Thorns FC: The Midfield

Last week we looked at Thorns FC’s striking corps.  This week we look at who we have in the center of the pitch.

Thorns FC has a total of six midfielders under contract this January; Tobin Heath, Andressinha, Lindsey Horan, Midge Purce, Celeste Boureille, and Angela Salem.

Although still rostered as a forward, Christine Sinclair played primarily as a withdrawn forward/attacking midfielder last season, and that’s how I’m going to treat her here.

This past week rumors have been flying about the possibility of Dagny Brynjarsdottir returning to Thorns FC, so I’m going to discuss her as well, just in case.

Heath, Horan, and Sinclair are subsidized by their federations. The remainder have either been optioned or tendered an offer; the status of Dagny is uncertain.

The single biggest question – or, if you are a pessimist, biggest threat – hanging over Thorns FC’s 2019 season is the unavoidable reality that some time in late spring the team is going to lose all three of 2018’s top scorers, along with a significant chunk of the rest of the starters, to the World Cup.

World Cup 2019 will be the test for Mark Parsons that Paul Riley failed in 2015; how do you prevent your team from cratering when you lose your best players for the gut of the season?

As documented both by my plus-minus rating (PMR) system and the InStat Index, three players bossed the Thorns’ midfield in 2018. The team’s overall net PMR average is tracked in red on the chart below, and you can follow those three players’ net ratings floating above the red line nearly all season; Horan in light blue, Heath in green, and Sinclair in red-brown.

Purce is intriguing, because she begins way above the red line and then things change – we’ll talk about that in her comments, though.

The InStat Index chart shows similar trends, although less exaggerated because of the different numerical values used.

Two notes; Heath is tracked in dark blue on the Index chart instead of green, and the hole in the middle of the plot is because InStat didn’t provide a report for the Houston match on Matchday 17.

Since the three standout midfielders who will surely go to France are Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Lindsey Horan, we’ll discuss them first.

The Players – The Big Three

Christine Sinclair will turn 36 in June, 2019, and has played professionally for 13 years, debuting with Vancouver in 2006.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 26  

Games started – 26

Shots – 36  

Shots on goal – 22 (61.1%)

Goals – 9 (conversion rate: 40.9% of SOG, 25% of all shots) 

Assists: 7

Comparison with previous years:

Comments:  2018 found the Thorns’ captain continuing her play from the withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder position which we first saw the previous season. She also continued to improve her conversion rate and accuracy. She’s been doing this steadily (with a little dip in conversion rate in 2017) from her low point during the Black Yips season of 2014.

As we discussed in the first installment in this series the midfielders were the scoring engine of Thorns FC in 2018. Sinclair alone scored one-fifth of both the club’s 40 regular season goals (8 of 40) as well as 9 of the 42 total goals scored in 2018.

Her PMRs looked like this:

One thing we can’t avoid discussing about Sinclair is her age.

Typical athletes peak physically between 26 and 27 years old. Before that their inexperience limits the production they can get from their young bodies’ speed and strength. After that age their increased technical and tactical knowledge of their sport – if they’ve learned from it – allows them to continue producing by applying their increasingly limited power and pace when needed most. Their careers are a parabola; increasing in value as they gain knowledge and skill, then declining as age and wear decrease their physical abilities.

Sinclair, like all great players, has used her physical abilities and terrific soccer intelligence to “flatten out” that descending arc. She is fanatic about her fitness, still almost as lean and strong as she was ten years ago. But in her mid-thirties time is not on her side and she, her coaches, and her team, are going to have to begin to manage her minutes to ensure that she doesn’t arrive at the critical close of the season gassed.

Unfortunately for the Thorns Front Office, there is no one who can step into her boots and give her that time off. There are not many who could do that, and even if the team could find such a player, signing her to be ready on the bench to fill in for Sinclair is beyond the capacity of a small-roster, salary-capped league.

We know that the team will have to find a replacement for Sinc during the World Cup period. But I believe that this coming season the FO will also need to figure out how to sub her off at the hour mark or so without struggling late in matches.

We know there will be a drop in the quality of midfield play when you lose one of the Greatest of All Time, so the only question remaining will be the degree to which the team can limit that drop.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes.

