Apr 212014
 

So this past week we’ve all been discussing this piece from Juliet Macur in the New York Times and ranting about how badly the author missed the mark. Our type of supporters had been ignored, deemed irrelevant, as if nothing we’d done since the league started to promote our passionate supporter culture had made any impression. Shortly after the NYT piece came out, Texas supporter Dana Crane posted an op-ed piece on The Soccer Desk site, and we nodded our heads furiously, seeing her take on Macur’s assertions one by one and dismantle them with real-life positive counterexamples. Among those examples were us, the Rose City Riveters.

The same Riveters who, in my opinion, just failed to bring it in New Jersey against Sky Blue, despite overwhelming numbers in the stands supporting Portland Thorns FC and not the home team.

So what the hell happened there and what can we learn from it?

This was the local hype leading up to our trip to support the Thorns against Sky Blue in New Jersey. H and I traveled from Portland and brought a couple of local fans in with us. A boatload of other Thorns supporters— some players’ friends and families, but also Paul Riley’s youth soccer club from Long Island—promised “the potential for a loud away crowd.” Families of Thorns players from around the area tailgated in the parking lot and invited us over for food and drinks. Allie Long’s boyfriend grilled burgers. Amber Brooks’s awesome mom fed us sandwiches and beers and cookies and fruit salad. Courtney Niemiec’s people gathered around another vehicle with their own coolers. There weren’t very many Sky Blue fans around. It seemed like maybe we were collectively going to rock the place. Our house, in the middle of Jersey.

Inside, though, that illusion blew apart quickly. Inspirational girl pop played over the PA. The kids of the soccer club had been instructed by email to wear their own club’s jerseys, “does not matter what color or type”; though some of them were in tune enough with the Thorns to have chosen red and white, many hadn’t bothered. Alongside the club kids, the stands were packed from end to end with other young girls and their mostly uninterested parents. At one point before the match, Alex Morgan toured the pitch smiling and waving like a pageant winner. The trio of preteens in the bleachers above ours gushed and fawned when she went by, and I commented how funny it was that they’d brought her here to just walk around even though she won’t be playing probably for months. They looked at me like I had three heads.

Since we weren’t allowed to have poles in the venue, we hung our flags up front. We had a Riveters crest travel banner, Portland city flags, a rainbow Cascadia. Nobody stopped us, but security did come over and make us re-hang them lower on the rails so kids could see over them at autograph time. Nobody asked us what any of it signified. Apart from some of the players, I’m pretty sure no one knew.

ipads2We had a travel drum, a cowbell, some claves. Our section and the adjacent one were both full of away fans, so we stood toward the front where we could lead chants and have both the team and people in the bleachers hear us. Bleacher seats were technically assigned, and a whiny mother complained until we moved and made way for her and her kids. Everyone around us sat. The announcer advertised the local Olive Garden.

We sang and raised our scarves during the anthem. People looked at us. We drummed and chanted. People moved away. We looked up pleadingly at our two locals, one of them an old-school Timbers fan, and begged them to make noise and sing with us. They gave us a pained, helpless look and put the claves back in the drum bag. We decided to try just singing without the drum. We sang Onward. No one joined in. Our locals moved into the next section and sat where they could see the game better. We stopped playing and singing and started agonizing about how we were letting the team down, how terribly we were failing the rest of our group watching the live stream. I started live-tweeting miserably. It all seemed wrong. This was *our* crowd. Except it wasn’t.

Rampone scored for Sky Blue. We held our scarves up and sang Rose City Til I Die. A celebratory siren recording played over the PA.

bleachers1croppedWhen Long was near us, we sang to her:

Allie Long, I know this game is killing you
 Oh, Allie Long, your aim is true

Some guy down below us said, “You haven’t used that drum very much.” Yeah, dude, why, you want to chant? “Oh, no, I only know UVA songs.” OK, you teach us yours and we’ll teach you ours. No? Okay, then. So we sang:

We schlepped this drum 3000 miles, we’ll schlep this drum 3000 more
Just to be the ones who schlepped this drum 3000 miles and hope they score

At the half I wandered over to Section 9 to find someone to chat with in Cloud9, Sky Blue’s new supporters group. Not many were there and the contact we’d been chatting with online was out of town, but a thirties-ish guy in a Red Bulls jersey recognized the Riveters scarf and shook my hand. We hadn’t heard any drums or singing way over on our end, but John was in fact their drummer, and he’d come over from the Empire Supporters Club to help the new SG. This match, Sky Blue’s home opener, was Cloud9’s first as an official entity. He said what Cloud9 is really hoping for is a double-header in Harrison. Yurcak Field is too far out of the way, too hard to get to by transit, plus ESC has the history and experience supporting a team for the full 90, and C9 could use some of that.

Long converted a PK in the 75th to equalize. She’s been a beast so far this season. We drummed and sang We Root for the Thorns. Others around us barely seemed to have registered that the team scored a goal.

A boy, maybe 10 or 11 years old, came up to us. “Hey, I’ve got one. I Believe!”

Nah, we told him, that’s for the national team. He shrugged and walked away. We wondered whether maybe we should have humored him and just done it. When in Rome and all that. It’d have at least been something.

A group of little girls up above us started doing “Let’s Go Portland, Let’s Go”. Then “De-fense! De-fense!” The announcer called out the winner of some prize, an autographed boot or something like that. A six-year-old girl. The announcer was sure she was very happy.

At 80’ we sang Keep On Lovin’ You. Around 85’, people in our own sections started leaving.

We can see you, we can see you, we can see you sneaking out!

rails1The match ended 1-1. Girls rushed the rails for autographs. Some miniature Fran Drescher sound-alike near us whined for Alex Maaaw-gan. The team came over for a very short time to sign items. H scarfed our fancy new keeper, who didn’t understand at first that the scarf was a gift for her, so now Angerer has a BAON scarf signed by Angerer.

One-T is their assistant coach now. H scarfed him too. I went over afterward and assured him how much better it’s going to be next week. “We’ll take the point,” he said. No, I clarified, you guys were great; I mean *us*.

We cut down our banners and packed up our souvenir Rutgers football soda cup. A few more players walked by including Sinc. We waved and yelled after them: “Next week!” Sinc called back: “We can’t wait! Looking forward to the tifo! There’s tifo… right?”

A little later we were listening to the crowd on the RSL vs. Timbers match stream. Even with the classless YSA and Puto chants, I was jealous. So jealous, and not a little depressed.

Are we doing something that’s worth doing? I wondered. Within the context of this particular league, is this just stupid? Complete overkill?

I thought about moving that paragraph above about Sinc to here and just stopping. It would have been a way for me to conclude that no, it’s not stupid and no way in hell should we do that—we support the team and the team notices. But the larger situation is more nuanced than that. It’s easy for us to look at what we’ve accomplished in the past and say everyone should do it the way Portland does. By that I don’t mean necessarily the scale, but certainly the passion. If Portland has ten people at an away game, men’s or women’s, and they sing the whole time and they’ve painted a banner and they know the players’ names and who on the opposing team to heckle by name, that all very much counts. The Riveters have brought it at other away games and we always do the job on our home ground. But as our whole experience this weekend made clear, hundreds or even thousands of warm bodies stuck in seats without any history, passion, or context just leads to massive total suck. That won’t inspire teams or keep anybody coming back. But I can’t imagine how hard it must be to turn things around if you’re a supporter in a home location where that’s your starting point.

