The Houston Dash – that tangerine-hued congeries of historical fail – is the Challenge Cup Champion.
Ponder that for a moment.
Houston. Houston. A team that has not only never won anything before, but a team that has never even come close to winning anything before. Never made the playoffs, never won a knockout match.
Hell, they’ve never had a winning season.
Finished dead last in their inaugural season. Had their most successful season in club history the next year; climbed to fifth in 2015 (still with a losing record, mind, still with a -5 goal differential…). Since then have fluctuated between sixth and eighth, without ever scoring more than they conceded – their “big year” was 2016, when they scored 29 and conceded 29, eighth out of ten.
Champions of the Challenge Cup.
Good on you, Dash. You picked up Megan Oyster, discarded by Tacoma, and Katie Naughton, out of favor in Chicago, to anchor your backline.
You picked up Shea Groom, well-traveled veteran of Kansas City, New Jersey, and Tacoma, to add movement and creativity to your midfield. Nichelle Prince got healthy and got to work raising hell on the right side of your attack. And your old reliable, Rachel Daly, still up top, still running, still the target…but now with an actual team around her that could do more than pitch hopeless long balls upfield.
Plus you developed a dangerous and aggressive pressing defense and old-school direct attacking that put immediate pressure on your opponents once they turned the ball over.
You rode that bull all the way to glory.
But this isn’t a Houston blog. We’re here for the Thorns, who went out in the semifinals to this same Houston.
Frankly, for Portland elimination seemed inevitable even as it happened. Winless in the group stage. The Carolina quarterfinal win, wonderful as it was, was an obvious one-off. The Thorns themselves said it – Christine Sinclair said later that they got lucky, were lucky not to be down 2-nil at the half but for their keeper going utterly mad.
So we’re here, six matches into a 2020 season that – given the horrifyingly awful job that the United States as a nation, a national government, and as a people, are doing with the Plague – is likely to have no more matches.
That’s all we have to try and assess how well the “big rebuilding” that Portland Thorns FC planned for the 2019-2020 offseason is going.
So since we now have all the time in the world…let’s do that. And, like any smart soccer organization, let’s build from the back.
The first, and most obvious conclusion, from the Challenge Cup is that Portland has three starting-quality, or very close to starting quality, goalkeepers.
That’s one of those “Chinese character for future that combines “danger” and “opportunity” things.
The “opportunity” is that the Thorns are spoiled for choice at keeper.
The “danger” is that two players capable of – and aware that they are capable of – starting and getting starter’s wages at keeper are unlikely to be happy riding the bench for any extended period of time.
Each player has different strengths.
A.D. Franch is the veteran. She’s paid by U.S. Soccer, so she’s free money. She’s had historically great seasons (2016-2017) and has more time behind the backline than the other two keepers. She would normally be, in a non-COVID world, the starter of default.
Her metrics have slipped steadily since 2017, however. And she’s coming off a severe leg injury, which is always difficult to assess for a goalkeeper, whose lateral movement and jump are so important to her game. After having struggled with injuries for portions of the previous two seasons.
Britt Eckerstrom, however, is nearly as familiar to the defenders as Franch. She’s a solid positional player, and her shot-stopping (as measured by her PK save rate) is very similar to Franch, although overall in 2019 her xG/G ratio (+0.08/game) suggests that in the run of play she wasn’t at Franch’s (-0.25/game) level. Her play in the Cup quarterfinal suggests that she has a level that we might not have seen regularly – yet. But what a level!
Bella Bixby was a force through the four games of the group stage. Her xG/G was roughly -0.4/game, which would put her ahead of both her teammate’s 2019 numbers…but N = 4 is a damn small dataset. She also suffered what has turned out to be a fairly severe ACL tear, and will be rehabilitating through the fall and winter; we won’t know how it affects her play until when – and if – the league resumes next year.
So. Did we learn anything about the Thorns goalkeeping in Utah?
