THORNS FC: THE LAST LINE OF DEFENSE

The Defense

So far, we’ve looked at Thorns FC at forward and midfield. In both cases the prospects for 2019 are like that old story about the Chinese symbol for “future” being made from two characters, one meaning “danger” and the other “opportunity”.

The opportunity is always there. The danger? The loss of so many great players, including the two best forwards, and the three midfielders who scored something like 80% of last season’s goals, to the World Cup in the middle of the season.

How does this affect the backline?

Thorns FC currently has seven players designated as defenders and two goalkeepers.

Three center backs; Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges, as well as utility defender Kelli Hubly, who played largely at center back in 2018.

Four outside backs; Meghan Klingenberg, Kat Reynolds, Elizabeth Ball, and Ellie Carpenter,

Two goalkeepers; Adrianna Franch and Britt Eckerstrom.

Let’s look at them in that order.

The Field Players

The defending field players were where InStat and I most strongly disagreed. I thought that many of the Thorns’ defenders had an off season as measured by their PMRs. (What’s a PMR?)

Note that several of them, including both center backs, spend much of the season below the red line that is the team net PMR average; in particular the stretch of matches between Seattle away on Matchday 14 and Orlando here on Matchday 20. The Final, too, is pretty ugly; everyone but Carpenter takes a nosedive.

InStat, on the other hand, thought the defenders had a pretty decent year.

Only Kat Reynolds is consistently below the average team Index value early in the season, though Sonnett has some rough games after the Matchday 18 win at Sky Blue.

I think a lot of this has to do with relative expectations. By an objective standard many of the defenders did have decent outings. My view was colored by the great defensive play in 2017, and I tended to be more merciless than the boys in Moscow, so you can take that as a grain of salt with which to evaluate the separate ratings systems.

Emily Menges was drafted by Paul Riley in 2014 and has now played four full seasons for Thorns FC.  She played summer ball for Riley’s Long Island Fury in 2009 before her professional debut here.  She will be 28 in July, 2019.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 17  
  • Games started  – 17
  • Shots – 0  
  • Shots on goal – 0
  • Goals – none
  • Assists: none
  • Yellow cards/red cards: 1/0

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Menges missed the first eight matches recovering from a leg injury. When she did return, she shocked us by having the season of a mere mortal woman instead of the higher half – indeed, the keystone – of the Great Wall of Emily.

The Instat comrades and I disagreed bitterly about her play after Matchday 10. I have huge expectations from Menges, and so when she played like an ordinary human I graded her savagely; her net PMR for the seven matches she played between that point and Matchday 20 was a wretched little niggling +1.

However, her average InStat Index for that same period was 191, and the InStat guys rated her over 200 – which is InStat for “kicked serious ass” – in three of those seven matches.

Khorosho, tovarische; we agree to disagree.

We both loved the heck out of her from then to the semifinal; my rating had her at a net +6, and InStat at an average Index of 208.

Unfortunately, when the Thorns needed her to be SuperMenges in the final she was merely human again. It was just that kind of season for Menges.

Her PMRs for the season reflect my frustration with her not being the Angel of Death to enemy attacks in 2018 that she was in 2017.

Menges had a very “Thorns 2018” kind of season; struggling, grinding, but still finding ways to scratch out something when you’d think she was hammered flat. She was still a terrific defender; winning more than 70 percent of her tackles, making 93 clearances, 11 blocks, and 28 interceptions. But her personal hardship also reflected the down year of her defensive unit.

From the stingiest defense in the NWSL in 2017 (20 goals conceded) the Thorns’ defense shared with Chicago the worst concession rate (28 goals-against) of the top five teams of 2018. This isn’t all on Menges, of course, but her struggles added to the troubles of her teammates and are something that we will have to hope will be behind her by Opening Day 2019.

Should she be here in 2019?  Without question.

Will she be here in 2019?  Yes. But she needs to lift her game back to where it was in 2017, and with it, her defensive unit’s solidarity.

