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 222013
 

Hi, I’m Luke and I had the privilege of attending the Thorns away match in Boston on July 21. It has been a whirlwind last two months, as I was on the road in Europe (check out a collage of photos with my By Any Other Name scarf around famous stadiums), but I wanted to make sure my return to the US coincided with a Thorns away match, and this one worked out perfectly.

To begin, I should say that my college roommate Max and I were guests of Boston Breakers General Manager Lee Billiard, who is a friend of a friend. We originally had General Admission seats, but ended up sitting on the row right next to the field. Thank you so much, Lee! It was a wonderful day.

The Breakers play at Dilboy Stadium (a multipurpose venue that has room for about 3,000 spectators), which is in Somerville, Massachusetts. A venue in a city outside of the namesake of the team usually prompts transportation worry for supporters. Fear not with the Breakers, because the stadium is easy to reach via public transport (a train, then bus, then five minute walk) and is about 7 miles from Boston city center.

Max and I drove to the site and arrived around 3:00 PM, which was when gates were scheduled to open. We immediately noticed the positive sign that the parking lot was already entirely full (kickoff was an hour away). Outside the entrance to the stadium, multiple sales tents were set up:

Once we came through the gates, we were greeted by another good sign: Ocean Spray (the primary kit sponsor for the Breakers) had a table and was giving out free packets of Craisins. I mean, how can you pass that up?


We met Lee and were escorted across the track and the field seats. The stadium behind us filled up quickly, especially once the players jogged on the field.

I know there was a lot of talk about the $4.99 livestream cost. It did look like a fairly professional production from being right next to the cameras and hosts.

As the national anthem track was being pumped in over the loudspeakers (why not have former Thorn Jazmyne Avant sing?), I noticed a few other PTFC scarves waving around in the stands. It was quite hot in the Boston area over the weekend, so we were a bit worried about sitting directly in the sun to begin the match. Fortunately, the sun went behind the clouds for most of the match and I could see the entire field without shading my eyes.

I would be hopeless at game analysis, so I will not try, but I did have a few observations that I picked up from sitting right next to the field that I otherwise would not have:

  • In the first half, it was very cool to hear Karina LeBlanc organize her defense. She does a lot of talking: “Right shoulder, Rach!” “Let’s go get another one!” (after the first goal)
  • Kat Williamson was basically slow dancing with Sydney Leroux all game.

  • Everyone calls Tobin Heath “Tobs” on the field.
  • No real chants to speak of from the stands, though there was a very fired up woman behind us with a Timbers Army scarf that was obviously quite into the match. Lots of youth soccer teams were announced, as well as a few birthdays.

At the half, the Thorns did not go back to the visitor’s locker room – they stayed on the far side of the field and found a place behind their bench to sit on the ground and talk. For the halftime entertainment, a youth soccer team tried to kick balls as close as possible to the center of the pitch, while the Breakers guest drumline (they were great!) kept the crowd into it.

In the second half, the elements became a much bigger factor. It seemed to me like both teams were pressing and it started raining fairly hard. Of course, this was interspliced with the sun breaking through the clouds, which definitely reminded me of home in Portland. Mana Shim scored in the 86th minute – one of those shots that went off the inside wheel, so it was initially difficult to tell if it had gone in at field level – and prompted a euphoric reaction from the Thorns supporters in the crowd (there were quite a few wearing Portland gear).

The Thorns held on for the win and then I stuck around on the field to clap both teams off. Alex Morgan ran off right after doing a few interviews (she tweeted that she had to catch a flight). My ultimate PTFC highlight was seeing Christine Sinclair and Dani Foxhoven walk off the field together and thanking the University of Portland duo. I became a fan of women’s soccer after my friend Ruth was a goalkeeper on the 2005 National Championship team – she would give me her player’s allotment tickets frequently, so I saw Christine all the time. Being able to meet her in person was such a pleasure. She could not have been more gracious – came over, shook my hand, asked my name, and beamed when I talked about watching her at UP.

I was quite fortunate with meeting players and coaches, but I know almost nobody wants to see loads of pictures (if you do, they are on my twitter). I will say that in particular, it was amazing to finally meet Joanna Lohman in person. Joanna wrote this absolutely must-read article in the prelude to the NWSL, which delves into how to grow and sustain a professional women’s soccer league – Joanna Lohman: How to market our new women’s professional league.

It was this article that had me fired up from the very beginning about Portland having a NWSL franchise, due to everything Joanna wrote about as being necessary to grow the league. I felt confident that Soccer City, USA would rise to meet the challenge and I was inspired to help in every way that I could. This is especially important for me, because, as a high school teacher, I have students write to me all the time about wanting to follow their dreams and play sports professionally. In order for that to be a possibility for many, this league HAS to be successful. Thus, meeting Joanna and her family after the game was an incredible treat.

The Breakers have a place called “Autograph Alley” (which was announced multiple times during the run of play – I found this to be off-putting and slightly disrespectful, but I know that the current audience for much of the league is quite young) where players go after the game to sign autographs and take pictures. Max and I were standing in the area between the alley and the locker room, watching players get besieged with requests. Every single one that was asked for something in the area obliged, from what I could see. All the players I talked to could not have been nicer.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience, especially coming away with a sorely needed win. It has been so much fun to follow this team and help create support along with so many others. Hopefully, the ride continues all the way to the inaugural NWSL championship!

