flick-on from Nikki Marshall jumping above the PTFC wall that looped Freel’s free kick neatly into her own net.  In the second half Karina made up for her gaffe by stoning SBFC’s Ocampo’s 54th minute breakaway but with the entire PTFC backline puffing along behind thoroughly beaten by the well-placed long ball.  Karina still had to make some other big saves, notably in the 13th minute when she dove to her right to palm a Brittany Bock shot around the post.

I have to give credit to Coach Parlow Cone on this, too.  She started the match with Allie Long nearly sitting back amongst the defenders; technically the formation might have been a 4-4-2 diamond but in practice it looked like a 4-1-3-2 with Long acting as a sort of midfield sweeper, chasing down the ball and harrassing Sky Blue’s Rangel into insignificance.  And that brings up another huge difference…

Coach Parlow Cone’s substitutions looked timely and sensible.  Opposed to Sunday, where her choices seemed ineffective at best and actively harmful at worst, Wednesday night Parlow Cone did what she failed to do in the earlier game.  Sitting on a 3-1 lead with about a quarter hour to go she pulled Meleana Shim for Courtney Wetzel and shifted to a 4-2-2-2 (or a 4-4-2 with Long and Wetzel deep in the bucket).  This allowed the PTFC centerbacks the freedom to stifle Ocampo and a hobbled Lisa DeVanna while the fullbacks and DMs cut off their wing service, played keep-away with Heath and Foxhoven, and generally made nuisances of themselves.  The result was a calm and controlled fifteen minutes that saw the game out and secured the victory.

There’s a saying to the effect that the reward for work well done is more work.  Wednesday night’s work was well done by the Girls in Red; their reward is a meeting with a surging Kansas City Sunday.  Last Sunday I looked ahead with a great deal of trepidation.  Today I am a lot more confident.  The Chicago clouds that loured upon our house are in the deep bosom of Sky Blue buried, and the hopes for sunny skies Sunday are suddenly once again on the rise.

 

Briefly Noted – The Sections of the Rich and Famous:  For the first time since the renovation I watched part of the match from the East Stand, the “club” section of Jeld-Wen Field.  I have to admit; several of those of us who normally haunt the North End call this stand the “Prawn-sandwich Patio” for the supposedly snooty and exclusive crowd it supposedly attracts.  So I was curious to see how reality conformed to prejudice.

I tried to pick up a single General Admission ticket for the game but the on-line ticket service wouldn’t let me; the only seat it offered was over on the club side.  As noted, these are expensive seats and I’ve never really had the urge to splurge.  But I wanted to see the match and didn’t have time to run down to the box office and try my luck, so I took the seat I was offered in Section C4, Row C.

And having been there, I have to tell you; it’s probably a very good thing that us unwashed proles standing behind the north goal don’t know how the Jeld-Wen 1% live.  We’d be insanely jealous, rooting in squalor as we do.

First, club section seats are HUGE; my ass sighed in air-conditioned comfort as I wallowed about in the enormous bucket waiting for kickoff.  Second, there’s a special little cup-holder on the back of the seat in front for your beer.

A cup-holder.  For you.  Yourself.  For your very own beer.

The width of the rows is vast, with leg-room enough between your seat and the seatback in front for an NBA center.  You can’t help it; you loll about like a Wall Street CEO surveying your minions with a sort of enormous well of contempt and self-satisfaction.

And the pitch!  So close, if you weren’t lolling about in your ginormous seat swigging your $9 beer from your very own cup-holder you feel like you could play a 1-2 with Tobin Heath.

It’s hard to describe the immense gulf between this luxury and the crowded terrace several hundred feet away, but lolling about in my club seat I suddenly understood how one could sweep past some grubby commoners in one’s Jaguar with not even so much as a sneer.

But.

Before the match I kidded a Section 109 friend about practicing my “tennis clap” to fit in with the club stand crowd.  But it turned out not to be much of a joke.  When you’re used to standing and singing, shouting and jeering at the enemy and crying out love for your team it just seems wrong to respond to great play with a polite spatter of applause.

But based on the other night, that’s what you do sitting in the club stand section.

Let’s just say the intensity there wasn’t…intense.  With the game and possibly the season on the line the girls behind me spent  most of the first half talking about the cute boys on their rec league soccer team.  The young guy two seats over did nothing but catcall the referee.  Other than a burst of cheering for the Morgan goal the stand was so quiet you could hear the players shouting on the pitch.  When the two teams ran off at halftime 1-1 the entire section erupted in a burst of frenzied…clapping.

So I got up to get a beer, snuck around and into the North End, and spent the second half standing in front of a tiny seat in a narrow row, my warming beer in my hands, singing amid the thunder of drums and feeling thoroughly, vastly, immensely, contentedly privileged.

Thorns FC: Queen Anne Front, Mary Anne Back


My mother had accumulated a trove of sayings from HER mother, born near the turn of the last century.

One of her gems was reserved for times when she’d catch me trying to get away with spiffing up the visible part of something while doing the bare minimum of scuffling to cover up everywhere else.

You know what I’m talking about; your girl/boyfriend is due over and there’s crap all over the place so you run out to the yard and cut some flowers, dunk them in a vase, clear everything off the couch and the coffee table and put the lovely flowers right there.

Then stuff all the junk in the oven and hope he/she wants to go out for Chinese.

The flowers on the coffee table were, in her terms, the “Queen Anne” – the visibly beautiful and inviting – part up front.

The “Mary Anne” part, the common trailer-trashy part, was the shoes, magazines, and pizza boxes hidden in the back.

That was the story of Sunday’s match against the visiting Chicago Red Stars.

Up front the Thorns Queen Anne attack, led by Christine Sinclair with a brace and Meleana Shim with a third, was a thing of beauty.

