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Thorns FC: Talking Thorns - the Midfield

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Amandine Henry celebrates after scoring in the NWSL Semifinal
Nikita Taparia - www.stepoverfc.com

Last week, we looked at Thorns FC’s striking corps. This week, we take a look at what we have in the center of the pitch and speculate on what might happen in the off- and upcoming season.

On the morning of December 11 Thorns FC has a total of six midfielders under contract; Tobin Heath, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long, Celeste Boureille, and Meg Morris.

Heath, Horan, and Long are subsidized by U.S. Soccer. Brynjarsdottir, Boureille, and Morris are currently out of contract, and although the team made offers in October to all three, none of them are reported to have signed.

While rostered as a forward (and described as a midfielder in a recent team press release), Morris has appeared for Portland largely as a defender or defensive sub and will be addressed when we discuss the backline.

The remaining midfield players can be broken down by role.

Starting midfielders - primarily attacking: Tobin Heath. The Notorious TFH does her share of tackling, but her primary skills are offensive. Christine Sinclair, who we discussed with the forwards, now appears to be primarily an attacking midfielder (or a withdrawn forward).

Starting midfielders - box-to-box: Lindsey Horan played a lot of box-to-box, #8 midfielder last season. Initially in a sort of three-way-rotation with Amandine Henry and Allie Long and later as the #8 with Henry lying deeper as the true defensive midfielder, a #6. In a live interview, Long stated that her preferred position is the #8, but her role (and her time on the pitch) changed so much last season that it is difficult to assess what her role is, or will be in 2018.

Starting midfielders - primarily defensive: Henry was the DM in 2017; one of the critical decisions for next season will be filling her position. At the moment, Thorns FC doesn’t have an obvious defensive midfielder.

Substitutes: Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Celeste Boureille are reserves; midfield depth or spot-starters.

Tobin Heath will be 29 when the season opens in April. She began playing professionally for the Pali Blues in 2009. Among her other professional gigs were the Atlanta Beat and Sky Blue in the WPS, and Paris St. Germain in the Championnat de France de Football Féminin in 2013-2014. Heath is one of only three Thorns FC plankholders - that is, one of the players here when the team started playing in 2013 - still with the team.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 2

Games started – 0

Shots – 2

Shots on goal – 1 (50%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots)

Assists: 0

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: I was faintly surprised when I looked up Heath’s previous-season stats. She was such an important part of the team in 2016 (and, of course, there’s her famous “stand there (in the wall) and look pretty” free kick in the 2013 Championship match) that I just subconsciously assumed she would be similarly huge statistically, not just in 2013 but in all the other seasons. As you can see, that wasn’t the case.

In 2016, Heath was the heart and soul of the Portland Thorns as well as playing the best soccer of her NWSL career. This wasn’t entirely a blessing. It meant that when Heath wasn’t good, or when opposing teams were allowed to play Hack-a-Heath and take her out of the match, as Western New York did in the 2016 semifinal, the team suffered.

But because of that critical role, losing Heath for most of 2017 to a back injury worried Thorns supporters and caused much dire speculation in the sporting press. Coach Parsons and the team seem to have had everything covered.

Heath’s return to the pitch late in the season was almost an afterthought. Here’s her PMR’s (as with the forwards, I started recording PMRs in June of the 2016 season):

Will Heath be capable of returning to her 2016 form? If she can, then Heath will likely be essential to the 2018 campaign. If not, it is difficult to see how a Thorns midfield can maintain the quality of 2017 without both Heath and Henry.

Henry is a known lost quantity, and, as we’ll discuss, a known need. But if Heath cannot return to form, Portland has a whole ‘nother - and worse - set of problems that may not be apparent until April.

Should she be here in 2018? That isn’t really the right question.

Will she be here in 2018? This is the right question; not whether Heath will be “here” as in “playing for PTFC” but “here” as in “will Heath be Heath”, the Heath that drove the Thorns in 2016?

