Simple enough, right?
Who are the best eleven players ever to put on Thorns red?
So here we go, up from the back. My picks for the best Thorns ever.
Fight me in the comments and prove me wrong
Candidates: LeBlanc (2013), Gay (2013), Angerer (2014-2015), Betos (2014-2016), Franch (2016-2020), Eckerstrom (2017-2020)
The primary issue with Thorns’ goalkeeping is simply career value. We’ve had a number of excellent keepers here; KK took us to the first star in 2013, Franch to the second in 2017 along with her league “best keeper” honors. Betos, Angerer, Eckerstrom…we’ve never had a “problem” goalkeeper; perhaps the worst we can say about any of our netminders is that some, like Addie Gay and Bella Bixby, have been invisible.
But we’ve never had a keeper last longer than Franch’s four years and running.
So while Nadine Angerer is a goalkeeping legend…she’s not a Thorns goalkeeping legend simply because she only played 2014 and part of 2015…and was only middle-of-the-pack-good during that time.
That leaves us with LeBlanc, Betos, Franch, and Eckerstrom.
I love KK; if this were a “favorite XI” instead of a “best” XI she’d be on it like a fresh tag on a playground swingset. Her combination of technical and tactical skill, presence in big games, and the fizzy ebullience of her personality make her my favorite all-time Thorns keeper.
But her time was just too short; one season and gone.
Michelle Betos was a solid keeper; decent shot-stopper and good in command of her area. If she had a persistent issue it was distribution. For a player with legs like pillars Betos had trouble getting distance and direction out of her kicks. It couldn’t have been leg strength, so it must have been some sort of technique thing, like short-legging her follow-through or not getting her knee up high enough.
Whatever it was, it was weird, and she struggled with it her whole time here.
Betos did win a Goalkeeper of the Year, but I’ve always suspected that it was more for The Goal rather than her technical skills.
That was a terrific goal (so much that it’s been immortalized on T-shirts and in animated LEGO figurines) but…that’s just a terrific goal. And we’re looking at goalkeeping, instead of goal scoring, so there’s that.
Betos was a solid keeper, but neither her metrics nor her records are as good as Franch’s
Britt Eckerstrom has a fine body of work here; I’ve been making the case for several years that she’s been steadily improving and that her work last season makes an argument for her being close to Franch’s quality. That said…she’s still the backup, and A.D. the starter, for a reason.
So our Best XI starting keeper is A.D. Franch, and a well-deserved honor it is.
Here’s where we have to make some positional choices based purely on preference.
The Thorns have played with three at the back – that is, a true three-back set – as well as a standard four-back formation, and occasionally in a three-centerbacks-and-two-wingbacks 5-3-2/5-4-1 setup. I’m just going to make an arbitrary decision and go with a four-back arrangement to let us get the most out our defenders.
Candidates: to get an idea who has had more than a cup of coffee here in the Portland backline, here’s a snapshot over the past seven seasons:
I’ve excluded those players who saw little or no field time, so we’re only looking at either starters or reserves with significant minutes.
I think we can work backwards from this chart.
Pretty much anyone with no more than a single season is out. That eliminates Marianne Dougherty and Jazmyne Avant from 2013, and Steph Catley, Becca Moros, Courtney Niemec, and Kat Tarr from 2014. Dougherty, Catley, and Moros are all fine players, but for a Best XI you gotta bring it for more than just one year.
Players who had more minutes but were still only more-or-less just decent roleplayers aren’t really in the group we’re looking for, either, so that eliminates Nikki Marshall, Kendall Johnson, Liz Ball, Kelli Hubly, Kelli Hubly, and Meg Morris.
I think Kat Williamson is on the edge, so I’ll leave her in. So that gives us:
Williamson and Rachel Van Hollebeke (2013-2015), Meghan Klingenberg (2016-2020), Ellie Carpenter (2018-2020), Emily Sonnett (2016-2019), Emily Menges (2014-2020), and Kat Reynolds (2016-2020).
(A quick note here: so far as we know, the next time we see The Girls in Red one of the centerbacks will be Becky Sauerbrunn. It’s hard not to suspect that the moment she steps across the touchline she will become one of the “best players ever to wear Thorns red”, and as such is likely to displace one of the following four players.