Will she be here in 2019?  Yes, but for less time than any season since 2015 and possibly even more than that. The big question is, as noted above, will there be someone(s) here who can be “late game Sinclair” and “World Cup break Sinclair”?

If not, we may be looking at a trainwreck.

Tobin Heath will be 30 when the season opens.  She began playing professionally for the Pali Blues in 2009. She played for the Atlanta Beat and Sky Blue in the WPS in 2010 and 2011, and Paris St. Germain in 2013-2014. Heath is a Thorns FC plankholder, along with Sinclair the only other current Thorn who was here on Opening Day 2013.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 19  

Games started – 16

Shots – 33

Shots on goal – 19 (57.5%)

Goals – 8 (conversion rate: 42.1% of SOG, 24.2% of all shots) 

Assists: 7

Comparison with previous years:

Comments:  After her monster season of 2016 the following year was a bitter struggle for Heath. Her second title must have been welcome solace after the long climb back from a frustratingly nagging series of injuries.

Heath continued to fight through injury in 2018, however, missing the first three matches of the season and four more before the Final. When she did play she was very effective, if still not quite where she was in 2016.

Her big improvement in 2018 was cleaning up her bad habits. Heath loves tricky ball skills and taking defenders off the dribble, and in previous years this would often lead to her dribbling into coverage, getting tackled for loss, or coughing up the ball with poor passes.

In 2018 her PMR highs were similar to those she put up the previous year but her lows were higher, reflecting the work Heath put into refining her game, cutting down on the turnovers.

As with Sinclair, the problem facing Thorns FC in 2019 is the World Cup. As with Sinclair, the team does not have a replacement player of Heath’s quality, so the question will be whether the team can assemble a group of players, and a set of tactics, or both, that will enable the squad to survive the loss of Heath without too much damage

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes.

Will she be here in 2019?  For part of the season. At least in Heath’s case it’s only for the World Cup break and not, as with Sinclair, having to limit her playing time. I will add that with back injuries the chance of recurrence is always a lingering concern. When she’s here, and healthy, she will obviously be huge.

Lindsey Horan:  Went to Europe in 2012 rather than go through the NCAA player mill and spent three seasons with Paris St. Germain before signing with the Thorns in January, 2016. She emerged in midseason 2017 as the Great Horan, and since then has become the strongest horse in the troika that pulls the midfield. Horan will turn 25 in May, 2019.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 24  

Games started – 24

Shots – 55 

Shots on goal – 32 (58.1%)

Goals – 14 (conversion rate: 43.7% of SOG, 25.4% of all shots) 

Assists: 3

Comparison to previous seasons:

Comments: After last season I observed that “In 2017…from being a very good player Horan lifted her game in midseason to where, by the end of the year, she was the best Thorn on the field, and that by a very wide margin.”

In 2018 Horan continued in her late 2017 season form.

Horan was a deserved choice for the 2018 NWSL Most Valuable Player and was essential to the Thorns’ drive to the championship match.

She also improved on one of the minor issues I picked on her about after 2017; her efficiency. She brought her shot-on-target percentage back up to close to 60% and lifted her conversion rate to her personal best on the way to scoring nearly a third – 32% – of her team’s goals.

Replacing Sinclair and Heath are tough tasks.

Replacing Horan? That’s just not possible.

Horan in 2016 was a valuable player. Horan today is the most valuable player on the team and by acclamation the league. Impossible to replace and assured of a major drop in the level of midfield play without her, the team’s hope must surely be to keep that drop merely painful instead of a season-destroying catastrophe.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes.

Will she be here in 2019?  For about the same time period as Heath. For the period she is gone, however, the team has a problem that may not be solvable.

The Players – Squad Players and the Bench

A fourth midfielder may also be lost to the World Cup, if Brazil call up;

Andressinha will turn 24 in May, 2019.  She started playing professionally at the age of 14 for the Brazilian club Esporte Clube Pelotas in 2009. She transferred to the Kindermann club in Santa Catarina and played there for five years, signing with the Houston Dash in the middle of the 2015 season. She was traded to Portland before the 2018 season as part of the Savannah Jordan deal.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 19  

Games started – 9

Shots – 13

Shots on goal – 3 (23%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots) 

Assists: 0

Comparison with previous seasons (with Houston):

Comments:  Andressinha’s 2018 season has to be considered a disappointment. She was brought to Portland as an attacking threat but was unable to either score or provide service for one of her teammates to score. Her shooting accuracy was poor. She never found a comfortable role in the Thorns midfield.