It’s tempting to simply say “well, sure!” and move on, but back injuries are notoriously tricky, and Heath’s recent absence from the USWNT isn’t reassuring. We’ll have to see.

Alexandra “Allie” Long will be 30 next season. As her age suggests, she is a contemporary of TFH; she began playing professionally for the WPS Washington Freedom (she first played as a semi-pro for Long Island during her college years under Paul Riley) as well as having followed Heath to PSG before joining the Thorns in 2013.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 21

Games started – 17

Shots – 27

Shots on goal – 11 (40.7%)

Goals – 2 (conversion rate: 18% of SOG, 7.4% of all shots)

Assists: 1

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Long started play here in 2013 as a central midfielder under Parlow Cone. Riley, perhaps influenced by the national team’s vision of her, tended to push Long further back down the pitch (you’ll note that 4 of her 9 goals in 2014 were from the spot). She played largely as a central or holding midfielder in 2014 until Riley allowed her more freedom to go forward the following season and was rewarded with an outburst of production that Long has never since repeated.

Until the end of the 2016 season Long was perhaps the most consistently dangerous Thorns midfielder. At the end of 2016, I wrote: “Were it not for Tobin Heath’s surge in form this year Long, with her national team career seemingly returned from the dead and her usually solid season in the NWSL, should have been the story of the Thorns midfield.” Then came 2017 and her club form dropped off the table.

Given the opacity of this club we will probably never know what happened to Long, but despite playing more than she did in 2016 her goal production was the worst in her NWSL career and she quickly played her way onto the bench. Her ratings reflect that nosedive:

Her PMRs cast a brutal light over Long’s 2017 decline; from a player whose positives and average net rating were consistently among the highest of the team to one who was struggling just to meet the team average. That’s damning, and in the small-roster world of the NWSL that would make Long very vulnerable to being traded or released if she were costing the team any money. As a subsidized player, she is exempt from the ugly financial realities her teammates must face; but surely she must be under pressure, if only from herself, to rediscover the form she produced in her first four years with the club.

The other unanswered question is what Long’s role will be with the 2018 Thorns. While she says she sees herself as a #8, both her modest defensive skillset and her tendency to drop lazy passes around the Thorns’ backfield suggest that she needs to improve both if she wishes to actually become that #8, or to replace Henry as the Thorns’ primary defensive midfielder.

If not as some sort of defensive/box-to-box midfielder, then what? It is hard to see Long as an improvement on Sinclair at attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward, or Horan as box-to-box #8. Long lacks the speed to be a successful winger of the Raso/Sykes/Lussi breed. One of Parsons’ to-do-list tasks next spring is going to be reviving Long technically and figuring out where she fits tactically.

Should she be here in 2018? Yeee-es (said in that drawn-out, hesitant tone of voice).

That completely depends whether she and Parsons can find a role for her in midfield, or somewhere else on the pitch, that will work. If they can’t Long will be no better off than she was at the end of 2017; scrabbling for single-digit minutes in the garbage time at the end of matches.

For a veteran professional and a national team player, that must be bitterly humiliating and may well be a driving force for Long to agitate for a trade. Her continued place at the club will be contingent on her putting whatever happened last season behind her and forging a new place for herself next season.

Will she be here in 2018? See above. I can see a Long, bitter at being benched, making enough of a fuss to force a trade. Or I can see a Long, recovering from a single poor season, becoming the integral part of the Thorns’ midfield she was for the first four seasons she played here. We are unlikely to know which of these alternatives will become reality until late winter at the earliest.

I really don’t understand why Long doesn’t go out on loan in the winter. It would seem like the perfect opportunity to reconstruct her game and tinker with her skillset. It would also give us, and her team, the opportunity to see whether she had gotten over whatever was ailing her last season. If she spends the winter playing futsal with her husband’s pals I’m not sure that does her any favors on the big grass pitch come spring.

Lindsey Horan: You probably know Horan’s story; the first U.S. player to go to Europe straight out of high school, played for Paris St. Germain for three years before signing with the Thorns. Emerged in the latter half of last season as the Great Horan.

