Inside PTFC, Tobin Heath, Thorns vs. Seattle, 5.5.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | Did we get a glimpse of a dominant Thorns FC attacking future?

Editor's Note: Inside PTFC is a new weekly column – one each for the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC – from soccer writer Richard Farley that dives deeper into the recent successes and challenges each team has been facing. Tactical looks, statistical analysis, rising players and more, Inside PTFC aims to give a closer look into the two teams.

PORTLAND, Ore. – The “3” stands out, something Portland Thorns FC fans aren’t used to seeing next to the visitor’s name at Providence Park. When Seattle Reign FC scored three times during Saturday’s trip south, they became only the third team to tally as many goals against a Mark Parsons Thorns team in Portland. The other two were semi-historical events: The Western New York Flash winning an epic shootout, 4-3, in the 2016 NWSL Playoffs semifinals; and Sky Blue FC’s Samantha Kerr posting two goals and an assist during a 3-1 win last season.

In this space, last week, we talked about how the Thorns are allowing goals, but even though this weekend saw a pronounced uptick in concessions, the issues haven’t really changed. As Meghan Klingenberg said post-match, Saturday’s totals weren’t the result of a Thorns defense being broke down, or the Reign stretching out and moving their opponents to create holes.

A converted corner kick. A penalty kick conceded. A long-range shot off another corner. Portland made mistakes on all of those plays, but how those mistakes reflect the team’s defensive schemes is something more nuanced.

That ground, we’ve covered before. What we haven’t talked about is the Thorns’ new, close-to-fully-healthy attack, something that has only been on display for 45 minutes this season.

That’s the amount of time all of Andressinha, Ana Crnogorčević and Tobin Heath have been on the field together – along with Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair, of course. To call that the team’s full attack, though, may be slightly misleading, as Hayley Raso is still recovering from her knee injury, and Caitlin Foord won’t arrive until the summer. But as it concerns the theory of the team – how Parsons envisions his team playing by the end of the season – the returns of Andressinha and Heath have been transformative.

Let’s hold off on that theory and focus, for a moment, on the returns. Andressinha and Heath have played 71 minutes together, this season, with that time coming over the second halves of the last two games. It’s a small sample, and in time, teams will adjust, but during those two stretches, the Thorns’ attack has exploded – not only by Portland’s standards, but compared to the rest of the NWSL:

Thorns 2018 attack, w/ and w/o Heath and Andressinha, vs. NWSL average, bests
  Goals/90 Shots/90 Shots on target/90 Shots in box/90
Thorns with Heath/Andressinha 3.8 26.6 11.4 24.1
Thorns w/o Heath/Andressinha 1.2 11.3 4.8 7.1
NWSL average (non-Thorns) 1.1 12 4.0 7.3
NWSL leaders 1.7 22.9 7.4 15.3

“It’s going to help any team to have Andressinha and Tobin on the field …,” Parsons said, matter of factly, after his team’s 24-shot day against Seattle. “[We] created a bit of an onslaught there.”

It was a sentiment shared by the Reign’s head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, who admitted “it’s going to be a long video” to review, when told of his team’s 24 shots allowed.

“When you look on the field, the first, biggest problem for you is Tobin Heath,” he said. “You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that Tobin Heath is going to give you the most problems.”

He adjusted by switching to a five-woman defense, something that gave his team extra support wide and added an extra central defender to attack crosses. Even then, according to Andonovski, the adjustments only partially worked.

“Moving into five in the back and solving the sides, that was going to be the most important thing,” he felt. “We solved our right side, but I have to say, Midge Purce still did very good on our left, and we’d already used all our subs. We had to do what we had to do, there.”

It highlights the type of pick-your-poison dilemma coaches will have to engage when playing Portland. Thus far, when the Thorns have put their full arsenal of talent on the field, those choices have produced worrying results.

Portland’s goal rate when Andressinha and Heath have been on the field is 124 percent better than the league’s best attack, and while that number screams “potential regression,” the underlying data hint at something real. In terms of shots, shots on target, and shots inside the penalty box per 90 minutes, the full-strength Thorns are vastly outperforming the league’s best attacks, and to the extent their goal rate might be outstretching those numbers, every early hint says the team’s new look can be the NWSL’s best going forward.

Thorns 2018 passing/chance creation, second halves of Utah, Seattle games vs. rest of 2018
  Changes created/90 "Big" chances created/90 Successful passes in opponent's half, per 90 Failed passes in opponent's half, per 90 Passes into final third, per 90 Goals, per 90
Second halves vs. Utah, Seattle 17.0 2.0 160.0 62.0 61.0 3.0
Rest of 2018 season 8.0 2.0 120.6 88.8 52.8 1.2

Game state may have something to do with these numbers – the Thorns haven’t had a lead when their new lineup’s been on the field – but the eye tests have matched the numbers. Against both Utah Royals FC and Seattle, the game has turned into track meets once Heath and Andressinha have come on.

When that happens, transition out of the Thorns end becomes quicker, creating more moments when Portland’s hitting opposing defenses with numbers. Attempts to constrict that have left space on the flanks, where Heath, Purce and Klingenberg have prospered. Pressure applied to the likes of Andressinha, Horan, Sinclair and Heath are met with a skill level that creates quick, spontaneous solutions, while attempts to lay off allow Andressinha to fire through balls at channels while Sinclair and Horan get forward.

The highlight-level skills combined with the overwhelming, early numbers make it easy to exaggerate how good this attack came be. It has, after all, been only 71 minutes, but there is an underlying logic to it all that not only makes sense but transcends soccer. When you put speed, skill, and intelligence together, the only limiting factor is how hard a squad’s willing to work, and as long as classic teams like Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, or Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors have been willing to do the little things, they’ve created platforms for their talent to shine through.

Evoking Barcelona, the Oilers and Warriors is exactly the kind of hyperbole that can destroy an analogy, so it’s worth saying: We’re a long way from comparing these Thorns to those iconic teams. It’ll take more than a few minutes’ play to justify that conversation. It will take years to know whether that theory of the Thorns can play out, and to draw parallels these kind of parallels after only 71 minutes would be akin to writing the Warriors’ legend after one, dominant first-quarter performance.

The early numbers, though, are so dominant, they demand we think beyond the present and recognize the potential. How likely is this team to continue this performance, going forward? At these levels, pretty unlikely, but the gap between where the Thorns have been, over these last two second halves, and where the NWSL’s best are is stark, so stark that you wonder how the return of Raso, the continued integrations of Crnogorčević and Andressinha, and the eventual arrival of Foord will influence that arc. Perhaps it’s unfair to ask the attack to be even better than it’s been, but with that kind of depth -- on top of the foundation that Heath, Horan and Sinclair provide – Portland has enough talent to be pacesetters when it comes to scoring goals.

Teams are going to adjust, and the Thorns numbers will wane, but even if they do, there’s reason to think Portland’s attack can execute at elite levels. The early returns say as much, as does the raw energy you see from the Thorns on the field. Though it is too soon to say Portland is destined for greatness, the potential is there, and if the Thorns cut out their defensive mistakes, that potential should send a shiver through the NWSL.

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