The Horan Quandry

It was summed up neatly by Abraham Vigoda in his question to the most recent Riveting! podcast:

“What happened to The Great Horan and why has she been replaced all summer, Olympics included, with The Average Horan that can’t seem to pass it to someone wearing the same shirt she’s wearing?”

So. First. Let’s take a quick look at what metrics we have; how did Horan look over the first half of the season?

Horan: by the numbers

Here’s Horan’s PMRs over the first nine games she’s played this season. I’ve added Crystal Dunn’s numbers, since the two played more-or-less as dual #8s during this time:

MatchdayOpponentHoran PMRDunn PMRComments
1Chicago (H)+10/-6+13/-3Good match from both #8s
2Tacoma (H)NRNRDidn’t screen tape for this match, but most observers agreed that neither player (Dunn, especially) played very well
3Orlando (A)NRNRRoad loss; both had decent matches, though
4Gotham (A)+11/-8+15/-3Horan had a mediocre match but it didn’t matter because Dunn was WotM
5Louisville (H)+24/-8+11/-2The two midfielders swapped; Dunn was just decent while Horan went into Great mode and was runaway WotM
6KC (H)+5/-1+12/-1The first signs of serious Horan Trouble; Dunn was fine but Horan had a very poor match
7North Carolina (A)NA+10/-11Horan had an “excused absence”; Dunn was poor (but the whole team didn’t do well, so…)
8-14Both players absent on international duty
15Gotham (H)+9/-9+11/-5Not a good match from Horan (Dunn did fine)
16Tacoma (A)+7/-9+5/-6Not a very good match for either player

Through eight matches – 688 minutes – Horan’s numbers are not good.

Her defending success – tackles and duels – is hovering around 50%. Her passing is better; high 70s, although her long passes drop into the 50s. The obvious problem comes in her finishing; one goal off 24 shots (11 – less than 50% – on target) with a conversion rate of 4%.

I knew all this, but, frankly, it was this moment at the Clink last Sunday that really drove it home to the point that I screenshot it. I meant to put it up with the last match report because it seemed so emblematic of that’s going on with Horan right now:

Image by Paramount+. Licensed under Fair Use.

That’s from the 61st minute. Tacoma was pressuring the left side of the Portland defense, but Rose Lavelle’s touch had just failed her and the ball ran to Natalia Kuikka, who had the situation well in hand…

…until Horan, chasing the play, slammed into Kuikka, jarring the ball loose and allowing Eugenie Le Sommer to pick it up and fire a shot that Hubly had to block for a corner kick.

Well. Goddamn.

That’s just…so not Great Horan. That’s not even Good Horan. That’s a…“WTF, Horan?” That’s not something a player with her head on straight does in the middle of a critical rivalry match.

And it’s not something that Portland can afford to do more of, especially against their danger teams, Tacoma and North Carolina. Over the last six matches the race looks like this:

Portland – 13 points
Tacoma – 15 points
Carolina – 12 points

Tacoma’s front six are becoming a genuine engine under Harvey, and to keep our Shield hopes alive the Thorns can’t afford a passenger. And right now Horan isn’t just a passenger, she’s a hot mess of a passenger.

So we’re not seeing things. It’s not an illusion, or an artifact. It’s not a team problem. It’s a Horan problem.

OK…It’s a Horan Problem. Do we know Why is there a problem?

This squad has been playing together since the Fall Series. Horan has missed a lot of time with the Nats, but when she’s been here she’s played with pretty much this same group. Some degree of disconnect is understandable…but to this extent? It seems that “she’s having trouble finding her role with the squad” is hard to buy as a reason for this.

Injury? Nothing’s been reported.

There’s speculation that her role with the Nats during the Olympics broke something in her…but as the table above shows, she was struggling well before she went to Tokyo.

I’ve read speculation that the transfer-to-Europe rumors may somehow be involved. Horan is already thinking about PSG or Lyon and that’s why she’s botching things here

That seems like the sort of mistake a veteran wouldn’t make, though. If Horan wants a call from Aulas she needs to show him on the pitch here that she’s worth that big money; crapping the bed in Seattle isn’t going to get you the price of satin sheets in Lyon.

In short, then; we dunno. There appears to be something going on mentally or emotionally with Horan…but it’s hard to tell what from where we sit.

So she just needs to figure out whatever and solve it, right?

That’s where it gets kind of worrying.

Because although we don’t really think of her this way, Horan has struggled with form over her whole Thorns career.

She was “good” from 2016 to midseason 2017. The Great Horan emerged in the middle of that season and continued on into 2018. Then in 2019 she crashed back to pre-Great form (or worse – she was the primary crater that made Black Autumn a smoking wreck…). She was “good to great” in 2020.

This season she’s been “good to tire fire”.

Why did things change in mid-2017? Why did they change again in 2019? (and it wasn’t just the World Cup – Horan struggled with her NWSL form before the tournament) Why is she struggling now?

Could it be that it’s because she doesn’t understand the “why” herself? That those changes are something outside her conscious ability to understand or control?

If so…that’s kind of a problem.

