That’s been exhausting. The tension! The drama! The highs and lows and the hopes and fears!
Through it all…there’s still the club – at least, as it stands – and the league and the games to come in 2023. Will there be a new owner by then? A new head coach? New faces?
But for now, let’s look at who was here and how well they did…this time, in the midfield.
Here’s who the Thorns have currently rostered as midfielders:
Let’s begin with two of these players.
Horan is gone, and, frankly, I see little hope she’ll be back. She’s chasing UEFA dreams, probably another CL winner’s medal, international play for the USWNT, and even the traditional D1F licking OL hands out every year (which is like those little participation trophies every kid on every U-8 team gets, but whatever…)
Provenzano played largely as a back last season, we talked about her as such, and given the Menges situation (probably doomed either to trade or retirement…) is unlikely to move up the pitch, so we’ll let her go.
With that, let’s look at the midfield, first as a unit, then as individuals.
The Midfield From a Distance
The last time we did this we noted that one of the difficulties that Mark Parsons faced in 2019 was that he wasn’t able to assemble the midfield that he wanted for much of the season.
But compared to 2019 the Thorns midfield in 2022 was like a goddamn junior high school recess.
A little help if you’re having a tough time reading the chart above.
Matchdays are down the vertical axis. Losses highlighted in red, draws in yellow, wins in green.
Midfielders across the horizontal axis; where a player started her cell is green. Typically if the player went more than an hour the green is dark; where she was yanked at halftime the green is light and you can see the “45′ notation.
A player that was subbed on after the hour is colored in dark orange. A halftime sub on is in light orange with the 45′ notation.
It’s easy to see who the 2022 midfield mainstays were; Coffey and Sugita, with Rodriguez close behind. But when you look closer you’ll see one of the issues; they only started together in seven of the 24 matches. In two more one of them came off at halftime (Coffey on Matchday 4, Rocky on Matchday 3).
Still…barely a third of the matches for the midfield core.
Then there’s the formation changes over the year.
As we all probably remember (painfully) Coach Wilkinson started the season with the idee fixee’ that the Thorns worked best as a 3-5-2. This lasted a third of the season, through Matchday 8, and over that time the Thorns went 3-1-4.
You can see how Wilkinson was still juggling pieces around, though. Other than Coffey and Sugita Rodriguez comes and goes, Sinclair starts and then leaves for the Olympics, Ryan pops in for a couple of starts in May; for Hina-san against Houston then for Rocky in Chicago, and Moultrie subs in to the away draw in San Diego.
Finally in mid-June Wilkinson gives up on the three-back and starts experimenting, first with a straight-ahead 4-4-2
These were the 6-nil thrashing of Orlando on Matchday 9, and the 1-1 Po-to-Ryan-at-the-death draw in LA. Note that Moultrie is there, but as a sort of forward/attacking midfielder.
The coach mustn’t have been particularly happy with the old-school formation, because next she went to some sort of 4-1-4-1; at least that’s what OPTA thought she did.
It didn’t really play like that, though; it was a 4-3-3; the “outside midfielders” in the front four were nearly always wingers like Ryan, Everett, or Weaver. This was also the period where Sugita tended to show up as an outside midfielder/winger.
There’s also the weird one-time inverted-christmas-tree 4-2-3-1 at Cary in August that, again, also played as a 4-3-3 (and not well, if you remember; that was the Damned shellacking us 3-1).
Note also the musical-chair starters; Coffey is in and out, Rocky mostly out, lots of Moultrie, Porter shows up to replace Coffey, Ryan is on the pitch (mostly as a winger) and the Return of Sinc.
This formation was a bit more successful than the three-back, but not much. The Thorns went 3-1-2 through this period. But it ended with the appalling loss in Cary and presaged the dreadful 0-2 home loss to the Wave.
Finally in the stretch run Wilkinson just gave in and threw a 4-3-3 out there. Again, OPTA called it a 4-2-3-1 but the “outside mids” were now regularly either Weaver and Ryan or Sugita and Weaver so pure wingers.
This was also the most successful of the formations and the season, the Thorns going 5-1-2 after September.
You’ll note that there’s still a lot of body-swapping in and out; only Coffey is a fixture in midfield.
