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Thorns FC: Midterm Grades - The Midfield

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bennett dewan

We started our look back at the Thorns first half-season with the forwards, and came to the unsurprising conclusion that while the current group of forwards haven’t exactly aced their midterms, the team seems to have other issues that put a bigger drag on the Thorns’ chase of North Carolina and Seattle in the race to be valedictorian of the league.

This time we’ll look at and evaluate the midfielders, first as individuals and then as a group.

Individual Report Cards

Roscoe Myrick

Christine Sinclair is rostered as a forward but currently plays more like a withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder, and can often be found tracking further back to deep midfield to gain possession or defend. For those reasons, I’m lumping her in with the midfielders.

What was expected of her this season? The usual: as captain, lead the team by example; as a player, to work hard defensively forechecking and ball-hawking, and then go forward creating opportunities with penetrating runs and crisp passes, as well as scoring goals. In short, be the heart and soul of Thorns FC.

How well has she met those expectations? Very well. Her numbers alone are terrific; 6 goals (including 2 penalty conversions), which leads the team and the league, and her 3 assists put her close to the league lead there. She scored those goals from only 16 shots; her 25% conversion rate (and 50% of her shots on goal) is the best on the team, and close to the her Thorns career high.

A consistent feature of Sinclair’s time here has been her quality; she has always been among the best players, or the best player, on the pitch. This season is no exception.

One caveat. It’s been a while since the Thorns were thrashed as badly as North Carolina thrashed them on Matchday 11. How well Captain Sinclair brings the team back from that beatdown will be tested this coming Saturday in Chicago. A win, or a good outing from the team even without a result, will be a sign that our Captain still has her team well in hand. A hot mess, however, might be a warning sign.

Grade: A

Comments: “It has been my honor and privilege to have known Ms. Sinclair. Surely among the greatest students this classroom has seen, and, very likely, among the greatest of all time anywhere.”

Bennett Dewan

Lindsey Horan is in her third year as Portland’s starting #8, and her second as a crucial piece of the Thorns’ midfield. When the Great Horan is great, the Thorns are usually humming. When she’s not, well, we’ll talk about that.

What was expected of her this season? A repetition of her 2017 late season Great Horan form. Tenacious defending, relentless attacking, and goalscoring.

How well has she met those expectations? Initially, quite well. Horan was terrific in the first half of the first half of the season. After the Matchday 6 loss to Seattle, though, something happened to her PMRs.

The light green filled area is her net PMR, the dark green box-and-line is her InStat Index.

InStat’s Index gives a slightly different picture than I draw, in particular low-rating Horan’s work in the home draw on Matchday 4, and rating her as well above my assessment through the last five matches. Both trends are downward through the first half of the season, however.

I think the difference between the two ratings systems is that I expect to see the Great Horan, and when Horan doesn’t make tackles or complete passes she would in Great Horan mode, she gets minuses from me that an ordinary midfielder wouldn’t. The InStat analysts are probably looking at her as just another midfielder and seeing her quality.

So I’m not sure what happened, but I don’t think we’ve seen the Great Horan since early May. If the Thorns are to begin climbing the table, the Great One needs to turn up again.

Horan has 4 goals, second on the team. Last season, I had issues with Horan’s efficiency; she was extremely wasteful;

“...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).”

This season, Horan has been much more clinical; her gross conversion rate is only 16%, but that’s skewed by her fusillade in the Seattle match, where she took 10 of her 25 total shots. Reduce that to closer to her season average of 1.5 shots per game and Horan’s conversion rate kicks up to a respectable 20% or so.

One issue Horan has always had, and has again this season, is with discipline. She leads the NWSL with 4 yellow cards over 23 fouls committed. Yes, Horan gets fouled a lot (she has 22 fouls suffered so far this season) but she tends to foul back foolishly and gets caught at it a lot. She will surely be suspended within the next several matches barring exceptional good luck or sudden meekness.

Grade: A-minus

Comments: “Always a pleasure in the classroom, and I just love her energy and creativity. However, it would be well for Ms. Horan to remember that “Whoever said violence never solved anything didn’t ask the Carthaginians.” isn’t NOT an appropriate response to being chastised.”

Nikita Taparia

Tobin Heath returned to the pitch in late April but to full match-fitness only in early May. Since that time, she has played well, typically posting both PMRs and Index numbers above the teams’ averages.

What Heath has yet to do is take over a match; impose her will on a game, or string of games, as she did in 2016.

What was expected of her this season? To do what she did two seasons ago.