Emily Sonnett   The Sonnett half of the Great Wall of Emily will be 26 come April 2019.  She was the first pick overall in the 2016 NCAA draft out of UVA and had an outstanding year alongside Menges in her rookie season.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 22  
  • Games started  – 22
  • Shots – 5  
  • Shots on goal – 2 (40%)
  • Goals – 1 (50% of SOG, 20% of all shots)
  • Assists: 1
  • Yellow cards/red cards: 6/0

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: I picked on Sonnet in 2017 because although she had a generally good year she seemed to suddenly find ways to make rookie mistakes she didn’t make in her true rookie season. When she was good she was great, but then she’d throw in a horrible brainfart every game or two.

In 2018 she ran off a whole bunch of matches where she wasn’t awful but just wasn’t particularly great, either. Not brilliant, not horrific, just kind of meh. Unfortunately for her team, her biggest problem seemed to be North Carolina. When Portland needed her to kick Courage ass she folded; she had three net-minus games all season, and two of them were the Matchday 19 loss to North Carolina and the Final.

Her PMRs looked like this:

That’s not a step up, and to add to that her disciplinary record went into the tank in 2018; she led the league in yellow card cautions with six.

Sonnett is a frustrating player. She has tremendous strengths; defending she is usually well-positioned and a strong tackler and usually partners well with her Wall counterpart Menges. In attack she is dangerous on set-pieces; any Thorns corner presents the opponent with the need to mark Sonnett to keep her from scoring with her head.

She is still making thoughtless mistakes, however. Not huge, not constant, but a random slow trickle of goofs, lapses, and bevues that are keeping her from the level Sonnett should be at this point, given her skills.

I don’t see her issues as physical; they’re mental, lapses in concentration that she can fix if she’s willing to keep her head in the game for 90+ minutes. Perhaps 2019 will be the season she makes that happen

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes. She is still a quality center back.

Will she be here in 2019?  Yes. But I’ll repeat what I wrote in 2017: “With the caveat that it’s time for Sonnett to become the player she should be at this point in her career, and that means no more rookie mistakes.”

Kelli Hubly turned 24 in August, 2018. She was a trialist with Portland in 2017 and was subbed in twice in 2017. In 2018 she came on in place of an injured Emily Menges and started the first seven matches of 2018. After Menges returned, however, Hubly appeared only three times, twice as a substitute, before disappearing from the XI in late June.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 11 
  • Games started  – 9
  • Shots – 0
  • Shots on goal – 0 (0%)
  • Goals – 0
  • Assists – 0
  • YC/RC – 1/0

Hubly had two terrific games in 2018; Matchday 3 here, where I had her at +22/-7 and InStat rated her Index as 181, and Matchday 4 in Washington, where I had her was +15/-4 and her Index was 175.

Other than those two, however, she never had a net PMR over +2 and the majority of my ratings of her play were net negatives. InStat rated her as having a good game in the Matchday 6 home loss to Seattle with an Index of 185, and a decent game the following week in Houston (Index 177, which was the match I gave her a net +2).

Here’s her PMRs;

Hubly is a squad player, no more. Her two positives are that 1) she provides center back depth, and 2) she’s going to be here next season when the internationals are gone. But even as depth, she’s pretty meh; not awful, but a long drop in production from the Great Wall Emilies. If she’s ever going to pick a season to step up her game this will be that season; she’s going to have to be Sonnett from the end of May until early July.

I’ve been wanting the Thorns to pick up a center back in the draft for the past two years and been stymied, though, so it looks like Hubly is going to be what we have.

Should she be here in 2019?  I wouldn’t have kept her, so, since this is my column; no.  

Will she be here in 2019?  It appears that way, but it will be curious to see if Portland packages something with their junk third and fourth round draft picks this year to trade up for someone like Hailie Mace out of UCLA.

(I wrote this at the end of December, and thought I’d keep it here just to show what I was thinking then. Since, in fact, the Thorns DID package their low-round picks for Emily Ogle – who should help them with the DM issue we talked about in the “Midfielders” piece – I have to pat myself on the back for being prescient. But that pick was a DM, not a CB, so I wasn’t THAT smart.

That said…the Thorns STILL need better CB cover with Sonnett likely gone for much of midsummer.

