Thorns FC: Final Grades – The Backline

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The Tipping Toddler (A Safety Advisory)

Before we go on, let me start with this.

I’m not here to slag off on the Thorns as a team, or any individual player. As a fan I love and support the squad, in victory or in defeat.

Some readers expressed concern that I was low-rating A.D. Franch last week when we looked at the keepers. That’s not the point of these analyses.

Professional soccer, all sport beyond pure recreational-level sport, is about not giving away the gift. It’s about excelling both as individuals and teams. For a team to excel the players and coaches have to be ruthless about examining their strengths – and their weaknesses. That’s what good players, and good teams do; that’s part of what makes them good.

Okay. So…back up there, that part about “loving and supporting” the team?

For many fans, perhaps most fans, that’s enough. They want to cheer and sing, to enjoy the efforts of their team and go home energized, full stop.

That’s great. That’s wonderful. That’s a healthy sort of fandom.

I’m not that sort of fan.

I can’t just cheer and sing and enjoy. I can’t just look at the pretty machine and love and admire how it goes.

I like taking the clockwork apart to see how it runs. I like to pull it apart to the pieces and then stare at the pieces thinking, and then try and jigger them back together to figure out if the damn thing is running perfectly, or whether there’s a better way to make it go.

I like to take the bits over to friends and lay them out, and then discuss what we all see there, and then debate and differ over what works and what doesn’t and whether we could build a better machine, and, if so, how.

So if you’re the love-and-support-is-perfect-full-stop sort of fan?

This blog series might not be your thing.

And that’s fine. We both love the Thorns, we just do it differently. There’s no one way to be a fan.

But as I said – I’m not that fan, so this is your warning. It’s like the little picture on the side of the five-gallon bucket, where the toddler is toppling headfirst into the bucket and drowning. It’s your warning that danger might be inside this page, and that you might hear something about players you like, or love, that might upset you.

I don’t have to like that – and, hell, I don’t enjoy writing unhappy things about players I respect who are out training and working hard – but I won’t pretend it won’t happen.

So now you’ve seen the tipping toddler and are warned. We’re going to look at some things that may not be pretty.

Are we good?

Okay, then.

Did Eckerstrom Benefit From the World Cup Break?

We discussed this last week, but it’s worth recapitulating; the Thorns have been steadily shipping more goals every season since 2017:

“After finishing second in 2018 our 28 concessions put the Thorns defense in 4th or 5th; behind the Damned Courage (17GA), Seattle (19GA), and Utah (23GA), and tied with fourth place finisher Chicago.

This past season the Thorns’ 31 goals conceded dropped them into the dregs of the league, 6th, behind second-place Chicago’s 28 and only leading Sky Blue’s 34 and Houston’s 36 by a handful.”

That’s obviously a problem, given that the whole point of soccer is “score more goals than the opponent”. If you concede more you have to score more to win, and we discussed that, too; last season the Thorns stopped scoring when they needed goals the most – at the end of the season and the playoffs – so every concession really hurt them.

Last week when we talked about keepers we noticed that Franch’s technical stats were slipping; she actually had fallen below Britt Eckerstrom in several metrics, which is worrisome for a starter.

When I published that essay a quick-witted reader (here’s where I shoutout to Karyn Alicia – hi, Karyn!) questioned my analysis because I didn’t take into account the changes in the league and the teams during the World Cup interval. In other words; were the stats showing that Eck just looked better because she was facing weaker opponents rather than was genuinely playing at a higher level?

That bugged me – both the question and that I hadn’t actually thought of that – so I took a look back at what happened in the league during the period – from roughly Matchday 4 to about Matchday 13 – to see if I could pick apart the clockwork.

What Happened During The World Cup?

It seemed to me that the most likely indicator of a significant drop in the quality of play across the league might be a drop in goal production. This was for two reasons.

First, because star strikers are likely to be prized by national teams, so when the international breaks arrive players like Lynn Williams and Samantha Kerr and Hayley Raso are called up. That tosses the burden of scoring on their backups and reserves – who presumably are backups and reserves because they’re less adept at scoring than the starters.

