Thorns FC: Shaping Up…and Down

We still don’t know when the first Thorns match of the 2016 NWSL season will be played.

I could wish otherwise, but that’s not exactly surprising.  The league, even now that it has survived longer than any previous women’s league, remains an often strangely unfinished piece of work.  Information on things like rules and schedules can be difficult to find if extant at all.  Sometimes I have a mental picture of someone’s niece finishing up her shift at Copyman before running home to put on her Communications Director hat and get the latest press release on the wire.

What we do know is, at least to a point, what the 2016 Thorns will look like when that match is played.


But…only to a point.

We know that we will have a new centerback, Emily Sonnett, from the first-round first pick of the NCAA draft.  Sonnett, the consensus #1 pick of pretty much every sentient observer, should help strengthen a backline that had some issues last season.

Behind her we also have a new goalkeeper, Adrianna Franch, signed – if the team management is to be believed – to both support Michelle Betos and to challenge her for the starting spot.  This, assuming that she can regain her 2013 form, she should be able to do…but there are some very real questions whether her 2015 play for Avaldsnes suggests that she has yet to regain that form.

I won’t insult you by telling you about the implications of the addition of Klingenberg, other than wonder whether the hints from the Front Office about playing her in the back of midfield are correct.  While that would seem to blunt her lethality both offensive- and defensively the real unsolved question for Portland at the moment of this writing (January 22) is at defensive midfielder.

Persistent rumors over the signing of Amandine Henry…persist.  But the self-announced Wednesday (1/20/16) deadline has passed, and none of the usual suspects is tweeting any rumors.  If the Henry deal is not a deal then the team is effectively bereft in the back of midfield.  I cannot imagine but that some sort of trade or signing must be made; the idea of parking Klingenberg at DM seems risible to me as I hope it does to Coach Parsons.  But I’m also not sure who goes there if Klingenberg does not.  Polkinghorne?  Still not sold on her, and that’s without the possibility that she’s gone for the Olympics.  Long?  Horrible idea.  Wilkinson?  We still don’t know whether she’ll be allocated and I, at least, don’t have a good feel for how well she’ll do there if she is.

Speaking of allocations…ugh.  The Pugh deal, right?  I know you’ve discussed it; certainly perhaps the single biggest contretemps surrounding the team so far.

What happened?  How did it happen?  We will probably never know, but my guess goes something like this:

1) The league and the USSF are getting close to hammering out the USI agreement and the rumors are starting to get out to the clubs
2) The clubs start thinking “what the heck can we do with this now..?”
3) The news is announced. Portland (or Boston, or both) asks either one of the league suits, or USSF suits, or both; OK, who the heck do you see as going first in this thing?
4) The suit, having no more information that a casual discussion with Ellis or one of her assistants, or SOMEone associated with the USWNT, says “Ummm…well, maybe Pugh? Somebody said that one of the athletic trainers overheard one of her teammates saying that Pugh had said the she was seriously thinking about playing in Portland rather than taking the full ride…”
5) Having no time to inquire further, being under the clock (remember, Portland took its “time out” before the trade…) and not having anyone else they were desperately in love with, Portland decides to take a flier on this and does the deal with Boston.
6) And as we now know, Pugh was either uncertain or had never seriously considered turning pro.

Nobody’s “to blame”, it’s just something that happened.  Yeah, maybe someone jumped the gun on draft day but, hey, at least we got Nadia Nadim out of it, right?

Hmm.  Yeah.  Okay, Nadim.

Great backstory, right?  Took the league by storm in 2014.  Last season?  Not so much.  Six goals on a ton of shots (51, almost 20% more than anyone else on Sky Blue), about half on target.  Horrible conversion rate; she was tied with Sam Kerr for goals on something like twice Kerr’s minutes.  So which Nadim did we get for all that tsuris?  The sniper of 2014, or the party cannon of 2015?

My personal feeling is that as of this moment Parsons has two “projects” he needs to work on; getting Nadim back to 2014 productivity, and bringing his other draft pick, Mackenzie Berryhill from Arizona State, into the roster.

Berryhill was a complete surprise to me.  She wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Top Drawer didn’t rank her in the top 100 nationally or in the Pac12 regionally.  Chris Henderson at All White Kit was downright dismissive:

“…like the rest of her ASU teammates, underwhelmed as they were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2015.  Has a decent range of passing ability but may not be able to defend top level talent effectively.  I don’t really get the need considering the amount of defenders already on the roster and the fact that they’re looking a little thin on depth in the attack when they’ll be missing some of their international players.  Definitely not a sure thing to make the opening roster here.”

But to me this is a quintessential Parsons pick.  He said upfront that he wished he had a couple more late-round draft picks to play with to dig up some rough diamonds like Berryhill.  This is him seeing Meghan Oyster again, and I hope he’s right on that.

I’m just spitballing here, but I think that Parsons may not be done dealing.  There are a LOT of defenders on this squad and no true defensive midfielders.

There’s also a big question of attack; Taylor, Nadim, and…who?  Is Sinclair still a forward, or does she move back?  Is Horan now an AM, and, if so, where does she fit alongside Dagny?

So…that’s why I say that I’m not sure that we have seen the team that will run out sometime in April.  I think there are still some moves to come.  Perhaps Henry.  Perhaps “another international not rumored” as Merritt implied recently.  Combine that with the unknowns still surrounding roster places and field positions and…I think we’ll need to revisit this team this time next month.

So.  Feel free to speculate, argue with me in the comments, and I’ll be back in a month to talk to you about what’s happened by then.

Update 1/24: Of a piece with the Pugh oddity is this from Caitlin Murray: “Sounds to me like hints that the Mallory Pugh/Portland Thorns saga has not concluded its last chapter

What does all that mean?

I have no freaking idea.  But possibly the Pugh story isn’t over.  Maybe.  Don’t touch that dial…

One piece of what is – to me, anyway – extremely good news is the announcement of a Thorns preseason tournament that will include several other NWSL sides.

Something that has irked me since 2013 has been the utter worthlessness of the preseason matches.  Playing out-of-condition, out-of-season college teams and ramshackle semipro sides tells the coaching staff nothing about the tactical shape and technical skills of the team that they could suss out from an intrasquad scrimmage.  At least this season we and they should be able to see how well the team is beginning to shape against a peer foe.

That’s terrific.  It’d be even more terrific if the league were to pay for, say, Urawa Red Diamonds Ladies to come play here this spring, but that’s about as likely to happen than I am to be crowned Dragon King of Bhutan.