Meghan Klingenberg turned 30 this August.  She’s been playing professionally since 2011 beginning with the (in)famous magicJack.  She spent time with the Breakers and WNY in the WPS, and played in the Swedish Damallsvenskan with Tyreso Fotbollsforening for two seasons, including 20 appearances in their runner-up season in 2013.

In 2014 she was signed by Houston and played there until traded here in the 2015-16 offseason as part of the Alex Morgan Trade-o-palooza between Houston, Seattle, Orlando, and Portland.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 22  
  • Games started  – 22
  • Shots – 4 
  • Shots on goal – 0 (0%)
  • Goals – none 
  • Assists – 2
  • YC/RC – 2/0

Comparison with previous years (2014 and 2015 with Houston):

I can’t really do much better at describing Klingenberg than what I wrote at the end of last season, which was: “Klingberg is a player with great strengths and frustrating weaknesses.

Klingenberg is generally decent technically and tactically; she’s smart, usually reads the game well, and she does a good job getting up her touchline to join the attack.  She usually has a very high workrate…(h)er downsides, though, include her pace, and her matchday consistency.” 

Here’s her PMRs.

High a trifle lower, low a trifle higher, net about the same? Yeah, that pretty much sums it up; Kling was pretty much the same Kling in 2018 as she was in 2017. That’s actually not a bad thing; on the shady side of age 26 to 27 every year she holds on is a plus.

That said, Klingenberg had yet another season where she lacked consistent quality. I had her as +12/-0 in Utah on Matchday 5 but a net -5 on both Matchdays 18 and 19. Her Instat Index ranged from the 220’s (terrific!) to the low 150’s (meh).

Right now Kling is a net plus for Portland if she get forward to provide service from the wing and then track back quickly enough to cover the Great Wall of Emily (now with More Emily!). The moment she can’t? That’s a problem.

And I’m concerned that the problem is going to be coming sooner rather than later. She’s getting slower and slower, and I don’t really have a good feeling for when that decline is going to go from gradual to precipitous. If that drop off the table happens next season, say, in early June? That’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes, but. The team should be looking for a replacement. Now. Kling’s pace isn’t going to improve, and the match where she’s just too slow is coming soon. It’s time to bring on an understudy who can be ready to step in for Kling when that happens.

Will she be here in 2019?  Yes. The important question is whether the team will get her a backup, and who that will be.

Katherine “Kat” Reynolds will be 32 in August 2019. She’s knocked around women’s professional soccer forever, starting her career with Sounders Women in 2006. Reynolds has played with Philadelphia (2010), Atlanta (2011), and Western NY (2012) in WPS, SC Freiburg in the Frauen Bundesliga (2012-2013), Western NY in the NWSL (2013-2014), Washington in 2015, and followed Parsons here in 2016.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 17  
  • Games started  – 16
  • Shots – 2  
  • Shots on goal – 1 (50%)
  • Goals – 1 (100% of SOG, 50% of all shots)
  • Assists – none
  • YC/RC – 0/0

Comparison with previous years (2013 and 2014 with Western NY, 2015 with Washington):

Comments:  Kat Reynolds was the straw that stirred the 2017 drink; her return to the XI at the end of the 2017 season sparked the run that led to the title. She was the Big Kat of the defensive unit that year.

Her role in 2018 was, unfortunately, the opposite. She started decently – her PMRs for Matchday 1 through Matchday 6 average out to a +3; not great, but better than her average for the remainder of her season, where she put up a net average of zero for Matchday 7 through 18. Ellie Carpenter was so much better that Reynolds didn’t see the pitch after the third week of July.

From apex predator to shelter kitty…a sad descent for the Kat that Walked By Herself in 2017.

Here’s her PMRs;

Her InStat Index average for the season is 162 which, compared to the team average of 171.9, reflects Reynolds’ sub-par work. So was the fact that she lost her job to Ellie Carpenter after the Sky Blue match in late July and never regained it.

Frankly, at this point Reynolds’ value is largely a factor of her failure to gain traction with the US national team. Since she’ll be here in June, if she can fill in adequately when Carpenter is gone and be versatile enough to play as a utility defender the rest of the season, she has value. Other than that, she needs to regain her 2017 form to be more than depth.

