Thorns FC: Lets talk about Forwards

This is the first of a series of posts discussing the 2019 Thorns by examining the 2018 Thorns. I did this over at my old joint at Stumptown Footy after last season, too, as part of assessing the 2017 squad.

Thorns FC has six forwards rostered as of January 17, 2018: Caitlin Foord, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, Tyler Lussi, Hayley Raso, Ifeoma Onumonu, and Mallory Weber.

At the time of this writing, all six are either under contract or have been tendered offers.

The performance of the Thorns’ forwards was one of the biggest question marks of the 2018 season. If you followed my column at STF last year you couldn’t have avoided seeing the words “Forwards, score!” at some point, because the Thorns forwards didn’t score; rostered forwards netted only 8 of the team’s 40 regular season goals. Three midfielders (Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Lindsey Horan) accounted for the remaining 80 percent.

Here’s the thing, though. I’d like to suggest that our assessment of the Thorns’ forwards is somewhat skewed by our preseason expectations. We’re going to see that, compared to their NWSL peer groups, most of the Thorns’ strikers had a respectable 2018 campaign.

They, and we, couldn’t anticipate that three of their midfield teammates would have monster seasons and, in the process, swallow up the bulk of the attacking chances. Taken on their own terms or compared to players across the league with similar playing time, the work of the Thorns forwards wasn’t shameful.

The Big Three midfielders will miss a significant chunk of 2019, though, so whether the forwards can do better next year might make or break the Thorns’ coming season.

To start, here are some snapshots from 2018; first as their net plus-minus rating (PMR) plotted by matchday — note that the Thorns’ team average net PMR is plotted in red —

and then in terms of their InStat Indices. (Note that InStat ratings were not provided for the Final, or for the Houston match in Matchday 17).

That’s our forwards as a group. What about as individuals?

Typically forwards’ value is seen in the goals they score, so we’ll look at our forwards in order of their goal production in 2018.

Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic turned 28 this past October and has been playing professionally since 2009, debuting with Hamburger SV in the Frauenbundesliga.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 20 

Games started – 18

Shots – 35  

Shots on goal – 16 (45.7%)

Goals – 5 (conversion rate: 31.2% of SOG, 14.3% of all shots) 

Assists: 3

Comparison with previous years (2014-2017 with FFC Frankfurt):

Comments: It’s hard to recognize — given that the hype about her scoring record with Switzerland made her Thorns season feel like a disappointment — that AMC almost had a league-career year with Thorns FC in 2018.

Five goals and three assists? That’s close to her best season with Frankfurt, and it’s worth noting that her 2018 production was also relatively similar to her NWSL peer group.

The “peer group” players were chosen from those who had the most similar matchday outings based on 1) total matches played and 2) minutes played per match.

Overall, the comparisons show that, for all that AMC was well within the averages for her peer group, and did significantly better than her closest comparisons for Sky Blue (Claire McCaskill and Shea Groom) and Washington (Ashley Hatch).

Here’s her 2018 PMRs;

Those are decent numbers, and a reminder that AMC really did have a good season overall. The “problem” of AMC is the same problem all the other Thorns forwards had: She simply didn’t score like we think a forward should score.

Here she is compared to the top forwards across the league.

Lynn Williams, Samantha Kerr, Jodie Taylor, and Rachel Daly are the elite of the league and above the rest of the group, but AMC’s minutes per shot, shot-on-goal accuracy, and minutes per goal aren’t significantly worse than the other five players listed here.

AMC’s troubles appear to be that she didn’t get many opportunities – her total shots are third-lowest in the group, down there with the anemic attacks of Sky Blue and Utah. Even Ashley Hatch had more shots, playing for punchless Washington.

What appears to be the issue for AMC — and by inference, the other Thorns forwards — is the system the Thorns played in 2018.

AMC was only able to take about two-thirds to three-fifths of the shots a typical team-leading forward took last season. She got barely a third of the opportunities that the league-leading players like Samantha Kerr and Lydia Williams got. Her teammates just didn’t get her the ball or, when they did, she didn’t get it in position to get a shot off. The Thorns appear to have made a conscious decision to play through the Big Three in midfield rather than force the ball up to their strikers.

