I thought I’d said enough about last season, until I realized that I hadn’t got to where the buck really stops; the coaching and training staff and the club management.
So in this final, final-grades post I want to discuss what in the Army we liked to call the “echelons above reality”; the people who make the decisions for how the team plays on the field, and the people above them who run the club, make the player selections, and sign the contracts.
The Coaching Staff
That means looking first at the front line leaders, the on-field management, so obviously primarily at the head coach – what in Britain would be called “the manager” – Mark Parsons, and to a lesser extent, critical members of his coaching and training staff.
For our purposes that will include the goalkeeper coach, Nadine Angerer, and two members of the training staff, fitness coach Garga Caserta, and head athletic trainer Pierre Soubrier.
I’d love talk about Parsons’ assistants but frankly have no idea how they are organized, and who’s responsible for what. But the head coach, his keeper coach, and the training and fitness staff all have clearly identifiable roles that we can discuss and assess. So let’s start with the Gaffer…
Parsons’ managerial career begin in England in the middle Oughts with Chelsea’s women’s squads. His record over six years;
2004-2005 – FA Women’s Premiere League – 16-4-2, promoted to the “National League”
2005-2006 – 3-3-12, second-worst in the NL; won playoff to stay up
2006-2007 – 8-4-10, 8th in the NL
2007-2008 – 9-5-8, 5th in the NL
2008-2009 – 16-2-4, 3rd in the NL
2009-2010 – 16-1-5, 3rd in the NL, promoted to the FA Women’s Super League
Since 2010 Chelsea have been in the top three of the FA WSL every year but their first, and have won the league twice, in 2015 and and 2017-18. They’re clearly an elite club and always have been, but Parsons’ record during his time with them shows that he was involved in their progress towards the top of the league.
In 2012 Parsons began coaching in the U.S. with DC United’s women’s U-20 squad, and took them to the “U-20 Super League” Final. The following year he was hired by the Washington Spirit to manage their reserves, and was promoted to the senior team when Mike Jordan was canned in July, 2013. He has coached every season since then in the NWSL
Here’s how his teams have done over that time:
2013 (WAS) – 2-2-7, 8th of 8
2014 (WAS) – 10-5-9, 4th of 9, lost to Seattle in the semifinal
2015 (WAS) – 8-6-6, 4th of 9, lost to Seattle in the semifinal
2016 (POR) – 12-5-3, 1st of 10, lost to Western New York in the semifinal
2017 (POR) – 14-5-5, 2nd of 10, won against North Carolina in the Final
2018 (POR) – 12-6-6, 2nd of 9, lost to North Carolina in the Final
2019 (POR) – 11-7-6, 3rd of 9, lost to Chicago in the semifinal
Taking aside 2013, where Parsons inherited a team not of his choosing, he has had a winning record every year, and has taken his team into the postseason every year, as well.
Once there, however, he is only one for six, going out in the semifinals four times and in the final match once; this was the knock in him when he came to Portland from Washington – that he could get to the Big Dance but couldn’t dance once he got there.
The 2017 championship was meant to still that talk, but the Thorns’ backsliding since then has to have raised those concerns again.
How does Parsons’ record compare to the other perennial playoff coaches in the NWSL?
Mark Parsons: 67-34-35 (6 seasons), winning percentage, 58.7% – 1 Shield, 1 Championship
Paul Riley: 63-28-35 (6 seasons), 50% (but 61.9% with WNY/NCC) – 2 Shields, 3 Championships
Rory Dames: 54-45-39 (6 seasons) 39.1%
Vlatko Andonovski: 64-39-36 (7 seasons) 46.0% – 2 Championships
Laura Harvey: 76-41-44 (7 seasons) 47.2% – 1 Shield
Not bad. Certainly not on the level of Riley, but close to Andonovski (fewer titles but better overall record) and better then Dames and Harvey. We have no reason to be ashamed of our dad.
That said…how’d he do here last season?
In my match reports I made note of Parsons’ contributions. A head coach has three fundamental jobs on matchday:
- They have to prepare their team for the match, and select an XI that gives them the best matchups against that opponent;
- They have to select and implement tactics that best effect those matchups, and;
- They have to make substitutions that have positive effects, or, at least, preserve a favorable game state.