Yes, there were some wasted opportunities; yes, we should have had four, or even five.   Perfect example; early in the second half, up 1-nil, Christine Sinclair took a ball in alone through the 18, beat the Chicago keeper and with MacLeod sprawled on the turf squared up three yards from the left post with two Chicago defenders standing in front looking like those cut-out free-kick practice dummies.  2-nil?

No. Chris hit left side netting.

But call me a believer in the Heath Factor; after a bit of a slow first half the Heath-led midfield began reading the spaces between the tight-marking Red Stars and putting passes to those spaces.  The  Thorns attackers – Morgan, Sinclair, and Shim – looked dangerous all match, and Chicago’s goal was in constant danger from the thirtieth minute until the final whistle.

Thorns even scored on nifty execution of an obviously pre-rehearsed setpiece in the first half, Sinclair running through the Chicago defense onto a quickly taken free-kick to score the first goal of the match and put Portland up 1-nil at the half.

A lovely Shim strike off of a deflected Morgan cross put Thorns up 2-nil at 55 minutes and the match looked like a threepeat of the first two Chicago-Portland scorelines. Chicago was locked down, the Thorns midfield and backline looked comfortably in charge, and it was hard to see how Chicago could play themselves back into the match.

But.

Then things came apart in back.

The first crack in the wall was the right side of the backline failing to mark Alyssa Mautz.  At about the hour mark Mautz received the ball outside the top corner of the area and carried it inside, dancing along the top right-hand edge of the 18 without a PTFC defender closer than two yards.

From there she launched a golazo into the far upper A with Karina at full stretch.

2-1.

That was not good.  But, worse, after their first goal Red Stars – who had look incapable of scoring through much of the entire first hour – suddenly looked dangerous.  The match – which until this point had been a scrappy business replete with tight marking and some ugly fouls but of which Portland had largely been in control – began to open up and not in a good way.

First, though, Thorns had another piece of pretty attacking; a through ball from Heath found its way past Shim, whose run froze the central defenders, to Sinclair, who knocked it home for the brace, 3-1 Thorns.  If there was a queen of the Queen Anne attack Sunday it had to be #12; she looked more deadly in front of goal than she has all season.  That’s the Christine I’ve been wanting to see, and she was glorious.

But.

Then the Red Stars opened the oven door and all those damn defensive embarrassments came spilling out.

First was another Mautz goal, a simple knock-in off a cross from the Portland left wing.  Kat Williamson had to chose to mark one of two Red Stars in the box with her, tried to mark both and ended up marking neither.

I will say this; Mautz looked offside to me.

But she didn’t to the linesman, and that’s what counts.

Before the final sneaker dropped out of the broiling pan Thorns FC had one last piece of beauty up front; a lovely Tiffany Weimer shot at about 78 minutes curled into the upper right-hand corner of the Chicago net!  4-2?

No.  Weimer was offside when she received the pass.

Several minutes later – about 83 or 84′, I think – Chicago had a terrific opportunity when substitute Inka Grings lofted one high in the air with LeBlanc well off her line.  Karina either misread it, thought it was in the net, or safely over the bar, and froze.

Instead it clanked off the crossbar and down for Mautz to take another shot on goal; only Kat Williamson’s body saved the three points.

Not for long.

Those points were gone three minutes later when the Portland defenders failed to clear their lines, sending a looping ball no further than Chicago’s Julianne Sitch standing just about 16 yards from goal.

Sitch hit a bullet, LeBlanc was completely unsighted, and the Red Stars had snatched a point at Jeld-Wen.

I’ve been hard on Coach Parlow Cone here in the past.  But I cannot in honesty place the failure to gain the full points from Chicago – a team we have beaten, a team we SHOULD have beaten again Sunday – on Parlow Cone.

I will say that I thought that some of her substitutions didn’t help.  Not Weimer for Morgan; Morgan had already earned a yellow, was looking angry and we need her for the four-games-in-ten-days we have coming up starting this week and couldn’t afford to get sent off.  But up a goal with ten minutes to play why not Wetzel for Shim?  You need to protect a lead, why not bring on a better defender?

And there was the usual troubles we get into because we don’t and, apparently, can’t hold possession; needing a goal with four minutes plus three minutes injury time to play Thorns FC managed little attack and only one shot, a Weimer effort that was not on frame.

Those were coaching issues, yes.  Not critical to this match, in my opinion.

The draw – and make no mistake; this was one of those draws that felt like a loss, having been up 2-nil and 3-1 – was largely on the team – and of the team, on the defenders.  Failure to mark.  Failure to clear.  This wasn’t doctoral-level soccer.  This was just what we talked about last time; the team that is hardest for the Portland Thorns to beat is the Portland Thorns themselves.

Here’s what I said back in June:

“Of the ten matches left five are to teams we should beat handily; three to the only moderately-awful Boston Breakers (which with any sort of decent play probably means at least four points and probably five), one more match with the woeful Chicago here and the final meeting with sad-sack Seattle at Tukwila for another six.”

We have taken four from Boston and with any decent luck should take at least another and possible three more.

But – only one from Chicago instead of three.

Sky Blue – our next opponent at Jeld-Wen this Wednesday – lost today to FCKC today, dropping them down to a second-place tie with Portland.  You can bet they’ll be fighting for the full points when we see them.

And then the league leaders, KC, come to visit next Sunday.

Then it’s Boston and Western New York away before the regular season wraps up in Tukwila against a Seattle Reign that is no longer a sort of frequent-flier-miles “points giveaway” operation.

There’s no slack left in the schedule.

We can no longer afford to let these kinds of matches slip away.  We can’t afford to be all Queen Anne up front if we’re going to be Mary Anne at the back.  We can’t stuff the dirty socks and old issues of Sports Illustrated into the backline and hope nothing falls out on the floor in front of the guests.

We have GOT to be the sharpest Thorns in soccer for the next month if we want home-field advantage and a straight shot at the final match.

Hang on.  It’s going to be a hell of a month of August.

