Thorns FC: Two Steps Back

It was only almost a week – but it seems like almost an eon – ago that Thorns FC put a lickin’ on FCKC through intelligent, aggressive attack and swarming defense.

Three days later the team traveled north to Seattle and, it seems, completely forgot how to do all that.

It wasn’t just the stadium clock that made time seem to run in 86-second minutes.  The Thorns looked slow, too; slow, predictable, and, most damningly, thoroughly beatable from the start and were, 2-nil.

Most of the talk surrounding the match has been about the failure of the Dagny Brynjarsdóttir Fullback Experiment that began here against FCKC.  Matched up against the slower, offensively-challenged Blues, Dagny held her own.  Against Megan Rapinoe Dagny was brutally exposed as a player who hadn’t worked a shift at fullback between last Wednesday and her Iceland junior side.

Emily Sonnett didn’t help, either, continuing her regression of form that, if it continues in this vein, will land her on a Portland Parks rec league side before October.  Not that she was the only culprit; her horrendous 46′ derp gave away the only goal Seattle needed but the entire Portland backline and DMs were run through all evening, giving up potential scoring opportunities in the 14th, 17th, 34th, 48th (when Utsugi’s shot through traffic luckily pinged out rather than in off Franch’s left post), 54th (where if Menges hadn’t cleared Seattle had a two-yard shot at an open goal), 58th (another critical Menges clear with a Seattle attacker on her back), 62nd, 65th, 76th (when a horrible Sonnett giveaway gave Kawasumi a clear run at goal but Henry ran her wide to concede the corner), 84th, and 90th minutes.

Seattle’s intent was clear from the opening whistle; feed Rapinoe.  That Coach Parsons didn’t adjust to that is really on him.  Expecting an attacking midfielder/forward to wall off one of the best attacking midfielders in the world is asking too much.

But that wasn’t the biggest problem.

The biggest problem was that an old familiar problem came back.

Thorns FC just.  Can’t.  Score.

I don’t think that there is a single, simple issue behind this sterility.  I think it’s a combination of tactics, player fit to those tactics, and individual player issues.  But I think this 5th minute Thorns attack does a good job illustrating some of them.

Look at the field ahead of Sinclair.  There are several spaces for aggressive attackers to run into; the top corner of the 18, inside the base of the penalty arc…but where are the players to run into them?  Both Shim and Raso are either level with or behind Sinc, and even though Raso has the acceleration to get in behind the defenders…

…she doesn’t.  She runs out wide where there’s three bodies between her and the goal, and she’s level with Sinclair.  Sinclair pulls up her run and dinks a shallow lateral pass to Shim whose slowing has allowing the defenders to recover.  Shim has no options other than to shoot and her shot is well blocked, though it comes back out to her.

But there’s still no forward pass, no overlap, no other option for Shim (outside Raso, who’s still in an offside position).  So she dinks back to Sinclair, who also tries a direct shot that is also blocked, this time out beyond her reach ending the attacking sequence.

Here’s another example, this time from the 37th minute:

This time it’s Raso running in the right channel.  She’s got two teammates following the play, seemingly in good positions to run through the backline for a dangerous cross.

That doesn’t happen.  Both Shim and Horan are too slow, and when Raso has to cross – she’s closed down and needs to offload the ball – instead it goes harmlessly to the front of the 6 where Kopmeyer can collect.

The Thorns had several “half-chances” in this game.  Here’s when and how they happened:

10′ – Dagny makes a good forward pass, but Sinclair is too slow onto it; Seattle intercepts.

24′ – Sinclair tackles for gain deep in the Seattle third and runs at goal, but her heavy touch loses possession to McNabb.

26′ – Henry’s great through ball gets to Sinclair, but Sinc’s poor first touch means her shot is easily blocked and Shim doesn’t run into space to give her a passing option.

34′ – Henry with another great forward pass puts Raso in to the byline, but her cross is too close to Kopmeyer and both Sinclair and Shim are too slow moving to ball.

37′ – Raso steals in the Seattle third, but Shim is too slow getting to her cross and is tackled for loss.

50′ – Sinclair lobs a good cross-field pass to Raso but she has no passing options and is tackled for loss as she runs at goal.

55′ – Henry makes a great run up the left side but her cross goes behind Raso; Horan gets to it and crosses to Long, but Allie’s lob finds Shim offside.

66′ – Dagny pitches up a long ball that bounds into the right side of the 6; Kopmeyer can’t take and Horan crashes it, but her tight-angle shot is well saved by Kopmeyer.

