So last weekend we looked at the Thorns’ goalkeepers. Short look, since only one gave us enough to really talk about.
This week we move up the pitch a bit, though, and have quite a bit more to discuss as we take a look at the defenders.
For the purpose of this post we’ll talk first about the Core Four: Natalia Kuikka, Kelli Hubly, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg. Then we’ll add in the reserves and part-timers, but there’s a bit of give-and-take there because several players moved around the pitch a bit, consistent with Rhian Wilkinson’s stated belief that no player has a “position”.
For this post we’ll include players like Meaghan Nally and Tegan McGrady who were unquestionably defenders though in Nally’s case the “what position” changed quite a bit through the season. We’ll also include Emily Menges, whose minutes were cut short by injury, and two rookies who had a cup of coffee each; Gabby Provenzano and Natalie Beckman.
I’ll note here (as a marker for the remainder of this series of posts) the we won’t discuss several players who are either still rostered or are reported by the NWSL site as having “played” for Portland in 2022.
The rostered player is Jennifer Vasconcelos. Her onl yreal appearance was twelve minutes in the 5-nil home destruction of Gotham in July; the other two were garbage time single minutes in July.
The league site lists three others as having at least dressed for the Thorns. Two actually “played”; Cheyenne Shorts played a minute in the 5-nil home win over Gotham on July 16, and Sophie French a minute the match before that, the away draw in Seattle. Someone named Katy Byrne is listed as dressing for three games in July.
It’s pointless to even consider any of these four; we simply have no means to measure them, how they did, or whether they could or should be pieces of the Thorns. So we’ll simply note them as having been there and move on to a look at the backline.
First, let’s take a look at how the backline did as a unit.
The BacklineS by The Numbers
The Thorns were the third-best defense in the league last season based on goals against, so let’s start there. Here’s how the top four looked last season.
The defenses are assessed based on nine categories. The raw data include four metrics; goals conceded (“goals”), shots against (“shots”), shots on goal against (“SOG”), and xG against (“xGa”).
These are broken down by the raw values divided into minutes played: minutes played per goal conceded (“M/G”), minutes per shot (“M/S”), minutes per shot on goal (“M/SOG”), and minutes per xG against (“M/xGa”).
Obviously a squad that gives up shots and shots on goal more frequently – that is, if the M/S and M/SOG numbers are smaller – is giving their opponents more looks on goal.
A squad that gives up more xGa and goals more frequently – that is, that goes fewer minutes between expected goals and goals – is giving those opponents better looks – and more successful looks – at goal.
So how’d these four do? Let’s list them, ranked top-to-bottom by goals-against.
Portland’s goalkeepers faced about an average number of shots for a top-four keeper (only about 5% above the mean, a statistical hiccup) and about the same average for the frequency of those shots – one every eight minutes or so.
Shots-on-goal are fairly nominal; Portland sitting about seven percent higher than average, but that’s also within the range of random variation enough so as to be as likely to be noise as it is to be really significant.
The minutes-per-goal are right where they should be, given the overall goals-against; third in GA, third in minutes-per-goal.
No, I think the worrisome numbers are in the xGa columns.
Portland gave up 20% more dangerous opportunities than an average top-four team last season. More than 40% worse than the league’s best xGa stat (put up by the Seattle Damndelions).
To sum up:
– Portland’s goals-against is in the top four in the league (good!)
– Portland’s goalkeepers faced roughly similar numbers of shots and shots-on-goal per game as the other top four teams’ keepers.
– But the Portland backline allowed (or were worked into) conceding more dangerous shots and shots on goal than the other three goals-against leaders.
Which means that the goals-against stat is not because our backline was crushing opponents in front of our goal and preventing dangerous shots but because Bella Bixby is a goddamn beast, and she (and Shelby Hogan…) stoned those shots.
Relative to the top defenses in the league, the Thorns defense gave those opponents a LOT of good looks at goal last season.
So with that in mind, let’s talk defenders.
The supposed primary starter at right back, Kuikka’s 2022 was marked by three major hiccups; her repeated appearance across the pitch at LB, her absence for the Olympics, and her (possibly related to the first two) disastrous mid-season loss of form. Here’s her net plus-minus rating (PMR) over the season. The Thorns average PMR in red, Kuikka in blue.