So yeah, Cloud9 has their work cut out for them. The cross-pollination with ESC is likely a good thing, but they’re going to need not only local folks who can make it out to the venue, but WoSo-savvy charismatic leaders or at least self-starters and a bunch of very loud regulars who can get everyone used to having visible and vocal soccer supporters of all ages at these games. And those people need to relentlessly *be* vocal and visible, even if others around really don’t approve or care. There’s no other way to make their presence part of the team’s culture, encourage rival SGs to do better, and attract more supporters who want women’s soccer support to be more like that and are willing to do the hard work required.

In Portland we’re lucky to be building on an established tradition of fanatical and organized soccer support. if it were us in Cloud9’s shoes, surrounded by annoyed non-supporters and doing our thing in a venue that treated matches as children’s events week after week, I think I get now how draining it would be at times to keep doing it. The soul-suckingness of it got to us really hard, being abandoned like that even by our own team’s fans. Maybe they were led by the press to expect a spectacle, instead of understanding they would need to *be* that spectacle.  More likely they just didn’t care, or even know it was an option to care.

So since then I’ve been rereading Crane and letting her words reassure me that we’re not completely alone and not completely crazy, and when we get home I’ll be able to summon the energy to help make our home opener something the players will remember for a long time. But I’m also rereading Macur, and I think I understand much better now why she came at it the way she did, although I’m not happy about it. Though I strongly disagree with her proposals for stabilizing the league, I think what she saw in Maryland was in some ways unfortunately spot on. The new coach and players considered this outing a success, but we know from our own experience what success can be like and this wasn’t in any way related. In Portland, the Thorns are a Portland team; we recognize them as professionals without hesitation and we are fiercely proud of them. Elsewhere, they are a women’s soccer team, with all the cultural baggage that carries. And it’s got me looking beyond our own city and wondering where WoSo supporters in this country collectively go from here, and how.

Sep 042013
 

The story begins like so many others by taking a leap out of our comfort zone and initiating a conversation. First, it was a bus travelling on I-5 as the Timbers Army headed north to watch the green and gold take on Seattle. The WPS had fallen apart; and the NWSL was not yet in existence as I started a conversation with a red haired woman on my bus about support, ideals, the women’s game and the USWNT.

As with many things in life, this was something that happened partially by chance and partially by opportunity. With open seats on the bus, my general wandering and my friends reorganizing to speak with each other there was an empty seat behind her, and so we easily struck up a conversation.

She introduced herself as Gabby and we shared a small conversation about a topic on which she was clearly very passionate. We talked about your typical soccer fans, support and passion independent of gender lines. We spoke about flags, tifo, singing and passionate fervor for the women’s game. There was this general idea of creating a chaotic din that represents the city and team that you love. I may not remember the exact particulars of every word but I do remember the love and passion for the beautiful game that resided within my new acquaintance on this bus.

We eventually separated and after departing the bus, we headed our separate ways. This will tend to happen when you have several hundred fans, kegs of beer and weaving lines of fans heading into Century Link.

 

Over one year later…

 

A lanky woman in white stands over a ball on a field in Rochester, New York and takes a deep breath before striding up to the ball. She blasts the sphere over the assembled wall and into the back of the net with such force that it energetically rebounds out of the net as though it didn’t belong there. Exaltation, celebration and passionate release in the stands as the camera crew cuts over to the travelling away support for the Thorns. There, in the midst of the chaotic, yelling, screaming masses was Gabby, awash in the moment of watching her team take what seemed like an improbable lead away from home. See, the story isn’t always just about the players, but (as well) about how the players, team, play and results interact with the fans on a visceral and emotional level.

In the end, Gabby travelled over 3,000 miles and watched, celebrated and lived the first professional, major league championship from a Portland team since 1977.

What the Thorns had problem with, even just as recent as four games ago, seemingly vanished as they remained switched on and defensively alert even after going down to 10 women in the second half. Rachel Buehler and Kat Williamson were able to not only stop Abby Wambach but noticeably frustrated her by utilizing all the skills in the “Dark Arts of Football” manual. Certainly Williamson eventually took the hands on clutching and grabbing with Wambach a bit too far getting a second yellow after Wambach went down just outside the 18 yard box. However, by that point in the game Wambach became noticeably perturbed by the tough treatment as she flashed imaginary cards and barked at the referee for calls. When Tina Ellertson came into the game in the second half, after Williamson was sent off, the damage had already been performed on Wambach’s psyche. While Ellertson was still called upon for stops she can thank the tenacious play of Williamson and Buehler for setting the table for success in the second half.

 

This was a game that fulfilled the tedious saying of “balanced on a knife edge.”  There was all to play for as both teams had gilt edged chances to take control of the game. Back and forth with great saves, hard tackles, and (at times) pulsating action the game was many times over what you wish would happen in a final.

With time counting down and the Thorns still hanging on to a one goal advantage, a combination between Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair resulted in the Thorns season being closed out by the Portland captain in style. Sinclair is a true connected Portland legend in every facet from her early viewing s of women’s games while sitting in the North End in 1999, to her records and play for the Portland Pilots to her relationship with the patron saint of Portland soccer, Clive Charles. If there was ever an appropriate way to end the season, this was the way to do it.

 

“I consider it home…It’s a city that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with.” – Christine Sinclair on Portland

 

And as the victorious women from the Thorns landed back in Portland International Airport, Sinclair humbly made her statement to the news cameras, soaked up the love, interacted with fans and left the chanting crowds behind… all the more enigmatic for her lack of the love of the spotlight.

Stories like this 2013 season so often end with a whimper rather than a bang. For the other seven teams in the NWSL this is true. Their season ended at the hand of a bad regular season, the Portland Thorns or Western New York Flash. At least 77 other women were unable to find the ultimate goal fulfilled and left the end of the season looking forward to new teams, a new season or perhaps recovering during the offseason.  Regardless of the league or situation, a championship win is something that should never be overlooked. These are magical things that happen all too infrequently for most of us. Somewhere in the midst of Alex Morgan’s injury and the Thorns disappointing performances at the end of the year (many of which I ripped apart on the pages of this website) the team finally came together. They gathered a grit and tenacity that ended up coming to the forefront in the Kansas City semi-final that finally reinforced the idea that yes, this Thorns team could indeed go out and win the NWSL championship.

It wasn’t just the inclusion of Heath, the injury that forced Morgan out of the lineup, or the exploding play of Mana Shim in the midfield that may have changed the team. It was all those things and more perhaps including the fact that the Thorns lost the ability to host a playoff game at home. The team was forced out of their comfort zone and away from their bastion of support… and perhaps that was for the best. The fire was back, the focus was back, and the team responded.

Something that I will take from this 2013 season is the ability to not only watch the growth of the team but, as well, the growth of the fan base in Portland. I watched fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, wives, husbands, and every race, creed, and belief system gather together in Jeld-Wen Field. This was Portland at its best represented by the coming together of a city to celebrate, commiserate and react together in good times and bad. Regardless of team or sport, regardless of financial or socioeconomic status the city came together into a mass group of supporters for something real, something tangible and something both painful and beautiful depending on which game was happening.

