Thorns FC: final Grades – The Midfield

The Heart of the Midfield: The Big Three

Here’s pretty much where you need to start to discuss the Thorns’ midfield in 2019; with 2018, and the difference in goals scored between the two seasons by three of the Thorns midfielders: Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, and Christine Sinclair.

Because 2018 was the Year Without Forwards; the Big Three drove the Thorns bus into the Final by scoring all the goals. Their teammates chipped in, sure, but it was the Three Thornsketeers that made it One For All.

This season, though…well, look through the table first. Then we’ll talk.

So, okay. Now that you’ve sorted through the table I’m sure you probably noticed three major things:

  1. The fundamental attacking metrics – minutes per shot, and shots on goal as a percentage of all shots – of all three players look remarkably similar across the seasons. Everybody drops about 10% on the “shots-to-SOG” ratio, with Heath suffering the worst in accuracy, putting less than 60% of her shots on goal in 2019 after sniping over 70% in 2018…but shot a LOT more to make up for it, once every 39 minutes in 2019 compared to almost an hour per shot in 2018. Overall, though, all three look like they attacked the opposition’s goal in about the same style and at about the same rate last season as they did the year before.
  2. But…
  3. In 2018 that group scored 29 of the team’s 40 goals. In 2019? 13 of 40. From almost 75% to less than 35%? That’s not just a dropoff. That’s augering into the ground at a high rate of speed.
  4. And, as the table shows, Horan was THE smoking hole in the turf. Sinclair actually improved her conversion rate while repeating her nine-goal total (and even duplicating her distribution – six goals from the run-of-play, three from PKs). Heath dropped more than 50%, which isn’t good…but Horan fell off the goddamn table. Her production fell off almost 77%, 13 goals to 1 goal, and her conversion rate dropped something like 80% to 90% from her 2018 MVP season.

You want to look for issues in midfield? Start with Horan.

But from there go straight to the same problems we saw along the backline:

Roster churn

I’ve done my best to breakout the midfield starters and the formations they played in over the past season. This wasn’t always obvious, from match reports and the lineups it appears that Coach Parsons made some adjustments during some of the matches to try and improve the matchups or eliminate the worst of the beatings some players were getting, and sometimes the midfield was just an ugly scramble to try and deal with game states that were unfavorable to Portland.

The one thing you’ll notice here isn’t here; it’s Purce. As I’ll explain downthread, the big change in the Thorns’ attack in 2019 was Purce playing at the very extreme end of “attacking midfielder”. I’ve treated her like a forward for this table, so you won’t find her name there much. But she was there, trust me, and we’ll talk about her in the player comments.

Anyway, here’s how I broke down the midfield formations and players over 2019:

Matchday 1-3

Parsons’ plan at the beginning of the season appears to have been to use Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic as the ACM/central playmaker, using Sinclair more like a withdrawn striker/tandem ACM, Heath as a true winger, Horan as the #8 and Boureille as the #6. Horan then picked up a knock and missed the Sky Blue draw, so Brynjarsdottir took over as the 8-ish midfielder.

This set wasn’t spectacularly successful, but its true value is hard to assess simply because the three matches it played were 1) Orlando (“opponent as shitshow”), 2) an insane goalfest where the two midfields fought to a draw in Chicago and 3) a match that Portland tried to give away by gifting Carli Lloyd two goals and had to scramble to nick the point.

Matchday 4-10

Now we come to the poster child for “roster churn”; the seven-match stretch during the World Cup interval where the Thorns used two (or three, or possibly even four) different midfield formations, and a circus full of different players in every match.

Perhaps the most surprising part about this is that it was quite a successful run for the Thorns. This period included the brief Reign of Queen Midge, a smashing win over the visiting Red Stars, a point in Cary, and the gritty comeback win in Houston. Despite the churn the Thorns went 4-1-2, the best record of the season for any of the midfield sets.

If I had to guess I’d give the Midgey and Charley Show the big ratings rather than anyone else in the midfield, but the other factors were 1) the presence of Gabby Seiler, who was a defensive rock, and 2) Dagny going on an absolute tear at the end of the run. Here’s her average net PMR over the last season, broken down into segments:
MD2-7: 4.0
MD9-12: 7.5
MD15-Semi: 3.6
I have no idea what the hell happened to her, but Dagny just hulked out against Utah and Houston.