So my question about her would be; “What could change this for the better in 2019?”

One factor — possibly a huge factor — is that in 2018 she never had a consistent strike partner. Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso began the season on the trainer’s table, so the players at AMC’s side were a mélange of benchwarmers and trialists who never really clicked.

A healthy Foord and Raso on the pitch should help solve this problem. But a big part will be Coach Parsons’ commitment to finding AMC better service, and choosing to play through the forwards rather than rely on his midfielders.

That those midfielders will miss a significant piece of the season playing in the World Cup might well make up his mind for him.

Should she be here in 2019? Presuming that AMC is willing to soldier on for the still-punitively-low nonsubsidized-player NWSL maximum, yes. She was the most productive of the forwards in 2018, and that alone makes it worth giving her another shot in 2019.

Will she be here in 2019? This is difficult for me to predict simply due to the many unknown unknowns surrounding her and her teammates. Will AMC be willing to forego a European offer? If so, will it be because of unfinished business and a strong bond with her teammates here? If so, will a healthy Foord and a healthy Raso leave a place for her in the matchday XI, let alone help her up her game in 2019? And, if not, will she be willing to come off the bench?

The short answer is “I think so”.

But I say that in a less-than-fully-confident voice.

Hayley Raso will be 24 at the beginning of the 2019 season. She started playing professionally for the Washington Spirit in 2015.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 12 

Games started – 9

Shots – 16 

Shots on goal – 5 (31.2%)

Goals – 2 (40.0% of SOG, 12.5% of all shots)   

Assists: 2

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Raso’s 2018 must have felt like a nightmare, both for her team and assuredly for her personally.

She started 2018 injured, first saw the pitch halfway through the season, and then, in her first start had a tire-fire of a match in Seattle on Matchday 15.

After that, however, Raso began a steady progress in both form and results. She was the best Thorn on the pitch in Orlando on Matchday 22, and her PMR is consistently above her peers for the remainder of her season.

She looked to be peaking just at the right time until her season suddenly ended with a horrific back injury in Washington on Matchday 23.

The incredible thing about “Ribbons” is that, despite losing much of her season, Raso still compares favorably to her NWSL peer group.

You’ll note that Chimo Ubogagu stands head-and-shoulders above this group in almost every category other than shot-on-goal percentage. Other than that, however, Raso matches up well to the other forwards on this list – including some big names like Christen Press.

So while we think of Raso’s 2018 season as dominated by injuries – particularly the broken back – she actually played more than we probably remember and when she was playing she played well.

Here’s her PMRs;

A quick reminder; I stole the PMR system from my Stumptown colleague Richard Hamje back in 2016, and began using it at the old Slide Rule Pass website about halfway through the season. I rated every match in 2017 and 2018, but the 2016 values include only the final 14 matches.

Raso’s highs are down from her terrific 2017, but it’s worth noting that for the second season in a row her lows are higher, and her net is well above her team’s average. Raso is in the process of evolving from a player with tremendous potential into a tremendous player.

So the question isn’t so much whether Raso will be back in 2019, but whether the Raso of the 2017 season will be back, if so, when – and for how long. Her rehabilitation looks like it will take most or all of the NWSL offseason, and while I think it’s likely that she’ll be in training this spring I am very unsure what sort of form she will be in. Back injuries are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. Could she be out for most of season? It’s not impossible.

And IF she’s match fit, then she is almost certainly going to be called up by the Australian national team for a big chunk of the coming season.

Should she be here in 2019? Absolutely. The only real question is when “Hayley Raso” will be here, as opposed to the player we saw stretchered off the pitch in 2018.

Will she be here in 2019? As noted above, the real question is how well her rehab goes and what sort of form she will be in when the Opening Day whistle blows, or even later.

