Thorns FC: Road points and soccer, according to SGT Harris

My Basic Training drill sergeant, SFC Harris, had a very practical approach to life, and that carried over into his outlook on military tasks.  He was always willing to let us try something a little different from what the manuals specified to see if it would work.

“If it’s stupid and it works,” he’d comment, “it’s not stupid.”

For about 90 minutes of the away game in Houston the Portland Thorns’ attack looked pretty damn dull, tepid and, well…stupid.  Then at 90+change Lindsey Horan lined up over a free kick and struck a stunner for the 1-1 equalizer and that suddenly it wasn’t stupid.

But with North Carolina coming in this next Saturday Thorns FC’s gonna have to get a lot smarter most quick smart.  What worked against Houston ain’t gonna work against the league leaders.

Leaving the attack alone for a moment, the Thorns’ defense is gonna have to stop doing stuff like this:

That’s just inexcusable.  That’s rec league defending, and if Daly and Beckie punished Thorns FC for it what do you think Williams and McDonald and Mewis and Doniak and Zerboni are gonna do?  I’ll give you a hint; it’s gonna look like this:

Allie Long is hugely culpable for this mess, but neither Sonnett nor Boureille cover themselves with glory.  And this was just the 8th minute.  Houston had good opportunities in the 17th, 23rd, 26th, 63rd, 72nd, and 87th minutes, as well.

And in the 71st…

I’m not a huge Carli Lloyd fan.  I think she plays borderline dirty and has some stereotypically-wasteful-striker-habits.  But when she’s on, she’s on, and she was a hell of a nuisance last Saturday night.

But this isn’t just Lloyd being on; this is damn near the entire Thorns midfield and both centerbacks acting like they’d never even seen, much less played, a game of soccer before.  This is “shambolic defending” as defined in Webster’s Unabridged.

I’ve heard some grumbling about A.D. Franch’s tendency to come off her line.  Well, here’s a perfect example of how you come off your line on a break.  A.D.’s got no chance here unless she can stone Prince.  She’s a trifle lucky in that Prince is greedy and takes an extra touch to try and go to her right, hoping that Franch will – as she did on the first Kerr goal in Portland – flop early.

She doesn’t

That’s some great stuff right there from Franch.  But first half her team has to derp and let Houston – who was up a goal at this point and had been sitting on the match for damn near an hour, remember – run through the heart of the team.

So.  Let’s learn this lesson and look better here this coming weekend, right, defense?

Now.  The attack.

Thorns FC had nearly 60% of the possession in Houston.  But, as anyone who watched can tell you, probably two-thirds of that was harmless dinking around the defensive half; up and back, side-to-side, up and back.  It wasn’t fun to watch and it didn’t work, either.  Houston stayed very disciplined and was happy to let Portland waste time and energy playing kickabout.

Here’s what the attack DID generate:

12′ – Horan puts a good lead pass up to Sykes, drop to Sinclair but weak shot easily saved.

15′ – Sinclair drops out to Klingenberg who drives on from the left; her shot is blocked a close range.

28′ – Long flicks Shim’s long pass up to Raso but Hayley shoots way over.

34′ – Sinclair pounces on a poor Houston clear; her rising shot would have gone under the crossbar but Campbell makes a great save.

36′ – Sinclair puts a good pass through to Sykes, but her left-side shot is well saved.

50′ – Sykes can’t settle Raso’s great cross but drops to Sinclair who drops to Horan; Lindsey shoots far over.

60-61′ – Good spell of possession.  Sinc’s 60′ shot is blocked, but the ball falls to Portland.  Long out to Kling, Kling to Sinclair, Sinclair to Sykes, Sykes crosses in to Sinclair at the top of the 18; Sinc squares to Long but her decent low shot is saved.

67′ – Lussi makes a strong run into the 18 and appears to be fouled but no call.

73′ – Sonnett good long pass to Weber who flicks on to herself, but Lussi can’t control her cross, drops out to Sinclair.  Sinclair drops to Long whose shot is deflected out for a corner – no shots from two subsequent CKs.