We’ve been down this road before; a wonderful player arrives, and we all expect…well, wonders. That’s what wonderful players produce; that’s kind of their job.
We’ve had the Sinclairs and the Nadims and the Henrys and they’ve been wonderful.
We’ve also had players like Ano, who never found her feet, and Vero – who we’ll discuss – and Angerer, who was perfectly fine, but was at the tag end of a long and distinguished career and just wasn’t capable of “wonderful” any more.
Sauerbrunn, too, is coming to the final curtain of her “long and distinguished career”. How much is left in her tank? Will we remember her sunset as setting the horizon on fire? Or as a pleasant light show? Or…perhaps as a quiet fade to darkness?
Right now, we do not, and I won’t presume to, know. So that’s why you’ll find no Sauerbrunn here.
Okay, so, back to defenders. Looking at that group makes Williamson look further on the outside. She was a good, solid defender, but no more than that. So we’re down to six finalists. Now we can go looking for the positives.
Emily Menges is a lock. Critical for the Shield-Championship seasons of 2016-2017, leader of the backline, sometime part of the Great Wall…she’s our Best XI left centerback.
Meghan Klingenberg is the obvious fullback out of this group based largely on career value. She’s never going into the NWSL Hall of Fame – she’s never had that immense peak value season – but she has been a big part of both the Shield- and Championship-winning defenses. Kling may not be the most technical fullback in Thorns history – I’d consider Nikki Marshall perhaps the most technically skilled of the Thorns’ FBs I’ve ever seen outside possibly Future Ellie Carpenter – but she also brings attack that Marshall didn’t quite have (in the form of dead ball service as well as run-of-play passing and crossing). Aside from on-field qualities, Kling’s own brand of quirk seems to have helped keep her teammates’ spirits high…so Kling is our Best LB.
Over at RB it’s a competition between Kat Reynolds* and Ellie Carpenter. Reynolds has the edge on longevity and career value – she’s on the 2017 squad, so she’s earned the second star rather than inherited it – but Carpenter has to be considered to hold a substantial edge on peak value. Like Kling on the left, she starts from a sturdy defensive base and then adds attack that Reynolds just can’t bring. She’s just that much better a player, so Carpenter goes in at LB for our third “best defender”.
*(Note: see the update below for a reconsideration of Kat Reynolds)
Down to our final two, both centerbacks, and what an odd couple they are; talk about the opposing sides of the Force.
Rachel Van Hollebeke will always be the nickname she earned when she arrived her under her maiden name; Buehldozer.
Were we playing in 1960s England she’d have won something more memorable, though. “Bites Yer Legs”, or “‘Orrible”, or “She-Beast”. (We’d also have groovier clothes, funkier music, and Marmite, but that’s another post on another blog.)
Van Hollebeke/Beuhler was a throwback to an earlier era of soccer, when central defenders would welcome opposing forwards to their pitch with the reminder that while she might get past, or the ball might get past, she and the ball wouldna be getting past together.
Van Hollebeke played with a relentless intensity that it seems hard to believe didn’t follow her into the locker room, out into the street, and all the way home. I have no idea how she is as a person or was as a teammate, but as an opponent, she must have been terrifying.
She also led the 2013 championship defense and helped take the team back to the playoffs in 2014 as a thirty-year-old central defender. She has been capped 102 times for the USWNT. She’s practically the definition of “hard-nosed central defender” at the club and country level.
Emily Sonnett…well, who here doesn’t know and love (and regret losing…) Sonny? I’ll miss her wonderful faces and goofy humor and epic post-match interview photobombs as much as her play on the pitch. She seemed to bring that to her team, as well; it always looked like everyone on the squad loved the heck out of Sonnett.
As a defender Sonnett is the Light Side of the Force to Van Hollebeke’s Dark Side; limber, creative, an attacking presence on set-pieces, deft, ingenious, a bit of a risk-taker. She also, unfortunately, lacked Beuhldozer’s relentless intensity; every so often she’d just sort of wink out of a match and gift a Thorns opponent a brainfart. Her defending could be a sort of breathless adventure; you never knew when Sonny would just go on walkabout and leave her mark or commit some sort of weird derp. She had the athleticism that meant that nine of ten times she could recover.
