Thorns Over Down Under

This weekend the Thorns will resume their league campaign to defend last season’s title.

A big part of the course of that campaign will fall on the form and contributions of their international players. Which, in turn, makes me curious about how those players performed for their national teams in the World Cup run, and what the implications might be for the end of the NWSL season.

Five Thorns played in the antipodes; Christine Sinclair for Canada, Raquel Rodriguez for Costa Rica, Hina Sugita for Japan, and Crystal Dunn and Sophia Smith for the United States.

Two of the five played only in the group stage, three went through to the Round of 16, and the fifth played all the way to the quarterfinals.

Let’s look at them in ascending order of success.

Christine Sinclair

Sinc played in all three Canada matches:
7-20-23 v Nigeria (71′) – draw
7-26-23 v Ireland (45′ – subbed in at the half) – win
7-31-23 v Australia (45′ – subbed out at the half) – loss

Perhaps the most memorable (and saddening) image of Sinc’s World Cup is above, the penalty miss against Nigeria that set the tone for Canada’s campaign; too little, too late, too slow, too weak…the Canada squad never looked like going through, and didn’t.

The rated the players from the World Cup matches. How did they see Sinclair?

For the Nigeria match the Canada squad was rated at 6.71 (out of 10, I assume). Sinclair was rated as 6.1, so lower than her average teammate.

Against Ireland the team average was 6.96, Sinclair’s rating was 6.5

Against Australia the team received a 6.26, Sinclair a 6.5

Overall Sinc played below her squad’s average in the better two of the three matches. The only time she was above the squad mean was in the ugly loss to one of the hosts where the entire team played poorly.

Add in the penalty miss and Sinc had a very poor World Cup. We’ll see whether she drags that baggage back here with her, but it seems hard to imagine how that won’t happen.

Raquel Rodriguez

It’s telling that I couldn’t find a snapshot of Rocky at the World Cup despite searching online for some time. Which mirrors her participation – rather, her lack of participation – in Las Ticas group stage. Rodriguez appeared in only two matches, and one of those as a late sub:
7-21-23 v Spain (DNP) – loss
7-25-23 v Japan (26′ – subbed in at 64′) – loss
7-31-23 v Zambia (90′) – loss

Her two rated games suggest that when she did play Rodriguez was at least decent. In the Japan match she earned a 6.0 to her squad’s 6.08 average. She was a bit better against Zambia – rated 6.5 – against the Ticas’ 6.43 average.

It’s hard to say how the Cup impacted Rodriguez. Not much physically – it would be difficult to imagine how a total of 116 minutes over ten days could do more than give her a good stretch of the legs – but the Costa Rica campaign was, as a group, even more dire than Canada’s. How much to heart did Rocky take that hiding? And how past it, if it did, has she gotten?

Crystal Dunn

Dunn played the left back position she’s been assigned by the Nats since the Jill Ellis era, and appeared there in all four of the US matches:
7-21-23 v Vietnam (84′) – win
7-26-23 v The Netherlands (90′) – draw
8-1-23 v Portugal (90+7′) – draw
8-6-23 v Sweden (120′) – loss

As an individual, Dunn was rated well, and above her team’s mean except for the opening match:
Vietnam – Dunn 7.1 (team average 7.29)
Holland – Dunn 7.4 (6.89)
Portugal – Dunn 7.3 (6.73)
Sweden – Dunn 7.4 (7.13)

Dunn was a solid defender – as she usually is – for a squad that was generally solid in back. Whether that is her best position is left to the individual fan; I’m not sold on her as the usual 8/10 she plays here but she’s superfluous to requirements as a left back. What I think of as her most promising position – winger – seems to be out of mind for both the Nats and the Thorns management.

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that Dunn will return here just fine. She’s been there, done that, and while I’m sure she’s pissed that her federation fucked up and forced her and her teammates to find out, she knows it’s a cruel game and will deal with it. Don’t see an issue there.

Here? I’m less that thrilled to see her back in Mike Norris’ formation in central midfield. You know why I feel that way, so I don’t need to hammer on it further.

Sophia Smith

Dunn’s teammate Smith also played every match:
7-21-23 v Vietnam (90′) – scored twice in the win
7-26-23 v Holland (90′) – draw
8-1-21 v Portugal (61′) – draw
8-6-23 v Sweden (120+’) – missed a penalty in the shootout loss.

Smith’s World Cup performance ratings tell a sorry tale of declining effectiveness:
Vietnam – Smith 9.9 (7.29) (Whoscored Player of the Match)
Holland – Smith 7.2 (6.89)
Portugal – Smith 6.4 (6.73)
Sweden – Smith 6.7 (7.13)

Pretty much all the observers that I read commented that other than against the hapless Vietnamese Andonovski’s formation that pinned Smith against the touchline was exploited by all the US opponents to box Smith out and nerf her, and that Andonovski, as he did all tournament, had no answer.

Throw in 1) that this was Smith’s first World Cup final appearances and 2) the shootout PK miss and this had to have been an awful experience for the Thorns young striker.