The Brazilian was just there; never so poor as to be frozen out of the matchday XI, but never good enough to become a regular starter.

Uncertainties surround her for 2019. Will she be called up by Brazil? If so, the question then becomes – how long will she be gone? The Brazilian squad has underwhelmed in recent cycles, so could she be done and back in Portland after the group stage?

If she does return early, or if she is not called up, she still faces the same issues she ran into last season. If she’s an attacking midfielder she needs to be more precise; her forward pass completion rate was barely over 70%, dropping to 68% for long passes.

If she’s a box-to-box midfielder she needs to be tougher. Andressinha was not durable in 2018, knocked out of shape – or out of the match, as in Seattle –  by more physical challengers. She a decent defender without being particularly great at any aspect of the trade. She wins 65% of her challenges but is poor in the air, and while she is a crafty ball-hawker, intercepting passes is only half the business, and her distribution was decent without ever being decisive.

Here’s her PMRs;

The problem I have with Andressinha isn’t that she can’t play; if she couldn’t, the solution would be simple – replace her with someone who can.

The problem is that while she can play for all her individual skills, she doesn’t seem to have an effective place in the Thorns’ midfield.

As an attacking midfielder she isn’t much of a scoring threat; she lacks the sniper’s accuracy to attack from distance, or the toughness to fight her way inside. She doesn’t seem to be a Vero Boquete-type of organizer and director. She passes decently, but not superbly, and (unsurprisingly) she wasn’t an on-field leader last season.

Andressinha doesn’t have the blazing speed or pinpoint crossing needed to be a successful winger. As a defensive midfielder she shows good anticipation in cutting off passes and can tackle deftly enough but lacks the aerial power and ground-covering ferocity she needs lock down the back of the midfield.

So what can she do for the Thorns in 2019? I just don’t know; she seems decent enough taken apart, but the sum of her parts always seemed like answers to the wrong question. For me she is a sphinx without a riddle.

Should she be here in 2019?  To be of value to PTFC, Andressinha and her coaches will have to work out tactics, or techniques, that will make her more effective in midfield. She will also have to be available; if she’s gone for much of the season in France she will just be a hole in the roster better filled with someone younger, cheaper, and more versatile.

Will she be here in 2019?  This is where I can’t read Parsons’ and Merritt Paulson’s minds. Purely on my part I’d look to trade Andressinha or release her and try someone like 2018 draftees Sandra Yu or Gabby Seiler, instead. But she’s been tendered an offer, so the Thorns Front Office must think differently than I do. How much differently may not be evident until March. I think we’ll just have to see if she moves anywhere this winter.

Angela Salem turned 30 in July, 2018. She began playing professionally for Sky Blue FC in 2010 and then the Atlanta Beat in 2011 and played for Åland United of Finland during the 2011-2012 season.  She spent three seasons with the Western New York Flash, going on loan to the Newcastle Jets of the W-league repeatedly during the NWSL offseason.

In 2015 she moved to the Washington Spirit, and after that to Boston for the 2016-2017 seasons, from whence she was taken by Portland in the dispersal draft.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 5  

Games started  – 1

Shots – 0

Shots on goal – 0 (0%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots) 

Assists: 0

Comparison with previous seasons (with Boston 2016-2017)

Comments:  I had hopes that Salem would be the lock-down defensive midfielder the Thorns needed to replace Amandine Henry. She had the reputation of a solid, savvy professional whose work for Boston was reliable and safe, so that didn’t seem like too big an ask.

And, if you look at her record, she was good in Boston. Her tackling success rate was in the mid-to-high seventies, her challenges-won always better than 50 percent, including in the air. She had 75 interceptions over 2,117 minutes played in 2017, over three per match. Her passing accuracy was always over 70 percent.

