Now comes the weird part of the soccer season.
“The fight is done and lost or won, the player files out through the gate…”
You don’t know that one?
Oh, seriously, now I have to point you to the old baseball poem by Grantland Rice, Game Called:
“Across the field of play
the dusk has come, the hour is late.
The fight is done and lost or won,
the player files out through the gate.
The tumult dies, the cheer is hushed,
the stands are bare, the park is still.
But through the night there shines the light,
home beyond the silent hill.”
It’s a great little poem, one of the few genuinely thoughtful poems about sports. Go, go read it. Please. Really. I’ll wait.
Okay, now. We ready to talk soccer?
So we’re going to start talking about the Thorns roster. Specifically, how the individual players – and their units as groups; keepers, backline, midfield, forwards – did last season.
We’re going to use a bunch of tools; the OPTA stats collected by the league, the “plus-minus ratings” I use to rate the players every match, and the collective memory of the matches themselves as documented here and at the league site.
The idea is to discuss each player’s performance over the course of the season and then to hand out a “grade”. How well did they do; how well at helping the team (to the Championship, as it turned out), how well compared to other comparable players across the league in some cases, or even how well by their own standards.
First, though, I want to repost this, something I wrote the last time we did this, back in 2019:
The Tipping Toddler (A Safety Advisory)
Before we go on, let me start with this.
I’m not here to slag off on the Thorns as a team, or any individual player. As a fan I love and support the squad, in victory or in defeat.
Some readers expressed concern that I was low-rating A.D. Franch last week when we looked at the keepers (in case you hadn’t guessed this was from 2019…)
That’s not the point of these analyses.
Professional soccer, all sport beyond pure recreational-level sport, is about not giving away the gift. It’s about excelling both as individuals and teams. For a team to excel the players and coaches have to be ruthless about examining their strengths – and their weaknesses. That’s what good players, and good teams do; that’s part of what makes them good.
Okay. So…back up there, that part about “loving and supporting” the team?
For many fans, perhaps most fans, that’s enough. They want to cheer and sing, to enjoy the efforts of their team and go home energized, full stop.
That’s great. That’s wonderful. That’s a healthy sort of fandom.
I’m not that sort of fan.
I can’t just cheer and sing and enjoy. I can’t just look at the pretty machine and love and admire how it goes.
I like taking the clockwork apart to see how it runs. I like to pull it apart to the pieces and then stare at the pieces thinking, and then try and jigger them back together to figure out if the damn thing is running perfectly, or whether there’s a better way to make it go.
I like to take the bits over to friends and lay them out, and then discuss what we all see there, and then debate and differ over what works and what doesn’t and whether we could build a better machine, and, if so, how.
So if you’re the love-and-support-is-perfect-full-stop sort of fan?
This blog series might not be your thing.
And that’s fine. We both love the Thorns, we just do it differently. There’s no one right way to be a fan.
But as I said – I’m not that fan, so this is your warning.
It’s like the little picture on the side of the five-gallon bucket, where the toddler is toppling headfirst into the bucket and drowning. This thing…
It’s your warning that danger might be inside this page, and that you might hear something about players you like, or love, that might upset you.
I don’t have to like that – and, hell, I don’t enjoy writing unhappy things about players I respect who are out training and working hard – but I won’t pretend it won’t happen.
So now you’ve seen the tipping toddler and are warned.
We’re going to look at some things that may not be pretty.
Are we still good?
Though the Thorns carried both Abby Smith and Shelby Hogan all season each played only 90 minutes; Hogan in the 1-1 draw at Angel City FC in July, Smith in the 3-1 loss to The Damned Courage in Cary in August.
Neither one did enough to be really evaluated.
But we’ll go with what we have. Let’s start from what was (in my opinion) the bottom of the keeper depth chart to the top.
In her only start poor Smith got hosed by her own defense, which picked a reeeeal bad time to really shit the bed against the Damned. I wrote;
“…except the once-formidable Thorns defense was an utter shitshow. You can point fingers at individuals…but the failure was comprehensive and team-wide.”
That said, Smith was her usual smorgasbord of contradictions in Cary; an entree of great saves sauced with a dumb brainfart in the 13th minute when she was nearly stripped in her own penalty area and had to be bailed out by heroic defending in front of her.
That’s always been my issue with her; she always seems to have that one potentially-match-losing-goof somewhere inside her head, and she saw so little use last season that it’s hard to tell whether she’s getting better with that little problem.
She’s still technically sound. But unless she can figure out how to go 90-plus without a grotesque error she’s stuck on the bench, and we have no evidence that she has, or can.
Frankly, I think that young Shelby Hogan is likely to have passed Smith on the depth chart, so we’ll have to see if she returns next spring.
I wouldn’t bet on it…but I wouldn’t be sure to bet against it, either. She’s a workable backup keeper if that’s all you need, and (as we’ll discuss when we get to Bella Bixby) that’s all the Thorns are likely to need.
As opposed to the Smith/Cary thrashing the match Hogan played in LA was a kinda meh draw, the one with the Pogarch dime and Ryan equalizer in the ninety-somethingth minute that stole a point the Thorns hadn’t really earned. Remember that one?
