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.

Sinclair and Morgan goals lead Thorns FC to victory

A crowd of 12,474 at JELD-WEN Field watched Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan lead Portland Thorns FC to a 2-0 victory over the Washington Spirit.

Thorns FC took the lead late in the first half when Sinclair settled an Allie Long cross and calmly sent a bending left-footed shot to the far post eluding Spirit keeper Chantel Jones.

Morgan iced the match for Thorns FC in the 86th minute when Courtney Wetzel intercepted a Robin Gayle pass and sent a perfect through pass ahead to Morgan, who dribbled into the penalty box and struck a hard right-footed shot past Jones.

The victory put Thorns FC’s record at: (5-1-1, 16pts). They’ll travel up I-5 next Saturday to take on Seattle Reign FC in a 6 p.m. PST matchup at Starfire Sports Complex.

THOUGHTS ON THE MATCH:

* First, the positives…

– Coach Cindy Parlow Cone had lots of good things to saw about Mana Shim (I posted the press conference video below). I thought Shim played her best match for Thorns FC and showed some really nice interplay between her and Christine Sinclair. Shim has some nice technical skills and has made a nice transition to the forward position.

– Christine Sinclair was once again, superb. Sinclair is willing to do whatever is necessary on the pitch and her first-half goal was a perfect example of a player not willing to be denied.

– Karina LeBlanc didn’t have much to do really, but got another clean sheet. Those who have followed LeBlanc throughout her career know her quality and the leadership she is providing to the defense has been excellent.

* In the end, it’s always the 3 points that matter most, but I think there’s some things needing improvement which if not taken care of, will come back to haunt Portland when they play some of the better NWSL clubs (Kansas City and Boston for example).

* In the post-match presser, Cindy Parlow Cone again talked about the club’s “possession-based style.” I think it’s fantastic that this is a style the team wants to emphasize and play, but in reality, the team is far from meeting that goal. I didn’t count but there were way too many long balls for a team which likes to talk about playing possession-style soccer. It seems when the players are out of ideas, the default option is to launch the ball up the pitch and let Alex try and track it down.

Another thing I noticed yesterday was the lack of off-the-ball movement. At one point, I saw each of the Thorns FC players literally almost at a standstill while one player (Nikki Marshall) had the ball and was dribbling. No one flashed to an open space to become available, no one made a run into the box, and when Marshall ended up dribbling up the left flank, even Alex Morgan was still just standing there watching as Marshall tried to make something out of nothing before losing the ball out of bounds.

Now, I know fatigue was definitely an issue yesterday (Thorns FC were playing their 3rd match in 8 games) so I’m willing to accept that, and for the record, I believe the coaching staff noticed the above-mentioned play as well because things improved right after that. Still, those are moments which tactically make Thorns FC look a bit lost out there.

MATCH STATS:

Portland Thorns FC (5-1-1, 16pts) vs. Washington Spirit (1-3-3, 6pts)

May 19, 2013 – JELD-WEN Field (Portland, Ore.)

Goals by Half               1          2          F
WAS                              0          0         0
POR                               1          1          2

Scoring Summary
POR: Sinclair (Long), 41
POR: Morgan (Wetzel), 86

Misconduct Summary
POR: Marshall (Caution), 65
WAS: Gayle (Caution), 82

Lineups & Stats

POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long (Jessica Shufelt, 90), M Meleana Shim (Angie Kerr, 79), M Nikki Washington (Courtney Wetzel, 71), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan

Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, D Jazmyne Avant, M Elizabeth Guess, F Danielle Foxhoven

TOTAL SHOTS: 14 (Morgan, 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Morgan, 3); FOULS: 7 (Marshall, Long, 2); OFFSIDES: 3; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 3

WAS: GK Chantel Jones, D Domenica Hodak, D Tori Huster, D Robyn Gayle, D Ali Krieger, M Julia Roberts, M Lori Lindsey (capt.), M Diana Matheson, M Ingrid Wells (Jasmyne Spencer, 71), F Tiffany McCarty (Caroline Miller, 65), F Stephanie Ochs

Substitutes Not Used: GK Ashlyn Harris, D Candace Chapman, D Kika Toulouse, M Holly King, F Colleen Williams

TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Three players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Three players tied, 1); FOULS: 9 (Gayle, 2); OFFSIDES: 0; CORNER KICKS: 2; SAVES: 6