78′ – Sinclair makes a terrific tackle for gain deep in Seattle territory and her lead pass puts Horan in place for a great run up the left-channel to the byline…but Sykes biffs her drop over the goal right from the edge of the six.

85′ – Menges tackles for gain, pitches up to Henry whose good run and lead pass puts Sykes into the left edge of the 6, but all Sykes can do is slam the ball off a defender for a corner, which Kopmeyer takes.

Lots of “too slow” and “no options” there, aren’t there?  “Slow, simple, and defendable”; yep, that was Thorns FC in Seattle.

If you subtract the blocked shots – most of which were fairly unlikely to have threatened, anyway – here’s what Portland’s “expected goals” or xG chart looks like:

Lots of bad angles.  Lots of long shots (and it’s worth noting that Sinc’s 48′ shot was well wide and Horan’s 89′ strike went right at Kopmeyer…).  Result?  Just over half a chance of scoring one goal.

That wasn’t enough in Seattle.

That hasn’t been enough all season.  Over 12 games the Thorns have scored 15 goals.  1.25 goals a game?  OK…well, that’s not that bad, right?

Except that:

  1.  Thorns FC has also conceded 11 goals.  Which means that two of the 2-goal games (Seattle here and Boston away) were draws.
  2.  Of the remaining 10 games Thorns FC scored 9 goals in four games; 3 against KC here, and 2 each against Orlando and Boston here and Sky Blue away, leaving only two goals spread over the remaining six matches.
  3. Unsurprisingly four of those matches are losses.  In a sense PTFC actually got lucky, because the remaining two are the scoreless away draw at FCKC and the 1-nil home win over Chicago that got four points of a very likely zero.

Too few players are getting into dangerous positions too seldom.  Too many attackers are moving too slowly to force defenders into making the sort of hasty, and poor, choices that result in giving Thorns FC goalscoring opportunities.

This team looks in disarray.  The attack is stale, flat, and unprofitable and the defense is looking decidedly fragile.

And Henry, Nadim, and Brynjarsdóttir are now gone, possibly for the next three matches that includes a visit from the league-leading North Carolina Courage.

Now sitting below the red line Thorns FC has some work, serious work, to do before Houston this coming weekend, or the season may be out of reach by the beginning of August.


Player ratings and PMRs:

Sinclair (+6/-7 : +5/-3 : +11/-10)  I think I mentioned that Sinc looked old and slow against Washington.  That was not true in Seattle.  But Sinclair was not her usual self, more, I think, due to good defending and a real lack of support from her teammates.  Even the greatest can’t always carry a team on her back.  And, perhaps, Mad Sinclair took more out of Sinc than we thought.

Raso (+7/-3 : +3/-6 : +10/-9)  Looks like she burned herself out in the early going; faded badly in the second half.  Also retreated back into her “run-run-don’t-shoot” shell.  Still a generally good outing…but not good enough to overcome her team’s other problems.

Shim (60′ – +3/-3 : +0/-3 : +3/-6)  The USL Timbers had a player named Takayuki Suzuki.  Taka was a sort of a fun guy.  He was a huge fan favorite – he had his own song, ferchristsakes! – despite scoring only 4 times in 77 appearances.

Mana is the Thorns FC equivalent of Takayuki Suzuki; a massive fan favorite and perennial roster spot despite being one of the least effective players on the pitch much of the time.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a “Mana’s so adorable!” sort of fan, too.  Because she is; she seems like a wonderful person and hard-working athlete.  I think I’d love to have Mana as a friend, or a teammate.  She just seems so…great.

But I’m also the Thorns FC writer for this blog, and, as such, I try to be objective.  And my objective assessment of Mana as a Thorns FC player is that, right now, she’s just a passenger.  She takes up a roster spot on a small roster and doesn’t contribute enough attack to justify that spot if, say, Savannah Jordan (or Crystal Dunn!) can be signed in her place.

Thorns FC can’t afford passengers, not with the tough competition this season and the small roster.  I’m not saying that Shim should go right now.  I’m saying that if PTFC can find and sign a better option at midfieldthen Shim should go.

Sykes (30′ – +3/-4)  Should have scored in the 78′.  It’s hard to figure Ashleigh right now.  Shows glimmers, but her work has come during a stretch during which her team has lost 3 of 4 and, during two of those three, – Washington away and this one – looked very poor going forward.  I suspect that she’s a better player than she’s looked in that stretch, and I’d like to see that.  But, for now, has to be considered no more than replacement-level until things improve.

