Thorns FC: Coach? It’s John Spencer on the smartyphone…

Seems like only last week I sat down and fired up the Commodore 64 to ponder what best for our coach Cindy Parlow Cone to do to prepare for the final half of the season.

Oh.  Wait.  It was.  As part of that external internal-monologue I had some thoughts about the upcoming matches, and here’s what I had to say about last Sunday’s match against FC Kansas City:

“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.”


Guess what.

They did.

But in truth the match away to FCKC was worse than the loss – or as a Kansas City play-by-play announcer might have termed it, the first ever road loss for Thorns FC – it was another example of a coach whose  team and whose “tactics” are starting to look very familiar to those of us who sat through the Timbers’ first two MLS seasons.  And this Spencerian style, although Coach Parlow Cone says nothing about it, is going unnoticed by the fans.  Here’s just a selection of some of their observations from the comments on the match report over at Stumptown Footy:

“The midfield still stinks and we’re playing longball or, as someone else noted, kick and chase. There appears to be no philosophy. This is Spencerball revisited. It’s ugly, tragic, embarrassing, and contrary to what we’ve been told to expect tactically. Heath isn’t going to be the savior, and she shouldn’t have to be. We have great players, but aren’t the team we should be.”

“All of this tells me that while CPC may be doing a fine job of helping the ladies be good friends and have fun together, she has yet to build a functioning professional team. With others in the league clearly improving, the clock is ticking loudly.”

“We’ve proven that we can take care of the Washingtons and Seattles just on talent, and even then only barely. Any team with a pulse can throw good markers/back line numbers at Sinc and Morgan and just wait for the midfield to turn it over. Then just wait for the defense to get in its own way one too many times.”

Brutally critical?

Yes.  But, in my opinion, justified.

In my last post I identified certain on-field issues that I thought CPC could address to sharpen the Thorns, issues that we’d seen in all of the team’s poorer outings this season;  Alex Morgan lacking bite, as well as lacking service and assistance from her strike partners.

The mess in midfield.

Lack of effective wing play and the ease with which smart and talented opponents can stifle the narrow Thorns attack.  Lack of communication between the midfield and backline, and random moments of disorganization in the back leading to opposing attackers getting far too much open space and time.

Poor passing and poor coordination and team play in general.

All of that was on display in Kansas City along with one of those awful moments when a coach has burned all her substitutions and then one of her players goes down injured; with no way to replace Marian Dougherty, Parlow Cone could only watch helplessly as her team played the final 10 minutes a player and two goals down.

The part of all this that disturbs me most is how, of all John Spencer’s coaching ways Parlow Cone seems to mimic his most damaging;  an unreflective approach to the game of soccer and the paleolithic “tactics” it produced.

Sure, Spencer had plans and tactics, mind; plans like the French Army had plans in 1940, and tactics like they were still written in the original cuneiform.

Spenny came to every match with an idea of what his team was going to look like, and do; boot the ball up to his big forward and let the big fella knock it in.

Substitute “Alex Morgan” for “Kenny Cooper” or “Kris Boyd” and this year’s Thorns FC starts to look a hell of a lot like the Timbers of 2011 and 2012; a team that can’t pass the ball well or control the tempo of the match and relies on antiquated hoof-and-hope long ball to get Alex Morgan to make something out of nothing.  A team that suffers catastrophic breakdowns in back.  A team that smarter coaches can beat because they know before the opening whistle where that team will go and what it will do when it gets there.

What’s so disturbing about this is that while what we’re seeing from Thorns FC is pretty much what we’ve seen from their first match – with bits of tweaking here and there – most of the rest of the league has been getting better.

Seattle’s USWNT veterans Rapinoe and Solo have earned the dire Reign two wins and a draw from their last three matches.  Sydney Leroux is pulling Boston – a Boston that we play three times and I had counted on the Thorns thrashing repeatedly – out of a slough of mediocrity into…well, perhaps at least a much shallower slough of mediocrity.  We’ll have to see.

