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Thorns FC: Talking Thorns - Defenders and Keepers

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SOCCER: OCT 14 NWSL Championship - North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns

So far, we’ve looked at Thorns FC at forward and midfield, and what we’ve seen has been fairly good, outside the Mystery of the Missing Henry.

But while scoring and passing and slick juggling tricks are fun to watch, and, yes, you often hear it said that “if you don’t score you can’t win”, the other side of that aphorism is that if you don’t concede you can’t lose. Many teams - like the 2017 Thorns - win championships primarily through tough defending and outstanding goalkeeping.

Thorns FC currently has five players designated as defenders and two goalkeepers.

Two centerbacks; Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges,

Three outside backs; Meghan Klingenberg, Kat Reynolds, and Meg Morris, and

Two goalkeepers; Adrianna Franch and Britt Eckerstrom.

Let’s look at them in that order.

SOCCER: OCT 14 NWSL Championship - North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns

Emily Menges was drafted by Paul Riley in 2014 (late; 25th overall and 8th in the third round) and has now played three full seasons for Thorns FC. She had played summer ball for Riley’s Long Island Fury in 2009. She will turn 26 in July, 2018.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 23

Games started – 23

Shots – 0

Shots on goal – 0

Goals – none

Assists: none

Yellow cards/red cards: 0/0

Comparison with previous years:

Comments: Menges had a terrific 2016, and I was certain she would be honored in the postseason. She was; selected to the NWSL Best XI, the Supporter’s Player of the Year, and the club’s MVP. She had a sniff at the USWNT last autumn. Last April, Menges looked like a lock for another terrific season in 2017.

So perhaps it wasn’t so much her early season form but our preseason expectations that made Menges’ April and May feel so shocking. Her net PMRs for the first three matches were 0, -2, and -1. Emily Menges with a negative net PMR? Impossible! The Portland soccer world tottered on its foundation.

Having started off by reminding us she was only human, Menges’ form steadily improved through the remainder of the season. By the Final match she was a beast, leading the defense that stymied the North Carolina attack, and sealing the championship season.

Menges remains an excellent central defender and is arguably one of the best at that position in the NWSL. She is seldom caught out of position, marks and tackles well, and, on the rare occasion that she is beaten, is one of the fastest players in the league and usually recovers her lost ground quickly.

Menges is an intelligent, very clean, and technically sound defender, so she seldom gives up fouls in dangerous places. She is relatively good in the air even though at 5′ 7″ she is just slightly taller than average.

Here’s her PMRs (the numbers for 2016 include only June through the end of the year). What’s worth noting in this breakdown is the way Menges stepped up when it counted; during the 2017 stretch run, after the Chicago away game on Matchday 17.

Menges’ great virtue in 2016 was her consistently high-quality play. In 2017, she wasn’t as reliable overall, but, instead, grew through the season to a higher plane than she had reached the year before. Her net PMRs in the three matches PTFC played against North Carolina limn this sharply rising trend; -2 on Matchday 2, +6 on Matchday 14, +13 in the Final.

For all the nervous flutters she gave us in April, Menges was key to bringing home the trophy in October.

Should she be here in 2018? Without question. In her prime, skilled, and a leader in a very good defensive unit? What’s not to like?

Will she be here in 2018? The Front Office should be institutionalized if they let her get away.

SOCCER: OCT 07 NWSL - Orlando Pride at Portland Thorns FC Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Emily Sonnett The Sonnett half of the Great Wall of Emily will be 25 come April 2018. She was the first pick overall in the 2016 NCAA draft out of UVA and had an outstanding year alongside Menges in her rookie season.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 24

Games started – 24

Shots – 5

Shots on goal – 4 (80%)

Goals – 3

Assists: 1

Yellow cards/red cards: 2/0

Comparison with previous seasons:

Comments: I tended to pick on Sonnett in 2016 because sometimes she played like a complete noob. That was unfair, because she was a noob; a true rookie at the professional level and, in general, she played very well. Her PMRs for the latter part of 2016 were slightly above her team’s average.