81′ – Horan with a good cross in to Lussi; lovely control in tight space and shot, blocked out for CK, but corner cleared.

91′ – Horan buries free kick, 1-1 Portland.

The expected goals chart for this match looks like this:

Interestingly, the two “best” opportunities per the xG formula were Sinclair’s 34th minute shot – which was an excellent attempt that required Campbell to work hard to save – and Lussi’s 81st minute blocked shot.  Horan’s goal is an outlier, but, again, remember; if it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.  And Horan’s goal worked like a charm for the point on the road.

Road points are good, no matter how you get them.  But in the past 5 matches Thorns FC is 1-3-1, and the problems that have emerged in all four of the five outside the home win over FCKC asserted themselves here; slow, often predictable and defendable, attacking, and moments of horrific defending.  That’s not going to cut it if PTFC wants to be in the top four come October 1.

Things need to change, and this coming weekend would be a good time to change them.  If it’s stupid and it works it’s not stupid, yes.

But as SFC Harris used to gently remind us; smarter is better.


Player ratings and PMRs –

Sinclair (+7/-2 : +8/-2 : +15/-4)  Woman of the Match.  Tough night, but worked tirelessly and made her teammates better, as usual.

Raso (84′ – +5/-5 : +5/-2 : +10/-7)  Mixed her usual strong runs and good crosses with some truly awful passing and attempts to force crosses into a packed defense for loss of possession.  Telling stat is that she had 2 shots, both on goal, in 84 minutes…the same as Tyler Lussi had in 45 minutes.  C’mon, Hayley…you’ve proved you can score.  Put a boot through it, woman!

Sykes (65′ – +3/-9 : +2/-2 : +5/-11)  Dreadful first half – her passing and touch were particularly atrocious.  Better in the second, but obviously Parsons didn’t see her as “better enough” to keep her on the pitch chasing the game.  Still not really sure of her quality; the first-half Sykes looked below-replacement-level.  Needs to lift her game if she’s to start against Carolina.

Shim (45′ – +2/-3) “Shim, who-oa, Shim, who-oa…she is the $%!%$ wahini, she swam here from Hawaii…”  Another very Takaesque outing.

Lussi (45′ – +5/-3)  A very good shift from young Lussi; aggressive and effective.  Early days, however, so let’s give her credit for a good half and wait and see how she develops with time…but a very promising debut.

Weber (25′ – +2/-0)  Decent shift.

Herndon (16′ +0/-0)  Little impact on the match.

Horan (+6/-11 : +8/-3 : +14/-14)  Like Sykes, awful in the first 45 minutes, combining amateurish giveaways with poor passing.  Much improved in the second half, and a terrific goal.  My issue with Horan isn’t that she’s not good.  She is.  But she can be better, much better, as we saw in Boston and, unfortunately, haven’t much since.

Long (+6/-4 : +3/-4 : +9/-8)  Another in a string of “meh” from Allie, and the team needs her to be a lot better than meh.  Not sure if her sterility stems from having to toil thanklessly in back, or fatigue, or a knock, or if it’s a mental attitude thing…but she’s not helping the team the way she should be right now.

Klingenberg (+4/-5 : +7/-4 : +11/-9)  Kling’s lack of foot speed is a dangerous gamble for Thorns FC.  Parsons’ system requires that she get up the touchline…but her increasingly obvious lack of celerity means that if she does she has to be split-second decisive in tracking back, and she isn’t always.  Caught upfield several times in Houston, most notably on the Beckie goal.

Someone, perhaps Parsons, needs to help her out with this.  Clearly she either doesn’t recognize how much speed she’s lost or doesn’t know how to adjust to it.  But positional nous and anticipation can help her, if she will work on that, or Parsons might move her up to a true winger and try someone else at LB.  Either way, her occasional tardiness in getting back is more than occasionally troublesome.

Menges (+8/-4 : +3/-3 : +11/-7)  Another decent match from Menges-Emily.  Had a couple of fairly awful derps as shown above, but in general was the better of the centerbacks.