Thorns FC: Good News, Bad News


Let’s get to the good news first: the Drought is over, the Thorns are back on the scoresheet, and the revolting Western New York peasantry didn’t storm Jeld-Wen Field on Bastille Day, they only nicked a couple of spoons and dirtied up the carpets a bit.

A lovely Meleana Shim strike 38 minutes in equalized the early Wambach goal and Karina “The Wall” LeBlanc stonewalled a PK late in the second half to preserve the draw.  With FCKC and Sky Blue both settling for draws this past weekend Thorns FC still holds second on the league table, one point ahead of Kansas City and three over Sunday’s visitors.

OK.  Now the bad news.

I still can’t get the flavor of disappointment out of my nine-dollar Jeld-Wen hefeweitzen.  For every bit of good news there was some bad; in fact, the whole match kinda felt like one of those lame good-news-bad-news jokes.

The good news was that a Thorn finally scored.  And the attack in general looked healthier than it has in weeks.  Yes, there was still a fair amount of Route 1.  But, no, this time it looked less like “Forgawdssakedon’tthinkjustbootit!” and more like the long balls were meant for someone to do something with.  There still wasn’t a whole lot of possession, but there was more, and it looked more purposeful than the earlier attempts.

The bad news was that the Thorn that scored wasn’t the one who was supposed to have scored.   And our two supposedly world-class strikers looked very much classless, out of synch, and out of humor with each other.

Shim had two shots and one goal.  Morgan had ten shots – half the Portland total – and got nothing out of all that.  Worse; although she said afterwards that she “…got a lot of shots on goal…” of her ten shots only four were on frame.

I’ve hesitated to speculate on this before but yesterday it was so marked that I can’t help saying something; Morgan yesterday looked like a truly terrible strike partner for Sinclair.

Christine gets little if anything from her sister striker; perhaps the worst example was deep in the second half with the Thorns needing the goal for win, Morgan running at the right side of the Flash goal with a defender on her back and the New York keeper Franch covering the short side of the goal like a blanket.  To Morgan’s left Sinclair was completely unmarked at the penalty spot; an easy sidefoot pass puts Sinclair in alone on goal for what would probably have been the game-winner…and Morgan blasted a shot that Franch easily turned around the post.

You could see Sinclair’s frustration – she stopped dead with her fists at her temples – and I completely agreed with her.  I understand that you want your star striker to be selfish; she is supposed to be greedy and want to score goals.  But Sunday it was beyond selfish, it actively hurt the team.

And what’s odd is that Morgan often dishes off to other Thorns; it’s Sinclair that she seems to be completely out of touch with.

Which is really bad news.

Particularly because if it really is some sort of personal disconnect between the two strikers (instead of just generic team play issues) if you’re Coach Parlow Cone how the hell do you solve that?  How do you make Alex Morgan – Thorns FC marquee player, the woman hundreds, possibly thousands, of Portland fans pay to see – do anything she doesn’t want to do?  You go to Merritt Paulson and say “You know our star striker, the one in all the publicity releases?  Well, I’ve had to bench her for a game because she won’t listen to me.”  How do you think that one works out?

I hope that Sunday was just Christine and Alex having a terrible, awful, very bad day and they’ll figure things out.  It just seems to me that we’re a long way into the season for our two best players to still have problems playing off each other.

The good news is that the midfield looked much improved and managed at least a draw against the WNY midfield.  That’s not a small thing, given that until now the midfield was a sort of soccer Dark Matter; talked about and speculated on but impossible to see and often simply invisible.   I thought that Tobin Heath’s contribution was helpful if not polished, no surprise for a player who had been with the team less than a week.  Overall I was pleased with what I saw of the service provided the forwards.  Long – her appalling tackle that led to the penalty aside – had a solid match locking down the back.

The bad news is that the midfield managed no better than a draw, at home, against the WNY midfield.  We needed our midfield to lock down the WNY attack and generate our own.  That didn’t happen consistently, and contributed largely to the failure to get three points.  I’m hopeful that this was a sort of “first-match-jitters” with the New Girl getting used to her midfield pals.  But a fair bit of that was problems we’ve seen before; poor passing, failure to move to a pass to open space, or failure to move to space to make such a pass possible, and it’s damn late in the season to be seeing that.

The good news is that Karina IS The Wall.  She and Franch were both terrific, but anytime your keeper saves a penalty you have to simply accept that as a nonpareil, a unique statement of quality.  Not to knock the other good stops Karina made, but Wambach slots that PK and we lose.  Period.

The bad news is that she kinda HAD to be The Wall.  The backline was it’s usual self on Sunday.  Lots of good marking and team communication punctuated with moments of pure panicked horror as someone missed an assignment or failed to cover a runner or got caught ball-watching.  Not to mention that Wambach got pretty thoroughly knocked around – with the understanding that Mary Abigail is no delicate flower herself – and got little love from the man in yellow for it; we cannot count on that sort of benign neglect when we visit Western New York.

The overall effect of the lapses was to undo much of the hard work.  Kat Williamson has a decent match but lets Wambach get the better of her once and ships the goal.  Long playing DM has a solid game but panics once when WNY hits a diagonal pass into the 18, knocks down Perez  and we’re looking at a PK with seven minutes and changes to play.  That’s the kind of thing that kills our team, and the kind of thing out backs need to work on.

The good news is that the Thorns as a team looked more dangerous than they have for a month.  I don’t want to run that down; this match was a step in the right direction, and if we can build on this we should be able to enter the playoffs ready to cut like a razor.

The bad news is that really dangerous teams don’t settle for home draws.  The improvement is just that; a step in the right direction after a month that has seen two points from a possible twelve, including one of six at home.

We have a total of nine points possible at stake against WNY; the scoreline now stands at one apiece and the last two matches are in Rochester.

So the good news is that I still believe our Thorns are capable of entering the postseason as the team to beat.

