The first round “group stage” of the Challenge Cup is done and dusted, and our gang – Shannan Sorenson, Richard “Budweiser” Hamje, and John Lawes – is, once again, gathering remotely to kick around what happened and what we’re looking at as the quarterfinals begin on Friday.
- Well, the first round went about as badly as it could have, eighth out of eight, 0-1-3, three points. But does that even matter?
Shannan: It doesn’t matter.
John: Yes, it matters.
Shannan: Speak for yourself, monkey-boy. I disagree. I’m not as disappointed in the results myself as I thought I was. Sure, we finished dead last. But did we really suck that bad or look that bad?
John: “You’re as good as your record says you are…”
Shannan: I think it’s more complicated than that. So many key players are missing from the entire tournament, we knew this was just something that was for fun for those who wanted to be part of it.
John: Okay. You got me there – it HAS been fun, wooden spoon and all.
And I’ll say that while I think it matters I’m not sure to what degree it matters, simply because I’m not sure how hard the Thorns organization was playing to “win” as opposed to playing to evaluate players and the team. Obviously the organization wants to win games – that’s the whole point of professional sport – but the team was hobbled from the get-go by the losses of Franch, Heath, and Smith, the flight of Carpenter (and the inability to replace her with like-for-like under COVID lockdown) and then the nearly immediate loss of Sauerbrunn.
Richard: I dunno about how much “winning” was involved. I suppose I see this tourney as preseason for a season that isn’t going to happen; foreplay without climax. NCC was always favored because they are the only club with roster continuity. Riley wasn’t trialing anyone – his preferred XI was known in January. The biggest change was rolling out an aging player (Zerboni) for a young stud (Mace). For all the other teams, this seemed about learning what you’ve got. The importance of knowing that comes in January, when you decide who to protect and what you’re willing to sacrifice for Macario.
John: Yep. Agreed. For the Thorns – and I think several other teams – this was just a chance to fiddle with rosters and tactics. I think that Parsons might have gone to Merritt early on and said, hey, look, we don’t really have “The Thorns” here. Let me tinker with formations and rosters and tactics without the pressure of worrying about wins. Maybe.
On the other hand…the inability to score is the one thing that seriously bugs me because it seems like a) a big deal – “if you don’t score you can’t win”, and b) Parsons doesn’t ACT like it’s a big deal. We had the same damn problem in Black Autumn 2019 and he didn’t run around like his hair was on fire trying to solve it and, sure enough, we “didn’t score/didn’t win” our way right out of the playoffs. Same here, same problem, same result…and same apparent reluctance to try something, anything – Sinc as a poacher, Weaver as true #9, hell, Tyler Lussi as right back and Westphal as right winger…I dunno, something…to kickstart the scoring.
So I’m frustrated, because I see something that looks to me like a huge problem, but the head coach doesn’t act like it’s a huge problem, and that dissonance bugs the shit out of me.
- Who looked good in the first round, who looked “meh”, who looked…not so good. Was there anyone who stood out for you, other than Bella Bixby and Lindsey Horan.
Shannan: Hard to say. We didn’t have consistent enough lineups to really gauge. Wish we saw more Sauerbrunn.
John: I wish we’d seen better Sauerbrunn. She kind tanked the Carolina game and we know she’s better than that. And now she’s hurt and out, but I wish we’d seen how she could work with Menges.
Richard: I actually thought that quite a few players are happy surprises, either better than hoped, or notably improved over last year: Weaver, Salem, Boureille, Hubly, Westphal.
John: Hang on…I’d put Weaver in a “good but could be better” group. I love her aggression and her nose for driving on goal. I think she’s shown a lot of the upside we were promised and will just improve with more minutes.
On the other hand…one of the raps on her at Wazzu was her passing – only about 57% completion her senior year – but the question was how much was her and how much was Wazzu. Well, in the first three matches in Utah her completion was only 57%, and while she raised it to 63% with her day against Tacoma that’s…not great for a winger, which is how she’s been played.
So it wasn’t Wazzu. It’s her.
Richard: Well…we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on her. On the other hand, I know we agree on this: Pogarch was not good.
John: Yep. Pogarch has shown a distressing tendency to get caught out of position. I liked what little I saw of her last season, but she hasn’t shined so far in this.
I’d add that Sauerbrunn looked slow and disconnected in her one outing, too, but that’s too small a dataset, really.
Shannan: Weaver looked good and I think we had glimpses of Rocky. My other question would be where would/does Heath fit into all this?
John: Oooh, that’s going to be a tough one. Right now “Weaver is Heath”; Weaver has been playing left wing, attacking the left side where Heath usually goes. Where does she go when Heath returns..? I dunno. I hope Parsons does…
Richard: Some of the players I expected more from – Charley, Ogle, Rodriquez, Sinclair – were disappointing but not “not good” disappointing.
John: Well…I’ll kinda disagree on Rodriguez, but I want to talk more about her in a bit, and Charley…I’ll talk about the forwards later, too.
