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…”

The Empire Strikes Back

Let me say this first; what a wild, wonderful, frightening, crazy, frustrating, exhilarating match!

Thorns FC celebrated the return of their national team players Thursday night by hanging a frantic 4-3 defeat on the visiting Kansas City FC.  Although far from being a “perfect” soccer match the encounter was loads of fun to watch and possibly the most entertaining game I’ve seen from the Thorns and the NWSL to date.

I’m sure my colleagues here will do what the gang over at Stumptown Footy has already done and give you a thorough rundown of the match.  I just wanted to comment on what happened relative to the carping I did after the loss to Chicago the previous weekend.  Specifically;

Having whined about the lack of wing play, Thursday night the Thorns played MUCH wider and used the width of the pitch to spread a scrambling KCFC defense and pour on the attack.  What didn’t hurt Thorns FC was that the KCFC defense lacked their organizer Sesselmann; I’d say that had she been there I doubt if Morgan would have had the time to bury her second.  Both Dougherty on the Thorns right and Marshall on the left had clearly been given orders to push up the touchlines when they could, and did.  The results rewarded the efforts and I hope we’ll continue to see this from Thorns FC going forward.

Although the play proved that the Morgan-Sinclair Axis is still the heart of the Thorns’ attack Thursday night the midfield looked an order of magnitude better than they have all season, stringing together crisp passes, moving well to space and looking to keep possession.  Allie Long had perhaps the best game she’s had to date, the Shim-Foxhoven combination (Shim in the first half, Foxhoven in the second) worked well, and Becky Edwards was her usual beast of a DCM, Chara-izing everything in a white jersey all night.  I won’t way that the midfield is “solved” but the Thorns midfield play was much improved and the team was the beneficiary of that.

As always, Alex Morgan was herself, using her amazing pace to trouble KCFC even without the ball at her feet.  I thought the defining moment for her Thursday night was early in the first half with Thorns FC up 2-nil and a lazy backpass forced KCFC keeper Barnhart to dribble the ball out of the back.  Most forwards might have loafed over to remind the keeper they were there.  Instead Morgan rushed onto her at full tilt, forced her to boot away a hurried clearance to avoid getting caught in a ter-Stegen.  Morgan clearly had no interest in letting her national teammate play her game; this game was Morgan’s, by Pele, and Morgan was letting her know it.

Even more entertaining were her struggles with KCFC’s Becky Sauerbrunn (whose awful slip had gifted PTFC Morgan’s first goal early on and was clearly angry about that).  They tussled and shoved and battled all evening and finally late in the second half the two raced down into the west corner at the North End.  Both were shoving shoulder-to-shoulder when Morgan reached under and ju-jitsu-flipped Sauerbrunn to the ground, rolled over…and sat up and appealed for the card against her victim.

Her own yellow for this was well deserved; nice piece of trickery only if you get away with it, you cunning thing, you.  But it revealed what a fierce competitor this woman is, and how lucky we are to have her.

Of course when you’re rebuilding a Death Star you’re still likely to end up with a defense that has an vulnerable exhaust port or two.  With the attack battering furiously away the Thorns’ defense didn’t have much to do…until the second half when, up 3-1, Parlow Cone pulled the team back into a 4-5-1, left Morgan running about up top, and seemed to want to park the bus.

As we’ve seen; when teams named “PTFC” try that it doesn’t usually end well.  In this case it allowed KCFC to work its way back into the match.

Much as I like what Marshall and Dougherty did going forward, I was hating what was happening in the back.  Marshall was repeatedly skinned to the outside; she spend so much time chasing down wingers who had burned her that I started looking to see if the back of her shirt didn’t read “Kimura”.  Over on the right Dougherty was caught upfield several times as well.  If CPC is going to push her fullbacks upfield to get width – which I like! – the midfield and backline will need to work on shifting to cover the space opened by the fullbacks.

And to add to that the defense continued its curious ways of going into sudden brainlock at random moments.

KCFC pulled back a third goal on what might have been the oddest looping curl of a shot by Erika Tymrak in the 81st minute.  She hit a medium-pace shot from near the right top corner of the 18 at what seemed like a half-dozen Thorns strung across the penalty area like a Washington County road crew and they, like the shovel-proppers, did absolutely nothing useful to the ball.  It whiffed past LeBlanc who looked to be screened by her ostensible defenders.  Ouch.

And speaking of “ouch” and speaking of defenders I have to add this; Thorns FC was very, very lucky not to be a player down after 33 minutes.

Rachel Beuhler did a lot of good work Thursday night.  But that didn’t include a very bad challenge from behind that took down (and injured) Renae Cuellar.  It had all the elements of a sending-off; clumsy tackle, from behind, by the last defender on an attacker that was otherwise in alone on the keeper.