The bad news?  We still look capable of beating ourselves.

Thorns FC: Flash Burns

This coming Sunday is Bastille Day, and, appropriately, Thorns FC as the preseason consensus-royalty of the NWSL will be faced with a swarm of canaille from Western New York at the gates of Jeld-Wen Field; the Flash, a.k.a. Wambach & Co.

For me this is not good news.

That’s because our Thorns have just put on a fairly unimpressive display of ragged defense and disorganized attack in their nil-2 loss to the fifth-place Boston Breakers just a week after going scoreless and gifting two goals at FC Kansas City and being held to a messy nil-nil draw away to Sky Blue before that.  In fact, you have to go back almost a month to recall at Thorns FC win, and that was home against a then-sorry Seattle Reign.

At this point there’s really no reason to rehash the observations I’ve already made about the Thorns.  We’ve all seen what’s happening on the pitch, and we all know – at least, I hope that Coach Parlow Cone and her team know – what needs to happen to stop the bleeding.  My intention here is, specifically, to break down the Flash and see if there’s anything special that needs to happen before this coming Sunday.

From the distance of Cascadia the Western New York Flash are a real mystery to me.

On paper this team is loaded, packed with national team players; forward Adriana Martin from Spain, midfielders Samantha Kerr from Australia and Veronica Perez of Las Tri, and USWNT players U-23 goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and senior national team midfielder Carli Lloyd.

Oh, yes, and a certain Mary Abigail Wambach who might just be the greatest women’s player in the world at the moment.

So you’d think that we’d be looking up at this lot on the top of the league, rather than seeing them clinging to the last playoff spot.  But the Flash have had a problem all season getting results.

Sometimes their attack just doesn’t work; the woeful Red Stars shut them out in Chicago last week as did Kansas City this past Sunday.

Other times they break down in the back; back on June 23rd Seattle was a goal up within half an hour and WNY needed a Wambach PK to save the point.  The same month they shipped two goals against both Chicago and Boston to barely manage the away points, and even the dire Washington Spirit managed to hold them to a 1-1 draw back in April.

They seem to play down to the quality of their opponents; Chicago is 1-1-1 against them, and Boston is 1-0-1.  Washington is the only no-hoper at 0-2-1 including a 4-nil thrashing in Rochester back at the end of June.  At the other end they’re 3-0 against Sky Blue and 1-0-1 against FCKC; they seem to like a challenge.

So it’s going to be difficult to suss out which WNY will show up next week; will it be the one that walloped Washington or the one that lost to Chicago?

We do know some things, however, and here’s my thoughts on what they are and what will need to happen for Thorns FC to get a good result against WNY.

Wambach is a menace in the air and WNY will be extremely dangerous from lofted crosses and corners.

Thorns FC scores very few goals from headers; 6% (only 1 of 18 goals scored).  Given our lack of effective width and few players who cross well that’s no surprise.  But we also don’t see many headers against us; Bywater’s goal for Chicago (on the June weekend when the USWNT and CWNT call-ups left both sides without their stars) was the only one I can recall.  I certainly hope that the team is practicing their team defense against lofted crosses and set pieces this week.

But WNY thrives in the air.  22% of their goals – 6 of 22 – have come from someone’s head.  Of the teams in the NWSL that can score only Boston (22%, 5 of 23) comes close.  Those of us who have watched Wambach will find this no surprise.  But it’s worth noting that WNY defender Brittany Taylor has two goals, and that usually means off a set-piece of some kind, and another defender (Robinson) has a goal off a corner kick.  I cannot help but suspect that Aaran Lines will want to test the PTFC defense with some aerial attack, and we should expect to see that.

The Thorns backline will have to mark tightly – especially Wambach and especially on set-pieces.  Beyond general improvement in team defense the play of the central defenders must also improve; Williamson cannot afford to be torched as she was repeatedly against Boston, and Wambach – who knows Beuhler’s penchant for rough play – cannot be allowed to use that to draw a penalty.

The Flash tend to score goals from the run of play and appear to have a solid midfield providing service.

Over the past nine games ten players have scored 20 goals for WNY; Wambach, of course, with 6 goals but also Lloyd (4 goals), Martin (2), and Kerr, Winters, Perez, and DiMartino with one each.  Almost all of these goals have come in open play, other than the three noted above and a McCall Zerboni strike from a goalkeeper error.  To assume that the Flash will come in looking like St. Mirren circa 1962 would be a mistake; these people will look to play balls through midfield and both out to the wings as well as into the 18.

The Thorns will have to control midfield play.  Sure, that’s Soccer 101, but until now we’ve consistently bypassed the midfield in hopes of an Alex Morgan long-distance lightning strike.  If we are going to stop the WNY attack that defense must begin in midfield, and the midfielders will have to be capable of turning on the ball and then providing accurate passes to our strikers, something we have not done consistently to date.

The Flash tends to ship goals at random moments and while they have a good defense it’s not statistically better than ours…and we’ve seen what that means.

I see this – and marking Wambach out of the match – as the key to victory.

When the Flash get beaten it’s been on the counter, with goals from distance, and early goals forcing them to struggle for late equalizers.  Chicago’s Mautz scored on them in the first minute and forced them to nearly into 90+ for the draw.   Leroux nailed a 20-some yard strike and forced the Flash, again, to go almost to full time to pull off the draw.  Backfooting them will be critical, and that means pressure, and that means both opportunism and possession.

Our frontline has to score, score early, and then keep possession and pressure on through the match. 

Let’s face it; the best way to keep Abby Wambach from scoring is to ensure that Abby Wambach’s opponents don’t let her have the ball.  Better yet; they keep the ball down around her goal, and force her to play central defender.

But we haven’t been doing that of late and, honestly, I don’t know how to solve that problem.