How well has she met those expectations? While Heath has been good, and often very good, she hasn’t been the game-breaking force she was in 2016, and, having set that standard, that is what the team and fans expect of her. So no, not really.

Heath provides a guile and creativity that none of the other midfielders brings to the pitch. Heath is one of those rare players who “lack positional discipline” - meaning that she might turn up almost anywhere on the pitch at any time - but who is rarely caught out of position or tangling up her teammates.

She is a clever creator, and when she takes care to be precise - which she sometimes doesn’t - is a deadly provider. While she doesn’t score a ton, she can, and that threat forces opponents to mark her and open space for her teammates.

Her metrics show how effective she has been over the last three matches. What’s frustrating about that, though, is Heath’s rise has been offset by Horan’s slide. The net effect is to rob the Thorns of some of the value they should be getting from Heath’s skills.

A Thorns midfield with the Great Horan and The Notorious TFH playing at their peaks? The sheer brilliance might conceivably alter the Earth’s orbital eccentricity or change my political views.

We can only hope to see that in the latter half of the season.

Grade: B-plus

Comments: “Such a fascinating combination of gritty and flighty, she’s both the outspoken class leader and the naughty class cut-up! Heath will always be the center of attention, so it is incumbent on her to stay focused, on task, and not go around pointlessly breaking defenders’ ankles just because she can.”

Bennett Dewan

Margaret “Midge” Purce was a late-preseason acquisition from the Boston implosion and I anticipated that she would come in as a late-match replacement and spot starter for Sykes. Instead, Sykes departed and Purce was thrown into the starting XI on opening day and has been there ever since.

What was expected of her this season? To make runs out of the deep wingback position, providing service as well as threatening the opponent’s goal. In April the Thorns’ Richard Farley claimed that “(b)eating fullbacks, Purce is not just a player that’s going to look to play in a good ball. Instead, she is somebody who can move toward goal with authority, forcing defenses to commit to her instead of just preparing for the next pass.”

How well has she met those expectations? Initially? Superbly.

Four of Purce’s first six games were outstanding, including a Woman of the Match performance against Orlando on Matchday 3.

After that, Purce’s weaknesses, including her tactical inexperience and a weak left foot, began to catch up with her. After Matchday 7, three poor matches in a row ended with her disastrous outing against North Carolina, capped off by an ankle injury that ended her proposed national team callup.

So it’s hard to say at this point how well Purce has done this semester. The Purce of Matchday 2 through 6? Met, and exceeded expectations for a young player picked up in a dispersal draft. The Purce of Matchday 7 though 11? No.

Grade: C-plus

Comments: “Ms. Purce needs to work hard to overcome her poor showing on her midterm exams. If she can get back to doing the good work she did at the beginning of the semester, though, she will be well positioned to ace the Final.”

Bennett Dewan

Celeste Boureille began the 2018 season much as she did in 2017; filling in for an absent player. In 2017 it was at fullback for an injured Kat Reynolds. This season it was as a defensive midfielder, and for a returned-to-Europe Amandine Henry. I’ll let you guess which role was more difficult to fill, and which one she filled more successfully.

What was expected of her this season? Not to be Henry; let’s start with that. Realistically, to settle in as a solid #6, lock down the back of midfield, and overwatch the centerbacks enough to give Emily Sonnett and Kelli Hubly time to bond in the absence of an injured Emily Menges.

How well has she met those expectations? Poorly, in general.

Boureille has had one truly solid match; Orlando here on Matchday 3. She was decent against Washington the following week. Unfortunately, most of her work in her six matches as a starter was more like Matchday 2 against Chicago, where I noted that

“Boureille just can’t do what she needs to be able to do; lock down the back of midfield and allow Sinclair and Horan to go forward and the centerbacks to settle back and defend crosses and long lobs. If she were just a disaster, it would be simple enough to say, “can her” and throw another player in her position. But she’s not. She’s just not quite capable of doing what the team needs her to do and, worse, other teams are likely looking at her as a potential target.”

Since Matchday 7, she has largely been benched in favor of Andressinha.

Were she a rookie, or a new acquisition unfamiliar with the Thorns or at DM, I would be more inclined to cut Boureille some slack. But she is a third-year professional, a Thorns veteran whose primary position prior to last season was defensive midfielder. She should be doing better than she is.

Grade: D

Comments: “Ms. Boureille always tries hard. She’s one of my hardest workers. I’m perplexed by her problems this semester.”

2017 Tournament Of Nations - Japan v Brazil Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Andressa Cavalari Machry - Andressinha - came from Houston in a trade for Savannah Jordan in January but didn’t report until after her international matches, late in April.