We learned that Bella Bixby is good. How good – that is, as good as our current starting and reserve keepers – is hard to say, but certainly she has to be damn close. We learned enough to want to learn more, anyway.
We learned that Britt Eckerstrom has a setting that goes to eleven.
We learned absolutely nothing about A.D. Franch other than she’s injured again.
At this point it’s hard to be sure whether expansion will happen in 2021. If so, what form it will take – what will the expansion draft rules look like? What impact will it have on the 2021 draft? (and, come to think of it…what happens to the draft if there’s no NCAA season this autumn..?). But assuming it does, my guess is that one of these three will not be here come April 2021.
I don’t know which one, but feel free to speculate in the comments.
Losing Becky Sauerbrunn to injury one match into the Cup is really irritating in that it makes further speculation on the backline difficult. The obvious plan was to replace Emily Sonnett’s adventuresome forays and occasional random brainfarts with a steady, disciplined centerback pairing that would repair the fraying defense.
That didn’t happen.
Thorns defending was picked apart by the Damned Courage on Matchday One and gave up numerous dangerous opportunities in the Quarterfinal. Tacoma was a passive tire fire, Washington and Chicago lacked quality in the final third, so they didn’t really provide much of a test.
But Houston looked consistently dangerous against Thorns defending; Prince, in particular, exposed Meghan Klingenberg‘s deadly lack of pace repeatedly. The goal came off an unmarked Daly during a corner kick goalmouth scramble, which isn’t a testimony to particularly sturdy central defending.
But…again, we never got to see Sauerbrunn and Menges at work the way we saw Houston use Oyster and Naughton. Can the Thorns be as good or better? They weren’t on Matchday One…but that’s a pretty harsh assessment for a pair of centerbacks that had never played a minute of matchplay together before.
Speaking of Emily Menges…she was her usually solid, dependable self. Menges in Utah was exactly as good as we expected from her, and that’s perfectly fine.
Intead in place of Sauerbrunn we mostly got Kelli Hubly, who did remarkably well for a player who has been pure depth until this month. Here’s her stats page for the Cup:
That’s respectable for a regular, let alone a player who had 251 minutes in three matches last season. Well done, Hubly.
The loss of Elli Carpenter forced a last-moment replacement at right back, and there we got some combination of Christen Westphal and Kat Reynolds.
Reynolds was…Reynolds. Useful depth, decent replacement-level or a skosh better. She did exactly as well as you’d think…but no better. I don’t see her making any strides forward from this tournament.
But Westphal…I hadn’t given her much thought before the Cup. Trade makeweight, was my opinion, and yet…here’s the defensive stat sheet for Jaelene Daniels, selected as the Best XI right back for the Cup:
And here’s Westphal over the same period:
That looks pretty damn even-up to me. The “aerial duels” thing? Daniels went in to two – two – and won them both.
Westphal won 5 of 8.
I’d like Westphal to be a bit more clinical with her long passing, but…here’s another head-to-head comparison:
Daniels picks up the assist, but…damn.
So if there’s no plan for some sort of international replacement for Carpenter? I’m sort of okay with that because Westphal? You kicked ass, girlfriend.
The Thorns’ other Utah option at right back was Madison Pogarch, who started there against Chicago on Matchday 2 after having come in late and made an ugly error on the matchwinner that handed Carolina all the points the game before. She was perfectly adequate against a Red Stars that did nothing of real attacking value for 90 minutes.
She won some big props for a blazing recovery run late in the quarterfinal that served to remind us that, yes, she’s crazy fast. But she was also positionally naive and looked as raw as she is. I didn’t see her make a case for getting more minutes, and even as depth she needs a lot of shaping.
So. Did we learn anything about the Thorns defending in Utah?
Not much, and definitely not as much as I’d have liked.