Luckily for Thorns FC while it drew the PK that Cheney buried it didn’t draw the card.  Not that I think for a moment that there was intent on Beuhler’s part; just that on a night that Thorns FC was seemingly inspired by the great Brazilian teams of the Garrincha years – (“Score seven on us? Defending? Não faz mal! We’ll just forget that “defending” stuff and score eight on you..!) the last thing you need is to go down a player AND lose your most crucial defender.

Just sayin’.

After all the hurley was done, after the battle was won the Death Star has downed another plucky band of rebels.

Thursday night was a wild rumpus of an evening, a cascade, a starry night full of goals, and a lovely evening of soccer brought to us by the Ladies in Red; luminous beings were they, not this crude matter.  A delightful evening after the sour mumpish day we shared last Saturday.  Now.

Onward, Rose City!

Reversal of Fortune

Thorns FC now sits squarely in second place in the NWSL after a 2-nil loss to the Chicago Red Stars at home and a Sky Blue win.

As I discussed earlier; Saturday’s game was full of questions.  Clearly, given the scoreline, the answers weren’t very favorable for the Thorns.  What were those answers and were they the reason for Thorns FC’s second loss of the season?

Was the third time the charm for Chicago?  I don’t believe so; I didn’t see anything particularly innovative about the way Chicago played today.  Both goals were the direct result of Portland errors; an unmarked Bywaters heading easily for the first goal, while the second was a dreadfully defended shot/cross that more or less bounced of Chicago’s Santacaterina into the net from pointblank range.

The changes all seemed to be on the PTFC end of the pitch.  The loss of Beuhler looked to be critical, as Portland’s backline looked disorganized and backfooted all afternoon.  I didn’t think that amateur keeper Cris Lewis was particularly at fault on either goal but her presence between the posts calls into question Parlow Cone’s assessment of her notional backup for LeBlanc; why didn’t Adelaide Gay get the start Saturday?  Why go with an amateur who last played for Portland State – not exactly the North Carolina of West Coast soccer – and who seems to have last played competitively in 2009?

Was it the Germans?  Not particularly. Grings was not a major factor; she was well marked and didn’t have a good chance until late in the second half.  Fuss did nothing more than the rest of the Chicago backline, who had most of the afternoon off as Thorns FC flailed about trying to get past midfield.

Was it the loss of the national team players?  I would say yes, to a large degree, but not entirely.

At this point in the season I would say that Parlow Cone has only faced two real tests; the Sky Blue match and this one, dealing with the loss of the Thorns national team players.

In neither has she shown us any Porteresque degree of insight into the game of soccer.

She was flat-out schooled by Jim Gabarra of Sky Blue.  And Saturday against Chicago she appeared just stymied.  Her team continued to try and lump the ball forward but without the speed of Morgan or the force of Sinclair that didn’t work. The backline, without the Bacon-saver, made fundamental errors at critical times and shipped two fairly (one brutally) soft goals.  That isn’t exactly the sort of game reputations for managerial cunning are built on.

We’ve all noticed that the midfield without Sinclair is sort of ordinary.   Saturday when the Sinclair-less midfield did get the ball forward what they provided was nothing special – and neither Foxhoven nor Shim were able to make something out of nothing special, the quality that Morgan provides.  Bringing on Washington and Guess in the second half merely restated the obvious; Thorns FC attack is a Cascadian fir with twin trunks made of Canadian and American national timber.

Without that lumber the poor vegetable looks more like a boxwood hedge.

And since we’re on the subject of things that haven’t worked so well, here’s my pet peeve – this Thorns team’s motto should be  “ea alis nunquam” which loosely translated from the Latin means “She ain’t got jack @!#! for wings”.

Because the one thing the Thorns have not yet shown against any opponent is effective wide play.  The gals in red really want to force the ball through the middle.  And when that didn’t work Saturday…they tried to force the ball through the middle again.  What little wide support the forwards get is typically random and usually not particularly effective; one indication of that is that Thorns FC has scored only 1 of their 12 goals from a PTFC head.  Crosses?  Typically in the single digits (and one of the three matches where Thorns FC attempted more than ten was Sky Blue, where the visitors’ central defense was so impenetrable that the only attack that PTFC had was crosses in from out wide…).

Why is this a problem?  Because if you pack the middle the Thorns have trouble scoring because we cannot or will not play the ball out wide.  I’m no Kevin Alexander but it seems to me that attacking the flanks should at least be an option for Thorns FC.

Well.

If all that sounds like I’m being grim, well. I don’t think this was more than a bad day and the national team players will return.

But.