If she’s fit it will then depend on how far Australia goes in the World Cup finals. Between the two there’s a good chance that Raso will miss a big piece of 2019, and the Thorns will have to come up with someone to fill her boots as best they can.

I don’t know how I can strongly I can emphasize how critical managing the World Cup break is going to be for Mark Parsons. I’m still convinced that his lack of foresight and preparation played a huge part in getting Paul Riley the sack after his disastrous 2015. The Thorns have been built heavily around internationals – the midfield is going to be hammered even harder, as will discuss in the next installment of this series – and there are going to be a LOT of other holes like Raso’s to fill.

So Raso’s 2019 is going to be only part of the Thorns’ story next season. The other part is going to be “Who’s going to be Raso when Raso’s rehabilitating, or in France, and how well can she be Raso?”

The answer to that question is going to make or break this team next season.

Tyler Lussi will be 24 in April, 2019. She was the Thorns’ third player chosen in the 2017 NCAA draft.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 13 

Games started – 4

Shots – 15

Shots on goal – 7 (46.7%)

Goals – 1 (14.2% of SOG, 6.7% of all shots)   

Assists: 1

Comparison with previous year:

Comments: Tyler Lussi is still probably behind Weber on the depth chart but seems well established as a spot-starter and substitute. An indication of her place in the squad during 2018 is that after starting the first four matches she appeared as a substitute nine times, from early May through to late August.

An ominous sign for her future, however, may be that after Foord became available Lussi’s appearances dried up; she came on only once after that, and that for mere moments, after Foord’s first appearance on Matchday 19 in September.

Compared to the three Thorns appearing below her in our discussion Lussi’s PMR highs are lower – and her lows are lower – than both Weber and Foord. Only Onumonu is a clear step below her. Here’s their 2018 PMRs;

If I’m Coach Parsons, looking at that group makes Lussi appear kind of iffy compared to at least two of her three teammates.

Lussi was also a tough player to find comps for across the league. I ended up with six, none of whom seem a particularly good fit, but were the closest I could find in minutes-per-match and games played.

It’s worth noting that Lussi shot more frequently than any of the other scorers but tallied only once. Compared to the other three players most similar – Thembi Kgatlana of Houston, Brittany Ratcliffe of Utah, and Jen Hoy of Sky Blue – she fares poorly in conversion rate and minutes per goal, critical stats for a forward.

After two years with the team Lussi is still just sorta. Sorta useful, but not too useful. Sorta good, but not that good. The question to me is whether she’s sorta good enough to return in 2019 other than as World Cup filler.

Should she be here in 2019? Lussi still hasn’t proved that she can be as versatile as Weber, her conversion rate is still painfully low, and she uses a lot of time on the pitch compared to her return in goals scored. Assuming Foord and Raso are healthy in 2019, and Weber and AMC are here, her usefulness seems to be limited to her being here during the World Cup as a replacement for better forwards. Will that be enough? I am very much not sure of that.

Will she be here in 2019? Lussi’s 2019 situation seems very similar to her 2018 situation; if she has a terrific camp, and if no trade opportunities open up, and if the team wants to carry her as insurance for the World Cup matches? Then it’s likely we’ll see her here. But that’s a lot of “ifs”.

————————–

That, unfortunately, wraps up the Thorns’ 2018 goalscoring forwards. The remaining three have to be ranked somehow, so from here on down I’ll use their total minutes to distinguish them.

Mallory Weber: Mallory was drafted by Western New York in January, 2016 and traded to Portland for an international spot two months later. She will turn 25 in April, 2019.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 14 

Games started – 9

Shots – 5 

Shots on goal – 1 (20%)

Goals – 0   

Assists: none

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Weber remains both a big part of the team because she’s such a versatile player, capable of filling in midfield as well as an outside back in an emergency

Her PMRs:

Weber’s PMRs reflect her struggles with consistency in 2018. She’s still a solid professional. She never had a game where her net PMR went below zero, and her InStat Index numbers are generally strong compared to her teammates. When she was good she was good; twice as good by my reckoning than her best play in 2017.

