One thing we’ve not really discussed in our digression on all things new and Thorny is our new head coach, Rhian Wilkinson.
We’ve pulled over the draft, worked over the FO (for failing to hunt Nazis!), talked about who’s signed, who’s not, and who we might see on the pitch in the late winter.
One thing we haven’t really gone into is our new gaffer.
And I think we should, because who and what she is as a coach, as both an off- and 0n-field manager, is going to go a long way to shaping the Thorns we’re going to see.
Over at Stumptown Friend of the Blog Trail33 has been desperately trying to turn the Nasello Express onto a siding so we can talk about actual soccer, and (as I noted to him in an earlier comment) the problem is that right now the conversation is kind of cut short by our lack of hard information:
“Largely because the focus would go something like this:
Fan #1: Hey, how about that… (Coffey, Beckham, Provenzano)! What’s she bring?
Fan #2 (who has seen at least some match footage of the draftees and not just highlights) Well, she… (describes how the draftee looked)
Fan #1 Cool! Whaddya think she’ll do here?
Fan #2 Well…(speculates based on NCAA performance, while knowing that there’s a huge suite of unknown unknowns that will impact that speculation)
Fan #1 Sweet! Can’t wait!
And this offseason the speculation is even MORE speculative seeing as we have a new HC, too, whose approach to the team we have no real sense for yet.”
So I thought I’d try and shed some light on at least some of the unknowns. Specifically, is there anything we can learn about our new HC. Can we dig up some hard evidence of how she functions as a coach? Is there a paper – or at least a digital – trail we can follow to get some idea what sort of coach she might be. With that in mind, I plunged into the Internet.
How it started:
How it went:
The paper trail? It’s just not there.
Here’s what the Internet says about Wilkinson (from her Wikipedia entry):
“Wilkinson was a volunteer assistant coach at her alma mater, University of Tennessee. She also served as an assistant coach for the Canadian women’s national team, and led their under-20 and under-17 programs. In February 2021, she was appointed as assistant manager of the England women’s national team…(i)n November 2021, she was named head coach of Portland Thorns FC…”
Lots of assistant time; UT, CWNT, England WNT. The only place she seems to have had the head coach position was for the Canada juniors.
Wilkinson retired as a player in January 2017. She was in England as assistant in February 2021…so her period with the CWNT juniors had to start some time after that.
This piece in the Montreal Gazette pins part of this time down. I can’t seem to find when Wilkinson was brought onto the Canada Soccer Association, but per the Gazette she was assisting the U-17 head coach Bev Priestman at the CONCACAF U-17 championship by the spring of 2018, and took over the squad in November, just in time to coach the U-17s through the juniors World Cup in Uruguay.
I thought there might be something useful from her time with the U-20s…but the only international competition that side played between 2017 and 2021 was the CONCACAF Championship (where they finished fourth and thus out of the U-20 World Cup that year) and the record shows Daniel Worthington as the manager.
The next tournament for the U-17s was the 2020 CONCACAF championship, which was canceled by the ‘rona, and as we know by late 2021 Wilkinson was with the Thorns.
So this appears to pin down Wilkinson’s actual physical record as a head coach to just November-December 2018 and the U-17 World Cup that year.
So. How’d she do?
Not badly, given her short prep time. The Canucks played a total of six matches, three in the group stage, a quarterfinal, a semifinal, and the third place match.
What’s frustrating is that I can’t find any sort of match report for any of these games. If there was any local coverage it’s in Spanish and on some Uruguayan outlet (and it’s worth noting that the locals were massively disinterested in the tournament – the FIFA site gives the attendance of all the Canada matches as in the low hundreds) so it’s unlikely that there was any sort of report in the Montevideo Light and Shopper.
All we have to go on is the bare-bones stats at the FIFA website.
And what if gives us is this:
Wilkinson’s squad went 2-0-1 in Group D; beating first Colombia 3-nil and then the Republic of Korea 2-nil before dropping the last group match to Spain 0-5 to let Spain go through top of group; as runner-up Canada drew the German side that had topped Group C.
Both teams had identical records, but the Germans had a +6 goal differential – Canada’s shelling by La Roja left them exactly at zero.
Canada was very much a second half squad in the group stage; they nearly didn’t score a goal before the hour, Huitema’s 59th minute strike against Korea barely beating the clock. Here’s all Canada’s group stage goals:
against Colombia – 76′ (Huitema), 88′ (Williams), 93′ (DeFillipo);
against Korea – 59′ (Huitema), 79′ (Kazanjian)
You’ll also notice how hard this Wilkinson squad leaned on Jordyn Huitema; not entirely surprising given she’s the young star of Canada soccer and a player who has been compared favorably to Christine Sinclair.