Below you’ll fine a table with those evaluations on the twenty-five matchdays of the last season. I’ve given my subjective evaluations a numerical code, as follows:
A zero means just that – the element or job wasn’t a factor in the match one way or the other.
A positive number means a “job well done”; good work by Parsons in that field. The numbers run from +1, a solid piece of work, to +2, an exceptionally clever or effective job.
And a negative number means an error, either of omission or an active fuckup. Either Parsons was outcoached by his opponent – and you’ll note that Vlatko was a particular nuisance – or he was unable to make his team effective, either through ineffective preparation, poor lineup selection, ineffective tactics, and/or ineffective substitutions.
Obviously this is highly subjective, but I think it passes the visual test; it conforms to what we saw last season.
The Thorns have a fundamentally solid roster and can usually field a competitive side. As we discussed in the earlier “final grades” pieces, both the roster – because of the churn caused by injuries and international callups – and individuals had issues last season. But when the team and players are firing on all six they can run with anyone in the league outside of the Damned Courage, who nobody has figured out how to consistently run with.
But Coach Parsons had two recurring issues last season;
His tactics were often crude and, worse, didn’t work consistently. For a team with the roster strength it has PTFC played way too much hoof-and-hope, what I called “dink-dink-boot” – pointless lateral passes and then a long rainbow that typically went nowhere. The midfield, when it saw the ball, never figured out how to pass through opponents. The backline never re-created the sturdiness of 2017, and outside of the brief reign of Queen Midge the attack was often barren.
Parsons’ substitutions were often inexplicable or just plain bizarre, at times even making the game state worse rather than maintaining things as-is or improving the team position. Perhaps the oddest was Parsons’ persistent omission of Tyler Lussi from both the XI and the substitutions.
In a season when the Thorns’ most visible problem was the death of the attack after Matchday 19 Parsons didn’t seem to even sense that there was a problem, much less go into panic mode trying to fix it. I’m sure he did recognize the issue, it just seemed that if he was trying to solve it his efforts had little impact on the pitch.
It’s difficult to completely slag off on a gaffer that gets their team into the playoffs; after all, that’s the base level of “good work” in a playoff league. Laura Harvey, Richie Burke, Jim Clarkson, and Marc Skinner surely wish they had Parsons’ “problems” in 2019.
That said…as unfair as it may be, the standard in Portland is higher than Orlando or Houston. We’ve been there and done that; they’ve never done more than come close, if that.
So the Grade A standard in Portland is 2013 or 2017; a championship.
Let’s call the Shield in 2016 a solid “B” or even an A-minus, given that it took Marco Vega to help Riley thug the Thorns out of the semifinal.
A season that ends outside the top four is clearly unsatisfactory, a “D”-grade season. And we’ve yet to finish at the bottom of the league, so we have never seen a coach of ours get an “F”.
So what does that leave a playoff season that ends with a comprehensive semifinal loss, except a
Final Grade: C
The last three seasons have seen the Rise of the Damned, and the single most critical challenge for Coach Parsons in 2020 is figuring out how to change that. The Courage are now the gold standard of the NWSL, and if Portland is to return to the top step of the podium they, and their coach, will have to find the reverse Philosopher’s Stone and turn that gold into lead.
Or, perhaps, the nicer way to say that is that Coach Parsons needs to find a way to spin the Thorns into gold.
Angerer began playing in the German youth leagues and went on to play goalkeeper in the Frauen-Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, Turbine Potsdam, and FFC Frankfurt. She has been capped 146 times for the German national team, and was the starting keeper for the 2007 world title. She was also the starter for the German side that won five UEFA titles.
As a keeper Angerer was a terrific shot-stopper, and she was known as a penalty-save specialist, famously stoning Marta in the World Cup Final in 2007, and both Trine Ronning and Solveig Gulbrandsen in the Euro 2013 Final.
Angerer was signed by the Thorns in January, 2014, and played that season and parts of the 2015 season, gradually yielding time to Michelle Betos over her second year until announcing her retirement at the end of the season. She worked with Betos as her backup became the starter, and very likely that work helped convince the club to make her a coaching offer.
That December Angerer was signed as the first full-time goalkeeper coach for the Thorns.
