Thorns FC: Sharp Thorns All In A Row

So.

We’re more than halfway through the NWSL season, looking like the class of the league and a lock to go to the finals. Top of the league with our rivals Sky Blue who are, of course, still sitting on that head-to-head tiebreaker, dammit. 

Is there anything that Cindy Parlow Cone should be doing, other than booking the team’s tickets for the Final and measuring the Jeld-Wen trophy case to make sure the silverware can fit in it?

Here’s my thoughts in order from back to front:

Pad all the corners, put up stairway gates, and lay down non-slip floor mats in Karina LeBlanc’s apartment.  Let’s be honest; we sneaked out of New Jersey with that point because The Wall was a complete madwoman.  She stoned Sky Blue, owned Lisa De Vanna, and singlehandedly snatched two points from the home side in the last fifteen minutes when her backline inexplicably stopped playing.  She has been a rock in goal for Thorns FC, and we need to keep her healthy.  Given that her nominal backup, Adelaide Gay, was 86ed for a former Portland State amateur when LeBlanc was called up to the CWNT there’s no point in kidding around or taking chances.

For God’s sake do NOT let this woman go hangliding or BASE jumping!

How do they line up then?  LeBlanc.  Period.

Gather up the fullbacks for a little talk about what they do.  Of the Thorns units the defenders have shown the least improvement over the course of the season.  That’s not entirely a bad thing.  The backline was far and away the steadiest part of the team in the early games.  Rachel Beuhler has showed a flair for organizing her teammates and is no mean force her ownself.  Williamson has been a steady partner for Beuhler in the center.  So far the center of the defense has looked respectable much of the time.

On the wings…well, if I were Parlow Cone I would be working with my fullbacks.  Right now what wide play Thorns FC gets is largely from Marshall and Dougherty pushing up the touchlines.  But both of those fullbacks – Marshall more so than Dougherty – have been caught upfield by speedy wingers and the defense has suffered for it.  The Thorns have proved vulnerable both to crosses and to diagonal runs through the middle.  In many of the cases I’ve seen it is because the outside backs have pushed up and poor passing in midfield (we’ll get there in a bit) has resulted in a quick counter, catching the defense napping.  If the fullbacks are going to provide the wide attack the defensive midfielders and centerbacks will have to learn to cover for them better and the fullbacks are going to have to learn when to retreat.

Against the no-hopers like Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Washington we can get away without doing that.

Against Kansas City, Western New York, and Sky Blue, not so much.

How do they line up, then?   Marshall LFB, Williamson RCB, Beuhler LCB, Dougherty RFB (subs: O’Neill, Ramirez)

Sort out how the midfield plays, who’s playing in midfield, and find some width there.  Thorns FC really needs to define themselves in midfield.  And we need to find some wingers

Mind you – it’s better than it was, far better than we looked in the first match against KCFC, where Kerr was adrift and Long stymied.  Long seems to be comfortable at defensive midfield, and I though that part of our defensive woes in New Jersey was her absence at DM.  Kerr has had two solid matches and looks much more the distributor and organizer she looked in preseason and can go out wide at times.  Between those two Thorns should be strong in the back of midfield.

Going forward I think part of the problem – and, mind you, we should all have such problems – is that we have almost too many options for attacking midfielders and yet, not enough wingers; Wetzel, Shim, Guess, Foxhoven and Sinclair (when they play AM/withdrawn forward) are all talented players but all seem like either central midfielders or center-forwards.

The one player who has been out on the wing more often than not – Nikki Washington – to my mind has proved disappointing this season.

This is just me talking but I think the Thorns do better with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield than the 4-3-3; it allows for Long (or Wetzel) to stay in touch with the backline at DCM, Sinclair to distribute, and Kerr to provide width and spread the defense.  From what I saw Saturday a 4-3-3 narrows the Thorns attack more than it already is, which is pretty damn narrow.

But the problem with the 4-midfield is – who else to play out wide, then?  Washington  needs to improve her touch and tactical judgement if so.  Guess?  Shim?  Neither of the latter two seem comfortable playing out on the wing.  Wetzel doesn’t have the speed, Long is too important as the chara, and Sinclair is wasted at winger.