In particular Sugita goes out between the September draw in Kansas City (Matchday 19) and the semifinal, and then is on the bench for the final. By way of contrast, Sinclair starts five of the eight matches and subs in another. Rodriguez is fairly consistent, and Dunn shows up as a super-sub.
Moultrie disappears, though, and Porter hasn’t made a good case for a starting slot (particularly after her poor outing in the final regular season match in Jersey).
I suspect that a fair bit of this was 1) Wilkinson fixed on the three-back and 2) her learning that she didn’t have the horses (particularly the wingbacks – Klingenberg was just not clicking and struggled to track back, Kuikka had some sort of mid-season slump – and her striker Sophia Smith just doesn’t work with the whole “wingbacks bomb up and huck in crosses” style…) and changing to fit her roster.
But I also suspect was pure “new coach jitters”. One thing that unfortunately we now won’t ever be able to find out is whether the midfield struggles cured RW of her (in my opinion frankly bizarre) notion that there’s no such thing as a “player position”. She swapped midfielders around like puzzle pieces, and it’s not surprising that her midfield never seemed to really produce consistently, despite having a brilliant #6 (Coffey) and a superlative #8/10 (Sugita) as well as a solid 6/8 in Rodriguez.
Okay. Let’s now talk about midfielders as individuals.
There’s a good reason Coffey got a callup to the Nats, as well as a nod for Rookie of the Year; she was terrific.
Her PMRs are likewise at the top of the group:
One thing I looked at was “how did Coffey compare to one of the best-known midfield destroyers/defensive midfielders in the league”. Here they are, with Coffey on the right:
Who is that on the left? You probably know her.
Yeah, it’s Jess “I Love To Give Portland The Finger” Fishlock. A little better in the air, but otherwise..?
Goddamn, rook. You take ten bucks out of petty cash; hell of a damn good work.
Coffey (along with Smith and Hina-san) was simply the Thorns success story of 2022. We’ll have to see if her emergence was a result of working with Wilkinson, or her own doing. But she’s an unquestioned bright light leading this squad through the rainy dark months between now and April.
And, speaking of bright lights…
One thing that particularly lights me up is along the bottom; 13 of 20 shots (65%) on frame, 25% inside the frame.
I love an efficient goalscorer!
Her PMRs are consistently the highest above the mean of any player in 2022.
Combine that with her passing – 46 key passes? – just outstanding.
My initial concern was her durability, but if you look at her defensive stats other than aerial duels (and expecting a smallish midfielder to win in the air is kinda ridiculous…) Hina-san more than held her own. She’s not just clever, she’s tough as a shinobi.
We all saw and know the rest of her; terrific field vision, clever with the ball at her feet, sleek passing to teammates moving to space. That Coach Wilkinson didn’t see her as a #10 was perhaps the single stupidest fucking thing I ever heard RW say.
Sugita is the Platonic Ideal of a playmaker.
I can’t be objective about Sugita. She’s just an outstanding player, and I want to see her locked into the #10 position by whoever the new gaffer turns out to be. Domo arigato goziamashita, Sugita-senshu!
Rocky is the last of the “big three” midfielders. She’s also the most inconsistent.
Her PMRs reflect her stat sheet, too.
She’s not INefficient in front of goal (she’s about as selective as Weaver, about 14% conversion rate) but she’s not real efficient, either.
She’s a good passer but nowhere near Sugita’s vision and effectiveness.
She’s a solid defender.
Every so often she’ll thrill you with a golazo as she did in the semifinal.
I’d like to see a bit more scoring and assists from Rocky, and a little more creativity, but overall? She’s a damn fine midfielder.
Grade: A-/B+ (with teacher’s note: “You do so much good work! Can you do that all the time? I think you can!“)
Rodriguez is a strong cut above the squad player level, but not quite at the stratospheric elevation of our first two players. I’m not sure; she’s 29, so a huge step up at this point seems unlikely…but not impossible. Could the incoming head coach help her take that step? If she can…Rocky could become the game-breaker she is when the lightning strikes her now.
That’s the heart of our midfield. Now we have two directions to go; towards the horizons, and into the darkness.
