The 2024 Thorns camp opens today (Tuesday, 1/23/24), but before we look ahead, let’s look back. Specifically, let’s begin another of the “Final Grades” series I’ve been doing since…well, since Slide Rule Pass back in the Teens.
If you want to look back and see what we did, here’s the version of this post, on goalkeepers, from 2022.
Before we start, I’m going to include the warning label I wrote then, because you need to know where we’re going:
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.
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?
The Thorns carried the usual three goalkeepers in 2023. One of them, Lauren Kozal, was a 2023 draftee who was injured for much of the season and never played. We’re going to hope she has recovered and pass over her.
The other is Bella Bixby, who we’ll discuss later.
The Thorns added a draftee keeper, Katherine Asman from Penn State, and we discussed her in the “Drafts and Deals” post. She’s not included here.
That leaves us with…
Hogan started exactly twice last season. Her only regular season game was a home match against Washington, a 4-2 win, in June. (That was the Smith hat-trick game…)
Her other start was the 0-1 semifinal loss.
Here’s my Hogan comment from the Washington match:
“Hogan (+1/-0 : +1/-0 : +2/-0) Refreshingly boring.
This, mind you…
…is a terrific save. 76th minute, up by two but still lots of time, and Menges has made utter hash of “defending” Hatch. Hogan gets an arm out at pointblank range and is strong enough to block the shot, and blocks it wide rather than back in front of her goal.
I don’t know whether Bixby is done for the season. The risk is there; her confidence looked shaken in Chicago and then she’s sat for this one.
If she is done we’ll get a chance to see whether Hogan has the makings of a starter. I think so…but that’s a big step, and it’ll be fun to see if she can make it.”
And here’s from the semi:
“Hogan (+1/-0 : +0/-0 : +0/-1: +1/-0 (+1/-1)) Largely untroubled but comfortable when called on. I don’t see her at fault on the concession; that was a goddamn golazo and largely on her teammates, if anyone not Stengel has to tear off a piece of it.”
Obviously Bixby wasn’t “done” after the poor showing in Chicago in June. But – as we’ll discuss – then came LA away on the final regular season matchday, and Hogan came on in the semifinal, and that was the season.
It’s hard as hell to grade Hogan on such a small body of work. She’s looked competent as such, but the jump from reserve to starter is big, and it’s hard to tell whether she has the mental toughness – because I’m fairly confident she has the physical tools – to make it and survive.
Grade: Incomplete (Passing) – The note from the teacher reads “This student shows promise, and I hope to see much more from her next year”.
With Bella Bixby out for the season, and a rook, I think the starting job is Hogan’s to lose.
What a difference a season makes.
Here’ s my conclusion at the end of the Bixby evaluation after 2022:
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. 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.”
And she was! In 2022 Bixby was third-best keeper in the NWSL behind DiDi Haracic and Katie Lund, with a “defensive differential” of -0.44, meaning she saved the Thorns damn near half a goal per game over the opponents’ expected goals.
Now here’s her FBRef stats from the 2023 regular season. Bixby highlighted in yellow:
No, actually, that’s the worst. -3.5 goals-conceded-to-post-shot-xG-against, and -0.17G/PSxG per 90 minutes; the worst goals-conceded to post-shot xG against ratio in the league of all the starting keepers.
Bixby cost the Thorns nearly a goal every five games.
Her final match – ACFC away – was an utter trashfire. I wrote:
“I’m not sure if you still have enough confidence left…(s)elf-confidence is a goalkeeper’s currency and you piled up everything in your pocket Sunday and Angel City just fucking totally lit it on fire.
Your metrics are the worst of the starting keepers in the league..by a LOT. I just don’t know how much longer the club can afford to start you if you’re gonna be like this.”
All the problems we had been complaining about Bixby last season – the hesitancy in the air, the clumsy hands, the poor positioning, the bad judgement – exploded in that match, bringing Bixby’s season to a brutally ugly close.
Well, the Bixbys are concentrating on their first kid this season – Bixby announced her pregnancy right after the draft, if you recall – and I wish them all the luck and happiness on Earth.
After that? Can she, will she, return to the pitch?
We’ll have to see. Based on last season it will be a hell of a stretch.
Hard to see her 2023 any other way; Bixby was the anti-Gotham last season, from first (okay, third…) to worst. That’s saddening to write.
One Last thing…
Among the many defections from the Thorns this offseason the departure of Nadine Angerer might have been the least-expected, if for no other reason than that she had persisted through four managers (Riley – spit! – Parsons, Wilkinson, and Norris).
Certainly she’d put in her time; over eight years, and that’s many times the typical tenure of an assistant coach. I wonder, though, whether the deconstruction of Bella Bixby might have had something to do with it.
Bixby was troubled all season, and it was her coach’s job to 1) fix her, or 2) replace her with someone who could succeed. Angerer did neither, and I can’t help but wonder why. Misplaced confidence? Excessive compassion? Simply losing her touch?
Without any inside information I have no idea. But it seems peculiar that Angerer grabbed her hat right after her keeper had the worst season of any of her players during Angerer’s time as goalkeeper coach.
Correlation? Or causation?
We’ll never know.