It all felt so close. So near to being a thing, like the first lightening in the sky before the dawn. We could almost see it, hear it, feel it, touch it.
The cries of the wheeling players. The thudding of boots on the pitch. The coaches’ shouted instructions. The silver shrill of the whistles.
The new season.
And then, suddenly…it wasn’t.
I won’t mourn for the loss of sport in the Plague Year. The teams, the league, and the country are doing what the need to do in the shadow of a pandemic.
But…still. That’s difficult for those of us who love the game, and love this team. Because – in the hopeful assumption that this is not The Plague Year and the season will eventually happen – this hopefully-still-coming season is going to be critical for Thorns FC. We know it. Our opponents know it. And, crucially, our coach and the Front Office know it and are moving to do something about it.
In the club press release from March 6 the disappointing 2019 season is compared to the worst season the club has ever had:
“Now Parsons is part of another overhaul, one that’s cast 2019’s third-place finish in the same light as the worse one of 2015.”~ Richard Farley
That’s huge, because, as I said; 2015 wasn’t just “the worse one” but “the WORST one”; the only season in their history that the Thorns lost more games than they won, the only season the team finished out of the playoffs, the season that cost Paul Riley his job. To equate the two is to put a heavier boot to last year than even I was willing to do.
Normally I might take this for mere words, an attempt to placate fans upset with the early exit in 2019.
But this year, in the off-season, there are actions that suggest that the coach and the team aren’t just talking.
This year players are packing their bags. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about here, as we want and hope for the first kickoff of the 2020 preseason, let’s begin with some deals from the end of 2019;
DealS (TRADED/RELEASED): Foord, Andressinha, Crnogorcevic, Brynjarsdottir
On October 20, 2019 Chicago booted Portland out of the playoffs.
On November 4, Ana-maria Crnogorcevic was waived.
On November 18, financial issues forced Dagny Brynjarsdottir to ask for, and the club to agree to, termination of her contract.
On January 8, 2020, Andressinha was informed that the club no longer needed her services, and the same day Caitlin Foord’s rights were traded to Orlando.
We’ll talk about Foord in a bit, when we get to the draft, but I think the other three players were released with a mixture of relief and regret.
I believe that Dagny Brynjarsdottir was the regret that was clouded by the lingering confusion of her tenure here. Who was she? Was she an attacking, or a defensive, midfielder? Both? Neither? A goal-scorer, or a creator? I’m not sure that in her time she ever really defined her role, and I’m not sure the coaching staff defined it, either on the pitch or in their minds.
From 2016, over three seasons – with a break in 2018 – Dagny played over 3,300 minutes in 53 games, scoring 6 goals and providing 2 assists. She was often used as a midfield distributor but never broke 65% pass completion. She was also often used as a midfield stopper, but her defensive numbers declined sharply from her 60% highs for duels and tackles in her first season to the low-fifties in 2017 and 2019 . She was never a liability…but she was never outstanding enough to lock down a regular starting job, either.
I’m honestly not sure what might have happened to her this season had she been able to make things work out. The roster overhaul might have left her without a role…or it might have found her one.
As things stand, we will never know.
Releasing the two other players was nowhere near as troubling.
Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic was a panic hire in 2018, the temp-agency replacement for Caitlin Foord when Foord pulled up lame. AMC had a decent 2018 – 5 goals and 3 assists in about 1,500 minutes over 22 games – but in 2019 kind of fell off a cliff; 1 goal in 760 minutes over 12 games. Her conversion rate dropped from a meager 14% to an unacceptable 10%.
When the Thorns signed AMC I was skeptical of their advertising. She was touted as a striker – her role was to be Foord until Foord was healthy enough to be Foord – but only her international career suggested she could do that. Her club numbers looked like her typical strike rate was only about 0.2 goals/game.
Her strike rate here? 0.17 goals/game.
What the Thorns FO got was what she was, what she’d been in Europe – a secondary striker and provider – instead of what they wanted her to be, a true #9. I’m pretty sure the club was surprised when she was who she was, and I’m pretty sure they were displeased. That must have chafed both parties and soured her tenure here, so I suspect that everyone was pleased to see the back of each other.
I hope she thrives at Barcelona.
