There’s a time each week as coaches prepare for opponents, when, the questions are simple. What does this do well? How can we stop them? What do we want to do? And how will they try to stop us?
Perhaps the questions are never that obvious. When your life is soccer 24-7, the process is usually more instinctual. You see a midfielders’ tendencies and subconsciously know the impact on your creators. You don’t need to spell it out. You might notice how a center back attacks a cross and realize that your crosses aren’t going to work, or maybe you see where players are denying space on one flank and realize where there’ll be opening someplace else.
That last hypothetical has been a reality for the Portland Thorns, of late, largely thanks to the talents of Tobin Heath, who will always be one of the top priorities in opponents’ plans. Often, those plans start with three things: How do we limit Christine Sinclair? How do we contain Lindsey Horan? And how do we stop Tobin Heath? With talents like those, there’s only going to be so much success opponents will have week-in, week-out, but if your top priorities aren’t trying to contain the Thorns’ most dangerous players, you might as well not even show up.
That partially explains why on Saturday, when the Thorns where in Orlando playing the Pride, you’d occasionally see the hosts’ defense positioned like this when Portland tried building play down their left (through Heath).
Of particular note is the "RCB" player, Ali Krieger. She's come all the way up to make sure that two players, her and right-wing back Kristen Edmonds, are containing Heath. There's a midfielder centrally to support. If Heath is going to get a pass off, this approach says, it's going to have to be back to left back Meghan Klingenberg. She's not getting room to turn. She's not getting room to play toward the middle.
Because when that ball does find the middle for the field, look at how Orlando is set up, with seven of the eight players with which they're defending between their goalkeeper's left post and Heath's sideline (line added to approximate the width of the goal Portland's attacking).
And, as a result, this is what the game often looked like when Portland built through right wing and Hayley Raso.
This feels like a good time to go off on a slight tangent about screenshots, because if you’ve been reading these columns all year, you know how important they are when trying to illustrate a point. But the unfortunate fact about soccer games, when it comes to analysis like this, is that, over the course of a 90-minute game, you can probably find a moment where the teams are positioned in a way that will illustrate … well, whatever you want.
Such is the nature of the game we love, that teams are in constant motion, always shifting between states, having to make a series of impromptu decisions about priorities, space, and their opponents’ threat. Sometimes it will look like the coaches’ planned; others, it will just look like chaos.
It’s why, when you use see a screenshot like the ones above, it’s worth holding a note of skepticism, wondering if there is any other context to show the scene isn’t an aberrational - opportunistically chosen to make the analysis look as prescient as possible.
Enter Thorns head coach Mark Parsons.
“We identified they were giving us a bit too much space on our right wing,” Parsons said, postgame, as if he knew what ThornsFC.com would be writing about on Tuesday, “and if they stop that, we’ll get Tobin back into the game.
“Now we just came flying out of the games in the second half – a massive first 10 minutes – then we continued to drive on.”
As you can see from the first screenshot, above, come Saturday’s second half, Orlando was persisting with their Horan-centric approach. And that completely makes sense. If you have to pick your poison, you pick the non-world-class-creator variety.
Not that it always works. Here, in the 52nd minute, Heath got between lines, was able to carry the ball upfield and, eventually, help produce a chance for Sinclair from close range. This didn't result in one of Portland's goals, but it did illustrate now, even with the best intentions, plans don't always come together on the field.
But in every choice teams make they have to give up something, and while that something doesn’t necessarily have to be to players like Sinclair or Horan, eventually, all your defenders’ attentions are spent. Soon, a player like Ana Crnogorčević will find some space. Players like Ellie Carpenter and Midge Purce, from their right back position, are going to get more room to come forward and add numbers in attack. Or, as was the case on Saturday, a player like Raso will be presented with a number of options on her side of the field.
Notice where she is when she picks up the ball ahead of her goal on Saturday:
Orlando’s approach has not only given her the whole right side (counting on right-wing back Chioma Ubogagu to win that matchup), but it’s also given the Thorns’ right winger a view of the field that allows her to pick her spots. She doesn’t have to stay wide and be resigned to trying to best Ubogagu. She can come into the spaces left with the Pride’s right-facing look and, once on the ball, find matchups that make her speed and movement as advantageous as possible.
This is the game opponents buy into when they decide to load up on Tobin Heath. Yes, you can limit her game; or, perhaps, you will force her to leave the areas she likes most and make the Thorns change their approach. But there’s always a chance that a Portland team that has loaded up with Crnogorčević, Raso, Purce, Carpenter and Caitlin Foord will call your bluff, embrace your tactic, and say “If that’s the way you’re going to let us beat you, we’ll beat you.”
Portland was in a gambit of their own the week before, when they conceded space wide to the North Carolina Courage. This, the tactic implied, is what we have to give you, and in the 2-1 result, we saw a Courage team talented enough to take advantage of what the Thorns offered.
For Portland’s opponents, space for the non-Heath, non-Horan, non-Sinclair threats is generally what you have to give up. But when players like Hayley Raso play as well as she did on Saturday, more often than not, the Thorns will be talented enough to take advantage of what the Orlandos of the world offer.