Thorns FC: Dashed all to pieces

The Portland Thorns last met the Houston Dash about a month ago.  On that hot night in Texas Portland were stymied for an hour and a half; what professional cyclists call un jour sans, a “day without” and only snatched the road point on a second-half-injury-time Lindsey Horan free kick goal.

Last Saturday was also uncomfortably hot but otherwise the match, the teams, and the result were utterly different.

The 2-1 scoreline flatters Houston.  Look at stat sheet; outshot 21-11.  Eight PTFC corners for Houston’s 3.  Portland with 10% more possession and limiting Houston to an anemic 70% pass completion rate.  Houston was comprehensively beat down last Saturday.

Why?  What happened between the two matches to make such a difference in less than 30 days?

The starting lineups were fairly similar, though Portland had Tyler Lussi up where Sykes had been and Ashley at winger.  Houston’s Lloyd and the Brazilians had just returned from the international break but so had Long and Henry and Dagny from the Euro finals.

I think that the single biggest difference was Portland’s topfield tactics; what in ice hockey they’d call “forechecking”.

That’s just another term for aggressive forward defending.  Pressing high.  And Portland’s attackers and midfield pressed and defended and forechecked the hell out of Houston all day.  It looked a lot like this, just a typical sequence from the middle of the first half I picked out because it was so typical of the way the match went:

At least in theory Houston could have gone direct, passed forward long out of the back.  In practice Lindsey Horan and Dagny Brynjarsdóttir and the Portland backline were all over Daly and Lloyd and Prince.  And Lussi and Raso and Kling and Sykes and Sinc weren’t giving the Houston backs enough time to get their heads up and find their attackers even when they did find some space.

See what I mean?  And I should note that Lloyd, never the most even-tempered of players, was biting mad by 90 minutes.  What probably didn’t help was the helping hand she gave Portland in the 12th minute:

That’s just ugly, and I’ll bet Lloyd is still kicking herself.  Ouch.

But…back to forechecking.

By this point in the 24th minute Houston’s attack…well, isn’t.  The Dash are just desperately trying to find some time and space.  Any thoughts of getting a shot on frame have long since dissolved under the heat and pressure, like rock melting under a volcano.

And, like a volcano, Houston tended to destroy themselves when the heat and pressure got too intense.

In the first half the two teams traded attacks; I counted six fully-developed Portland chances at Houston’s goal, but Houston responded with six in return.  But after the halftime break the pressure began to tell.  Houston had a couple of sniffs at goal in the 48th and 49th minute.  Another half-chance when Lloyd lofted a long ball into Daly at 64′.  Throwing everyone forward near the death earned a Beckie shot over at 88′.

During this time Portland was hammering at the door.  Here’s what the expected goal matrix for Portland looked like:

The total from all chances works out to 3.87 goals, so had Portland finished as expected there was at least another goal left on the turf somewhere.  But look at the chances late in the match; Horan from the edge of the six, and again from near the spot.  Sinc with a blast two minutes from time.  And Long with a gorgeous chance in the 81st; Horan had stolen yet another pass and fed Sinclair who pitched up to Raso at the edge of the 18.  Hayley slipped a simple, pretty little square to Long in the left channel with no one between her and the goal but the keeper.

And let me take moment to say to Allie Long; sheesh, Blanquita, how high do you want the goal?  1v0 in the 81st minute with Campbell, Houston on the ropes, and the goal gaping wide as the Tennessee Valley before you?

Finish that, girlfriend!

Nine points in three games puts PTFC solidly in third, separated from the leaders Carolina by only two points (tho the Courage have a game in hand) and sets up a critical match in Chicago with a Red Stars team undefeated in the last five matches.

Should be a hot time in the old town next weekend.

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Player comments and PMRs:

Sykes (91′ – +9/-3 : +5/-0 : +14/-3)  A terrific match from Ashley, who contributed both defending – as noted above – and in attack.  Her only “minuses” were long passes that went astray, so no real harm.  Looking more and more like the pickup of the season.

Raso (+14/-2 : +8/-1 : +22/-3)  The usual energetic and incisive shift from the Gal with the Red Ribbon.  More forward than Sykes on the other side, almost all her positives were in attack.  Her communication and interplay with Sinclair have become a true joy to watch.

Lussi (59′ – +10/-3 : +5/-1 : +15/-4)  It’s difficult to choose between Sykes and Lussi and Raso for “Most Dangerous Player”; all three bring a lethal combination of speed, soccer intelligence, and toughness.  Lussi, however, is beginning to show a little more of a nose for goal; she had several terrific half-chances last match, and her fierce fight through the Houston defense to head down to Sonnett to score at 12′ was epic.

Sinclair (+13/-3 : +14/-3 : +27/-6)  Woman of the Match, and, yes, we know she’s Just. That. Good.  Theoretically an attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward Christine was effective all over the pitch, from the midfield stripe to the byline, creating, distributing, and controlling.

One thing that even Aly Wagner noticed was that, while Thorns FC bodied up on Lloyd all game and rendered her ineffective Houston failed to recognize Sinclair for the danger she is and failed to return the favor.  Sinclair responded by having the match of her season so far and reminding us once more to cherish her; she is a wonder of the world, a force of Nature, and we should recognize and celebrate that, and her, because in the way of all athletes her time with us will be all too brief.