Should she be here in 2019?  I think so. She’s was terrific in the late stages of 2017, is a well-liked veteran, and can fill in adequately – hopefully – for Carpenter. But she needed to have a better 2018 than she did to make me feel confident that she’s a lock on a roster spot in the coming season.

Will she be here in 2019?  The problem for Thorns FC is that they have an issue at left back that they need to solve soon, and a right back issue that can be papered over with Reynolds without losing too much. So, since she’ll be here next season I’d like to see a better season from the Big Kat in 2019.

Elizabeth Ball turned 23 the past October.  She’s played for Penn State and seems to have been signed as a free agent before the 2018 season.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 7 
  • Games started  – 0
  • Shots – 0
  • Shots on goal – 0 (0%)
  • Goals – none 
  • Assists – 0
  • YC/RC – 0/0

I was appalled that the team signed Ball after preseason; I thought she completely lacked tactical intelligence, positional skills and pace, and would be a liability for the backline.

However, the more I saw of her during the season – and particularly the half she played in the win over Sky Blue on Matchday 18 – made me reconsider. She looked promising, and I think she might be worth keeping on as a possible backup for Klingberg (in case Kling hits the wall this season) and as a World Cup filler.

It’s worth noting that she had serious minutes in only two matches last season. I rated her as a net +7 for the Sky Blue match, and the InStat boys gave her the Red Star Kremlin Seal of “потрясающий” (that means “terrific” – they gave her an Index value of 202).

She played 20 minutes in the next match – North Carolina away – and was completely mediocre; I gave her a net zero and InStat rated her a 131, which is InStat for “kinda garbage”. Other than that all her other five matches were single-digit minutes in garbage time.

So I don’t really have a lot to base my good opinion of her, and I’d like to see her show better in preseason than she did last March.

Should she be here in 2019?  I think so, if for no other reason than Carpenter will lose a chunk of time to the World Cup and Kling may suddenly come up with a massive case of the Slows.

Will she be here in 2019?  As always with squad players, it’s difficult to say. My guess is yes simply because the FO found it worth extending her contract option. But could she be released, or traded? Sure, the moment someone slightly better turns up.

Ellie Carpenter will be 19 this coming April.  She was signed out of the W-League in 2018 and has played only the last season in the NWSL. She began playing for Western Sydney in 2015 before joining Canberra in 2017. She was the youngest player – and youngest scorer – in the NWSL in the 2018 season.

2018 Statistics:

  • Games played – 19 
  • Games started  – 16
  • Shots – 7
  • Shots on goal – 5 (71.4%)
  • Goals – 1 (20% of SOG, 14.35 of all shots)
  • Assists – 0
  • YC/RC – 0/0

Carpenter appears to have tremendous potential as a right back; terrific pace, incisive passing, and clever ballskills. Her youth, however, means that will be mitigated by occasional poor decisionmaking and positioning. Carpenter’s rookie season was decent, but no more than that.

Here’s her PMRs;

InStat comes to the same conclusion; their average Index is only 177, barely above the team average of 171. But this isn’t a case of sullen mediocrity. Carpenter’s Index rises above 200 – the level of “excellent” – three times over the season, and the bulk of her poor matches are early in the season as she was still finding her feet.

Carpenter has a huge upside and tremendous potential. The real issue is the World Cup, which will see Carpenter pulled from the squad for a month or more in the heart of the season, and whether she will improve with experience to the degree she shows promise.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes.

Will she be here in 2019?  For as long as whoever the new Australia manager lets her, and then she’ll be gone for as long as the Matildas stay in the hunt. When she’s gone the Thorns will have to depend on Kat Reynolds or Liz Ball at right back, and so the team’s fortunes during that time will depend on how good those two can be. After that, we’ll have to see how gassed the WC leaves Carpenter and how quickly she can work back into the Thorns.

THE KEEPERS

Both InStat and I rated the keepers very differently, and as I will note below; the PMR system underrates keepers. One thing the PMRs do show well, however, is one of the big differences between them. Franch was the steady starter, Eckerstrom the unpredictable backup.

InStat’s Index, on the other hand, overrates keepers.