Andressinha was yet another player that the coach and FO seemed to have truly, madly, deeply misunderstand.
She was acquired from Houston – I think – as part of the Allie Long deal in 2018. It’s my suspicion that the FO knew that Long had a whopping attitude and wasn’t ever going to play for Portland again, so the Thorns swapped Savannah Jordan to Houston and got Andressinha, who was billed as a playmaker and a hybrid 6-8, a sort of utility midfielder – i.e. Allie Long.
Once here, though, the team discovered that not only was she not Long but that they couldn’t find a good use for her. She was too fragile to mix it up in the trenches of the defensive end of midfield, and wasn’t a load in attack; she couldn’t seem to make the kind of incisive runs or passes, or consistently score on strikes from distance and setpieces that, for instance, her Brazilian teammate Debinha regularly does for the Damned Courage and Long did for Tacoma that season.
I’m not sure what Coach Parsons and the FO thought they were getting in Andressinha. I’m sure they didn’t know what to do with the Andressinha they got. The release was merciful for both sides, and I hope she does well back in Brazil.
Deal/Draft: Foord’s rights Plus Sonnett plus Picks for Orlando #1 Pick (Smith)
As mentioned above; about a week before the 2020 NWSL draft Portland traded Caitlin Foord’s rights to Orlando for the #1 overall pick that turned into striker Sophia Smith.
That deal also included Portland’s low first round pick (#7 overall), a second round (#14 overall) pick, and…centerback Emily Sonnett.
Caitlin Foord‘s two seasons in Portland were a complete disappointment. Touted as a goalscorer, she produced three goals and two assists in 1,300 minutes over 20 games. She was never a consistent threat, and never found a productive partnership with the Thorns other attacking players. She worked hard and put herself into dangerous situations, but never seemed to get any benefit from it. Her 2019 conversion rate – 18% – was respectable, but seems to be more the product of taking fewer shots rather than scoring more goals. Since then she’s bypassed Orlando and signed with Arsenal in the FAWSL.
Another played I can’t slag off on – she worked hard and gave it her best – but not successful here, and clearly considered excess lumber that the FO wanted out of the shed as part of the 2020 rebuild,
Emily Sonnett might well be one of the most beloved players that every pulled on Thorns red. She’s a wild woman, a sort of goofy and loveable maenad (can that even be a thing, “loveable maenad”..?), a day-in-day-out Happy Warrior who always seems to find a smile or a joke lying around and picks it up to crack up her teammates.
Her photobombs during her teammates’ interviews were fucking epic.
That said…as I discussed in the defenders’ piece last fall; “(Her) 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.”
I think the coaching staff saw that, too. I think they were looking for a harder, tougher, more focused centerback. I think they got one, too – as we’ll discuss – but that meant that it was time for Sonnett to move on.
I’ll miss Sonnett as a person and a character. She’s just fun, and in the often-cruel business of sport fun can be hard to come by.
But here’s my secret thought; Sonnett the player might well have been hampered by that same loveable goofy sense of fun. She never took herself too seriously, and that’s wonderful. But she might just not have taken her craft as seriously as she could. And that’s not. Perhaps what’s holding her back is that at critical moments her game is as silly and goofy and lighthearted as she is.
I hope she never loses that sense of fun.
Except on the pitch. Well, okay; except on the pitch when she’s playing against Portland.
As soon as she declared for the draft Sophia Smith was the consensus #1 prospect in 2020. Here’s her senior year metrics (from a 20 game sample) in Chris Henderson’s draft report:
16 goals on approximately 14 xG
38% conversion rate
2.1 chances created per 90’
73% pass completion (19 passes per 90’)
1.3 key passes completed per 90’ (49% completion)
29% cross completion
43% aerial duels won
7 dribbles per 90’ (54% success)
3.2/12 – ball recovery-turnover ratio per 90’
Smith was simply the best striker in the NCAA outside her teammate Catarina Macario. She fills the huge hole at #9 that Portland’s roster has had since the loss of Nadia Nadim.
Smith a capable at both outside forward and center-forward, though she was primarily used as an outside forward at Standford. She’s had some injury struggles, and is young – she was an academic sophomore when she declared and will be only 20 this coming August.