What was expected of her this season? In January, Coach Parsons said; “Andressinha is a smart and creative midfielder that brings the ability to control and dictate the tempo of a game. She can score special goals from distance and has the intelligence to create opportunities for others out of nothing.”

That doesn’t sound to me like a classic destroyer/ball-winner, so I believe that the club saw her as an attacking midfielder playing alongside or right underneath Sinclair, or were thinking of trying her at the double pivot with Horan that was the plan for Long and Horan in 2017.

How well has she met those expectations? Not horribly, but not really well, either.

She looked good coming in late against Utah on Matchday 5 and again against Seattle on Matchday 6, then had two terrific matches in a row. First in the road draw in Houston in which she was a legitimate pick for Woman of the Match, and then in the home loss to Orlando. At that point she looked, if not the suave Brazilian ball-wizard, like a solid defensive midfielder who could pass.

Then Andressinha kind of fell off the table. She was ineffective against Washington away on Matchday 9 and against Utah on Matchday 10; she was pulled off early in both games. She was useless as a late-match spark against North Carolina.

In 390 minutes over seven matches, Andressinha has no goals and no assists and only 7 shots, only 1 on goal. Since she’s not a pure defender, if Andressinha is not creating opportunities or scoring then she can’t be considered to have fulfilled the team’s original expectations. For both her own value and the team’s ambitions, Andressinha needs to come out in Chicago looking more like the player Coach Parsons described in January.

Grade: Incomplete/C-minus

Comments: “After she transferred in I was very surprised to find Ms. Machry not at all as I was told she would be. Right now she’s carrying a low “C”, but with her missing assignments and late arrival I’m giving her an incomplete until she has more time to work with her classmates”

W-League Rd 1 - Sydney v Newcastle Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images

Angela Salem was Portland’s second pick in the Boston dispersal draft. She has appeared in exactly 3 matches for a total of 34 minutes.

What was expected of her this season? When she was picked I assumed that she would either start in the defensive midfield role she played for Boston in 2017 or, at least, come on as a defensive substitute. She didn’t look particularly good in preseason, however, and since then has appeared for more than garbage-time minutes only on Matchday 10 where she put in a decent half hour to seal the win.

How well has she fulfilled those expectations? She hasn’t had the chance to try, which is a trifle surprising in itself, given the issues the club has had at DM.

Grade: Incomplete

Comments: “I’d like to see Salem get the chance to speak up more in class. I think she may have something to say if she does.”

The Midfielders as a Group

Interesting, isn’t it?

Before Matchday 6, the midfielders are kind of all over, but look at the highs! Horan, Sinclair, Purce? They’re killing it, not just above the team average, but WAY above average.

Then, suddenly, on Matchday 7?

Boom.

Everyone just goes flat, regresses to the mean, and cruises along slightly above the team average (except for Purce, who nosedives in the last two matchdays).

I won’t pretend to understand what the hell happened, or or even IF it happened; whether that’s a real trend, or some sort of bizarre statistical oddity, or some sort of evaluation error on my part.

Another interesting feature is that we’re seeing the same sort of disconnect between PMRs and results. The first six matchdays, with all the high numbers? 2-2-2. The last five, where everybody regresses to the mean? 2-1-2.

Go figure.

Here’s the Instat Index plot.

Other than Boureille, who’s Index values swoop and plunge like a park pigeon on too much over-fermented millet, InStat plots the Thorns midfield as generally better than the team as a whole, including during all of May. Purce is the exception; her Index goes into the tank after Matchday 8 just as her PMRs do.

The Index plot shows a similar, but less distinct, disconnect between player rating and results. Lots of high Index values in the win on Matchday 3 but similarly high values for the loss on Matchday 6.

As a result of this variability I’ve had a bit of a hard time trying to tease out conclusions from these, but here’s what I’ve got;

  1. The Thorns midfielders have, as a group, had a generally decent half-season. Better, as a group - and especially in the case of Horan, Sinclair, and Heath - than the team as a whole, and,
  2. The individual midfielders’ ratings for the losses - both North Carolina matches, Orlando here on Matchday 8, and the Seattle game - are above, and often well above, the team’s.

We’ve concluded that the forwards have some issues, but that their struggles as individuals and as a group don’t seem to track with the team’s losses, and discussed the probable reasons for that.

Now we’ve seen the midfielders’ ratings show the same sort of disconnect, and, likely, for the same reasons.

Next we’ll look at the defenders, and see if we can find some sort of explanation for the underwhelming first half there.