Referee: Robert Sibiga
Assistant Referees: Cory Richardson, Andrew Deuker
Fourth Official: Andrew Brooks
Attendance: 12,474
Weather: 57 degrees, partly cloudy

All statistics contained in this box score are unofficial

CINDY PARLOW CONE PRESS CONFERENCE:

MATCH HIGHLIGHTS:

Thorns FC 0 : 1 Sky Blue FC – Bullseyed like Womp Rats

The cunning rebels of Sky Blue FC snuck into Portland tonight and managed to blow up the Death Star on a deadly 80th minute strike from substitute Taylor Lytle; the imperial legions, stunned by the blow and already exhausted from battering themselves against the tough rebel defense, couldn’t find the equalizer.

As the Empire reels, the question remains; how could this have happened?

1.  Both Morgan and Sinclair had a jour sans.  And SBFC did a great job both handling the Thorns midfield and marking Morgan out of the match.  Other than a lovely speculative ball in the second minute Christine Sinclair looked out of sorts and off-pace all night.  Being Sinclair, that meant that she was merely an outstanding soccer player.  But she wasn’t the game-breaker we’ve come to expect.  Alex Morgan had several nice half-chances and ran at the SBFC defense all night.  But when she was there the service wasn’t, and when the service was there she was half a step off, or a SBFC defender was there first.  And the Thorns FC midfield had a collective off night; no shame there, we all have those days when nothing works right – what the cycling pros call a “day without”, a jour sans.  Unfortunately almost ALL the midfield had one tonight.  In particular Nikki Washington either chose to or was directed to move inside, where she was ineffective, but SBFC made a meal of the entire Thorns midfield all evening.  I talked about the Thorns’ midfield issues as they appeared in the last away match; those issues reappeared Thursday and SBFC exploited them to a fare-thee-well.

2.  Jim Gabarra outcoached Cindy Parlow Cone.  SBFC came into Portland with a plan and executed it perfectly.  Jam up the center of the pitch.  Mark tight and play a ruthless trap.  Use Thorns FC giveaways and possession losses to counter quickly.  Take every opportunity to nick a goal and then make it stand up.

It was clear by the end of the first half that SBFC was packing the center, clogging the passing lanes, and taking away Portland’s attack through the center of the pitch.  For long stretches the sidelines – especially on Portland’s right flank – were as empty as the sands of Tatooine as both teams bunched up in the center of the pitch.  Thorns FC tried lobbing long balls over the SBFC backline only to find that the rebel scum were fiercely disciplined and were either first to the ball or had played the Thorns attackers offside.  Rampone’s troops played a tenacious and effective match, and the Thorns’ usual attack couldn’t solve it.

Grand Moff Parlow Cone’s only hope was to attack the rebel flanks and spread the defense.  But the home side continued to bunch up and try to go over rather than around the visitors.  It didn’t work.  Finally Parlow Cone brought Foxhoven on late in an attempt to spread the field but without effect.  Instead Gabarra brought on Lytle for Kendall Johnson at 78 minutes and two minutes later Lytle put that damn missile down the ventilator shaft.  We all know what happens then.

Boom: Thorns FC has taken its first loss.

We knew it would come eventually, and to lose to Sky Blue is no shame; they’re a good team and came in well-prepared.

The Empire’s resources are great and Parlow Cone will have what she should need to rebuild the Death Star and handle the next attack, the Washington Spirit arriving Sunday.

But the crucial thing is that she will need to learn the lessons of this match and be prepared to outflank and outwork the Spirit if they try to repeat Sky Blue’s tactics.   SBFC got a lot of help from an off night felling our two stars, but the failure to recognize their bunched defense and counter with attacks down the flanks was entirely on Parlow Cone.  Continually lobbing the ball for Morgan to run onto is a one-pony trick and a difficult one to execute; Sky Blue were ready for it and we should assume Washington will be, too.  The rest of the league has now seen how to destroy the Death Star.  The question now is can Thorns FC figure out a way to destroy the rebel shield generator and make themselves dangerous again?

To lose one Death Star is an accident.

To lose two in a row?  That would seem like carelessness.

Thorns FC @ Chicago: That Thing is Operational!

As you probably know, PTFC was 5-nil on aggregate this past weekend.  The Timbers spanked the dire Goatboys of Chivas USA 3-nil and the Thorns FC handed the Chicago Red Stars their second consecutive 2-nil loss to a Portland that now sits comfortably on top of the NWSL table.