Sonnett was one of the players that slumped the hardest during the 2017 “midseason slump” between Matchday 9 and Matchday 15. During this period Sonnet’s net PMRs were -4. +3, -4, -1, and -3. Those were the only minus net numbers Sonnett put up in 2017 other than the horrific Boston Massacre on Matchday 22, when the entire team took a faceplant.

I’ve broken down Sonnett’s 2017 work below into her season average, and the average if you subtract those six matches.

Those numbers both hearten and concern me.

Hearten because they show how high Sonnett’s high is. When she’s on form, Sonnett is one of the better defenders in the NWSL. Along with defending, Sonnett can score; her three goals in 2017 put her fifth on the team, behind three forwards and Horan. Her conversion efficiency is terrific. She has good vision and can start attacks with accurate passing out of the back. She’s athletic, strong, and pacey. Sonnett and Menges have a solid working partnership.

But when she’s not on form, well, in 2016 you could put Sonnett’s lapses, like the lazy passes that got picked off or the questionable decisions, down to inexperience.

But in her sophomore year, Sonnett still occasionally made those rookie mistakes. Not so often that it negated her other values, but more often than an intelligent and increasingly seasoned player should have. 2018 will be Sonnett’s third professional season, and she no longer has any excuses for those in-game mental vacations. She should do, and can do, much better.

Should she be here in 2018? Yes. After complaining about her derps, as a total package Sonnett is a high quality player.

Will she be here in 2018? Yes. With the caveat that it’s time for Sonnett to become the player she should be at this point in her career, and that means no more rookie mistakes.

SOCCER: SEP 23 NWSL - Portland Thorns FC at Orlando Pride Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Meghan Klingenberg turned 29 this August. She’s been playing professionally since 2011 beginning with the (in)famous magicJack. She spent time with the Breakers and WNY in the WPS, and played in the Swedish Damallsvenskan with Tyreso Fotbollsforening for two seasons, including 20 appearances in their 2013 runner-up season.

In 2014 she was signed by Houston and played there until she was traded here in the 2015-16 offseason as part of the Alex Morgan Trade-o-palooza between Houston, Seattle, Orlando, and Portland.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 23

Games started – 22

Shots – 6

Shots on goal – 1 (16%)

Goals – none

Assists – 6

YC/RC – 1/0

Comparison with previous years (2014 and 2015 with Houston):

Klingberg is a player with great strengths and frustrating weaknesses.

Her upsides include a terrific working relationship with Tobin Heath – which is by itself a huge positive for her. Heath was and, hopefully, will be a central part of what makes the Thorns’ attack work, and Heath works well with Kling. Kling-to-Heath was a critical piece of the successful 2016 campaign; Kling would get the ball out of the back quickly to Heath and Heath would then move it forward into dangerous positions. Missing that connection is likely to have been a part of why the Thorns were forced to shift to a more grinding style of play in 2017. Restoring that connection might be key to a return to a more attractive, and dangerous, style in 2018.

Klingenberg is generally decent technically and tactically; she’s smart, usually reads the game well, and she does a good job getting up her touchline to join the attack. She usually has a very high workrate (but with a catch, and we’ll get to that in a moment).

Last season she added assists to her toolkit. After flirting with the possibility of becoming a provider-of-service for several years, Klingenberg’s corner kicks, free kicks, and crosses – that had been too unpredictable for her teammates other than Heath to do much with – started connecting in 2017. Suddenly Klingenberg was dropping dimes instead of spraying-and-praying. Her six assists were the best on the Thorns and close to the best in the league.

Her downsides include her pace and her matchday consistency.

Klingenberg was never the fastest fullback and now at nearly 30 she’s lost more than just a step. Like most modern coaches, Parsons expects his fullbacks to push well up into the attack, and so Klingenberg is often caught upfield on a counterattack. If the opponent has any speed at all, she is often too slow to catch back up.