Horan (+3/-0 : +9/-5 : +12/-5)  I was really rather surprised when I watched the tape.  Sitting perched precariously  in the ugly-ass Memorial Stadium stands (for those who haven’t been there, the designers of Memorial apparently wanted to re-create the experience of climbing Mt. Rainier in downtown Seattle.  They’re pitched at a ridiculously steep angle) I remember thinking that Lindsey was pretty invisible in this match.  And she wasn’t very involved in the first half, as her PMR shows.  But she stepped up in the second half on both sides of the ball; her shot in the 66′ was the best Portland effort after Sykes’ miss.  Not a bad effort overall.

Henry (+8/-3 : +11/-9 : +19/-12)  Again, I have a hard time handing out “Woman of the Match” kudos when the team as a team plays so poorly.  So let’s say that Amandine was the best Thorn on the pitch in Seattle and leave it there.  Half of her “minuses” were trying to force passes into a packed Seattle defense to teammates who weren’t helping her by moving to get open.  We’re really going to miss her in July.

Long (+0/-2 : +4/-2 : +4/-4)  Not a very good match from a player that PTFC needs to get consistently good matches from.  Uninvolved and, when she did get involved, indecisive and ineffective.  Second match out of the past three that Allie has looked either genuinely poor or indifferent, and I’m not sure why.  Nagging injury?  Out-of-sorts?  I don’t know, but needs to shake it off soon.

Dagny (+4/-9 : +7/-10 : +11/-19)  Simply overwhelmed.  Kind of saddening to watch, like seeing the littlest puppy in the litter get bossed around by one of the big dogs.  What’s frustrating is that if Parsons wants to keep her on the pitch he could do well starting her in place of Shim; Dagny could hardly be less effective than Mana, and Boureille might have done better against Rapinoe, although the Elf Queen (sorry, but that silver shag always makes me think “forest sprite”) was running wild all evening and looked almost unstoppable.

Sonnett (+3/-6 : +4/-5 : +7/-11)  Yet another sub-par outing in a string of them.  What the hell is wrong with you this season, Emily?  I don’t understand this bizarre regression to rookie errors; that derp in the 46′ was simply inexcusable for an experienced player.  But whatever the reason you’re having the season from Hell at this point and if Thorns FC had more depth I’d recommend that Parsons bench you.  But they don’t, so he can’t, so you have to work things out and get better.  Soon.

Menges (+6/-5 : +10/-5 : +10/-6)  This.  This is the Menges half of the Great Wall of Emily.  A rock in back, and had her partner-Emily had her head out of her bottom Saturday might have – might – kept this to 1-nil and given the attack a chance to sneak an equalizer.  I doubt they would have, but at least 1-nil might have kept this closer to within reach.  Great outing on a bad day for the team as a whole and her backline in particular.

Klingenberg (+2/-1 : +8/-5 : +10/-6)  Effective most of the time, not a game-changer but would have had a more positive impact had her teammates been having a better day.  Decent shift from Kling.

Franch (+2/-1 : +3/-3 : +5/-4)  Ups and downs.  Good saves in the 12th, 17th, and 62nd minutes, a strong take in the 77′.  Not at fault on the concessions but would have been beaten flatfooted on the Utsugi shot at 48′ and mishandled badly several times, including Kawasumi’s cross in the 69th minute.

Distribution:  A total of 29 efforts: 12 goal kicks, 4 punts, 8 clears, and 5 free kicks.  Of those Thorns FC took less than half (12 of 29).  Of the 17 others 5 went straight into touch and 3 more were “unclaimed” – banged around off several bodies before being taken by one or another side.  The remaining 9 went to Seattle, who managed to return 2 for decent attacks, although no shots on goal.  That works out to be 2/29 or about 7% of A.D.’s distribution resulted in a threat to her own goal, and that’s a respectable showing.

Coach Parsons – Clearly made tactical misjudgements, first starting Dagny at RB and then not adjusting when she was clearly overrun by Rapinoe.  Indeed; did poorly adjusting to the obvious danger Rapinoe represented all match, and paid for it.

But the larger issues exposed in this match have been visible all season.  Several players, including Sonnett and Menges in particular, have been struggling.  The attack in general has not been producing dangerous opportunities.  As noted above, I suspect that the offensive problems are a mix of tactics, player-fit to those tactics, and individual player miscues.

And that’s the fundamental job of the football manager; to sort out the tactics, and fit them to the players and the players to the tactics.  That’s what Parsons gets paid for, and how well he does that job will determine how well the team does over the rest of this season.

