Thorns FC: Peeking at the Cards

In about four months Thorns FC will kick off the 2015 NWSL campaign.

Between now and then the only scheduled date that has any potential to affect the team’s roster is January 16, 2015, the date of the college draft.  The chances of this actually making any significant changes to the roster look exceedingly small.  As of today Thorns FC has only one pick in the first three rounds (25th overall, seventh in the third round), and another in the fourth (34th overall, seventh in the round).  Add to this Coach Riley’s well-known disinterest in college-level players and you get…well, very little.

In addition, Thorns FC has been very quiet during the NWSL offseason to date – certainly compared to clubs like Western New York, which has been more-or-less completely overhauled.  Only Seattle and Kansas City have been as quiescent, not exactly surprising given their form last season.

So it might not be a bad time to take a look at how the current Thorns roster deck is stacked.  What parts of the roster look like a sure winners?  Which looks like they need strengthening?  Are there any wild cards tucked away?

Let’s start at the bottom of the deck.

GOALKEEPERS

Changes since 2014?     None.

Nadine Angerer and Michelle Betos look solid to return in 2015.

Betos did nothing in 2014 to really increase or decrease her value as backup – of her three appearances the only loss was the June match with WNY where she had to replace a sent-off Angerer.  She seems adequate in her role, if nothing more.  She’s not on any of the World Cup teams, which helps the team plan for Angerer’s absences.

Nadine Angerer’s 2014 continued what seems to me to be her the disconnect she’s shown since the Teens between national team and club form; she continued to be the top keeper for the Fußballnationalmannschaft der Frauen, but her Thorns season has to be considered no better than average.  Here’s the final statistics for the primary NWSL keepers (more than 15 appearances) in 2014:

Team                  Keeper          Games Played        GAA          SOG/SV/%                SO

Boston                  Naeher                    24                              2.2                159/106/67%                      3

Chicago                LeBlanc                  21                              1.0                  97/76/78%                          6

FCKC                      Barnhart             22                                1.31               100/71/71%                         8

PTFC                       Angerer                22                              1.36              104/74/71%                         4

Seattle                   Solo                        20                                0.9                83/65/78%                        5

SBFC                      Loyden                  17                               1.47               94/69/73%                          4

Washington        Harris                    19                                1.63               97/66/68%                          4

WNY     –       Neither keeper (Williams/Wys) played more than 14 matches

Houston               McLeod                20                                1.75              120/53/69%                       2

As you can see, our ‘keeper ranked below Solo, LeBlanc, and Barnhart in goals-against average, below LeBlanc, Solo, and Loyden in save percentage, and below Barnhart, LeBlanc, and Solo in shutouts.

I know this will be ammunition for the LeBlanc partisans.  In passing I would simply note that Chicago played a very tight defensive game – their 26 GA was second in the league behind Seattle – and that a lot of the goals-against and shutout issues Nadine had had as much to do with the porous nature of Portland’s backline as her own play.  Look at the shots on goal (SOG); Die Kaiserin faced more shots than anyone outside Naeher, who given Boston’s defensive woes might as well have been playing behind one of those free-kick practice wall cutout gimmicks, and McLeod for the expansion team.  Her defense put Angerer in worse positions than Chicago’s typically put Karina.  I love KK.  But I’m not ready to say that she’s the better ‘keeper.

Still, Angerer had some very visible issues she needs to work on, including her distribution and her positioning when she comes off her line (last season she tended to go to ground quickly and was rounded more easily than she should have been).  Overall, however, she’s a solid ‘keeper and should do better this season with an upgraded backline in front of her.

Nadine barefoot

And while I’m on the subject, Angerer’s blog is kind of a hoot.

Hit or Stay?        Stay

DEFENSE

Changes since 2014?        In:  Kat Williamson (from WNY)   Out: Sarah Huffman (retirement)

The return of Kat Williamson (as part of the Brooks trade with WNY) will surely help shore up the central defense alongside Rachel Van Hollebeke and Emily Menges.   Nikki Marshall and Steph Catley remain excellent options at LB.  Becca Moros will probably continue to add service as a spot-starter and substitute, either in back or at DM.