Klingenberg also has a tendency to put in a terrific first half and suddenly disappear in the second, or loaf around for three-quarters of an hour and then come to life after the break. I have no idea why she does this, but it has been the same over the past two seasons; at Slide Rule Pass I called it “Good Kling and Bad Kling”. She was so inconsistent it was like she had an evil twin who would take her place and goof up at random.

Here’s her PMRs.

That’s not bad (okay, well, the 2016 numbers are not great but the 2017 numbers are fairly decent) but it’s also not the sort of quality I expect to see in an international-grade player. Kling had only one terrific match last season; Boston here on Matchday 7. She cut down on her errors last season but still had a lot of +11/-7 kind of days.

Should she be here in 2018? That depends on her soccer intelligence. Klingenberg needs to learn to compensate for her lack of pace along the touchline. She needs to improve her consistency and put in a full 90 every match. If she can, and if she continues to provide service, then she’s valuable and, as a subsidized player, is “free money”. That’s a lock in my opinion, so yes.

But if she can’t, and if we can get a player of equal or better quality and experience for her, I would consider a trade.

Will she be here in 2018? I’d give it 98% chance. She provides assists, works well with Heath, and can still defend at least at replacement-quality level. I don’t see Rory Dames, say, trading straight-up her for Short, and I don’t know if we have a package that would get us an upgrade at LB for her. So she’ll be here, and she’s good enough. I just wish she was better, or younger.

SOCCER: OCT 14 NWSL Championship - North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns

Katherine “Kat” Reynolds will be 31 in August, 2018, and seems to have knocked around women’s professional soccer since there was women’s professional soccer, like from the late 1890s or something when they played soccer in bloomers and a picture hat and apologized after they bumped into each other.

Kidding, Reynolds, kidding!

Since starting her career with Sounders Women in 2006, Reynolds has played with Philadelphia (2010), Atlanta (2011), and Western NY (2012) in WPS, SC Freiburg in the Frauenbundesliga (2012-2013), Western NY in the NWSL (2013-2014), Washington in 2015, and followed Parsons here in 2016.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 10

Games started – 10

Shots – 0

Shots on goal – 0 (100%)

Goals – none

Assists – none

YC/RC – 1/0

Comparison with previous years (2013 and 2014 with Western NY, 2015 with Washington):

Comments: Reynolds had a tough 2017, sitting out the first 14 matches rehabilitating a groin injury that didn’t heal well. After she returned to the pitch, it took her several matches to find her form. After that, though, she helped drive the backline to the final. Her PMRs reflect that late-season rush;

Reynolds is a good tackler and she still has speed enough to make back ground when an opponent slips the first tackle. She’s also a smart player, as she should be given her experience, and is seldom caught out of position.

Reynolds tends to be more of the “stay-home” fullback compared to Klingenberg’s adventures along the left touchline. She has a reasonably accurate long pass and can start attacks from her deep right corner, but Reynolds has consistently lacked the sort of target/partner that Heath provides for Klingenberg on the other side of the pitch. Nadim and Sykes, who played in front of her in 2017, just didn’t seem to develop the same rapport with Reynolds that the left-side pair had.

One of Coach Parsons’ tasks for this coming year will be to try and develop Sykes (and/or Lussi, Jordan, or whoever plays out wide on the right) into an effective team with Reynolds to mirror what I expect we’ll see when Heath and Klingenberg return to work on the other touchline.

Should she be here in 2018? I think so. She’s still an above-average RB and seems to have a positive effect on her backline teammates, as we discussed in the “By the Numbers” piece.

Will she be here in 2018? How would you feel if you were 31 and living like a grad student in a rental unit, eating ramen for dinner every second night? I would be wondering if running around sweating on the tartan turf and getting kicked in the shins by That Groom Woman for the sort of pay pulled down by an assistant manager at the Southeast 23rd and Division Fred Meyer is really worth it. It’s playing soccer for a living, yes, and that’s great, if that’s your dream.

I sure hope it’s Reynolds’ dream into next season, but I won’t pretend to be certain.