To run the table against Tacoma and Carolina the Thorns need Horan to be…better than she is now. “Great” would be awesome, but at the very least “better than this” is pretty much a bare minimum.

To do that she and her coaches and trainers need to understand the why and develop solutions.

And that’s where we’re left hanging – hoping that is what’s happening, and that the solution to the Horan Quandry – the Horan Problem – is both visible and obtainable.

And we have two weeks to find and implement it before it’s testing in Cary…

John Lawes
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11 thoughts on “The Horan Quandry

  1. As crazy as this sounds, maybe trade Horan to Racing for Tobin. I bet she would come back to the NWSL if it were for the Thorns. Celeste was in good form before the injury and I think she could hold down the 8. Am I crazy?

    1. I guess I’d say yes, that’s kinda crazy. Three reasons, two practical, one strategic:

      1) Tobin just signed for Arsenal so that ship sailed
      2) We could not trade her for expansion draft avoidance because there are two teams involved, and neither of them can offer us adequate compensation. If one gave us all of their allocation money ($300k) for her, what good would that do us?
      3) Horan is irreplaceable, regardless of her current form. Recall that she is the only NWSL player ever named MVP without winning the Golden Boot, which means her brilliance outshone the usually automatic pick. I liken her to Darlington Nagbe at the Timbers/USA, or N’Golo Kante at Chelsea/France. Crucial players whose team wins titles when they are there, and don’t when they’re not. Players that the rest of the team relies on by reflex (if I am being pressed I give it to them knowing they are the 99% safe outlet who will keep possession against any pressure). Even 75% Horan is better at this than anyone in the league except maybe peak Debinha.

      We just need to weather this storm, IMO. Other players can step up their games and pitch in, Rocky and Sinclair most notably. Great (or meh) as Horan can be, there are 10 other Thorns on the pitch.

      1. I agree completely Richard with your post. Don’t know what is wrong, don’t really want to guess, and I am all but positive she will again be the Great Horan. She is the franchise now. You are also right the other players are going to need to pick it up as well. I am hoping as we go forward Dunn becomes more aggressive.

  2. In re: Heath – I tend to agree with Richard; that’s…kinda crazy, for two reasons, one practical – she’s signed with the Arse, as Richard points out – the other experiential.

    Specifically, it was apparent to me that Heath was checked out of the NWSL as early as the spring of 2020. She opted out of every match the Thorns played that bizarre mini-season, her social media was virtually Thorns-free…she just appeared to be a player who had moved on.

    Which makes sense, when you think about it; what more does she have to prove here? Shield, two stars…maybe if she wanted to try and bag an MVP, but as Richard also points out, that’s damn deadly difficult without the scoring crown and that’s not Heath.

    Plus her bestie “Harry” Long was gone, and I never got the sense that she had another pal or pals here to that same degree. I think she likes Portland the place and I think she’s fond enough of the team in general, but…

    Why spend another couple of seasons grinding away in baseball fields in Tacoma or sweating buckets in the soulless Taco Bowl or whatever the hell they call their pitch in Houston when you could be playing for your long-time love Arsenal and take a shot at the WSL crown AND Champions League glory?

    So, no; I think the whole Heath thing (which is really common and I get it – Heath is perhaps the funnest, quirkiest, most entertaining player the Thorns ever had) is the most wishful of wishful thinking.

    Horan is The Franchise as it stands at the moment, which is why I wrote this piece and why I emphasized that figuring out what the hell her malfunction is and fixing it is so critical.

    My concern, though, is – as I also emphasized – that she’s struggled with maintaining Great form throughout her time here. It’s hard to be sure that it’s really her default setting. Obviously I want to believe it is. I want to believe that this is just a hiccup and she and the club will figure out a way to spark her and Dunn and Sinc and the rest of the Scoobies and will come out against Washington this coming weekend to destroy the Spirit and salt the ruins.

    But we won’t know until we see what happens.

    1. Funny thing about Heath is I see her age as a sort of sorry/not-sorry thing.

      The “not-sorry” part is that, because so much of her game is predicated on ball skills and trickery, she’s less vulnerable to the inevitable cost-of-aging loss of pace that eventually humbles even the greatest of attackers. She’s sort of the “anti-Weaver”; when Weaver’s speed goes – unless she is also crafty and anticipates that loss – her value is going to fall off the table. Heath? Much less so. I could much more easily see her hanging on into her late-ish thirties.

      But…the “sorry” part, though, is that she’s already racked up a pretty impressive history of injuries. Missing most of 2017, part of 2018, most of her 2020-2021 MUFC season…and that’s not going to improve as she gets older. I’d guess she’s one more serious leg injury away from a forced retirement.

      Horan at 27 is at her physical prime (most pro aerobic athletes peak around 25-28) and so should have another six or seven good years in her if she can get a handle on what the hell happens to her when these 2019/2021 into-the-tank seasons happen.

  3. John, I came to the same conclusion as you (though a day later and without reading this first).

    Today I looked up the offensive efficiency of Leroux and Balcer, then scrolled down and saw incredibly, uncharacteristically inefficient Horan has been.

