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Thorns FC: Talking Thorns - The Forwards

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This is the first of a series examining the 2017 Thorns with an eye towards trying to figure out what we might see from PTFC in 2018. Let’s begin with the first line of attack.

Thorns FC has five forwards rostered as of December 10, 2017: Christine Sinclair, Savannah Jordan, Tyler Lussi, Hayley Raso, and Ashleigh Sykes. Four of them are under contract.

Power Forwards?

The striking corps of Thorns FC has been one of the on-paper strengths of the team since the 2013 season when the “twin towers” of Alex Morgan and Sinclair were supposed to sweep the league before them. Many preseason predictions for the 2017 Thorns were no different; presupposing multiple goalscoring threats upfront (Nadim, Raso, Sinclair) and in midfield (Horan, Long).

The season turned out differently. It’s hard to remember now, but the Thorns tallied only five goals in the first five games and only two of those from the run of play; two penalties and an own goal made up the rest.

Even once the scoring issues were sorted out, Portland never became a true offensive powerhouse. PTFC’s 37 goals scored ranked a modest fifth in the league behind Orlando, Seattle, Sky Blue, and North Carolina.

To Every Season; Turn, Turn, Turn

On the pitch the forward line was characterized by changes in 2017. Changes in player position, changes in the XI (including the loss of Nadim for a significant chunk of midseason to the European championships), changes in playing style.

The outlook for 2018 also includes many potential changes, with Nadim gone for good, and several young players that were on the fringes in 2017 looking to get minutes in the coming season.

One of the most significant changes is likely to be the permanent move of Christine Sinclair to midfield. Since the club still has her listed as a forward, however, for our discussion we will continue to treat her as one.

Christine Sinclair will turn 35 in June, 2018, and has played professionally for 11 years, debuting with Vancouver in 2006.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 24

Games started – 24

Shots – 46

Shots on goal – 26 (56.5%)

Goals – 8 (conversion rate: 30.7% of SOG, 17.4% of all shots)

Assists: 0

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: In 2013 Sinclair was a critical piece, leading the Thorns in their first title run.

2014 was the Year of the Black Yips, when it looked like Sinc had utterly lost her scoring touch. 2015 may have been the most difficult year for the Thorns as a team, but 2014 was Captain Sinclair’s most troubled as a player; so much so that I wasn’t alone in considering the possibility that her days as a pure forward might be done and that she might benefit from a Michelle-Akers-type move into the midfield. That was prescient, but premature, as we’ll see.

2015 was the Women’s World Cup, and Sinclair missed much of the season with the CWNT. When she did play for Portland, the hard work she put in for her national team showed in her NWSL conversion rate; better than 2014 but still not up to the standard of her initial season. She was performing well for her country but still appeared to be struggling in front of goal for Portland.

In 2016, despite missing almost half the games with injury (early in the year) or with the CWNT, Sinc’s NWSL goalscoring touch returned. Her conversion rate was the best of her Portland career, and although she scored one less goal overall than she did in 2013 all of her 2016 goals were from the run of play.

In 2017, age, mileage, and the tactical needs of the Thorns finally put an end to Sinclair’s time as a front-running forward. Mark Parsons moved her back into the top of the midfield where she played as a withdrawn forward or attacking center midfielder as the situation dictated. From there, she pulled the strings for an offense that relied on the younger forwards to do most of the running at goal.

This change seemed to energize Sinclair, who took the team’s season scoring title as well as becoming the top scorer in club history. As in 2013, she was critical to the title campaign.

Here’s her average plus, average minus, and average net ratings over the past season and a half (I began using the PMR system to rate Thorns’ performances in late June of 2016):

As good as she was in 2016, Sinclair’s positives took a big step up in 2017, and I believe that was a result of her positional shift. A side benefit to the move may be adding another few years to her career, if for no other reason than by reducing the hard knocks Sinclair was taking wrestling for the ball with big center backs.

Great players – and Sinclair is perhaps among the greatest – age more slowly than average players, but age and hard knocks will catch up with Sinc sooner than later at this point. My hope is her positional shift and great peak physical skills mean she has another couple more great seasons as a midfielder.

Should she be here in 2018? Of course.