Matchday 11-13

This was an odd little interval that saw the same midfield trio with Sinc up top, Seiler at the #6, and Dagny as the 8ish sorta-box-to-box midfielder.

It was also a string of what I’d consider poor results; the ugly loss to a Reign FC that was gutted by injuries and playing in Portland, the nutso 4-3 win over Orlando that shipped two Pride strikes and an own-goal before the last-second Lussi winner, and then the brutal 2-2 draw in Rio Tinto where the Thorns let the lead slip away twice.

What didn’t help was that the Thorns’ captain turned in the first of a string of wretched performances that characterized her form after returning from the World Cup. As we’ll discuss, of all the players who got hammered physically and mentally in France, Sinclair looked the most bedraggled. And the thing is that she scored twice during this stretch, both long-range golazos; one against Orlando, the other in Utah. It wasn’t scoring that was her issue.

After this Parsons (mostly) got the midfield he wanted…

Matchday 15-23

…and the results were utterly underwhelming.

Barely over .500; 4-4-1, and this included the freakish win over the Damned Courage here as part of the three-win string that included good work against Washington and Chicago, but also the dispiriting nil-six beating by the Damned, and a pair of bad losses to Reign FC in Tacoma, as well the defeat that started the crash out of the playoffs, the away beating in Utah on Matchday 20.

A big part of the issues in the midfield were individual troubles rather than player turnover. Sinclair we’ve discussed, Horan continued imploding, and the wing players – Midge Purce, Heath, Simone Charley, Hayley Raso – weren’t being consistently effective. Seiler went down with a season-ending ACL tear in training between Matchdays 16 and 17, and Brynjarsdottir’s form faded badly, too, and at the worst time.

The problem with trying to suss out the “what happened and why” from this stretch of the season is that the individual games were so wildly variable…but it’s safe to say that a combination of player issues, roster churn, and the scoring drought we’ve already identified, were all part of the problems that brought the Thorns’ season to an end.

Perhaps the least explicable part of this whole table, though, is the midfield change Coach Parsons made for the final regular season match and the semifinal.

Matchday 24 and the semifinal

Sure, the 4-2-3-1 hadn’t worked great for three of the previous four games (and was utterly blown apart by the Damned on Matchday 21) so a change seems, at least, not unthinkable.

But the 3-5-2 proved to be largely ineffective against Washington.

It’s worth remembering, too, that the 4-back set with Dagny sitting deep over the centerbacks had stifled Sam Kerr on Matchday 19. Why go with the more offensive setup that would open gaps in the defense? Especially if it had already failed to produce more goals, and that against a Washington team that was checked out and just playing not to be embarrassed?

What seems especially peculiar was the team’s reaction to the change and that regular season finale. Coach Parsons, Sinclair, and interviewer Ann Schatz were all vastly enthused about the scoreless draw in the interviews after the game. I couldn’t figure out why then and I still can’t. It was a dour performance against a listless opponent, the solution wasn’t visible and the issues with scoring were still obvious. Why try it against Chicago, in their house, with Sam Kerr on a tear?

So add to everything else the decision to change up the midfield right when the team probably needed some stability rather than more chaos.

Put everything together and you have a midfield that couldn’t help the team make the final push to the championship. Was it the Big Problem? No, I don’t think so. But it wasn’t able to help out when it was needed most.

Why? Well, that’s complicated, and at this point I think we have to go from looking at the team to looking at the individual players.

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on Twitter in public domain

Final Grades – The Midfielders

Since we started this post with them, let’s start with the Big Three, and begin with the captain,

Christine Sinclair

From Portland Thorns FC: on giphy.com

It’s difficult to assess the overall value of the Thorns’ captain in 2019. She was still a hell of a good player. But her season had some less-than-obvious flaws, and it’s worth considering whether those flaws hurt her team more than her good work helped.

As the table at the beginning of the post indicates, Sinclair created goals exactly as well – hell, exactly the same way – last season as she had in 2018, when she led the team to the Final match.

But her PMRs show that she did suffer from the strain of the World Cup:

Great first three matches, then up and down but pretty “meh” after the international break.

But that’s not the whole story, either. Here’s her PMRs over the past four years:

That progression from 2017 to 2019? That’s…not good. What happened?

Here’s her 2017 stats:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

And here’s 2019:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

So based on these Sinclair’s metrics haven’t really slipped – tackling success is down, but everything else looks fine, or better than fine – so the problems weren’t technical, they weren’t with her game.

Instead, they were tactical and organizational; what the numbers don’t show is that Sinclair was devastatingly heavy-footed after she returned from France. She looked out of ideas, and low on energy. Her leadership style is by example, not exhortation, and her “example” in August and September looked like “hard work without reward”.

It wasn’t so much that she was losing challenges, but that opponents were able to pass and run around her and avoid taking her on altogether. It wasn’t that she was mishitting passes so much as she was unable to combine as effectively with her teammates, and her role as playmaker and on-field general was significantly muted.

As a player she was good in 2019. But, unlike as in earlier years, she couldn’t do nearly as much to make her team, and her teammates, better. That was troubling then and is troubling looking ahead to next year.

It’s always been tempting to write the finis to the Sinclair Era of the Thorns. After 2014, the Year of the Black Yips, when Sinc seemed to have completely lost her shooting boots. After 2015, when she struggled find her way onto the pitch during the World Cup. After 2017, when she finally had to move back down the pitch, no longer eager to spend 90 minutes wrestling with big center backs.

After this season, however…perhaps we finally are seeing the end of that era. Sinc in 2015 managed to find her way back in a way she couldn’t this season. Being four years older had to make the stress of the World Cup that much harder to recover from, and she looked worn down and out by October.

The other real issue is relative quality. A Sinclair on the downside of her career is still a hell of a player. But is that enough? When you’ve been perhaps the Greatest of All Time? By any objective standard Christine Sinclair had a decent 2019.

By her own standards?

She did not.

Grade: (by NWSL standards): B (by Sinclair standards): C

The Front Office, Coach Parsons, and Sinc herself have some real questions to answer before next season.

What is her role on the team in 2020? Can she still consistently go the full ninety? I doubt it…but I don’t know her physical and mental condition well enough to pretend I know. If not…how can her minutes be managed, and who is “Christine Sinclair” when Christine Sinclair isn’t on the pitch?

One of the biggest keys to reviving the Thorns midfield will be to find the right answers to all those questions.

Lindsey Horan

I’ve read a lot of analyses as well as a great deal of pure speculation that point to her benching at the World Cup as the start of Horan’s problems here at home.

I don’t buy it. Here’s what I wrote after the whackadoodle 4-4 draw in Chicago on Matchday 2:

Horan (+4/-9 : +8/-7 : +12/-16) Troubling. Other than her bloop-pass to Sinc on the first goal not really a factor in the attack. Completed only 35 of 54 passes (64%). For a player set back as DM she didn’t have the expected impact; two recorded tackles, one lost. This was not the Great Horan, and as with Foord it’s hard for me to tell whether it was just a Thorn having an off day, or Chicago doing a terrific job shutting her down. “

from “Taking the CTA to Crazytown”

It wasn’t Chicgo, it was her. That was well before the World Cup and the troubling signs were already emerging for Horan.

Here’s her PMRs:

That’s perhaps the weirdest PMR chart of the 2019 squad. It’s just all over the place, starting in April. Horan’s issues weren’t quality but consistency; she was either Great or Awful, with almost nothing in-between.

A team leader can’t be doing that, and the Thorns, unsurprisingly, suffered for it.

Unlike Sinclair, whose troubles were intangible, Horan’s single biggest problem was easy to identify and the one we’ve already discussed; scoring.

Here’s her stats for her MVP season in 2018:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

And here she is last season:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Other than her tackling Horan’s stats are pretty much identical across the seasons – except for scoring. She took about as many shots per minute both seasons. Her accuracy dropped a bit (from 60% SOG to 50%) in 2019, but it wasn’t like she couldn’t hit water if she fell out of a boat.

She just couldn’t put the ball in the goal worth a damn.

Her PMRs emphasize that this isn’t some sort of gradual slide like we saw with A.D. Franch. Horan had a good 2016 and early 2017, a great late 2017 and 2018, and then just fell off the goddamn table.

Grade: D

That’s a harsh assessment, but the problem with being a hero is that’s your job. You don’t have the luxury of just being a regular joe or jane. You have to live up to your own standards, and by that measure Horan’s 2019 was disastrous. When you’re the Great Horan that means you have to step onto the pitch with the intent to be Great every match and if you can’t, well…

The task for Horan next season is simple; Be Great. Whether that means scoring, or assisting, or directing, or playmaking, or defending, or, most likely, a mix of all of that, Horan needs to return to the levels she played in late 2017 and 2018.

Tobin Heath

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on Facebook in public domain

I hesitated for some time whether to include Heath in this assessment for the same reasons I had with Purce. Heath is rostered as a midfielder, but she’s a very odd sort of midfielder and is really more of a midfield/forward/winger.

Add to that her tendency to change her game every so often. In 2016 she was the creator and the Queen of Assists, then, after the injury year of 2017, in 2018 she decided to begin scoring rather than create for others. She’s the Madonna of Soccer; every so often she needs to reinvent herself.

Last season, however, she was just inconsistent. And not just “inconsistent” but wildly so. Huge in the 5-nil win over Houston and – oddly – the nil-6 loss to The Damned Courage. Awful in the first loss in Tacoma, and in the semi. Perfectly meh the rest of the time.

I don’t see a “World Cup drop” there anymore than I see it in Horan’s season. Heath was just all over the shop. Could it be related to the World Cup? Could Heath’s mind not really have been on her domestic club this past year?

Sure.

But there’s nothing in her PMRs to suggest that France hammered Heath the way it punished Sinclair. Her domestic form is largely on her, not on Jill Ellis or too many baguettes or whatever.

She’s also plateau-ed over the past several seasons.

Her stats make the case that her problems last season were as localized as Horan’s and were purely about converting. Here’s her 2018:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…and 2019:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Heath’s bottom line is on the bottom line; her goals drop from 8 goals to 3, from a goal every two games to barely one every four-and-a-half, from converting a quarter of her shots to less than one in ten.

But the other irking thing that her stats don’t show that re-emerged from Heath in 2019 was her tendency to dribble into trouble.

She’s always been enamored of her own ball skills. She’ll take defenders on just to beat them when she has a teammate open for a simple pass that will improve the Thorns’ attacking position. Was she in, say, Carli Lloyd’s position at Sky Blue, or Sinclair’s on the CWNT; surrounded by replacement-level teammates and forced to drag their teams to victory by sheer force of will? Then Heath’s attitude would be understandable and even laudable.

On the Thorns, surrounded by outstanding players?

No. That’s not okay.

Grade: D

Except for her fierce desire and relentless drive this past season would surely have been an “F” for Heath, and I’m sure that she herself feels that her club season was a disappointing coda to her World Cup championship.

In 2020 she’s going to have the Olympics to distract her, so next season a big part of Heath’s job as a Thorn is to get her mind out of Japan and into Providence Park or Rio Tinto or wherever. It’s also to get back to playing with her team, not just for it. And it’s to decide whether she wants to be 2016 Assisting Heath or 2018 Scoring Heath or perhaps a 2020 Heath we haven’t seen yet.

But 2019 Heath? We need to see the last of her.

Midge Purce

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on giphy.com

Purce is rostered as a midfielder, but as discussed above, after the first three games of the season ended up playing more like a forward or a winger; I have to keep reminding myself that she’s a “midfielder” and as such should be included here.

As for her work in front of goal, well, the past season will always stick in my memory as the Brief Reign of Queen Midge, because of her monster early-mid-season run that briefly had her being talked up as a possible MVP.

What’s kind of shocking, when I look at the chart above, is how truly brief that Brief Reign was. Four games, from the great match against Chicago on Matchday 7 to the comeback win in Houston on Matchday 10.

Purce had some fine work after that, particularly in the win against Chicago again in August, but she never quite regained the Heights of June.

To me Purce’s biggest step forward last season was reducing her mistakes. She didn’t quite reach as highs she did in 2018 – probably because her opponents had seen her before and knew what she could do and how to defend against it – but she cut way back on the lows, the mistakes, and that was critical given her importance to the squad this year.

She also worked on evening-out her dependence on her right foot. She’s still not as comfortable going to her left as her right, but she’s much better, and that helped her effectiveness.

There’s something about Purce that we’ll talk about again with Seiler, but in what was an often-frustrating season it’s tempting to see her shining more brightly than her star deserves – based purely on her quality. She was good…but possibly not as good as we think she was.

For example, here’s her performance measures from 2018…

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…and this past season:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Obviously the change in goalscoring is huge, and that was what made her star shine. But look a little harder at her defensive and passing stats.

She’s never broken 65% completion even though her long passing is above average. And her challenge success rates are not terrific, and as a midfielder Purce is and should be expected to do some defending.

None of this makes Purce any less valuable. She’s gotten better with her left foot, to the point of even scoring with it, and took a big step forward from the overwhelmingly-right-sided part-time-winger she was the season before. She was an excellent asset for the Thorns last season.

Grade: A-

When she was good, she was terrifically good; possibly the best striker in the league in June. The remainder of the season she was still effective, other than struggling with the scoring the rest of the team was struggling with, but not as effective. That’s the minus part of the “A-“.

But the reason her grade is still so high is that the problem wasn’t largely on Purce. The problem was her coach, and the team around her. Here’s what I wrote after the slogging win over Houston on Matchday 22:

“When the Thorns had a gang of quick young players like Simone Charley and Madison Pogarch on the pitch during the World Cup break Purce could run wild through enemy defenses. Now that Heath and Horan and Sinc are back the Thorns’ pace is slower, and Purce isn’t nearly as dangerous.

Right now the Thorns are trying to play Route One with a nimble little sports car up front instead of a big banger of a Range Rover. We can either drive that road, in which case we need a different rig, or we can take a route that suits our little sports car better. I’m fine either way.

But it’s not Purce’s fault she’s no longer the MVP candidate she was in midseason. It’s how we play.”

from “It’s Complicated”, September 25, 2019

I’m not sure I fully agree with that last sentence anymore; Purce did drop off at the end of the season. And playing against Carson Pickett is different from playing Julie Ertz or Crystal Dunn.

But the central idea of that comment? Yes. That’s still true, and that’s going to be a big question for 2020.

Dagny Brynjarsdottir

Now we’ve come to the “supporting cast”, the midfielders who went in and out of the starting XI last season. Some players in that group played major minutes, including Dagny, Celeste Boureille, Andressinha, and Gabby Seiler, and I’ll discuss each of them separately.

Before we finish I do want to touch on the other players we saw briefly in midfield; Emily Ogle, Angela Salem, and Madison Pogarch, but with the caveat that we saw so little of them that there’s not much to discuss.

From Portland Thorns FC: on giphy.com

2019 was the last year we’ll see the Icelandic international here in Portland other than as a tourist. Financial reality made it impossible for her to continue to work in this country, and she has returned to Iceland and will play for her old club, Selfoss, next season.

Here’s her PMRs over most of her time in Portland:

Dagny looks remarkably consistent in the table above, which is fairly incredible given her different roles over those three seasons.

In 2016 she was the sort of purely attacking midfielder she played in college, and plays for Iceland. Her five goals were her NWSL career high, and put her fourth on the Thorns behind Nadia Nadim. Sinclair, and Allie Long.

In 2017 she was largely a substitute and a defensive one at that. By the end of the season I was calling her “Amandine Henry’s legs”, because of Parsons’ habit of subbing her in for Henry at the end of matches, where she’d run around attacking everything like a maddened Icelandic sheepdog or whatever they have in Iceland to herd things.

In 2018 she was being a mom. That’s a hell of a tough job, but you get no PMRs for it.

In 2019 she was a kind of utility midfielder, called on to do all sorts of midfield grunt work. She replaced Horan at the #8 but without Horan’s 2018 attacking flair, so Dagny ended up being a sort of #6/8 or #7; a defender who would go forward now and again or an attacking mid who tracked back a lot. She was a central midfielder, a defensive midfielder, and a sort-of-attacking-midfielder.

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Here’s the thing with Dagny. She’s a fine player. But, for a myriad of reasons, she never really seemed to excel in Portland after 2016. She was useful in 2017 but just that; she was “Amandine Henry’s legs” and worthwhile as that, but not a force of her own.

And outside of that, her passing was never outstanding and after 2016 her striking disappeared. She was an unremarkable piece of the midfield. Good, but not outstanding.

She wasn’t bad at…whatever she was. But somehow Brynjarsdottir was never all that great at it. She never provided the spark that the Thorns needed from her, the sort of spark she showed in 2016.

I’m not sure why. She deserves credit for getting herself match-fit so soon after her pregnancy. She always worked hard. She never jaked it. She never gave away the gift. She always hustled and fought. And I have a hard time slagging off on any player that’s willing to do that.

But somehow all her hard work never managed to make magic. So although she gets an “A” for effort, her season grade is only…

Grade: C+

It’s a little saddening to know that we won’t get the chance to see what Brynjarsdottir could have been next season. That we won’t get to see if little Brynjar would be become Edie Parsons’ protege’ for the walkaround. But whatever else she was, Dagny Brynjarsdottir was a good, hardworking Thorn, and so I hope we’ll always recall her.

Celeste Boureille

From Portland Thorns FC: on giphy.com

“CelBee” has always seemed like the perfect reserve player to me. Patient, durable, adaptable, and – as the goofy little gif with Ifeoma Onumonu shows – a good pal and a good teammate.

She was also called on to carry a big load in the midfield early in the season, especially during a difficult stretch of the first part of the World Cup interval:

Boureille was a high risk, high reward player in 2019, and her PMRs show it. She had lots of pluses, lots of minuses, and even though she ended up with the same net rating she earned during her busiest season (2018) it wasn’t as a boring drone; it was a roller-coaster ride.

Her PMR chart shows the same pattern.

What is a little worrisome is that CelBee started to slide through the World Cup period, to the point where she disappeared as DM in favor of Seiler and Salem. That, I think, isn’t so much a knock on Boureille as it is testimony to the quality of the other two players. But that’s not a big point for her favor, either.

Here’s how she’s looked statistically, starting with 2017…

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

…and here’s last season:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s a little worrisome, too. All Boureille’s metrics are down from the championship season, both defending and passing. She didn’t score in either season and isn’t any sort of attacking threat, so there’s no real point in including her shooting stats.

The thing is that Boureille doesn’t have to be great. That’s Sinclair’s and Heath’s and Horan’s jobs. But she can’t be not-good, and the problem in 2019 is she swung giddily from good to not-good and back. That’s not what you want to see in a reserve DM, and that’s why her grade for 2019 is…

Grade: C-

I think CelBee is a terrific player when she’s on. Her task for 2020 is to stay on; hopefully getting minutes in Australia this winter will help that. If she can – and I think she can – she’s a valuable piece of the Thorns midfield.

Andressinha

Image by ESPN.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

Pictures sometimes really do speak a thousand words:

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

This past season Andressinha and the Thorns had the same problems they’ve always had; the Thorns can’t find a way to use her successfully, and she can’t find a way to impose herself on the game playing for Portland.

It’s like one of those Hollywood marriages that are visibly doomed from the moment they’re announced. Neither party can find a way to make things work. They fight and make up, try different roles, go from this to that to the other…but it’s just not working, and you can tell from Row Triple-Z that it’s never really going to work.

One way to look at Andressinha is to compare her work here with her Brazilian counterpart Debinha’s success for the Damned Courage. Paul Riley’s box midfield plays directly to Debinha’s strengths; pace, vision, communication, long-range shooting, and tough, forceful positioning. Mark Parsons’ slow, deliberate attack exposes every one of Andressinha’s shortcomings; her fragility, her lack of tactical sophistication, her unfamiliarity with her teammates, and her hesitation to strike at goal.

Another question her career here raises is the issue of player development on the Thorns.

Andressinha was brought in as a playmaker and attacking midfielder, the role she played in Houston, and plays on her national team. To succeed in the NWSL she had to keep doing that while becoming physically stronger and better at anticipating defenders actions and figuring out ways to circumvent them.

She hasn’t done that.

Was it because of her inability to learn, her physical limitations…or was it that the Thorns’ coaching staff just can’t figure out how to teach her? The answer is pretty important, but it’s also one we’ll probably never know.

What I consider desperately unfair to Andressinha is that the team asked her to step in at the most critical moment of the season – the semifinal – when she had barely seen her teammates during matchday. As you’d expect, she was utterly adrift against Chicago, and so ended her season with another disappointing defeat.

Grade: D-

I don’t entirely blame Andressinha for her unimpressive work here. She is what she is, and the Thorns should have known that when they traded for her. That the team has been unable to find a use for her and, yet, hasn’t traded her for someone that they can, is largely on the team and not on the player.

That said, I have no idea whether the Thorns can do anything with her next season. I don’t know why she hasn’t been better and I’m not sure if the Thorns can use her better without pretty much blowing up the team and rebuilding from the ground up.

Right now she’s a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, and I have no clue what she can do for the Thorns in 2020, or if she’ll even get the chance.

Gabby Seiler

From Portland Thorns FC: on giphy.com

Gabby Seiler had a hell of a season when she was able to play.

Called in to fill the DM hole during the World Cup break she had a string of eight terrific matches. She crashed with the rest of the club against Reign FC on Matchday 16 and then tore her ACL and was out for the rest of the season, and probably into part of next year, as well.

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

One thing that the stats sheet reminds us is that subjective assessment can be deceptive. Seiler was good, and we needed her to be good – or better than good – so we will be tempted to see her in a kinder light than perhaps she should be.

Her portion of the season also coincided with the offensive explosion that centered around Midge Purce and Simone Charley, so we might also be tempted to see her work without considering the context of the team at that time.

Her stats alone suggest that she was at least replacement-level or better, and strong in the air and at winning defensive duels. Her passing could use some work, although her long passing was quite good. She generally looked composed on the pitch, and fit in well with her team.

All in all, good work and desperately unlucky to have had it cut short.

Grade: A-

Seiler loses half a grade for passing, but that, like everything else, can improve with hard work and experience; she’s only 25. I’m hoping for a quick and successful rehab, and excited about seeing what she can do here next season.

Angela Salem

Now we’re really getting down into the weeds. The last three players all appeared in three matches, ranging from Salem’s 153 minutes and two starts to Ogle and Pogarch, who both played about 90-100 minutes each and got a single start.

Image by Angela Salem on Twitter

Salem, like Seiler, looked to be a valuable piece in the Thorns’ defensive midfield and, like Seiler, was injured. For Salem it was also her knee, in the 43rd minute of Matchday 7 against Chicago, another ACL tear, and she didn’t play again last season.

Image by NWSL.com. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s a solid DM; good in the air (which is pretty amazing given that Salem is only 5’4″!), tough on the tackle and winning almost 60% of her challenges. Her passing could use work, especially her long passing (10%? Ouch!), but the whole package includes a ton of professional experience and, at least based on her Twitter feed, Salem is a good teammate and a plus in the locker room.

Grade: Incomplete (but carrying a solid B+ before her injury)

The last two players are both very young, very raw, and played very little last season. They gave us only glimpses of who they are and even slimmer hints of who they might be.

Emily Ogle

Image by Emily Ogle on Twitter

Emily Ogle played well in her only start this season, the final match against Washington. Here’s her stat sheet:

Which only serves to emphasize the issues with small sample size. In my comment on the Washington game I noted that I thought she was tough on the ground but was outplayed in the air. Her stats are completely the opposite. Who’s right? At this point it’s nearly impossible to say because we’re both working on probably two or three data points at best.

Ogle simply hasn’t really done enough to tell what sort of player she will be. She’s very young, she’s got a lot of growing to do, and hopefully that growth will be productive under Portland’s coaching. Her grade is, therefore, truly an “incomplete”. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in 2020 and that will give us a better idea of her quality.

Grade: Incomplete

Madison Pogarch

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on giphy.com

Pogarch started one match; the 1-1 draw in Cary on Matchday 8 and was relieved by Emily Ogle. Here’s what I wrote about both of them:

Pogarch (73′ – +10/-0 : +2/-3 : +12/-3) Solid game from the young midfielder. Sweet tackle for gain off Hinkle in the 48th minute that just made me grin like a fucking hyena.

Ogle (17′ – +4/-0) Emily Ogle stepped in for a tiring Pogarch without dropping a beat. The rookie has looked very composed in her minutes so far, and did so in Cary.

from “Silk Purce”, June 18, 2019

That’s really about all I can say about Pogarch; she looked solid, had a strong positive PMR, and has a respectable college pedigree. But has a lot of growing to do. As with Ogle, hopefully that will happen here. But for the moment we’ll just have to wait and see.

Grade: Incomplete

Conclusions

It’s been a long and roundabout trip, but I think the end of our journey through the midfield arrives at the following:

1. The Thorns midfield wasn’t “the problem” in 2019, but it contained several critical flaws that didn’t help the team in the hunt for it’s third star.