I would suggest that Thorns coaching staff might want to think very hard about whether there are real problems in the things I’ve discussed here, and, if there are, whether something needs to be done about this.  If I knew for sure, hell, I’d be coaching the team.   But if there are…well…

KCFC is coming around this Thursday, is all I’m sayin’.

Just a couple of other random comments on the match;

–  It was great to see the turnout for a match that didn’t feature the big stars.  12,000-odd?  I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; Portland really is “Soccer City USA”.

–  My normal match tickets are for the General Admission section at the North End, but for single-match tickets I usually have to depend on whatever’s available.  The last several times these tickets have been in the far-southwest portions of the West Stand.  And I have to say; that is a whole different world over there.  I’m sure that there are lots of people who like sitting quietly watching soccer, but for me it feels like going to a memorial service with 10,000 strangers.  I just don’t feel…right…sitting quietly watching my team.  I want to stand and sing and chant and abuse the officials and slag off on the visiting team.  It’s spoiled section 216 for me.

– There was one extremely odd bit of business that marked the second half.  John Nyen at By Any Other Name does a good job describing it but the gist was that Bywaters from Chicago went down with an injury and was carried off the field by one of her own teammates.  What the heck was up with that?  Where was the Chicago trainer?  Where the heck were the medical attendants with a stretcher?  The whole thing had a real rec-league feel and left me, at least, confused and concerned.

– Nyen also describes the furious altercation that broke out late in the second half between the officials and Thorns FC coaching staff that ended with assistant coach John Galas getting tossed.  That, too, was a bit disturbing.  Yes, the referee let some rough play go but was at least letting it go on both sides (not her fault that PTFC was shrinking from the tackling…) but the Thorns’ problems were not on the officiating in any sense.   Nyen draws some uncomfortable parallels between this incident, the PTFC coaching that this match showcased, and some of the worst features of the Spencer Era – and I have to say I agree with a lot of what he says.

– And can we STOP with the “What’s it like to see a crowd?” already?  Bad enough to taunt other teams playing in tiny venues that can’t seat more than a couple of thousand when we’re beating them.  When we’re losing 2-nil it had the nasty taste of sore-loserdom.  I don’t want to hammer on this any more, but, c’mon; we have lots of great songs and chants.  Let’s pack this one away until the next time Chivas USA comes to visit the Timbers, K?

Sorry.  Had to get that off my chest…

Anyway, Saturday the First of June was a bad day for Thorns FC.

We all have them; one of those days when nothing works, when you go to your Plan B and discover that it pretty much sucks and you got nothin’ in the “Plan C” file.  One loss is just one loss, even if it is to Chicago.

The thing to do now is learn from this and move on and up.   But Parlow Cone and the Thorns have to do that; they have to learn, and they have to do the work.

Because if you don’t do the work, the love dies.

And nobody wants to deal with that one.

Drang nach Portland! – Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars

Today’s match between Thorns FC and the visiting Chicago Red Stars will be intriguing for the number of questions it raises.

There’s the “Third time’s the charm?” question.  The first two meetings between these clubs ended in 2-nil beatings for a Chicago side that never really learned the words to the Thorns’ opponents theme song, “How Do You Stop A Problem Like Alex Morgan?” Not their fault; only Sky Blue FC has managed to cover that number.  But Rory Dames now has SBFC’s example to learn from.  We’ll see if he can get the visitors to sing along to the tune that Jim Gabarra wrote here less than three weeks ago.

There’s also the “Where In The World Is Christine Sinclair (and Alex and Rachel and Karina…)?” question.  We know where – Toronto, preparing to play each other.  At Stumptown Footy the Always Indispensible Jonanna W discusses the potential options Cindy Parlow Cone has for reconfiguring a team that has leaned heavily on the currently-missing internationals.  She mentions all the usual suspects in attack; Foxhoven, Long, Shim…even Angie Kerr (who in my opinion has yet to show the form she promised in preseason) and Nikki Washington (who I thought looked adrift against Sky Blue, underperformed against a visiting Washington Spirit and was recently benched against Seattle).  But all of these players – though decent attackers all – have never yet played a minute against a NWSL opponent without the big names on the pitch.  My suspicion is that they will have serious difficulties today against a Chicago defense that has added a very solid German defender in Sonja Fuss.

Which brings up the third and most fraught question; “Deutschland über Portland?”

Chicago has added another GWNT player, and she is a serious load; Inka Grings

“…is third on Germany’s all-time career scoring list with 64 international goals…was the top scorer in Euro 2005 with four goals… Scored five goals and was the top scorer in Euro 2009…won German Footballer of the Year in 1999, 2009, and 2010…and top-scorer in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in the 2010–11 season.”  She’s also the Bundesliga’s all-time top scorer.

Whew.