Angerer has mentored or coached three Goalkeepers of the Year: Betos in 2015, and A.D. Franch in 2017 and 2018. I’ve discussed Franch’s legitimate GKotY season in some depth; suffice to say that she did not deserve the award the following year. Betos was pure sentiment based primarily on That Goal.
In Angerer’s first two seasons her backline and goalkeepers led the league in goals-against. Since then the technical metrics of Angerer’s primary charge Franch have slowly slipped away, while backup Britt Eckerstrom has progressed steadily.
Both goalkeepers are technically solid; I consider Franch the better reaction-save shot stopper, while Eckerstrom has overcome some rookie mistakes to become stronger in the air and at controlling her penalty area.
If the late-career Angerer had any issues, they were primarily in decision-making coming off her line. Her foot speed had declined to the point where she was often placed in a difficult position because she could not close down the angles as quickly as she once had. She would linger too long, or come out and go to ground too soon; that problem was likely a big part of her decision to hang up the gloves in 2015. Her students share a bit of that problem, suggesting that she has passed – probably unconsciously – some of her bad habits down to them. Not a crippling problem, but still worth noting.
As for her reputation as a penalty specialist, here’s how her keepers have performed since 2015:
|Keeper||Season||Matchday (Opponent)||Penalty Faced||Penalty Saved||Notes|
|2017||8 (SBFC)||1||1||Sarah Killion’s first miss in 9 attempts|
|2017||9 (SBFC)||1||N/A||Franch goes the wrong way but Killion misses wide|
|2018||12 (CRS)||1||1||Eck saved Nagasato’s PK, but couldn’t control the rebound, and Nagasato scored|
Betos’ single save can almost be discounted (other than good work by Betos!) as too small a dataset.
Franch started well in 2017, and is 33% over three years, but, curiously, hasn’t made a PK stop since Killion’s miss. Is this her, or is this the takers figuring her out? Hmmm.
Eckerstrom was 1-for-3 in 2018, suggesting that Angerer-taught goalkeepers are typically successful against penalty takers about a third of the time.
Given that quick perusal of the internet produces a 2009 study that suggests that penalties are converted roughly 85% of the time and another from 2014 that provides success rates ranging from 70% to 80%, this seems to confirm Angerer’s reputation, as well as her skill in imparting her techniques to her students. Hoch, hoch, schulmeisterin!
I will be interested to watch the Thorns goalkeeping over the off-season and into next year. As we discussed in the keepers grades piece, Franch needs to reverse her statistical slide, and the question of Franch-versus-Eckerstrom has become a genuine one. Angerer is key to the club’s answer to that question, and we’ll see what that key turns out to be.
Final Grade: B+
After a couple of terrific seasons Angerer’s proteges have slipped a bit. Still, her keepers are in the top half of the league. It’s worthwhile to note that both her keepers are among the better at the position in the league; both are solid starting-quality players. There’s not much more you can ask of a keeper coach than that.
The Training Staff
A yearlong study performed on players of the Frauen-Bundesliga produced the following results and conclusions:
“All 254 players finished the study [average age, 22.8 years (16-35 years)]. Two hundred forty-six injuries amounted to an injury rate of 3.3 per 1000 hours (games, 18.5 per 1000 hours; practice, 1.4 per 1000 hours). Injury distribution: knee, 31.0%; ankle, 22.1%; thigh, 12.9%; and head, 7.1%. The seasonal peak was at the beginning of the competitive season. Injury rates doubled after the 60th minute. Twenty-nine percent of the injuries were severe, and 37% were moderate.Gaulrapp and others, 2010
Female players suffer a high amount of head injuries and severe knee and ankle injuries. The most common single injury is a sprained ankle. Torn ligaments in the ankle and knee are the most common injuries that require a long recovery period. Most of the severe injuries (>30 days) are due to noncontact intrinsic mechanisms. Almost one-quarter of all injuries consist of exertion syndromes not yet correlated with certain seasonal periods.”