The previous isn’t to minimize something important though and something I haven’t spoken too much about intentionally. That thing that I haven’t spoken about is the seemingly simple but very complex idea of identity and gender. On this last thought I don’t pretend to offer something profound, merely the description of something that I wasn’t even there to see in person. In the post championship haze of delight I happened on a simple picture of a young girl at the Bagdad showing of the Thorns game.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the setup or who do not know, the Thorns set up a public viewing at the Bagdad theater in Portland. The place was overrun with fans with management eventually posting a sign that indicated that there was standing room only as a mass of people descended on the pub/movie theater.)

This young girl sat on the steps of the main stage with her gaze fixated on the massive screen above. In that one simple framed shot you could see the past, present and possible future of all possibilities in the women’s game. With the flickering scenes of the NWSL championship in her eyes, one could only imagine what could really happen with her life. This little person could become another Sinclair, Morgan, Buehler, Leblanc or Foxhoven.  Perhaps she becomes another Pia Sundhage, Brianna Scurry or Julie Foudy. Or perhaps she becomes a Holly Duthie, Kristen Gehrke, or Lexi Stern who were all instrumental in organizing, founding and enabling the Rose City Riveters.  Perhaps she becomes a Sunday White, who gave her boundless energy to the crowd over and over again on the main capo stand while simultaneously discovering the ability to BE the person on the main capo stand.

 

Or perhaps she could be Gabby, with red hair and lungs full of songs, who waited a long time to have this club team to cheer for, and was able to be there the day a team made up of women representing Portland were the best women’s team in the nation.

 

Congratulations to the Portland Thorns, your 2013 NWSL Champions.

 

Onward Rose City

 

 

 

Aug 082013
 

So we know what we know, now. Alex Morgan is injured and potentially out til the playoffs. The Thorns managed to clinch a playoff spot despite another loss with the help of an abandoned game. We also know that the ability to have a playoff game at Jeld-Wen Field is looking a bit tenuous right now.

However.

Why are we here again? Why are the Thorns having problems? Well, prepare thyself. We go to the tape, err, freeze-framed shots.

Let me state something here first: DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS. Now this defense can be an offense based defense in which the team keeps possession of the ball and prevents the other team from having scoring chances. It can be the strong play of center backs in tandem with their midfield. It can be an electric keeper and 10 people in the 18 yard box hoofing the ball out. However you split it, defense wins championships.

So why is the Thorns defense (and thus their playoff-hosting hope and win/loss record) struggling so badly? In essence, it is poor player marking, poor decisions, and poor tactics. Make no bones, these mistakes aren’t just the provenance of the Thorns. However, as we will see, Portland have become decidedly worse.

First, let’s take a look at something. How have the other teams caught up to the Thorns long ball tactics? Well, pretty easily.

 

Here we have a shot of Christine Sinclair after receiving a long ball from the back and having to settle and cut back the ball without taking it in stride.

As we can see, two FC Kansas City players have tracked back and her marker is goal side of the player.  Because the long ball has left the Thorns supporting players in the dust, Sinclair has no option but to attempt to “go it on her own” so she faces her player and attempts to create.

At this point we can see that the defensive support for FCKC has collapsed back and it is two Thorns players (with Alex Morgan making a far post run) against four FCKC defenders. Kansas City has numbers and there is still no support for Sinclair. By the time she tries to fire in a pass/shot that is deflected…

There are six FCKC players defending and four Thorns players. This is, in essence, why the Thorns long ball tactics have started to fail as they depend on the absolutely perfect over the top ball to get the player running in stride at the goal and beating two or more defensive players while leaving the Thorns midfield attempting to follow up with the Thorns forwards either not having the time to wait for support or the inclination/instruction to do so.

 

Now we go to the first FCKC goal.

It starts out here in the center of the pitch with the Thorns retreating back, but in position with numbers. We have the back four players for the Thorns with Dougherty extremely narrow in the middle of the field marking the slashing FKCK player at the bottom/mid-left of the screen. All players are goal side while Williamson is dragging the line back with her positioning.

As the play progresses we see that Dougherty is still tracking in the bottom left, and there is an overlap happening on the right side of the field. This is the danger spot as Niki Marshall is pinched in and seemingly covering the FCKC runner with her back to the wide FCKC player.

 

We see in the next frame that the ball is now finally played out wide and Marshall realizes that the run is behind her.  The two players for FCKC are being marked in the box by Williamson and Dougherty. Allie Long jogs into the frame in the lower center of the frame.

 

The ball is played in as Marshall does not/can not close out the service and is stranded in between the play. FCKC players are still marked but there is a huge avenue in the middle of the box in which to pass.

Inexplicably, Williamson leaves her marked player to stab at the pass as it is sent through the box. This player is now wide open as Williamson’s gamble fails and FKCK goes up 1-0

Note that, in the previous, Long is still coming back into the frame and a number of Thorns players are ball watching. Thorns player’s ball watching, playing narrow and caught out of position is something that happens repeatedly in this game.

Now this ball watching isn’t just reserved for the Thorns defense as we can see here that FCKC gets caught watching as the ball settles in the box for the pass (indicated by the arrow) that supplied the Thorns equalizer in the second half.

 

But of course a perfect example of the problem with organization and the Thorns is exemplified on the second goal. Here we see the start of the play as Dougherty has been beaten, Williamson steps out to confront the ball carrier with Buehler marking her player through the zone. We see here at the bottom of the screen how narrow Marshall is playing on the left. The Thorns still have containment as it is two against three with two players (Dougherty and Long) chasing back in support.

However, Williamson’s challenge fails as the ball slips through two Thorns defenders (Williamson and Dougherty) and FCKC retains possession. The next shot illustrates that despite this, the Thorns still have numbers as Portland still have 4 players against three attacking FC Kansas City players.

However a slick interplay and passing sequence and poor challenges again from the Thorns allow FC Kansas City to slip through the Thorns defensive position, allowing Lauren Holliday to get in on goal.

 

So the Thorns are caught up field with players chasing the play and Kansas City slots another shot home. This is the repeating message as poorly timed challenges, marking and collapsing defensive responsibility doom the Thorns.

 

Even on the third goal for FCKC we see that the Thorns players crowd the player WITH the ball leaving both runs outside and inside available as somehow Mewis for Kansas City manages to get a shot off with FOUR Thorns players around her, practically watching her tee up a shot.

Now granted that Karina Leblanc probably should have done better with this shot but the fact is that Leblanc had a back line/midfield combination that seemed to panic, play narrow, leave their marked players alone and ball watch letting her try to clean up the mess behind them.

This “Hodge-podge” thorns defense seems to happen at many different positions on the field as we can see a freeze frame of a FCKC attempted possession.

