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.
#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.