So if we begin with this as baseline and look at the Thorns injury list this season, a total of nine players dealt with injuries severe enough to be noted, beginning with the most severe:
Gabby Seiler – Season-ending Injury (SEI): ACL tear in training
Angela Salem – SEI: ACL tear in match play
Emily Menges – 5 games: foot injury in training (3 games), left thigh (2 games missed)
Ellie Carpenter – 3 games: ankle sprain/strain in match play
Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic – thigh injury in training (no games missed)
Dagny Brynjarsdottir – broken nose in match play (Tacoma – no games missed)
Lindsey Horan – preseason quadriceps injury with USWNT (no games missed); leg injuries in match play (Tacoma – no games missed)
Midge Purce – preseason hamstring tightness (no games missed)
Tyler Lussi – undisclosed injury (unable to determine if some/any games missed due to injury)
Let’s assume that the team trained 6 hours a day, five days a week, for 26 weeks; a total of 780 hours of training. Plus the team played 90 minutes 25 time, or 37.5 hours of match play. So let’s call the total time, training plus match play, about 820 hours. Multiply that by 23 players and you come up with about 18,800 hours for the team over the season.
Given that, we’re then talking about 11 known injuries (including Menges’ and Horan’s two each) of 18,800 team hours, or about 1.7 injuries per 1,000 hours. That’s hard to break down between gameplay and practice, but let’s take the breakdowns from the group above; of the 11 injuries, five occurred in games, seven in training, so the Thorns’ injury pattern seems slightly opposite of that observed in the study.
Taking just the players listed, two – Salem and Seiler – suffered severe injuries, or 22.2% of the group, so slightly less but roughly in line with the FBL study. If you consider Menges’ and Carpenter’s injuries “moderate” then the Thorns incurred moderate to severe injuries about 44.4% of all injuries, significantly less than the 66% figure cited in the German study.
The question lingers about post-injury recovery. Carpenter was not the same player after the injury in Utah, and Menges had another year where she appeared to struggle after returning from injury, whether because of nagging knocks or loss of focus or general lack of form or some combination of all the above. But in terms of initial injury rate and severity, the fitness and training staff come out looking good.
In 2019 the Thorns were hampered by the concentration of injuries in the defensive midfield, but, overall, the team appeared remarkably healthy; two players missed a total of eight games due to injury and two suffered season-ending ACL tears. While unfortunate, as the German study notes female players are particularly susceptible to those lower-limb-joint problems, so losing two players to knee injuries doesn’t seem to be an indictment of the training staff.
The minus is because we will need to see how quickly and thoroughly Seiler and Salem can recover; if one or both are ready to train by next April? That’s a solid A, given how well the trainers managed the team last season.
The Front Office Management
I’m going to lump the owner, the general manager, the head coach, and the scouts into this group for the simple reason that I just don’t know enough about the Peregrine Organization to be sure who exactly does what to assemble the Thorns.
Presumably Mark Parsons has a great deal of influence, as he is probably the most familiar with the women’s game. Gavin Wilkinson, as general manager, and Merritt Paulson, as owner, surely have the final say, however, on who is offered a contract and the terms of that contract. In addition, they have been the constants through three head coaches, so that alone is likely to give them and outsized role in team-building.
That said, Portland management has always been exceedingly opaque to me. After nearly seven years of following and writing about the Thorns I still don’t really know how much throw-weight each of the players carries. Is it Paulson-Wilkinson-Parsons? Paulson-Parsons-Wilkinson? Are they instead effectively a troika, and every player decision is a voice vote/majority rules/consensus kind of thing?
I have no idea.
What I do know is what player moves the management has made over the six seasons since 2013, and can grade the game, if not the players.
Fortunately for me, long-time Friend of the Blog Thornando has already done the heavy lifting; cataloging the Thorns’ player incoming personnel moves over the past four seasons, so I’ll blatantly cheat and cite his work here but add players brought in for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons. Players who got more than 300 minutes the following season are bolded:
2013: Gay, Dougherty, O’Neill, Williamson, Marshall, Avant, Guess, Shim, Kerr, Long, Edwards, Wetzel, Washington, Foxhoven, Shufelt.
A good year for the Thorns management; nine of the fifteen draftees or discovery players made worthwhile contributions to the first championship season. Throw in the allocation of Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Karina LeBlanc, Christine Sinclair, and Rachel Beuhler and you got a hell of a debut side, but it was players like Allie Long and Dani Foxhoven and Mana Shim that made the difference, and that’s on the FO. Grade: A
2013-2014: Brooks, Boquete, Angerer, Farrelly, Betos, Sullivan, Huffman, McDonald, Moros, Shim, Tarr, Terry
(You’ll notice Shim appears again here; this was because of the ridiculous trade that sent her to Houston after the 2013 season and then brought her back for 2014)
For the second year in a row the FO brought in another group of good players, including several who turned out to be outstanding, including Veronica Boquete, Michelle Betos, Jessica McDonald, and Becca Moros.
