On Monday 11/29 the Thorns “announced” the signing we’ve all known was a done deal for weeks; Rhian Wilkinson as head coach of the club.
Perhaps the least surprising “announcement” in history.
Welcome to Portland, eh? You now have eleven days to produce your list of players protected from the California vultures that will arrive a week after that to pick at your liver. Good luck. You’ll need it.
Now we’ve put in train the official “route-to-next-season”, it’s surely time and past time to begin the extravagant guessing, speculation, rumor-mongering, fear-stirring, and penumbra of bullshit that we lump under the term “silly season”.
So…since we have no Thorns soccer, what silly things can we discuss?
HELLO! DUH! THE Expansion Draft?
The new coach and the new GM are, presumably, working on the moves the club need to make before the protected list comes out December 10th, and the draft itself (a week later, on the 17th).
Which means we’ll have another week and a half to bloviate on who we think “needs” to be protected from California predation and who gets to take their chances.
I honestly have no idea of how the new management is planning to set up the club for next season, and I also have no insight into things like the rumors that Angela Salem might retire or Lindsey Horan might opt for some big EuroBucks. And I want to emphasize that 1) the protection list will be who it will be, and 2) we’re going to lose a player or two we’ll miss.
But with those caveats here’s my thoughts on all that expansion-drafty stuff.
Update: Timber Dave reminded me in the comments that it’s not “nine and an allocated”, it’s “nine total WITH the allocated”, so I’m revising the lists. But he also repeats the rumor that Salem is gone, and until we get hard confirmation of that I’m going to keep her in here. She’s a critical piece and will need to be treated as such until she’s not.
Well, the starting forwards by the end of last season were Morgan Weaver and Sophia Smith. I can’t see that changing in ’22, so we can’t really afford to pass them over to fucking San Diego or Angel City, so they go on the list. That’s also the one allocated player allowed to be protected, since Smith is one of the two Thorns on the ’21 allocated list.
The other rostered forwards are Christine Sinclair, Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi, and Marissa Everett. Amirah Ali, although she’s not rostered, is vulnerable in that she can be taken if we don’t protect her rights.
Would you protect Charley over the two starters? Or Lussi? Or Everett? I think the answer is self-evidently “no”, so they get hung out there (even though Charley was a hell of an asset last season, to the point where I wonder if we didn’t make a mistake benching her – see below…). Ali has to go on the victim’s list, too; she’s a terrific prospect but still just a prospect
Sinclair is a problem for me. She’s the captain, the only remaining plankowner. We owe her a debt so big it’s nearly impossible to tot up.
She’s also as old as the Canadian Shield, on the slow downside of her career, and might – might; we haven’t heard her actually say this – retire if picked. Leaving her unprotected is potentially risky; it’s both a sort of slight to an honored veteran, and there’s the off chance that one of the newcomers will take her as a tentpole sort of player.
Protected List 1: Smith (A1), Weaver (2)
Unprotected: Sinclair, Lussi, Charley, Everett, Ali
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Salem will be here next season. She’s our only starting DM; she has to stay. Who else?
Lindsey Horan? Obviously, also presuming she’s here.
Raquel Rodriguez, Celeste Boureille, Olivia Moultrie, Crystal Dunn, and Yasmeen Ryan, and Sam Coffey still in the draft pipeline
That’s tough, because remember we only have five slots left and we haven’t even got to the defenders and keepers.
We need midfield depth, though, so I’m going to pick two more here. Out of this group I think the obvious choices are Dunn and Rodriguez, although I was really unimpressed with Dunn last season and she’s going to be out for most or all of 2022 I think she’s has too much promise and is too big a pick-risk to leave available.
Protected List 2: Smith (A1), Weaver (2), Salem (3), Horan (4), Rodriguez (5), Dunn (6)
Unprotected: Sinclair, Lussi, Charley, Everett, Ali, Boureille, Moultrie, Ryan, Coffey
I’m damned if I’m shipping Emily Menges to San Diego, so she’s on the list. And who else?
Sauerbrunn and Klingenberg are terrific players, but not terrific players of the Thorns’ future. They’re going to have to risk it. We only have three slots left, and one is going to have to be a goalkeeper, so we get one defender plus Menges.
I’m going with Natalia Kuikka as that one, so there’s no slot lefts for Kelli Hubly, Madison Pogarch, Hannah Betfort, Meghan Nally, and Christen Westphal.
Now…let’s say Timber Dave is right and Salem is gone. If so, I’m going to pick another defender.
I’m kind of worried about Westphal; she had some sort of disabling condition at the end of last season. She’s a steady, versatile defender, but she’s not better than Kuikka and she might possibly have long term injury issues. So she’s off the protected list.
