Thorns FC: Goin’ to Kansas City…

kansascity


I mentioned the last time that the upcoming semifinal match in Kansas City might be anybody’s game.

After looking back at the season past I’m still not sure who can pull off a win at the fabled Shawnee Mission District Stadium.  The four meetings between Thorns FC and FC Kansas City tell wildly different stories, and while it’s worth looking back to see what happened I’m not sure that we can predict this coming Saturday’s match from the preceding games.

It’s also probably also worth looking at FCKC’s recent form and try and suss out who we should be worried about.

But first – let’s roll tape, shall we, and see if we can learn anything from it?

April 13, 2013: PTFC @ FCKC: 1-1 draw

The opening match for both clubs and the NWSL was a slow, chippy, and frustrating business for both players and viewers.  Something we’d see quite a bit more of as the season progressed – a Thorns defensive derp – gave away a goal to FCKC’s Cuellar.  Portland played four in midfield but the group of Kerr-Long-Washington-Edwards were stifled all match and only a lucky call gave Portland the equalizer late in the second half.

For Portland:  For all the midfield domination and the one breakdown PTFC’s standard backline of Buehler-Dougherty-Marshall-Williamson actually did decent work on FCKC.  This match exposed the problems in midfield, though, as well as the long-ball tactics we’d see a lot more of because of the problems getting service up front and lack of attacking width.

For FCKC: The real story of the night was Cuellar; she was dangerous and nearly had another later in the second half.  That and the PK, which KC disputed bitterly with (in my opinion) some justice.

Goals: 1 (Cuellar)

Shots: 6 (On Goal: 3) (Cuellar 2/1, Holiday 1/0, Miewis 1/0, Mathias 1/1, Kelly 1/1)

Assists: 0

What can we learn from this match?  Probably not much.  Cuellar has since been released by FCKC, Holiday had at that point yet to find her form, and Portland’s midfield has been extensively revamped since the first ever match! in the NWSL.  However; it’s worth noting that midfielder Kristie Mewis and defender Merrit Mathias show up on the stat sheet for the first time.  It’s worth keeping an eye on them.

June 6, 2013: FCKC @ PTFC: 4-3 Portland

This was one of the most exciting and crazy matches of the season.  It had everything; goals from the run of play and from the spot, a bizarre Tymrak semi-golazo that whiffleballed through a motionless PTFC defense, some great saves, some brutal tackling, and Alex Morgan in an all-in wrestling match with Becky Sauerbrunn and a shoving match with Merrit Mathias.  Frankly, it felt like either team could have won this one, and that Portland did seemed less about which was the better side.

For Portland: It’s worth noting that at this stage in the season Christine Sinclair was still playing a sort of trequartista role.  She is listed as a forward but I recall her playing more as an attacking midfielder in what is listed as a 5-3-2 but played more like a 5-3-1-1.  Parlow Cone packed the back but the defense still had some ugly moments of panic and shipped some soft goals.  Morgan had one of her most aggressive and engaged matches of the season, probably due to the personal duels with Sauerbrunn and Mathias.

For FCKC:  By this point FCKC had become all about Lauren Cheney Holiday.  She was an utter beast (see the stat sheet!).  FCKC looked dangerous in attack but as disorganized (at times) as Portland on defense.  Still, part of that problem was that the FCKC missed Sessleman, their version of Rachel Beuhler, and without Sauerbrunn’s slip on Morgan’s first goal Kansas City might still have nicked a point; they were that good that night.

Goals: 3 (Holiday 2(1PK), Tymrak)

Shots: 17 (On Goal: 8) (Cuellar 1/1, Tymrak 2/1, Holiday 8/2, Miewis 1/1, Jones (sub) 2/1, Fareilly 3/1) – note that Mathias’ name doesn’t show up; she was largely pinned back wrestling with Morgan.