One of the most interesting players in the group is Amber Brooks, who has had a terrific NWSL career but, unfortunately, for The Flash and Houston rather than Portland. Her trade brought McCall Zerboni and Kat Williamson to Portland, though, so at least at the time it looked like a good deal.
However, for the first time this offseason exposed some issues within the FO. The Shim double-trade, that sent the beloved little midfielder to Houston and then, after a piteous outcry from the fandom, brought her back, was at least comic. But McDonald was badly used, and the Boquete acquisition that was delayed until the end of her European season was less amusing; since she was the midfield key it meant that the team Paul Riley wanted didn’t come together until midseason, and after that never really gelled, so the Thorns went out in the semifinal. Grade: B-
2014-2015: Añonma, Williamson, Zerboni, Johnson, Taylor, Polkinghorne, Robbins, Kleiner, Comeau, Sanderson
The first truly off-off-season. Riley and the FO scrabbled to put some sort of team on the pitch but ended up patching together a bunch of odd lots that never really fit. Zerboni used Shea Groom for a welcome mat and got sent off with the Thorns down a goal to FCKC, forcing Betos to score a header and win Goalkeeper of the Year. Jodie Taylor and Lianne Sanderson came and went. Sinead Farrelly broke out and won supporters hearts wearing a Riveters headscarf…
But Genoveva Añonma was perhaps the saddest tale of the 2015 bunch; a striker who had been tearing up the Frauen-Bundesliga for the previous six seasons, she arrived late in the summer after playing in the World Cup, scored one goal in twelve games, and was waived in October after the Thorns season ended out of the playoffs.
What’s frustrating about this period is that each of the player moves looked good; Taylor, Sanderson, Ano…they all had terrific pedigrees. But as a team they were less than they looked as individuals. The moves didn’t work, the team never emerged, and so ultimately the entire effort was wasted. Grade: D
2015-2016: Nadim, Raso, Horan, Henry, Brynjarsdottir, Boureille, Sonnett, Klingenberg, Reynolds, Morris, Weber, Skogerboe, Berryhill, Franch
(Obviously, also Parsons and Angerer’s first seasons as coaches.)
The Fat Year of Thorns management; along with the new coaches, the club brought in a haul of players that would rebuild the side, including Nadia Nadim at striker and Amandine Henry at CDM. Dagny Brynjarsdottir had a very good season, and nearly all the other players – 12 of 14 – played a role in getting the team back into the playoffs again.
In hindsight the 2015-2016 offseason was a peculiar one-off. The sorts of deals the FO made that season would not be repeatable; the Morgan trade, Nadim and Henry wanting to come play for well below their worth, Horan returning from overseas because she wanted to play for the Nats…these all came together in a sort of perfect synchronicity. The FO didn’t exactly make that…but they certainly took it and ran with it as far as they could. Grade: A
2016-2017: Sykes, Cox, Eckerstrom, Hill, Jordan, Lussi, Flynn
(Three draftees in this group had very different career arcs; Rachel Hill was drafted and immediately traded to Orlando for 2018 draft picks. She’s done well there. Savannah Jordan was drafted but signed with Glasgow, got injured, returned to Portland in 2017 and played less than 200 minutes. She was traded to Houston on the 2017-2018 offseason, appeared for Houston briefly but retired after the 2018 season. Caroline Flynn was drafted by Portland but refused to sign. She signed and played for FCKC in 2017 but for some reason didn’t go with Utah after the move.)
In retrospect this was the first Lean Year; we just didn’t know it because at the time we were too busy enjoying the second championship. But of the group that came in between 2016 and 2017, Ashleigh Sykes played well in 2017 but then retired after the end of the season, Cox, Jordan and Flynn were busts, Hill produced for others, so for the first time only two of the seven were long-term positives for Portland. Grade: C-
2017-2018: Andressinha, Ball, Carpenter, Hubly, Salem, Foord, Onumonu, Purce, Crnogorčević, Yu, Seiler, Geist (Bixby)
A lot of good here; Elizabeth Ball, Ellie Carpenter, Midge Purce, and Gabby Seiler have all proved to be valuable pieces. Angela Salem showed promise before her injury this past season, and Kelli Hubly is solid depth. Sandra Yu showed some spark before retiring early.