11 Comments Thorns FC: Two Steps Back

  1. Ted Sarvata

    Great article! Thanks for never pulling punches! While I can’t see Shim being released for the reasons you cite here, I don’t understand Parsons using her the way he has. I thought Dagny would be in that spot both games, with Boureille at RB, as usual for this season.

    Three players may have to be waived, if Jordan, Heath and Morris all recover. I was thinking Weber first, then Johnson (Parsons has used Cox all season instead of Johnson, not sure what the issue is. Morris initially was listed as a defender when we signed her last year), then Lussi (her job being to get us through the Euros). Maybe Morris doesn’t get back this year? Maybe we can wait until off season to let Shim’s contract go un-renewed? I don’t know. Being general manager seems like a hard job.

    1. John Lawes

      I don’t want to be hating on Mana. She is what she is; a replacement-level midfielder who, in a league with larger rosters, could have a good career as a late-match sub and spot-starter. That in itself is kind of sad, because when she started here in 2013 I had hopes that she’d be more than that, but she hasn’t and at this point I think it’s not realistic to assume that she can suddenly lift her game. But she is decent enough to make a living as a bench player in a wealthier league.

      Problem is that our bench is thin, and we have better players or players with more potential – particularly Jordan, assuming we can get her back here – as options. IF – and only if – we can sign one of those players (and I agree that seems unlikely at this point) could I see releasing her.

      I’d like to think that Dagny was “the problem” in Seattle, but, frankly, nobody outside of Menges looked up to defending Rapinoe. Sometimes that happens; a player just grabs a match by the neck. I think Rapinoe did that, and PTFC’s only real chance was to score more than she did, and right now our attack would have problems hitting water if it fell out of a boat. If Dagny were going to be around for the next month I would like to see if she could do better in Shim’s part of the field…but that may have to wait for August.

      The injuries are looking worse every week. I was hoping to get Tobin back in August for the playoff run, but I’m increasingly unsure. KJ is looking iffy, and Morris is a riddle inside and enigma.

      For the record, I’m hoping that this season is just a freak coincidence between the Thorns and Timbers. But it sure seems like both teams have had a ridiculously high number of serious injuries. Could there be some sort of connection with that and the training/medical staff? I honestly have no idea. But it sure seems like a brutal intersection of bad luck and…something.

      1. Roy Gathercoal

        I also wonder about the training staff. Especially about the change in approach that brings formal training to more of the players’ lives. When someone is on call for long hours, stress ensues, even if they are never called in to work. We all seem to need down time, other than sleep.

        But I have just slightly more than absolutely no data to go on. So it is just an idea–not even a hypothesis. I hope someone is looking at this issue, however, and not just writing it off as something that will pass with time.

        I really don’t want to look back in a decade and wonder how we didn’t see the now-obvious “Portland Syndrome” in what end up being obvious data. I would much rather we be known for victories, hospitality and fair play.

        1. fdchief218

          Apparently the organization agreed, Roy; the physio doc was cut today. So Peregrine and Merritt, at least, seem to concur that all these injury problems aren’t just bad luck.

  2. Roy Gathercoal

    Thank you, John.

    It is clear now that what you call tactics includes what I call attitude or mental preparation. Making an absolutely awful decision about when to start your run, or not making a challenging run at all, or apparently not trying to get clear to be available for a pass are not the kinds of things that a coach tells the team, ever. When these things happen it is not because the wrong tactics were chosen, but because the players lacked that spark that would otherwise lead them to put in the extra effort.

    This overall attitude is contagious. It is indeed a rare player who can shine when everyone else on the team is lagging. As Murphy would predict, it is far easier for one player to lag even when the rest of the team is firing hot.

    In the end I believe we come to similar conclusions. When a team plays well and still loses, the tactics employed are suspect. A player really hustling and playing her heart out can get beat frequently when matched against a formation that gives her opponent an advantage. On the other hand, even the best tactical match up maximizing a player’s strengths can get pissed away if she is performing at 80% of normal.

    It is the same at practice. Some players excel during a particular week, while lagging behind the next week. Some players perform at somewhere near their optimal peak every week. There will always be variance in the output of effort. Which is why it is the coaches’ responsibility to understand the motivations and patterns of her players so that she can do what it takes to get her team ready and “hungry” for each game.

    Professional athletes have learned the discipline to do some of this on their own. Yet even seasoned veterans play a little bit harder when encouraged by a full stadium and a genuine urgency about the game. We are all humans, and humans are all emotional creatures. We make irrational decisions (a fact about which some economists are in eternal denial) and we respond unexpectedly sometimes to particular stimuli.