Between injuries and losing Ellie Carpenter it’s hard to tell if what we saw in Utah will mean anything in 2021. It’s especially hard to say anything definitive about the unit because of the weird way the games played out. The Thorns conceded only four goals – three in the group stage – but that had as much to do with the anemia of their opponents’ attacks as it did their own defensive shape. They conceded a crap-ton of great looks in the quarterfinal, but Eckerstrom went mad. Then in the semi Houston made life so difficult for the Thorns midfield that the backline started out way behind the power curve and ended up conceding on a mess off a corner kick.
So…Sauerbrunn? Jury still out.
Hubly and Westphal? Played very well and largely exceeded expectations.
Menges and Reynolds? Did pretty much what we thought they would.
Pogarch impressed only with her pace.
We didn’t see enough of Meaghan Nally or Autumn Smithers to get even the slightest idea of their quality assuming they’re here next year.
The one thing that occurs to me is that if the team’s not looking at a young left back to succeed Klingberg, they should be. Time is remorseless, and Kling’s time is looking increasingly short.
Other than that, we need to see the healthy line of Westphal-Sauerbrunn-Menges-(Kling replacement) to get some idea what the Thorns defense can be. And that won’t be until next season, if then.
Four players played the bulk of the minutes for Portland’s midfield in Utah.
Raquel Rodriguez played the most; 471 minutes over all 6 matches. She took six shots and put 3 – 50% – on target. She didn’t score but was primarily responsible for the goal that knocked Carolina out of the playoffs. She created a total of 7 “key passes”; the most of the Thorns midfielders – her rate (one per 67 minutes) was a tiny bit behind Horan’s 1 per 60min and, interestingly, Boureille with the same productivity as Horan (5 key passes in 310 minutes, so effectively 1 per 60min…) but the bottom line is that she did what she was supposed to do; pull strings and create danger.
I’m fairly pleased with Rodriguez’ work in Utah, more for her promise than her performance. She helped make Lindsey Horan more dangerous and showed bursts of real creativity and a nice touch in close quarters. She also looked out-of-sync with her teammates much of the time, which is completely unsurprising given her short time with the team. Certainly she earned a longer, harder look when regular league play resumes.
Angela Salem also played in all six matches, a total of 336 minutes. She took only two shots and didn’t put them on frame.
Although she typically played a defensive midfield role she did not really excel there; Salem lost over half her attempted tackles (5 of 9) and 18 of her 35 duels. Her passing was much better; almost 80% overall and more than half her long passes connected with a teammate.
Salem was forced into a starting role by the loss of Gabby Seiler, but I’m not sure she’s a very good fit there, and am fairly sure that she’s not really a starting-quality DM. She still seems to have shown the potential to be a useful depth piece, but no more than that. I’ve been wanting to see more and better from Salem since we signed her, but I didn’t see that in July.
Celeste Boureille played 310 minutes over 5 games; she came on late against The Damned Courage on Matchday 1, started against Chicago and Tacoma in the other group games, and against Houston in the semifinal. She took four shots, put half on target without scoring.
In past seasons Boureille often played as a defensive midfielder or a defender, which makes her defensive issues in Utah surprising. She won only 3 of her 8 tackles, and 22 of her 46 duels. Given her height it’s less surprising that she won 60% (9 of 15) of her duels in the air. Her passing was decent (70%).
I thought that Boureille looked solid, or better, in Utah. She’s still not in my starting XI – I’m not as high on her as Richard is – but she’s closer, and she’s a quality reserve and a useful spot-starter. We knew that, but she restated what we knew definitively in this Cup.
The fewest minutes of the four belong to the best; Lindsey Horan played only 299 minutes over four matches, the three first group games and about 50 minutes of the quarterfinal. She put 66% of her 9 shots on frame, scoring a hell of a header against Washington.
It’s hard to emphasize how important Horan was to the Thorns. In the group games the Thorns attack was, effectively, Horan and her spear-carriers. It’s difficult to say whether she might have made a difference against Houston, but it’s easy to say that her absence didn’t help.