But ultimately another Lean Year because the “big moves” didn’t work out; Andressinha didn’t effectively replace Allie Long, Caitlin Foord and AMC were what they are and not what the FO wanted to them to be and, as such, were misused and largely wasted. Ifeoma Onumonu was perhaps the most problematic; the club waived her at the end of 2018 because she just never developed here…only for her to find the rich soil of Vlatkoball and bloom in Tacoma in 2019. Well, goddamn. Grade: C
2018-2019: Ogle, Pogarch, Charley
Hard to assess. All three looked promising (And Simone Charley is currently tearing up the W-League), but it’s really too soon to tell. Grade: Incomplete
So if this was a report card, how would it look? Let’s do it:
Portland Thorns FC – Q4 2019
Intro to Chemistry (2013): A
Second Period Math (2013-2014) B-
Wood Shop (2014-2015) D
History: 1776 to Reconstruction: (2015-2016) A
Post-Modern Architecture (2016-2017) C-
Post-Post-Modern Art (2017-2018) C
Two A’s (4.0), a B-minus (2.75), a C (2.0), a C-minus (1.75), and a D (1.0); 15.5 divided by 5, or a 2.58. Call it a high C, almost a low B.
But that’s really unfair to Coach Parsons; we should really divide the grading period into thirds:
The First Semester is 2013, the Parlow-Cone Era. That’s a dead-solid A.
The Second is the Riley Era. From B- to D, so probably something like a C- or D+. Not good.
The current Parsons Era goes from an A- to a couple of C’s, so we’re probably looking at a C+/B- overall.
That’s not awful, but the troubling part isn’t the average but the progression; it’s down from the high of 2015-2016 even if we accept that year as freakishly good. That’s kind of the problem; if 2015-2016 is the outlier, that makes the meh-years since then the norm. That’s not promising, given the power that’s been assembled around the Dark Tower in Cary. You don’t just walk to Mordor; Portland is going to need more than a bunch of C-grade player moves to unlock the Damned Courage.
Right now there’s a lot of incompletes out there, though. We won’t know if Simone Charley is as good as she looks now in Australia until we see her next year. We won’t know if Midge Purce can regain her throne. We know nothing, really, about Ogle and Pogarch (and possibly Everett…). How good can Tyler Lussi be starting regularly? We don’t know if Horan can shake off whatever bit her this past year, if Sinc has a good season or three left in her, if Heath can be the Heath of 2016 or 2018 again.
That’s a lot of “ifs”.
But for now, that’s all we have.
The Last Word
I probably won’t be back here until the NCAA Draft in January, but I can’t walk away from this site without noting this:
When your two-time Coach of the Year and three-time title-winning manager calls you out on Twitter, that’s not good. Here we are, a week later, and a month from draft day, and do we know any of these things?
Indeed, apparently the league and the US Soccer Federation reached an impasse in their negotiations at the end of last week, suggesting that this issue may be wrapped up in the problems between the league and the federation instead of a purely internal problem.
Keep in mind Riley’s message. This is a guy who has to be hooked into the league much more closely that we can ever be, and he’s not saying that Amanda Duffy is telling him that she doesn’t have a hard timeline for Sacramento and he just needs to be patient. That would be bad, but just…bad
He’s saying he has no fucking idea if expansion is even happening. He’s saying Duffy is telling him nothing.
That’s not bad. That’s a goddamn shitshow.
There are times I worry a little bit that this league will go the way of the WPS and the WUSA. Then I think about the differences, and the financial discipline this league has shown, and the way the Borislows have been gated out, and I worry less.
Then…something like this happens.
And I worry all over again.
C’mon, league. C’mon, USSF. If expansion is going to happen, it needs to happen now. If it’s not going to happen now, it needs to not happen – at least not until 2021. There’s no excuse to do another Boston or another FCKC and wait until the last second and then just tumble all over the place; as Riley points out, all that does is make life harder for players, coaches, and owners. And fans.
After seven seasons, it’s time to grow out of this nonsense. These are world-class professionals playing in this league.
They deserve a world-class operation.