But that tenth…ouch.
So it’s kind of a Vader’s Choice; the Dark Side, or the Light? Defensive sternness against all-around creativity. Or, to be more blunt; does Sonnett’s attacking value offset her random defensive derps?
Here’s where my background as a former keeper comes in. What I ask from a backline is dependability. You don’t have to be great, but you have to be there. All the time. As long as I can count on you to be where you’re supposed to be, I can cover the places you can’t be.
And that’s where Van Hollebeke gets my tap. She’s our fourth, and final, best defender.
Candidates? Here they are:
Before we go further, there’s one name I’d like to call out; Veronica “Vero” Boquete.
She had only part of a single, troubled, season here, so she’s obviously out of the “Thorns Best XI” running.
But on pure skills, crowd-pleasing magic, as a provider of transcendent soccer delight, Vero may have been the single best attacking midfielder the Thorns have ever had, and that’s a hell of a huge mountain (named Lindsey Horan) to climb over.
It’s unfortunate that the circumstances surrounding her tenure here were so fraught. And it’s even more unfortunate that she’s now in Utah, and promises to return to Portland alongside Dzsenifer Marozsán and if that doesn’t frighten you, nothing will. I can only hope that time, and the PRO, has thumped on her enough to break down her skillset from what we were briefly blessed to see here.
Because the idea of a Utah midfield run by those two wakes me out of a sound sleep with the screaming fantods.
Sorry. Focus. Midfielders, right.
So we can do what we did with the defenders, and scratch out the single-seasoners like Vero, and the short-timers (Angie Kerr, Emily Ogle) and the good-but-not-great (Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Angela Salem, Andressinha).
One problem with that; Amandine Henry.
Here for only part of 2016 and 2017, but as unquestionably the finest defensive midfielder in Thorns history Henry has to stay in this group based on pure quality.
So that leaves us to pick four – since we’re running out a 4-4-2 instead of a 4-3-3 – out of six: Mana Shim (2013-2016), Allie Long (2013-2017), Lindsey Horan (2016-2020), Amandine Henry (2016-2017), Tobin Heath (2013-2020), and Celeste Boureille (2016-2020).
Here’s where we can make two easy first cuts; Henry, as discussed, is in. Period. She was just that good.
Boureille, on the other hand, is out. She’s a solid reserve and spot-starter, but there’s a lot of quality in this group and as a squad player – even a very good squad player – she’s just not on that same level.
Heath is in, too. Same level of quality as Henry only with more tenure, even with the injuries and callups, Heath is a mortal lock.
Lindsey Horan is unavoidably in; she’s critical to the 2017 championship and she’s a monster in 2018, the best midfielder in the entire league. She’s still among the best in the league. That’s a drop-dead “best XI” kind of player.
That leaves two tussling for the final spot, and here I’m torn between my heart and my head.
My heart says Shim. She’s…well, she’s Mana Shim. Walk-on Cinderella, magical story of 2013, hard worker, fan favorite, just totally adorable…there’s just too much not to love there.
And Allie Long…ugh, her departure still leaves such a bitter taste.
But cold calculation makes the choice unavoidable. Shim had one great season in 2013. Long was brilliant for four, and an absolute beast in 2015 and 2016. Shim helped the team to a championship, Long won the 2013 semifinal and was critical to the Shield season in 2016.
It’s Allie Long.
Finally! We’re talking goals! Right? One, two…many goals beyond?!
Take a look at that group.
Now this group…
…and now this:
The Thorns’ forwards have scored only about 10% more goals than the midfielders.
I know, I know. Weird, right? We talked about this, about how the Thorns are the only club in the recent top four that score this way; everybody else gets something like 75 to 85 percent of their goals from their forwards. The Thorns forwards do a lot of other good things…but scoring? Hell, if you take away Sinclair (or, more realistically, put her back into the attacking midfield where she’s played the last several seasons) the forwards are outscored by the Thorns midfielders exactly two to one (124 to 62).