Horan looked much better than she did in the death-spiral of Black Autumn. But she can’t do it alone, and that was what she had to do for much of the Cup run. I don’t think that the load she had to carried played a part in her injury, but I’m not sure it didn’t; Horan had to throw her body at everything and everyone because she was the only player generating any real attack all through the first five games. The Thorns cannot afford to force her to keep doing that, but until she gets more attacking support, it’s a genuine risk the team may have to take.
None of the other midfielders played more than random minutes, and so assessing the value of their play in Utah is difficult.
Emily Ogle played the full match against Chicago on Matchday 2, and came on in the second half of the semifinal. She seems to have had a decent game against the Red Stars but was unable to help against Houston. She went to Utah as depth and didn’t make a case to be more than that.
Gabby Seiler played only 85 minutes over 4 matches, and made little impression other than simply being healthy and competent. She played the full second half against Houston but did little to improve the game state or, really, look that much more effective than Salem.
So. Did we learn anything about the Thorns midfield in Utah?
That the most promising pieces of the Thorns midfield in Utah were Horan, Rodriguez, and Boureille. But that Salem failed to advance, Ogle did nothing of real note, and Seiler was almost invisible due to her limited minutes. That Heath can be presumed to bring all her usual strengths and weaknesses when she returns, but how she’ll play into the new-look Thorns we can’t tell.
That, in turn, suggests that the Thorns will probably have a solid starting midfield in 2021…but behind those three (and Heath..?) there doesn’t seem to be much depth, unless Seiler can regain her 2019 form or someone else comes in or steps up.
There’s also not a hell of a lot of pace there; fast teams like Carolina can still run through us. The other unsettling thing was the difficulty our midfield had trying to play through Houston’s press in the semi.
One thing we didn’t see, and that Thorns teams have never had during the time I’ve followed the team, is a quick “OODA Loop” in midfield where it’s needed most. The term describes how an individual or organization deals with pressure. Observation of a pressure situation produces an Orientation towards which of several options available are likely to succeed. Knowledge and experience produce a Decision that is put into Action. The results of the action – successful or otherwise – are observed, and the loop begins again.
Portland has never been able to do this speedily over a full match with any regularity. The team will occasionally produce some quick passing/dribbling/shooting sequences…but that’s more the exception than the rule. Slow, deliberate possessions followed by a speculative cross or long ball – what I called “dink-dink-boot” last season – are much more the rule.
A tight press puts extraordinary stress on a team that cannot pass and move quickly. It often results in loss of possession, often in dangerous places. One aspect of Rodriguez’ game I like a lot is her skill with the ball at her feet in tight space. It’s not as consistent as I’d like…but it’s promising. She did some fine work with Horan and Weaver. But we need more of that, and with more consistency, from our midfield if we want to go further and do better than we did in Utah.
Two words: Morgan Weaver.
That, sadly, was the Thorns’ only good news from the forward line.
Weaver played 424 minutes of all 6 matches, took 6 shots, put 4 on goal, scoring once. She still has passing issues – her 60% completion is the worst of all the Thorns forwards – but she looked more comfortable and creative as she grew through the tournament.
Here’s the rest of the forwards, though:
That’s just ugly.
Perhaps the most brutal line in the table is behind Christine Sinclair. Sinc looked every second of her 37 years in Utah. Completing six key passes couldn’t make up for the time she spent slogging away in midfield trying to recover lost possession or getting tackled by younger, faster players. You couldn’t even talk about her futility in front of goal because she never really got a good look at goal.
Sinclair still has a vast store of knowledge and experience. But her wheels are gone. Several years ago her soccer intelligence was such that she could anticipate her opponents and get a jump or position herself to mitigate their speed or strength. Now she looks as though she has lost so much pace that she just can’t anymore.
I had great hopes for Simone Charley, who had been tearing up the W-League over the winter. I’m not sure whether it was the long layoff between Australia and Utah, or whether the W-League defending really is as bad as it looked, but Charley was not effective in the Cup. She did attack the loose ball that became the only Portland goal on Matchday 1, but that can be put up to pure chance as much as anything.