The remaining defenders are kind of a tossup, but for me it comes down to a choice between Kelli Hubly and Madison Pogarch. Hubly is the better player now, but she’s three years older and a lot slower than Pogarch, who is probably the defender of three years from now. I’m sort of a Hubly fan, so let’s protect Hubs and Pogarch will have to stand the gaff.
Protected List 3: Smith (A1), Weaver (2), Salem (3), Horan (4), Rodriguez (5), Dunn (6), Menges (7), Kuikka (8)
Unprotected: Sinclair, Lussi, Charley, Everett, Ali, Boureille, Moultrie, Ryan, Coffey, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg, Pogarch, Betfort, Nally, Hubly, Westphal
We have one protected slot left, so eay-peasy, it’s Bixby. I’m still not sure why we even traded for Smith, but maybe it was as draft bait in case the FO team in LA is stupid.
Protected List – Final: Smith, S. (A1), Weaver (2), Salem (3), Horan (4), Rodriguez (5), Dunn (6), Menges (7), Kuikka (8), Bixby (9)
Unprotected – Final: Sinclair, Lussi, Charley, Everett, Ali, Boureille, Moultrie, Ryan, Coffey, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg, Pogarch, Betfort, Nally, Hubly, Westphal, Smith, A.
I’m certain willing to entertain alternatives, mind, but those seem like kind of no-brainers.
Okay. Now…How About Fixing What Went Wrong in 2021?
Mind you…nicking the Shield and a semifinal berth means that there wasn’t a lot that “went wrong”. But certainly when you’re the Thorns a star every season is the goal, and it’s been a solid three seasons (2020 was a wash and don’t even think of mentioning the ridiculous “Fall Series”, the ’21 “made for TV” Challenge Cup, or the “hey, we won two games!” WICC whatever-the-goblet-is-called…) since the squad has been on the top step of something.
So…what did “go wrong”?
The young starting forwards couldn’t score.
Neither Weaver (35 shots, 17 SOG, 4% conversion) or Smith (78 shots, 38 SOG, 9% conversion) were able to consistently turn their visible strengths – pace and aggression (Weaver), intelligence and ball-handling (Smith) – into goals.
As simple as that is, the solution is also simple; both fowards need to convert more.
Weaver seldom shoots – 35 shots in 1,176 minutes (33.6min/shot) compared to Simone Charley (35 shots in 987 minutes, or 28.2min/shot) – and when she does although she puts about half on frame those are usually either soft or right at the keeper. Weaver simply needs to learn to place her shot better and give it some velocity. Practice and coaching can help with that.
Smith shoots like crazy – 78 shots in 1,532 minutes (19.6min/shot) – and also puts about half her shots on target. She has similar problems with location and pace of her shooting, and could use the same remedial training.
Interestingly, Charley is more efficient than both starters; her conversion rate is 14%, and she puts nearly a third of her SOG into the bag.
So that kind of begs the question…is it that the starting forwards can’t score or are we starting the wrong forwards?
The squad chose to disappear, both at odd times as well as at the end of the season.
Three times this season the Thorns needed to rise to overcome difficult matches; at Chicago on Matchday 17, on the final day of the season against The Damned, and in the semifinal.
All three times that didn’t happen. At Bridgeview the team never showed up. At the last regular season game the Courage were a dismasted wreck practically begging to be holed and sunk, but after a fairly decent opening half hour the Thorns just seemed to lose interest and wandered away:
The Thorns had already done enough to have nicked a goal by the half hour – they didn’t, mind, because “see above” the forwards, etc – but after that? Not even “half” a goal in xG. WTF, Thorns? C’mon! This is The Damned! The loathed Demons of Cary! You can’t even work up enough give a shit to sink them out of the playoffs?
And the semifinal we know. Just nothing in the tank.
One possible issue may have involved the return of the internationals after the Olympics. Here’s the 2021 season broken down into a graphic:
Based on results you can break the 2021 season down further into roughly three blocks of games.
Matchdays 1 through 7: The first block was from April to the end of May, when the team had an up-and-down early season…
A shocking 5-nil whipping of eventual runner-up Chicago, somewhat-expected losses to The Damned and Tacoma and definitely-expected wins over KC and Louisville, and a rather surprising stumble against Orlando while The Purple was in it’s freakish early season form.
One game over .500, so not terrific, not awful…the up and down of a team finding itself.
Matchdays 8 through 18: This included the period through Matchday 15 in which the internationals – Sinclair and the USWNT players Horan, Dunn, and Sauerbrunn – were playing at the Olympic Games.
The left-behinders and replacements went on an absolute tear, much like they did in 2019, winning 6 out of 8 without a loss. After the Nats returned the Thorns dropped a clanger to Tacoma but rallied to finally whip The Damned in their own Hellmouth.