As with any young player, there are lots of unknowns. Smith seems to hold a lot of promise, and now it’s up to the coaches and trainers and her teammates here in Portland to ensure that promise is fulfilled.
Deal (Trade): Purce for Rodriguez
The same day (January 8) the Foord-Sonnett-Smith deal was done the Thorns traded Midge Purce to Sky Blue FC for Raquel Rodriguez.
Let me get this out here first; I’m a straight-up, unapologetic Midge Purce fanboi.
I think she’s got a hellacious toolkit; speed, craft, strength, the striker’s instinct for goal. I like that she saw her biggest weakness – her lack of a left foot – and worked on it during the 2018-2019 offseason to return in 2019 as a more two-sided attacker.
I liked her connection with Simone Charley and looked forward to seeing if the two – considering how well Charley has been doing in Australia this winter – could duplicate it this coming season.
That said…I don’t see her everyday, and Coach Parsons and the FO gang do. There was obviously something they saw there that didn’t impress them as much as it did me; she faded out of the XI at the end of 2019, and was obviously considered superfluous to requirements to the point where she was swapped to Sky Blue in this deal.
The loss of Raso – which we’ll discuss in a bit – complicates this deal, but obviously Sky Blue is more with me than with them.
It’ll be interesting to see who was right about her.
Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez appears to be a versatile attacker, able to both create and score – to a point. She passes the “eye test” as a quality player. I am hopeful that the FO wanted her because they have a specific vision for what her role will be this season and a specific plan on how to implement that vision.
I have concerns, however, that won’t be allayed until we see how she does here.
Specifically, remember this chart? We looked at it when we looked at AMC at the end of last season:
See the yellow cells in the red box? THOSE are what concern me. Those are my problem.
As a goalscorer in 2019 Rodriguez was shockingly inefficient. We dumped Foord because she couldn’t score, but Rocky is worse than she is. Her minutes per goal are particularly appalling. She didn’t shoot a lot, and she didn’t score when she did.
BUT – and it is a huge “but” – there’s a problem with my problem, because the real problem is Sky Blue.
Was Rodriguez’ issue Rodriguez? Or was Rodriguez issue that she was playing for one of the league’s biggest tire fires? It’s hard to pick Rocky’s flame from the burning dumpster she was trapped in. That will have to wait until she rolls out here.
And, of course, the other big unknown is “what will she do when she rolls out here?”
Is she a goalscorer? We have quite a few of those on the roster now, at least on paper. Is she a “midfield general”, a string-puller and creator? At least in theory that’s what Sinclair and Horan do. Given Sinc’s age…is she the next Sinclair? And, if so, how? We have no idea at this point where she fits into the squad.
Here’s what I hope; I hope that Rodriguez was just locked into a bad place in Jersey. I hope that new teammates, a new coach, a new tactical setup, sparks a renaissance in her game.
Whether that happens…well, we’ll have to see. This deal has a potential to cut both ways.
Foord and Sonnett for Smith? I’m all-in. This deal? I think we’ll have to wait and watch to see how we judge its worth.
DEAL/DRAFT: Picks/Duffybux for Chicago #2 Pick (Weaver)
Now we’ve come to Draft Day, January 16 2020.
Having taken Smith with the #1 overall, the Thorns FO packaged two second-round picks (#15 and 16 overall), and $70,000 in allocation money – “duffybux” – to swap for Chicago’s #2 overall pick. With this they selected forward Morgan Weaver out of Washington State University.
We’ll see this as a trend; the Thorns FO clearly sees the allocation money as more of a trade tool than a straight-up “go overseas and hunt down players” kind of tool.
Henderson helpfully provides senior season stats for Weaver:
8 goals on approximately 12 xG
32% conversion rate
1.4 chances created per 90’
56% pass completion (15 passes per 90’)
1.3 key passes completed per 90’ (61% completion)
30% cross completion
37% aerial duels won
3.3 dribbles per 90’ (55% success)
1.7/12 – ball recovery-turnover ratio per 90’
Weaver had an absolute monster of a College Cup campaign, and she’s clearly a quality forward at the NCAA level.
She’s also tall and strong, suggesting that she, instead of Smith, might be the better target inside the box. But there’s that pesky aerial dual problem; for a player her size Weaver has not been strong in the air.