So we’re already going to have a tough time with trying to pick out the second forward.
Because the first is obviously Christine Sinclair.
I mean…c’mon. Who else goes in there?
Let’s start the same way we did with the other groups; eliminate the players that just aren’t there. So there go the single-seasoners like McDonald, good as she was in 2014, and Ano, and Sykes, and Onumonu, and Foxhoven. Even good, and some of them were pretty good, a single season of good isn’t long enough to put you into the “best”.
Next go the players who played across several seasons but who still weren’t quite with the program; Caitlin Foord, Ana-maria Crnogorcevic, Midge Purce, and (as of now) Simone Charley. Again, several good or at least decent players, but either with short career value (Purce, Charley) or below critical peak value (Foord, AMC).
The one exception to the “short-career-low-peak” value problem is Nadia Nadim; her time here was short but her peak value was immense to both the critical seasons she played. She stays in, at least to get a shot.
So now we’re down to it; five players hunting a single spot alongside Sinc. Nadim, Alex Morgan (2013-2015), Mallory Weber (2016-2019), Hayley Raso (2016-2019), and Tyler Lussi (2017-2020).
Two can be put out quickly; both Weber and Lussi are depth. Good depth, solid second-option forwards…but, still, depth. To run alongside Sinc you gotta be more than “depth”.
So that leaves Raso, Nadim, and Morgan; three-cornered chain-cage grudge match.
Now in an actual brawl I would bet on Ribbons. That’s one tough shiela right there. You break her back – I mean, literally break her back – and she comes right around at you.
But this isn’t MMA, and on the pitch Raso has a tough time holding her own against the other two largely because she had such a tough time finding her shooting boots. Lots of extras, like assists, dangerous runs, all-around being awesome and having a terrific chant, yes…but in terms of production, I don’t think you can give her the nod.
So; Morgan versus Nadim.
I’m a huge Nadim fanboi. I loved her nasty edge going after opposing defenders; she was a ball recovery machine and a fearsomely aggressive forechecking forward. She, like Henry, came in and made an outsized impact on the two best consecutive seasons in the short team history.
But Morgan was a terrific attacker, possibly one of the best pure strikers to ever wear red. Statistically she barely edges Nadim; 15 goals in 36 matches (0.41 goals/game) compared to 15 in 37 (0.405G/game) and owns the assists with 12 to 7. But she played for a different team, in a different time, and let’s not forget the immense burden placed on her by the fans’ and club’s expectations; she WAS the face of the new Thorns ballclub.
Both own a star, Morgan from 2013, Nadim from 2017, though Morgan’s assist in the 2013 Final looms large in team history. The question then becomes do you give Morgan the nod based on her assists, her role as part of the first season championship compared to Nadim’s grinding forechecking and the 2017 championship? Do you credence the rumors of division in the locker room during Morgan’s stint, and consider the possibility that she played a role in that?
I may be fighting too much against my prejudice in Nadim’s favor, but I’m giving the second spot to Alex Morgan; she brought attack when the Thorns desperately needed her to, and fought through some tough breaks during some tough years in Thorns history. She’s often downgraded because of her checkered career here, but I never saw her give up.
To fill out our matchday 18 I’ve added two from each unit I think come the closest to greatness (or are great, but just not quite as great as the starters): we’ve discussed Nadim to death, and Raso brought so much other than scoring that it’s hard not to include her. Boureille missed the cut for starter because she was up against freaking Amandine Henry, and Shim is comfortably in there with the Thorns legends based on her 2013 season and story alone. We talked about
Nikki Marshall’s Kat Reynolds‘ and Sonnett‘s chops, and – I love you, KK, but – Michelle Betos has to go in as the backup keeper on both career and peak value.
Update 5/1p.m. – Richard Hamje makes some excellent points in the comments regarding the relative qualities of defender Kat Reynolds. I still don’t know if she has quite enough peak value to displace the four starting defenders. But she certainly has enough to displace Nikki Marshall – fine player, but short tenure – from the bench.
So there they are; my revised Best XI above
Who are yours? Let’s discuss.