All that changed in Portland.  Her duels won dropped to barely 40 percent both on the ground and in the air. Her successful tackles down to 50 percent. Her passing completion was still in the 70-percent range but her long-pass accuracy went into the tank.

I’m baffled at what happened to Salem here. She never seemed to get minutes and, when she did, she was mediocre. I think those things may be linked; some players need time on the pitch to get into form, and Salem may be one of them.

Salem is shown as playing in five matches, but in two of them – Chicago on Matchday 2 and Orlando on Matchday 3 she got one minute of garbage time in each game. Of her three remaining matches she got only 32 minutes against Utah on Matchday 10, a full half against Sky Blue on Matchday 14, and played her only complete match, 89 minutes, in New Jersey on Matchday 18. She didn’t see the pitch again. For a player that needs playing time, that’s devastating.

Her PMRs are perfectly blah;

I really wanted to like Salem more than I did. She’s supposedly a terrific teammate. She’s paid her dues, the ultimate professional soccer journeywoman. She’s got tons of experience and was a starter for Western New York during their fine 2013 season. I can’t believe she doesn’t have the tools. Why was she used so little, and was that why she was so mediocre when she was?

Salem seems like she should be capable of more than she showed us in 2018. Why didn’t she? Did she hit the wall at thirty? Did she just not fit in Portland somehow? It would seem like the team saw something there; they exercised her option, but what the heck could they see? Salem had no chance to show us anything under match conditions.

Should she be here in 2019?  The only reason I say yes is because she’s sure World Cup filler in a gutted midfield. I want to think there are better reasons. I’d like to think that she’s got another great season left in her. But I have absolutely nothing to base that on.

Will she be here in 2019?  My guess is yes, because “World Cup”. Selfishly, I like Salem. I like her stick-to-it work ethic; a lot of players would have given up after traipsing around the world of professional soccer with nary a ring to show for it. Salem has stuck it out, and I really want to see her go insane in 2019 and win the MVP.

Celeste Boureille: “Cee Bee” will have just turned 24 when the season opens next year.  She was signed in 2016 out of the University of California.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 23 

Games started  – 20

Shots – 11 

Shots on goal – 3 (23%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots) 

Assists: 0

Comparison with other seasons:

Here’s my ratings for Boureille:

At the end of 2017 I wrote: “I believe that Boureille is a starting-quality NWSL midfielder/fullback. The problem is that she’s not significantly better than the other starting-quality players currently in the XI. Unless she shows something really special in camp in 2018 I can’t see that changing, so I can’t see her moving into the regular matchday XI.”

Instead of tearing up preseason, what changed to put Boureille in the XI at the beginning of 2018 was that the players who had been above her on the Thorns roster were gone on Opening Day.

Henry and Dagny had been released and Heath was injured, so Boureille was pressed into the starting XI. After a tough match in Cary on Matchday 1 Cee Bee ripped off three terrific games in a row, culminating in Matchdays 3 and 4, where her net PMRs were +7 and +6, respectively, and both her InStat Indices were above 200.

She then went to Salt Lake City and faceplanted on Matchday 5. I rated her as a net -5, InStat as 125, which is InStat for “is not to be quitting your day job, because you is barely above replacement level”.

Ouch.

If she was a rookie struggling to adjust to the team or the league, or just having an off match or two, this sort of inconsistency would be understandable. But Boureille was a two-year veteran who’s been a Thorn ever since draft day 2016. She should have been a rock last year but instead proceeded to yo-yo between excellent performances and barely-passable work all season.

The 2018 Thorns didn’t need her to be a star – that’s what Horan and Sinclair and Heath were doing. They needed a steady hand and eye at the back, a reliable roleplayer, and what they got was Boureille, yo-yo-ing from “Terrific!” to “WTF?” You never knew what you’d get when she stepped across the touchline; in the immortal words of John Travolta in Look Who’s Talking: “Could be peaches! Could be meatloaf!”

In 2019 she’s going to need to be better than just a reliable roleplayer, though, because she’s going to have to step into Horan’s boots in midseason.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes, possibly even as a starting midfielder during the World Cup break. Can Cee Bee turn out to be the secret identity of the Great Horan from mid-May to early August? If she can that’ll be huge for the 2019 season.