Sonnett (+4/-4 : +3/-4 : +7/-8)  Sigh.  Not horrible…but not that good, either.  Visibly awful defensive positioning or technical errors in the 8th, 17th, 23rd, 39th, 63rd, 71st, and 72 minutes.  I’ve begged, I’ve pleaded, now I’m commanding; be better, Emily.  Be better.

Boureille (+4/-5 : +6/-5 : +10/-10)  As her PMR shows; some good, some not-so-good.  Decent passing forward but too often tried to force the ball where it wasn’t going to go and lost it.  Couple of nice defensive stops, misfooted a couple of times, most notably in the Beckie goal.

Franch (+4/-0 : +2/-0 : +6/-0)  As noted, huge on the 71′ Prince stop.  Several other good saves.  Not at fault on the concession.

Interestingly, all of her clearances (that I could see, anyway) were short directly out to her backs.  On the one hand, this was great in preventing loss of possession.  On the other hand, it definitely slowed the pace going forward, and chasing a match from inside the first ten minutes…that might have backfired.  So I guess this is a “your mileage may vary” sort of thing.

Coach Parsons – Got the road point, and credit to Parsons for sticking with his patient tactical scheme even late in the match when things looked nervy.  Good halftime move to bring on Lussi, tho the other substitutions were fairly much a wash.

Still…the team is still showing the frailties we’ve seen all season.  Parsons knows, I’m sure, that he needs to deal with these frailties…but I’m not sure how he does, or even how he can; he’s got a small roster, lots of injuries, and now three regulars out for a month with the monster from Cary arriving in less than a week.

I sure hope he thinks of something brilliant.

19 Comments Thorns FC: Road points and soccer, according to SGT Harris

  1. Timber Dave

    On the through-ball to Prince, I think Menges ran “the wrong way” because Lloyd has just dusted Long and Horan and someone needed to step up to her. Otherwise Lloyd gets a free run all the way up to the box, and we know how dangerous she is there.

    To me, the problem there was neither Horan nor Long stopping Lloyd, or even slowing her down much, after Lloyd received the pass and played it forward. It left the Emilys in a very bad spot, screwed if they retreat and screwed if they step up to her, and Lloyd is good enough to know how to take advantage of that. Horan was the one who initially tried to stop Lloyd as she received the pass; Long just kind of watched that play and trotted alongside it, as if enjoying a nice Saturday evening game of footy. Yes, Allie, I know it’s hot and you’re tired, but the mental checking out HAS to stop.

    Thank God for Franch getting it just right on that play.

    1. John Lawes

      Problem with that is that Menges isn’t in any position to tackle Lloyd before Lloyd can release the ball and she’s going so hard that it’s going to be ridiculously difficult for her to pull up and tackle Lloyd. The most likely outcome is a collision, with Lloyd getting a very dangerous FK and Menges getting at best a yellow. The second-most likely is that Lloyd jukes Menges and just blows past her or, as happened, passes around her. So it’s a play, yeah, but a really low percentage play and one that last season’s Menges would have known better than to try.

      Both Horan and Long have been having this sort of little mental vacation all season, but Long was particularly horrific at that on Saturday. Like I said in the post; PTFC desperately needs her to be much, much better.

      And Franch…yep. She was a boss. Didn’t get a lot of work that night but when she had to she was good.

  2. Timber Dave

    Sonnett has improved over her early-season form, which was dire, so kudos to her for that. But I sure wish she would regain the form she had last year, and then drag Long into that club with her.

    I missed the first 20-30 minutes of the game and must have missed a lot of awful play by Horan, since my principal memory of her game is pretty positive. This is borne out by her PMRs, which swing wildly between the the first and second halves — a difference of 10. In fact, four players (Raso, Sykes, Horan, Kling) have first-half PMRs that are at least 3 better than their second-half ones, while only two players (Long, Menges) were that much better in the first half. This agrees with our generally better play, including a goal, in the second half.

    1. John Lawes

      Well, Kling only goes from +4/-5 to +4/-7; pretty sure that’s within the “error range of the instrument”. I thought she had a pretty consistent match other than getting stranded upfield a couple of time early as Houston attacked aggressively. Raso and Sykes…I think that’s just fatigue. They ran hard all match and that’s going to take it out of you, especially since Houston was playing a damn physical game.