Having started well above her squad, Kuikka ran into trouble immediately, and by Matchday 5 was performing well below average. This coincided, if you recall, with several appearances at left back, where she was very clearly…not a left back.
She’s strongly right-footed, for one thing, so she would tend to cut inside when pressured to put the ball on her favored right foot. The whole business seemed to shake her, so when she left for the Olympic Games she had just begun to recover her form…
…and something at the Games knocked her back down again.
It took five matches for Kuikka to recover anything close to her early season form, and late in the year she was still up and down; luckily her best match after midseason was also the Final, where she helped bring home the goods.
Her numbers are solid defensively (fullbacks aren’t likely to win in the air, so it’s the first two that make her look good) and her passing is decent.
It’s worth noting, though, that in a modern system fullbacks are expected to provide attack, largely by passing and crossing in. Compare Kuikka’s 2022 with a much-less-used teammate who also played along the right touchline:
|Player||Minutes played||Crosses||Successful crosses||Key passes|
That’s not a great look for Kuikka.
Don’t get me wrong. I like what she brings. I think she’s a good defender, and works hard in attack. I don’t have major issues with her, and I’ll be fine seeing her here next season.
But when I look at the tables above, and then look at this…
You know who this is, right?
Yeah, her. That’s kinda…hmmm.
Grade: B- (with the teacher’s note: This student showed much improvement towards the end of the semester. Keep it up!)
I think that a lot of Kuikka’s issues last season were a combination of coaching and confidence problems, both here and for her national team.
Hopefully she and Coach Wilkinson have worked things out, and she’ll be in better – and more consistent – form next season.
But last season she was not significantly better than a journeywoman right back (Westphal), so there’s still room for improvement, and I think Kuikka needs to keep after it over the next year and beyond.
Here’s Hubly last season by the numbers.
Those are respectable numbers! Here’ s her PMRs, first against the team average:
Again…respectable. Though what I see there is a player who went through a weird patch in midseason, yo-yoing from “terrific” to “WTF?”.
Hubly’s deal back in 2018 and 2019 when she was still largely a reserve and spot-starter was that she was a “high-risk/high-reward” player. One match she’d crush it, the next she’d cough up a massive defensive hairball and lose you the game.
A big part of her progression to starter meant cutting down on the derps, and she did; over the past couple of seasons she’s been rock-solid in back.
Last season I think the same early-season coaching issues – changes in formations, changes in rosters, changes in tactics – that hit Kuikka hit her hard, too, and that contributed to her troubled midseason.
As the coach and team stabilized towards the runup to the playoffs, Hubly did as well. She had a bad game in Jersey on Matchday 22, but was a rock in the playoffs.
Overall, though, she’s had better seasons:
Obviously the small sample sizes, especially in 2019, skew these numbers but again we see how Hubs cut down on her minuses – a lot! – but also had fewer big games and pluses.
That’s not the end of the world, but I’m hoping that with a full stable season under her coach and with her teammates she’ll have a better 2023.
Decent work, not up to her best, but still among the best in the league and, obviously, enough to bring home the spatula. I trust that this will springboard Hubs to a better season next year.
‘Brunn returned to the Thorns struggling with injury, and had to play her way into full fitness.
When she did she was defensively solid and excellent at passing out of the back.
Her PMRs are likewise respectable.
Tough three-match period returning from the Olympics, but after that tracking perfectly with the team, suggesting how important ‘Brunn’s form is to the backline.
Sauerbrunn is often touted as a prospective coach in the future. That’s…interesting, because based purely on my observation as a player she doesn’t seem to do a lot of “coach-y” things. She seldom organizes the backline, and you seldom see her talking to her teammates; that’s Klingenberg, or Menges when she’s there.
I have the same sense about ‘Brunn that I do about Christine Sinclair; that they’re “lead by doing” sorts of players. While they have a crap-ton of soccer intelligence, I’m not sure that they would or will be good at imparting that to people playing for them. I’m not sure they want to try that, either. But we are likely to see before too long; both are aging out, and I doubt that either will be here long after the coming World Cup cycle.
Still, a good season from Sauerbrunn, and – provided she can Beat the Player-form Reaper (see Klingenberg, Meaghan…) should be solid in 2023.