Will she be here in 2019?  Yes, and she’s going to have to have a monster of a season. As I said about Horan; the question isn’t whether the level of midfield play will drop when the Big Three are gone. It will. It will be up to Boureille (and Salem and Purce and, possibly, Andressinha, or Emily Ogle) to ensure that that drop isn’t so brutally low that the team finds itself at the end of the season in a hole too deep to climb out of.

Margaret “Midge” Purce will be 23 next season. She was a Boston product, playing for Harvard until she was drafted by the Breakers in 2017. She came here in the Boston dispersal draft.

2018 Statistics:

Games played – 21  

Games started  – 16

Shots – 9

Shots on goal – 3 (33.3%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots) 

Assists: 0

Comparison with previous season (with Boston 2017)

Comments:  Pressed into service immediately to cover for the injured Heath, Purce ripped off a string of strong performances to open the 2018 season. A speedy, tough-tackling winger with a nose for the open teammate, Purce looked like the find of the year.

Then she tanked in the home loss to North Carolina on Matchday 11; I rated her only as a -1 net PMR but the InStat tovariches were merciless – their Index of 116 is a “can she actually walk and chew gum simultaneously?” level assessment.

After that Purce was in and out of the XI for two months; she sat for three games, then played two back-to-back matches in which she was perfectly bipolar – struggling in Seattle on Matchday 15 then putting in a terrific shift here against Utah – and then disappeared again until early August.

From there she was back on the pitch either as starter or substitute until the semifinal, doing decently overall. She didn’t appear in the Final.

Her PMRs reflect her season; not overwhelming, solid on average, but with a tendency to be either quite high or distressingly low.

Purce has a ton of upside with some very visible holes in her game. She’s got pace, both in a straight-ahead run and in her burst sprints. She reads the pitch well and can put in a nice cross or diagonal pass from the right flank. She’s usually a sturdy defender, good marker, and reliable tackler.

She has no left foot. None. She’s perhaps the most strongly right-footed player on the Thorns. Opponents quickly discovered that if you turn her to the left she will be in trouble. Her passing accuracy, a low-but-passable 62 percent, drops to less than a third – 31percent – for her long passing that may largely be a reflection of that left-foot-problem.

There’s a lot about Purce to like. What would help me like her even more is if she worked on her weak left side so that she could step away from the right-side touchline with more confidence. She will be important as World Cup filler, especially since she will have to reprise her 2017 work as Tobin-Heath-replacement during the international window, so she needs to be better.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes. She’s a good roleplayer. She seems to be well-liked and a good teammate. She can work on her weaknesses, which don’t appear to be insoluble.

Will she be here in 2019? I can’t see why not, though squad players like Purce are never a lock. If the team could, say, package her as part of a trade for Sam MEwis, or Merritt Mathias, or Jessica Fishlock, would they? I can’t say that’s impossible.

Dagný Brynjarsdóttir will be 27 in April 2019.  She started playing professionally at the age of 15 in the Icelandic Úrvalsdeild.  She spent 9 matches with Bayern before returning to Selfoss, and signed with Portland after a trade from Boston in 2016. She took the 2018 season off to have a little Viking and is now rumored to be returning to Portland for 2019.

Previous seasons:

Comments:  Brynjarsdóttir had an odd 2017, beginning with a late start caused by her struggle with a back injury. She finally began to see the pitch in early June as a substitute. Her first start came against FCKC here at the end of June as a fullback, where she played well enough for Parsons to extend the experiment to the following match in Seattle, where Meghan Rapinoe ate her for lunch, so, not a fullback, then.

Later in the season Coach Parsons seemed to hit on a novel use for Brynjarsdóttir; she was the late-match Amandine Henry. As such Brynjarsdóttir was a huge success, and her role in 2019 is somewhat obscured by the degree to which she was “Amandine Henry’s legs” in 2017.