And, second, because creating is more difficult than destroying. Creating a goal often takes a pretty high level of skill, but it doesn’t take a generational talent to grind out a scoreless draw; enough hacking and bumping and bunkering and generally ugly defending can do that.

So my thought was that if there had been a significant effect from the World Cup callups we’d see it in a goal drought. So I tracked the goalscoring of the opponents the Thorns played over the full season – which turned out to be every team in the league.

Here’s how they looked:

There’s a lot of noise to signal there, so let’s look just at the average number of goals the Thorns opponents scored per game across the season.

Okay, that’s still not terrifically helpful. There doesn’t seem to be a trend there. Let’s try and refine this graph even further by throwing in some regression lines. What were the mean average goals scored last season?

That helps…and it also shows why the charts look so noisy; there is no trend there, not a significant one.

Goal production dropped a tiny bit – on average, about 0.1goal/game – over the World Cup break relative to the period before and after the break.

Based on this the left-behinders didn’t get a big defensive boost from not facing Kerr and Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press. The other left-behinders, the attackers, picked up the slack pretty well and kept the goals going in.

Britt Eckerstrom didn’t do better because she didn’t face Sam Kerr.

She did better mostly just because she’s getting better.

So…what DID happen To The Thorns Defense?

Back to our main question; why did the Thorns ship more goals this season?

Well, one big reason was that Emily Menges was injured again.

Not as badly as 2018, when she missed nine games. But EM missed the first three matches, and then was sidelined again for Matchdays 8 and 9 (the 1-1 draw at Carolina and the Utah win at home).

But she also had two dreadful matches after that, and ended the season in a slump that – as we’ll talk about when we get to her comment – I believe had a lot to do with struggling with fitness.

It wasn’t just Menges.

Between her loss of form, Emily Sonnet’s and Ellie Carpenter’s callups (and, as we’ll discuss, Carpenter’s injury), and season-ending injuries to defensive midfielders Gabby Seiler and Angela Salem, Mark Parsons had to field a ten different defensive groupings. None played together more than five games, those five coming from Parsons’ favored defensive set; Carpenter-Sonnett-Menges-Meghan Klingenberg (the “KMSC-line”)

Contrast this with the best defensive record in the league last season, the Damned Courage:

Half the number of defensive groups, and almost half the season dominated by Paul Riley’s favored defense of Merritt Mathias, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, and Jaelene Hinkle. That group would have played thirteen or fourteen games together had Mathias not gone down with a SEI in the weird Houston match in September.

Compared to the Damned, the Thorns defensive sets look like recess at the daycare after too many juiceboxes.

There’s value in adjusting formations to adapt to opponents, or game-state. But there has to be an iron core to the defense from which to adapt, and I never got the sense that the Thorns defenders were able to put in enough time together to develop that.

So one big part of the defensive problems this season was the instability of the backline as a unit – or, more accurately, the flux of units. That and the goalkeeping issues probably reinforced each other; Franch’s technical struggles helped unsettle her backline, and the constant rotation in front of her hurt Franch’s confidence and steadiness.

The combination resulted in an overall down season for the Portland defense as a group. But what about individual players? Were there players whose struggles last season made life in the backline more difficult?

Let’s take a look.

Final Grades – The Defenders

As the chart above shows, six players put in significant time on the backline, so we’ll discuss them first.

Emily Menges

Image by NWSL.com in public domain.

Still the heart and soul of the Portland backline, Menges has fought with lower limb injuries the past two seasons; in March it was her foot, in June her thigh. The two combined to keep her out of the XI for the first three games of the past season and then two more in June.

But even when she got onto the pitch, her play looks…suspicious. Here’s her net plus-minus rating (PMR) plotted against her team’s average:

(In case you don’t recall – What the heck is a PMR? Player ratings explained)

Based on her ratings her first three games back – Matchdays 4 through 7 – were terrific. Then she missed two games, and when she returned she was visibly struggling. She had a couple of terrific home matches in August – Sky Blue on Matchday 15 and the bizarre own-goal win over The Damned Courage on Matchday 17 – slumped badly in the following match against Washington, and then sort of glided in to crash in the semifinal, where she made the critical errors that lead to Kerr’s matchwinner.