Uncertainties remain, however.

The retirement of Huffman leaves the question of RB wide open.  Coach Riley might choose to play Marshall there, but from what I’ve seen she’s not as comfortable on the right side of the pitch.  Moros isn’t really a fullback (and should be needed to help out in the back of midfield, anyway…).  Emily Menges wasn’t really effective outside in 2014.  Kat Tarr’s recovery from her knee injury is difficult to assess; she doesn’t seem to be out on loan, suggesting that her progress isn’t that far along.

I suspect that we will be pleased with the rest of  the Thorns defense in 2015.  None of the starters is liable for international duty outside Catley (I’d be surprised if the VanHollebekedozer is picked for the USWNT in 2015) and Marshall should do well there as she did in 2013.  Having a stable backline practicing together from mid-February should produce real improvement for the Thorns defense.

Hit or Stay?         Hit.      This team needs a starting quality RB.  Period.  I hope Merritt and Riley are looking as you’re reading this.

MIDFIELD

Changes since 2014?        In:  McCall Zerboni (from WNY)    Out:  Amber Brooks (to WNY), Angie Kerr (retirement)

McCall Zerboni might be a genuine wild card next season.  Here’s what David Anderson over at Stumptown Footy says about her“McCall Zerboni is a relentless, high-work-rate player with the versatility we’re going to need with the roster weirdness that’s going to be part of next year’s season.  Zerboni is faster and dribbles better (than Brooks), I’d say. I’d call it a wash on passing. Zerboni doesn’t have Brooks’ strength on the holding end, but has a bit of that Diego Chara “terrier” action when trying to dispossess someone. I think Thorns fans are going to like her.”

Zerboni

The weakness that other teams (read: FCKC in particular) spotted in PTFC’s midfield last season is that we had a maestra of an ACM in Vero and a hard-nosed DCM in Brooks…and that was about it.  We lacked both a true outside mid of the Wallace breed or a true BTB midfielder.  So if you marked Vero tightly you would eventually force her to pass backwards.  And, from there, Portland didn’t have anyone else who could dribble and distribute the ball.  Shim might have been able to…but she never played.  Farrelly got better as the season went on, but not to the point where she could stop that tactic from working.

Zerboni should really help with that.  But…

At this moment it’s still hard to say what sort of shape the Thorns midfield will look like in April.  We hold three queens: Vero, Allie Long, and Tobin Heath.  Four, with Zerboni.  But that’s what gets tricky.  Three of those four will probably spend much of 2015 playing for their national teams.  That leaves us with:

Zerboni, Mana Shim, Courtney Niemiec, and Sinead Farrelly…and the status on Farrelly’s and Niemiec’s injuries, as with Tarr’s, is difficult to assess.  Neither appears to be on loan, either, suggesting that they are still rehabbing.

So when the internationals are here, Portland looks fantastic; Vero at the point of the diamond with Heath and Zerboni, Moros (or Niemiec) at the back, and Shim and Farrelly on the bench ready to come for fresh legs late.  But when they’re gone…and Shim is still in Riley’s doghouse…and Farrelly and Niemiec are still crocked..?

Hit or Stay?       Stay.  I think the team as it stands when complete is pretty well set up; Vero, Long, Zerboni, Heath, Shim…that’s a damn good midfield.  The “what ifs” kick in when the internationals are gone, but I can’t see for the life of me how the Front Office addresses that without disrupting the roster.

FORWARDS

Changes since 2014:     In: Danesha Adams

Here’s where I’m really going to hang myself out.  I think that Thorns FC has real issues up front that need to be dealt with if the team is going to be successful in 2015.  Bear with me while I try and lay out what I think the troubles are and will be.