My guess is that Brynjarsdóttir has the potential to be play a larger role in the Thorns’ midfield in 2019, but the real question is where. Her two seasons here were very different. In 2016 she was a box-crashing goalscorer, in 2017 more of a defensive midfielder with an occasional foray upfield. The World Cup abductions will be a huge factor in where and how she plays, and I’m not sure we can figure that out until we see it. Another is the extreme variation between her two previous seasons and how that makes her potential role obscure.

In 2016 she was one of the main beneficiaries of Tobin Heath’s monumental playmaking. In 2017 that ended with Heath’s injury, and the team added Henry, lost (for all practical purposes) Long in midseason, and saw the emergence of the Great Horan at the end of the year.

All of this pushed Dagny out wide – when she played – as well as onto the bench for much of the year. What will happen this coming season is likely to be just as idiosyncratic as the differences between Dagny’s two earlier seasons.

Here’s her PMRs;

Two problems for Brynjarsdóttir (and for the Thorns); first, she made little progress – as measured by her PMRs – over a season and a half. And, second, that while she’s a useful player the team has several other people who can do much the same things that Dagny does.  Her great advantage is height (she’s 5′ 11″) but the Thorns have not been particularly successful at converting that into goals; she’s scored a total of 2 (of her 5 NWSL goals), two less than that lanky beanpole Nadia Nadim.

One possible means to resolve this problem of “where does she fit?” might be to convert Dagny to a pure forward.  I’m not sure she has the speed or the shiftiness to be a Dunn-type active striker, but with her height, positional, and ball-control skills she might make a very effective hold-up-type forward.

Another might be simply to accept that her role here is to be a sort of “middle reliever”; spot starts for injuries or absences, late-match sub or when she can get a particularly good matchup against an opposing center back or fullback.  Even as a roleplayer, I can see Brynjarsdóttir having a valuable role to play next season.

Should she be here in 2019?  I think so.  Right now I’m not quite sure where she fits into the Thorns midfield, other than to believe that given her quality it’s worth trying to find a place for her there.

Will she be here in 2019?  Assuming that 1) the rumors are true, and 2) she is, like Henry was, willing to work her tail off for relative peanuts…yes.

Conclusions?

Does Thorns FC need to change or add anything particular at the midfield position right now?  Are there any immediate needs that should be filled by trade or draft?

The search for a lock-down defensive midfielder needs to continue.

The Thorns are still looking for a player who can give cover for the central defense, a replacement for what Amandine Henry gave them. This is even more essential with the defensive issues (which we’ll discuss in the next installment) that arose last season.

I want to believe there’s still a possibility that Salem could be that player. But, if so, she needs to make a huge leap forward in her play this off-season.

Obviously, the other elephant in the room is the World Cup and the gutting it will give the midfield. The last time this happened I was running around like my hair was on fire because it seemed to me that Paul Riley was entirely too casual about the potential hammering his roster was going to take. He was, and 2015 remains the only season that Thorns FC finished out of the top four.

Mark Parsons is now confronted with the same issue, and it’s going to hit his midfield harder than anywhere else. For something close to half the season he’s going to have to figure out a way to win with Purce as Heath, Boureille as Sinclair, and Salem as Horan. Or Emily Ogle, or Dagny, or Kelli Hubly, or Gabby Seiler, or some combination of replacements and roleplayers I can’t even imagine sitting here at my dining room table in January.

But I sure as hell hope he can.

How do you see the prospects for 2019 in midfield?

At the end of last season I wrote: “We have a solid starting corps with a solid bench and a glaring hole at the defensive midfield position.”

Thorns FC still has that glaring hole and needs to keep looking for ways to fill it.

The heart of that solid starting corps is going to ripped out in midseason, and the solid bench is going to have to step in.  Whether, and how well, that will work is one huge question hanging over2019.

Another huge question is the replacement players signed for the World Cup break; quality there is going to be critical, and from this distance it’s difficult to guess whether we’ll see old names recycled, like Ashley Herndon and Sandra Yu, or whether the coach and front office have entirely different players in mind.  

We won’t even begin to know the answer to that question until the rains retreat in early March.

Next: Defense wins championships – until it doesn’t.

John Lawes

I've been writing about Thorns FC ever since the inaugural season - first at Slide Rule Pass, and then at Stumptown Footy - and have been a fan and player of the game for a couple of decades.

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