Portland soccer fans were handed a nasty dilemma by the two leagues this past Sunday, with the Timbers kicking off at 2pm and the Thorns at 3pm.  Given that I was single parenting and couldn’t get to Jeld-Wen, and the womens’ match wasn’t recordable – I chose to tape the Timbers and watch the women.

As always, Jonanna W has the details at her match report over at Stumptown, and does a good job of describing the hammering that the Thorns FC Death Star handed the plucky band of rebels led by Lori Chalupny.  For all that Chicago looked better than they did in their first outing against Thorns FC the scoreline flatters them; the match could easily have been 3-nil or 4-1.  Portland soccer fans are suddenly confronted with the sensation hitherto known only to supporters of outfits like ManU or Barca; rooting for the bully of the league, the Evil Empire.  While not yet familiar enough with the sensation, it’s…surprisingly pleasant, isn’t it?  Suddenly I have the awful suspicion of what it’s like to be a ManU supporter and revel in the one-sided beatdowns of loveable little teams and their pessimistic little fans.

Are we unstoppable?  (Can you believe that we can even ASK that question?!?)  How WOULD you stop Thorns FC?  What can the rest of the NWSL do to handle Thorns FC, and were there any hints visible Sunday?

Here’s what I saw, coming through the laggy feed from Suburban Multiplex Stadium, Illinois;

1) They will have to body up on Alex Morgan.  Before the season opened we thought we’d have two devastating smoking barrels up front; Sinclair and Morgan.  But shortcomings in midfield have drawn Christine back into the trequartista role she’s fulfilled nicely.   That leaves Alex Morgan, and as she showed in the third minute in Chicago, if you give her so much as a centimeter of space she’ll create something out of nothing.  Any hope of beating Thorns FC will have to include a Morgan jour sans as well as a glove-like man-marker to stick a boot in every time she touches the ball.  But that leaves the problem that

2) They will ALSO have to mark the hell out of Sinclair, Long, Foxhoven, and Washington.  The bottom line is that Thorns FC is, like the Death Star, a nightmare when it attacks.  There’s just too many weapons there, and if the Empire doesn’t shove a death ray down the middle it will work its legions around the flanks and bomb you to death with crosses.   Or the Sinclair Particle Beam will strike from distance.

3) But…there are some undefended exhaust ports in midfield.  One thing that Portland has still to cover up is poor passing and lack of connectivity in midfield.  Far too many passes went astray in Chicago; it was an ugly giveaway in midfield that led to the Red Stars’ one real opportunity, a point-blank blaster-burst from Julianne Sitch that LeBlanc did well to save.  Much as I wanted Angie Kerr to be the midfield engine Parlow-Cone has clearly dropped her in favor of playing Sinclair as a withdrawn forward and making Long the midfield pivot.  It has worked, and that’s hard to argue with.  But I still get the sense that a club with a very aggressive pressing midfield can disrupt this Thorns FC unit and force enough turnovers to counter effectively.  Which brings up the other potential vulnerability, that

4) The Empire is strong in attack but not invulnerable in defense.  Chicago never managed to maintain enough possession to mount a period of sustain pressure.  But another team – Sky Blue, perhaps, or Kansas City whose midfield looked effective in Thorns FC road opener – might be capable of exploiting the occasional openings that Portland gives up in back.  From what I could see the Portland midfield looks effective playing forward; the connection between the backline and midfield wasn’t nearly as tight.  Much of Thorns FC attack Sunday started with Chicago giveaways in midfield (the rebels were affected with pretty severe Stormtrooper Effect themselves); out of the back I saw a lot of long balls that went to Red Stars as often as not.  Again, a team with a midfield that tackles well, presses high, and plays together could, if nothing else, provide the Death Star with an uncomfortable moment or three.

And, pat as some George Lucas dialogue, here comes Sky Blue FC this Thursday, ready to try and take down our fortress.  But as Darth MGoEcon observed; the ability to destroy a Red Star is insignificant next to the power of the Thorns. 

I am confident.  Sky Blue will feel the might of the Empire; with our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the NWSL.

 

Thorns FC remain unbeaten with 2-1 win over Washington

Thorns FC got goals from forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Nikki Washington to lead Portland to a third consecutive victory with a 2-1 win against the Washington Spirit.

and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc made six saves as Portland Thorns FC earned their third consecutive victory with a 2-1 win against the Washington Spirit on Saturday in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,011 fans at Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md.