If I did I’d be on the phone to Jeld-Wen right now.  We have two of the best strikers in women’s soccer – possibly in ALL of soccer – in Sinclair and Morgan.  But we have been terrible as providing them with good opportunities and as a strike partnership they have looked out of sorts and poorly connected.

I know part of the trouble is in midfield, and we have a potential missing piece – Tobin Heath – arriving this week.  But, frankly, we haven’t seen our forwards playing well off each other even when they do work the ball down into the attacking third.  I think a large part of that is our width; we don’t have any, and it allows opposing defenses to collapse around Morgan, Sinclair, and Weimer (and Foxhoven, Shim, or any other Thorns involved in the attack).  But another part of it is on the players themselves, and their working out techniques that allow them to make space around the goal.

This is what I see as Coach Parlow Cone’s hardest task for the upcoming week.

Can you believe that we’d be saying that?  Hey, this was Thorns FC!  We have the two of the deadliest gunners in North America, amiright?  Just roll that ol’ ball out and watch ’em knock it in, amiright?

Well, no.

Turns out that even great strikers need support from the back, and a tactical plan, and movement off the ball, and wing play, and good coomunication and coordination.

And y’know what?  I have to think we can do that.  I want to think we can take the attack to the Flash and make them worry more about what Morgan and Shim and Sinclair will do with the ball and less what Abby Wambach could be doing with it.

And I want to think that Coach Parlow Cone thinks that, too.

Thorns FC: Broken by the Breakers

John Lawes has the lowdown on Thorns FC 0-2 Boston Breakers.

Does crisis fuel soccer in the Rose City? It’s now two defeats in a row for the Thorns and all-too familiar problems on the field for Portland fans.


Damn but these are getting depressing to write.

Thorns FC lost it’s second match in a row and the third without a win Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field.  The fifth-place Boston Breakers looked comprehensively the better team; effective in front of goal, dominant in midfield, and solid in the back.  Naeher, the Boston keeper, played a blinder that included an 86th minute stoning of Alex Morgan that kept the sheet clean.

On the other side of the pitch Thorns FC showcased the problems I’ve been carping about for the recent weeks, both individual and collective.  Nikki Washington had one of the worst outings I’ve seen from a winger whose usual form has been subpar since early in the season.  Kat Williamson and Nikki Marshall got torched, Rachel Beuhler and Williamson seemed to be playing for different teams and with a Sydney Leroux in front of them that has been a pantsload over the last couple of matches the backline gave her acres of space and aeons of time and were rewarded with a pair of nifty – for Boston fans – goals.

The less said about Courtney Wetzel’s night as a defender the better, but if Parlow Cone tries THAT little experiment again she’d better have a good explanation for why.  Wetzel looked so bad matched up against Leroux that Parlow Cone kept shifting her around the field like she was playing human three-card monte and Wetzel was the Red Queen.  Cone’d better hope that she never has to take to hustling rubes for a living, because she sure wasn’t fooling Boston.

Thorns midfield?

What midfield?

Boston dominated midfield play, pressing high and attacking the ball aggressively, just like every successful Portland opponent has done.  And the Thorns responded with errant passes and lost tackles as has been their wont when confronted with this tactic.

Up front the attacking woes continued.  The attackers took 20 shots but of that only seven were anywhere near the goal and those seven were either softballs or right at Naeher.  Boston was rarely troubled all night by the supposedly deadly Portland forwards due to a combination of poor Portland coordination and tough Boston defense.

It’s getting harder and harder to see a good ending to this mess unless we see some real improvement in both team and individual play, and soon.  Parlow Cone has got to figure out what to do about the problems we’re seeing and implement it.  The team needs to find an on-field leader who is capable of marshaling the troops to make the coach’s plan happen.

And I think this needs to happen before the end of the regular season.  One of the comments on my last post read in part:

“…as long as Portland keeps drawing 3X the crowds of the next closest drawing club in this league nobody at the FO gives a F***. And I mean that. This is a cash cow for them. SPC can coast on talent. With the talent the Thorns were gifted (and don’t think they weren’t) they will make the playoffs and win a lot of games. Her 1965 tactics won’t matter to anyone at the FO as long as they make the playoffs and they will.”

I think the commenter misunderstands the position this club is in.  Merely getting to the playoffs this season will not be enough.  A finals berth; in fact, a championship is the minimum the fan base expects.  Portland soccer fans are far more forgiving than most – too forgiving, in my biased opinion.  But given the expectations I firmly believe that merely making the playoffs and going out in the first round won’t cut it.

So I think this next match will be crucial.

If we can see some real changes, some real improvement across the entire team (except you, Karina – you are still The Wall!) against a tough opponent – even if we lose a hard-fought match – I think we can see the Thorns we expected to see and challenge for the league title.

If not?  Well, if not I think we may be in for a damn ugly off-season.

Dammit, I refuse to think we can’t do that.

Onward, Rose City!

 

Thorns FC: Coach? It’s John Spencer on the smartyphone…

Seems like only last week I sat down and fired up the Commodore 64 to ponder what best for our coach Cindy Parlow Cone to do to prepare for the final half of the season.

Oh.  Wait.  It was.  As part of that external internal-monologue I had some thoughts about the upcoming matches, and here’s what I had to say about last Sunday’s match against FC Kansas City:

“Hard to suss these out just because our first meeting was a frightful mess with goals hard to come by and the second was a wild free-for-all with goals by the bucketful.  Which teams will meet for the last two matches?  I have to think that we’re better now than either Thorns team that played those first two matches; at least four points, then, with the dire possibility that KC might possibly sneak a home win next week and leave us with only the three.”

Humph.

Guess what.

They did.