Here’s what I wrote then:
Hogan (+2/-1 : +3/-1 : +5/-2) Ignore the minuses; they’re for ticky-tacky little clearing passes. The pluses are huge; three monster saves including the penalty and nearly back-to-back 52nd and 54th minute full-stretch heroics. Coach Wilkinson owes the referee (for not booting Po), Po, Ryan, but especially Shelby Hogan for the point.
Hell of a job, kid.
But that was that. That’s all we have.
Hell of a match…but just the one, and Coach Wilkinson chose to dress Smith rather than Hogan for the remainder of the season, and that can’t be discounted. Still…
Grade: Incomplete (…but with a note from the teacher saying “I have great expectations from this student”)
Smith has started elsewhere and might have a chance again – elsewhere – but so long as Bixby is here and healthy there’s no real chance for her in the foreseeable future.
Given the goofy derp in Cary I don’t see that working with Nadine Angerer has solved her headspace issues, and while I think Smith is who she is I think there’s an excellent chance that Hogan can improve markedly as she gets more professional minutes.
I think that Hogan should officially move up the charts next season.
Now we come down to it. Bella “She’s Our Keeper” Bixby, one of the top three keepers in the league this season.
No, really. Seriously. I’m not kidding.
Yeah, I know, I know; “but she looks so awkward”, “but she has trouble handling balls in the air”, “but she doesn’t command her penalty area”.
I wish I had a nickel for every time “but…” about Bixby this season.
So don’t believe me. Believe the statistics (per Chris Henderson):
Didi Haracic saved ACFC a shit-ton of goals last season and should have been Goalkeeper of the Year (and I note in passing that the Kailen Sheridan Goalkeeper of the Year pick was a fucking travesty and yet another data point in the set “these people have no business picking the award”…) but Alyssa Naeher and Bella Bixby are stacked two-three right behind her.
The PMR system does really poorly with goalkeepers. The way keepers do business doesn’t lend itself to tallying positive and negative actions through a match. Instead the numbers are a great indicator of how well the keeper is playing.
Here’s a good look at a head-to-head comparison; Bixby next to the keeper that a lot of Portland fans consider the best keeper we’ve seen here since 2013 – A.D. Franch.
Franch has two more matches, but if you resolve for that their numbers are shockingly equal; each keeper gave an average of one goal per match while facing about 10 to 11 shots a game.
Franch’s defense was a tiny bit more porous than the Thorns backline in front of Bixby; the Current backline shipped about four shots-on-goal per game to the roughly three-and-a-half the Thorns gave their opponents (or their opponents worked out of them).
But Franch was a little better percentage pure shot-stopper; she saved about four percent more of the SOG she faced (look at the table below; her concessions to SOG is about 25%, Bixby’s is almost 29%) but…
Franch’s goals-to-xG is a tiny bit worse; she saved the Current about 0.34 goals per game (compared to what their opponents’ xG suggested) where Bixby saved the Thorns nearly a goal every two games – 0.44 less per game than her xG-against.
Both keepers could stonewall opponents; Franch kept seven clean sheets, Bixby ten, including both the home opener and the Final against Franch.
(That said…I’ve often observed that clean sheets aren’t a particularly good measure of keeper quality. Look at the Final, where Bixby could practically have taken the day off, and compare it to Michelle Betos’ play for Gotham in the final regular season match. Shelly shipped three goals, but the Thorns probably should have had half a dozen, and it was Betos, bruised face and all, who hung onto the draw and the point. So there’s that.)
And it’s not just this season. Here’s the stats for the Thorns keepers going back to 2017:
Franch’s 2017 stands head-and-shoulders above them all.
But that was a legitimate GotY season and one of the best in the league outside Sheridan’s work pretty much from her first match up to last season.
Bixby’s 2020 is better than either of Britt Eckertrom’s two seasons as Franch’s backup, Franch’s 2018 and 2019, and within touching distance of A.D.’s this year. I don’t have the data for Eckerstrom last season, but I’m going to bet that Bixby’s pretty much matches up there, too.
(Kailen Sheridan is a beast, and don’t think because I’m pissed off about her GotY I’m down on her. Her body of work is the best in the league that we have records of. I suspect Hope Solo might have been…well, no matter. Sheridan is a worldie, and that’s really all that needs to be said.)
But outside the Great White North?
Bixby is a goddamn good keeper. She fully deserves to be in that elite company.
Yes, she looks gawky. Ciao Bella! doesn’t radiate the fierceness A.D. does.
Yes, sometimes she has some hesitation coming out…but overall?
Bixby did a hell of a job last season.
I see no reason why this player shouldn’t be between the sticks for the Thorns for a long time…except that I do worry a bit about her body mechanics.
Specifically, she’s very tall and slender, with long, relatively skinny arms and legs.
Goalkeepers take a lot of knocks, and that’s without mad attackers like how Shea Groom used to be headhunting them.
I could see how Bixby could get badly hurt; she seems to have a body more long and fragile than someone compact and muscular like Franch.
Let’s hope not.
Because she’s our keeper, and one of the best.
Next Week: The Backline
Update 11/29: Unsurprisingly, Abby Smith took her free agency rights and signed with Gotham.
That’s fine. Gotham’s a bad team, so her once-a-game-derp won’t materially hurt either her or them, and Hogan can move up and get more minutes.