But in the “did what I expected of her” group I’d place Angela Salem, who’s resumed her solid play at DM, and Sinc, who has been working hard doing all the usual things she does in midfield but has also resumed her silence towards goal she displayed at the end of 2019.
Richard: A bunch of the others – Seiler (glad she’s back!), Reynolds, Klingenberg (yeah!) – look unchanged.
John: The others…yeah, let’s see…Boureille, Hubly, yep, both still here, both still competent journeywomen. Klingenberg, still here, still with good service – her setpiece delivery on the Horan goal against Washington was sweet – but still struggling with pace against faster wingers. Menges, Reynolds…solid, the usual good from them – in fact, the whole defensive unit has looked competent. So, yeah…lots of people we’ve seen do fine did fine
Here’s the thing; Right below Bixby and Horan I’d put Raquel Rodriguez. She’s proved to be an excellent table-setter and distributor. Stony intelligent, mobile, she’s already working well with Horan. I’d like to see her a little stronger on the ball – she tends to get tackled for loss more than I’d like, and her passing is “better than okayish” – 74%, and her long passing is exceptional – 63% – but I’d love to see her connect more.
Another bright light is Christen Westphal. I’d written her off when we traded for her, but she’s looked rock steady in back and her passing has been exceptional; she’s hit six – SIX – “key passes” and connected with 30% of her crosses (which, given the way we tend to dump crosses in, is actually a good percentage…)
On the other hand, all the other forwards – Lussi, Everett, and this is where I include Charley – not good enough. Not enough finishing. That’s killing us, and that’s what needs to change, and we haven’t seen that change through four matches.
- Who’s “stock rose” in this stage – if anyone. Whose “fell”?
John: Bixby is the only player who I’d say has really been exceeding expectations. Does that mean that Eckerstrom has “fallen”? Is Bixby now the backup and Eckerstrom the depth? Hmmm.But, yeah, Bixby’s number one with a bullet.
Richard: I think Boureille might be the most improved of the lot – I’d have her in my preferred XI for any opponent – if I could convince her to shoot every now and then. She looked strong, confident on the ball, tough in the tackles.
John: Celbee? Wow. I agree she did well…but I’m more impressed now that you think she did that well. Okay. You’ve sold me. Bixby and Boureille.
Richard: Pogarch fell enough that if there aren’t mitigating circumstances, I’d consider parting ways.
John: Enh…I’m not sure anyone “fell” hard. I’ve been less and less impressed with Lussi, but she’s really depth, and I’m not sure if she’s any less depth than she was before. So, yeah…Pogarch, maybe; not looking as promising as she did in very limited minutes last season.
- There seemed to be a LOT of Thorns squad rotation. Thoughts on that?
Shannan: I think squad rotation is exactly what one should expect from a “pre”season tournament. Even though this is the season replacement, we all know this is a glorified preseason tournament with no season. Hopefully Parsons got out of it what he wanted and, as cliche it is, hopefully the players had fun 🙂
Richard: Preseason, several games on short rest, players not 100% fit – all the usual suspects. I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed that we could not score on Chicago or Tacoma when we dominated them for 85/90th of the match.
John: Again…I think Parsons may have just thrown his hands up and decided to use the “group stage” as preseason. Cull the herd, find an effective Starting XI. So my single thought is “did that work”? And we won’t see until Friday against the Damned Courage.
- Looking ahead; do you see a likely starting XI for 2021? A probable formation? Likely tactics?
Richard: I really have no idea. Who do we protect? Is Smith going to healthy enough to play in 2021? Can we get a league exception to sign a 16-year old Moultrie? Who are the two mystery internationals and are they still viable in 2021? Does Sinclair retire this fall? More questions than answers and I don’t expect any meaningful info until after Christmas.
John: Well, I think we’ve seen several players that have earned a chance. Rodriguez. Weaver. Bixby – that’s gonna be damn difficult to sort out, when Franch gets healthy! The roleplayers will continue to roleplay. Heath and Sauerbrunn will be fitted back in.
Formation? We’ve been playing a sort of bastard 4-3-3/4-4-2 diamond in this thing, but I don’t see Parsons moving from his 4-2-3-1 if he can avoid it. So my guess would be Smith at the top, some version of Weaver, Heath, and Horan at the “3”, Rodriguez and Salem or Seiler at the “2”, and Klingenberg(?)-Menges-‘Brunn-??? across the back (I think we need to buy or trade for an outside back or backs – Kling is getting pretty up there, and we need someone better than Reynolds or Hubly at RB…).
Where is Sinclair in this? Dear God I have no idea. I hope she, and Parsons, do.
Shannan: I think it’s too far out to say. I was convinced Sinclair would’ve retired at the end of this season, post Olympics and all. Who knows! And speaking of Olympics, this would also throw another wrench in next year.
John: Hmmm…yeah, that’s a good point. I think the “plan” was that the rebuild would run through the Olympic year this year and go fully operational in ’21. And now we’re back to losing a bunch of internationals next season.
- So far, has the tournament so far helped you see what a “Thorns 2021” might look like, and are you hopeful about that, or depressed, or neither?