Match Notes:

  • With a goal on Saturday, forward Alex Morgan has earned at least a point in three straight matches.
  • Midfielder Meleana Shim made her NWSL debut for Portland, earning her first start of the season.
  • Defender Jazmyne Avant made her NWSL debut, entering the match as a 64th minute substitute for injured defender Nikki Marshall.
  • All three of Portland’s road games have been witnessed by sellout crowds.

Here’s a few quick thoughts on the match:

  • Portland has a defense too. While much of the talk about Thorns FC has to do with their offensive talent (and for good reason obviously), Coach Cindy Parlow Cone has her club playing some solid defense. Washington forced keeper Karina LeBlanc to come up with six saves, but to be honest, none of those really ever challenged the veteran.
  • Speaking of defense, Rachel Buehler played her best match of the season. It took a few matches but we got a glimpse of the Rachel Buehler we’re used to seeing with the United States Women’s National Team. The ‘Buehldozer’ was everywhere and was a big factor in spearheading a defense which rendered Washington’s attack pretty futile in the final third.
  • Unsung hero: Allie Long. I mentioned it in another post, but I’m waiting for the league to partner with Opta Stats or someone similar, because I’d love to see the passing stats and heat map for Allie Long. Yeah, she can be a dodgy tackle sometimes and seems on the brink of getting a yellow card every match (she’s the Thorns Diego Chara maybe). However, Long makes the right pass almost 100% of the time and yesterday she had another stellar effort.

Quotable: 

Head coach Cindy Parlow Cone
On forward Alex Morgan being the team’s focal point:
“Alex is a true professional in every sense of the word. She may be a young player, but she’s wise beyond her years and she understands the position she is in and has embraced it. She has been great for our team and great for this game. We’ve been to Kansas City and Chicago and everywhere we’ve been people are shrieking Alex’s name.”

On Washington’s defense:
“They’re a fantastic team. Their backline is very good with Robyn Gayle, Tori Huster, Ali Krieger and Hodak with Ashlyn Harris in goal. That’s a very strong back line. In front of them having (Lori) Lindsey and Julia Roberts, that’s tough to play against. I said it before the game that that’s going to be a tough block to break down because they are a very good defensive team.”

On Portland’s defensive pressure forcing miscues:
“We’re sorting out our defensive pressure. We want to be a high-pressing team and we saw moments of it tonight. The one turnover we were able to get a goal on was Nikki Washington’s in the second half (while Morgan hit the post after a turnover in the first half).”

Match Stats:

Portland Thorns FC (3-0-1, 10pts) vs. Washington Spirit (0-2-2, 2pts)
May 4, 2013 – Maryland SoccerPlex (Boyds, Md.)

Goals by Half              1         2        F
POR                              1          1         2
WAS                             0          1         1

Scoring Summary
POR – Morgan (penalty kick)                       12
POR – Washington (unassisted)                  51
WAS – Matheson (penalty kick)                   86

Misconduct Summary
WAS – Harris (caution)                       13
POR – Long (caution)                        70
POR – Edwards (caution)                   82

Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall (Jazmyne Avant, 64), M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long (Courtney Wetzel, 83), M Meleana Shim (Danielle Foxhoven, 90+3), M Nikki Washington, F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan

Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay

TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Sinclair, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 5 (Sinclair/Morgan, 2); FOULS: 7 (Edwards/Shim, 2); OFFSIDES: 4; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 6

WAS: GK Ashlyn Harris; D Domenica Hodak (Jazmyne Spencer, 75), D Robyn Gayle, D Tori Huster, D Ali Krieger, M Lori Lindsey (capt.), M Diana Matheson, M Ingrid Wells (Tiffany McCarty, 46), M Julia Roberts, F Caroline Miller, F Stephanie Ochs

Substitutes Not Used: GK Chantel Jones, D Candace Chapman, D Kika Toulouse, M Colleen Williams, M Lupita Worbis

TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Three players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 7 (McCarty, 2); FOULS: 7 (Hodak, 4); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 3

Referee: Christina Unkel
Assistant Referees: Shannon Poplstein, Danielle Chesky
Fourth Official: Hagan Barnett
Attendance: 5,011
Weather: 66 degrees, clear and breezy

All statistics contained in this box score are unofficial

Match Highlights: