We’ve finally come to the end of our look at the 2019 Thorns with the players whose job is to put the biscuit in the basket; the forwards.
Before we got to this point we’ve looked at the goalkeepers, and concluded that we have two players who appear to be on diverging paths; A.D Franch, our starter, has been slipping technically over the past two seasons, while Britt Eckerstrom, our backup, did a terrific job last season to the point where “starting quality” appears to be close to an appropriate description for her. Franch’s struggles may well have been affected by…
The backline, which came in for some stick, both as a unit – which it largely wasn’t in 2019, what with World Cup callups and injuries creating havoc in the matchday XI – and as individuals, with some of the defenders’ play falling short of either their own standards, or those of their NWSL peers.
Perhaps no group of Thorns had as difficult a time as a unit as the midfield, where the same issues – injuries, callups, and individual struggles – tore up the part of the squad that was the attacking engine room of the 2018 Thorns to ensure that the 2019 season would not even get past the semifinal.
Now we’ve come to the head of the pitch, to the attackers; the forwards, the strikers. Portland reached the playoffs in 2019 for the fourth year in a row, so those attackers must have done at least “okay”, right?
Hmm. Let’s take a look.
Who Scores Your Goals?
Portland had five players rostered at forward in 2019: Ana-maria Crnogorcevic, Caitlin Foord, Christine Sinclair, Simone Charley, and Tyler Lussi.
Sinc played primarily as a withdrawn striker at most, and more often as a sort of attacking midfielder and as such we’ve looked at her with the midfield.
Two midfielders played more like wingers or wide strikers in 2019; Margaret “Midge” Purce and Hayley Raso. For reasons purely of my own convenience I included Purce in with the midfielders but have left Raso in here with the strikers, so we’ll go with that.
Portland scored 40 goals last season, third in the league right behind Chicago’s 41 but an order of magnitude behind The Damned Courage’s 54. Who scored those goals for Portland?
Four goals were scored for Portland but weren’t scored by Portland; they were own-goals, including two in the weird match that was the only win over The Damned in three tries this past season, so we’re down to 36 goals-for.
From there it depends on who you classify as a forward.
If you go purely by roster 18 goals were scored by midfielders: Purce with nine, Raso with four, Tobin Heath with three, and Lindsey Horan and Andressinha with a goal apiece.
Two were scored by Emily Sonnett, repping the defenders.
So between those two units they bagged 20 out of 36, or about 55%, leaving Sinclair with nine, Foord with three, Lussi with two and Everett and AMC with just one each for the remaining 16. Charley did not score in 2019.
If you lump Raso and Purce in with the forwards and push Sinclair back down the pitch, though, you get a more even distribution; the forwards put up 20, the midfielders 14.
Either way, though, the four “pure” forwards (AMC, Foord , Charley, and Lussi) come out on the short end; only six of that 36, or about 16.5%. That’s about the same as last season, when you have the same problem; you have to lump Sinclair into the forwards to make the numbers respectable. If you toss Sinc’s nine 2018 goals in with the midfielders and the other forwards score only 6 of 39 (15%) last year.
Who Scores THEIR Goals..?
Only fifteen percent of the Thorns goals scored by the players designated as goalscorers? That sounds like a problem, doesn’t it?
But wait! Maybe everybody in the league scores mostly from the midfield. Maybe every other successful team scores goals the Thorns’ Way! Let’s compare the Thorns to the other three playoff teams and find out.
North Carolina’s forwards scored 37 of their 50 (from the 54 scored less the own-goals), or about 74% of their total;
Chicago’s forwards scored 28 of their 39, or about 72%, and;
Tacoma’s forwards scored 21 of their 26, or about 81%.
Turns out that nobody else scores goals the way the Thorns do, and, as the saying goes; if you look around the table and don’t see the sucker, it’s you.
So, unfortunately, we have to begin with the assumption that along with the issues at goalkeeper, in defense, and the midfield, among the things the Thorns’ Front Office needs to deal with before next April will be figuring out how to get more production out of the striker position.
How realistic is it to assume that this can be done with one or more of the players on the roster? Let’s break them down, and – while we’re at it – hand out grades for their work in 2019.
Final Grades – The Forwards
I could rank the five players I’m mentioned (and I’ll add a sixth, Marisa Everett, since there’s nowhere else to put her) by goals scored, seeing as that’s the final measure of a forward. But given the freakish scoring last season that would produce the oddity of putting Crnogorcevic’s 9 starts and 761 minutes next to Everett’s zero and 35.
So instead I’ll discuss the forwards in order of time spent on the pitch, starting with…
Raso’s return from the horrific back injury suffered at the end of 2018, combined with the World Cup callup for Australia, meant that she didn’t really see the Thorns’ pitch until Matchday 11 (she had a cup of coffee in the second half in Orlando on Matchday 4 but did very little of note).
From there she had a decent second-half of a season:
(In case you don’t recall – What the heck is a PMR? Player ratings explained)
Raso was consistently above the team mean for most of the last half of the season barring her awful day in Tacoma on Matchday 16 (which was shared by most of her teammates, so there’s that).
She made up for it by being one of the best Thorns on the pitch in the Tacoma rematch on Matchday 23, was rested against Washington, and played well in the semifinal.
Unsurprisingly given the severity of her injury Raso struggled a bit and was down from her good 2018, her issues primarily with her passing, but her conversion rate wasn’t great, either:
One thing to note in the chart above is how effective Raso is at forcing opponents to foul her. Ribbons’ pace is such that defenders often have to choose between a professional foul and letting her blow by them, and given her position on the pitch those fouls often result in a dangerous set-piece.
One useful way to measure Raso’s value is to compare her to a group of her peers with a similar production statistics, so here she is measured against the other NWSL players with four goals:
Her efficiency is pretty middle-of-the-road; she doesn’t convert as much as Jordan DiBiasi or Chioma Ubogagu, but she’s way better per shot than Rachel Hill or Sam Mewis. She does shoot a lot; her 23 shots (and 45 minutes-per-shot) are either highest or close to the highest in the group. Overall she’s comfortably placed in the middle of her peer group.
Raso fits in well with this group of “secondary strikers/wingers/attacking midfielders”, meaning that she’s doing what the Thorns asked her to do, and doing it rather well.
Raso only loses half a grade for her short season, her efficiency, and her passing; she’d be a solid A-minus had she been in shape to begin the season and had been a bit more clinical. That may be harsh – she didn’t ask to have her back broken – but that’s the unforgiving nature of professional sport.
Raso’s other question mark is that she is essentially the same player as Midge Purce; a speedy right-sided winger or second striker. And Purce had twice the goals that Raso had last season. So the issue becomes, can Parsons find a place for both these players on the pitch, or does he have to choose?
And, if he does…which will he choose?
Foord spent her second season with Portland doing much the same as she did in the first; spot-starting and coming on as a substitute.
She seems to have been dragged down by the World Cup as badly as Sinclair, because after an up-and-down April and May, Foord’s summer and autumn were poor compared to her team. And when she was poor she was really poor, including her net -6 in Utah on Matchday 13 and +2/-9/-7 in the six-goal Destruction of Army Group Damned.
Her issue last season was a big increase in poor passes and tackles-for-loss, and a significant drop in overall form from 2018, when she was barely above the team average to well below average in the past season.
Her metrics are pretty meager, as well. She didn’t forecheck well, her passing is adequate at best, and although she converts decently she fouls far more than she is fouled; she’s the anti-Raso.
Compared to her peer group she’s perfectly “meh”, on the low end of the middle of the pack. She looks good compared to Rocky Rodriguez, but Rodriguez took a ton of stick last season for her failure to produce. You’ll notice, was well, that outside of Rocky her comps are pretty much all midfielders. That’s not a good look for a striker.
Foord is a frustrating player, because she’s had success elsewhere, and shows occasional flashes of competence, but as a whole here in Portland she’s been vastly underwhelming.
To change that is simple, though; she needs to start scoring consistently, and efficiently. That’s all. If she can, she could be key next year. That’s the big question, though. Can she? Foord was injured in 2018 and never really found her feet. This past season we and she can blame the World Cup.
But at some point she needs to feed the bulldog, and that point has to be coming very soon. We’ll see; if she’s not here in April, it came and went in the offseason.
To analyze AMC’s 2019 won’t really help us much going forward, since the club released her in November.
And analyzing AMC’s work in 2019 is kind of depressing.
She had two good matches; Chicago on Matchday 2 and then again against the Red Stars here on Matchday 7. Everything else was appalling, and she disappeared after the end of June.
And 2019 represented a genuine and steep decline from the previous year. Here’s her 2018 stats:
And this past season:
Ugh. That’s cratering in every aspect other than the passing.
Her comps had to be selected from peers with similar game and minute values, simply because one goal isn’t really a trend, it’s just random noise; you’ll note that AMC shares the single goal with Everett, and that the comparison makes AMC look like a hacker. She wasn’t, but that’s what happens when you get into the far edge of statistical meaning. Her closest comp is Chloe Logarzo, whose play was so “meh” that Washington waived her at the end of the season (and she was picked up by Orlando, the NWSL’s answer to the Island of Misfit Toys, which says something equally scathing…).
The data suggests that AMC was a fringe player by NWSL standards in 2019, and so her release was and should have been easily forecast. Acquired as an emergency replacement in 2018 when Foord pulled up lame AMC did her work decently that season. This season, however, she didn’t so much regress to the mean as drop straight through it into the abyss.
What’s unfortunate is that I don’t think that Crnogorcevic is a poor player. What she is, however, is a second striker and provider that needs a strong #9-type striker playing in front of her to make her effective. That’s how she played in Frankfurt, and she took advantage of the Big Three midfielders’ great season here in 2018 to do something like the same here.
Without that support here last season, she disappeared on the pitch. Now she has disappeared from the team, and we can only wish her well wherever she lands…so long as it’s not Carolina.
Si-money played a critical part of the midseason run of success, but primarily as a provider and second striker. Here’s her stats:
Her numbers are an important reminder that Charley is 1) very young, 2) very green, and 3) has lots of room to grow. Evidence of some of that growth is coming from her loan to the W-League; here’s Charley getting a brace for Canberra just this past November.
Her ratings for last season show the arc of a young player breaking into a tough league:
The run of the Midgey and Charley show busts the Nielsens on Matchday 7 but slump quickly. When the internationals return Charley is relegated to the bench, from which she has several decent late-match shifts as well as a good day starting against the Red Stars (how Chicago must have hated to see her – she killed them) on Matchday 19.
So her work was good enough to earn more than an “incomplete”…but not quite good enough to put her at the head of the forwards class. Call it a
This young forward has a crap-ton of upside. She needs to learn quickly, she needs to stay healthy, and, most importantly, she needs a old head, an experienced #9, to learn from. I know I keep beating this drum, but the Thorns need a quality striker. She will help the secondary strikers like Purce and Raso. She’ll teach the padawans like Charley. And…she’ll score freaking goals. And that’s something the Thorns need from their forwards, dammit.
After saying he wouldn’t forget Lussi again after her matchwinner against Orlando on Matchday 12 Coach Parsons…
…proceeded to forget about Tyler Lussi.
She appeared in a total of three more games in 2019, all as a substitute. She was a beast in the away win at Houston on Matchday 14, and a nonfactor in the following two. She didn’t appear at all in late September or October.
What’s frustrating about this is that based on her stats…
…and her relationship with her peer group, Lussi is a solid-NWSL-starting-quality player. In particular, compared to the other three forwards we’ve looked at here, she’s at or near the top in efficiency and creativity:
Raso is a better sniper, and produces more often per minutes played, but Lussi converts more efficiently per shot than any of her forward teammates. She’s a very good player, and to continue to respect Coach Parsons’ judgement I have to assume that there were other off-field factors that explain his persistence with starting Foord, in particular, over Lussi
Lussi has steadily improved since 2018, and with AMC departing and Foord still, at least to my mind, a questionable asset it seems self-evident that Lussi deserves to be at least considered as a starting forward. If I was the head coach it would be up to her to play her way off the starting XI, rather than still be struggling to break into it.
In what may well have been the Most Heartwarming Story of the 2019 season™, young World Cup replacement Everett scored her first and only professional goal in her 13th total minute of professional play, planting the dagger in the 85th minute of the 3-nil win over Chicago on Matchday 7.
By the end of that match she’d played a total of 23 minutes over two matches, and in the following three weeks played a total of 12 more; six minutes each against Utah and The Damned Courage in the two midseason draws.
Since then she has not played a single minute for Thorns FC.
Her PMR high was +3/-0/+3 against Sky Blue, her lows +1/-1/0 for both her final two games; her season net was +1.
For all we know that may be the sum of her professional life; we have no idea whether we will see her next season, or, if so, in what degree. We still have no real sense of her quality. She is still a mystery.
What we have, instead, is the sudden explosion of incandescent joy on that sunny Sunday afternoon in June, when for one brief, unforgettable moment Marissa Everett took flight on the field amid the heroes of her dreams.
The moment when she soared above the turf, lifted on the roar of the crowd and the embraces of her teammates, the moment that she can look back to when she is old and weighted with years and recall; that moment when she was young and strong and proud and the world was young and bright and good and true and fine.
The story of the Thorns forwards in 2019 is nearly identical to that of 2018; hard work but luckless in front of goal. Again, the Thorns strikers made chances. Again, the Thorns’ strikers were unable to convert chances into goals. Again, as in 2018, the goals did come, but from other sources, and that is a troubling consistency.