If the FCKC player was able to pass (indicated by the blue arrow) out of the position she was in to the KC player calling for the ball (indicated in the green circle) she would have the entirety of the field on that side to run with as there is no Thorns player ready to pressure the ball in that area of the field. Fortunately for Portland the Kansas City player doesn’t see how open that side of the field is and plays the ball back instead of out to the wing. With Foxhoven tucked way inside most of the game and Tobin Heath essentially playing as an alternative central attacking midfielder in the middle of the field with Mana Shim, the Thorns played so narrow as to afford Kansas City an enormous amount of room on the wings. There was (at times) zero defense on the right side of the field in front of Marion Dougherty. This really happened on both sides of the field but was extremely noticeable on the Thorns right.

It is no surprise then that two of the three goals for FC Kansas City originated from the right side of the Thorns defense.

It really comes back down positioning, marking players on the field appropriately, having a semblance of defensive responsibilities and playing as a team. These are all things that FC Kansas City were able to cobble together and things that the Thorns have been struggling with for some time.

Congratulations to the Portland Thorns for making it to the NWSL playoffs, but unless these defensive issues get fixed, they are going to have a very difficult time advancing.

Jul 292013
 

If you put a lobster in water and turn up the temperature, they will stay. If you try to put them right into boiling water they will try to escape.

This latest game against Chicago Red Stars was the equivalent of turning up the heat slowly on the fans. At first you get comfortable with the idea that the Thorns have a 3-1 lead, and then suddenly you are bubbling and steaming with anger as three points slip away and a precarious standings situation becomes even more dangerous.

When the Portland Thorns were winning games earlier in the inaugural NWSL season, they didn’t do this just by scoring more goals than the other team, they did this with a stingy defense that was (at one point) one of the best in the NWSL. As the season has progressed and the teams in the NWSL have gelled offensively they have started coming at the problems that exist within the Thorns defense and have managed to find the spots to attack the back four while the Thorns went through an offensive slump.

The insertion of Tobin Heath into the Thorns lineup was supposed to fix some of these problems but at one point I pondered what she would fix and what would happen with her addition to the lineup. The issue here, in the end, is that YES, the Thorns offensive lineup needed fixing as the endless long-ball tactics were grating even the most loyal Thorns enthusiast. However, the Thorns back line is also in some difficulty and the way in which the Thorns give up the ball in the midfield, while improved, still places additional stress on a back line that isn’t currently seeing their best days.

As the game progressed in the second half the Thorns reverted to sending passes further and further up the field and the frustration started to show on the players. Alex Morgan received a yellow card after petulantly flipping a ball over the end line sign board in the 70th minute. Meanwhile the Thorns began to give up possession cheaply in the midfield as Parlow Cone subbed Emily O’Neil in for Nikki Marshall and then a few minutes later Alex Morgan was subbed off for Tiffany Weimer.

The difference between the organization and positioning of the team in the first half and the organization of the team in the second half is noticeable. As the game progressed the initiation of contact zone retreated and the amount of involvement of the fullbacks (something that traditionally hasn’t been a huge part of the Thorns arsenal) reduced even further.  At the beginning of the game the Thorns were playing a diamond 4-4-2 with Morgan and Sinclair up top, Foxhoven at RMF, Shim at CAM, Tobin Heath on the Left and Allie Long playing DCM. Interestingly enough, when Portland would exercise a throw in, Heath would usually receive the ball (which is how Heath ended up on the right center of the field ready to take the free kick that resulted in the first Thorns goal).  In the second half however, the Thorns started getting stretched and didn’t seem to consistently find that 4-4-2 diamond formation that they had been running in the first half. Whether due to people jogging back into position, the heat on the field, or/and the information passed on by the coaching staff, most of the team seemed to drop the intensity at 74:00 into the game. Almost immediately after 74:00, Chicago scored a header which really was the result of poor defensive marking, the Thorns defense not closing down the player with the ball, and poor positional awareness.

There is almost no excusable reason as to why the tying goal for the Red Stars happened.  The ball comes in from a throw-in for Chicago, is played through the middle of the field, the Thorns defense separates and Buehler is left to clean up the ball for another throw. The throw comes in and is headed out for another throw from Leon for Chicago. The throw is headed up and then kicked into the box to a group of Thorns and Chicago players. At this time there are two Thorns players marking two Chicago players and the ball comes into a patch of sun remaining on the field and seems to get lost to the group of four, it pops up in the air and Rachel Buehler comes in to attempt to clean up the ball. She attempts to head it out but it pops right down to Tobin Heath who loses position and gets muscled out-of-the-way by a charging Sitch who smacks a very nice shot in for the tying goal. The Thorns, during the play, had seven outfield players in the 18 yard box and Karina Leblanc while Chicago had five. Whether due to communication problems, a lack of focus, endurance, tactics…. The Thorns simply capitulated as Julianne Sitch swept Heath aside for the goal.

As was happening earlier in the year, the separation between the back line and the midfield grew, the line of initiation changed, and the team, at times, looked like they hadn’t played together.  There were times where the Thorns looked like traffic cones as Chicago pressed up on the ball carrier, pressured them to make the pass, and then attempted to break when they got the chance. So many times there were passes to nowhere, to players that didn’t make a run, to locations where no one was.

Chicago, in the end, simply outworked Portland. They pressured, kept their self-belief, and took the opportunities that the Thorns midfield handed them. The Thorns three goals were indicative of the way in which they tend to try to score goals (they try to play with skill over brute force even if this means bypassing the midfield to get to the skill). Chicago’s goals were scored because the skill of the Chicago players and the Thorns lack the ability to possess the ball in the midfield and close out games. Simply, there is no reason for a championship caliber team to lose a two goal lead on their home turf, unless that team has some very exploitable flaws in either plan or personnel.

The main thing that concerns me is that it seems that the Thorns just don’t have seem to have the plan to stop the other team from shutting down the ball carrier, disrupting the attack and then pressuring the Thorns into retreating. Yes, it is early days for the Thorns if we look at this season being the inaugural step in a long journey. However, there are only three home games left and only five games left on the season. If there was a time for the Thorns to have an identity it seems like it should be starting to be decipherable by now.

Certainly the more that the Thorns play together and bond together they will develop an innate chemistry. With that chemistry you hope that the right plan is in place to utilize the players and the bonds they form. With only 5 games left in the season and 2 games in the post season…. They better hope they effect that chemistry and plan really soon.

Despite the disappointment there ARE good things at which to look. The Thorns played better for 74 minutes, scored 3 goals and seemed to be doing a better job at trying to have a consistent formation and style of play. However, if they are unable to have the ability to respond to the other team efficiently in the moment of play and dictate the game on their own terms they will have a very short end to the year for such an incredibly talented team.

 

Four Quick Notes:

 

#1 The 41st minute collision between Long and Mautz was as awful in the stadium as it was on the television later. Mautz came in late on Long without a real chance of winning the ball and left herself open to the judgment of the referee who awarded a yellow card.

 

#2 The 14th minute challenge by Tobin Heath on Chalupny was one that I have seen given a red card. It was exactly the kind of challenge that MLS has been cracking down on after injuries to Javi Morales, and it injured Chalupny to the point where the Chicago captain had to be removed from the game.  Fortunately for Heath she, just like Mautz, only received a yellow card on the play.

 

#3 Mana Shim has really begun to express herself in recent weeks, especially in goal scoring form, if we are looking for things positive to take away from this match.

 

#4 The goal by Weimer was correctly called back due to her straying offside.