She also has some other somewhat troubling metrics, including her goal/xG ratio, and her passing – although in his assessment of the draft Henderson suggested this might be more an artifact of WSU’s playing style than Weaver herself.
To me Weaver looks more like a solid second option than a line-leading goalscorer; she has a nose for key passes, and converts well enough to draw defensive attention. I think the only question is whether she’ll be worth what we paid for her; for a team in need of defensive depth we missed several good second round opportunities to trade up for her.
Given her skillset, I think she will…but I’m not as sure of her as I am of Smith. We’ll see.
DRAFT: Third round pick (#25) – Meaghan Nally
With no second round picks, the Thorns’ next draft pick was the seventh in the third round and they selected Nally, a defender out of Georgetown.
Nally is a versatile defender who has played both left and right fullback and centerback, and has decent numbers for a deep third-round player (again courtesy of Henderson):
66% pass completion (21 passes per 90’)
69% defensive challenges won (7 per 90’)
61% aerial duels won
81% tackles won
0.8 dribbles per 90’ (92% success)
10/5 – ball recovery/turnover ratio per 90’
8 interceptions per 90’
0.75 major mistakes per 90’
She has also, as you’d expect from a player this far down the draft board, some issues with consistency, in particular her passing (Henderson reports she had some senior year games where her completion rate was below 50%).
She’s depth, she’s young, and she’s cheap. There’s not much more you can ask from a third round pick.
Deal/Draft: Fourth Round Pick (#34) to Reign FC for Westphal
Westphal was a first-round Boston pick in the 2016 draft and played 1,709 minutes over 26 games. In 2017 she went out of Matchday 13 with a serious nerve injury to her right foot, and at the end of the season went to Reign FC in the Boston dispersal draft.
Her first season in Seattle appears to have been affected by her injury; she played only 694 minutes in 12 matches, and by 2019 either through injury or just overall form she had been largely relegated to the bench, appearing for 138 minutes over four games with only a single start.
At this point Westphal seems unlikely to do more than provide a handful of late-game minutes as a substitute for Klingenberg. I’m not quite sure what to make of this deal, frankly. With Amanda Visco still in the board the FO swapped the third-from-the-last-pick to Tacoma for this journeywoman defender. This is where I just have to hope that the FO is smarter than me.
Deal (Transfer): Raso to Everton
The next deal in our discussion was a shocker to the fanbase; on January 22, the week after the draft, the Thorns announced that Hayley Raso had signed a six-month deal with struggling northwest England club Everton.
To me the big question about this is whether the club had a clue that Raso was searching for a European gig when they traded Purce. Purce’s and Raso’s skillsets overlap in many aspects, but the connection with Carpenter through the Matildas makes Raso the more natural right forward/right wing choice and Purce more expendable.
So if the club had no clue? The Purce deal makes smack-down sense on both sides; Portland gets a quality midfielder after a season where the midfield had some issues and moves a spare right winger to Sky Blue.
But if the club had suspicions that Raso was looking for a new gig? Than the move looks a lot more risky; success depends on turning up a reliable replacement at right wing.
Smith has played wide right at Stanford, but seems more valuable as a true center-forward. Weaver has been slotted out as a winger, as well, but is reported to have been notably less productive there than playing more centrally, as well. Regardless, someone is going to have to slot in where Purce and Raso were, and – I’m beginning to sound like a broken record – we’re going to have to wait and see who that is.
Deal (Trade): Ball and Duffybux to Utah for Sauerbrunn
The most recent deal was a big one; the Thorns packaged allocation money – $100,000 straight up, with an additional $50,000 if the player they took is playing here in 2021 – and defender Elizabeth Ball for Utah defender Becky Sauerbrunn.
Liz Ball played about 1,200 minutes over 23 games for Portland; she was an important piece of the backline in 2019, getting 14 starts. However, the arc of her 2019 is more revealing than just the raw numbers.
Her first appearance as a starter was in New Jersey on Matchday 6, and she was a monster. Her PMRs that day – +19/-7/+12 – equal the best anyone on the Thorns backline posted over the season; only Emily Menges had similar numbers and that only once.
After that she started continuously through Matchday 17 (the weird no-goal win over the Damned Courage here). She was good, but never as good as that first start, and had a poor match against the Courage.