Her work last season suggests she’s still trying to regain the peak she scaled in 2017. Here’s her 2019 Opta defensive stats:

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

And here’s where she was two years ago:

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

All her success rates are down. Some – like tackling – are way down. Her passing wasn’t affected, so the issues look like they were confined to her defending. Her PMRs over the past four seasons suggest some of the same troubles:

She was a monster in 2017 after having had a very good 2016. Then in 2018 Menges got hurt, spent a long time on injured reserve, and since then has been working her way back into full fitness. I don’t think she was there last season, and it wore her down.

That’s why I wasn’t particularly excited to see her go to the W-League this winter. I’d like to see her get some rest and rehab to see if she can go a full NWSL season without an injury.

If the Thorns are going to challenge for the title in 2020 the defense is going to have to take a step back up. If that’s going to happen Menges is going to need to be fully fit and ready to lead her backline. It’s really that simple.

Grade: C

Other than her first three matches Menges had a very average 2019 by league standards.

But by her own? This is a player who was talked up as a potential USWNT defender after 2017.

That talk is no longer being heard.

Emily Sonnett

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

Sonnett, Sonnett, Sonnett…

Here you were in 2017…

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

…and here you were last season:

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

That’s not the work of a poor or merely replacement-level center back. You win a hell of tackles – though your “duels” success rate (which is defined by Opta as going for 50-50 balls, including aerial challenges, taking on players off the dribble, and winning (or conceding) fouls) – slipped a bit last season. Your passing is still fine, including your long passing. Overall? You look great statistically.

But. Here’s your PMR’s from last season…

…and then for the past four seasons:

That’s not so terrific. Your PMRs show the immediate effects of the continuing random brainfarts (those minuses that are still running 4 to 5 a game) as well as the big drop in scoring from the championship season that lost a lot of pluses.

All of this suggests that we’re sort of stuck in the same place we were three years ago.

You’re a quality player. In fact, your recent work for the USWNT suggests that you might just be a quality fullback; part of Vlatko’s coaching genius might be recognizing that if you’re going to keep having a brainfart a game that you’re better off doing it out wide and further from the goal rather than inside the six-yard box while taking advantage of both your pace and your passing in attack.

But we have to think like Mark Parsons and try and figure out how to best use you here. And that, frankly, is probably at center back. You’re a good player and a decent center back, as good or better than your likely replacements.

But you have to cut out the mental vacations to be more than a just a decent center back.

Grade: C

We’ve gone over and over and over this; to unlock the next level you have to quit doing goofy things like getting tossed in Utah for silly fouls, or stuff like this:

“Beaten by Kerr in the 6th and 7th minutes as Chicago pushed for the goal, again in the 24th minute, beaten by Nagasato in the 58th minute, and stabbed uselessly on the Nagasato cross to Kerr in the 92nd minute. “

You didn’t last season. Now it’s time to do that.

Meghan Klingenberg

Image by Thorns FC: on giphy.com

I’ll stand by my contrition; you proved me wrong, and you had a decent season. I thought you were done, and you showed me and the world you were not. I’m still munching on those words, Kling; you get a free kick the next time you see my backside unguarded.

That said…look at your stat breakdown:

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

That middle line is the most perfect “Klingenberg” thing I’ve ever seen.

The “aerial duels” is just kind of a “meh” frowny-face; you’re about half the size of a minute and you couldn’t out-jump me if I uploaded a half-rack of Budweiser. You’re not an aerial monster and that’s fine – that’s not your job.

The “duels” stat kind of points out that you’re not the paciest of defenders anymore. Fast wingers can and do beat you off the dribble, and you can get caught upfield and burned if you’re not careful.

But the tackles stat? That’s you all over; if you get the time, anticipate the attacker, and get position – and you can – you can nick the ball off freaking Marta’s feet, let alone Chloe Logarzo’s…and you have.

You’re a good passer…although I note with some regret that those terrific long dimes you used to drop on your teammates? Here’s your long pass success rate:

2016: 52.3
2017: 45.6
2018: 35.8
2019: 34.7

They’ve kind of gone away.