Matchdays 19 through 24: In an ugly reminder of Black Autumn 2019, the Thorns staggered into the playoffs struggling to get a result.
Included in this stretch is the Matchday 20 “Simon Steal” that shipped Houston two goals and the Matchday 22 “Penso Robbery” that gifted a toothless Tacoma the penalty and the draw, but also a couple of inexcusably poor games – a bad loss at Chicago and the draw to a hopeless Kansas City, as well as the dispirited slog with the Damned to see who could lose first on Matchday 24.
Was this some sort of Parsons issue? Was he a firecracker when he had a team of young hopefuls but a lump when the big names were on the pitch?
Or was it the internationals themselves, burnt out from the COVID Olympics and dragging their tails into the post-season?
Whatever it was, Coach Wilkinson is going to have to damn well ensure it what happened in 2019 and 2021 doesn’t happen again in 2022.
Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence.
The third time is enemy action.
The Horan Quandry and the Dunn Dilemma?
Well…it’s pretty unlikely that Dunn will see much action next season. She was definitely an issue last season; while she wanted to be an attacking piece when used as an attacking midfielder she ranged from muted to ineffective. I’m not sure what happened, but one of the issues that the coaching staff and FO will have to solve for 2023 is what to do with her.
Can she be effective as a #9? Should she move back to fullback, as she plays for the Nats? Something different?
I don’t really know…but something needs to change. She’s too expensive and takes too much roster space to be as ineffectual as she was in 2021.
Horan? Okay, now there’s a problem that needs solved most quick smart.
Because although we still think of her as we did during her monster second half of 2017 and her MVP 2018 season, it’s been a while since we’ve seen consistent Great Horan. Here’s her PMRs over the last four-and-a-half seasons:
Horan exploded in the latter half of 2017 (the rest of the team kind of did, too, but Horan was a monster outlier). She carried that form over into 2018.
But 2019 she cratered, and dragged the team down with her.
And this past season she faded even further.
Admittedly, 2021 is a small sample. Between the Olympics and my own failure to re-watch several matches I have data for only eleven matchdays. But she put up Great numbers for only two of those – Matchday 5 against Louisville and Matchday 20 against Houston – while stumbling badly in several others; her PMRs for the two matches immediately after the OG are the worst of her season, a net zero and a net negative.
Something went wrong for Horan in 2021, wronger than two years earlier. She’s a huge piece for the Thorns, and the management needs to help her turn that around.
Oh, yeah. And Speaking of Wilkinson…
After the dreadful revelations of the Riley File shocked all of us, the anger at the Thorns Front Office has solidified and principally around the person of former Thorns and present Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson.
The Thorns fan groups, the Riveters and the 107ist called for his immediate ouster, and since the Peregrine organization didn’t comply, has since called for a boycott of the organization’s merchandise as well as matchday concessions (which will be effectively moot until next spring after the end of the MLS playoffs…)
This stands in contrast to the Thorns players, who insisted that Gavin be suspended from active participation in Thorns business (and, as we know now, to be replaced by Karina LeBlanc (yay!)) until completion of the investigations directed by both the league and FIFA.
Here’s my two cents on this whole kerfluffle.
I am pretty sure that Gavin had, at least, “guilty knowledge” of Riley’s misdoin’s or, if not, should have been suspicious of the little bastard just from what did get out about his goings-on.
I have no proof of that either way, so I’m prepared to wait until either 1) the investigation results are released and he’s either cleared or damned, or 2) the league and club nerf the investigation, releasing only a “summary”, in which case it’s a la laterne, aristos.
I also think that the fan groups were nuts to think that they could get Gavin fired. Paulson has hung by his pal through the times he’s stepped on his poncho before. He’s not going to change now…and even more when he’s told to bend the knee by the fans!
Paulson has had run-ins with the ultras before; they both think they “own” the clubs – Paulson because, well, he’s got the paperwork…but the ultra fans because they kinda have a point – without the supporters there IS no club, just twenty-two people running around a field after a ball.
To make #GWOut the first and most non-negotiable demand simply ensured that the Riveters and Paulson would be locked into an impasse from which neither can back down.
I don’t think that’s gonna change unless and until the Yates investigation brings in the receipts against Gavin. Then Paulson will have a face-saving way to ease his buddy out and the fans can go back to complaining about beer prices and the shitty signings over the offseason. Let’s hope. Right now the impasse is doing nothing but poisoning things between team and fans.