Will she be here in 2018? Barring a Chicxulub-level extinction event (or her being dropped from the CWNT, but I repeat myself) she should be here next season.

The only question is how long can she sustain her play at this level, and we won’t really know that until her form at AM/withdrawn forward begins to slump.

Hayley Raso will be 23 at the beginning of the 2018 season. She started playing professionally for the Washington Spirit in 2015.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 22

Games started – 20

Shots – 19

Shots on goal – 9 (47.6%)

Goals – 6 (66.6% of SOG, 31.6% of all shots)

Assists: 3

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Here’s what I wrote about Raso after the end of the 2016 season:

“Should she be here in 2017? In my mind, unquestionably. She’s a bargain, is young, and has a ton of positives. Her single biggest weakness is her shooting, and her scoring or, rather, her lack of scoring. Raso doesn’t shoot much and when she does doesn’t put many – barely a quarter – of her shots on frame. A forward is, first and last, a goal-scorer, and Raso has yet to score in the NWSL over part of one-and-a-half seasons. While I appreciate the many good qualities she brings to Thorns FC if she cannot score she cannot continue to play at this level. So while she may well be here in 2017 I see next season as a watershed for her. She needs to raise her game to continue to hold down a roster spot, and that means, simply, score.”

Raso took that big step up and began scoring in June of 2017, ending the season with 6 goals. I can’t help comparing Raso to another young player that began her career in Portland with similar promise, and garnered similar affection from the fans; Mana Shim. Both players had great potential and both had some young-player failings. Shim, unfortunately, never managed to overcome her weaknesses to take advantage of her strengths. Raso has, and appears poised to be a standout player for club and country.

Her PMRs;

The change in her ratings between the end of 2016 and last season are like Sinclair’s in that she didn’t so much raise her floor as lift her ceiling. Her biggest improvement, though, was by comparison with the rest of the team. In 2016, Raso was an average player on a very good team. In 2017, Raso was a terrific player on a very good team.

Should she be here in 2018? Many of her upsides are the same as they were a year ago: she’s a young and a bargain. But instead of her single biggest downside – lack of scoring – Raso has become a reliable goal producer and appears to be rounding into a complete striker package. So, yes, absolutely.

Will she be here in 2018? With the caveat that Raso is currently out of contract, yes. The Thorns would be brain-dead to let her go, but given her huge step forward in 2017 I could see her looking around and seeing players with no better qualifications making bank in Europe. So it behooves the Thorns organization to re-sign her most quick smart or she may be gone next year.

Ashleigh Sykes will be 26 in April, 2017. She debuted professionally with Canberra United in the W-League in 2008.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 15

Games started – 12

Shots – 9

Shots on goal – 4 (44.4%)

Goals – 1 (25% of SOG, 11.1% of all shots)

Assists: 1

Comparison with previous years:

I have no table for Sykes, because Portland signed her out of the W-League in early 2017 and detailed statistics for her seasons in the W-League (such as shots and SOG) are difficult (or, in this case, impossible) to track down.

Here is what’s on the record: Sykes scored 12 goals in 13 regular season games for Canberra United in the 2016-2017 season, and a total of 26 goals over 52 games she played for that team between 2013 and 2017. At 0.36 goals/game she was a moderately effective striker over the 2013-2014 to 2015-2016 seasons. In 2016-2017, she became a W-League beast.

Comments: Sykes certainly has the tools to succeed in the NWSL. She has pace in a straight-ahead run, and good short-burst acceleration. She has a strong, accurate right foot and places her passes and crosses precisely. She can defend when she needs to, which is important in Parsons’ “forechecking” defensive system. Her monster W-League season suggests she’s capable of more than we’ve seen from her for PTFC.

But since we have yet to see what Sykes can do with a full season in the NWSL, it is difficult to assess Sykes’ ceiling in the league. We know she is, at least, a useful piece in the Thorns’ front line. How much better can she be with a full spring training with her Portland teammates?

Should she be here in 2018? I discussed Sykes at length in the article dissecting the Thorns’ PMRs for 2017;

“I don’t think anyone will be surprised to see that Ashleigh Sykes’ average PMR of 5.8 was the best of the non-starters.