USA v Nigeria - FIFA U20 Women's World Cup Quarter Final Photo by Friedemann Vogel - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Meagan “Meg” Morris will turn 26 this coming May. She was signed as a discovery player by Sky Blue in 2014, cut by SBFC in 2016, and picked up by PTFC off waivers late in April.

Statistics from previous years (2014 and 2015 with Sky Blue):

Comments: You probably know little Morris’ story; signed late in the preseason, came in to play midfield but moved to the backline to fill in for Klingenberg, injured in the June away match in Rochester with a freakish leg break that failed to rehab through the 2017 season. She has played a total of 11 minutes in a single match (the season opener against Orlando) over the past 16 months.

Meg’s time on the pitch ended before I began compiling plus-minus ratings in 2016 so I don’t have PMRs for her that year, and her only outing in 2017 was a +4/-4/0 in the Orlando match.

Her play in 2016 was characterized by a furious haste, which was 1) amazing for a player about the size of her own bobblehead statue, 2) terrific for running down opponents who had beaten the midfielder in front of her, but 3) sometimes a problem; Morris would overcommit, over-run the attacker, and get juked or turned. Her speed often made it possible for her to regain lost ground, though, limiting the damage. Even better, I thought that she was beginning to rein in her impetuous random running just before her injury.

I’m concerned about Morris’ losing a step or three. Initially, I thought that the leg break wouldn’t be a problem; clean breaks usually heal well and don’t always, or often, result in lingering gait problems. But Morris’ break has been so troublesome I’m not confident saying that she will return to the pitch with the speed she had before the injury. Much of her game relied on that speed, and I don’t know if she can adjust to life in the slow lane.

Assuming she is healthy, next season Morris needs to work on the same things she needed to improve on in 2017; her tactical acumen and playing her position consistently. Her problems were wrapped in her tendency to race about the pitch. If you do that at the right time you’re “aggressive”; if you do that all the time you push the needle way over towards “out of control”.

One thing I do really like about Morris is her shooting efficiency. She has played both midfield and forward, so we know she can score, but to take two shots, put one on goal and score that goal? That’s pure, deliciously lovely sniping, and if Morris can continue to make that sort of contribution to the attack? That’s a huge addition from a fullback.

Should she be here in 2018? Morris is entering her prime years and (assuming her rehab goes well) should be back to her aggressive, tough-tackling self in 2018. She needs to show more patience, positional discipline, and tactical intelligence. If she does, she should be here as critical fullback depth and likely a spot-starter. Big bonus points if she can score as ruthlessly as she did in 2016.

Will she be here in 2018? As always with bench players, that’s a little tougher to answer. She’s a good player… but she’s not that good of a player. If Chicago were to offer, say, Casey Short, or Arin Gilliland for a package that included Megzilla, would the Thorns FO take it? I’m not sure they wouldn’t.

But…presuming that she isn’t traded, and her rehab goes well…yes.

SOCCER: OCT 14 NWSL Championship - North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns

Adrianna Franch turned 27 in November. She started her career in 2013 with Rochester, was badly hurt and sat out 2014, played for Avaldsnes IL in the Norwegian Topserien in 2015, and was signed here before the 2016 season.

2017 Statistics:

Games played – 24

Games started – 24

Goals against – 21

GA per game – 0.875

Clean sheets – 11

SOG faced – 100

Save% – 79%

Comparison with previous years (2015 with Avaldsnes IL, 2013 with Western NY):

Comments: When Franch was signed in 2016, I was concerned about her history of serious injury and her erratic form with Avaldsnes. When Michelle Betos went down with a shoulder injury, I was concerned Franch might not be up to the job.

I shouldn’t have been, and Franch’s form in the six matches she played in 2016 convinced me that she was a starting quality keeper and probably technically better in goal than Betos. I wrote;

“…when you look at the matches Franch played in 2016, it’s not like her stats are padded with lolling around her penalty area, picking artificial grass and getting clean sheets against the league’s most offensively-impotent tomato cans. She got some good results against some good teams. Looking at her record…looking at her numbers, and her form over three seasons…these suggest that she’s just a better technical ‘keeper than Betos. Based just on their numbers last season, I’d give her a chance to start if I was Coach Parsons.”

