Well, that’s it. No more NWSL soccer until next spring…we hope! What’s left is the shouting – specifically, the expansion draft for Racing Louisville, the newest addition to the NWSL roster, which will be held in early November. After that we may – and the COVID-delayed and disassembled fall NCAA season makes the “may” very much a thing – have an NCAA draft in January and then, if we can do something dramatic and effective about the Plague, stirrings of a new season in 2021.
Before all that, the Riveting! Gang got together to talk 2020; Thorns, the league, and how we saw them from our socially-distanced stands.
To go with the utter weirdness of the season, though…two of our Four Amigos found they didn’t really have much to add.
Shannan Sorenson told us ”I feel like the fall series was too short to glean much from, but I’m more curious/interested about the number of US players who have bolted internationally.” We agreed that the latter was a good question.
Patrick Chizeck is still unhappy with the whole idea of playing soccer during the plague; he reminds us to mask up, wash our hands, and keep our distance!
So Richard “Budweiser” Hamje and John Lawes were left to kick around the Thorns and the NWSL in 2020.
Let’s go to tape.
- From Challenge Cup doormats to Fall Series champs. Portland Thorns…the Sybil of the NWSL. Which is the “real Thorns”, and why
Richard: Who are the Real™ Thorns? Not the worst team in the league, although the Challenge Cup result shows that. Not the best team in the league, although the Fall Series result shows that. While it was welcome to see some football played safely, nothing that we saw even approximated a regular season. No travel, no six-month grind, no preseason, no fans.
John: Well…I dunno about that. We did play some games, and I think we can see some big-picture things emerge from them. Starting with the Utah Cup. That Thorns was…well, by its record it was a Bad Team. Not so much for losing, but by the way it lost; continuing the attacking sterility and making defensive errors we saw a lot of in 2019. The only “good” game depended on the reserve goalkeeper going utterly mad, and one good attacking play.
But my take on that wasn’t that this team was bad in the “Boston Breakers” bad, deeply, fundamentally, structurally bad.
It was struggling with a lot of issues; missing important pieces – Heath, Smith, fighting back from a long layoff that had obviously taken a lot out of the team, and the Cup being treated by the coaching staff as a sort of preseason to give minutes to lots of players, so no coherence or cohesion.
It was a team in flux, but in the “bad team” phase of flux.
Fast forward to September and October. With the huge caveat that the opposition was, absent Orlando, the worst in the league, the team was more coherent, more experienced. Several players, most notable Christine Sinclair, were rested and feeling frisky. The attack was coming together – admittedly, in a kind of weird way, a mix of Route One Charley with some nice possession and buildup through Horan and Sinc and especially Smith. The defending was better. The goalkeeping was still solid.
So I think the impression of Bad Thorns/Good Thorns is an artifact. I think we saw a spectrum, from “still shit but working on it” in July to “figuring it out with the caveat that it doesn’t take genius to beat the Royals and OL Reign”.
So it wasn’t Sybil; it was The Three Faces of Eve.
Richard: Okay, well, that is all very deep and philosophical. I still can say no more than that the Thorns are 24 women who play soccer in empty stadiums. And who, in the black kits, look fabulous doing it.
John: And they say I’m the Eeyore! I think there’s reason for hope from the 2020 “season”, such as it was (especially, as we’ll talk about in a bit, the now-notorious Dunn Deal). I do agree that the Black Rose kits are sweet, though.
- We talked about this at the end of the Cup, but which Thorn was your Fall Series standout, and why?
John: Hard not to say Sinclair, but my perception is colored by my expectations. I always expect Sinclair to shine, so to me it wasn’t a “standout” performance, just another day punching the clock.
My standouts were Simone Charley, who turned a very drab Challenge Cup into a terrifically effective Fall Series, and Westphal, who was solid all through the season.
Richard: MVP of the Fall Series is Christine Sinclair, duh. But I was very happy to see that Westphal’s Challenge Cup was not a fluke, and that Sophia Smith is the real deal.
- Was there anyone who underwhelmed? And, again, why.
Richard: I was extremely disappointed that our backup goalkeeper did not play even a single minute. That would have been the most epic thing in the history of the league.
John: Yeah, the Return of the Eisbär would have been kinda epic.
Richard: Seriously, though there’s a little posse of Thorns that look good but don’t play good: Lussi, Pogarch, Everett, and to a lesser degree, Ogle and Salem. It seems like we always say that these five players are going to have a breakthrough, going to match up to their potential. But it just doesn’t happen and I don’t know when it will. That doesn’t mean they should be gone. Different people mature at different times. We’ve seen players muddle along and then excel – Westphal and Eckerstrom for example.