      Long’s shift is similar to Kling’s; small enough to be just an artifact of my observations, the camera angles, and the natural confusion of a swirling, nonstop game like soccer. My GENERAL impression is that she was fairly uninvolved all night, not the sort of active, intelligent play forward I expect from her, but something we’ve been seeing from her more than a little recently.

      Horan…yeah. That wasn’t an artifact. She was legitimately awful in the first half, but improved markedly in the second. I think some of that was Lussi; she and Horan had some nice connection. Hopefully that will continue going forward.

    2. John Lawes

      As for Sonnett…(insert frustrated sound here). I wish to hell I could figure out why Emily S seems to be playing so much worse this season than last. Not AWFUL worse (tho she’s had some pretty awful moments (see: 46′ in Seattle)) but just sorta-kinda not-really-as-good-as-she-should-be worse. Mental lapses. Poorer passing. Defensive derps.

      I’m guessing some of it is the general problems the backline has had rubbing off on her. But as opposed to Kling (who’s just up-and-down in her usual Kling way) and Menges (who has slowly improved over the season) Sonnett just seems mired; one match you think she’s doing better…then she seems to backslide.

      I don’t know why. And I wish I did.

  3. Roy Gathercoal

    I concur. Menges was “running the wrong way” because she was the only Portland defender paying attention. Lloyd and Prince strutted through as if there were no defenders, and. . . well. . . If Menges had not stepped up to challenge, it would have been a nasty 1 v 1 with Franch, with a helping of lots of time and plenty of space. Now this desperation move was wrong-headed, because that left every Thorns defender way out in front of the ball, behind the action.

    All game long, it seemed that most of the Thorns, especially defense, was taking it easy at a “70% practice”. The only thing slower than their feet were their brains. It was react, after the fact.

    Now how can this be the same team that played at Providence last week? Many of the players on that squad looked like they wanted to be there, like the game mattered to them.

    It was almost embarrassing to see the Thorns’ celebration after the goal, for I had been hoping that the team had been drugged or the victim of some awful travel mishap. This brief huzzah was the most alive the team looked the entire game. If you have just enough energy for one big push, don’t blow it on a celebration. Or there won’t be a celebration.

    I expect professional athletes to try. I expect them to exert themselves. I expect them to push the bounds of their capability every game. Hell, I expect this from Rec league players–if you don’t want to play, then don’t take a spot someone who does want to play might fill.

    If the team had not looked completely different I might have thought this level of effort was not to be expected. However, they have shown what they are capable of, and this was far below that level. Why? If they can’t play to win when it is hot and humid, they need to play in Iceland. Or Ireland. Or Scotland. Or Denmark. But not in the United States.

    1. John Lawes

      Ummm…the problems with that, Roy are:

      1) that Lloyd and Prince DID get Prince in 1v0 on Franch, and it took a tremendous piece of goalkeeping from A.D. to keep the match within reach, and
      2) that Menges’ move was ineffective and was likely to BE ineffective for all the reasons I mentioned in my reply to Dave above. It just wasn’t and couldn’t every really be given the initial failures of positioning and marking and then the cumulative failures to close down either Houston player.

      I honestly don’t know what the problems with the speed of play is, but you’re right; it always looks like PTFC is stuck in low gear. But I think a big part is that Parsons’ system seems to rely on a LOT of lateral- and back-passing and lots of stationary exchanges. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that Portland went forward using quick passes and quick off-the-ball movement, and that doesn’t seem to be an execution issue but a pre-planned scheme.

      Whatever it is…I don’t like it. It’s not fun to watch. It doesn’t often produce results. And it seems to instill a very stationary, passive approach to the game in the team.

      1. Roy Gathercoal

        I agree the move was ineffectual. You commented that you had no idea why she was running the wrong way, and we supplied a hypothesis. I don’t think anyone on the defense played smart for large stretches of the game. If Tobin Heath can’t get on the field soon, they need to find someone with a level head to keep things moving in the right direction.