 

 

Jul 102013
 

There are four home games left in the season.

There are eight games left in total.

And the Portland Thorns have seemingly fallen apart.

Goal Sidney Leroux, Goal Sidney Leroux and a second loss in a row.  The most in-form striker in the league hit twice against a Thorns side that barely looked to threaten at home.

The previously decent defense has started letting in goals. The offense is non-existent even with the superstars on the field and even the marquee players are second guessing themselves. What then can happen at this point in the system?

Enter Tobin Heath.

Well, let’s look at this without Tobin for a second.

Yes, the Thorns are still in second place. Yes, the top four teams in the NWSL go the playoffs. YES, the Thorns have only played 14 games to Sky Blue FC’s 15 and FCKC’s 15. They also still have some fantastic players. However, that is just about as many positives as can be mustered right now given the current state of play on the season. Now, let’s notice something here. The previous statement made by me says “On The Season.” The Thorns’ struggles in midfield are nothing new, they have just recently finally had the poor results to go along with the poor play in midfield. As was stated before, “I have intentionally avoided trying to make comparisons between the Thorns and the Timbers as I think it behooves us to have the Thorns stand on their own. However, I think it is very helpful now for us to compare the tenure of John Spencer to Cindy Parlow Cone in terms of play style.“

Well, not much has changed and there have been some recent writings on the long ball futility problem that illuminate the similarities. I forgot something important in the comparison between the 2012 Timbers and the 2013 Thorns. Rather, I forgot something in terms of players. Basically the only way to compare the 2012 Timbers and the 2013 Thorns is if somehow you transported Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi onto the 2012 Timbers and then watched them struggle to get goals and chase down hopeless balls launched up field from Lovel Palmer. Whether you place them #1 and #2 or whether you just place them in the top 5, not many would argue against Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair being two of the best female players on the planet.

On this team they are merely the #8 (Morgan) and #10 (Sinclair tied) goal scorers in the NWSL. Neither of the two players are in the top 9 of assist makers in the NWSL. There are actually no Thorns players in the top nine players for assists in the NWSL. Morgan is tied for 10th with three on the year. These goal numbers just show how stranded the players have been for service up on the front line. In the case of Sinclair, the player has been played out of position almost the entirety of this year. In the case of Morgan, what was originally a punt and score offense has slowly been shackled as the defenses have caught up with the Thorns. Morgan has looked increasingly tentative and clearly was out of sorts as she passed up a golden scoring opportunity late in the second half of the Boston Breakers game in a moment of pure “lack of confidence” that echoed throughout the stands.

As close as the Thorns are to first place (four points) they are also that close to being out of the playoffs (four points). Given that the current schedule has the Thorns playing Western New York Flash (4th), Chicago Red Star and Sky Blue FC (1st) in the next few weeks, this time is starting to edge towards crunch time. The Thorns simply need to find a way to pick up wins against the better teams in NWSL. It would be very difficult to imagine the Thorns actually being out of the NWSL playoffs, but, given their current form and playing style, it is also becoming difficult to imagine their fortunes hanging on the acquisition of one player.

Yet, that is really where Portland is right now. They are tied for the least goals allowed in NWSL but they also have only scored 18 goals, which gets them right at 5th in the league. For a team that acquired some of the best offensive talent in the league they are in desperate need of someone in the midfield who can set up the ball.

And….Now…..?? Enter Tobin Heath?

As bad as it seems to pin the entire hopes of a fanbase on one player to revamp the style of a team has been playing long ball for an entire season, that’s where Thorns fans are at this point. If anything, this stretch of play has proven that you can’t simply play well in the NWSL by lining up two world-class players and telling them to run at competent defenses over and over again. Will Tobin Heath be able to impact the Thorns positively? Well, that is the three-point question.  The idea of freeing Christine Sinclair to play forward next to Alex Morgan with Tobin Heath feeding them the ball sounds something out of a dream. Yet, given the amount of talent already on the Thorns, the question that hovers around Cindy Parlow Cone will always exist until the team shows that they have a different tactical style than those espoused by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City.

Watching the Boston Breakers versus Portland Thorns game, I was convinced at the end that Cone had reached her “Dreaded Vote of Confidence” moment, but with the arrival of Tobin Heath, the steady attendance of 12,000 fans and the Thorns stuck at #2 in the standings, I would hazard a guess that the fans will see a few more attempts at what Cindy Parlow Cone can do with a team. A fan for the Thorns can hope it is four points north in the standings rather than four points south.

 

~

 

Jun 092013
 

Coming off a lackluster performance against Chicago Red Star, the Thorns looked to turn around and win against FC Kansas City. Now that the perfunctory initial sentence is out of the way, lets get to the point. If the Chicago performance was akin to the offense wandering around the Sahara, then the FC Kansas City game was the attacking equivalent of hitting the lottery.

With Kansas City coming into the game with one of the best defenses in the NWSL, the game seemed like it had the potential of turning into a test to see if the returning national team players could break the defensive solidarity in the middle of the field. Instead, the game changed quickly 12 minutes in with a FC Kansas City defensive mistake as Becky Sauerbraun failed to collect the ball, fell down and Alex Morgan rifled a shot past the outstretched hands of Barnhart. Has to be said that Barnhart awkwardly reached over her body with her right hand instead of trying to use her left. While the goal was a shot with a ton of pace on it and perhaps unstoppable, certainly it seems that a left hand in that particular situation would have allowed her a chance to deflect the shot.

This series of events was then quickly followed up seven minutes later by a Dougherty to Wetzel combination that was finished off with aplomb into the lower right corner of the net. Wetzel has definitely been playing herself into the lineup with solid performances, assists and now goals. Down 2-0, Kansas City couldn’t rely on staying defensively compact and hoping to bury the game in a quagmire, they had to attack and so happened an enthralling back and forth affair between Portland and Kansas City that wasn’t over ’til the final whistle blew.

While the statistics prove that a 2-0 lead is an extremely advantageous position to be in for the team up two goals, Kansas City decided to test the theorem that there is always a chance. Attacking down the right side of the field, Kansas City began creating chances and seemingly had one penalty shout denied that appeared from the stands (at least) to not be an overt foul in the box. KC kept coming at the Thorns defense as both teams traded blows. Then, Rachel Buehler made what was very poor challenge from behind on inaugural NWSL goal scorer Ranae Cuellar giving away an absolute stonewall penalty. Buehler stood up and walked away without complaint knowing full well that a penalty kick was coming. Lauren Cheney converted the chance from the spot and Kansas City pulled back a goal and the score was 2-1 Portland with only 33 minutes having gone by. Cuellar, incidentally, was worked on behind the Thorns goal for a number of minutes before finally being loaded into a wheel chair and taken off the pitch. The report on her, currently, is that X-Rays were negative and her injury is believed to be an ankle sprain.

The half came and on the restart the two teams were back at it again. With not even two minutes gone on the clock, Morgan sent in a beautifully weighted pass into substitute Danielle Foxhoven who converted and the Thorns were back up by two goals.

Kansas City and Portland then traded possession as the two teams seamed to believe they could score at almost any time.