2. World Cup callups and injuries meant that the midfield was subject to constant turnover and turmoil, and never really settled down through the season into a consistent unit.

3. Within the chaos, however, several players also had individual issues:
– Lindsey Horan cratered, having her worst season as a Thorn;
– Tobin Heath’s effectiveness was significantly muted by the reappearance of some of her technical flaws;
– Christine Sinclair was gutted in France and, possibly, by the effects of age. While not imploding on-field herself she was unable to do her usual work of improving those around her, and;
– Midge Purce broke out but was unable to maintain the form she showed in June.

4. Coach Parsons made the still-inexplicable choice to go to the 3-5-2 in the semifinal after a tepid tryout on the last day of the season, and to field his slowest and least-incisive midfield against the Red Stars in a knockout match. That ended the season right there.

5. But – as we need to always remind ourselves – this team still hasn’t figured out how to beat the Damned Courage. As Chicago showed, no team advancing to the 2019 Final was likely to beat Carolina. So we need to put the Thorns midfield in perspective as part of the larger question of “How do you beat The Damned”?

There’s still a tremendous number of good pieces in the Thorns midfield. Purce, of course. Horan was Great and can be Great again. Heath and Sinclair have tons of experience and may find ways to renew themselves in 2020, and Boureille is a steady veteran. Seiler and Salem will be repaired some time next year and can begin rebuilding their careers. And there’s a ton of promise in players like Ogle and Pogarch.

The most important element here is the coaching staff and the Front Office. They can see what happened last season as clearly as we can – and they know that the Olympics will provide similar if slightly lesserchallenges next season.

Their job is to develop a plan to better manage the midfield to deal with those challenges, and – as always – solve the Damned Courage.

Image by Portland Thorns FC: on Facebook

Next week – we end our trip in front of goal: the Forwards

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: final Grades – The Midfield

  1. Really, really like this site, thank you. I’m having some tough times and look forward to your posts as a distraction. If you’re ever feeling a bit lazy and deliberating about whether to post, imagine someone you don’t know sitting in her child’s hospital room waiting eagerly to read your analysis…. then get to writing. As a PhD researcher and Thorns fan, I appreciate the stats. People should get off your back about being too hard on the players- data is data. You can avidly support the team and still be very, very grumpy at them. Question for this post- does the Big Three Midfielders table above control for minutes/games played? I imagine that stats such as % of team goals would change if you take into consideration the fact that they were in fewer games this year compared to last. Not that it would change the overall point. Question for the future – with AMC and Dagny gone (do Foord and Andressinha count as internationals?) and more $ at our fingertips, which Henri-esque international players should we bring in? We need to get playing well again and defeat the Damned.

    1. I’m sorry to hear your little one and you are having such troubles. I hope your coming times will be brighter.

      As for your questions, in order:
      1. Yes – line six breaks down shots into “shots per minutes played”, which is a rough measure of the frequency of the players’ attacks. The next line down provides the percentage of shots on frame to total shots and, as such, is adjusted for on-field time. Line nine divides goals by on-field time (“minutes per goal”), so a player that’s scoring will have lower numbers – regardless of overall time on-field – than one that’s not.
      2. I believe Foord has a green card. Andressinha does not, so she does count against the international slots, and I’m not sure how many of those PTFC will have in 2020.
      3. I think the team has one overwhelming need, and that’s a quality pure striker, a Kerr or Lloyd or Press-type player that can score. There’s a lot of “secondary striker”-type players on the roster, but they need the true #9.

      After that? It’s going to depend a lot on some current players. If Horan and Sinc and Heath can return to the form they’ve shown in the past? Maybe we’re fine standing pat. But…that’s kind of a big if. We’ve never really replaced the steel Henry provided, but that quality DM would cost the heavens and the Earth, and I’m not sure that even Portland could lure players of the Miedema quality here without breaking the bank. We’ll have to see.

      Whatever happens, I think we’re going to see some players – and even beloved players – move on, because this year’s NCAA draft class is reported to be really thin, and any big improvements to the roster are likely to have to come through trades…so we’ll have to see about that, too.

      Thanks for the comment, and, again, I hope things work out for you.

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