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Thorns FC: Midterm Grades - Defenders and Keepers

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Bennett Dewan

The second half of the season as about to begin, so we should get on with looking at the first half performance of the LAST group of Thorns we haven’t evaluated; the defenders and goalkeepers.

One measure of the turbulence that has roiled the Thorns’ backline this season is that over the first eleven matches the back four that made up 2017’s best defense - Kat Reynolds, Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, and Meghan Klingenberg - played together only once, in the away win over Washington on Matchday 9.

We’ll talk about that in a bit, after looking at the individual defenders and handing out some grades.

Individual Report Cards

Nikita Taparia

Emily Sonnett played in nine of the eleven matches. She has scored one goal on two shots, and won an average of 70% of her individual challenges.

What was expected of her this season? To be half of the Great Wall of Emily. To lock down the backline, and repeat the outstanding defensive performance of 2017. In particular, to cut down - or, better, cut out - the occasional random mental vacations Sonnett took last season when she’d leave her mark, or drop an awful backpass, or do some other horrific thing that would cost the team in stress, if nothing else, but more often in danger to the goal.

Has she met those expectations? Well, not really. Sorta.

It’s complicated.

Overall, I’d have to say no, but with several huge caveats.

First, it was hard for Sonnett to be half of a Great Wall when the Wall was missing the other half through Matchday 7, and then Sonnett herself went out after Matchday 9. In that light, Sonnett performed decently working with a changing center back partner.

Second, Sonnett’s individual ratings are consistently good; I rated her performances as net positives outside Houston away, and InStat liked her better than I did for that match, rating her as the best Thorns defender.

Finally, Sonnett has cut down sharply on her awful derps; the 12th minute attack of narcolepsy in Houston that let Rachel Daly torch her is the only real howler I can remember.

My issue with Sonnet isn’t that she was “not good”, it’s that I really want her to be better. When she’s sharp she cuts like a razor, destroying every attacker within her reach and providing pinpoint passes to start the attack. I want to see that every match, and I haven’t. Not yet.

Grade: B

Comments: “Ms. Sonnett is an excellent student, with all the responsibilities that come with it. I know she can do even better; she has the potential to be a leader and lift not only her own level but the performance of those around her.”

Match Gallery: Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash Roscoe Myrick

Emily Menges returned from a lingering injury on Matchday 8. Since then she has averaged a 77% success rate in her individual challenges.

What was expected of her this season? Expectations of Menges’ season were tempered by the tibia injury that knocked her out of the XI before the season opener. That, in turn, cast a pall over the whole defensive unit; Menges had been the keystone in the Great Wall that had been so essential in the championship season. Her return was thought to be key to improving the cohesion of the backline, and an improved backline the key to turning losses into draws and draws into wins. So those tempered expectations were not all that tempered; everyone was waiting and hoping for Menges to return.

Has she met those expectations? Not yet.

Menges was the best of the Thorns defenders in her first three matches. She crashed and burned with most of the rest of the defense on Matchday 11. That’s her entire c.v. to date. That’s acceptable as it stands, but isn’t much to assess her season on.

The long rest and recuperation period of early June is likely to help both Menges’ fitness and the backline’s cohesion. Tonight’s match in Chicago will be the first test of how well that fitness and cohesion has improved the Thorns’ defense.

Grade: C-plus/Incomplete

Comments: “Wonderful to see Ms. Menges back in class and looking so well. There’s lots of work to make up, and I expect to see great things from her in the coming semester.”

Nikita Taparia

Katherine “Kat” Reynolds is the only Thorns defender to have played all eleven matches in 2018. She has a goal and a 58% success rate for her individual challenges.

What was expected of her this season? Repetition of her performance in the last ten matches of 2017. Reynolds was a late addition to the 2017 defensive unit, missing the first half of the season with injury. Her insertion in the lineup was critical to the improvement of the Thorns defense and, through it, the team.

From “Thorns FC: 2017 by the numbers”

Yeah, she was that critical. This season Reynolds was expected to repeat that.

Has she met those expectations? No.

Reynolds’ job is to be the “stay-home” fullback. On the other flank, Meghan Klingenberg regularly pushes up and provides crosses and long service to feed the attack. When she does, Reynolds is supposed to slide across and lock down the right side of the three-back defense.

Therefore, the critical point of Reynolds’ game is her defending; marking and tackling. She should be a better pure defender than Klingenberg. That her challenge success rate is nearly identical to Klingenberg’s is an indictment of the defensive problems she’s been having.

Both her PMRs and InStat Indices highlight Reynolds’ disappointing season. She had a good match against Orlando on Matchday 3, but other than that has been either no better than barely-below-average to outright poor, as she was on Matchdays 4, 7, and 8.