But when she wasn’t?

Ouch. Not as bad as 2016, but worse than 2017 and not as good as her teammates averaged over the season. It’s never good to see a player regress.

How’d she compare to her peer group?

Weber’s primary issue appears to be shooting. Compared to her peer group she 1) doesn’t shoot often, and, when she does 2) doesn’t put her efforts on target. That’s not improving, either; from putting all three shots on frame in 2016 she’s dropped to only 20% on-target last season.

If Weber figures in the team’s plans as a utility player and late-match sub then her production value isn’t absolutely critical. But if she ever wants to be more than just that she needs to be able to start converting her time on the field into goals. That means shooting more, and better.

Should she be here in 2019? I don’t see any reason to change my assessment from last season. Weber was a useful piece of the Thorns in 2018 and seems likely to be just as useful next season. She’s relatively cheap and versatile and is at least replacement-level or better. Unless the Thorns can find a more attractive prospect to trade her for I don’t see why she shouldn’t be here.

Will she be here in 2019?  Again, just like last season unless she is packaged as part of a deal I can’t see why not…but, then, I don’t see any particular reason to NOT trade her if the team can scout someone who is, say, 22 and just as good, or the same age and a little better.

Still, there’s something to be said for cohesion and Weber has been part of the team for three full seasons. So taking everything into consideration, I think she’ll be here.

Caitlin Foord turned 24 in November, 2018. She came to Portland as part of the trade for Allie Long before the 2018 season.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 8   

Games started – 3

Shots – 7 

Shots on goal – 4 (57%)

Goals – 0   

Assists: none

Comments: When Thorns FC traded for her rights back in February of 2018, I wrote:

“Foord doesn’t seem to be a big scoring threat; in 46 matches over three seasons with Sky Blue she took a total of 16 shots and put 5 on target without scoring. Her form in the W-League is better (20 goals over a little over 100 matches) so she’s not entirely without striking skills, but her primary tools are a winger’s; very high workrate, pacey on and off the ball, a skillful dribbler, and an accurate passer.”

I can’t find the tweet now, but Merritt Paulson responded by saying on Twitter, in effect; “Oh, yeah? Here. Hold my beer”. Clearly his plan was for Foord to be the breakoutscoring threat in 2018.

Well, after an offseason foot injury Foord played only eight matches in 2018 and did make contributions to Portland’s attack. None of those contributions included goals.

I’m now reading glowing reports of Foord’s strikes in the W League and for Australia since the end of the NWSL season. She has 5 goals in 7 matches for Sydney FC, and a conversion rate in the 40% range. That’s terrific. I hope that’s a harbinger of 2019 NWSL goals to come.

That said, I’ve seen the highlights and my immediate reactions were that 1) Foord has a sweet scoring touch, and 2) she was feasting on some utterly crap defending, the sort of “utter crap defending” that she’s not going to see back here next season outside of Washington and Sky Blue on really off days.

How did she compare to her peers last season?

Foord’s closest analogues were her own teammate Ifeoma Onumonu, former Thorn Savannah Jordan now playing for Houston, and Seattle’s Elizabeth Addo.

Foord got a shot off more often than Addo and Jordan, and her shots were on target roughly twice as often as theirs. She still couldn’t get a goal out of that, though, which makes her look no more dangerous than her teammate Onumonu.

The difference was that Foord was having a tough season struggling back from injury – late in the season when her teammates and the rest of the league were peaking – while Onumonu got started early and visibly failed to keep pace with her team and the rest of the league.

Despite last season’s struggles Foord’s vita, and her form this winter, make her look to be a potential scoring threat. If she can stay healthy, if she can get service, if she can find the seams in the opposing defenses she’s finding for Sydney FC and her national team, and if everything else falls into line? We should be very happy she’s here in 2019.

Should she be here in 2019? Assuming that she doesn’t get injured again and nothing else changes, yes.

Will she be here in 2019? Given how high on her the Thorns FO was last season, I can’t imagine why not.

