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.