The NWSL Fall Classic (Fall Series, whatever they’re calling this thing…) schedule finally dropped.
Sort of. We now know that the Thorns will play OL Reign here September 12, and Utah here September 20, and away at Utah 10/3, and Tacoma 10/10.
It looks like the Thorns are going to be close to full strength. The latest photoshoot suggested that Sophia Smith is working out with the club, and that Horan and Sauerbrunn are, as well, so all three are likely to be match-fit in almost two weeks. Bixby, obviously, is still out post-op, and so far as I can tell Heath and Franch are not in the lineup, either.
(And merely as an aside…WTF happened to the frantic speculation over Heath’s supposed loan to Manchester United? The Twitterverse has gone utterly silent. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Heath (and Press, who was also named) could sneak into the UK without comment, or that MUFC would not announce a deal if one had been signed. So my presumption is that this thing, if it ever WAS a thing, broke up and sank somewhere. But I wonder if it ever really was anything, any more than the Dunn-to-Portland “deal” was ever really a thing?)
(Update 9/5: Apparently it IS a thing, and both Heath and Press are going to be Red Devils (does MU Women have the same nickname as the men? Or are they something different?) until May of 2021.
And then, I note in passing, it’s highly likely that the USWNT will be locked into preparations for the 2021 Olympics, meaning that Heath will be unavailable to Portland until midsummer at the earliest. Hmmm…)
Anyway, the “Fall Series” seems…kind of pointless to me.
I mean, I’m glad the league is getting the revenue. I hope that it’s done as safely as the bubble in Utah; a bunch of random games will be worse than pointless if some asymptomatic player sickens a dozen teammates or opponents.
But the games themselves? What’s there? This doesn’t “go anywhere”, there’s no progression; this isn’t anything like a “season”.
And, worse, the opponents provide no real competition for Portland; both OLR and Utah are shells, with many of their important pieces overseas or opting out.
So despite what appears to be a close-to-the-full-rebuild lineup playing for the Thorns, it’s going to be hard to assess how well the team has done with that rebuilding because the quality of the opposition is so sketchy.
Not that I won’t watch, mind.
But what it will tell us about the whole 2020 Project? I’m not sure.
Unless the Thorns look awful against these two temporarily-tomato-cans.
Hopefully, though. Coach Parsons can use what we saw from our players in Utah in July to avoid such a brutally embarrassing outcome.
The things we did last summer
Here’s some unpleasant reading, from Chris Henderson’s Twitter feed:
That’s a team that generated a crap-ton of chances but couldn’t finish worth a goddamn lick. And that gave UP a crap-ton of good chances that their opponents either couldn’t finish, or, as in three of the four games of the group stage and the quarterfinal, were denied by monster goalkeeping.
I know we want to try and put the best gloss on the Challenge Cup we can, but the hard facts are that as a team, Portland;
1. Lost to NCC in a match that, honestly, should have been a worse defeat if not for Bixby,
2. Played to a scoreless draw against an utterly toothless Chicago who couldn’t even put a shot on goal,
3. Played a fairly decent 1-1 draw with Washington,
4. Played another scoreless draw with a fairly dire OLR,
5. Got a miracle win over NCC on a single well-crafted goal and a keeper gone mad, and
6. Went down quietly before Houston (who were the champs, so kind of understandable but still not really that great).
Were we the worst team in the tournament? In the group stage, definitely. Perhaps not by much…but enough. And in the knockouts? Certainly no better than third, and probably closer to fourth.
Sure, we can make excuses about missing players and injuries and bad luck. But a team has to do the absolute best they can with what they have, and the numbers show that we didn’t do that, at least not other than one game out of six.
The bottom line for me is how Utah showed how thin we are. If the starters are missing, or have a bad game, our reserves can’t carry the load…and in the small-roster world of the NWSL that’s critical. That kept the team in the hunt last season; Purce and Charley got huge in June with the Nats missing and kept the Thorns from tanking the season.
But Utah showed us the opposite – with the big names gone, our roleplayers weren’t able to keep things close enough to nick points where we needed to.
So what I want is for our FO to avoid the mistakes of 2017-2019, and to keep shaking the bushes to find players who CAN do that.
I don’t think we’re doooomed…but I think we’re going to have a hard time in the post-Plague league if we don’t get proactive now, continue chasing signings, continue the rebuild and even going further, like looking for a Sinc-replacement and a Menges-replacement and a Kling-replacement and a Heath-replacement (we got Franch covered…).
In short…we got a LOT of work still to do. And the place to start is by not making excuses for Utah. Let’s accept we were not-good and move on to do better this fall.
Speaking of work to do, here’s the collective InStat Index for the team over the six-match run:
Quick reminder: the InStat “Index” is one of those “magic stats” that are hard to really explain. When I got InStat data back in 2018 I tried to get the tovarische to explain exactly how they derived their magic number and got something that sounded like your drunk uncle explaining how the transporter in “Star Trek” worked.
