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.
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.