Assists: 2 (Robinson)

What can we learn from this match?  Hard to say.  The obvious lesson is “If you want to beat FCKC throttle the heck out of Lauren Cheney Holiday”.  But other than that this was a freakish match, with strange plays and bizarre goals on both sides.  Erika Tymrak and Kristie Mewis were emerging as players to watch out for, and the organization, movement, and width of FCKC’s midfield were on display and a problem for Thorns FC that night.  So:

1.  Mark Lauren Holiday,

2.  Establish control in midfield, and

3.  Play 90+ minutes of defense!

June 30, 2013  PTFC @ FCKC 2-0 Kansas City

One of the season’s worst performances from Thorns FC as Kansas City and in particular Lauren Holiday exploited all the team’s usual problems and weaknesses; lack of service to the forwards, wasteful finishing when there was service, a disappearing midfield, and horrible errors in back.

Looking back at the season I think we can see the May 16 loss to Sky Blue at home as one of the most significant matches of the season.  Gabarra’s tactical plan – pack the back to shut off the Twin Towers, play a high line, press the Thorns midfield and exploit the inevitable turnover with a quick counter – showed the rest of the league how to beat the Thorns.  Of the following six matches the only wins were over the then-horrible Washington and Seattle, discounting the one-off loss to Chicago at Jeld-Wen with the national team players gone.  The remaining three were the nil-nil draw in New Jersey, the preceding match, and this one, showing that the good teams were sussing us out.

The shape of the last half of the season was emerging; Thorns FC was good enough to feast on bad opposition but had serious tactical and mental issues that the better teams could exploit.  Of those matches with the better teams his match was perhaps the low point.

For Portland:  I remember this match as the one where I finally gave up on Nikki Washington.  She had so many bad moments, poor passes, missed tackles and giveaways that it was impossible to see her as a player at this level.  (I note that Parlow Cone seems to have arrived at the same conclusion a match later; Washington was subbed out at 57′ in the home loss to Boston on July 6, dressed for the next game, and has not been included in the 18 since then).  She was the worst, but the rest of the midfield looked utterly adrift, too.

Elsewhere on the pitch, again, Parlow Cone played five defenders (the Usual Four plus Wetzel) and, again, that didn’t stop the goals from raining in.   And Christine Sinclair, again, played as the third midfielder in a 5-3-2 but without noticeably strengthening the midfield.

For KC:  Cuellar’s final match for KC against PTFC showed her loss of form (she was released between this match and the 8/4 game in Portland) while Holiday had clearly established herself as the star striker for both the team and the league.  This match had a bit of an odd reversal for FCKC, with Mathias coming on late for usually-super-sub Courtney Jones starting (with good results for KC, I should add, since Jones scored the second goal.)

Goals: 2 (Holiday, Mathias)

Shots: 11 (on goal 9) (Holiday 4/3, Jones 2/2, Mathias 1/1, Robinson 2/2, Cuellar 1/1, Scott 1/0, Tymrak 1/0)

Assists: 0

What can we learn from this match?   Several problems for Portland contributed to this loss:

1.  The lack of width – the midfield and forwards tried repeatedly to push through FCKC and were stymied.  You beat Kansas City by pulling their backline out of shape, not by forcing them back on themselves.

2.  The defensive breakdowns – especially the failure to mark and failure to cut off passes.  Note that FCKC had 9 shots on goal from seven players, indicating that they were moving the ball around freely and getting multiple players open for shots.

3.  The inability of the forwards and midfielders to connect and to generate shots.  Note that in comparison Portland had only 6 shots on goal from only three players; all the attack went through the forwards and was easily controlled and stuffed by FCKC’s backline.

August 4, 2013: FCKC @ PTFC 3-2 Kansas City

For all that the 2-nil loss at KC might have been the worst performance against KC this season this loss might have been the most gutting.  With a win at home seizing them possession of the top of the table instead Portland let in three goals with atrocious defending and lost when the team just ran out of gas late in the match still looking for an equalizer.