Charley put almost half of her shots on frame – which is somewhat better than anyone outside Weaver did – and she scored, which only Weaver and Horan did.
She also displayed a heavy touch and tended to get her pocket picked a lot; she lost 69 percent, 22 of 32, of her one-v-one encounters. Overall Charley didn’t look like the answer to the attacking drought problem.
Neither did Tyler Lussi, who, like Charley, looked at one point in 2019 as the answer to the Thorns’ attacking issues. Last season Lussi played the same exact number of minutes – 277 – as she did this season, only in 12 matches instead of six. She took only seven shots but put three on frame and scored two of the three. Parsons claimed that he wouldn’t “forget about her again”.
This season he didn’t; she played twice as much and was less than half as successful. She remains, along with Marissa Everett, no better than depth.
Of course, the biggest story of the season, and the team, remained untold; Sophia Smith.
So. Did we learn anything about the Thorns forwards in Utah?
We learned that Weaver is as promising as we saw from her in college, and looks to be an even brighter promise for the future.
Unfortunately we learned nothing at all about the other great hope, Smith, who remains no more than a hope, and we were forcefully reminded that Lussi remains depth, if that, and that Charley remains painfully raw.
For years it’s been painful to consider that our captain must soon reach the end of her long and storied career. But not until this past year has she looked as near to the end as she did in Utah. It was painful to watch and, watching, to remember the glories of days past.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.”
The take-home from Utah seems to be the Portland Thorns as a team shut down in the middle of a big construction project.
The major acquisitions in the off-season – Smith, Weaver, Rodriguez – were intended to kickstart the attack that failed so badly in the stretch run last season and has been sputtering for several seasons. The emergence of Weaver as a force in front of goal – and Rodriguez as a creator and distributor – were to a great extent negated by the eclipse of Sinclair, and absence of Heath (and, in the last three halves of play, Horan), and the general ineffectiveness of the remaining strikers.
The effect of Smith is a huge unknown. She’s supposed to be a level above Weaver, who showed well in Utah, so at least in theory when she returns to the pitch she should energize the Thorns’ attack…but whether, and how, that will happen we still know nothing.
The midfield, too, remains in stasis. Rodriguez is too useful going forward to park at the #6, but Salem didn’t impress and Seiler’s minutes were too limited to assess. What to make of the progress of Celeste Boureille?
In the backline we still need to see what happens when a healthy Sauerbrunn settles in for a long stretch beside Emily Menges. We need a young replacement for Klingenberg. We need to see whether Westphal is, indeed, as capable a replacement for Carpenter as she looked.
And behind them, is Pogarch still valuable? Where does Kat Reynolds fit – is she utility depth, fullback depth, or centerback depth?
In short…there remain more questions about the Thorns than answers, and we may be a long time in finding those out.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t deeply skeptical about this event. It seemed a tremendous – and foolish – risk in the midst of a pandemic that the surrounding nation seemed determined to fail to manage in the most tremendously foolish ways possible.
But the league, and the teams, and the supporting organizations in Utah did tremendous work keeping everyone inside “the bubble” safe and well, and that is a marvel and a credit to all involved. Would that we could re-create that for our country at large!
Was it always terrific soccer? Absolutely not, and given the circumstances that’s not entirely either unexpected or damnable. But is was soccer, real soccer, and it gave us a bright, brief bit of fun and excitement in a dark time…for which I was and remain thankful.
To the players of the NWSL, especially to all the Thorns, and to you and all the supporters of this league and our team…I don’t know when we’ll meet here again.
But I hope we will, and sooner than later, to once again think and chatter and dispute, to scheme and speculate, and, most of all, to lift our voices and sing; to roar our love and hopes for those who run out before us like a bright explosion of joy on the rich green fields of dreams.