Western New York remains as dangerous at random moments as lightning from a cloudless sky, and Sky Blue FC is still atop the table with us and a consistent and persistent threat.

Thank the soccer gods that Chicago still sucks, then.

Mind you, I suspect that even with a less successful second half the Thorns will be able to ride their fast start into the playoffs.  But what then?  FCKC showed they’d learned the lessons that Sky Blue wrote on the Jeld-Wen turf; mark the two star strikers out of the match, press high and force the poor passing and bad clears that will gift you the ball, and then take advantage of defensive errors that will follow.  Even The Wall cant stop everything.

I believe that unless Parlow Cone can manage her way out of this the championship we’re expecting this season – and we ARE expecting it – will go a’glimmering.

Spencer seemed like a genuinely good man, the sort of quirky guy that a lot of the fans enjoyed for his personality, the kind of manager that in a sunny, happy world would have retired here full of years and honors, beloved of the supporters and the city alike.

The main reason he did not is that he was unable to analyze the game, to learn from his mistakes, and to adjust to his conditions; he tried to play “his kind of soccer” with a club that didn’t have what it took to play that kind of soccer, and a kind of soccer that didn’t have what it took to beat teams whose tactics had evolved past 1965.

Now Parlow Cone has a dilemma.  She has a small number of great players and “tactics” that rely on those players being great enough to beat poorer, weaker teams.  But now many of the poor are getting richer and the weak stronger, and it is appearing increasingly likely that those “tactics” will no longer work.

If she can figure out how to adjust those tactics she may well – if the league itself prospers – find herself at the end of her career the next Clive Charles, a beloved fixture of Portland soccer, a treasured reminder of glories past.

But if not…

Ask not for whom the smartyphone rings…

5 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Coach? It’s John Spencer on the smartyphone…

  1. Great article. I’m hoping this no longer seems relevant in a month. What kind of style does Dorrance have at UNC? If CPC has always been an assistant there she couldn’t have had much chance to develop her individual style so would have to be following Dorrance (right?)

    1. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the NCAA women’s game (outside of what I’ve seen following the UP Pilots) but when I’ve encountered UNC the thing I’ve most noted is how organized Dorrance’s midfields usually are. There is typically a playmaking ACM and strong left and right wingers to provide width. I can’t imagine anything less like the Thorns midfield to date, so CPC does not – at least with her midfueld – seem to be doing what she learned there.

      The wild card, though, is the (in my opinion) harshly restrictive NWSL rosters. I think it’s very possible that CPC wanted to add more strength in midfield but had to make choices based on her roster size instead of her tactical concepts. If so, however, I think she and her front office chose their wingers poorly; Washington is the only true flank-playing midfielder and she has had a very unconcvincing season so far.

  2. I think you’re right…and also wrong. I think the front office understands the expectations they’ve raised; anything less than a berth in the final will be considered a major disappointment for this season. So just making he playoffs won’t help strengthen the sort of casual support – i.e. people just like yourself – if the team meets FCKC in the first round and goes out.

    And I hope I made some good arguments that this team (and the league) is approaching the point where it may NOT be possible to coast on talent. Did you read the latest press release from the team about pulling Chris Sinclair back to be a true ACM? One of the world’s best women’s strikers and she is going to have to chug away as a central midfielder – not even the trequartista-with-license-to-strike-at-goal role she played after the first match. The recent matches have not been promising for the argument for “Chris-and-Alex-and-Karina-and-who-cares?” approach.

    The team can still hope for a run of fluky luck to carry them through the playoffs to the final. But if I was CPC and Merrit Paulson and had the choice of making adjustments to strengthen the team and just throwing this same crap against the wall hoping it’ll stick, I know what I’d be trying to do…

  3. I know this article was written weeks ago. I have been a season ticket holder and have gone to all of the Thorns home games. The most recent being yesterday, July 28th. I love women’s soccer and was thrilled at the beginning of the year when the Thorns seemed to hit the mother lode with their allocations. When you look at the roster, on paper they look unbeatable. I presumed that they were a shoo in to make the playoffs and host the semi finals as well as make it into the finals and host that as well.