Reynolds hasn’t been generally awful so far this season. But she has played well below her potential as defined by 2017.

Grade: C-minus

Comments: “I really expected more from this student. She needs to improve her neatness and accuracy; sloppy work wins no championships.”

Bennett Dewan

Meghan Klingenberg has played 9 of the 11 matches, missing Utah away on Matchday 4 and Orlando in Portland on Matchday 8. She has no goals, and her challenge success rate is the same as Reynolds’, 58%.

What was expected of her this season? Lots of attack, and decent defense. Klingenberg provided lots of dangerous service last season, and combined effectively with Tobin Heath in her monster season of 2016. With Heath expected to return in 2018, and Klingenberg’s good work in Portland’s grinding defense of 2017, Klingenberg was anticipated to be a dangerous weapon going forward and a serviceable piece of the defensive unit.

Has she met those expectations? Offensively? No. Defensively? Yes.

Kling has done a reasonably decent job in back, outside of a real stinker in Washington on Matchday 9. For years, I’ve given her stick for her inconsistent “Good Kling-Bad Kling” performances on matchdays, but this season her tackling has been more consistent than her usually-more-reliable counterpart Reynolds. Despite their similar averages, Klingenberg’s challenge success rate ranged only from a low of 50% to a high of 64%, while Reynolds’ kited up to as high as 72% and plummeted to as low as 36%. I’ll take my defenders with a side of consistency, thanks.

However, Klingenberg has been much less effective in providing much of any sort of service to the attack.

Is her dodging in-and-out of the XI frustrating Kling in making connection with the forwards and midfielders? Have injuries and absences scattered the forwards and midfielders to the point where they’re not working together well enough to find space for Klingenberg to serve in to them? Both? Something else, like the impact of Midge Purce on the opposite flank?

Whatever the reason, to be what the Thorns need her to be, Klingenberg needs to find those connections in the second half of the season.

Grade: C

Comments: “I’ve cautioned some of your classmates about sloppiness, Ms. Klingenberg. However, in your case I’d like to see you take a few more chances, to see what you can create. Remember, if you don’t ever try you’ll never fail, but you’ll never succeed, either.”

Nikita Taparia

Kelli Hubly was signed as a replacement for Hayley Raso this March. She has been on the fringes of the team since last season. She has no goals, and a 62% average challenge success rate.

What was expected of her this season? Almost nothing; Hubly had played well for a limited time in 2017 and looked good in preseason, but I doubt whether she, or anyone in the Thorns’ Front Office, anticipated that she would start the first seven games of the 2018 season.

Has she met those expectations? For the first four matches Hubly exceeded all but the most optimistic expectations, starting and playing well, even as she and the team struggled through a rough couple of matches in Cary and Chicago.

Then, after two outstanding games, came the nightmare that was Utah away on Matchday 5, where Hubly’s error led directly to the only Royals goal. This was followed by the tough loss to Seattle and a disappointing road draw to Houston, where Hubly played decently, but which also marked the end of her starting stretch.

Playing in only three of the next four, and two of those as a late-match substitute, Hubly has not done particularly well by her own early-season standard.

Still, for a player who hasn’t expected to be more than an amateur fill-in, Hubly has played an honorable, and sometimes crucial, role in the Thorns’ defense so far this season.

Grade: B-minus

Comments: “I won’t pretend I didn’t have reservations when you were promoted a grade early, Ms. Hubly, but you have done an exceptional job earning a place among your peers. Don’t be discouraged, and keep working hard.”

Bennett Dewan

Britt Eckerstrom was forced into the starting spot by an injury to Adrianna Franch on Matchday 4. She currently carries a 1.5 goals-against average (GAA), having faced 44 shots on goal over 720 minutes in 8 matches; approximately 1 shot per 16 minutes of play.

What was expected of her this season? To sit on the bench and be a good little backup keeper.

Has she met those expectations? Eckerstrom was thrown into the fire; behind a makeshift defensive unit, with a team that was having terrific difficulties scoring goals, she had to take the place of the 2017 NWSL Goalkeeper of the year.

Eckerstrom has had some tough matches, and her lack of first team minutes have showed in occasional poor decision-making and positioning; she helped cost the Thorns the game against Orlando, and should have done better against Seattle. But overall she has kept her penalty area under control and has made the saves she needed to make as, or more often, than not.

What impresses me about Eckerstrom’s season is that her GAA is only fractionally less than Franch’s 1.33, and Franch faced only 7 shots on goal over 270 minutes, 1 shot er 38 minutes of play. Portland played a tougher defense in front of Franch (or their opponents were less accurate) and yet Eckerstrom stood up well. She’s also kept two clean sheets.

