Thorns FC: Libertad o Muerte!

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.

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11 thoughts on “Thorns FC: Libertad o Muerte!

  1. Thanks John, but Wow there is not much to work with there. On the other hand, I like what I have seen so far. Her willingness to accept responsibility for the Nasello thing was commendable. I really think if she had thought Nasello would have been available before the draft she would have looked into her a little more carefully and I think her relationship with Nasello’s coach made her feel comfortable with the player but obviously her college coach did not know about the Twitter posts or if she did, did not mention them to Wilkenson. I am going to cut her a lot of slack for awhile because I like her and I wish her the best.
    I think her keeping Sophie Clough on as a assistant is a good omen and having Nadine in the staff will help. I would not be surprised to see her hire Salem as an assistant coach. But we still have to see how the Nasello issue is resolved. A test to come.

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    1. It’s not really up to Wilkinson whether the club signs Nasello.

      Oh, she can make a fuss if they do. And hopefully the club is making her part of the decision-making group. But KK and Paulson will make the final decision and Wilkinson’s options will be to resign, or to salute and move out smartly.

      I’m not nearly as concerned about that as about her tactical plan for the coming season, and I didn’t get a hugely valuable insight out of this. In particular, she leaned on Huitema like crazy, and the Thorns have no one like that, so it’s hard to tell what she’ll do with the sort of offense-by-committee she’s been left with…

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      1. Maybe she can turn Weaver in to a Jordyn Huitema. I admit I don’t know much about Huitema but they are both tall, with long blond pony tail. Welll that is a start.

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  2. I found a few more stats from the 2018 U17 WWC. https://us.women.soccerway.com/teams/canada/canada-u17/13822/squad/

    Overall, RW’s c.v. is really light – a few short-term assistant jobs and then boom – head coach of the #1 team in the world. That’s like Jose Mourinho’s two year rise from Porto’s club interpreter to head coach and UEFA CL winner.

    Here is her c.v. from Linked In:

    England and Team GB Assistant Coach
    The Football Association
    Jan 2021 – Present

    U17 and U20 Head Coach
    Canadian Soccer Association (Canada Soccer)
    Jul 2019 – Jan 2021

    Head of Women’s Soccer
    Vancouver Whitecaps FC
    Dec 2018 – Jul 2019

    Considering that the Canada youth stint was 50% COVID times and the England job was temporary for one tournament, I think we can say she has basically no practical coaching experience. PTFC is taking a bigger flyer on her than we did on Parsons. But that worked out OK, so I am not overly concerned.

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    1. I agree that her c.v. is pretty thin. In a sense she couldn’t have landed a better gig; she’s got a solid roster and one of the better support organizations in the NWSL.

      I’ll be interested to see if she tries to get the organization to hunt for a dominant #9 of the sort that she had with the Canada juniors in Huitema. The two traits that jumped out from the junior WC were 1) her teams scored late, if at all, and 2) the way her team really depended on a single player (Huitema) or a couple of players (Huitema and Kazanjian) for their offensive production.

      I can’t see her duplicating the “score late” thing here – over the past four years winning Thorns teams have depended on getting out front early – but I could definitely see her trying to acquire a dominant striker, or turn one of the current roster into that striker.

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    2. One thing in her c.v. that I find a trifle…concerning is the connection w Vancouver. The Whitecaps women’s organization has been linked to some pretty unsavory Rileyesque shenanigans and AFAIK has never really repudiated them or done the sort of ratissage of the staff involved needed to purge that shit.

      I don’t think she’s a Riley, obviously. But the staff in Vancouver was trained to look the other way when Riley sorts of shit went down. That’s not…reassuring.

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  3. I didn’t realize this site didn’t do automatic links, so I have a messy post in your approval links John.

    There are some Concacaf games from 2020. The Canadians were expected to win their group, but got upset by Jamaica. They beat up on Cuba only to run into the buzzsaw that was Trinity Rodman and Mia Fishel.

    Not sure what to make of that team, but there is some full game video if you want to watch it. I watched those US games hoping to see Sophia Smith play. Tactically, I didn’t see anything special but it’s a small sample size and that team got a lot of players moved up to the senior roster. Tonya Boychuck was probably her best player and she was the second best offensive player in her conference behind the player we drafted at 13.

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