What can you say about Kling what hasn’t been said? Team spirit, sparkplug, huddle ranter, ageless…she’s been a defining part of the Thorns since her first season here in 2016.
As her past-seasons PMR chart suggests, though, while she can still run with most wingers not named “Purce” she’s losing the race with Time.
Like Hubly, she cut down on her oopsies last season but, also like Hubly, she didn’t have nearly as many big games, either.
One metric that really dropped off was her support for the attack. Her crossing numbers? Ouch.
Again, look up at the Westphal numbers. Kling really struggled going forward last season compared to Westphal, a good-but-no-more-than-that fullback.
Some of that was purely roster-and-tactics changes that didn’t suit her game.
The 2022 Thorns were less dependent – and less successful – at the crash-the-box-and-cross-in sort of direct play they used a lot while players like Lindsey Horan were here. Sophia Smith is a very different sort of striker, and she lacks the need for Klingenberg swinging in crosses or lead passes that Tobin Heath and Horan and Nadia Nadim did.
But part of it was, I suspect, Kling having to stay home a lot more to prevent being skinned.
Her pace has got to be dropping off rapidly, and positioning, anticipation, and intelligence can only get you so far. The brutal hiding she took from Gotham’s wingers in Matchday 22 was a reminder than sometimes youth and energy does overcome age and skill.
Grade: B- (by team standards) C+ (by her own)
I’ve been here before; predicting the End for Klingenberg, and every time she’s given me the finger – hell, back in 2019 I got the Amber Brooks Two-Middle-Finger Salute when I called her dead at the end of 2018 and she roared back that year – but I think the erosion is getting pretty rapid and steep now.
I think one big red flag might be trading or drafting for an elite left back over this offseason. Tegan McGrady is a decent journeywoman, but if we see the club deal for someone with big numbers at LB? That might be the sign that Kling has signaled for a sub off.
It’d be foolish to write her off completely. I suspect she’ll be in the southwest corner come April.
That’s it for the regular starters. We also have three part-timers and reserves.
Nally was Coach Wilkinson’s preferred fill-in when the regulars were gone for whatever reason. But her position varied and with it her performances.
Overall she’s a good defender; those tackling and duels numbers are among the best of the backline even though the N’s are pretty small (20 tackles, 44 duels – compare that with Hubly; 52 and 170, respectively) and her passing is outstanding.
As a centerback she was solid; not quite up to Hubly/’Brunn levels (which is why she wasn’t starting…) but did enough to keep the team going and occasionally terrific (hello, Matchday 6!).
As a fullback…hmmm, not so much. She’s not super pacey and lacks a fullback’s read of the game she needs to not get caught upfield.
That string of midseason games seems to have convinced her coach that she needed to stick with the starters so, after an especially awful outing in Cary on Matchday 16 we saw no more of Nally in 2022.
I’m not sure that the (relatively) low grade is entirely on Nally; her coach did her no favors shopping her around when it looks like Nally is uncomfortable at fullback. And she’s a reserve, and young one; I think there’s a lot of room there to grow and improve. But for now, her numbers and her play last season suggest she will continue to be a reserve in the coming season.
That’s fine. Everyone needs reserves.
McGrady came to Portland in a midseason deal that sent Madison Pogarch to San Diego, breaking the hearts of all those fans who loved Po’s football-linebacker/hockey-enforcer attitude and style of play.
Here she appeared in only seven of her 16 matches listed for 2022, six of them as a late-match sub.
As you can see; overall, McGrady is a very decent player. Her crossing, in particular, compares favorably with the player she usually replaced, Klingenberg.
And she matches up fairly with the player traded for her:
Better in the air and marking, not as good a tackler, and as passers pretty much a wash.
Plus McGrady is the anti-Po; low-risk/decent-reward. She’s not going to dime Yazmeen Ryan for an equalizer at the death, but she’s also not going to get sent off for some dumb aggro move.
She’s a classic “reserve”; good, not great, but reliable and steady.
Grade: B+ (as a reserve)
As such, I see no reason she won’t be here next spring…unless the draft turns up someone shockingly better.
Okay, now…these two
This player was a winger at the University of Denver, and both Chris Henderson and the writers at Stumptown loved the hell out of her when she was picked last January.