Right now Thorns FC has six players listed at forward.  All of them had problems in 2014 or played so little that their abilities cannot be assessed.

Alex Morgan is…well, Alex Morgan.  I think we tend to take her for granted; “She’s so awesome because…well, because she’s Alex Morgan!”  But Morgan has perhaps the most issues of any of the PTFC strikers.  She has now been injured in two straight seasons.  She has also never really found her form with PTFC in the way she has with the national team, possibly because she had a very indifferent midfield in 2013 and was injured or absent for much of 2014.  She has not developed any real chemistry with Christine Sinclair or Jess McDonald.  She will be missing for much of 2015 on international duty.

Christine Sinclair suffered a horrific loss of form in 2014 for both club and country.  Her performances for Canada since the end of the NWSL season don’t show that she’s recovering her pre-2014 capabilities; her goal against Sweden on November 26th was her first since December 2013.  Her goalscoring for Portland dropped from 8 (for 26 SOG) in 2013 to 7 (for 40) in 2014, a decline from 30.7% to 17.5% efficiency.  It seems likely to me that her confidence has collapsed or she’s hit some sort of physical wall.

Sinc's flower hat trick

Jessica McDonald was the goalscoring leader for PTFC last season with 11.  She has flashes of great skill…combined with some appallingly poor passing and a repeated inability to find open teammates.  She is also usually less effective off the dribble and relies on service from others.  Until late last season I’d have called her more of a poacher than a truly creative striker.

Jackie Acevedo, Hanna Terry and Danesha Adams are unknown quantities.  Acevedo has played a total of 15 minutes over 2 matches, Terry eight minutes.  Acevedo’s status is also uncertain because of the possiblity that the FMF may not allocate players to the NWSL next season.  Adams’ career has shown a progressive decline in productivity, from 3 goals in 20 appearances for Sky Blue in 2013 to 1 goal in 13 games for Washington last season.

So.

For a team that was supposed to win 6-5 the striker position has been the most troubled of all the Thorns’ roster.  Simply stated, none of the Thorns forwards outside McDonald had a decent season in 2014, and both of the marquee players – Sinclair and Morgan – had perhaps the worst seasons of their careers between injury and loss of form.  Morgan and Sinclair will now add to the difficulty in gaining minutes and form with the Thorns as their 2015 schedule is dominated by the World Cup.  The three remaining forwards are just blanks at this time; they may be aces, they may be deusces, or jokers.  Who knows?

Hit or Stay?     Hit – though how, and how Riley solves this hot mess is difficult to assess.  Is Sinclair done as a striker, or does she just need to get her groove back?  How can PTFC make Morgan as effective for club as she is for country?  Where does McDonald fit in – does she become a true poacher, a fox-in-the-box looking to take out the trash…or can she become half of a partnership with Morgan, or Sinclair, or Adams, or Terry?  And where do the other three fit in; who starts alongside McDonald when the internationals are out?

Sinclair mask

THE FULL DECK

Maybe not a pat hand…but close.  A right back, and some sort of solution to the free-floating mess at forward; those seem to be the most pressing needs this team should address before April.  No WNY-style housecleaning…just a draw or two to try and fill out the rest of the pack.

That and, of course, a thought-out plan to prevent the repetition of the disaster that was the cunning “let’s throw together a bunch of walk-ons and replacement-level players and hope to keep things from exploding until the real team arrives in mid-season” gimmick of 2014.

That and look for the breaks that fell to Portland in 2013, and didn’t in 2014, to fall our way again and it’s onward, Rose City!

Or simply, as Lola Montez may (or may not) have said; Courage, and shuffle the cards!

Thorns FC: Silly Season In The Rose City

In Britain the soccer offseason is often referred to as the “silly season.” With no actual soccer to talk about fans’ (and the media’s) obsessions tend to flourish into wild speculation and bizarre theories about their teams, or favorite players, and coaches, tactics, or leagues.  Most of these flights of fancy are just that, and they are what makes the season, well, silly. Continue reading