Less than ten minutes after the goal by Foxhoven, Kansas City came down the right side of the Thorns defense and another beautiful ball sent into Lauren Cheney resulted in a goal for Kansas City. Suddenly it was 3-2 and once again Kansas city and Portland swarmed forward looking for another goal.

Ten minutes later, at 65 minutes into the game, Christine Sinclair sent in a cross that was collected by Morgan who rounded the Kansas City defense and sent in a shot that deflected off Allie Long and in for a Thorns goal putting Portland up 4-2.

Yet… The game was STILL not done with twists and turns.

At the 80th minute contact resulted in Alex Morgan being on the ground next to the corner flag of the North End. While the trainer came out to investigate her, even making the sub sign with her hands, the referee would have nothing of it and motioned to Morgan to get up. When Morgan did not get up immediately the referee brandished a yellow card, which was either a card for diving or a card for time wasting. Either way, Morgan jumped up and ran back onto the field smiling at the referee.

A few seconds later, Kansas City came backdown the field and scored again off a slow bending ball that beat Karina Leblanc into the far corner of the goal sending the game to its eventual 4-3 conclusion.

A wild game was over and Portland certainly showed that it could keep up offensively to both score goals and win the game. While the statistics show that Kansas City had more shots, less fouls and more corner kicks on the night, they lacked the ability to finish the shots when needed.

Between this game and the last I had the privilege of speaking to a number of people about the Thorns, their style of play and building something from the ground up.  There are a lot of stylistic differences between this team and the one that shares the space in which they play, and we should not use these to compare as the play, the movement, the style and the players are different. What we can use are our eyes, the history of the game, tactics, and the players available to determine what could be happening. In order to do that though we must also look at the way in which the players respond to a coach and the way in which they respond to the other team on the field. The Thorns showed, in this particular game, the ability to respond to what the other team was giving them (at least offensively, defensively was an entirely different proposition). This was not something that they were able to do against Chicago for a full 90 minutes. If we look at the differences between how the team played and who was available for Chicago, versus who how they played and who was available against Kansas City we get at the heart of the matter.

Simply, talented players matter in the system that Cone wants to use. This isn’t something that she should necessarily be blamed for as the acquisition and deployment of top talent successfully is not something to overlook. Yet the ability to generate offense and have a team come together without the star players allows the entirety of the team to feel their own value and contribute. In my opinion, having a dangerous team from position 1 to position 22 will lend itself to not just wins, but the building of a dominant team in the league.  As the number of international departures over the course of the season will prove, the ability of Cone to generate success from the role players on the Thorns will dictate the level of success from the team this season.

Onward.

 

~

 

 

 

 

Jun 022013
 

The result says it all. The women left the field having lost 2-0 to Chicago and the frustrations in the North End were palpable. Yet, why was there a loss and where do the Thorns live? That, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.

With international absences due to friendlies, the Thorns lineup was shuffled. Having lost Leblanc, Buehler, Sinclair and Morgan to call ups, this game was going to be a very interesting barometer as to where the Thorns were without the star players that have really powered their record.

Here’s the thing: for the first 30 minutes of the game, the Thorns looked a different team than we have seen all season. Without Morgan and Sinclair working up top, the team attempted (both successfully and unsuccessfully) to play the ball on the ground hitting combinations and simultaneously pinging some awful passes for turnovers. You could see that the loss of the dynamism of the top two caused a bit of a problem in terms of “who gets the ball?”, but even so there was a great interplay that resulted in a Mana Shim shot and a few scintillating plays from Angie Kerr. There were also some passes that were hit directly to Chicago players and utterly rubbish turnovers that certainly seemed the result of a lack of familiarity between players. (Which, given the stage of the season, is really an invalid excuse.)

The dynamic of play shifted as the clock turned over into the mid 30s and Chicago started pressing, passing and attempting to disrupt the play of the Thorns. In this, the Thorns helped as they started to punt the ball back up top.

Finally, Chicago picked up a handball call, the following play ended up generating a corner and the Red Stars player Zakiya Bywaters found herself utterly unmarked in the box firing home a header from close range. Suddenly it was 1-0 to Chicago and the game was downhill from there for the Portland Thorns. The thing that had been the reason for the Thorns record this year, the defense, fell apart, and certainly one could look and question whether an absent Rachel Buehler would have covered that ball. Unfortunately, it was more than one Thorns player who fell asleep on the play as two Red Stars players were wide open.

Even after the goal, Portland tried to come back up the field, but the problem that would haunt them the whole game started to bite. As soon as they entered the Chicago end of the field, the ability to find someone to play a dangerous ball dried up. Frequently the Thorns would turn over the ball, hit the wrong pass, foul a player to try to recover the ball, or get into a decent position but not have any support.

So much of the game was a frequent reminder of the 2011 and 2012 season for the Portland Timbers that I think more than a few people had a bit of deja vu. More on this later.

Chicago had a sequence in the second half where they easily could have scored another goal as the Thorns lacked the ability to clear the ball from repeated corner kicks. Any sign of the “gameplan” from the first half vanished as the Thorns method of play devolved into 11 players behind the play aimlessly clearing the ball in any general direction that would work. The sequence at 53:00 is a perfect example of the frustration in the second half as the Thorns broke on the counter, passed a great ball out to Dougherty and the resulting cross was too high and too long.

Time over time over time Portland would try to break out offensively only to miss the final pass, sky the final shot, or turn over the ball. Meanwhile, Chicago took advantage of poor marking again and had a brilliant ball result in another goal. This was due to (once again) absolutely abysmal player marking and more Red Stars players getting goalside of the Thorns defenders.

In the 64th minute the Thorns had a rare chance at goal from a corner kick and the ball predictably rebounded off the post.

Immediately, Chicago came back up the field and the Thorns defensive/midfield issues reared their heads again. Edwards was now playing so far back that she was playing as a de facto sweeper in front of the center backs, and yet still the Red Stars had another great opportunity in the 18 yard box that rebounded off the outside of the post denying them a third goal on the day.

This sequence of play resulted in a very odd scene as Zakiya Bywaters (the goal scorer from earlier) had an apparent knee injury and was CARRIED off the field by Ella Masar. Yes, she was physically CARRIED off the field by Ella Masar. How on earth this was allowed to happen is beyond me. Was she too quick for the stretcher? Was there no Red Stars/Thorns stretcher available? I do know that the Red Stars absolutely and legitimately could have had more time come off the clock and they didn’t do this. Whatever you want to say about sportsmanship in the game, the sight of Masar carrying Bywaters off the pitch is both touching and simultaneously worrisome.

Bywaters
The final 22 minutes of the game filled out in the same fashion that the second half had been conducted. The Thorns couldn’t find each other offensively and when they did they couldn’t hit a shot on goal. Meanwhile, Chicago was solid defensively; and the crowd became more and more frustrated.

Every through ball for the Thorns was too long, every touch was a bit too hard, every shot was too high and too wide making the loss seem more inevitable as time ticked off the clock.

Then at 76:20 Cindy Parlow Cone and assistant coach John Galas had a few words for the referee and the fourth official on the sideline. Galas was tossed from the game and this really riled up the crowd. Now here’s a quick word about the referee on the night: I think it is the prerogative of a home crowd to be passionately defensive of their own team and to chant and cheer and goad the referee into feeling like she needs to make calls. However, on this particular night, the referee wasn’t really egregiously biased against either team. Certainly she didn’t call some of the physical play, but this went for both teams. While this inability to card the right player at the right time encouraged physical play leading to some very cheap fouls, none of what she called made the Thorns fall asleep defensively on set pieces… THAT is on the players and the coach.