But in truth the match away to FCKC was worse than the loss – or as a Kansas City play-by-play announcer might have termed it, the first ever road loss for Thorns FC – it was another example of a coach whose  team and whose “tactics” are starting to look very familiar to those of us who sat through the Timbers’ first two MLS seasons.  And this Spencerian style, although Coach Parlow Cone says nothing about it, is going unnoticed by the fans.  Here’s just a selection of some of their observations from the comments on the match report over at Stumptown Footy:

“The midfield still stinks and we’re playing longball or, as someone else noted, kick and chase. There appears to be no philosophy. This is Spencerball revisited. It’s ugly, tragic, embarrassing, and contrary to what we’ve been told to expect tactically. Heath isn’t going to be the savior, and she shouldn’t have to be. We have great players, but aren’t the team we should be.”

“All of this tells me that while CPC may be doing a fine job of helping the ladies be good friends and have fun together, she has yet to build a functioning professional team. With others in the league clearly improving, the clock is ticking loudly.”

“We’ve proven that we can take care of the Washingtons and Seattles just on talent, and even then only barely. Any team with a pulse can throw good markers/back line numbers at Sinc and Morgan and just wait for the midfield to turn it over. Then just wait for the defense to get in its own way one too many times.”

Brutally critical?

Yes.  But, in my opinion, justified.

In my last post I identified certain on-field issues that I thought CPC could address to sharpen the Thorns, issues that we’d seen in all of the team’s poorer outings this season;  Alex Morgan lacking bite, as well as lacking service and assistance from her strike partners.

The mess in midfield.

Lack of effective wing play and the ease with which smart and talented opponents can stifle the narrow Thorns attack.  Lack of communication between the midfield and backline, and random moments of disorganization in the back leading to opposing attackers getting far too much open space and time.

Poor passing and poor coordination and team play in general.

All of that was on display in Kansas City along with one of those awful moments when a coach has burned all her substitutions and then one of her players goes down injured; with no way to replace Marian Dougherty, Parlow Cone could only watch helplessly as her team played the final 10 minutes a player and two goals down.

The part of all this that disturbs me most is how, of all John Spencer’s coaching ways Parlow Cone seems to mimic his most damaging;  an unreflective approach to the game of soccer and the paleolithic “tactics” it produced.

Sure, Spencer had plans and tactics, mind; plans like the French Army had plans in 1940, and tactics like they were still written in the original cuneiform.

Spenny came to every match with an idea of what his team was going to look like, and do; boot the ball up to his big forward and let the big fella knock it in.

Substitute “Alex Morgan” for “Kenny Cooper” or “Kris Boyd” and this year’s Thorns FC starts to look a hell of a lot like the Timbers of 2011 and 2012; a team that can’t pass the ball well or control the tempo of the match and relies on antiquated hoof-and-hope long ball to get Alex Morgan to make something out of nothing.  A team that suffers catastrophic breakdowns in back.  A team that smarter coaches can beat because they know before the opening whistle where that team will go and what it will do when it gets there.

What’s so disturbing about this is that while what we’re seeing from Thorns FC is pretty much what we’ve seen from their first match – with bits of tweaking here and there – most of the rest of the league has been getting better.

Seattle’s USWNT veterans Rapinoe and Solo have earned the dire Reign two wins and a draw from their last three matches.  Sydney Leroux is pulling Boston – a Boston that we play three times and I had counted on the Thorns thrashing repeatedly – out of a slough of mediocrity into…well, perhaps at least a much shallower slough of mediocrity.  We’ll have to see.

Western New York remains as dangerous at random moments as lightning from a cloudless sky, and Sky Blue FC is still atop the table with us and a consistent and persistent threat.

Thank the soccer gods that Chicago still sucks, then.

Mind you, I suspect that even with a less successful second half the Thorns will be able to ride their fast start into the playoffs.  But what then?  FCKC showed they’d learned the lessons that Sky Blue wrote on the Jeld-Wen turf; mark the two star strikers out of the match, press high and force the poor passing and bad clears that will gift you the ball, and then take advantage of defensive errors that will follow.  Even The Wall cant stop everything.

I believe that unless Parlow Cone can manage her way out of this the championship we’re expecting this season – and we ARE expecting it – will go a’glimmering.

Spencer seemed like a genuinely good man, the sort of quirky guy that a lot of the fans enjoyed for his personality, the kind of manager that in a sunny, happy world would have retired here full of years and honors, beloved of the supporters and the city alike.

The main reason he did not is that he was unable to analyze the game, to learn from his mistakes, and to adjust to his conditions; he tried to play “his kind of soccer” with a club that didn’t have what it took to play that kind of soccer, and a kind of soccer that didn’t have what it took to beat teams whose tactics had evolved past 1965.

Now Parlow Cone has a dilemma.  She has a small number of great players and “tactics” that rely on those players being great enough to beat poorer, weaker teams.  But now many of the poor are getting richer and the weak stronger, and it is appearing increasingly likely that those “tactics” will no longer work.

If she can figure out how to adjust those tactics she may well – if the league itself prospers – find herself at the end of her career the next Clive Charles, a beloved fixture of Portland soccer, a treasured reminder of glories past.

But if not…

Ask not for whom the smartyphone rings…

Thorns FC: Sharp Thorns All In A Row

So.

We’re more than halfway through the NWSL season, looking like the class of the league and a lock to go to the finals. Top of the league with our rivals Sky Blue who are, of course, still sitting on that head-to-head tiebreaker, dammit. 

Is there anything that Cindy Parlow Cone should be doing, other than booking the team’s tickets for the Final and measuring the Jeld-Wen trophy case to make sure the silverware can fit in it?

Here’s my thoughts in order from back to front:

Pad all the corners, put up stairway gates, and lay down non-slip floor mats in Karina LeBlanc’s apartment.  Let’s be honest; we sneaked out of New Jersey with that point because The Wall was a complete madwoman.  She stoned Sky Blue, owned Lisa De Vanna, and singlehandedly snatched two points from the home side in the last fifteen minutes when her backline inexplicably stopped playing.  She has been a rock in goal for Thorns FC, and we need to keep her healthy.  Given that her nominal backup, Adelaide Gay, was 86ed for a former Portland State amateur when LeBlanc was called up to the CWNT there’s no point in kidding around or taking chances.