I can’t see Grings as anything but a huge problem for a Beuhlerless Thorns FC backline.  And a real danger to a LeBlancless Portland goal.  Parlow Cone will HAVE to devise a tactic or combination tactics to neutralize Grings or today will be, as another German is supposed to have said;

“For the Thorns, it will be the longest day … the longest day.”

Blue Skies Return

Interesting weekend for Portland soccer, eh?

Saturday we had perhaps the oddest Timbers comeback yet, nicking a point in a wild, bizarrely-officiated 2-2 drawn match at Vancouver that our C.I. DeMann recounts here.  Suffice to say that my son is still bounding around shouting “Trencito!” at random moments as he did when we watched the wild finish from our couch.  There are draws, and draws that feel like losses, and draws that feel like wins.  That one felt like a win.

Sunday it was the women’s turn.  Trying to shake off their first ever loss – to a visiting Sky Blue FC that had clawed up next to them top of the league table  – Thorns FC ran out against the Washington Spirit.

I had a lovely recap of the match but, like a Christine Sinclair strike from distance, my friend Chris Singer zinged his terrific match report past me into the back of the net!  Arrrgh!  So rather than post my own I wanted to add some of my observations and comments about Sunday’s match.

1.  Thorns FC fielded the same side that had lost to SBFC Thursday but it appeared that Coach Parlow Cone had talked to the squad about the sterility of their attack in the earlier game.  The most visible result seemed to be that Christine Sinclair was released to do more direct attacking and less distributing, and it was her 41st minute goal that broke through a rather disjointed first half.  Still, there were real issues with movement off the ball that Chris’ report addresses well and you should read.

2.  The Thorns FC’s still has issues in midfield.  In particular, Nikki Washington’s play was unhelpful…and I am trying to be diplomatic about it.  I complained about her tendency to drift inside on Thursday and we saw that again Sunday.  She looked sharp in the early matches but has grown less effective recently, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s picked up a knock or is just out of synch with the rest of the Thorns midfield.  Whatever the cause her play had a lot to do with sucking the danger our of Thorns FC attack.

My wife was nearly sitting on my head to stop my roaring “Get her off!” at the Thorns bench by the 40th minute; I still believe that Parlow Cone gave her far too much time before subbing Wetzel on for her at 71′.  At the moment her form has not been particularly good, and perhaps it is worth Parlow Cone considering another option at right winger.

3.  One observation that came as an unpleasant surprise to me was how relatively slow Allie Long looked; she was beaten to the ball several times and generally looked less than effective though not quite as overwhelmed as Washington.

4.  Thorns FC had difficulty putting the Spirit away until after Washington went out for Wetzel and Kerr came on for Shim at 79′; suddenly the Thorns midfield began to click.  Spirit keeper Chantal Jones did well to save from Kerr within a minute of her entrance, and six minutes later it was Wetzel whose theft of a Spirit pass started the buildup to the second goal.  Wetzel slotted a lovely ball forward to a running Morgan, who in turn calmly carried the ball into the 18 and drove it past an onrushing Jones for the quietus.

5.  Sky Blue shellacked the hapless Seattle Reign 3-nil to pull back even with Thorns FC atop the table.  A measure of the parity at the top is that both teams stand at +7GD.  There is not a sliver of daylight between them outside head-to-head record; there SBFC holds a one-game advantage.

6.  One last thing I have to say here; we as Thorns supporters really need to consider which of the traditional Timbers songs we sing.

What I’m speaking directly about is the “what’s it like to see a crowd” song that rained down on Washington in the second half.

For the Timbers Army to sing that to another MLS side is a nifty little piece of snark; a crafty reminder of the rollicking atmosphere of Portland compared to the sterile bowls of FC Dallas or the empty seats in Kansas City.

But to do that to the women’s teams like Seattle and Washington, which play in tiny venues barely capable of holding the contents of Portland’s North End…well…it’s like singing “Would you walk if you could?” to some poor devil in a wheelchair.  It just seems mean to me, and cruel.  When the league is in it’s fifteenth year and the other clubs are playing in MLS stadiums and potentially drawing MLS-size crowds, then, hey; taunt them all you want.

But now?  Let’s taunt them for living in Jersey as we did with SBFC and leave the crowd-sizes out of it, K?

Do I sound carping?  I’m not, really.  Sunday was a delight.  Thorns FC was winning, the crowd was humming and the Rose City Riveters were roaring.  The Rose Girls awarded their tributes to the three Thorns who had earned a bouquet.  Even the afternoon cooperated; late in the second half the louring skies cleared and the pitch brightened as jackets and fleece came off and sunglasses and caps went on, as the happy supporters basked in the glow of a sunny Sunday and a Thorns FC win.

And when the Thorns win it’s always fair weather.