We started this series off with a look between the sticks, and a very brief look it was, too, given that of the three goalkeepers rostered in 2023 only Shelby Hogan played any time at all – 210 minutes in two matches – and Bella Bixby’s season went sorta how it goes for Death Stars in the Star Wars franchise.
Now we move up the field a bit and look at the defenders in front of them.
Three 2023 starters return in 2024; Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelli Hubly, and Meghan Klingenberg, and we’ll look at them in that order.
The fourth, Natalia Kuikka, was released just this January and picked up by Chicago; we’ll look at her, too, just to see if we think the Thorns FO was mistaken or not regarding her value.
Another veteran starter, Emily Menges, was traded for roster protection from the expansion draft, and we’ll take a last look at her, as well.
The Thorns also played two reserves; Megan Nally and Reyna Reyes; Nally fairly briefly but Reyes as a frequent substitute and spot starter, so we’ll look at both.
Although rostered as a defender, Tegan McGrady didn’t plan a single minute last season and has been released, so we can safely ignore her.
But first, let’s look at the Thorns defense as a unit.
The BacklineS by The Numbers
Although the Thorns finished second in the table, their goals-against number – 32 – was dead last among the top six teams. Worse than that – the only two clubs who conceded more goals were the worst in the league, Kansas City (36GA) and Chicago (an appalling 50 GA).
Let’s start with that and try to break it down.
I’ve assessed thte top-six defenses based on nine categories. The raw data include four metrics; goals conceded (“goals”), shots against (“shots”), shots on goal against (“SOG”), and non-penalty xG against (“npxGa”).
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 non-penalty xG against (“M/xGa”).
(This is an approximation; I’ve used 90 minutes per match as the divisor, while we know that almost all matches ran over. But, frankly, it’d have taken as much time to run down the exact time elapsed for each of 132 matches as it took to write this whole piece, so, fuck that, no; 1980 minutes it is.)
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 top six do? Let’s list them, ranked top-to-bottom by regular season goals-against.
The results here are curious.
As you’d expect, the two bottom teams in goals-against are on the top in giving up both shots and shots on goal.
Interestingly, however, there’s a significant shot-to-SOG-ratio break here, that looks like this:
1. Carolina is head-and-shoulders best at not giving opponents shots on goal; only about 30% of their opponents’ shots went on frame.
2. Then three clubs were packed in the middle and statistically almost indistinguishable; OL Reign (35.8% of shots faced were on goal), Portland (35.8%), and ACFC (36.6%).
3. The two remaining clubs gave up a lot of shots on goal; Gotham (39.2%) and, weirdly, San Diego, the best GA but worst of the group at giving up SOG, conceding 42.8% of their opponents’ shots on frame.
I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Thoughts?
Based on this Portland’s backline –
1) tended to give opponents room to shoot, but,
2) the opponents didn’t put a lot of those shots on frame – the Thorns’ shots-to-SOG was pretty average, and,
3) even those shots-on-goal weren’t all that great – Portland’s defense was above average for giving up expected goals; only San Diego gave up fewer xGa per minute that the Thorns did.
So lots of opponent crap cracks but as often as not from bad angles and long distances that didn’t look likely to score.
If you toggle the “Opponent Stats” tab on the FBRef table for “Squad Shooting” and peek at the last column on the right – “np:G-xG” (that is, non-penalty goals minus xG against”) – you’ll find the Thorns third row down, -3.0, meaning third-worst in the league behind the Wooden Spoon lickers, the doleful Red Stars and the only-slightly-less-dire Kansas City.
That pretty much says it right there.
To sum up:
– Portland’s goals-against is the worst of the playoff teams
– Portland’s goalkeepers faced more shots per game than the other top five teams’ keepers.
– But the Portland backline prevented shots-on-goal at about the average for a playoff team, and (based on xGa) also limited dangerous shots on goal better than any other playoff team outside the top GA club, San Diego.
Which means that the for-a-playoff-team-worst-goals-against stat was not primarily a backline issue, but was predominantly (as we discussed in the “Keepers” post) Bella Bixby having an epically bad season.
So with that in mind, let’s talk defenders, starting across the backline from left to right:
Meghan Klingenberg (LB)
Here’s Kling’s 2023 stats:
first let’s compare them to 2022:
Fair enough; lost a little in the air but otherwise held her technical ground pretty well.
After 2022 I complained that Kling hadn’t adjusted to the way the Thorns were attacking (with Smith and Weaver running at goal) and continued to fruitlessly huck in crosses.
That didn’t change in 2023; 37 crosses attempted, 8 completed (21%) so still trying, still not succeeding,
Just out of curiosity, let’s compare Kling to one of last season’s best fullbacks, ACFC’s Sarah Gordon
Pretty comparable as a provider; good work, Kling!