For God’s sake do NOT let this woman go hangliding or BASE jumping!

How do they line up then?  LeBlanc.  Period.

Gather up the fullbacks for a little talk about what they do.  Of the Thorns units the defenders have shown the least improvement over the course of the season.  That’s not entirely a bad thing.  The backline was far and away the steadiest part of the team in the early games.  Rachel Beuhler has showed a flair for organizing her teammates and is no mean force her ownself.  Williamson has been a steady partner for Beuhler in the center.  So far the center of the defense has looked respectable much of the time.

On the wings…well, if I were Parlow Cone I would be working with my fullbacks.  Right now what wide play Thorns FC gets is largely from Marshall and Dougherty pushing up the touchlines.  But both of those fullbacks – Marshall more so than Dougherty – have been caught upfield by speedy wingers and the defense has suffered for it.  The Thorns have proved vulnerable both to crosses and to diagonal runs through the middle.  In many of the cases I’ve seen it is because the outside backs have pushed up and poor passing in midfield (we’ll get there in a bit) has resulted in a quick counter, catching the defense napping.  If the fullbacks are going to provide the wide attack the defensive midfielders and centerbacks will have to learn to cover for them better and the fullbacks are going to have to learn when to retreat.

Against the no-hopers like Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Washington we can get away without doing that.

Against Kansas City, Western New York, and Sky Blue, not so much.

How do they line up, then?   Marshall LFB, Williamson RCB, Beuhler LCB, Dougherty RFB (subs: O’Neill, Ramirez)

Sort out how the midfield plays, who’s playing in midfield, and find some width there.  Thorns FC really needs to define themselves in midfield.  And we need to find some wingers

Mind you – it’s better than it was, far better than we looked in the first match against KCFC, where Kerr was adrift and Long stymied.  Long seems to be comfortable at defensive midfield, and I though that part of our defensive woes in New Jersey was her absence at DM.  Kerr has had two solid matches and looks much more the distributor and organizer she looked in preseason and can go out wide at times.  Between those two Thorns should be strong in the back of midfield.

Going forward I think part of the problem – and, mind you, we should all have such problems – is that we have almost too many options for attacking midfielders and yet, not enough wingers; Wetzel, Shim, Guess, Foxhoven and Sinclair (when they play AM/withdrawn forward) are all talented players but all seem like either central midfielders or center-forwards.

The one player who has been out on the wing more often than not – Nikki Washington – to my mind has proved disappointing this season.

This is just me talking but I think the Thorns do better with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield than the 4-3-3; it allows for Long (or Wetzel) to stay in touch with the backline at DCM, Sinclair to distribute, and Kerr to provide width and spread the defense.  From what I saw Saturday a 4-3-3 narrows the Thorns attack more than it already is, which is pretty damn narrow.

But the problem with the 4-midfield is – who else to play out wide, then?  Washington  needs to improve her touch and tactical judgement if so.  Guess?  Shim?  Neither of the latter two seem comfortable playing out on the wing.  Wetzel doesn’t have the speed, Long is too important as the chara, and Sinclair is wasted at winger.

How do they line up, then?  Good question!  In a four MF lineup, my thought would be Long CDM, Wetzel (with Heath after July) CAM, Washington LW, Kerr RW with Guess as substitute.   With three, maybe more of a 4-1-2-2 or 4-2-1-2 with Long and/or Wetzel at CDM, Heath and/or Shim up front?  Sinclair could play anywhere in front of midfield, but (as we’ll see below) I’d rather she played forward.  Foxhoven as ACM sub, Guess as DCM sub.  Subs for the wingers?  Gah!  Who knows?

As you can tell – I think solving the midfield is Parlow Cone’s toughest problem.  If she can get that one right I think we might just run the table the rest of the season…if we get the two forwards we should have going…

Get the Alex Morgan who played in the last Kansas City match at home on speed dial.  Morgan has a tendency to cruise in NWSL matches.  She has terrific skills, she can beat most NWSL defenses on pure blinding speed alone, and I can’t say I blame her for laying off when she doesn’t have to.

But that’s for the Chicagos and Bostons and Washingtons.  Against the top of the table Thorns FC looks an order of magnitude better then Alex works hard all match and does the little things that hurt the opponents’ defense; making runs off the ball to open up space, taking on her defenders and pulling them with her, fighting through tackles and using her teammates to both feed and take service from.   I want to see that Morgan a lot…

Find a way to use Christine Sinclair in her CWNT role.  Chris has been terrific this season doing what her coach has asked of her.  In the early going she dropped back to help marshal a midfield that was overmatched.  Now the midfield looks stronger, and Sinclair is a wrecking-ball of a forward, so it’d seem to be a perfect opportunity to move her back up front.  Parlow Cone tried that in New Jersey but Chris looked pretty gassed from her national team duties.

Still, I have yet to see Sinclair and Morgan look like they were completely in synch.  And I’m not sure if they can; both are strikers with a similar style – it’s a bit difficult to see who can compliment whom.

Make them a dyad, a double-star, providing service for each other and scoring as well.  If Parlow Cone can make that happen Thorns FC may, indeed, become the dreaded Death Star it has been touted.  That would be insanely beautiful.

How do they line up, then?  Morgan (duh!) and Sinclair. I honestly don’t know what you do with Weimer and Shufelt.  In my opinion one of them is a dead woman walking; the moment Heath arrives one of them will be pinin’ for the fjords, an ex-Thorn.

What’s the stakes for all this, then?

Of the ten matches left five are to teams we should beat handily; three to the only moderately-awful Boston Breakers (which with any sort of decent play probably means at least four points and probably five), one more match with the woeful Chicago here and the final meeting with sad-sack Seattle at Tukwila for another six.