Of course, Foord will have the same issues with the World Cup that we’ve discussed above in the Raso comment.

Ifeoma Onumonu will be 25 in February, 2019. She came to Portland in the Boston dispersal draft before the 2018 season.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 8   

Games started – 3

Shots – 6 

Shots on goal – 3 (50%)

Goals – 0   

Assists: none

Comparison with previous season (2017 with Boston):

Comments: Onumonu started three of the first four matches of 2018. After that the only match she started was the Matchday 11 home loss to the North Carolina Courage. She did not see the pitch after that.

I think that match may well have been the reason why. At the time I wrote:

“The bottom line for a striker is goals, and it has become painfully apparent that Onumonu can’t score. Her touch is brutal, and she lacks the striker’s “nose for goal”. She’s just not good enough.”

It’s worth noting that the FO hasn’t bothered to get Onumonu out on loan this winter, so my guess is that they’re not particularly excited about her, either.

I don’t like to write that; Onumonu is a hard worker and I hate to see a player that leaves it all on the pitch come up short. But in the small-roster world of the NWSL a championship team can’t really afford passengers.

She doesn’t have any particularly good comparisons so don’t have a peer group for her, but her stats speak for themselves.

Should she be here in 2019? The only reason I can see her remaining is purely as World Cup filler. But Weber and Lussi offer both that and better quality.

Will she be here in 2019? I’m frankly baffled why the team tendered her an offer. They did, though, and that makes me uncomfortable predicting that she will be released or traded before opening day. But I won’t be shocked if she’s not.

————

So…does Thorns FC need to change or add anything particular at the forward position right now? Do you see any immediate needs that should be filled by trade or draft?

We have to assume that Foord won’t be re-injured and Raso’s recovery will proceed on schedule, and the AMC won’t get a better offer in the offseason, so in the spring of 2019 Thorns FC will have Foord, Raso, and AMC as potential starters with Weber and Lussi coming off the bench.

Would it be terrific to have Kerr or Williams in that lineup? Sure. Is it likely? No. Any trade for a striker of that quality is likely to cost Portland more than the team will be willing to pay.

Given the the Thorns took a DM in the 2019 draft it doesn’t appear that there will be any help coming from the NCAA.

The wild card will be the World Cup replacements. Will a front line of AMC-Weber-Lussi be able to produce like Foord-Raso-AMC – especially without Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Christine Sinclair behind them? Who will the team call in to fill in the missing pieces?

How do you see the prospects for 2019 at forward?

Good, presuming that all the “whatifs” turn out well. 

If Foord stays healthy and in her W-League/international form, if Raso returns to full fitness, if AMC continues to contribute, if Weber steps up, and if Lussi can lift her game, and if whoever steps in during the international break turns out to be terrific.

That’s a lot of “whatifs”.

Next The Midfield.

John Lawes

Soccer-obsessive. Stats geek. Thorns supporter. Former Slide Rule Pass and Stumptown Footy Thorns beat writer. One of those people who's "often mistaken but never wrong"...

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2 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Lets talk about Forwards

  1. I’m puzzled about why STF would have let you go, and I hope you’ll continue to participate in the comments conversations there. Meanwhile I’m glad you have a new outlet, and I look forward to reading your accounts of the Thorns’ adventures this season.
    One minor bit of copy editing: In the section on AMC, you refer to Lydia Williams; I, and probably every other reader, assume you mean Lynn Williams.

    1. The bottom line is that the Vox Media/SB Nation powers-that-be want more “news” features at STF and less of 4,000 words maundering about players and tactics and match reports. I don’t want to write that – farting out 500 words on “Dagny’s coming back to Portland!” would bore the shit out of me – and my “4,000 words maundering on about the Thorns midfield” isn’t what STF wants. It’s just not a good fit.

      I will still be a force in being at Stumptown in the comments – I’ve been waived as a columnist but I’m still a fan – and so long as STF is willing to be open to Thorns and Timbers fans I’ll be there.

      And, yes; Lynn, not Lydia. Fixed. Good catch, thanks.

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