Either way, the game time ran out and what we are left with is… what happened?

Simply? Defensive lapses, and no real adjustment in the second half. While the first 30 minutes of the game offered a glimpse at something different, in the end, the Thorns showed their heavy reliance on the otherworldly talents of their missing players. I have intentionally avoided trying to make comparisons between the Thorns and the Timbers as I think it behooves us to have the Thorns stand on their own. However, I think it is very helpful now for us to compare the tenure of John Spencer to Cindy Parlow Cone in terms of play style. While the Thorns “style” has been more effective, that is really due to the fact that the Thorns possess some of the most talented players in the league. Frequently, a Spencer coached team would look like it ran out of ideas, the subs typically didn’t make enough of an impact, and they would just repeatedly try the same thing over and over and over again. This comparison hits a bit too close to home for those of us that have watched the Thorns over the course of the season.

When we discussed the counter attack style, in an earlier recap, I remarked that the absence of the international players would test whether this style would work without the players the Thorns lucked into receiving. In this game, it didn’t.

~

May 272013
 

When the allocation was finished for the NWSL teams, the prognosticators and talking heads seemed to have a general consensus. That common thought was that the Portland Thorns received a bevy of attacking talent and with both Sinclair and Morgan, would be an attacking force.

However, something that has become very clear eight games into the season is that the entirety of the success for the Portland Thorns this season has come from the back four and goalkeeper Karina Leblanc who have provided the reliable base that the Thorns have all too often relied upon.

When writing recaps and stories on the Thorns, it is very easy to fall into the trap of talking about Sinclair and Morgan, but the reality is that while they have been (at times) very good this season that, with the problems the Thorns have had possessing the ball, they would be in very bad shape without the alert playing of Buehler, Williamson, Dougherty, Marshall, and Leblanc.

In the recent Reign v. Thorns game, this defense was primarily why the Thorns weren’t down a goal within the first 20 minutes of the game as the Reign had multiple chances which were either snuffed out and stopped by Leblanc or stopped by Buehler and company. The Thorns vacillated between link up play followed by a dangerous shot to can’t-get-out-of-each-others-way to turnover and break on goal.

As frustrating as it can be to watch a team that features Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, Allie Long and Becky Edwards aimlessly spray the ball around the field, we must look at why this would be the case. The Reign consistently pressured up through the middle of the field thinking (correctly it would seem) that Portland were jittery connecting passes from the defensive midfielder position and forcing them to make what were often the wrong decision. Many of the dangerous pickups and attempts came from Rachel Buehler challenging for the ball and picking a good pass from the back to put Morgan into a good position as is what happened in the 26th minute.

As bad as the Thorns were at connecting in the first half, they were almost that much better at the beginning of the second. Cone seemed to ask the fullbacks to push up a bit more especially on the right side providing width to a very narrow Thorns attack. This pulled some of the Reign players outside and expanded the amount of room they had to cover to press and try to recapture the ball.

Many of the issues that the Thorns have had come from the lack of width in their formation set up. With the fullbacks staying further back, the narrowness of the midfield makes it so that there isn’t a lot of room with which to operate their passing game. As we discussed last week this could be by design. A quick note on Mana Shim: the first year player had an up and down game showing some good interplay but also some not so great touches. While she is a promising player who is getting on the ball, she will go through some different phases in her rookie year.

Now to speak to the first penalty shot controversy. In the 67th minute, Morgan and Sinclair combined with Sinclair chipping a pass that very clearly (to my own eyes) ricocheted off Winters arm and out for an awarded corner. This was as blatant a handball as you are going to see but the ref waived the handball shout off and Portland found their complaints gone.

Then at 82:20 Becky Edwards tackled the ball away from Jess Fishlock, the Thorns came back at the Reign defense and the referee called a penalty. The incident was not seemingly clear-cut, the replay seemed to show, at most, a very small moment of obstruction. Of course given the incident missed above there is a decent chance that this call was a make up call. Either way, Winters and Solo argued with the referee and Sinclair dispatched the ball into the corner of the net for a 1-0 Thorns lead.

The Reign had a few more half-chances but the writing was on the wall and the Thorns defense managed to record another clean-sheet on the year. A win kept the Thorns tied up at the top of the league with Sky Blue FC. While the play was very disjointed in the first half, the adjustments made by Portland in the second half and the interplay of Marion Daugherty with the midfield allowed the Thorns to reverse the momentum of the game ultimately giving them dangerous chances and the ability to press, which in turn created situations in which a referee has to make a call. While the refereeing on the evening was not something to hang ones hat upon, the Thorns were able to battle through this and came out on top. Coming up next will be a very large test of the depth and system of the Thorns as they will lose a virtual raft of first team players to international games.  The called up will be  Leblanc, Morgan, Sinclair, Buehler. I suspect that the biggest area of concern for the Thorns will be who steps in to fill the solid and dynamic shoes of Rachel Buehler at center back and who will be tasked as a creative midfielder with Sinclair gone. This will prove a very illuminating and interesting time to those fans who want to see what the Thorns can do when they no longer can rely upon the other-worldly offensive talents of their two forwards.

 

~

 

May 222013
 

There isn’t very much of an argument that the Thorns were tired on Sunday. They looked tired, played in that fashion and even coach Cindy Parlow Cone admitted as much during the post game interview. The long ball tactics seen during the game were placed at the feet of exhausted players and this could certainly be true, to a certain extent.

However, accepting this idea overlooks that which is also true, that Cone has set up the Thorns in a fashion that may be a different system than others would have expected given the talent at her disposal.

So while this will be a small game recap, I will also attempt to explain my opinion on the ideals behind what we are watching on the field.

#1 We must remember to look at the entirety of the work, and not just accept what we have seen in the last game to give us an indication of the current setup of the Thorns.

and

#2 We must not look at win in an askance fashion because we may dislike the way it is accomplished.

Starting with the last item, we must note that the Thorns won on Sunday. They managed to overpower the Spirit, at home, on goals from Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan. They kept pace with Sky Blue FC with 5 wins on the year, one loss and one draw. It is important to note that this record is fantastic, and that for all the criticism of the tactics on the year that the Thorns are producing and producing well in terms of win/loss record.

During the Spirit game the Thorns tried to link up outside and tried to find that pass into space where players like Shim, Sinclair, Morgan and Washington can play with the ball at their feet. At this place on the field, the Thorns would try to find that pass inside, or at times cut the ball back to play into the midfield.

It behooves us to talk about the systems that have frustrated Portland this year, FC Kansas City and Sky Blue FC. Both teams are defensively responsible, stout teams that are difficult to break down and less prone to defensive lapses than other teams in the NWSL. While perhaps not offensively endowed as the Thorns, Sky Blue only needed to capitalize on one goal and then their defense shut down the Thorns in an impressive fashion.