A quick trip to KC

 Posted by on April 19, 2013  Away Travel, Photos  1 Response »
Apr 192013
 

I went to the inaugural NWSL match in Kansas City this past weekend. I was one of 6,784 people to see two squads battle it out on a high school football field. I saw Christine Sinclair battle her Canadian National Teammate Desiree Scott for 90 frustrating minutes, I cheered on Dani Foxhoven when she came on in the second, and applauded the team at the final whistle. It was great fun. But it was also a very different experience than what will be happening at JELD-WEN on Sunday so I thought I would share a different perspective in the new National Women’s Soccer League.

gab_kc3I wanted to go to support the new league and it just happened that this first match was a Thorns FC game. From my perspective, everything was lining up so well. I have been traveling to watch the US Women’s National Team play in various US cities for the past year so I’ve made friends with other women’s soccer supporters and 5 of us met up in KC for this match. I was the only one going for the Thorns, though. Fortunately, the Rose City Riveters family is already large and I was able to meet Patricia, Tara, Colby, and Robby from Champaign, IL (a 6 hour drive) and Luke Howitt from Long Beach, CA. Together, the six of us cheered on the Thorns that night.

I knew there was a tailgate. It was stocked with sandwiches, chips, dips, soda and water. They had music blaring from a couple of cars and cornhole all set up, decked out in “Blue Crew” fashion. It was more than I was expecting for a first ever tailgate, but I was in. I got to know the founders of this supporters group, which got started almost as soon as FCKC was announced.

The tailgate didn’t have a ton of people attend or stick around, but it was a great way to network fans into something larger. Blue Crew shirts were on sale as a fundraiser so they can start to do more and they were able to sell quite a few from what I saw. People were mingling and talking about women’s soccer and it was all a very good vibe.

Getting there so early, I was able to see a lot of the set-up for the game. There was a slick Mexican food truck that ended up being one of the concession stands, a band started playing cover songs (and drowning out the tailgate music), Jimmy Johns had a tent and was giving out samples. ESPN had a reporter and a photographer there who interviewed the Blue Crew.

At one point we even started seeing the teams driving around trying to figure out where they were supposed to be.

About 2 hours before kickoff, a line at the gate started to grow. By the time they let people in, I’d estimate there were near 300 people waiting to get in. Mostly families of players, hoping to get front row seats. The seating at the Shawnee Mission Stadium is by section, so it was first come, first serve for bleacher seats. I went in and headed toward the top section, as we had a 2 stick that we wanted to keep up the whole game. That and I didn’t see many flags in the crowd so knew we could wave them proudly at the top and not interfere with anyone else’s gameday experience.

gab_kc2

Before the match, as the stands started to fill, the six of us were joined at the top by a couple of youth clubs. These kids were cute, the younger ones interested in our swag (scarves, hats, flags) and the older ones trying to talk smack about the Thorns or talk up KC. It was adorable. We let them wave the flags, we told them about the Rose City Riveters, and we even tried to get them to participate in PT-FC, at least until the older kids realized we were converting them. During the game, the kids went and sat by their parents and we were closed in on by more fans and families.

When the teams came out for the first time, the Blue Crew got loud. They were having a blast. They even had a Rosie two-stick, though I don’t know what it said. I don’t think it was a slight in our direction, as we had just announced our SG name that week.

I won’t write much about the game, as I’m not an analyst, but I will say that our players looked tired. The crowd seemed into it, from what we could tell. Again, we were at the top of the bleachers, but we heard the Blue Crew horns and drums for most of the game. A lot of the same songs were played on repeat, and we would interject “Thorns” in where we could to sing along. We weren’t prepared with many chants or all that organized, but we stood and had fun the whole game.

At half they played a couple of audience participation games and had a couple of mascots come out and interact with the crowd. A lot like what I’ve seen at Pilots games over the years.

gab_kc1The second half it started to cool down a bit (it had been about 70 degrees at kickoff, cooled down to maybe 50 degrees) and around the 75th minute I noticed that the crowd was thinning out a bit. We started chanting “Game’s not over!!” as it looked like the majority of people leaving were across the stadium, then the people in front of us left. I wouldn’t say it was a mass exodus, as a majority of people stayed until the end, but I was surprised by how many people left before the final whistle.

After the final whistle, the teams made the rounds to thanks the crowd, as expected. We waved our flags as the Thorns came over. It was a nice moment.

Then there were The Autographs. A phenomenon I’ve only seen in women’s soccer. Crowds of fans waiting for players to acknowledge them. A lot of FCKC fans looking to get Morgan’s autograph were a little distraught that she was whisked off to the side right away. We didn’t stick around to get any autographs, but it took us a little while to take down our 2 stick that was zip-tied to the top of the bleachers so we saw a lot of the hub-bub.

We stopped by the merch table on the way out to see if they had any “Inaugural Match” gear but it was all FCKC gear. Some different stuff I haven’t seen from the Thorns yet, like stadium seats, mini soccer balls, lapel pins, and the more basic stuff like kits, hats, tees.

All in all, I had a great time at the game, wished our team did better but it felt good to get the first match out of the way. Also, we met up with some KC supporters at the local pub, Sully’s and had some good talks about women’s soccer and our new markets. Everything I could ask for from 31 hours in Kansas City, really.

 

Mar 312013
 
The Thorns Alliance at Merlo Field at the University of Portland, March 30, 2013. Photo credit: Luke Fritz

The Thorns Alliance at Merlo Field at the University of Portland, March 30, 2013. Photo credit: Luke Fritz

Coach Cone holds her BAON scarf aloft in salute to Thorns supporters after Thorns FC defeated the University of Portland March 30, 2013. Photo credit: luke Fritz

Coach Cone holds her BAON scarf aloft in salute to Thorns supporters after Thorns FC defeated the University of Portland March 30, 2013. Photo credit: Luke Fritz

Thorns players salute the Thorns Alliance after their 2-1 win over the University of Portland March 30, 2013. Photo credit: Luke Fritz

Thorns players salute the Thorns Alliance after their 2-1 win over the University of Portland March 30, 2013. Photo credit: Luke Fritz