John: Sinead Farrelly, for you Thorns history buffs.
Richard: Yep. So if Farrelly and Westphal, why not Tyler Lussi? But when?
John: Well, of those five, the one that really bugs me is Lussi. She’s not a rookie anymore. She’s played Parsons’ “system”, such as it is, for years now. And yet she’s very seldom effective. Eats up a ton of minutes, can’t convert. I wonder if she’s a candidate for a left back conversion? She’s sure not getting it done as a forward, and at this point I’ve kinda given up hope she ever will.
The others? Enh. They’re still really green, except for Salem, and I guess I’ve never seen Salem as more than a squad player, Seiler’s backup. That said, it’s time for them to improve. Especially Pogarch. I’ve seen flashes of quality from Ogle, Everett is deep forward depth and fine as such now that we have Smith and Weaver and Charley tearing it up…but Pogarch? We need defensive depth, and we need defensive speed now that we have a centerback in her prime and another in her dotage. Pogarch has speed to burn, but she needs to show she can use it intelligently, and so far, instead, she makes pretty brutal errors. If she can step up, now’s a great time to do it.
- So the overall sense of where the team is headed, based on 2020. Or is there still too much work to be done to know where?
Richard: I feel like the 2020 Thorns are better than the 2019 Thorns. We’ve got more depth of talent and we finally have a replacement for Nadia Nadim. But the 2021 Thorns will have to cope with loss from the expansion draft, loss of Tobin Heath (see #8), and aging out at key positions. If we had serious understudies for Sinclair, Klingenberg and Sauerbrunn – by which I mean players who make it really hard for Parsons to start the old folks – I will feel a lot better. And we still haven’t replaced Amandine Henry.
John: I got nothing to add to that. Honestly, the lack of replacements for the big-name veterans is the most worrisome. I thought that adding Sauerbrunn meant that we were tooling up for a victory-or-death run in 2020 and then the Plague. I can see that going into 2021, but not much longer. I have a hard time seeing Sinclair and ‘Brunn starting regularly by ’22.
Actually I do have one thing to add. One player I’d really love to see more from is Rodriguez. What I’ve seen has been good! But I’d love to see more. Watching Vero Boquete against us reminded me how much she can do, even for a crap team like the current Royals. I’d love to see Rodriguez pulling strings like that. I’d love to see Rodriguez crack more golazos from distance. I’d love to see…well, more. What I’ve seen convinces me she has more. Now I want to see it.
- The next adventure is the Racing Louisville expansion draft this November. Thoughts?
Richard: There are a jillion lists floating around, and plenty of talk about gaming the draft. From our side, my protected list is:
If the protected list is truly eleven; that is, nine “regular” players along with the two allocated slots as Equalizer posits, then I add Seiler and Boureille. [ed.: Based on the recently released NWSL rules, it is a total of eleven]
I would expect to lose one goalkeeper and Angela Salem. And I would expect RLFC to not select Sinclair, Klingenberg or Sauerbrunn because they know they could not sign them.
John: For me the tough parts are twofold.
First, I agree that Sinc, Sauerbrunn, and Kling are unlikely to be picked just because I don’t see them signing for Louisville if they are. But Franch? I’m not sure she’s the starting keeper anymore. And losing one of our two starting quality centerbacks – and good as Hubly is, I’m not sure she’s ready to be Sauerbrunn – hurts more than losing one of three starting- or probably-starting-quality keepers.
Second, the “regular player” list. The top six of the nine are easy; same as yours. It’s the 10-11-12-13 slots that are tough. I like adding Hubly and Seiler, too, because we need the DM, and depth as CB. So my nine “regulars” are Smith, Weaver, Charley, Rodriguez, Seiler, Menges, Westphal, Hubly, and Eckerstrom. I think we have to risk losing one of the keepers. Bixby is a wonderful luxury, but at this point a luxury, and Franch, as I’ve discussed, loses out to ‘Brunn for depth reasons.
But there’s also the “trading deadline” this week. Do you see anything happening there?
Richard: Could we make a deal like the Morgan trade? Sure, although maybe we’re the third party instead of the primary seller. [ed: This was from before the Dunn trade happened].
From RLFC’s perspective, they are building a whole team. They are going to get one of Mewis, Dunn, Dahlkemper from the Courage – my guess is Dunn [not now, suckers!]. Then they can get one (assuming Orlando rules) from Chicago out of Davidson, Naeher, Ertz, Short, Gautrat – my guess is Gautrat.
They then need a goalkeeper (Franch [their 2nd and final allocated player]), A-mid (Privett), and striker (Prince). With that spine, then fill out their choices with the best athletes available regardless of position.