This ability of highly organized and effective defenses to create problems for the Thorns can be exacerbated when the Thorns play with long ball tactics that tend to rely on the talent of the player rather than the effectiveness of the team. This brings us to another point, that is that the Thorns are one of the, if not THE most offensively talented team in the league.

However, they are not a pass and move, total football team. They are, in tactics, the LA Galaxy of the NWSL.

Cindy Parlow Cone has set up the team to play in a counter attacking fashion where they rely on the ability of a hyper talented forward (Alex Morgan) to stretch the field like Robbie Keane did, at times, last season. She does this by trying to stay on the back shoulder of the defense and creating space while sometimes having to check back and hold up the ball and bring the midfield into the attack.

Cone has tasked Christine Sinclair (who we should all remember is one of the best forwards in the world) to play attacking midfielder and link the play up top to Morgan. Both Mana Shim and Angie Kerr are given stretches as another forward/link up player that the team uses to draw defenders away from Morgan and provide avenues for play in the wide positions and (as well) midfield help.

The play of the Thorns is frequently “get the ball to the most talented players and make things happen”. This is not necessarily a problem in terms of effectiveness, as one can see that the Thorns have been winning. However, in terms of aesthetics, this is perhaps not a philosophy that produces the most glowing style of football. Many times the combinations are team to Alex Morgan or team to Sinclair to Alex Morgan and this comes back to the lack of a dynamic midfielder and the usage of players out of their natural positions. With Sinclair and Morgan already playing together before the Thorns, Sinclair frequently looks for Morgan even if the opportunity presents itself for other players to be involved (well, that and the fact that Morgan is one of the best players in the world). Once again, we must come back to the fact that the attacking midfielder for the Thorns is playing out of position and the other forward for the Thorns is typically playing out of position.

This, of course, assumes that Cone wants to play in a passing football style and that is where we must step back and question.

While Cone certainly wants to cut down on the portions of long ball play from the Spirit game, if we look at the method in which the team has been placed this year we see an approach more in line with Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley than the tactics of Joegi Low. Specifically, it seems that Cone seeks to keep the midfield narrow, seeks to create defensive stability by sacrificing the constant pressure in the offensive end, and asks the team to immediately attempt to push the ball up the field to generate offense. This can lead to a bypass of the midfield as the team attempts to pressure through the forward position and generate scoring chances by either capitalizing on defensive mistakes or holding up the ball and bringing the midfield into the game.

So when analyzing the team it is important to not place the perspectives of other teams on the one currently performing. While the last two games have not necessarily seen the best of the Portland Thorns, they do possess the ability to continue melding together and synchronizing in a more harmonious fashion. However, based on current games we must expect that the Thorns will be more counter attack than pass and move.

Using this method to analyze the Thorns, it makes sense that they would struggle against teams that are stout defensively. Players like Christine Rampone have the ability to shut Alex Morgan down and, if she is stopped as a distribution end point for the Thorns, the attack is pushed back to a midfield that does not always possess the ability to connect efficiently and create chances. Part of this could be that this team is still finding each other having had a short pre-season together with all the national team players gone for much of the pre-season team building. As Cone noted in her post game comments, she started to see the interplay between Sinclair and Shim more-so than happened before.

Of course, this begs the question of the fact that Shim is a center midfielder traditionally and as Cone said “one of the best passers of the ball on the team” and playing up top as a forward and Sinclair is a forward and one of the best strikers of the ball in the world and playing in the midfield.  This is a bit odd when written out.

Certainly the big test will come when the Thorns lose many of their international players to scheduled national team games. Cone will have to deal with the loss of her star players in the current star player, counter attack, beat you with quality approach with which the team has been playing.

 

In the end, the Thorns were victorious on Sunday and push on. Up next is a trip to the north, prepare thyself accordingly.

~

May 162013
 

At some point, it was going to happen. The Thorns were living on their luck for the last week and while a 2-0 win over Chicago seemingly papered over the cracks, the team had been playing on talent rather than cohesiveness for the last few weeks. The empty bucket midfield and the lack of the ability to posses the ball would cause issues eventually with the midfield unable to find the cohesion.

Then at the 80th minute Taylor Lytle struck and the winning streak was over as the Thorns seemingly couldn’t get out of their own way to effectively create a dangerous chance in the final third. Really it was the tale of a vast majority of their game and a worrying concern for the fans of the Portland Thorns. While the team is exceptionally talented and has won games on talent alone, far too often they concede possession in the midfield and lack the ability to create dangerous chances. Too often this season they have relied on that switch, that one long ball, that one connection that allows Morgan, Sinclair or Foxhoven to find a dangerous channel and pounce. However, with Sky Blue FC playing stout defense, closing down passing lanes, and generally out working the Thorns, the time on the undefeated season ticked down to a close.

Certainly in an undefeated season (like Arsenal, Juventus, or the U-23 Portland Timbers), you need hard work, determination and a fair amount of luck. The team has to find a presence that allows them to believe, work and be able to find that extra gear even when they are tired. However talented this Thorns team is, and they undoubtedly are very talented, they lacked the ability to work tonight against Sky Blue FC. Perhaps it was the weeks on the road, perhaps it was the attention of a very disciplined team, but the Thorns ran out of answers tonight and resorted to long ball play and bypassed the midfield.

Cindy Parlow Cone ran out another lineup featuring Meleana Shim and Alex Morgan working up top and she tasked the rest of the team to somehow make the connections with a dropping into midfield Christine Sinclair. Far too often though the ball would be lofted up top to nowhere or given away in the midfield to a pressing Sky Blue FC who managed to find the soft underbelly of the Thorns.  Basically the Thorns are playing a bizzaro 4-4-2, in which they almost want to play a diamond formation midfield but they don’t have a true attacking midfielder who can’t collect and distribute the ball into dangerous situations. In this particular case they task Sinclair (as we have spoken about) to try to create. However, this robs Sinclair of her true strength of going at goal and being a dangerous presence challenging the back line. The problem for Cone is that she currently doesn’t seem to have a player who fits this characteristic of a player who can create until Tobin Heath is available for potential selection this summer. Sinclair is a stop-gap at best and the play between the midfield and the forwards has created a gap that results in long lofted balls into nowhere.

However, having spent these last few hundred words describing why you watched a loss, let me now describe why you should (as well) be happy about this.

See, this team isn’t talented beyond the rest of the league, it doesn’t possess that ability to run the table in the NWSL. In the end this is a mortal team of talented players who haven’t entirely found their way. This is a good thing, as we want to see growth and we want to see the team come together. In the end, the journey of the team will be the story to watch and how they fit in the players going forward. Hopefully, as the season progresses, we can see Sinclair return to more of her rightful role challenging the back line and linking up with Alex Morgan rather than having to drop deep to pick up the play. At some point, the team needs to figure out a formation (whether a 4-3-3 with Foxhoven up top and Sinclair/Morgan linking off of her or a 4-4-2 with Tobin Heath in the midfield) that will allow them to retain a bit more possession without having to resort to long ball route 1 tactics.

That is something worth looking forward to as the team turns around quickly for another dangerous game against the Washington Spirit. Hopefully the passion, the pressure and the ability to control the ball is something that the common Portland Thorns fan will watch return, and with that the return to wins and goals.

 

Onward, Rose City.

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