Well…she may have played one match at winger…on July 10 she subbed in for Yazmeen Ryan in the 73rd minute at the Clink in the 2-2 draw there.
“Beckman (17′ – no rating) As discussed; not the problem, but a problem in the sense that Wilkinson just doesn’t have impact subs when the internationals are gone, and that’s on the FO. Not discreditable, but couldn’t help hang onto the three points.”~ Point Taken, July 14, 2022
So…as a winger, not so great, and her other outings were all as a defender:
– on June 12 she subbed in for Sauerbrunn at 64 minutes,
– on June 19 she replaced Pogarch in the 74th minute,
– and on July 16 she came on for Pogarch again in the 78th minute.
So pretty much garbage time minutes, and hard to tell anything from that.
She did play one full match, the 1-1 draw at Angel City on July 1. Her performance then was…well, I’ll let me speak for myself:
“Beckman (+2/-3 : +4/-8 + +6/-11) On the other hand, Beckman…oof. Just a mess of defensive errors and turnovers from poor passes and tackles-for-loss. This player looked promising in preseason, so I’m hoping that this was just rust from too long on the bench. Because if not…”~ Gasp, July 4, 2022
Ouch. That’s just brutal. And that’s really all the information we have, so…
I’m not sure that Beckman is worth keeping if she can’t be better than that. Hopefully she can be better than that. We just don’t know.
Provenzano got even less time on the pitch than Beckman. Thirteen minutes on June 3 as a replacement for Sauerbrunn – Wilkinson was still using the three-back at that time – against Angel City, and replacing Nally, also as a centerback, in the July 10 match in Seattle for the final 17 minutes.
Provenzano’s only full match was as a centerback in the same road draw in Los Angeles that Beckman cratered. Here’s what I had to say then:
“Provenzano (+2/-2 : +4/-1 : +6/-3) ACFC was so poor it’s hard to really rate the Thorns defenders. Gabby Provenzano was as good as any of them, but it’s hard to assess how well she might have done against a team that could score.”~ Gasp, op. cit.
So…better than Beckman, anyway. But that’s not a lot to go on. Let’s be charitable, though, and…
I don’t have strong opinions on either of these players; right now they’re virtual unknowns, deep defensive depth. Provenzano seems decent, Beckman doesn’t, but we may well have to find a way to get good service out of them during the World Cup next yer. So if we can’t…well, we need to replace them sooner than later.
Now comes the section I simply hate to write.
She’s been a fixture in the backline since 2014.
Since her terrific 2016 and 2017, when her name was consistently mentioned as a prospective national team player, Menges has, as the sportwriters put it, “struggled” with injuries.
Struggled is putting it kindly; Menges has been fucking hammered with knocks, and hasn’t played a full season since then until last year. I’d hoped…well, we’ll get there.
Then came 2022, which was perhaps her worst hammering over the post-2017 period, going out with a foot (fracture?) after Matchday 2 that kept her off the squad the rest of the season.
In her first two matches she was in terrific form.
This hurts me to write. I’ve loved this player, both professionally and personally, for years. She has always carried herself with the sort of quiet professionalism that I believe a true sportswoman should carry.
She’s been a mainstay of a very good defensive unit through that time, and I had great hope that her largely-healthy 2021 suggested that her big problems with fitness were behind her.
That didn’t happen. 2022 was not good for her and, I think, her backline as a unit.
Grade: Withdraw (Passing)
She’s only 30…but I’m really concerned that she’s become that dreaded adjective; “injury-prone”. I worry about her staying on the pitch next season.
I hope I’m wrong.
I think that in 2023 this unit will need a stiff infusion of Great Wall Emilyness, and I hope to see Menges be the one to give it.
The Thorns had a respectable defense overall last season…but one that had an unnerving tendency to 1) go walkabout at times in scary ways, while 2) giving up a lot more dangerous opportunities and shipping bad goals that they should have.
My personal suspicion is that having Menges back full-time will settle a lot of that. She’s just that crucial. I think having their coach settled into a regular back four will settle that, too; no more three-back? Ohhellyes!
Still, overall? There’s a lot to like here now, and I think we’ll like it more next season.
Overall Grade: B (with a note from the teacher: “I like what I see and have great hopes for better next semester!)
Next up: The Midfield