That said…I wonder how much of that owes to Tobin Heath? You two had a soccer marriage made in heaven in 2016, and every year since then either Heath has struggled with injury (2017, 2018) or has been away with the Nats as she was this year. Could the problem be not your passing, but that the genius that was at the other end isn’t there as often these days..?

Hmmm.

You were on fire the first four matches then up and down the rest of the season (Reign FC is your kryptonite – your worst two matches last season were the home loss here on Matchday 11 and the away defeat in Tacoma on Matchday 23). But overall? You were a good soldier and fought a good fight.

You’re slowly losing range, speed, and strength, as older players will, but overall you’ve done a hell of a lot to hold your value this past season. You were a rock in back. At this point, after this season, I’m not sure we can ask more from you.

The only real question now is: how much longer can we ask this much from you?

Grade: B+ (A- with the extra credit for reviving her game in her thirties and giving me my conge’...) Nicely done, Kling. Nicely done.

Ellie Carpenter

Portland Thorns FC on Facebook

Carpenter’s great upside is her youth; at nineteen – twenty this coming April – she has acres and acres of room to grow.

Throw in pace, and soccer intelligence, and you’ve got a formidable package.

Carpenter’s downside is her youth. She’s still growing, so she hasn’t reached her mature speed and strength, and she makes occasional tactical or technical errors due to her inexperience.

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

The above are her stats from 2019; below is her work in 2018:

As you can see, Carpenter has had some consistent issues in her two years here. Her passing isn’t terrific, and her long passes, in particular, tend to go wandering off into the aether. She doesn’t take players on the dribble very well; not horrible, but not outstanding, either.

One thing she struggled with last season was her tackling; she got beat nearly half the time after winning more than 8 out of 10 tackles in 2018.

Oddly, as she was having tackling troubles she improved her work in the air immensely, and even more so as a fullback.

Unsurprisingly, her PMRs are kind of all over the place at the beginning of the season; that’s a young player. She returned from her national team’s disappointing World Cup but looked to be on an ascending trend…

Then Carpenter was hacked down by Kelley O’Hara in the 2-2 draw in Utah on Matchday 13, and when she returned she had a series of awful games, culminating in getting schooled by Christen Press in Utah and then thoroughly whipped by the Damned Courage on Matchday 21.

She was consistently overrun defensively after Utah and I suspect that she may have been struggling with that ankle injury. Five of Carpenter’s last seven games resulted in net negative PMRs. That wasn’t particularly on Carpenter, but on the fact that her opponents singled her out as vulnerable and attacked the hell out of her side. She couldn’t respond, so that worked like a mechanical ass-kicker.

Her mistakes in those poor outings dragged her season net way down.

It’s difficult to tell whether Carpenter’s late-season problems were a lingering knock, lingering issues from the World Cup, some combination of both, or just young-player-problems in general. But regardless of the reason she was part of Parsons’ preferred defensive set, and so when she stumbled that hurt, badly.

Grade: C+

I’d be harder on Carpenter but for the suspicion that she was suffering from the effect of the O’Hara cleating as well as the sort of mental and physical battering that might be expected of a nineteen-year-old struggling through a professional season and a World Cup.

But she’s the Thorns right back. Carpenter needs to stay healthy next season – stay the hell away from O’Hara! – and find a way to balance her Olympics, assuming the Matildas can get out of the AFC Tournament in April 2020, and her club if she’s going to progress to fulfill her promise.

Kat Reynolds

The last of the Thorns “regular” defenders was worked harder in 2019 than she had been in the past four seasons. Reynolds was forced to fill in at center back for both Sonnett and Menges. She also played left-center-back in the 3-5-2 three times, and even filled in for Klingenberg at left fullback on Matchday 17.

Reynolds is the Thorns defensive Jill-of-all-trades, and, as such, doesn’t have to be particularly great at anything but has to be reasonably decent at everything.

That, she is.

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

On the Thorns roster, though, she’s still depth, so having to rely on her to start so many matches this season meant that the backline was not playing at full strength much of the time.

