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Thorns FC: Under the Lights but Still Somewhat in the Dark

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John Lawes

Green Shoots at Merlo

Welcome back to a new season of Thorns FC!

Well, preseason, then, for both the Portland Thorns and my column. Just as the team is reassembling and preparing for a new NWSL season, it’s time for us to begin taking a look at that team and preparing for the 2018 campaign. So let’s start with the Wednesday evening match against the U.S. U-23 national team, the second of the Spring Invitational.

John Lawes

I can’t do a better job of describing the 2-2 draw than our own Katelyn Best did. As a match, it was very preseason; rough and sloppy, with minutes for the entire Thorns squad other than the backup goalkeeper. After the match, I think we’re still in the dark on a lot of questions about the Thorns, including who is likely to get a contract this season.

We did learn one thing, though; holy cats, can Catarino Macario score!

Since it’s preseason, instead of worrying about scorelines and results I did what Mark Parsons was doing; I looked at the Thorns players as individuals to see whose play was promising, whose wasn’t, and who fell between those two. To do this I used the “Plus-Minus Rating” system I used last season. Since this may be the first time you’ve encountered it, let me start with an explanation of how it works. Then we’ll get right to the crux of the biscuit; my player ratings for the U-23 match.

Plus-Minus Rating (PMR): How It Works

Since I don’t have access to official statistics beyond the basics I have been using my own recordkeeping and a method pioneered by the invaluable Richard Hamje who writes about the Thorns over at the blog Riveting!. I call his method, and now mine, “PMR” which stands for “plus-minus rating”. The idea is to track significant player actions during the match and record 1) how many actions that player makes that have an impact on the match, and 2) whether that impact is positive for the Thorns, or negative.

Here’s what I record as “significant” actions:

Goals for and saves against: are obvious pluses for the scorers or goalkeeper, respectively. For a goalkeeper, a concession may be a minus if I judge that the keeper could and should have done better with the shot. An own-goal is an obvious minus for a field player.

Passes: a pass that places the receiver in a dangerous attacking position, results in an assist, or produces a significant tactical advantage is a plus pass. A pass that either results in a loss of possession (if a better option for the passer is available) or places the receiver in a hazardous position, such as being tackled for loss, is a minus pass.

Heavy touch: is a mishandled ball that runs away from the player. If that results in a degradation of the Thorns’ tactical situation, it’s a minus. A heavy touch is never a plus.

Tackles: a good tackle, one that slows or stops an attack including a tackle that gains possession, is a plus. Being tackled (when there are obviously better options like passing out of danger) and losing possession is a minus.

Defending: Defensive positioning, or play, that results in the marked opponent’s progress being significantly impeded, forces hurried passes or similar poor decisions is a plus. Poor defensive positioning that allows an opponent an advantage such as an uncontested shot or an easy pass into an advantageous position is a minus.

Shooting: an accurate on-target shot, one that forces a save, or wins a corner, is a plus. A poor shot (from a position that would have allowed a better one) is a minus.

Runs: a dribble, or a run onto a pass, that results in tactical improvement, and particularly puts the opposition goal under threat is a plus.

Foul: an unnecessary and reckless foul, and particularly one that gives up a free kick close to the Thorns goal, is a minus. Conversely, a smart tactical foul may be a plus.

Clearances: a defensive clearance that ends a dangerous attack is a plus. A clear that goes short and to an opponent, or otherwise increases the danger to the goal, is a minus.

All of these actions must have an impact on the game to get recorded. What this means is that there are numerous player actions that don’t go in my records at all. Aimless knocking the ball around the backline? Nothing. A pass that’s well-defended and goes nowhere? That’s just good play by the opponent. A run that gets turned back? Nope, nothing to see there.

The format I use for displaying PMRs in the player comments section looks like this:

Each player has a comment and rating section following the player’s name in boldface type.

Behind the name there’s a series of numbers in parentheses and separated either by a dash or a colon.