Horan will turn 24 in May, 2018.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 24

Games started – 24

Shots – 44

Shots on goal – 20 (45.4%)

Goals – 4 (conversion rate: 20% of SOG, 9.1% of all shots)

Assists: 2

Comparison to previous seasons:

Comments: Horan’s play in the matches I rated in 2016 seemed to consist of a broad plateau of generally high quality punctuated by some random poor performances. In 2017, the opposite happened; from being a very good player, Horan lifted her game in midseason to where by the end of the year she was the best Thorn on the field, and by a very wide margin. Here’s her PMRs to show that;

Horan was critical to the 2017 championship and will be a crucial piece of the Thorns’ midfield in 2018 if she’ plays at the level she did during the end of last season.

One thing Horan did have some issues with in 2017 was efficiency.

I’m a great believer in making the most of chances, since chances are relatively rare in soccer. So, if you’re going to shoot, put the damn shot on frame. If you’re going to put the shot on frame, make it a high-quality shot that has a good chance of getting in.

Horan in 2016 was a marvel of efficiency; 64% of her shots were on target and almost 36% were goals.

Last season, she took a shot every 48 minutes of playing time - only slightly up from her 1 shot per 52 minutes in 2016 - but those shots were lower quality, both in placement (down 19% in SOG from 2016), and conversion rate (down 16% from 2016).

For a player of Horan’s quality those failings are repairable and should be repaired going forward into 2018.

Should she be here in 2018? Yes, and playing essentially the same role.

Will she be here in 2018? Yes.

Dagny Brynjarsdottir will be 26 in April 2018. She started playing professionally at the age of 15 in the Icelandic Urvalsdeild. She played in Iceland from 2007 to 2013 with Knattspyrnufelagið Valur, signed with Selfoss in 2014, spent 9 matches with Bayern in 2015 before returning to Selfoss that same year, and signed to play with Portland in 2016 after a trade from Boston in 2015.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 11

Games started – 6

Shots – 5

Shots on goal – 2 (40%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots)

Assists: 1

Comparison with previous seasons:

Comments: Brynjarsdottir had an odd 2017, beginning with a late start caused by her struggle with a back injury. She finally began to see the pitch in early June as a substitute. Her first start came against FCKC here at the end of June as a fullback, where she played well enough for Parsons to extend the experiment to the following match in Seattle.

Here were my observations at the time;

“Most of the talk surrounding the match has been about the failure of the Dagny Brynjarsdottir Fullback Experiment that began here against FCKC. Matched up against the slower, offensively-challenged Blues, Brynjarsdottir held her own. Against Megan Rapinoe Dagny was brutally exposed as a player who hadn’t worked a shift at fullback between last Wednesday and her Iceland junior side.”

So, not a fullback.

Later in the season, Coach Parsons seemed to hit on a novel use for Brynjarsdottir; she was the late-match Amandine Henry. That is, she came on for Henry, typically in the final half-hour or so, and as such was a huge success. Her role in 2018 is somewhat obscured by the degree to which she was “Amandine Henry’s legs” in 2017.

My guess is that Brynjarsdottir has the potential to be play a larger role in the Thorns’ midfield in 2018, but the real question is where. Is she an attacking midfielder, competing with Horan and Sinclair? Is she a box-to-box midfielder, competing with Long (at least, according to Long)? Or does she become the New Henry, sitting deep as a pure #6? Given her performance at fullback, I’m not sure that’s the best use of her skills. Here’s her PMRs;

Two problems for Brynjarsdottir (and for the Thorns); first, she’s made little progress – as measured by her PMRs – over the past season and a half. And, second, while she’s a useful player, the team has several other people who can do much the same things that Brynjarsdottir does. Her great advantage is height (she’s 5′ 11″) but the Thorns have not been particularly successful at converting that into goals.

She’s fast, but not as fast as Heath, or Long. She distributes well, but not as well as Horan or Long or Heath. She’s decent at tracking back, but not a particularly skilled defender like Henry was, or Boureille is.