For Portland:  Terrible defending.  Karina LeBlanc did poorly on two of the three FCKC goals, the backline left Holiday completely unmarked on both of her two goals, and gave Mewis yards of space on the third.  Meanwhile Portland’s attack petered out after an initial flurry as FCKC’s backline closed down Morgan and – though the distribution was better than the preceding match – nobody else could create chances.

For FCKC:  Holiday.  Add Barnhart’s solid keeping behind a composed backline led by Sesselmann and Sauerbrunn and there you had it.

Goals: 3 (Holiday 2, Mewis)

Shots 19 (on goal 5) (Holiday 3/2, Henderson 1/1, Tymrak 1/0, Mewis 1/1, Buczkowski 1/1, Jones 1/0, Noyola 10/0)

Assists 2 (Tymrak, Mathias)

What can we learn from this match?

1. Mark Holiday!  Mark her, dammit!

2.  Defend better in general.  This was another match where the defense completely broke down several times and FCKC took advantage of that.

3.  Use the full width of the field to spread out FCKC’s defense.  Again, PTFC largely tried to go directly at goal and was shut down.

So.  Discarding the first match as just too different from the form of the teams today the keys to the last three meetings have been:

Holiday vs. the Thorns Defense: Holiday has had three solid wins against PTFC.  Period.  It’s not rocket science, but Lauren Holiday is the point of the FCKC spear.  Blunt her and you’ve blunted the most dangerous part of the FCKC attack.

Other FCKC players that have been effective against Portland have been Mathias, Tymrak, and Mewis, but Holiday has been the biggest problem.  This is even more evident when you look at the two matches since 8/4, the last two regular season matches:

Over the last three matches (@ Portland 8/4, @ Boston 8/10, and Chicago 8/18) here’s how FCKC has looked in attack:

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Player Shots Shots on Goal Goals Goals per attempt Notes
Holiday 9 4 2 0.5 Both goals against PTFC 8/4
Mewis 4 1 1 1.0 Goal 8/4; no SOG since then
Jones 4 2 1 0.5 Scored in loss to Chicago 8/18
Tymrak 4 1 0 N/A Assists Jones 8/18 and Holiday 8/4
Mathias 1 1 0 N/A No shots 8/18; assist Holiday 8/4
Henderson 2 2 0 N/A No shots 8/10
Buczkowski 1 1 0 N/A No shots since 8/4

So FCKC has looked pretty meager up front over the last two matches, and even if you include the win here in Portland Holiday’s “supporting cast” – Tymrak, Mathias, and Mewis – have been fairly quiet.  So the conclusion seems pretty obvious – stop Holiday and you’ve gone a long way to stopping FCKC.

That means tight marking and constant communication, but especially tight marking; Portland needs to have a defender on Holiday at all times.  When she goes to take a leak at halftime Kat Williamson had better be in the stall with her.

Thorns Midfield vs. FCKC Midfield:  In both FCKC’s wins as well as the 4-3 loss here at Jeld-Wen FCKC controlled midfield play.  This was because of a combination of factors, including the disorganization of the Thorns’ midfield, the limited options PTFC presented for attacking passing, poor passes when those passes were attempted, and a narrow midfield that allowed FCKC to press effectively and cut off passing lanes easily.  I don’t have statistics – because the NWSL doesn’t publish passes attempted and passes completed – but I’ll bet that our season pass completion rate against FCKC has been less than 70-80% and probably much less, probably closer to 60%

So to win in Kansas City PTFC must reverse this; collect the ball and shield it, move well off the ball, and then pass accurately to the open player.  Again, that’s Soccer 101.  But we haven’t been able to do it successfully against FCKC.

Thorns strikers against FCKC defense:  Portland’s attack has typically been linear, direct, and predictable.  In four matches against FCKC here’s how the Thorns did:

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Player Shots Shots on Goal Goals Goals per attempt
Foxhoven 6 4 2 0.5
Morgan 15 9 3 0.3
Sinclair 9 8 1 0.1
Wetzel 1 1 1 1.0

Six other Thorns have a total of 12 shots (Long top with 4), of which only 6 were on goal (Heath top with 2).