Richard: My short answer is “no”. This tourney has been an extended scrimmage. Some key players are missing. I can’t draw a picture at all. Especially without Smith – how do we know how she’s adapting to pro ball when she’s never played pro ball? Is she scary-good or the next AMC?
Shannan: I’m cautiously optimistic. I think we have some up and coming players who we can start to look forward to, and a stud in Horan to build around. I don’t know that we have what it takes to take down the Courage for a few years though.
John: Kind of covered it in the question above, but…yeah, I’m slightly depressed. This still doesn’t seem like a “can defeat Carolina at will” sort of lineup. Unless Smith is the Second Coming of Sam Kerr and Pele wrapped around the Hand of God. I think we need more quality all across the pitch.
- We’ve got The Damned Courage in the quarterfinal. Prediction? And – if you’re predicting Portland to go through – how does that happen, given the results of the group stage?
Shannan: We lose. Horan scores. (Can we please score? I’d love to see at least a Thorns goal or two to close out)
Richard: How could we win? I return to the 2017 Final. We foul Mewis, Williams, Debinha a lot. Bixby has a great game. Horan scores a goal for us and we make it stand up. My expectation is a tidy loss, 3-0 or worse.
John: I want to predict a Thorns win…but I’m not sure how that happens without a miracle. I’d be sort of comfortable with a decent performance and a close game, but still frustrated that we seem no closer to figuring them out. I’ll say same as the opener; 2-1 Damned. Shit.
- Any other final thoughts on the first round; either general or from a specific game or games.
Richard: The tourney has been better than I was expecting. The players seem to be enjoying it, nobody has gotten sick, the fans have “showed up”, the footie has been often sloppy but not dire. We’ve had the pleasure of seeing Bixby turn out to be excellent, gotten some nice glimpses of the Great Horan, seen rookie Weaver look darned decent.
John: I’ve enjoyed seeing real soccer again, and I agree that it seems to have been run well and everyone is safe and healthy.
As for the Thorns…finish, goddammit! We have GOT to start scoring. Other than that, just kinda disappointing that the damn injuries and absences and losses such as Raso and Carpenter gutted the rebuild. I want to think we’re at least at Stage 1a…but I’m not sure. I think how we look on Friday will make a big difference. If we get run off the pitch? No. We’re still in Phase 1, and that’ll kinda be a sucky way to go home.
Richard: I wonder about the economics of the Challenge Cup. Presumably holding it allows the teams to meet some thresholds for their sponsors’ contracts and the league to deliver enough soccer to satisfy CBS and Twitch. The ratings were fantastic for game 1. The viewership on CBS All Access is unknown, as is the revenue they brought in. But it can’t be much – even 200k viewers paying $6 is only $1.2m. How much can the oatmilk people be paying to run their ad? (and who eats cereal while lying on their back?)
John: You’ve obviously never seen my kid gaming. It can be done, padawan. Do or not do; there is no try.
Richard: That’s…something I can avoid thinking about, thanks. But the costs to put this on must be astronomical. The charter flights, the meals, accommodations, support staff, etc. must be running into the millions even if Dell Loy is providing facilities for free. Twelve refs, so presumably also 12+ ARs in the bubble, housekeepers, cooks, ambulance crew, TV crews, trainers, coaches and players for a month – it’s gotta be a LOT.
John: Which makes me wonder if the league got any of that sweet, sweet Payroll Protection cash. That might have helped pay a bunch of those expenses…
Richard: Bottom line, though? It seems unlikely that the league would run a tourney to lose even more money than they are already out. I can only guess that the sponsorships from P&G and Verizon are seriously big. Maybe when they write the league history, the details will be revealed. For now, if it keeps the league stitched together until 2021 I am thrilled.
John: Agreed. I keep hearing all this talk about expansion for 2021, and my thought is, fuck, I’ll settle for having the league we have NOW in 2021.
Richard: Here’s another thing – I also think that the connection to the fans that the league is striving for is working. It’s little stuff like the @NWSL Farm twitter account existing. And then getting referenced on the broadcast. The silly Google video conference shots. That the league guaranteed all the players’ pay. Some of the refs kneeling with the players. The regular acknowledgment that this is half a loaf. The Pride day.
John: I agree that it’s been great to have real soccer to talk about, and to reconnect with all the people we “know” through the comment sections here, at Stumptown, on the Facebook page…and to reconnect with all the things we love about this town, this team, and this sport.
Richard: Other leagues could learn a lot from NWSL. But of course, they aren’t. MLB = OMFG is that train gonna hit that schoolbus?!? NBA and MLS and even WNBA = WTF? NFL = “what pandemic?” Astonishing that NASCAR is the only other sport that seems to get it. Community is important – doubly so when we don’t have it in our regular lives.
Shannan: My final thought is that I am happy that this tournament happened. It seems that the players who were there wanted to be there and are happy to play, and I can’t take that from them. I’m glad they kept the tournament short and sweet…looking at you NBA. It wasn’t in Florida. It didn’t have the stupid name like NWSL is Back. We know it’s not back, MLS…