If the first number looks like this; 60’ - that’s how long the player was on the field. If there’s no number in italics the player went the full match.

For a player that played in both halves there will be three sets of numbers that will look like this: +2/-2 : +2/-2 : +4/-4. The first pair is that player’s first half rating. The second pair is the second half rating, and the third set is the match rating that should be a sum of the first two pairs. A player that plays in only one half will have a single pair of numbers that is her rating for her shift and for the match.

Horan (60’ - +4/-4 : +6/-3 : +10/-7) indicates the Lindsay Horan played for an hour, was rated +4/-4 in the first half, +6/-3 in the second, and +10/-7 for the match.

A well-played match should result in a player with an overall positive rating - pluses should be higher than minuses - and higher overall numbers mean the player was more involved in the match than a player with lower numbers.

Typically a “good” match should result in two or three times the pluses as minuses and overall net PMRs in the 10s to 20’s, something like +15/-5 (net PMR +10). Any net plus total above 20 is typically an outstanding match for that player. A match where the player has twice the minuses as pluses? Not a good outing. A match PMR (for a full ninety minutes) that looks like +2/-2? That player did very little of note, either good or bad.

Are we good? OK, then, let’s go to the match.

Kris Lattimore

I usually rate players from front to back, but because of the helter-skelter nature of this match instead I’ve organized the player ratings in descending order of minutes on the pitch. Non-roster invitee players are labeled (NRI).

Here’s how the Thorns were organized when they ran out for the kickoff.

And here’s how the team looked at the halftime whistle.

Parsons didn’t make many changes in the first half, but he’d seen enough of Ball and Klingenberg at 34’.

Player Ratings and Comments - Starters and Long-Shift Subs

Franch (+1/-4 : +2/-2 : +3/-6) Looked very much like the Franch we saw in preseason last year. Solid shot-stopper - two big saves, one at 36’, another at 87’ - but hesitant in her penalty area and her distribution ranged from passable to horrific. Could easily have conceded just moments before her 36th minute save when she came out for a looping diagonal ball and completely misjudged it. Franch was rescued when the U-23 goalscorer was offside. Should probably have done better on the first Macario goal but not at fault on the golazo second. Can’t really be blamed for not organizing her defense, given the junior-high-school-recess caused by the constant changes in front of her.

Sonnett (+2/-4 : +2/-3 : +4/-7) Oh my, oh my, Emily Sonnett. You’re a veteran professional and international player. There’s no excuse for letting a young striker like Macario spin you around like a dreidel the way she did on her first goal. Between that and the sloppy passing, including some scarily casual backpassing, your first half was kind of a mess. Tightened up some in the second, but given that you were playing in Australia all through the offseason and just returned from a spell with the Nats you should look further along than this now.

Sinclair (64’ - +2/-1 : +1/-1 : +3/-2) A relatively quiet outing from Captain Sinclair, including some uncharacteristically poor passing, and several turnovers. Not as surprising as Sonnett’s rustiness given Sinclair’s offseason inaction, but not what we expect from Officer Sinclair of the Order of Canada and a veteran player just back from national team duty.

Horan (64’ - +11/-1 : +3/-1 : +14/-2) Not as sharp in passing as she usually is, but most of her lost passes were going forward so the result was less damaging than it might have been. A force defensively in the first half, disrupting the U-23 attacks in a Beast Mode fashion. My Woman of the Match; in a match where a lot of players looked fairly raw, or tentative, Horan was active, inventive, and aggressive; if a little less precise than usual.

Hubly (NRI) (55’ - +0/-0 : +4/-5 : +4/-5) Hubly’s dangerously careless backpassing horrified me in last Sunday’s match against Chicago. Against the U-23’s she didn’t drop anything truly frightening in front of her own goal, but her passing was still poor; all five of her minuses were passes that went straight to a white shirt. Those giveaways killed attacks and generated danger that her otherwise fairly decent marking and tackling didn’t offset. Must improve her passing if she’s going to stay here after this coming Sunday.