Let’s get the bad place out of the way first.
I wish this was more painful to write.
Sinclair is no longer starting quality. Either as a midfielder or a forward.
At the beginning of last season it was hard. Sinc is a legend, the GOAT, the last plankowner of the Thorns. She has been a fixture here for almost 20 years, since her freshman year up on the Bluff playing for another legend, Clive Charles of University of Portland.
But the way the last season played out, with Sinc struggling to make simple tackles and passes that would have been automatic in earlier seasons turned that pain first to impatience and then to frustration.
As we’ve discussed, Coach Wilkinson’s handling of her friend and national teammate was perhaps the second-most (after the 3-5-2) controversial issue of the past season.
Here she is by the numbers:
Note the sample sizes in her defensive stats; 15 tackles in over 1,000 minutes? Under 50% in her duels?
She’s still efficient in front of goal, so there’s that. But here’s first her PMRs against the squad:
And then against her previous seasons:
It’s her pluses that hurt. Sinc is just no longer playing at the level to make the sort of impact on a match that she once had.
Does that make her a “bad” player? No; she’s still the equivalent of a “good squad player”.
Is that what Christine Sinclair should aspire to?
The inclusion of Sinc in the starting lineup ensures that the other midfielders have to defend a player down; Sinc simply can’t catch up to an even-normally-pacey attacker anymore. In attack Sinc still has the right instincts, but, again, she’s got the wildly fast Morgan Weaver and the insanely crafty Sophia Smith to work with; beside them she looks plodding and out of ideas.
Now that I’ve written all that, I’m sad all over again. Captain Sinc shouldn’t be ending her career like this.
Grade: C- (by team standards) D- (by her own standards)
Sinc joins the many sporting figures who are unable or unwilling to recognize that it’s time to hang ’em up. That’s very human; she wouldn’t be who she is if she didn’t have the relentless drive to compete.
That’s where her coach(es) come in. They have to be the ones to make the decision to move her; to the bench, to retirement, to coaching…to spare her (and us) the pain of seeing her reduced to a shadow of the great player she once was.
Damn. That hurt.
OK, now. Let’s talk about the midfield players we saw off-and-on last season.
Young Moultrie continues to produce better and better performances. She had a very bright patch in midseason:
Between Matchday 7 and Matchday 13 Moultrie kicked ass like a crazy monkey, and I thought that she might have fought her way to a place in the regular starting midfield.
Then Sinclair returned, and Moultrie disappeared.
Her sporadic appearances late in the season were disappointing. I’m not sure, but my guess is that, having adapted and excelled as a regular Moultrie had a tough time adjusting to going back to the bench.
One thing that jumps out from Moultrie’s stats is her goalscoring; not just her efficiency but the youngster has a nose for goal; she scored at about 80% the rate of Morgan Weaver (3 goals in 708 minutes compared to 7 goals in almost 1,400 minutes) despite being a utility midfielder and not an attacking winger.
She’s tough defending – good in the air! – and clinical with her passing.
Frankly, I’d like to see her get more minutes next season; if not here – because between Coffey, Sugita, Rocky, and (sorry…) Sinclair there’s a lot of competition for minutes – on loan somewhere. Her PMRs suggest that she is better when she plays more often, and I’d like to see if her ceiling is higher than we’ve seen so far.
When the Thorns signed her I wasn’t sure whether she wouldn’t peak out early; I wasn’t sure whether we had the Freddie Adu of WoSo.
So far, it looks like we have the young Garrincha, and I’m excited to see more of her.
That’s pretty damn impressive. Key passes might be better…but overall? Three goals on four shots? Mmmkay!
Porter’s appearances were so sporadic that I tossed her into a “reserves” remainder bin to graph her PMRs. Porter is in dark orange, and her line graph shows only between Matchdays 9 to 11 and 21 to 22. She also appeared on Matchday 13 and 16.
Unfortunately Porter’s form on those days was unimpressive, coming below the team average everywhere except Matchday 22 at Gotham and that only because the entire squad shat the bed.
I’m still up in the air about Porter. She seems statistically sound, a decent squad player at least, and showing some potential at best.