Grade: B-plus

Comments: “You had to rise to quite an occasion, Ms. Eckerstrom, and it is to your credit that you did well. You might need to have a little chat with the classmates sitting next to you, because they might have helped you out a trifle more.”

Nikita Taparia, stepoverfc.com

Adrianna “A.D.” Franch has been out of the XI since Matchday 3 with a knee injury. Before that, she conceded 4 goals on 7 shots on goal over 3 matches (1.33 GAA).

What was expected of her this season? To repeat her league-leading performance from 2017.

Has she met those expectations? Franch appeared to be having a good season until her injury. She conceded a golazo to Debinha in Cary, both goals in Chicago involved repeated errors from the Portland defense (and the first a deflected shot that was practically unsaveable), and Franch was beaten at pointblank range by Chioma Ubogagu after another series of appalling defensive derps on Matchday 3.

So Franch looked to be on track for a season of good play (but with issues in her backline) until her injury took her out of the XI.

Grade: Incomplete

Comments: “All you classmates miss you, Ms. Franch, and send their hopes for your speedy recovery.”

The Defenders as a group.

The defenders’ performance is where InStat and I seriously part ways.

What stands out from the defenders’ PMR charts isn’t so much a litany of failure as the lack of real sustained success.

Outside of Hubly’s terrific Matchdays 3 and 4, Klingenberg’s Matchdays 10 and 11, and Menges’ Matchdays 9 and 10 none of the defenders spend much time above the team average, Reynolds least of all.

Since we’ve seen the midfielders consistently playing above the team level, what is bringing that level down is the play of the forwards and the defenders. It’s what I’ve been hammering on all season: Forwards, score. Defenders, don’t derp.

The Instat Index chart, however, looks significantly better than my PMRs.

The closest similarity is Reynolds; InStat rates her below the team average except for Matchdays 8 and 9. Every other defender’s Index plots above the team value; Sonnett, Menges, and Eckerstrom are all well above the average much of the time.

I will note that the goalkeeper values reflect not so much a difference in our assessments as the weaknesses of the two systems; PMRs tend to consistently low-rate keepers, while the InStat Index typically over-values them.

But the difference between how the InStat people and I are seeing the defensive field players is difficult to explain, and I can’t reconcile it.

Regardless of the ratings systems, what is clear from the action on the pitch is that the Thorns backline has been troubled by injuries and absences, the most unstable of the three tactical units, and this has cost the Thorns in goals, and results.

A Digression - On the Importance of Winning Challenges

As a matter of pure curiosity, I wanted to see how the match results related to what InStat provided as the outcomes of the Thorns defenders’ individual duels, as well comparing that to those of the opponents’ backlines.

Note that the last column represents the aggregate individual duels of each opponent’s starting defenders, so, for example, against Orlando on Matchday 3 Carson Pickett won none of her 7 duels, Toni Pressley won 11 of 16, Shelina Zadorsky 4 of 5, and Ali Krieger 9 of 14. The winning percentage was 0+11+4+9, or 24 wins of a total of 42 challenges, or 57.1%. I ran the same calculation for the other opponents on the other matchdays.

The data shows that Portland’s center backs won more battles than the outside backs. Sonnett and Hubly tended to get into more tackles than Menges did, and they also won fewer of them. Menges seems to be picking her fights, possibly because of her recent injury. Overall, the Thorns defenders won about 6 of 10 challenges, and so did their opponents’ backlines.

You’ll note that the Thorns defenders were as good or better than most of their opponents other than against Houston on Matchday 7. You’ll also note that didn’t help Houston get a win, and it didn’t help the Thorns backline to be significantly better the Orlando’s backs in the following match.

So perhaps pure ballwinning is overrated as a defensive back skill. That’s something I’m going to keep my eye on through the rest of the season.

Conclusions

Now that we’ve looked at all three units, can we draw some conclusions? I think we can.

The Thorns forwards aren’t pulling their offensive load.

The midfield is working hard, but much of the work is being done by only three players; Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, and Lindsey Horan.

The backline has been troubled by injuries and absences as well as Kat Reynolds struggles.

The goalkeepers are not doing poorly in general, but have been often exposed by their backline as well as Eckerstrom’s inexperience.

What needs to happen in the second half of the season?

The Thorns need to deal for a forward that can score, or one of the current forwards needs to begin scoring.

The midfield needs to begin working together, both internally and with the forwards and defenders. The team, but the midfielders in particular, need to begin moving the ball more quickly and precisely. The team needs to settle on a player who can play a solid #6 to help the backline.

The backline needs some time to play together as a unit, Reynolds needs to lift her game, and either Franch needs to come back strong or Eckerstrom needs to play at the level of a starting keeper.

We will discover today whether this has already happened.

Or not.