Boulos (NRI) (55’ - +1/-4 : +3/-7 : +4/-11) Kimberly Boulos’ match was illuminated by the fire on which Macario set her in the 58th minute. A fraction of a second before she spun Sonnett and beat Franch, Macario torched Boulos like flash paper. That is starting to become a thing with Boulos, who appears to be too green to use her positioning to hold off attackers and lacks the pace to stay with them when they round her. Had the same problems against Chicago; she gets skinned to the outside a lot. Her passing wasn’t great, but not that much worse than the rest of the team’s Wednesday night. It’s her defending that’s holding her back right now.

Reynolds (45’ - +3/-4) Classic Kat Reynolds; solid, unspectacular, and effective. Three of her four minuses were attempted long passes that went astray; her defending was generally good. She wasn’t given much space along the north touchline, so her impact on the match was muted.

Purce (45 - +8/-3) Worked hard all half but was often pinned along right side both by U-23 pressure, as well as a lack of Thorns midfielders getting open to pass to. When she did break out of the pressure she made some strong runs towards the U-23 goal, including an effort that resulted in a shot just wide of the right post at 12’. Surprisingly little coordination with her former teammate Onumonu who was playing to her front and left, but fine work overall.

Boureille (45 - +6/-8) Take your pick. Good Boureille? Several nice passes, sharp movement to pick off U-23 passes or heavy touches, some intelligent runs, and a critical block. Bad Boureille? Turnovers, poor passes, and defensive miscues. I’d be less critical of her if this was simply a lack of communication with her team, but many of the passes were just mishit and the turnovers the result of slow decision-making. That’s surprising in a player who, like Sonnett, should be sharp from playing in the W-League and who should also be in better form at this point.

Weber (45 - +4/-1) Good shift, including overtopping an (admittedly poorly-timed) U-23 defender’s jump for the second goal. Made several positively Raso-esque runs at goal and was deservedly rewarded.

Onumonu (45 - +6/-2) Against Chicago last Sunday Onumonu showed great activity and the aggressive instincts of a good striker but went unrewarded. Against the U-23s she did the same things she’d done against the Red Stars but was provided a pretty through-ball from Horan, settled it nicely, and finished decisively.

One thing I would like to see from her is a bit more running into open space, rather than running into defensive traffic. When her teammates passed to her she tended to be covered more often than not, and I think that is because she’s too green to see (or can’t figure out how to get to) the seams in the opposing defense.

Player Ratings and Comments - The Short-timers and Late Subs

Okay. Now we’re getting to the players that came on late, saw limited minutes, or both. To give you a sense of the changes from the first to the second half and within the second half, here’s how the Thorns looked at the restart:

And here’s the pitch at about 76’.

Yu (45 ‘ - +3/-2) Had some decent passes but otherwise not a lot of impact on the match, probably because of the multiple substitutions around her made connecting with her teammates a chore. Difficult to tell how she might work with a team she is more familiar with. Hard worker, with some intelligent movement, but just not able to stand out amid the traffic coming on and going off the pitch.

Salem (45’ - +1/-5) Watching her against the U-23s I had the same thought I had when I saw Salem against Chicago; “This is an experienced veteran defensive midfielder?” Amid all the draftees and trialists, I expected Salem to stand out like a woman among girls and she didn’t. Got her pocket picked repeatedly, didn’t pass all that well, and had a brutally ugly clearance that helped lead to the Macario goal in the 90th minute. Gets something of a pass because of her offseason inactivity (and playing with relative strangers) but will need to get with the program quickly to be the DM that the Thorns need her to be.

Charley (NRI) (45’ - +5/-1) I liked what I saw from young Simone Charley; incisive runs, some good forechecking tackles for gain, and a general sense of intelligent movement. Good shift from the forward from Vanderbilt.