    I am no so sure anymore. When you have 13,000 fans behind you, it should inspire the players to greatness. I agree with the earlier statement that the Thorns seem to be standing still while the rest of the league is getting better. In other words, coaches from the other teams have figured out that the Thorns have no continuity on a consistent basis. Their link up from the defensive third through the midfield to the closing attacking third is sporadic at best. The addition of Tobin Heath has helped some, but the Thorns are running out of time. It is easy to see that Alex Morgan is frustrated. She works hard to get open but is double teamed most of the time. She is good, but she is no miracle worker.

    Yesterday was a perfect example. The Chicago Red Stars enter Jeldwen on the heels of a beat down by the Seattle Reign. 4 – 1. What I witnessed was the usual display of errant passes in the middle third and a lot of fouls by both sides. The Thorns played hard and expended a lot of energy doing so. The first half was really a stalemate, but a quick thinking Tobin Heath played a nice ball over the Red Star Wall, to find a on running Christine Sinclair who notched her first goal. The Thorns took a 1 – 0 lead into the locker room.

    The second half started and again both sides played hard, again expending a lot of energy. Meleana Shim converted a nice cross from the right side to give the Thorns a 2 – 0 lead. At this point at the 56 minute point, it should have been lights out, the party is over. It should have, but here is where lack of good coaching comes to the fore.
    At about the 75th minute mark, Alex Morgan is taken out of the game and Tiffany Weimer is inserted. I have no qualms about Tiffany playing, but clearly if CPC had been watching the game with a critical eye she would have seen Foxhoven was playing hard, but was inconsistent with her passing. Why take Morgan out? Even if she was being marked out of the park all day, leaving her in would have made the Red Stars keep players on her. Freeing others to find the open spots in the attacking third. Tiffany was unlucky that she got caught offside, barely I might add, and her disallowed goal was a beauty to behold. Not to mention the flub by Sinclair which would have secured a sure win.

    It was the last ten minutes of the game though, that really spoke volumes about conditioning. the Thorns back line ran out of gas. The Red Stars, who had expended the same amount of energy throughout the match had the energy and will to keep pressing, probing the Thorns back line. When teams lack conditioning there defensive clearing ability gets weaker, and the Thorns displayed that abundantly.

    I want the Thorns to win out the rest of the season. They have the talent. But they need to play with a purpose. Possession with a purpose. Clear passing to a team mate as they run through the middle to the attacking third. Not just a pass forward hoping someone runs onto it. CPC has to get a clue and organize this group to be more efficient as the season comes to a close. Otherwise the whole team will be looking at the back heels of the teams who are.

    1. I’ve got a new post up discussing this match, Tracy, but for what it’s worth I’m not sure that the problem was conditioning. I’ve been watching out backline do this stuff all season, from minute 1 to minute 91; lack of communication (Williamson stranded trying to mark two players on the second Mautz goal), lack of tactical nous, failure to mark at critical moments, failure to do the simple Soccer 101 things like clearing you lines late in the match while protecting a lead that lead to the Sitch goal.

      I DO agree that a lot of the troubles seem coaching-related. I disagree on the Morgan move; Alex had just made it pretty clear that she was angry and playing with a chip on her shoulder, she was carrying a yellow, and another display of temper and we’ve lost her for Sky Blue tomorrow. But, instead, I’d argue that CPC made an odd move with her replacement. Why not bring on Wetzel to try and provide some more grit in the defensive midfield? Chicago was starting to profit from our inability to hold possession there – the problems Foxhoven was having in particular, as you point out – and at that point we were still two goals to the good. I don’t want to see Thorns park the bus, but, damn, you’re up by two; you don’t need Weimer to score…you just need possession and tight defense!

      I’m going to be biting my nails to the wrists tomorrow and Sunday. We HAVE to get six points from those games. CPC and the Girls in Red need to knuckle down and grind out two wins or, as you say, we’re going to have a tough, tough time getting into the finals…

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