How do they line up, then?  Good question!  In a four MF lineup, my thought would be Long CDM, Wetzel (with Heath after July) CAM, Washington LW, Kerr RW with Guess as substitute.   With three, maybe more of a 4-1-2-2 or 4-2-1-2 with Long and/or Wetzel at CDM, Heath and/or Shim up front?  Sinclair could play anywhere in front of midfield, but (as we’ll see below) I’d rather she played forward.  Foxhoven as ACM sub, Guess as DCM sub.  Subs for the wingers?  Gah!  Who knows?

As you can tell – I think solving the midfield is Parlow Cone’s toughest problem.  If she can get that one right I think we might just run the table the rest of the season…if we get the two forwards we should have going…

Get the Alex Morgan who played in the last Kansas City match at home on speed dial.  Morgan has a tendency to cruise in NWSL matches.  She has terrific skills, she can beat most NWSL defenses on pure blinding speed alone, and I can’t say I blame her for laying off when she doesn’t have to.

But that’s for the Chicagos and Bostons and Washingtons.  Against the top of the table Thorns FC looks an order of magnitude better then Alex works hard all match and does the little things that hurt the opponents’ defense; making runs off the ball to open up space, taking on her defenders and pulling them with her, fighting through tackles and using her teammates to both feed and take service from.   I want to see that Morgan a lot…

Find a way to use Christine Sinclair in her CWNT role.  Chris has been terrific this season doing what her coach has asked of her.  In the early going she dropped back to help marshal a midfield that was overmatched.  Now the midfield looks stronger, and Sinclair is a wrecking-ball of a forward, so it’d seem to be a perfect opportunity to move her back up front.  Parlow Cone tried that in New Jersey but Chris looked pretty gassed from her national team duties.

Still, I have yet to see Sinclair and Morgan look like they were completely in synch.  And I’m not sure if they can; both are strikers with a similar style – it’s a bit difficult to see who can compliment whom.

Make them a dyad, a double-star, providing service for each other and scoring as well.  If Parlow Cone can make that happen Thorns FC may, indeed, become the dreaded Death Star it has been touted.  That would be insanely beautiful.

How do they line up, then?  Morgan (duh!) and Sinclair. I honestly don’t know what you do with Weimer and Shufelt.  In my opinion one of them is a dead woman walking; the moment Heath arrives one of them will be pinin’ for the fjords, an ex-Thorn.

What’s the stakes for all this, then?

Of the ten matches left five are to teams we should beat handily; three to the only moderately-awful Boston Breakers (which with any sort of decent play probably means at least four points and probably five), one more match with the woeful Chicago here and the final meeting with sad-sack Seattle at Tukwila for another six.

But of the remaining four:

Two are home-and-home with Western New York – one of the two teams we have yet to face.  On paper these guys are loaded: Wambach, Kerr, Lloyd…but in practice the Ragin’ Rhinettes have been streaky and unpredictable, beating Sky Blue twice and FCKC once but losing to Boston and drawing against them as well as Washington, Chicago, and the Reign.  Very difficult to tell how these will go.  My hope would be a win here, a draw in Rochester, four points.  My fear would be the other way around; draw here, loss away for a single point.

And two are home-and-home with FCKC – Hard to suss these out just because our first meeting was a frightful mess with goals hard to come by and the second was a wild free-for-all with goals by the bucketful.  Which teams will meet for the last two matches?

I have to think that we’re better now than either Thorns team that played those first two matches; at least four points, then, with the dire possibility that KC might possibly sneak a home win next week and leave us with only the three.

I think Parlow Cone has a terrific opportunity before her; figure out how to optimize this team and blitz these two teams.  Take twelve points from them.  Stun the league into submission before the semifinal kickoff.

The first step, in my opinion, is to sort out how her garden grows; arrange all those silver bells and cockle shells and sharp Thorns all in a row.

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4 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Sharp Thorns All In A Row

  1. I wish I had some midfield ideas too. Maybe a diamond would work, but you’re right, we need wingers for it, and only Nikki Washington appears the type. (By the way, hasn’t she mostly played on right wing, not left?)

    Note: Your 4-1-2-2 or 4-2-1-2 suggestions might work, but there might just be a tad bit of disadvantage to them…. having only 9 field players….

    1. Oops. Make that 4-1-2-3/4-2-1-3… MUST learn to count someday.

      Worth noting that today’s FCKC match showcased all our weaknesses; poor preparation, shaky midfield cooperation, lack of wing play, bad passing, brutal errors at the back.

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