Horan (+12/-4 : +14/-1 : +26/-5)  A hard choice between her and Sinclair for WotM; in total beast mode all afternoon, and, in particular, a nightmare for Lloyd, who is still probably peeking into her closets and pantry to ensure the Horan isn’t lurking there waiting to knock her down and take the ball away.  Since the Carolina match she has lifted her game to when I’ve been wanting to see it…well, since she started here.  Just terrific.

Brynjarsdóttir (73′ – +5/-0 : +2/-1 : +7/-1)  I think her PMR numbers are a trifle unjust to her.  Had less to do simply because Horan was doing so much, and did well when she needed to.  Was clearly fading in the heat, however, so the substitution was timely.  Her replacement, though…well, we’ll talk about that.

Henry (31′ – +3/-7)  The one thing that irks the hell out of me about Aly Wagner is her animus against Henry.  Wagner insists, contrary to any visible evidence, that Henry “slows down” the Thorns’ play.  How Wagner can miss the uptick that the speed and accuracy of Henry’s distribution and the effect of her pace and tough tackling have on the effectiveness of the Thorns’ midfield is anyone’s guess…but…Saturday was the first time I have to admit; Amandine did not look good out there.

I suspect it was a combination of heat, jet-lag, and the after effects of the Euro finals, but it was fortunate for Thorns FC that by the time Henry came on the Houston Dash had been officially classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as “discouraged workers”, so beat down that they’d stopped even looking for a job and couldn’t take advantage of her problems.  Her passing, especially, was shockingly off.

Rest up, cher’, and we’ll look to see the better you we know in Chicago.

Long (17′ – +2/-2) Like Henry, I suspect that Long was a trifle off.  Not as badly off as Amandine, but not a terrific shift from Allie.  Don’t mistake me; did well enough to help the team.  But, given her vita, should be better even off the bench.

Klingenberg (+7/-7 : +5/-3 : +12/-10)  What can I say?  The usual Kling; Queen Anne front – that is, active and creative going forward – and Mary Anne back – outpaced down the flank and skinned as often as not along with some surprisingly poor decisionmaking; in her analysis of the match Katelyn Best firmly pointed out Kling’s 52nd minute derp where, given an admittedly lazy crossfield pass from Sonnett Kling simply lolled about the west touchline watching the blue shirts spill downfield to scoop up the ball.  Luckily Horan the Queen Beast hammered the attack flat and Lloyd headed the ensuing free kick off-target, but…c’mon, Kling!  You’re better than that, or you should be.

Sonnett (+6/-3 : +6/-4 : +12/-7)  Goal and decent work in the back, and kept her derps to a minimum, especially in the second half when she was critical in tackling away Houston attacks.  Overall a very good shift.

Menges (+3/-4 : +4/-3 : +7/-7)  Both Emilys benefited from the hard work their teammates upfield were doing.  Like Sonnett, a good shift, but, also like Sonnett, I think we’re going to have to accept that the Great Wall of Emily is really sort of a stout picket fence this season.  Not awful, not bad, even pretty darn good…but not the Fortress of Doom we had in back last year.  Oh, well.

Reynolds (+4/-4 :+3/-0 : +7/-4)  Like the rest of the backline; good enough for what she needed to be and her PMR is a bit deceptive; three of her 4 “minuses” are just for long passes out of the back that went to Houston.  Definitely got stronger in the second half as Houston faded.  Fine work overall.

Boureille (6′ – no rating)

Franch (+2/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0)  Great save at 43′ off Heap at close range to hang on to the points, but otherwise largely untroubled.

Distribution: A total of 16 outlets; 10 goal kicks/free kicks and 6 clears.  Of these a total of 12 were lost to Houston, but of those only one resulted in a dangerous opportunity for the Dash, so a “clearance-to-danger” ratio of only 6%.

Coach Parsons:  I’ve seldom seen a match where one team was so clearly out-tactic-ed.  Parson’s XI and the high-press, aggressive forward-defending, pace, and interplay were simply too much for Waldrum’s outfit.  I’d take minor issue with Parsons’ bringing in Henry and Long; both were clearly not in good condition for this match.  But, overall this was a terrific piece of coaching.

Wee heidies:  I’m still tracking what the players do with high, looping passes or clearances.  Here’s what this game looked like from my seat:

Both teams played a total of 37 high lobs.  Of these a total of 25 were played “back up” – headed right back into the air.  Portland played a total of 15 back up in the air; 8 were lost to Houston, 7 were retained.  Houston knocked 10 “up”, retaining only 1 and losing the rest.

Six high lobs were flicked on, 3 by each team.  Rather surprisingly 4 of the 6 went astray; Sinc had a nice flick-on to Raso and Lloyd managed another.

Six high balls were played down, either chested or headed down or taken with a foot.  Four of these were by Portland, who retained 3 of the 4.  Houston kept both the balls they played down.

The conclusions are clear and hardly surprising; playing a high pass or cross down is the most likely way to gain or retain possession.  However, especially on booming goal or free kicks the players underneath are often struggling for position and have little or no time or space to make the better play.

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Well.  That was fun.  But now it’s Chicago on the road, and a tough date with the #2 team in the league.

See you again after that to discuss.