John: One of our regulars, Trail 33, has a complicated trade he likes to propose that includes Portland sending Franch and Nally to Washington and Heath to Utah, and a future #1 pick along with $200K in Bairdbux (I’m not sure where that figure comes from – I’m pretty sure we don’t have that much left…) to Carolina in return for Crystal Dunn. Meanwhile Washington sends Labbe’ to Utah and Bledsoe to Carolina, and Utah sends O’Hara to Washington and Corsie and $50K Bairdbux to Carolina.
It all sounds like too many working parts to me, but I could see how it works for everyone involved if all the parts work.
[ed. – the complex trade didn’t happen, but Dunn came to Portland via Tacoma, so sorta-kinda…and here’s my additions both post-Dunn and re: the Louisville-Chicago deal:
First, Portland. Assuming everything works out – always never a given – 2020 is starting to look like 2015-16 in terms of Portland player moves.
Mind you, ‘Brunn makes it a little less long-term than 2015. We’ve got to grab some silverware before she ages out to get our value for her. But, OTOH, she might be a critical factor in bringing Kelli Hubly along as the next Big Thing at CB. So there’s that.
I know I’m the Eeyore here, but right now I don’t see any major flaws in the Peregrine organization’s plan for the Thorns. It’d be nice to see an obvious replacement for Kling (which I don’t, yet – Pogarch hasn’t impressed me to date) and a lockdown DM, but we’ve got Westphal steady at RB for Carpenter, we’ve got three solid CBs, Dunn to add killer speed to the midfield diamond with Horan and Sinc and Rodriguez in there somewhere (and possibly Weaver – I can see her at RW to Dunn at LW) with Smith and Charley up top.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a damn good squad. Now we need to control the Plague so we can have a 2021 and we’ll see what happens.
Second, Louisville. Louisville made their first move, going to Chicago for McCaskill and Nagasato, plus a 2021 first-rounder and an international slot. (https://www.racingloufc.com/news_article/show/1129222).
I’ve always liked what I’ve seen from Nagasato, but…McCaskill? Even as a second option she’s prodigiously wasteful when she DOES score, which is not very often – her conversion rate is in the low teens. She can’t pass and consistently loses over half her duels, so she’s a turnover machine. Maybe she re-invents herself in Louisville. But if this is their FO’s idea of a big-time striker signing?
Even weirder is the “Macario Rule”, the strange provision in this year’s draft where if Racing doesn’t steal anyone’s allocated player they get $150,000 in Bairdbux. What’s the point of that, if not to pay down Macario’s wages?
The NWSL has NEVER been consistent about expansion draft rules, but this one is especially weird, and I admit to not “getting” what the league is trying to do here, or what Racing will do with it.
6. Any controversial suggestions for the protected-vs-unprotected lists? I mean, Horan, no brainer, but who’s your #9 versus your #10?
Richard: I don’t care about losing one GK. Any 2 of our 3 is enough of a corps to start the season confident. And I am certain that Angerer can and will find and develop a world-class third for us. So my hot take is, let Louisville take their pick of our keepers and we’ll be fine. And, I should add, if we leave all three unprotected, RLFC will probably take Franch because she is free to them – although if they took Eckerstrom they could also take Lussi or whomever else is unprotected and non-allocated. Franch is unlikely to make the tiny Olympics roster, so she would be available to them all season, same as Eckerstrom or Bixby.
John: I do find it kind of intriguing that I’m reading more than a handful of people – and knowledgeable people, too, not internet yahoos – suggesting we leave all three keepers unprotected. That seems…risky to me. I’d just as soon protect the one we most want to keep and force Racing to choose between the other two.
7. Obviously the single biggest story in ThornsWorld so far is the Dunn Deal. Any observations?
Richard: It looks like a good piece of business getting a player like her for draft picks and money. And she clearly wants to be here. There are questions though:
A: Where will she play on the pitch? In our normal 4-3-3, the front three could be Dunn, Smith, Weaver (assuming Heath is not coming back). Ellis had so much attacking talent that she could afford to stick Dunn on defense. With us, it’s the opposite.
John: If I can break in for a second…
Richard: Um, like that’s ever stopped you before.
John: Yeah, okay, sorry. Anyway, Dunn tweeted out – Per this Linehan thread: https://twitter.com/itsmeglinehan/status/1319737386696400896
Linehan says: “No real sit down with Parsons yet, and she – Dunn – said “if he has that idea (of playing defense) lined up, I’m like, ‘okay, I’ll deal with it’” but she said he knows she wants to play an attacking role.” And the first reply is from Merritt Paulson: “She will get one.”
