Emily Menges and the Persistence of Memory

This past Tuesday the Thorns traded centerback Emily Menges to the Bay City franchise for protection from their pick in today’s expansion draft.

That got me thinking.

First, of how long I’ve valued Menges as a player, and especially as a keystone in the Thorns’ backline. One of the fastest Thorns in a footrace, tough tackler, solid marker, leader of the best defensive unit in the league for a big chunk of the Teens…”the Great Wall of Emily”, right?

But then, a nagging sense that I was missing something. Something troubling.

So I ran up the Thorns plus-minus ratings from this past season. And, yeah; that was the troubling part.

The team average was decent; 3.8 net (pluses less minuses). That compares well with the last time I ran these, back in 2019, and the team net through the late Parsons years.

(I should really go back and do 2021 and ’22, to update the record…I got time now, anyway. Why not?)

So it wasn’t the team’s form in general that was so troubling me (but there were some troubling things, and we’ll get there…)

Menges herself, though?

Well, here:

Worth noting that Menges played almost no minutes in 2022, so all we’re really missing is her work from Parsons’ last season 2021 (13-5-6, 1st overall, lost to Chicago in the semifinal) which I’m going to bet was similar to 2019 (11-7-6, 3rd overall, lost to Chicago in the semifinal).

The troubling part is her pluses; way down. Not much more in the way of errors in general – the minuses were consistent – but way fewer big defensive plays or key passes, so with the pluses down relative to the minuses her net drops the lowest of the period covered.

Her issues are even starker in graphic form:

This doesn’t even show the most troubling facet of Menges’ play this past season; her tendency to make big – big as in “match-losing” big – errors. I highlighted them as I went through her matchday writeups, and EM made a serious defensive gaffe in over half – nine – of her 17 starts, ranging from own-goals to blown coverages to giveaway passes near her own goalline.

Note that Menges’ form mirrored her club’s, which was the other issue; wildly inconsistent, swinging from big wins such as the Hubly-DOGSO comeback against Carolina to appalling meltdowns like the five-goal destruction in LA on the final regular matchday.

Contrast this with 2019:

Four years ago if Menges deviated from her team’s mean it was to have a terrific game, like her first three outings in 2019, or the two home games in August.

Last season? Ugh. Outside Matchday 14 (which was the home loss to Kansas City) every outing is below the red line, including the horrific mess in Bridgetown on Matchday 12.

The most troubling thing is Menges’ overall trend; down.

Go back and look at the table. From the heights of 2017 Menges has struggled harder every season since 2018 to her nadir this past year. My guess is a combination of getting hammered with injury and organizational confusion in the backline.

Last season her issues included the affair with her head coach and the tone-deaf way the two responded to the squad’s discomfort with that.

Bottom line?

She went from one of the best centerbacks in the league to “just another centerback”; not awful, just decent. A wall, not a Great Wall. And we, for the most part, didn’t notice.

Our perception of Menges has been skewed by the persistence of our memories of her heights. We tend to think of her as the Menges who caught our attention in the mid-Teens, the Menges who was touted as a potential national team player, the Menges who led the Great Wall to a Shield in 2016 and a star the next year.

While the actual Menges was stumbling, hit with leg injuries, hit with form issues, hit with team problems, finally blindsided by her personal life choices…to the point where she became more useful as a trade piece than a starting defender.

And we’d missed a lot of that so we were startled, and upset that a beloved player was used as such.

This little exercise reminds us that the world and time changes, more often and sooner than our perception of it does.

I still have a fondness for Emily Menges. She has been a fine player for many years. She’s part of a lot of wonderful memories. I hope she finds a new lease in Bay City, and recovers some of her form and, more personally, joy in her craft.

In a couple of months we’ll take this dive into the rest of the squad, those who remain and those who have arrived, and look at how they did last season and how they might do in the season to come.

I’ll be back between now and then when the spirit moves me.

Until then…thanks, Em. Good luck…

…except when you play us.

John Lawes
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