The exception being the Semifinal, where Franch kept Portland from being beaten off the pitch by halftime. Still, to find both keepers regularly above 200 – which is InStat for “outstanding match!” – seems implausible in a season where both saw both their personal and team statistics drop, as we’ll see.

Adrianna Franch turned 27 in November.  She started her career in 2013 with Western New York, was badly hurt and sat out 2014, played for Avaldsnes IL in the Danish Topserien in 2015 and was signed here before the 2016 season.

2018 Statistics: 

  • Games played – 16  
  • Games started  – 16  
  • Goals against – 18  
  • Goals against per game (GAA) – 1.1 
  • Clean sheets – 3
  • SOG – 71
  • Concession/SOG: 25.3%
  • Save% – 74%

Comparison with previous years (2015 with Avaldsnes IL, 2013 with Western NY):

Comments:  Franch came back to earth with a thud in 2018. After her Goalkeeper of the Year and championship season in 2017 she was troubled with injury, missing 9 games between mid-April and mid-June, and put up career-worst numbers of goals-against average and matches without a clean sheet.

It didn’t help that the defense in front of her wasn’t quite as solid as they had been the preceding season. One valuable measure of defensive quality is the minutes it takes an opponent to find a shot on goal; the longer the time, the better the defense is doing to protect their keeper.

I took a deep dive into this after the 2017 season, and came to the conclusion that the Thorns defense had been decent – about 21.6 minutes per shot-on-goal – but not anywhere near the best in the league that year. That, by the way, would have been North Carolina in front of Kate Rowland; at 29 minutes per SOG almost half again better than Portland.

Last season Portland’s defense gave up a shot on goal every 20 minutes. That’s not really statistically significant from last season’s rate. But Franch’s concession-per-SOG, on the other hand, went up from 21 percent (21 goals off 100 SOG) to slightly over 25 percent (18 goals off 71 SOG), an increase of almost a quarter, and she went from giving up one goal for every 108 minutes played to giving up a goal every 80 minutes, an increase of over 30 percent.

It appears that Franch’s issues last season seem to be largely on her, not a problem of her defense.

That said, Franch is among the better shot-stopping keepers in the NWSL, perhaps her single strongest individual skill. She is typically intelligent and decisive on the decision when to come off, or stay on, her line.

Her distribution is adequate, although “adequate” is a big step up from early in 2017 when Coach Parsons seemed determined to force her to play short out of the back and produced some appalling turnovers and concessions. Goalkeeper distribution, however, is highly overrated.

I tracked goalkeeper distribution closely in 2016 and early 2017 and came to the conclusion that, as ugly as it looks, poor distribution seldom harms a team’s defense unless it’s rec-league-level bad. A short goal kick or punt is typically booted around and lost in the ensuing field play; only in very unusual circumstances will it be returned immediately or directly for an opponent chance. Conversely, a great outlet throw or precise long goal kick can start a brilliant attack but is more often typically lost in midfield.

More often than not the keeper’s distribution has little or no impact on the match; it’s the ability of the midfield to control those outlets that is the important quality. Franch is decent at getting the ball into play and, as such, is fine.

Here’s her PMRs:

These seem unimpressive, but this is not a reflection of Franch’s quality but a reflection of the weakness of the PMR stat. And this is because of the difference between the number of times that a field player does something “significant” compared to the number of times a goalkeeper does, providing the match is going well for the keeper’s team.

Thorns FC limited the number of times that Franch had to make a save or a take that might have given her a plus, and she seldom made an error grave enough to give her a minus. So, for her as for most keepers, PMRs are not a good measure of quality. She’s still among the top keepers in the league

That said…it’s difficult to guess what we’ll see in 2019 because she hasn’t had two similar seasons back-to-back since she turned pro.

Franch played well for Western New York in 2013 but was out all season with injury in 2014. Her work for Asvaldsnes in 2015 was all over the place. She played only six games here in 2016. Franch was the best keeper in the league in 2017 and was still an exceptionally good keeper in 2018.

Which is her baseline form? The outstanding 2017 season, the diminished work in 2018…or will she turn out to be terrific when fit but troubled by injuries, as she was in 2014 and last season?