Well, he did, and we all know what happened.

Franch doesn’t have a PMR record for 2016, and her PMRs for 2017 (average + 5.5, average – 2.1, average net +3.4) seem unimpressive. This is not a reflection of her quality but a reflection of the weakness of the stat. And this is because of the difference between the number of times that a field player does something “significant” compared to the number of times a goalkeeper does, providing the match is going well for the keeper’s team.

Thorns FC limited the number of times that Franch had to make a save or a take that might have given her a plus, and (after some shaky outlet passes early in the season) she seldom made an error that would have given her a minus. So, for her as for most keepers, PMRs are not a good measure of quality.

Should she be here in 2018? Yes.

Will she be here in 2018? Yes.

SOCCER: MAY 19 NWSL - Portland Thorns FC at Boston Breakers Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Britt Eckerstrom will be 25 this coming May. She played for Penn State and was drafted by Western New York (late, 3rd round) in 2016 as a backup to D’Angelo and Rowland. She was traded to Portland just before last season began. She did not play a minute in 2017.

Comparison with previous years (2016 with Western NY):

Comments: Eckerstrom had a quality college career and, although her minutes with Western New York were limited, has done well in the NWSL. She provides Franch with a solid backup. My observation of her was limited to her preseason outing against Houston back in early April. Here’s what I saw then:

“Eckerstrom: (+3/-1 : +3/-0 : +6/-1) Effective if unspectacular; made the saves she should have but would have had to have been extraordinary to have saved from Daly. Commanded her penalty area. Benefited from Parsons’ directive to the backline to reduce backpasses and to Eckerstrom to cut out the very short clears that were getting Franch in trouble.”

Sounds like a perfectly serviceable backup keeper to me.

Will she be here in 2018? Yes.

Should she be here in 2018? I can’t but think that Nadine Angerer had her work cut out for her having two starting-quality keepers on the roster in 2016. When I wrote about Franch in 2016, I imagined her thinking: “Yeah, Betos is a stud, but I’m younger, and I’m better, and in a just world I’d be the starter and she’d be the backup.” As things worked out, Betos took a job in Norway, and Franch led the Thorns to a title and NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, suggesting that if Franch was thinking that, she was very likely correct.

With Eckerstrom, there is no such potential for conflict. Eckerstrom gives indications of being a quality keeper, but she has been, and is, a quality reserve keeper. It would be nice if the Thorns had a reserve team to give her game minutes and keep her sharp. But, barring that, she’s where she needs to be, and where the team needs her to be, right now.

So. Does Thorns FC need to change or add anything particular in the backline, or at goalkeeper right now? Are there any immediate needs that should be filled by trade or draft?

Center back. Yes.

The middle of the backline is in immediate need of depth. With the release of Kendall Johnson there is nobody to replace the Emilies if one is hurt, or called up. While Long played there for the Nats, given her performance I want her as a Thorns center back like I want a pilonidal cyst. Boureille and Morris are better out wide.

The team needs a solid backup central defender, or even better, a player who can sub in either at center back or fullback in a pinch.

Fullback. No. Depth, yes, but not an immediate need.

I think we need to be looking for – or at least thinking hard about – at least depth and eventually a replacement. I like what we have in Klingenberg, Reynolds and Morris, but Kling and Reynolds aren’t in the first blush of youth and we don’t know how Megzilla’s rehab is progressing. So a fullback might also be a good acquisition to be looking out for. No hurry, but medium-term or longer.

Goalkeeper. No. We’re good.

How do the prospects look for 2018 in back?

I think the starting backs and keepers are exceptionally solid. There’s no need to panic, go wild casting about for trades, or try to finagle higher draft picks. I think the FO needs to look for depth at both back positions, but I also think if we start 2018 with the backs and keepers we have, Thorns FC will be in excellent shape in front of our own goal. The issues are just ones of filling in the edges.