She’s more useful than Boureille – which is why she gets more minutes than Boureille does – but not so good that she can edge the starters onto the bench.

One possible means to resolve this problem might be to convert her to a pure forward. I’m not sure she has the speed or the shiftiness to be a Dunn-type active striker, but with her height (if she has good positional and ball-control skills) she might make a very effective hold-up-type forward.

Another might be simply to accept that her role here is to be a sort of “middle reliever”; spot starts for injuries or absences, late-match sub or when she can get a particularly good matchup against an opposing center back or fullback. As a roleplayer, Brynjarsdottir still has a valuable role to play next season. Still, a player with her skills should be able to produce more value for her team than she has until now.

Should she be here in 2018? I think so. Right now, I’m not quite sure where she fits into the Thorns midfield, other than to believe that given her quality it’s worth trying to find a place for her there.

Will she be here in 2018? Assuming that she is, like Henry was, willing to work her tail off for relative peanuts…yes.

Celeste Boureille: Boureille will have just turned 24 when the season opens next year. She was signed in 2016 out of the University of California.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 15

Games started – 13

Shots – 0

Shots on goal – 0 (0%)

Goals – 0 (conversion rate: 0% of SOG, 0% of all shots)

Assists: 0

Comparison with other seasons:

Boureille did exceptionally well during the early part of 2017 when the Thorns as a team were struggling. She came out of the XI in midseason when Reynolds returned and played only sporadically after that.

I talked about her positives in the “By The Numbers” article; I believe that Boureille is a starting-quality NWSL midfielder/fullback. The problem is she’s not significantly better than the other starting-quality players currently in the XI. Unless she shows something really special in camp in 2018 I can’t see that changing, so I can’t see her moving into the regular matchday XI. Providing she’s willing to ride the pine for another season, though, she, like Brynjarsdottir, remains a valuable piece for PTFC.

One intriguing possibility is moving Boureille to DM, making her the “new Henry”. At fullback she showed a decent level of ability to get the ball forward, and her defending skills are, while not perhaps as deft as Henry’s, starting quality for a fullback. Boureille would have to show a high level of maturity to succeed in such a critical position, however, a tough demand for a relatively young player.

Should she be here in 2018? Yes, and depending on where Parsons fits her in, possibly even as a starting defensive midfielder!

Will she be here in 2018? Yes, though as with all bench players it’s hard to be sure. She was loaned to the W-league this autumn and has done well, a good sign. Certainly not a lock, but young and inexpensive often means keepable. Can she make the big step up to replace Henry? That’s a good question, and one that might affect her 2018.

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

Yes.

Thorns FC has two lock-solid starting midfielders; an attacker (Heath) and a box-to-box type (Horan). The team has a solid bench with Brynjarsdottir and Boureille.

The big replacement piece is for Henry, that is, a true ball-winning DM/midfield #6 (or, in Henry’s case, a #6 who can also distribute some and even occasionally attack, so a sort of hybrid 6/8 midfielder).

As we’ve discussed, one possible option might be trying Long there, although the obvious problem with that would be we’ve already seen Jill Ellis try her at pure DM and the results were unspectacular.

Another possibility is slotting Boureille into the #6, an experiment which is exceptionally difficult to assess. We just don’t have a good feel for how Boureille’s skills would fit the position other than the relative scarcity of historical examples of successful fullback-to-DM conversions.

What if neither of those two work out?

Rebecca Quinn, who is one of the top midfield draft prospects, is probably going to be gone by the time Portland gets to pick.

A trade? As I noted discussing the forwards, the problem with a starting-quality player is that she is likely to come at a cost Thorns FC is unwilling or unable to pay.

How do the prospects look for 2018 in midfield?

We have a solid starting core with a solid bench and a glaring hole at the defensive midfield position. This is single most critical question I see for Thorns FC going into 2018. But it’s also the most unlikely to be answered until the middle of January at the earliest.