        1. John Lawes

          Ah! Gotcha. I can see how she might think that. What’s frustrating is that the Menges of 2016 would have been more disciplined. She’s a year more experienced now, so I can’t imagine why she’d make that sort of mental error. Maybe her Emily-mate’s issues are getting into her head this season.

  4. Mike Little

    Seemed to me that Long pulled an excellent dummy in the eighth minute. Faked me out. Trouble was that she was supposed to be playing defense.
    I wonder what’s limiting her. She’s usually amazing but has fallen way off of late. Hey Coach: Figure it out and help fix it.

    1. Brian Fredricks

      I almost wonder if Long (and maybe even Horan to some extent) has lost her NWSL motivation. After getting cut before the World Cup, Long was trying to prove herself in the NWSL to get back in with the NT. Now that she seems to have a fairly secure spot under Ellis, her play for the Thorns this year has not often been very inspired.

  5. Brian Fredricks

    As you say, “smarter is better” but it seems the Thorns are just not playing smart that often recently. Attackers are not making runs into dangerous and open positions around the opponents goal (as you illustrated from the Seattle game) and defenders are making terrible decisions on their positioning (example on Houston’s goal above).

    Basic decision making has just been poor too often. In the last 15 minutes of this game when possession was needed to work toward a tying goal, Campbell sent three long balls forward that under no Houston pressure our defenders indiscriminately headed the ball forward rather than settling to start an attack. All three headed balls ended up with Houston gaining possession: 75′ Menges header went straight to a Houston player, 82′ Boureille header came toward Long under pressure but eventually won by Houston and 87′ Boureille headed the ball out of bounds for a Houston throw.

    Other than luckily nicking a point out of this game, the only real positive I saw was the play of Lussi. I thought her activity in the box finally put some pressure on Houston’s defense but would she be able to do that over the course of a full game or is she (at least in the near future) best suited as just a late game sub to wreak havoc on a tired back line.

    1. John Lawes

      One thing that drives me kind of nuts with the Thorns in general, and not just the backline, is their tendency to meet every long clearance or long pass with their head and ping it back up in the air. It’s a feature, not a bug, with this team…although as a feature it’s indistinguishable FROM a bug, because as you point out, it usually – at best – becomes a purely random game of keepy-uppy that is as likely to go to an opponent as a teammate.

      But I haven’t really watched enough other NWSL teams closely to tell whether this is a purely THORNS thing or a WoSo thing…or even just a “non-topflight-elite-player” thing; I can see how the looping-header would be the easiest, “safest” play if you weren’t someone with terrific confidence to play the ball down to your, or a teammate’s, feet…

      1. rhamje

        Yeah, noticed the same thing about heading long balls. Kling and Horan once, Menges twice were all alone and could have brought the ball down and passed but instead headed for a turnover. Horan’s turned out the worst – that’s how Lloyd ended with that ball for the Prince attempt. It seems to me that bringing the ball down is the first choice – you’d only use your head if it was a duel situation which these weren’t. No idea why they do this…

        1. John Lawes

          I taped the Washington-Orlando match. I should watch it again just to note what happens on the long high balls. Like I said; it may not be a Thorns “thing”; it may be something that players pick up in college, so if other American players tend to do it that may be where it comes from. Or it may be even more general than that…I don’t have enough to generalize right now, but it’s going to be something I track in the future.

        2. Timber Dave

          Ditto. It drives me crazy too, especially when there’s no opponent nearby and it would be easy to settle the ball, either to the player receiving it or to a teammate. Why isn’t this the standard thing to do? Don’t they practice it in training?

      2. Bryan Smith

        My daughter’s high school coach specifically teaches them to chest it down if they have space rather than a random header. My daughter plays CB almost exclusively. So at least there is hope for the future.

        1. John Lawes

          I was taught to either chest it down, or, if I was feeling really tough, let it bounce and step over it as it came off the turf, settling it to feet.

          If you read the Carolina post, though, it seems like this is a very common thing, at least with the Thorns and the Courage. I’m going to continue keeping track of this to see if other NWSL teams do it regularly. Seems like a very low percentage sort of play, honestly, but maybe I’m being too optimistic about what’s possible on that play…

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