Then she disappeared. Over the final nine matches she appeared only four times, twice as a substitute, and was yanked at the halftime of the semifinal after an ineffective first half.
Ball is young, and has shown bright promise…but is also clearly viewed as no more than depth, and as such was fungible in return for a Sonnett-upgrade.
Becky Sauerbrunn is unlikely to need an introduction to any reader here. She has been a regular with the USWNT at centerback since 2008, and has over 170 caps.
She’s also knocked around club soccer, going all the way back to 2005, for an outfit called the “Boston Renegades” of the W-League. She played in the WPS for Washington (and the infamous MagicJack), and in the NWSL for FC Kansas City.
‘Brunn is, obviously, a vastly experienced and talented central defender. She is sort of the anti-Sonnett; stern instead of funny, dependable instead of mercurial, older veteran instead of young professional.
She is also, in field player terms, practically an antique; at 34 she is at the end of her long career. She made no effort to hide that she wanted to make this move to finish her club career in what she considers her hometown. More than perhaps any other of these moves this trade suggests strongly that the Peregrine organization intends to make 2020 the “last big push” for a title before the end of the Sinclair Era and the need for a bottom-up rebuild.
Sauerbrunn will bring a tremendous well of experience to the Thorns’ backline. She will also slow a centerback pairing that was already hampered by Menges’ leg injuries. The questions now are whether ‘Brunn’s experience will permit her to offset her lack of pace and whether Menges will be fully fit to start this season. If so, the two should have no major issues.
So. Where do all these drafts and deals leave us?
Let’s start by summing them up:
Forwards – gained Smith and Weaver, lost AMC, Foord, and Raso.
AMC and Foord were clearly not working out here. Smith and Weaver both have the potential to be terrific attackers.
The loss of Raso, though, makes this a little more fraught, because she held down a slot – veteran right-flank attacker – that we don’t have an obvious like-for-like replacement, and the two rookies are just that; rookies, with lots of upside and no way to be sure that they will fulfill their potential.
Net gain?…Yes, provided that the draftees 1) develop as hoped, and 2) can fill Raso’s position as well or better than Ribbons. Given the players involved, I’m pretty hopeful.
Midfielders – gained Rodriguez, lost Purce, Andressinha, and Brynjarsdottir
Despite the numerical imbalance these moves are fairly balanced in terms of quality; Rodriguez looks like good stuff; at least on paper an upgrade to Brynjarsdottir, Purce had some huge moments in 2019 but faded late to the point of being clearly not what the FO saw as a way forward, and Andressinha was just a mistake and a dead loss.
The value of these moves is hugely dependent on two things we just don’t know and won’t know until the players take the field: is Rodriguez better than her Sky Blue metrics, and is Purce no better than the Thorns think she is or can be?
Net gain…Maybe, if the answers to both questions are “yes”, then this is a solid gain for Portland. If “no”? Then we may be regretting the Purce-Rodriguez trade and our inability (or unwillingness..?) to front the Brynjarsdottir family a little extra jack.
Defenders – gained Sauerbrunn, lost Ball and Sonnett
While she’s on the descending branch of her career Sauerbrunn still has the potential to anchor the backline here. Sonnett was stuck in a less-than-ideal point in her development, while Ball was useful but not an essential piece of the team. The value of replacing Sonnett with Sauerbrunn makes the loss of Ball acceptable.
Net gain…Yes. Sauerbrunn should shore up a backline that has been sliding since 2017. My only concern is her age; older players are injury magnets, and if ‘Brunn is hurt we have a pretty thin bench to fill in.
I think the FO has done well this offseason.
As well as the bonanza year of 2015-2016? That remains to be seen; if Smith and Weaver develop as well as they promise? If Rodriguez is the beast she looks capable of being and not what she looked like in Jersey? If Sauerbrunn stays healthy and continues to play at her current level or above?
Here’s the thing, though.
The rumor is flying that the off-season deals aren’t done. Parsons hinted that the club is still in conversations with one or possibly two other significant signings, which is why I’ve called this “Part 1”.
So now we’re waiting and watching for a number of things. Will the season start in April? And, if so, will there be yet another deal or two?
I’ll be back before then.
Until then…let’s discuss!