The Canucks scraped out a 1-nil win against Germany to make the semifinal. Huitema got the lone goal in the 82nd minute.
There they went down by a single goal to Mexico (who went on to lose the Final to Spain), conceding a penalty in the 25th minute.
Wilkinson’s squad lost again in the third place match, falling 1-2 to New Zealand. Staying consistent to their tournament form the Canucks gave up early goals (1st and 25th minute) to the Ferns before Kazanjian pulled one back in the 82nd.
What can we get from all this?
Well, (taking as read that Wilkinson rotated heavily against Spain and tanked that match intentionally) it seems like her teams can score pretty readily as well as defend at least decently – although giving up five, even to a team like Spain and even conceding the match before kickoff, suggests that in Wilkinson’s rotation she might have neglected something in back – and can grind out low-scoring games in knockout situations.
These Wilkinson teams consistently scored late, so they had to be set up to defend stoutly early. If you scored on them first, they had trouble responding.
Wilkinson’s U-17s were also kind of an all-or-nothing squad in Uruguay; unlike her predecessors she never drew – three wins, three losses. That’s kind of deceiving, though; one of those losses was clearly thrown away – the final group stage match.
But, that, in turn, is kind of a head-scratcher. Losing to Spain ensured a quarterfinal meeting with Germany…but the German U-17’s aren’t “Germany”- they’ve never finished higher than third at a junior World Cup and that was ten years ago.
Winning the group would have meant facing North Korea, who have won this thing twice, been runners-up once, and have been knocked out in the group in only one of the six junior world cups played. Did Wilkinson deliberately tank the Spain group match to get the softer draw?
Whether she did or not, Wilkinson’s side did well in Uruguay; fourth place was the best result that a Canada U-17 side has ever achieved at the junior WC:
What about her squad? How did she run them out? Did she have a few favorites, or tend to bring in different XIs to adjust to her opponents and match state?
Here’s her lineups and substitutes for all six matches. A green box means a start, a yellow means a sub on (with the player subbed off and the time):
That”s hard to read, so let’s break it down a bit. Here’s her XIs from the group stage:
Clearly Wilkinson had several players she leaned hard on in the group; Karpenko in goal, Rose, Walk, and Portelance in back, and Shaw, Kazanjian, and Balata in midfield.
She seems to have swapped her forwards around quite a bit (and I’m gonna bet that several of those players are really attacking midfielders – that’s way too many forwards…); obviously Huitema, but also Novak, Williams, and Riviere. De Fillipo seems to have always been the super-sub.
What’s interesting is her sub pattern for the first two matches (Wilkinson obviously mailed in the Spain game…).
Against Colombia she seems to have had little concern despite the scoreless draw before finally inserting Noval near the hour.
Korea? Two subs at halftime! Clearly that scoreless draw worried her a bit more, and she got the result again late.
Here’s her lineups in the knockouts:
The starters up front and in midfield are much more consistent; Huitema, obviously (again) along with Riviere and Novak up front (De Fillipo is still subbing in, always for Williams), and Shaw, Kazanjian, and Balata in midfield.
The backline, on the other hand, is a bit less consistent; Karpenko and Antoine play all three and Hainish sits three out, but Rose, Young, Portelande, and Vallerand all swap in and out (Walk seemingly as a late match sub) pretty freely. Not sure if this was because of individual form, opponent, or a bit of both. Again…damn not having match reports.
How does this work over the full tournament?
Twelve players are on the pitch nearly all the time (and, indeed, Karpenko, Antoine, Rose, Riviere, Shaw, and Huitema probably would have started all six had Wilkinson not rotated heavily against Spain…)
Wilkinson seems to have strong preferences on player roles; seven of those players (Antoine, Rose, Huitema, Riviere, Karpenko, Kazanjian, and Shaw) always started and never subbed in, one (De Fillipo) always subbed in and never started, and four (Walk, Novak, Williams, and Balata) always do both. Balata and Walk, in particular, were Wilkinson’s switchblades in Uruguay.
That’s what we have as a record for our new head coach. Six games.
How all this will play out here in Portland I’m not sure. But I hope this has given us all a bit more insight into Coach Wilkinson as well as something more to think and talk about until the new year and the next season.
Here’s hoping that 2022 will be a better year – in every way – than 2021.