But of the remaining four:

Two are home-and-home with Western New York – one of the two teams we have yet to face.  On paper these guys are loaded: Wambach, Kerr, Lloyd…but in practice the Ragin’ Rhinettes have been streaky and unpredictable, beating Sky Blue twice and FCKC once but losing to Boston and drawing against them as well as Washington, Chicago, and the Reign.  Very difficult to tell how these will go.  My hope would be a win here, a draw in Rochester, four points.  My fear would be the other way around; draw here, loss away for a single point.

And two are home-and-home with FCKC – Hard to suss these out just because our first meeting was a frightful mess with goals hard to come by and the second was a wild free-for-all with goals by the bucketful.  Which teams will meet for the last two matches?

I have to think that we’re better now than either Thorns team that played those first two matches; at least four points, then, with the dire possibility that KC might possibly sneak a home win next week and leave us with only the three.

I think Parlow Cone has a terrific opportunity before her; figure out how to optimize this team and blitz these two teams.  Take twelve points from them.  Stun the league into submission before the semifinal kickoff.

The first step, in my opinion, is to sort out how her garden grows; arrange all those silver bells and cockle shells and sharp Thorns all in a row.

Portland Thorns: Starless vs Seattle

Once again Portland Thorns FC played a visiting team without several of their biggest stars.  Once again the U.S. Women’s National Team called up Alex Morgan and Rachel Beuhler, and the CWNT required the services of Christine Sinclair.  Once again an opponent came to Jeld-Wen Field looking for their first win against the Thorns and hoping to take advantage of the depleted Portland side.

That’s where the similarities ended.

The last time Chicago’s Red Stars cruelly exposed the failings of a PTFC that had used its national team players like a club to beat less-gifted opponents and a crutch to prop up weaknesses on their roster.  Without the stars Thorns FC looked badly adrift, underprepared, and lost badly 2-nil.

Sunday the scoreline was the same but the numbers were reversed, and it was the hapless Seattle Reign that walked off victims of two splendid Portland goals.

Why?

1.  Portland’s midfield continued to show the vastly improved organization and individual creativity that enabled Thorns FC to defeat KCFC last week.  What was more impressive about this win is that it came without Becky Edwards as defensive organizer and all-around chara* and Allie Long forced back into a more defensive midfield role.

Obviously we will miss Edwards; she’s a terrific player and has been a rock as DM.  But, in my biased opinion, Long’s shift back was a nifty piece of organizing by Parlow Cone and Long rewarded her by playing one of the best games I’ve seen her play all season.  Until we get Tobin Heath (from my keyboard to the Gods of Soccer’s ears…) I think she will manage quite well there.

Another standout from Sunday was Angie Kerr.  Angie has had some problems this season and has drifted in and out of the starting XI.  But Sunday personnel needs pushed her “in” and she was rock solid.  Her assist on the Shim goal alone was poetry in a size 7 soccer boot, and she controlled her portion of the pitch well all match, tackling neatly and distributing accurately.

Danielle Foxhoven, too, lived up to her “super-sub” reputation with a solid second-half shift as well as the clinical looping shot that produced Portland’s first goal.  Wetzel and Guess were useful; in fact, this was perhaps the first Thorns match I’ve watched where I didn’t swear more than once at one of our midfielders.

Well played, middies!

2.  Mana Shim finally had the game we’ve been waiting for her to have.  She was a pest in the Seattle backline all match, made several nice runs, and her goal was a thing of soccer dreams.  She should probably spend some time this week with Diego Chara going over 1 v 0 scoring because her run was perfect and her outside-of-the-foot chip shot couldn’t have been sweeter.  Well played, Mana!

3.  Karina LeBlanc owns Christine Nairn, or something.  I’m still not sure if she guessed right, read Nairn’s approach, and/or cheated off her line just enough to save the PK, but save it she did and kept the clean sheet.  Other than that she was her usual reliable self.  Well played, Karina!

So it was all sunshine and rainbow sparkle ponies Sunday, right?  Another boring ho-hum Thorns FC win, right?

Mmmmmm…not quite.

The one place that Thorns FC really showed the hurting in the absence of their national team players was in back.  Seattle had several dangerous opportunities when Portland Thorns defenders clumped around the ball and failed to clear their lines or gain control and pass out of danger.  And let’s not forget; this was a Seattle without Fishlock.  Had she not been off getting in touch with her Welsh roots away the scoreline might not have looked so pretty.

Jazmine Avant played a reliable game and Marian Dougherty provided quality wing play as well as steady defense, but as a unit the backline had the same problems they showed against KCFC; without Beuhler there to take them in hand they have a tendency to lunge and stab, miss their marks, fail to clear cleanly, and generally look like a group of players who are missing leadership.  LeBlanc does what she can but she’s no Schmeichel.

If we’re going to win the league this defensive unit needs to find a workaround needing the Bacon-saver to save their bacon.

So for all that I kid about the Thorns FC “Death Star” crushing all enemies we still have work to do and a long season ahead.  We are not destined to stroll to the championship because we have two of the greatest strikers in women’s soccer.

Destiny is something we’ve invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.

Or the result of damn hard work.

Sunday the Thorns proved convincingly that – without the bag stars – they can do the hard work to make themselves a team that can be dangerous from front to back, from the top of the roster to the tail.  The question before us now is; will they, and can we continue that effort through the remainder of the season?

And for that we will have to wait and see.  Or at least until next Saturday when we travel to meet the team that first best us so convincingly; Sky Blue FC.

Onward, Rose City!


When you think about it, shouldn’t we accept that the man’s name is worthy of adjectivization for “someone or something that causes fearsome disruption and bog-hammers anything around it”?  When you ‘chara’ someone or something you just put the boot in and keep kicking;

“Well, it started out to be a pretty boring staff meeting until Jennifer from HR just got up and chara-ed the #!$#! out of that guy from accounting…”