Thorns FC: The Things We Did Last Summer

I think we’re most of us finally into the fifth Kubler-Ross stage of the Portland Thorns 2019 season.

Okay, well, no, not me.

I’m still stuck in the fucking “anger, bargaining, and drinking heavily” stage.

What, that’s not one? Aw, the hell with it. It is for me.

But I suspect – and I hope – that most of the rest of you have moved on to Stage 5; acceptance, and the “looking forward to a productive off-season and a new year full of promise” part.

Still, I think there’s some value in looking back, to try and figure out what the hell happened to a year in which the Thorns went from rampaging at the top of table in the first week of September to stumbling into the playoffs – in third place! – six weeks later.

And then right out again after a dismal display of attacking sterility in the semifinal.

I think we can agree that the problem was scoring.

No, duh, I hear you saying; y’think? The Thorns scored one goal – one! – in their final six matches over which they went 1-4-1. The defense wasn’t great. But the attack? The attack completely disappeared.

But to try and figure out the details first we need to look even further back, to the last full season, 2018.

Here’s a chart of the Thorns’ goalscorers in 2018:

2018 was The Season Without Forwards. Look at the green cells in the upper chart. See all the green to the right of the chart in Horan’s, Heath’s, and Sinclair’s – the top three – rows? Yep. The three midfielders carried the load all season.

Here’s the season in graphic form, as just goals per game without the individual goalscorers:

Even in the early and midseason, when they struggled a bit, the 2018 Thorns were hardly ever shut out. Horan and Sinc steadily banged in goals, and, at the end of the season, when the team went on a tear, Heath went utterly bugnuts and joined them, slamming in four goals in the final four games.

Crnogorcevic added five, Raso – once she got off the DL – added a couple, but the Big Three midfielders did the heavy lifting all the way to the Final.

Once there we got shut down, yes, ugh, don’t fucking remind me. But until then, the Three and AMC (that sounds like a Eighties sitcom, doesn’t it? Probably with Scott Baio lurking around in it somewhere) kept the goals steadily flying in.

But this season…

And particularly at the end of the season, damn:

Here’s the graph:

Starting with the loss to Utah away on Matchday 20 the Thorns attack simply left the building. Heath had the only goal in 450 minutes of regular season play and 540 minutes or play that includes the semifinal.

The Thorns just. Couldn’t. Score.

Let’s take a close-up look at some statistical breakdowns:

These are statistical measures of the goals per game scored between 2018 and 2019.

Mean is just that – the average number of goals per game; 1.62 in 2018, 1.5 in 2019. That’s close enough to be “statistically insignificant”; the difference between the Thorns goals scored in 2018 and 2019, over the whole season, was effectively identical. The problem wasn’t that the goal production dropped overall, or that the team as a team wasn’t scoring over the first 19 matches.

But here’s the “median” number of goals. “Median” means that it’s right in the middle; half the goals-per-game values are higher, half are lower. Notice that in 2018 the Thorns median value was 1.5 goals-per-game, while in 2019 it was a single goal.

Pair that with the last statistic – Std Dev, or “standard deviation”. That’s effectively a measure of the spread of the goals around the mean.

The standard deviation in 2018 is less than 1; that means that a little more than two-thirds – 68% – of the game scores fell within about a goal of 1.62, from a high of about 2.6 to a low of about 0.6.

But the 2019 standard deviation is almost 50% greater than 2018’s, meaning that the Thorns were, as Churchill said about the German Army, either at your throat or at your feet. They were either scoring bagfuls of goals – three or more – or getting shut out.

And that is reflected in our third statistic:

Mode is the most commonly encountered value in a data set. In 2018 that number was “1”; the Thorns scored a goal per game more often than any other number of goals per game.

In 2019?

The most common number of goals scored per game by the Thorns was zero. Yep. Eight – count ’em – eight shutouts.

Obviously, the worst portion of the 2019 season for this was the run-in to the playoffs.

And the big problem that’s obvious in the charts? What jumps out comparing Matchdays 15-24, 2018 to the same interval in 2019?

Lindsey Horan.

Everyone goes cold in September and October.

But Horan is not just silent then; she’d been silent – all the way back to the beginning of the year.

She has one of the four Thorns goals in the 5-goal beatdown of Houston on Matchday 14 and that was it. That was all for her all season.