The real question for the Thorns as a squad and us as fans is how well she bounces back. You can’t play professional sports and not be pretty mentally tough. But the USWNT run must have been gutting, and it asks a lot of a young player and a striker, whose form would seem to be more influenced by confidence than almost every other teammate outside the keepers, to just shrug it off and come out fighting back home.

The problem is that the Replacements’ struggles make a point of the degree to which Mike Norris’ tactics depend on Smith hero-ball. No hero, no points.

Can Smith return as the hero her coach needs her to be?

Hina Sugita

Sugita-senshu is not typically a starter for the Nadeshiko, and even as a reserve tends to be used by her national team as a sort of utility player. In this World Cup she was typically slotted out on the right wing (where Norris plays her) but I’ve seen her at left back for Japan as well.

Consistent with that, Hina-san‘s appearance was limited:
7-22-23 v Zambia (DNP) – win
7-25-23 v Costa Rica (90′) – win
7-31-23 v Spain (5′ – subbed in at 85′) – win
8-5-23 v Norway (DNP) – win
8-11-23 v Sweden (46′ – subbed off at the half) – loss

Her ratings were generally average:
7-25-23 Hina 7.7 (team average 7.09)
7-31-23 Hina no rating (7.14)
8-11-23 Hina 6.3 (6.36)

A good match against Zambia, garbage minutes against Spain, and below the team average – and subbed off at the half – in the quarterfinal that at least in my opinion the Nadeshiko did more to lose than Sweden did to win – for Jun Endo, whose work was significantly better at winger than Sugita’s.

It’s difficult to say what the World Cup was for Sugita. Her role was limited, and in a position that I’m not sure is either her best or one in which she is most comfortable.

That said, her squad was also in my opinion the best in the tournament; I thought and hoped that Japan would play in the Final this coming Sunday. To have a jour sans and get knocked out in the quarterfinal seems pretty harsh given the hopes and expectations.

Then again, every squad starts the group with those hopes, and only two will play this Sunday. Sugita-senshu is a professional, and as such must realize that for the other thirty teams it has to be “shikata ga nai” and move on. I believe she can and will.

So who comes back and how?

I have to think that the World Cup will affect the Thorns internationals, but in orders of magnitude:

Eh. Fuckit, fine, whatever: Crystal Dunn, Raquel Rodriguez, and Hina Sugita

I don’t see the three suffering much. All are seasoned professionals, all had either decent World Cups (Dunn) or limited minutes (so as to possibly bank their investment in the squad’s exit), and all seem like pretty tough-minded players. I’m guessing and hoping that they’ll jump right back in to their day jobs.

Oh, God, ugh, it sucks to be me: Sophia Smith

I suspect that this one is going to be tough for Smith to throw off. She was a big part of a team that went to the southern hemisphere with huge expectations, played poorly, and crashed out in a bad way. That penalty miss has got to hurt like a sonofabitch. Can she shake it off in time to be the critically important piece she is here? Or will her confidence be so shaken that it will lead her down Yips Avenue, the curse of strikers everywhere? I wish I was more confident in Door #1.

Gutted: Christine Sinclair

Sinc has the benefit of long experience at getting turfed out of the World Cup, so there’s that.

But she’s also long past the point of “wait’llnextyear”. This was – if she could face up to it – her last real shot at tournament glory. Worse, she was a boat anchor for her squad; what failures haunted the CWNT Sinclair’s loss of pace and form were a big part of those failures. As with Smith, a missed penalty has got to be a spectre.

Sinc has a history here; 2019.

Sinc played well in France, as well as here after she returned. But the suspicion that the emotional fallout from the CWNT elimination in the knockouts plus the extra mileage on her legs contributed to her part in the collective attacking collapse in the final five regular season games and the semifinal is hard to elide.

This time the elimination was even more brutal, and Sinc’s role in it more critical.

She’s struggled this season in general, and I can’t help suspecting that the lingering effect of her World Cup will make those struggles even more crippling.

Over to you, marra

As I said over at Stumptown, the final seven matchdays are a race, not just to the playoffs, but for the managers to figure out who of their internationals is in form, how to use them best, and how to reassemble their squads to get into the playoffs in top-four positions.

I hate to be this guy…but I’m not sure Mike Norris is the coach we need for that race.

It’s frustrating as hell to see Norris duplicate Vlatko’s rigid insistence on using players where they are less fit. Dunn is a terrific winger and a no-more-than-decent 8/10. Sinclair can’t play an effective 10 for more than tiny minutes. Sugita has the tools to be a terrific 10 and is often diminished out on the wing. Norris’ insistence on playing the 4-3-3 combines wasting Sugita’s skills in midfield, harnessing his midfielders to a formation that puts a massive burden on Sam Coffey that might be lightened – as it was for the USWNT against Sweden – by a revision to a double pivot, and exposing his backline.

Now he’s also got to try and get into his internationals’ heads. Who’s got it together? Who’s still blocked? Who’s got or hasn’t got the Black Yips? And how can the Thorns work with – or around – that?

I don’t have a ton of confidence that Norris has the coaching throw-weight to do that successfully. He hasn’t shown a ton of insight or flexibility or creativity so far this season.

But we’ll see on Sunday, won’t we?

John Lawes
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