I’m intensely curious to find out.

Should she be here in 2019?  Yes.

Will she be here in 2019?  Yes.

Britt Eckerstrom will be 26 this coming May.  She played for Penn State and was drafted by Western New York (late, 3rd round) in 2016 as a backup to D’Angelo and Rowland. She was traded to Portland just before last season began. She did not play a minute in 2017 but was pressed into service by Franch’s injuries in 2018.

2018 Statistics: 

  • Games played – 10  
  • Games started  – 10  
  • Goals against – 13  
  • Goals against per game (GAA) – 1.3 
  • Clean sheets – 2
  • SOG – 56
  • Save% – 72%

Comparison with previous years (2016 with Western NY):

Comments:  Eckerstrom had a quality college career and, although her minutes with Western New York were limited, has done well in the NWSL. She provided Franch with a solid backup in 2017.

A.D,’s 2018 injuries gave us our first chance to see how well Eck could do as a starter.

Turns out she’s clearly still the #2 keeper on the depth chart. Eck’s won-lost record (4-3-3) was nowhere as good as Franch’s 10-4-2. Her concession rate is about 15 percent higher than Franch (one goal per 19 minutes played), although some of that may be that the defense in front of her wasn’t as sturdy, giving up a shot on goal every 16 minutes, nearly a third more often than the Thorns gave an opponent a shot at Franch.

Eck is very like her partner Franch in her skillset; great shot-stopper, decent distributor, fairly strong in the air and commanding her penalty area. They also share some of the same shortcomings; their distribution is good but not great, and the both occasionally make a poor decision on when and how to come off their line. Her PMRs are also quite similar.

Eck is still a solid backup, and with her increased experience, both in the NWSL and with the W-League in the offseason, should be moving up towards the day she deserves a starting slot. The only question for me is “where”.

She and Franch are the same age, and it’s difficult to guess where the two will be relative to one another in several years, or even by the end of next season. If Eckerstrom progresses decently she will want to start, and that fairly soon. That was the situation we had here after the 2016 season that was solved by moving Michelle Betos on to Europe that allowed Franch to move up. Having a starting-quality Eckerstrom on the bench here in 2020 will be an uncomfortable situation for both the keepers and their coaches.

Will she be here in 2019? Yes.

Should she be here in 2019? Yes. But whether she’ll be here in 2020 I’m very much not sure of. She seems to be improving to the point where I can’t think that Eckerstrom will be content with being a backup all that much longer.

Conclusions

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

Yes.

Centerback.  Kelli Hubly was no better than replacement-level last season, and with the certainty that Sonnett will miss a serious chunk of the season it makes sense to be at least looking for a better option. It’s unfortunate that Thorns FC was so bereft in this season’s draft, as some of the strongest players available were central defenders.

Fullback.  Kling’s remaining years are limited; the question is only when, not if. I’m not sure that there’s anyone on the roster who can fit in her position. Ball? Reynolds? We haven’t seen enough of Ball and Reynolds needs to regain her 2017 form if she’s going to be a regular LB starter.

Goalkeeper. We’re pretty much good, assuming that last season was just an off year for Franch.

How do the defensive prospects look for 2018 in back?

Troubling. Our starting goalkeeper had a down year last season. Her backup looks better and better but is still a step down. Several field players had issues, and overall the defense was a constant turmoil of injuries and players shuttling in and out of the XI and of form.

Our left back is closing on the end of her useful career without an obvious replacement, and our starting right back – who is terrific – will be missing for a big chunk of the season, as will one of our starting center backs.

The Thorns defense – not just the backline, but the backline was a big part of the problem – never solved North Carolina last season. That was the difference between repeating as champions and coming off the podium with silver instead of gold. The defense needs to find the sort of cohesion and individual form it had in 2017 to have a shot at climbing back up to the top step.

This coming season the defense will have the same opponents as last year but with fewer resources to meet them with. While the opponents will be affected by some of the same World Cup issues a lot is going to depend on several defensive players all regaining the level of play they shared two seasons ago, when they were two years younger.

I don’t know how you feel about that, but it worries the hell out of me.

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.

Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.