But her appearances on the pitch were less than the sum of their statistical parts.
I’m going to go against my eye-test and assume that the numbers are indicative of a useful future for her. Hope so; as good as the starting roster is I still think this squad is underpowered off the bench. I think Porter has possibilities as a reserve.
Grade: C (as a starter) B (as a reserve)
Let’s face it; right now Porter is “just a squad player”. But everyone needs squad players! Hopefully she can continue to grow and improve in that role, anyway, whether she progresses to starter, or not.
Ryan is, well, kind of a weird midfielder.
That’s because she’s not really a midfielder.
She usually plays as a very advanced outside mid – if you want to try and squint and see her as such – but even more often as a straight-up winger. Go look at the midfielder charts at the top; early in the season she starts as a forward twice.
Then after Matchday 10 she starts showing up, but as an “attacking midfielder” in what’s listed as a 4-2-3-1 but she’s really playing right wing in a 4-3-3.
As such? She was very effective. Here’s her PMRs:
Her stats reflect that, too:
Running at the backline, big key passes and assists, and occasional goals, but a weak defense. That’s a winger.
As such Ryan is like the classic description of a battlecruiser; “an eggshell armed with hammers”; all attack, no defense. And, yeah…that’s a winger, too, not a midfielder, and a pretty damn good winger, at that.
The only real problem?
The Thorns spent big money on an international with damn near the exact same skillset, Janine Beckie. And with Ryan doing more for less money, ended up with a fucking expensive piece of hardware sitting on the bench.
So I don’t see how they would want to keep them both next season.
I know which one I’d keep.
Grade: C+ (as a midfielder) A-/B+ (as a winger)
I like Ryan, and as ugly as the whole l’affaire Menginson has been, if KK and RW are really on their way out my guess is that Beckie is, too. And I’m fine with that; I like Ryan and I’d like to keep her here.
Two things can be true at the same time.
Crystal Dunn can be at the center of an amazing, heartwarming, inspirational story;
Crystal Dunn can be only a marginal piece in the Thorns midfield;
Dunn was an enigma in 2021; she never really seemed to find a place to play under Parsons’ system. This season she didn’t really have enough time to work into the Wilkinson system. I think we’re going to have to wait still one more season to figure out exactly where and what Dunn will turn out to be.
I know what I hope for. But I just haven’t seen enough from Dunn – and that includes 2021 – to get a sense of whether that’s a realistic hope.
Grade: Pass (in a Pass/No Pass system)
Dunn pretty much paid for her whole 2022 with her injury-time golazo in the semifinal, and her story is a wonderful one.
But those are just the shiny bangles, the pretty extras.
Now comes the time for the hard, relentless, merciless, unforgiving grind of a full season. Of doing the hard, dirty work of a regular midfielder, of riding the tackles, picking out the runners, hammering the enemy goal.
How will she do then?
We’ll just have to wait and find out.
The 2022 Thorns midfield had:
A prospective Rookie of the Year (Coffey),
An outstanding playmaking international (Sugita),
An excellent international utility midfielder (Rodriguez),
A solid reserve (Porter),
A very young and potentially world-class 6/8 (Moultrie),
A former MVP coming off a big rehab (Dunn), and
A former GOAT in the twilight of her career (Sinclair).
Oh, and a winger (Ryan)!
That’s a terrific starting three, and a solid backup.
My concern is depth; once you get past the Three there’s not much support beyond Porter. I honestly think Moultrie is wasted on the bench; if we can’t find a starting sport for her we should try and get some value from her.
Dunn? Who knows? We’ll see next season.
Ryan? Damn fine winger!
I could weep.
But this is a solid group right now. Put Hina-san at the #10 permanently, back her up with Coffey at the #6, Rocky and Porter and Moultrie as 6/8s, Dunn as…who knows?
Sinclair as Director of Soccer Activities.
Overall Grade: A-
Half a grade knocked off for 1) Sinclair, and 2) not finding a better use for Moultrie, but that’s pretty damn fine.
Hats off to you, midfielders. Have a drink on me.
Okay, Livvy. Not you.
And, yeah. You’re right. Grownups are kinda embarrassing sometimes.
Next up: The Strikers!