Here’s her net PMR against the team average:

And here she is against the rest of the defenders – Reynolds’ net PMR in black:

You can see the relative strength of the players in the graph above, and Reynolds is either near the team average or below. That’s not to say that she’s not a decent player. She is. But Reynolds is typically a decent reserve player; she’s not at the level of the regular starters like Sonnett or Menges.

Like the rest of her backline, Reynolds’ highs dropped this season. But she raised her average lows – her minuses – to her best record ever. She didn’t do a lot of heroics…but she didn’t make make a lot of mistakes, either.

That’s fine; heroics are not her job. She can reasonably be expected to be a decent reserve. Asking her to carry the load as a starter?

That’s a big ask.

Grade (as a starter): C- (as a reserve): B+

Elizabeth Ball

Portland Thorns FC on giphy.com

Liz ball made her starting debut in New Jersey on Matchday 6. She was a monster.

“The Wrecking Ball was a madwoman all night, from byline to byline and everywhere in between. My pick for Woman of the Match just because she sits on the bench, like, forever, and suddenly starts and becomes this insane berserker that just destroys everything in her path, and that’s crazy awesome.”

The only problem with that?

That was the only match that we saw the Wrecking Ball. After that she kinda regressed to the mean.

Well…actually, no. The next match she was utterly embarrassed in the win against Chicago. Then Ball did decently in Cary and against Utah here, and then she regressed to the mean.

Late in the season Ball went back to the bench because Parsons’ preferred KMSC-line returned to action. As a bench player she was significantly less effective, culminating in a futile first half in the semifinal when she was yanked at halftime.

Grade: C+

What’s frustrating about Ball is that she shows tremendous promise…but can’t seem to sustain it. If she can keep her highs high, and bring her lows up, she’s going to be an exciting player next season.

There’s one player left who helped out in the backline, but she got so few minutes that it’s hard to assess her given her small body of work.

Kelli Hubly

Image by Yahoo! Sports. Licensed under Fair Use.
(I’m sorry, Hubs, but I love this too much not to use it again…)

Hubly started three matches during the World Cup interval; two were draws (1-1 at Cary, and the scoreless draw here against Utah) and the third was the comeback win in Houston. She improved a bit from 2018, where she struggled with errors, mostly poor passing.

In the Carolina match she struggled again (+9/-7), but then she tore up Utah (+11/-5, but in perhaps the oddest game I’ve seen her play – all her numbers were from the first half; she went +0/-0 in the second until she was pulled at 77′) and did well in Houston (+12/-8).

In all three she still had trouble connecting passes; 58% isn’t really okay, even for a defender.

Image by NWSL.com in public domain

What makes it even harder to assess what all this means is that the three games were among the oddest of the Thorns’ season; The Damned Courage were at their weakest and least organized at that point in the season, Utah was both utterly dour and incapable of scoring, and Houston just wasn’t a good team at any time in 2019.

That said…Hubly came in when the team needed her to come in and did well enough when the team needed well enough, and you can’t really ask more of a reserve than that.

Grade: A- (Hubly loses half a point for crap passing)

The professional life of a bench or depth player is always chancy; there’s no guarantee you won’t be cut for someone a tiny fraction better, or traded, or will just languish in obscurity. But Hubly earns props from me for her mite last season. Well played.

Conclusions

Based on what we’ve discussed, the defensive problems of 2019 seem to have been a perfect cascade of shit luck; injuries and absences that led to horrific roster churn, and individual loss of form.

The hope for 2020 has to be to begin the season healthy and then to avoid injuries to the extent possible; the revolving door of defensive units was a big problem, and possibly the biggest problem.

But critical players appear to have been in a downcycle, and not just last season but for the last several seasons. Those players – especially Emily Menges – need to reverse that slide.

The question of age is approaching for Reynolds, at 32, and Klingenberg, who is 31. Menges is in her prime at 27, and all the others are even younger, so that shouldn’t be an issue for anyone outside the two seniors.

So technical skills (for the keepers), fitness, unit cohesion, and, possibly, backups or replacements for Reynolds and Kling, are the issues to work on for next season. The Thorns backline seems fundamentally sound if those can be addressed.

Now, the midfield and forwards, on the other hand…

…but we’ll talk about those next week.

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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