Smith (NRI) (45’ - +7/-5) Riley Smith grew into the match in the second half. After 25 minutes on the pitch she was only +1/-2; in the final 20 minutes she was +6/-3, including a terrific run in the 73rd minute. She combined some ball-winning with accurate passing to end up looking like a promising reserve. Parsons gave her only a seven-minute stint against Chicago and my suspicion was that he wasn’t rating her highly at the time, but she did well against the U-23s and I hope we have a chance to see how she does against Houston.

Ball (NRI) (34’ - +1/-3) As the left-side starting centerback Elizabeth Ball underwhelmed, surprising for a player that Top Drawer Soccer rated at #19 overall in the 2018 NCAA draft, describing her as a “...combination of quality, consistent, work ethic and determination.” Against the U-23s, Ball was positionally suspect, got caught ball-watching, and was beaten several times in the opening half hour and change. I will be curious to see if she appears in the Houston match, given the quick hook Coach Parsons gave her against the Junior Nats.

Klingenberg (34’ - +5/-2) All the Klingenberg positives we saw last season, including a lovely cross to Weber for the assist on the goal. Her minuses were mishit passes, but because they were given away dangerously close to her own goal they earned her the negative rating. Other than that, a clean shift from the starting LB.

Morris (26’ - +3/-1) Is it just me, or does Meg Morris still have an odd hitch in her giddy-up? Several times during this match Morris seemed to be moving oddly; not quite a limp, but not an easy stride, either. I wonder if her leg injury is still troubling her? Despite that, she still can move quickly when she needs to. Her passing was better against the U-23s than it was against Chicago, where she tended to spray the ball at random. Hard to assess her place in the squad, though, since she came in late when the team was most in flux. I’d like to see her play against Houston alongside more of her regular teammates to get a better feel for her current form.

Herndon (NRI) (26’ - +0/-2) Little to go by, but from what I could see Ashley Herndon did not do particularly well, her only “significant” actions getting tackled for loss in a dangerously deep position, and then booting a bad clearance straight up in the air. Was better in her stint last season and was a standout in last year’s preseason invitational, so presumably this was just an off night for her.

Eckler (NRI) (26’ - +1/-1) I saw nothing memorable during her shift. It will be interesting to see if Parsons saw more, and whether we’ll see her against Houston.

Lussi (18’ - No rating) An odd appearance for Tyler Lussi, who came on for Weber at the restart and was then lifted for Eckler. I’m not sure if she picked up a knock, or whether the coaches had seen what they needed to by then, or whether her brief appearance was due to some other issue. No real impact on the match in her short time on the pitch.

Portland Thorns warmup before kickoff against the USWNT-U23s Kris Lattimore

Conclusions

Portland needs a forward to replace Foord, some depth in midfield, and reinforcement for the backline. Based on this evening’s performance, here’s how I’d assess the current group of players auditioning for these positions.

Earned a third (or fourth, or possibly even fifth) look:

Onumou, Purce, Charley (F), Smith (D) all did well, at least well enough to be worth playing heavily against Houston to see if lightning strikes. Of the regulars, I thought Horan had a good match.

Kinda meh:

Yu (F/MF), Salem (MF), Eckler (F/MF) were just okay, nothing special. Worth a look if Parsons saw something subtle I missed from the stands. Most of the regulars were “kinda meh” against the U-23s, too, including several I thought should have been significantly better such as Emily Sonnett, Celeste Boureille, and A.D. Franch.

Might be cut already:

Hubly (D), Boulos (D), and Ball (D). I think Kelli Hubly earns a pass for her good work last year, but both Boulos and Ball were so marginal that I won’t be shocked if they aren’t on the roster this coming Sunday.

The final match of the Spring Invitational, and the final look we and the coaching staff will have of some of these players, will be against Houston this coming weekend. I’ll be back after that with a similar writeup.

John Lawes