So it’s not a “pure” stat, and based on what I understand of it can be shaded and gimmicked – for one thing, it over-rates goalkeepers quite badly – and has to be considered as more of a subjective than an objective metric.
But it has some value as a relative assessment of performance. The rule of thumb for turning the “Index” numbers into a performance review is pretty much as follows:
150 and below: anything below 150 is not a very good outing. Anything close to 100 is dire.
150 to 170 is “decent”, an average player having an average match,
170 to 200 is “good”. Above 185 or so is “very good”,
200 to 300? 200 to 250 is one hell of a match. Anything over 250 is a monster.
300 and above? That’s fucking superhuman, and is indicative of an dominating performance.
So how did our Muscovites see the Thorns in Utah? Let’s break it down individually, but, first, let’s do some sorting by average (or mean):
No real surprises there, right? The Good?
Well, Eckerstrom at the top obviously because of her huge quarterfinal (and because InStat’s Index tends to grossly over-value goalkeepers). Right below her all the familiar stalwarts – Horan, Sinclair, Menges – but also some less familiar names. How about you, Westphal?
(And I’d like to point you to the “median” value column. “Median” is a good statistic to use to evaluate a dataset affected by outliers, like Horan’s is here.
Horan’s average gets a huge boost from her immense outing against Washington; take away that and her average drops into the high 180s. Westphal, on the other hand, never had a game that big, but was solidly “outstanding” for all six matches. Her average and median are identical in the 200s, showing how consistently fine she was, and is also solidly above Horan’s median, reminding us of the level at which she was playing.
So, again; you go, Westphal – you tore it up in Zion.)
And Kelli Hubly! She looked good to me in Utah and apparently to the boys in Moscow, too; hell of a fine body of work for someone who was supposed to be no more than a journeywoman…
Bella Bixby takes a hit for her concessions against The Damned on Matchday 1, which I think is a trifle harsh, because otherwise she’s right there behind Eckerstrom with an average of 196.
Below them, a mix of veteran role-players like Salem and Kat Reynolds (“Kren”) and promising youngsters, Ogle and Pogarch, doing pretty much what they were supposed to do; doing decent jobs and playing decent games.
Celeste Boureille had a decent run until the semifinal – without that 148 her average is 172, which put her solidly in the middle of the average-pack – but was what she’s supposed to be, generally-steady veteran depth. She’s currently in France on loan, though, so she won’t be here to help out.
Rodriguez‘s evaluation comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I thought she generally did quite well in Utah, but the tovarisches disagree. She is only credited with one truly outstanding game, the quarterfinal, though she’s rated close to 200 against Washington on Matchday 3. But they rate her in the barely-better-than-good-170s against the Reign and Chicago, and her work in the other two matches is quite average.
Sorry, comrades, but we might have to agree to disagree on that one.
Sauerbrunn has only a single data point, so for overall assessment in Utah her lonely Index is kind of useless.
Seiler is at the low range for a starter but not really for a player just returning to the pitch after a severe injury, and Smithers, like Sauerbrunn, really doesn’t have enough of a data file.
Weaver‘s numbers don’t look great but are appropriate for what she is; a rookie. She gets a big 200-plus-bump from her poacher’s goal in the quarterfinal but was completely useless in the semifinal and in the group stage wobbled up and down around the slightly-better-than-replacement-level-line, ranging from ” really meh” (against The Damned on Matchday 1) to “not bad!” against the Spirit two games later.
That’s a rookie and a rookie forward, at that: inconsistent, streaky, bouncing up and down. I think I said something about how she looked promising in Utah but mostly just that – promise. She hasn’t really shown that she can consistently fulfill that promise…yet.
At the bottom?
No surprise here, either, given all the chances and the failure to score from them; all the other forwards.
Simone Charley, in particular, did quite poorly in Utah, only evading the red lantern by her fluke goal on Matchday 1. Both Lussi and Everett also look very, very mediocre by these Russian lights.
What needs to happen before the middle of September to end up looking better in Portland in September than we did in Utah in July? Well…
- Smith needs to get healthy and play up to her hype, because Lussi, Charley, and Everett ain’t getting it done, and Weaver needs the help,
- Rodriguez needs to do more of what she does when she’s on; we need her to be as good as she can be, consistently, rather than on-and-off,
- We need better play from the DMs – either Salem, Seiler, or Boureille, or some combination of all three, and
- The players who showed well in Utah need to keep doing well here in Portland.
I sure wish we were playing better opponents. But, lacking that, we need to play well as a team, like a team who’s rebuilding is working successfully. In Utah we had to be content with individual success.
Now we need to show we can play well – as a team.