So I think we’re going to see her as either a true forward or, my guess, in the LW slot in the diamond.
Maybe that’s why we played a diamond in the Fall Series? Because Parsons knew this was in the works, and wanted to get things shaped up for it? Hmmm…
Richard: Fair enough. To move on…
B. Will we rue the $250k we paid, plus whatever went to URFC for Sauerbrunn? I don’t know if we now have salary space to bring in a top Euro player, given that we’ve blown through a hefty chunk of our allocation money…
John: My guess is that those mystery foreign internationals are a gone thing between the Plague and the uncertainty. But, yeah…we might rue giving the Tacoma Lions all that spare cash.
Richard: …and, C. Is it a little weird to have a married couple on the team? I know hubby isn’t really a coach, but it’s still a management/labor connection that could be uncomfortable. Maybe for her, maybe for another player, maybe for a situation that has yet to arise. But I could be overthinking things – they handled being with bitter rivals and I sure hope that our labor relations aren’t bitter.
Not much more to add. A lot’s already been said. Her interview with Ann Schotz is great – every fan should watch it.
John: I’ll get on that most quick smart!
8. Anything else you want to add about the expansion? The league in general?
Richard: I really, really hope we can have a normal season in 2021. Even a late start would be fine if we can safely play to full stadiums. I don’t know if the league can survive another 2020.
Consider the chance that a couple of the weak teams fold in 2021 or 2022. The expansion teams could be replacing them, so the league would not grow but also not contract. Maybe we lose Orlando but gain Louisville. Maybe the Royals become Angel City or the Republic.
Pro sports is not a stable business – even the mighty NFL struggles with teams moving and doing stupid racist/sexist stuff. We should be prepared to withhold judgment until things shake out, knowing that they likely never will.
John: Yeah…I worry about that. This is a very weird pathogen. It’s very likely that even if we get a vaccine some time in 2021 the effectiveness may be limited; it may be similar to a flu vaccine that only gives you partial protection. If that’s the case, well…a lot of older fans – older like me, early sixties, no really scary morbidities otherwise – we’re not going to be excited about packing into a roaring mob in the stands. Or, for that matter, having our friends or families coming back from that shedding a big ol’ viral load.
And this is an even less-stable-than-usual pro sport. Sadly, women’s sport is and is likely to be less lucrative than the men’s game for some time. So another year of big revenue hits? That’s not going to be good.
9. Bonus question: Tobin Heath – once and future Thorn, or Gone, baby, gone?
Richard: Remember David Beckham? An aging famous player cashes in on their celebrity with an ambitious second-rate league.
John: I agree to a point, except I think in this case it’s more like she’s cashing in on an ambitious who-knows-the-rate league. I’ve been intrigued by all the big names flooding into the FAWSL, but flooding to the obvious places; Man City, United, Arsenal, Tottenham. Kinda sucks to be a West Brom Ladies supporter, then, dunnit?
I honestly don’t see how that works even in the medium-term. At least in the men’s leagues, the Premiership, D1, the Bundesliga, there’s SOME hope for the Leicesters of the world. The WSL, or FBL, or D1F? Who the hell’s going to support Rennes, knowing that your choice is going to be OL or PSG every season? Who’s going to watch Reading Ladies, knowing that every match that matters is going to be a seven-nil stomping at the feet of City or United or the Arse?
Richard: the answer to that last one is simple – not many people at all. Average attendance last year was 3,400 (1,300 for poor Reading) and that’s real generous given what I saw watching online. The men’s teams are subsidizing the women’s club game in Europe, mostly for the PR value. Or maybe because it’s the right thing to do, and they have the means.
John: Aside from that, though…I get a sense that Heath is and has been ready to move on for a while. I don’t think it’s so much hate for the Thorns or the NWSL but needing something different. She’s been grinding away for us for years. Got her rings, did her bit, had the fun and excitement. Now it’s time to build up the IRA, see a bit more of the world, try something new before hangin’ em up. So, yeah, I think she’s gone.
And back to Shannan’s point at the top…I wonder about all those Nats playing in Europe. They have to be making some pretty nice bank. I wonder, and particularly if we have trouble getting the Plague in hand, if at some point they decide they’d rather just stay there? Mind you, the Europeans are losing ground again – they’re not Japan – and at some point may have similar troubles that we’re having now. So, in a sense, the Plague may both hurt and help the NWSL.
Right now, though, it’s hurting, and, as you point out, possibly worse than we know.
That’s all for now. We’ll be back to talk over the expansion draft and, of course, in the comments. Until then…there’s some stuff going on next week, and it reminds us that if we want a better country, we need to be better citizens. So.