But even that masks her true quality. Sykes’ late start meant she had to scramble through several early matches trying to find her feet. During that time, she had three tough outings that pull her average down; Washington, Seattle, and Houston away (matches, it’s worth noting, that the team kinda stunk up, too). If you restrict her analysis to just the last ten matchdays her average jumps up to 8.3, putting her right up there with Raso and comfortably above Nadim.

Much has been made in the sporting press of Thorns FC’s needing to find a replacement for Nadim. But based on Sykes’ late-season form, I’m not sure we haven’t already found her.”

Will she be here in 2018? Barring injury, or some as-yet-unforeseen trade opportunity, I cannot imagine her not returning. She’s under contract and, unlike Raso, Sykes doesn’t seem to have the c.v. – yet - to hunt up cash in more lucrative leagues. She needs to prove that she can duplicate her W-league form in the NWSL, however.

Mallory Weber: Mallory was drafted by Rochester in 2015 and traded to Portland for an international spot. She will turn 24 on April 4, 2018.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 15

Games started – 5

Shots – 3

Shots on goal – 3 (100%)

Goals – 1 (33.3% of SOG, 33.3% of all shots)

Assists: none

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Least used of Portland’s nominal forwards, Weber also filled in the midfield and, if I recall correctly, even played a match at fullback. Ah, versatility, the key to NWSL roster-making.

Her PMRs:

Weber’s PMRs reflect her evolution as a professional. While she didn’t have as many positive impacts on the pitch, she cut way down on her errors. Given that she was typically used as a late-match sub, that’s a good thing; you don’t want the player you put in to hold on to a lead late in the game taking crazy risks to try and do something spectacular. Generally she didn’t; in five of the 10 games she was subbed on she had no minuses, and in two more, only a single significant error.

Should she be here in 2018? Weber was a useful piece of the Thorns in 2018 and seems likely to be just as useful next season. She’s relatively young, cheap, versatile, and is at least replacement-level or better. Unless the Thorns can find a more attractive prospect to trade her for I don’t see why she shouldn’t be here.

Will she be here in 2018? Unless she is packaged as part of a deal, I can’t see why not…but, then, I don’t see any particular reason not to trade her if the team can scout someone who is, say, 22 and just as good, or the same age as Weber and a little better. Still, there’s something to be said for cohesion and Weber has been part of the team for two full seasons. So taking everything into consideration, I think she’ll be here.

Tyler Lussi will be 23 in April, 2018. She was the Thorns’ third player chosen in the 2017 NCAA draft, the 1st pick in the 3rd round, #21 overall.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 5

Games started – 3

Shots – 12

Shots on goal – 4 (33.3%)

Goals – 1 (25% of SOG, 8.3% of all shots)

Assists: 2

Comments: At the time she was drafted, I was pretty upset that the Thorns took her and traded away Rachel Hill to Orlando. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“I’d argue strongly against Gavin Wilkinson’s statement: “Immediately after drafting Rachel we were presented with a trade option, and with this in mind, we were able to draft a similar quality player in Tyler Lussi,”

Based on their statistics the only “similar quality” Hill shares with Lussi are their ability to put shots on goal; both put 50% of their shots on frame. Otherwise there’s no real comparison. Hill scores at nearly half again the rate per shot (0.190 to 0.123) that Lussi does. Jennifer Gordon at The Equalizer had Hill as one of her top five forwards in this year’s draft. Dan Lauletta considered her likely to go within the first round. Neither writer even remotely considered Lussi in their draft writeups.”

I note that Hill played 14 games for Orlando, started 8, scored three goals on six shots on goal, and picked up an assist. Hill was a better player the Lussi in college and has had a better career as a professional to date.

Lussi had an odd 2017. She came on at the half for Shim in the away draw to Houston in July (which, incidentally, marked the end of Shim’s career as a Thorn; she never played another minute until she was released later that season).

Lussi then started the next three games and played well, including the August home win over Houston in which her PMR was her season best +15/-4. Her average PMRs for her five-match stint are +11.5/-4.9; her net is +6.6, slightly above average for her team.

The she then came on in the 61st minute in the away win at Chicago the following week and within seconds of her entry yanked Danielle Colaprico down by the hair and stepped on Colaprico’s arm.