When the Thorns needed goals in 2018 she found them. When the Thorns needed goals in 2019…she was nowhere to be found.

And you know what’s a little scary? Here’s her PMRs over the past four years:

(In case you don’t recall – What the heck is a PMR? Player ratings explained)

Looking at this, the end of 2017 and 2018 look a lot more like career peaks, and 2019 looks a bit more like a regression to the mean. Obviously I hope not, but, still…that’s kinda troubling.

I’ve been reading a lot about Horan’s season, and there’s a fair amount of speculation that her troubles stemmed largely from her disappointing World Cup, where she was benched in favor of Sam Mewis.

I’d tend to believe that a lot more if her PMRs had been 2018-good in the first two games and then sea-bottom-low after her return from France.

But take a look:

They aren’t.

They’re all over the place. Great match against Orlando, crap in Chicago, off to France, back again and shit in Utah but then a hero against Houston…you see the pattern. Up, down, up, down; Horan was a mess in 2019 when she wasn’t tearing the cover off the ball. Like the little girl with the curl, when she wasn’t very, very good she was horrid.

The PMRs and the goal stats seem to confirm what we saw on the pitch. Horan was the most troubled of all the Thorns last season, and it wasn’t just a World Cup-hangover. She didn’t score and her form went from insane to inadequate and back again like a freaking yo-yo.

I don’t see the “Jill Ellis broke Horan” meme there. I just don’t. I think there’s something more deeply troubling, and I’m damned if I know what it is.

Now…you want to see someone who really was broken by the World Cup? Take a look at this:

Now there’s somebody who returned from France brung down and hung down and just beat all around. We’re going to talk about this next week when we hand out Final Grades for 2019, but Captain Sinclair was gutted by her World Cup.

Her season PMR averages tell the same story:

Everything there for the last season says “I’m wallowing”; positives are down nearly 20% from her averages and 40% from her 2017 high, negatives the highest she’s ever posted. Sinclair’s post-World Cup NWSL run was a goddamn disaster.

How about the other “Big Three” midfielder, Tobin Heath?

Two high spots; Heath jumped into to the jubilant pile-on over Houston on Matchday 14 and, unfortunately, had a good outing wasted in the horrific Destruction of Army Group Damned.

After that, perfectly meh with a footling exit in the semifinal. That’s not what I think of when I think of “Tobin Fucking Heath”.

Thing is, though…look at her averages. Heath has been kind of coasting on the great season she had in 2016. Remember she was injured for most of 2017, but the past two seasons?

Pretty meh.

She’s been holding her altitude as her team glides into the landscape. But “great season”? Heath hasn’t really had one in a while, and 2019 sure as hell was no exception.

So. Wha’happened in 2019? From all the evidence it looks pretty straightforward:

  1. Horan’s season cratered from the start and she was utterly adrift all year;
  2. Heath and Sinclair came back from the World Cup exhausted, and Heath had her third pretty-meh season in a row;
  3. Caitlin Foord and now-former-Thorn Ana-maria Crnogorcevic did bupkis after midsummer;
  4. Hayley Raso did what she could in August, but that wasn’t enough;
  5. Midge Purce and Simone Charley had a brief, bright, brilliant midseason and then went stone cold, and then;
  6. Everybody went completely to hell in Black Autumn.

I don’t think that will shock anyone, but it’s good to see that the numbers back up what we saw on the pitch.

What they don’t tell us is why, and that’s why Coach Parsons gets the Big Money; to figure out the why – or, more likely, the whys – and fix them.

But all of this just reminds me – remember all the fun we had last summer?

Remember the goals and the roses and the smoke and the high-fives and the roar of the crowds and the smiles and the sudden, bright spray of red shirts exploding onto the pitch like a firework on a sunny summer evening?

Yeah, it all seems like a long time ago to me, too.

“The boat rides we would take, the moonlight on the lake
The way we danced and hummed our fav’rite song
The things we did last summer I’ll remember all winter long

The midway and the fun, the kewpie dolls we won
The bell I rang to prove that I was strong
The things we did last summer I’ll remember all winter long

The leaves began to fade like promises we made
How could a love that seemed so right go wrong?
The things we did last summer I’ll remember all winter long”

~ Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne

John Lawes
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