    One thing worth pointing out here: the June 5 home match against Louisville is Horan’s absolute outlier in an otherwise forgettable year-to-date.

    Against Louisville, Horan scored her lone goal of 2021 – that crazy shross/bolloxed service -to-Charley from 27+ yards out that momentarily froze Betos and bounced in like a hole-in-one. She also picked up her lone assist that night. Indeed, Horan was an absolute beast — taking 10 shots (of Portland’s 28), putting 4 on goal, and probably should have scored a hat trick herself.

    Worth noting: Sinc skipped that game, and Horan had tons of room to operate and play faster against an admittedly overmatched opponent. She was clearly feeling herself that night, both attacking and creating.

    I think we’ve already gone over this problem many times. As much as we all love Sinc, and as useful as she still is (e.g., the PK against Gotham, and creating the opportunity for Smith that led to it), the team is s-l-o-w and clogged in the midfield when she’s out there, and that affects both Horan and Dunn, as well as where they can play and what they can do.

    That’s not the only reason for The Meh Horan, but it’s part of the puzzle. Take that match out of her 2021 stats, and Horan has 0 goals, 0 assists, 14 shots, and 7 shots on goal in 7 matches played. That’s decidedly NOT GREAT and not even NOT GOOD. That’s Meh Horan.

    1. Corrections… and it’s even worse than we thought!

      According to NWSL gamelogs, in 8 games to date Horan has taken 33 shots (including 9 blocked shots), 11 shots on goal. So, take out the Louisville anomaly, and she’s sitting on 23 shots, 7 on goal, with 0 goals and 0 assists. As you noted, her passing is good at 78%, but her long passes are unremarkable at 54% and she’s quite mediocre at winning the ball (50% on headers won, 49% on duels won, 43.5% on tackles won).

      Just a bad year so far. Meh.

    2. Yeah…I’m coming around to seeing Sinc as a really troubling piece of this puzzle.

      Agree that she still brings a lot to the pitch in terms of string-pulling and creation…but more and more I wonder if that’s sufficient to balance out the degree to which she slows down the pace of the attack and forces her teammates around her to move out of their strengths to make room for her.

      The stats this season mirror the problems Horan had in 2019. We tend to think of Black Autumn as a team-wide collapse, and, yes, Heath and Sinclair both returned from the World Cup shadows of themselves. But it was Horan that completely imploded…and in particular in the context of how huge she’d been the previous year.

      That’s why I said that these roller-coaster changes in form kind of worry me about Horan. It’s not a one-off, the way Sinclair’s 2014 turned out to be. It’s starting to look more like a feature than a bug for her, and I only hope that this doesn’t turn out to be like 2019, where Horan never did turn things around and was a huge part of the squad crashing out of the semifinal.

      Fingers crossed…

  4. Horan is an incredibly good all-around player, but to be at her best offensively she needs lots of space to operate and needs to get into a rhythm. When she has all of that, that’s when we see the whole bag of tricks coming out, like she showed in that June 5 Louisville match.

    As for Sinc… it’s such a hard call. I do think that what happens is that opponents hunker down against us when Sinc is out there, and so nothing comes easy unless there’s an unforced error which she or someone else is able to pounce on. Sinc can also be crafty in ways that only Horan can also approach. It’s a bit like watching Carli Lloyd, you know? Only Lloyd could have bagged that header against us; Menges played her extremely well, and Lloyd still got it off and placed it where no one could stop it. But there are costs to playing Lloyd too, in a system and league that’s better suited to the pace of Onomonu and Purce.

    Alas, the field gets very short when Sinc’s out there, and one of our real strengths is all the speed we now have at forward (Charley, Weaver, and to a lesser extent Smith). I know Route 1 and counters aren’t elegant, but damn they can be effective!

    Anyway, all of this is why I have wondered about platooning Sinc at the 6 with Salem, who is having a terrific year but is also taking a pounding. I hold my breath every time Salem goes down and is slow to get up, because I know she’s tough and is getting beaten up out there.

    Maybe there’s pragmatic value in having Sinc move up or back during the match, and/or subbing her off or on. I think Sinc could find players like Horan and Dunn, and the speedy forwards, and still cheat up to take those volleys and shots from outside the box… and help keep both Salem and herself fresh for the two-plus grueling months ahead.

    1. I’m not sure if the Louisville match is a very good predictor for what Horan’s got this season. They really were a bad team at that point. But…that’s kind of immaterial, because we’ve SEEN what she’s got when she’s in Great mode.

      I don’t see how Sinclair helps at the #9. We’ve got a ton of strikers, and one of the whole reasons that Sinc was pulled back is that she was struggling against central defenders and needed more space to work.

      At the #6?

      Well…that’s actually a well-traveled road. Michelle Akers went from a pure striker to a midfield destroyer as CFIDS wore her down. I can’t imagine that the example hasn’t come up in discussions between Sinc, Parsons, and the other coaches and people in the FO, so my guess is that either Sinc torpedoed the idea, or that between them they concluded it wasn’t practical. So I’m not very confident that we’ll see it happening in the near future (i.e. the remainder of this season…)


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