Well…there’s the NCAA Draft two days after the Expansion Draft, but to get an idea of why I’m not going to spend any time talking about the top 100 college prospects this year here’s the pick order for the first round:
1 – SD or LOU (from AC)
2 – SD or LOU (from AC)
3 – NC (from KC)
4 – LOU
5 – ORL
6 – HOU
7 – KC (from NC)
8 – GFC
9 – WSH (from RGN)
10 – RGN (from POR)
11 – GFC (from CHI)
12 – KC (from WSH)
Not getting it yet? Okay. Here’s the SECOND round:
1 – SD or AC
2 – SD or AC
3 – OLR
4 – LOU
5 – ORL
6 – CRS
7 – CRS
8 – OLR
9 – CRS
10 – GFC
11 – HOU (from OLR)
12 – POR
Yeah. That’s it. Our FIRST pick is the last pick in the second round, twenty-fourth overall.
Our OTHER pick? We only have two.
Is the twelfth in the fourth round. Yep. LAST overall, 48th of 48.
One of the things I always admired about Mark Parsons was his ability to figure out ways to package garbage round picks and trades and make deals to get decent draftees. This offseason? I’m not sure that even Parsons’ draft mojo could improve our choices.
If we can steal a halfway-semi-decent college player we’ll be way ahead of the power curve.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement?
The most NWSL-ish story of 2021 is that despite being the single biggest potential impact on and change in the league we have next to nothing to talk about.
Supposedly the parties – the league and the Players Association (and, possibly, US Soccer) – have met and may be meeting. We know nothing about how often, or where, or what they discussed, let along how far along they are towards agreeing in a CBA.
And about the single biggest issue that agreement may discuss (or settle)…or not – the matter of free agency for the players?
We have nothing. We have no idea if the issue is still on the table.
Frankly, among the many problems that the Summer of Rileys exposed, one of the biggest is the horrible, crippling job precarity that young…hell, that nearly all women players outside of a tiny handful of established internationals..players face every day.
They have no hope of any sort of control over their work lives. The teams have the whip hand; between the twin blocks of “discovery” and the indefinite holding of player “rights” the team can choose to simply unperson a player by not signing her but holding her “rights”.
She can’t work anywhere else in the NWSL. She has no leverage to bargain with the club other than a move to an overseas league.
No wonder a coach or GM can feel confident that can rant at and belittle and worse at her. Unless she’s willing to go to a foreign country she’s stuck if she wants to play soccer for a living.
Free agency would shift some of that power to some players, the more unlimited the free agency the more players would be included in that power.
But. We have absolutely no idea whether that, or anything else, is being discussed, whether those discussions are proceeding towards an agreement or not, or pretty much anything else about the CBA.
Sponsorships and broadcast deals?
We’ve talked about this, but the real bottom line to “No More Side Hustles” is more money. That means more plutocrats coming in as owners, more and bigger sponsorship agreements, and, especially, a bigger and more conventional broadcast package.
It’s nice that the Final got half a million viewers on “big CBS”, but the reality is for the bulk of the season if you wanted to watch an NWSL game you had to go to your laptop or phone or have a television that could access streaming services.
A “big league” sport doesn’t have it’s games showing on fucking Twitch. It’s hard to feel professional and polished as a bunch of Cheeto-and-Code-Red-addled gamers are texting rabid nonsense on the sidebar to the right of your match stream.
And it doesn’t put much money, if any, in your pocket. I’m unsure if the league even managed to get any significant revenue out of the Twitch and Paramount+ deals. CBS? Yes; even the “CBSSN” channel – the 21st Century equivalent of the sorts of UHF stations that used to broadcast pro wrestling – had to pay something for content.
But let’s face it; the big money and the big exposure are on ESPN or Fox Sports or the networks.
Until the league can tie down a deal with one of them the whole problem of cash and exposure is a self-licking ice cream cone; the thrones and dominations of broadcasting can disrespect the league because it has no following and refuse to give it airtime, and because it gets no airtime the league has no following, is a niche sport, and can be cheerfully ignored and relegated to the streaming services and deep field broadcast platforms like Twitch.
No broadcast deals? No money. No money? No “No More Side Hustles”.
Can the league do better in 2022? Let’s hope so. How? I honestly have no idea. Anybody have some thoughts on how that could change?
Anyone? I’m talked out and I got nothin’, so if you’ve got some ideas let’s continue on in the comments…
Update 12/8: Per Kassouf, 12/7 was the deadline for contract options to be either exercised or lapsed, so we should be hearing from the Thorns FO sometime today who got extensions and who didn’t. Given the Thorns FO? We’ll see.
What might be one of the more significant changes in the league as a whole is in Orlando, where Alex Morgan is in the process of moving to California but Marta – who I thought might well retire – is coming back for another season. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes the thuggish nature of the Orlando club next season; those two had to have been fairly big influences in the locker room.