While the cleating, at least, looked accidental, Lussi received a three-match suspension. She did not play again, although she was in the 18 through the final match.

Should she be here in 2018? To me, Lussi is the biggest question mark among the current Thorns forwards. She did well in her appearances in 2017. But she also didn’t establish herself as a utility player like Weber did, and as a pure striker her conversion rate was painfully low. She disappeared after her suspension. After half a season with the club she is still almost pure “prospect”.

Will she be here in 2018? If she has a terrific camp, and if no trade opportunities open up, and if the team wants to carry her and Jordan and Weber as spot-starters and subs. That’s a lot of “ifs”. What may help keep her here is the likelihood that no player of comparable quality will be available late in the first round of this years’ NCAA draft.

Savannah Jordan will be 23 in April, 2018. She was drafted in 2017 out of the University of Florida, where she was a standout forward throughout her college career.

Comments: As most Thorns fans probably know, Jordan chose to sign with Glasgow City F.C. in the Scottish Premier League rather than with Portland. Jordan did not prosper in Scotland, however, and left GCFC in May, 2017 with what was reported as a “long-term injury” that was aggravated by the playing field conditions in the SPL.

Jordan was activated by PTFC late in 2017 and played a total of nine minutes in two games as a late-match substitute. As such she is nearly a complete mystery, even moreso than Lussi. How good is she? How good can she be? Where does she fit into the Portland attack? Will she even be fit enough to join the team in April? All these and more questions remain impossible to answer.

Should she be here in 2018? Assuming that her injury is responding well to treatment, and she is showing promise to the coaching staff, yes.

Will she be here in 2018? Jordan was ranked 10th in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer and #3 by Chris Henderson’s All White Kit. That’s an impressive pedigree.

She had a terrific start in Glasgow, with the caveat that the SPL is like a lot of European leagues, where a handful of top clubs beat up on the rest of the tomato cans.

Right now, my guess is that Jordan could be the “new Sinclair” now that Sinc is in midfield. Jordan’s collegiate style was similar; big, strong, and fast, and with a nose for goal. Jordan would seem to be a better prospect than Lussi, but we have yet to see anything on the pitch that confirms that.

So, does Thorns FC need to change or add anything particular at the forward position right now? Are there any immediate needs that should be filled by trade or draft?

I don’t think so, no.

But I didn’t think the team needed strikers in the last draft and three of the four picks in January 2017 were forwards.

In 2016, PTFC was second overall in the league with 35 goals but Portland’s forwards scored only 15 of those goals; Brynjarsdottir, Horan, and Long combined had one more than the frontline. That suggested to me that the 2017 Thorns would not be dependent on their forwards to score and would take the pressure off the front office to stock the team with high-scoring strikers.

Instead, the lack of production at forward worried Coach Parsons and the Thorns front office on draft day.

In 2017, Portland forwards scored 23 of the team’s 37 goals, including Sinclair with 8, Nadim and Raso with 6 each, and one goal apiece from Weber, Lussi, and Sykes. The forwards scored more than 60% of Portland goals in 2017, up from about 40% the season before.

Which suggests to me that - if Parsons’ 2017 form holds - the Thorns will look for reinforcement at other positions than forward in 2018.

Losing Nadim’s goalscoring will hurt, but in my opinion her stats suggest that Sykes has shown that she’s good enough to replace Nadim’s contribution if she’s in form, and Raso has yet to show us what she can do if she begins scoring early in the season.

With no draft picks higher than 8th overall and a relatively thin draft class I suspect that any forward PTFC can acquire out of the 2018 draft will be, at best, a “project”. If the Thorns want projects they already have Lussi and Jordan. I also don’t see a forward around the league that might be available and that Portland would want to trade for at a cost the team would want to pay.

How do the Thorns look up front in 2018?

Good! Presuming all the “ifs” turn out well.

If Sinclair stays healthy and in form, if Raso continues to score as she did in 2017, if Sykes brings her W-League form to Portland, if Weber steps her game up, and if Jordan and Lussi play up to their possibilities, Thorns FC looks to be dangerous going forward with their current roster intact.