    Which is why benching a star who has become jaded can shake up a whole team and lead to dramatically improved performance, Even if the coach returns to the exact lineup and gives the same instructions the following week.

    When a team plays at home, especially at Providence Park, that extra spark is provided from the outside. This makes it easier for the coach to provide the motivational spark needed. When a team travels, however, the support from outside is not there. So a coaches’ work becomes harder.

    This doesn’t mean that playing someone in the wrong place, or misjudging a particular match-up with an opponent player, or giving instructions that don’t work as expected are not even more important than players’ attitudes. But when a team displays such inconsistency week to week I tend to look to the intangibles. We can never know why a team suddenly comes alive in the second half of a game, but if there are physical changes we tend to overweight them, exactly because they are visible.

    But the next week we could be playing the exact same team, make the same changes and see no change on the field. This disconfirms the hypothesis that the change in performance is attributable to that change.

    A new coaching staff can get a big boost in player motivation simply because they are new faces and new ways of looking at things. If the coaches cannot replace that newness with some other way of teasing out top performances, they will experience unexpected and confusing losses.

    This, I believe, is what has happened to the Thorns. And *part* of the solution is in building structures within the team that work towards eliciting peak performance at game time. Especially away from home. We haven’t seen that with the Thorns this year.

    1. John Lawes

      Weellllll…to a point, yes. Sometimes “tactics” are a combination of just that – positioning on the field, ways of moving the ball from player to player or place to place, combinations of movement and passing – and sometimes the way those physical elements are executed depends on the players ability to execute them.

      But I think there IS an actual distinction between attitude and aptitude. You can have all the “motivation”, “attitude”, and “mental preparation” on Earth and if you lack the footspeed or the ability to position yourself relative to the defender you’re overlapping run is going to fail. All sorts of teams have desire and fight and motivation and come up short against teams with better physical skills or a more effective tactical approach to the match.

      I think the Thorns play for Parsons; I don’t think this is a case of a player or players laying down on the job. I don’t think the side goes on the road and suddenly starts jakin’ it. I think that they have fundamental issues with the speed and incisiveness in attack, and when their opponent is on top of their game, as Washington was and Boston was and Seattle was – remember, the first Seattle match here could easily have been 2-1 Seattle, while the first Boston match could easily have been 2-nil Boston – then the Thorns are going to have trouble, whether here or away.

      I think a huge part of the problem is that a number of players are having individual lows this season, whether because of injury or just lack of form; Sonnett, most spectacularly, but Menges, Long, Sinclair…they’re all struggling or have struggled at times this year. Add to that injuries; Nadim, Dagny, Heath, Reynolds. Add to that Franch’s struggles with control of her backline and the poor choice to try and have her play out of the back on the ground when she and her defenders had clear communications problems…

      I really don’t think this is a “sports psychologist” sort of thing…yet. If the team starts dropping more of these poorly-played games, though…then it may start getting inside the players’ heads.

    2. John Lawes

      As far as “peak performance away from home”, well…actually, outside of Seattle you have the NC and Washington losses, but away points to both KC and Boston, and a win at Sky Blue. Assuming the old “draw on the road” formula that gives PTFC the 5 points from 6 matches, close to what you’d like to see as a minimum.

      Rather than road form, I think the team has suffered some sort of mid-season slump. After only one loss in the first 8 games we’ve dropped 3 of the last 4, including a bad loss at home. Before that our only loss was to NC away, and those wenches are tearing up the league, so hardly any shame…

  3. Timber Dave

    The Thorns just signed Ashley Herndon and Kelli Hubly to fill the absences of Dagný Brynjarsdóttir and Nadia Nadim for the Euros.

    This makes me wonder a bit about the logic of signing a midfielder (Herndon) and defender (Hubly) to replace players who play mostly as a forward (Dagný), despite her playing elsewhere sometimes, and most definitely as a forward (Nadim). Maybe Horan will be shifted to forward, despite how well she’s been playing in midfield recently, or Allie Long to a more attacking role (we can only hope!).

    1. John Lawes

      Herndon played at striker during both the preseason matches. Hubly played at DM during the first half of the Houston match but was an AM/F during the second half and against the U-23s. So I think that they are a better match for the regulars than their official positions suggest.

    2. John Lawes

      And my observation would be that Horan really HASN’T been playing that well in midfield. I think it’d be worth a shot trying to push her further forward and see if she can help jumpstart the attack at FWD. Pull Sinc back into AM and start Horan as center forward with Lussi on one flank and Raso on the other.


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