20210607 lindsey horan warmup
Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns

FARLEY | Saturday was another reminder of how important Lindsey Horan is to the Thorns

PORTLAND, Ore. — Lindsey Horan had a goal, an assist, and a crucial role in another goal on Saturday for Thorns FC against Racing Louisville FC, but for those who’ve watched the United States international closely since her Portland arrival, the performance may have felt like a typical 90 minutes for the Rose City midfielder. Maybe a goal and an assist are more than she usually collects each game — one-goal and one-assist per game would be by far the best statistical season in National Women’s Soccer League history — but within a team that won 3-0 and outshot their opponents 28-4 over Saturday’s 90 minutes, the numbers felt symptomatic. They were good, but they were also in line with the rest of the Thorns’ performance.

But why Horan was the player who got that goal and assist, and why she was otherwise the night's most important player, was a huge reminder of her importance. It showed the value of a player who, in all phases of a game, is a player a team can build around, and it spoke to the type of chess match that happens whenever a player of her talents is on the field.

Horan isn’t the only Portland player capable of defining games, but through a few clips and screenshots from Saturday’s game, we'll see the circumstances that allowed her to do so.

Let’s start by leveraging the work of a Twitter user, Tony, who highlighted the Thorns' press as Racing tried to play up the field. The captions are in Spanish, but from their context, you get the point. Tony is focusing on the Thorns’ organization, Louisville’s lack of options, and ultimately, how Portland is dictating Racing's use of space.

At the end of that clip, Horan has possession and room on the other side of the field. Portland’s won the ball, moved it quickly to one of their most influential players, and done so in the Louisville half of the field. These are the type of dynamics that lead to a plus-24 shot margin.

Before digging into that more, let’s step back and think about things in the abstract. Below, I’ve diagramed how both Portland’s and Racing’s formations look in situations like the above, when Louisville is trying to build out from their goalkeeper.

Along the length of the field, the Thorns are symmetrical. They’re ready no matter the direction Louisville chooses. And though it doesn’t look like it from this shape, above, Racing is basically symmetrical, too. Their central midfielder (“CM” in lavender) and attacking midfielder (“AM”) will react to the space available.

That symmetry becomes important when we get back to Horan. Although the Thorns, by their shape, are egalitarian, Horan's place on the left side of distorts this balance. She is one of the league’s best ball-winners, is quick to react to opponents' moves, and is faster than she’s generally given credit for. If a team chooses to build down their right, their choosing to confront one of the least permissive midfielders in the NWSL:

Yet if Portland's opponent decides to build down their left, you get the situation we see in the tweet above, one that puts a high demand on the attacking team's skill and movement. Both teams shift with the ball, gathering players on Louisville’s left flank. When the Thorns force Racing to play long ball, that ball’s won by Portland defensive midfielder Angela Salem, and Horan quickly gets possession with more space than any opponent would want:

Sometimes coaches have to live with these situations. They usually do so to leverage advantages elsewhere on the field, or because they're the lesser of evils. In Louisville’s case, they’re a new team trying to instill priorities and principles. Even if they weren't, soccer is a low-scoring sport, and you usually need a collection of chances to break through. When a central midfielder is played a ball 35-to-40 yards from goal, you’re usually one or two defensive mistakes away from creating that chance, let alone the breakthrough.

Horan is different. To the extent that, in those situations, teams are one or two mistakes from conceding, she’s capable of forcing those mistakes on her down. On Saturday, we saw a perfect example of that, and while it didn’t come from Portland’s defending as Louisville built play, it did come from a similar situation. When Louisville right back Erin Simon wastes time contesting a throw-in, below, she leaves her teammates outnumbered and disorganized. Horan pounces on the opportunity, beats a center back that's scrambling to cover for her teammate, and sets up a fellow central midfielder, Rocky Rodríguez, for the game's second goal:

Having seen how dangerous Horan is in that left-center midfield role, let's go back and really break down that 10th-minute example, above, with new context. Only this time, let's extend the clip. Let's see how Portland sets up from before Michelle Betos, Louisville's goalkeeper, received the ball, and to when the play is stopped. 

From the top of their formation, where Charley presses, but she doesn't take away Betos's lane to left-center back Kaleigh Reihl. She waits for the pass wide before getting between the fullback and goalkeeper. This decision was a constant throughout the evening, and is seen twice in this clip. Whenever possible, Charley committed to this lane after the ball went wide, making sure if Louisville wanted to get to the other side of their formation, they would have to work through the midfield.

Short of that, Portland is committed to forcing a long ball, and when that long ball comes, center back Emily Menges, uncontested, heads down for Horan, who quickly fires a ball to the front of a transitioning defense. Even before controlling Menges' pass, Horan sets herself to play her only touch into the weak point of Racing's defense.

In terms of our formation diagram, you can see what Louisville’s shape looks like when Portland gets possession of the ball, and you can see, with two defenders dealing with three attackers along the left side of their defense, Racing wasn lucky not concede another goal. 

Lest this becomes a film session, let’s look at just a couple of more examples of how dangerous Horan is when there’s too much space on her side of the field. The three examples in this clip, below (I threw her goal off a cross in at the end, for good measure), aren’t purely from the Thorns’ pressure, they do highlight the risk teams inherit against the Thorns when they overcommit to one side of the field. When the ball gets to the other side, this is what the former league Most Valuable Player can do:

Even when she didn't have the ball, Horan was impactful. Though Salem scored Saturday’s opening goal, Horan was the center of attention on the initial corner kick. She gets defenders to move with her, pushing Louisville's line a few yards toward goal, when she makes her second-phase run, and she's the person whose gravity allows Morgan Weaver to be one-on-one at the far post for the ball that's headed back to Salem. Horan's gravity also explains why her teammate, Salem, had so much space at the top of the penalty area.

There’s an analyst online, Arielle Dror, whose software analyzes the shooting and passing actions from NWSL games. After each, she posts two diagrams to her Twitter account: one that totals the goal probabilities from a team’s shots; and one that shows a team’s passing map for that game, as well as how active each player was in their team's actions.

Here’s what Dror’s program produced from Saturday’s game:

If Dror's work charts Portland's system, then Horan was the center of it: the red, hot star around which everything revolved. Be it through her production, the team's tactics, her execution or, in her role delivering the first hug to the night’s other goalscorers …

… Horan provided another reminder of why she’s so important, and why the room she's getting can be so dangerous.

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