We’ve also seen that this doesn’t appear to be a sustainable plan; the other playoff contenders’ attack ran through their forwards, and for the second year in a row the most forward-centric of those attacks – Tacoma’s and The Damned – combined for a 4-1-1 record against Portland. Throw in Chicago’s 2-2-0 and the other playoff teams who use their strikers to score are 6-3-1 against a Portland whose strikers can’t seem to figure out how to put the goddamn ball through the goddamn goal.
The real question now is; can Portland’s current roster do better at that, or are the current forwards not adequate to the task.
Unfortunately, the answer is: “We don’t know yet”.
Hayley Raso has never scored more than seven goals a season, and that for only one of her four seasons; her average over four years is four goals a season. That’s not a line-leading striker, but could be considered a decent “second striker/winger”.
The question hanging over her and Purce is which of the two is the better right-sided “second-striker/winger”? Last season it was Purce, but in a freakish season that also saw her go hot and cold; she hasn’t shown herself to be a consistent scorer yet, while Raso has banged in goals every year since 2017.
Which is the better option? That’s a tough question. One element may be that Raso has a longstanding connection with the Thorns primary right back Ellie Carpenter. Could that make Carpenter-Raso a more versatile weapon than Carpenter-Purce? Hmm.
That’s a good dilemma to have, but it’s still a dilemma.
Whither Caitlin Foord? So far, she looks more like a second forward rather than a true #9. Can she change that? She hasn’t with a full healthy season in the league. What would it take for her to step up? Does she need a striker in front of her to be effective? If so, who? None of the other players we’ve looked at seem likely to be able to step up to that, so to keep Foord on the roster means finding that Christen Press or Sam Kerr sort of player – which alone tells you how difficult that could be.
Who replaces Crnogorcevic? Tyler Lussi? Promising from what we’ve seen of her but no more than that, what can Lussi do with a full season of starts? Will she grow to fill that space, or crash against the reality of long, hard minutes and grinding defenses? I’d like to take that chance, but it’s not my job if she fails. Clearly there was something that kept Parsons from starting her at the end of this past season when everyone else was stone cold…but what? And was it just his mistake, and has he recognized that, and does he plan to rectify it in 2020?
Simone Charley is a bright morning face on the roster. She looked promising and seems to be building on that promise. Right now, though, she’s tomorrow. And Bill James wrote that the thing about tomorrow is that it might be a dream, or it might be a nightmare, or it might never come. Charley is the Thorns of tomorrow. I think the Thorns need a “today”, though, to help her to that bright future.
Is there a place on the roster for Marissa Everett? And, if so, where? Her tiny sample looks promising, but lots of small samples prove to be disappointing over a longer trial. Some, however, prove to be harbingers of greatness. Which was Everett’s? We won’t know unless we try her, but is there space there to make that trial. I’ll say this – if she’s not here in preseason, at least, I will be highly pissed off.
If these four – or five, if you count Purce in – aren’t the solution, who is? The new financial rules let the Thorns throw some big money at a player or two. Who could they entice here, if their goal was to find a top-class striker? Who would you suggest they look for? I have some thoughts, but I’d sooner discuss them in the comments. Let’s talk.
That’s the end of the 2019 season here at Thorns FC: I’ve run through what we have to talk about the past year. I may have a thing or two to say before the draft in January, but we’ve entered the fallows of the year and my work here has, as well.
It was a hell of an exciting ride last year, and we got some fun along the way; Queen Midge and the exciting rollout of the Midgey and Charley Show, the Improbable Ascent of Mount Everett, owning Chicago and Houston in our house, a ridiculous and entertaining point in Cary.
The disciplined ferocity of Emily Menges, the gracile exuberance of Simone Charley, the burning intensity of A.D. Franch.
Of course, there was also heartbreak; there’s always heartbreak, because soccer is a Cruel Game. But this heartbreak came from traveling so far from springtime only to find ourselves walking home from the empty seats and the silent pitch of October, again, ruing their and our lost hopes.
But the joy and wonder of the Thorns, as it is the joy and wonder of all sport, is that there’s always a Next Year.
There will be a rookie draft – and, probably, and expansion draft – and rumors and rumors of the rumors. There will be promise in the rains of February and the steely skies of March.
There will be the green grass of April, the sound of running feet, the thump of boot to ball and the cries of the wheeling attackers.
And then there will be the magic of Opening Day, and the roar of the fans, and the shrill whistle that will begin another season and another ascent of hopes and dreams.
I’ll be there and I know you will be there, too; baying out our pride and love for this team, our team, the Portland Thorns, as they spray out onto the pitch in a glory of red and black.
Until then; goodnight.