This coming Sunday is Bastille Day, and, appropriately, Thorns FC as the preseason consensus-royalty of the NWSL will be faced with a swarm of canaille from Western New York at the gates of Jeld-Wen Field; the Flash, a.k.a. Wambach & Co.
For me this is not good news.
That’s because our Thorns have just put on a fairly unimpressive display of ragged defense and disorganized attack in their nil-2 loss to the fifth-place Boston Breakers just a week after going scoreless and gifting two goals at FC Kansas City and being held to a messy nil-nil draw away to Sky Blue before that. In fact, you have to go back almost a month to recall at Thorns FC win, and that was home against a then-sorry Seattle Reign.
At this point there’s really no reason to rehash the observations I’ve already made about the Thorns. We’ve all seen what’s happening on the pitch, and we all know – at least, I hope that Coach Parlow Cone and her team know – what needs to happen to stop the bleeding. My intention here is, specifically, to break down the Flash and see if there’s anything special that needs to happen before this coming Sunday.
From the distance of Cascadia the Western New York Flash are a real mystery to me.
On paper this team is loaded, packed with national team players; forward Adriana Martin from Spain, midfielders Samantha Kerr from Australia and Veronica Perez of Las Tri, and USWNT players U-23 goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and senior national team midfielder Carli Lloyd.
Oh, yes, and a certain Mary Abigail Wambach who might just be the greatest women’s player in the world at the moment.
So you’d think that we’d be looking up at this lot on the top of the league, rather than seeing them clinging to the last playoff spot. But the Flash have had a problem all season getting results.
Sometimes their attack just doesn’t work; the woeful Red Stars shut them out in Chicago last week as did Kansas City this past Sunday.
Other times they break down in the back; back on June 23rd Seattle was a goal up within half an hour and WNY needed a Wambach PK to save the point. The same month they shipped two goals against both Chicago and Boston to barely manage the away points, and even the dire Washington Spirit managed to hold them to a 1-1 draw back in April.
They seem to play down to the quality of their opponents; Chicago is 1-1-1 against them, and Boston is 1-0-1. Washington is the only no-hoper at 0-2-1 including a 4-nil thrashing in Rochester back at the end of June. At the other end they’re 3-0 against Sky Blue and 1-0-1 against FCKC; they seem to like a challenge.
So it’s going to be difficult to suss out which WNY will show up next week; will it be the one that walloped Washington or the one that lost to Chicago?
We do know some things, however, and here’s my thoughts on what they are and what will need to happen for Thorns FC to get a good result against WNY.
Wambach is a menace in the air and WNY will be extremely dangerous from lofted crosses and corners.
Thorns FC scores very few goals from headers; 6% (only 1 of 18 goals scored). Given our lack of effective width and few players who cross well that’s no surprise. But we also don’t see many headers against us; Bywater’s goal for Chicago (on the June weekend when the USWNT and CWNT call-ups left both sides without their stars) was the only one I can recall. I certainly hope that the team is practicing their team defense against lofted crosses and set pieces this week.
But WNY thrives in the air. 22% of their goals – 6 of 22 – have come from someone’s head. Of the teams in the NWSL that can score only Boston (22%, 5 of 23) comes close. Those of us who have watched Wambach will find this no surprise. But it’s worth noting that WNY defender Brittany Taylor has two goals, and that usually means off a set-piece of some kind, and another defender (Robinson) has a goal off a corner kick. I cannot help but suspect that Aaran Lines will want to test the PTFC defense with some aerial attack, and we should expect to see that.
The Thorns backline will have to mark tightly – especially Wambach and especially on set-pieces. Beyond general improvement in team defense the play of the central defenders must also improve; Williamson cannot afford to be torched as she was repeatedly against Boston, and Wambach – who knows Beuhler’s penchant for rough play – cannot be allowed to use that to draw a penalty.
The Flash tend to score goals from the run of play and appear to have a solid midfield providing service.
Over the past nine games ten players have scored 20 goals for WNY; Wambach, of course, with 6 goals but also Lloyd (4 goals), Martin (2), and Kerr, Winters, Perez, and DiMartino with one each. Almost all of these goals have come in open play, other than the three noted above and a McCall Zerboni strike from a goalkeeper error. To assume that the Flash will come in looking like St. Mirren circa 1962 would be a mistake; these people will look to play balls through midfield and both out to the wings as well as into the 18.
The Thorns will have to control midfield play. Sure, that’s Soccer 101, but until now we’ve consistently bypassed the midfield in hopes of an Alex Morgan long-distance lightning strike. If we are going to stop the WNY attack that defense must begin in midfield, and the midfielders will have to be capable of turning on the ball and then providing accurate passes to our strikers, something we have not done consistently to date.
The Flash tends to ship goals at random moments and while they have a good defense it’s not statistically better than ours…and we’ve seen what that means.
I see this – and marking Wambach out of the match – as the key to victory.
When the Flash get beaten it’s been on the counter, with goals from distance, and early goals forcing them to struggle for late equalizers. Chicago’s Mautz scored on them in the first minute and forced them to nearly into 90+ for the draw. Leroux nailed a 20-some yard strike and forced the Flash, again, to go almost to full time to pull off the draw. Backfooting them will be critical, and that means pressure, and that means both opportunism and possession.
Our frontline has to score, score early, and then keep possession and pressure on through the match.
Let’s face it; the best way to keep Abby Wambach from scoring is to ensure that Abby Wambach’s opponents don’t let her have the ball. Better yet; they keep the ball down around her goal, and force her to play central defender.
But we haven’t been doing that of late and, honestly, I don’t know how to solve that problem.
If I did I’d be on the phone to Jeld-Wen right now. We have two of the best strikers in women’s soccer – possibly in ALL of soccer – in Sinclair and Morgan. But we have been terrible as providing them with good opportunities and as a strike partnership they have looked out of sorts and poorly connected.
I know part of the trouble is in midfield, and we have a potential missing piece – Tobin Heath – arriving this week. But, frankly, we haven’t seen our forwards playing well off each other even when they do work the ball down into the attacking third. I think a large part of that is our width; we don’t have any, and it allows opposing defenses to collapse around Morgan, Sinclair, and Weimer (and Foxhoven, Shim, or any other Thorns involved in the attack). But another part of it is on the players themselves, and their working out techniques that allow them to make space around the goal.
This is what I see as Coach Parlow Cone’s hardest task for the upcoming week.
Can you believe that we’d be saying that? Hey, this was Thorns FC! We have the two of the deadliest gunners in North America, amiright? Just roll that ol’ ball out and watch ’em knock it in, amiright?
Turns out that even great strikers need support from the back, and a tactical plan, and movement off the ball, and wing play, and good coomunication and coordination.
And y’know what? I have to think we can do that. I want to think we can take the attack to the Flash and make them worry more about what Morgan and Shim and Sinclair will do with the ball and less what Abby Wambach could be doing with it.
And I want to think that Coach Parlow Cone thinks that, too.