So discounting Wetzel’s strike in the freakish July 6 match and Sinclair’s PK you can see that the Portland offense against FCKC has been Morgan and Foxhoven.  Sinclair has been really ineffective and the rest of the team basically just random.

Of Morgan’s three she got two on July 6 and her third in garbage time in the August loss with everybody and the trainers going forward, but her production gets worse if you subtract the gimme goal on July 6 when Sauerbrunn put her in alone on Barnhart.  Take away that one and she’s 2 goals on 8 attempts for 0.25 goals/attempt.  Given that she averages 3.75 shots per game against FCKC you can see she’s got about a 90% chance of scoring on FCKC in an average game.

This compares with Holiday’s 2 goals for 7 attempts against the Thorns – discarding the PK – (0.28 goals/attempt).  They’re basically an even match.

Interestingly, Foxhoven turns out to be the KC-killer if you look at goals versus shots-on-goal.  My memory is that both goals were terrific shots from distance, so she seems to have Barnhart’s number.

So if I was Parlow Cone I would try like hell to get Foxhoven the ball with space this Saturday and use Morgan as a distractor.  Sure, Morgan is going to take her shots, but she’s been injured and is unlikely to be at her best.  But FCKC can’t assume that.  So use Morgan to sell Sesselman or Sauerbrunn the dummy and get Foxhoven ghosting in to take the drop-pass and hammer it home.

So this is it.  This is one-and-done.

This means going to Kansas City and from there to the Final.

We might take a train, we might take a plane, but if we have to walk we’re gonna get there just the same.

Kansas City here we come.

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4 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Goin’ to Kansas City…

  1. As I mentioned on twitter: Holiday got the Golden Boot with 12 goals in the season. Five of them were against the Thorns. Five.

    I think you’re right – if we can bottle up Holiday (and Tymrak), we have a shot at this. But if we don’t… well, there ain’t gonna be a Thorns team in the final.

    1. She’s been a Thorns killer this season, I agree. The real disaster was the August 4 match when she scored two that looked like a shooting drill, she was so unmarked.

      But FCKC has really limped into the playoffs. You can see from the table above that the top KC strikers have all been off form since 8/4; Jones is the only scorer over the past two matches, and Mathias, Mewis, and Tymrak are all at 3 shots per game and only 1 on goal over the past three games with no goals. So shutting down Holiday becomes even MORE critical; if Thorns’ defense can lock her down the other three will need to bring their games up an order of magnitude to compensate…

      Mind you, WE have to score, too, and that’s not a given against this team and with our attack playing as it has been.

      1. Aye! I do think we can win it, FCKC isn’t invincible, but it won’t be easy. Standings aside, I think FCKC has been easily the best team in the league.

        I really do think our attack has improved since we moved Sinc back up front, and put Foxhoven and Shim in earlier. The defense in the most recent loss, as you point out, was the nadir of Thorns Defensive Derps™. Well, actually, the continual failure to mark Leroux in the home game against Boston may have been the worst. That just hurt to watch.

        What would be interesting is if Sky Blue could beat the Flash. They’re the only team that’s done so consistently this season, but with their injuries they’ve limped into the playoffs even more than FCKC, so I’m not hopeful.

        It would be awesome to get a home final. I bet they could sell out the stadium and that sure would be something.

      2. KC had the vast misfortune to lose form in August just as WNY was surging, otherwise I suspect we’d be in Rochester this coming weekend. And, frankly, I’m not sure I’d want that; I just have this spooky feeling that Wambach is due for a monster game against us. So I hope to hell that Sky Blue goes crazy and mops the floor with them while we’re beating KC so we can play SBFC here on 8/31.

        And no doubt; the atmosphere at Jeld-Wen would be epic.

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