Defensively? Well…not quite there. Gordon was comprehensively better – except for, interestingly, interceptions…which kind of tracks what I’ve been seeing, Klingenberg is dealing with age by improving her anticipation and positioning.
But age is catching up with her:
Her PMRs suggest that the time between 2019 and 2021 was tough for Kling; she lost a lot of positives even as she limited her losses. I suspect a fair amount of that was because of the big change from Parson’s style to Wilkinson’s and then Norris’ and the big change in player personnel, from serving in balls to Heath, Horan, and Sinclair to the Smith hero-ball style.
One sign that Kling might just be coming to the end of her service life in her season form:
A word of warning here: the team mean net PMR was heavily skewed in 2023 by a handful of outstanding forwards and midfielders; Smith, Weaver, Dunn, Sugita, and Coffey. The result is that many other players ended up below the mean.
What I suggest instead of comparing values directly is looking at how well the player tracks with the team trend, and it’s here that Klingenberg’s struggles are visible. She’s wildly inconsistent. Her very poor outings, such as against Houston on Matchday 3 and Washington on Matchday 17, are well below the mean but her best performances, such as at Louisville on Matchday 4 and against Carolina on Matchday 16, are not far above the team trend.
After 2022 I gave Kling a B-/C+, and warned that while she might start the next year that she looked to be losing more and more ground to age, but that since the club lacked a potential replacement we’d see a lot of her in 2023.
Then Reyna Reyes was added, and – providing the management doesn’t have some lunatic scheme like using Reyes to fill the RB hole – that may be the handwriting on the wall for Kling. That replacement is on the roster. Does that move Kling to the bench?
We’ll see in March.
Grade: B (for her age), C+ (by objective standards).
It’s difficult to figure out what’s going on with the backline this season. Klingenberg is a big question mark, and, as noted we may just have to wait and see who turns up at starting LB – and RB – this spring.
Moving right we come to…
Becky Sauerbrunn (CB)
After having to play her way back into form in 2022, Sauerbrunn ran out on Matchday 1 looking healthy and then…proceeded to get injured and knocked back onto the IR three games later and effectively miss the rest of the season:
When she returned to the pitch her form was steady and “decent or better”.
We compared Kling to Gordon, so how about we compare Brunn to the best centerback in the league, San Diego’s Naomi Girma:
That’s pretty damn respectable. Wish I could figure out why ‘Brunn seems such a hack on the tackle, though. Seems like she should be better going for the ball, but OPTA disagrees.
It’s honestly difficult to assess Sauerbrunn’s 2023 on such a small sample size. Between her stats and her role putting steel into the backline, I’m tempted to give her a…
Grade: B (Incomplete)
I do worry that her age and (now) history of injury are bad omens for 2024. If she’s healthy she’s huge for the club, but…can she stay healthy. Because, as we’ll discuss, the centerback replacement pool is pretty shallow.
Kelli Hubly (CB)
Here’s what I wrote about Hubly in last season’s “Final Grades” post:
“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.”
Well, in case you don’t recognize the image above, that’s Hubs getting tossed for a DOGSO and shipping Carolina the free kick goal that her teammates had to go into full on hero mode to overcome.
So, yeah; last season Hubly kind of returned to her throw-out-a-massive-derp-every-other-game ways.
What’s frustrating about Hubs is that when she’s solid? She’s solid. Compare her stats with Girma; if you didn’t know the dumb shit Hubly had pulled every so often you’d think they were twin sisters.
Here’s her PMRs:
And yeah, that’s all over the goddamn place.
Disregarding her tiny 2019 sample Hubly has been slowly slipping in form, but the trend doesn’t really take in the big-error matches that made her such a target of fan discontent last season. The key to defending is consistency; it’s cutting down the angles, reducing the opponents’ opportunities, it’s always being in position and alert.
Hubly was the opposite of that in 2023.
I can’t just hand Hubly out a flag; she had many good moments last season. But the awshits cancelled out a lot of attaboys, and if she starts this year she has to cut back on that.
Emily Menges (CB)
She’s a part of the Thorns’ past now, but the Menges piece of the one-time Great Wall of Emily was so huge in that past that I can’t let her go without one last look.
For a player who had been a rock in the backline, what was disturbing about Menges’ 2023 was her inconsistency:
That’s positively Hublyesque, and even that doesn;t show some of the real howlers Menges put on last season. Her best match of the year, the semifinal against Gotham, included her dinking a “clearance” right to Katie Stengal and then flailing at her as Stengal teed up the matchwinner.
Menges had that kind of a season.
Like Klingenberg, Menges’ form dropped sharply after 2019. In Menges’ case I suspect that injury more than age was to blame. 2023 was better than her 2022, but not by much.
It’s hard to tell what all went in to her supposedly asking for a trade that ended up sending her to San Francisco. Some had to be concerns from the club; about her form, about her history of injury, about her in the locker room (it seems difficult to believe that the Affaire Mengisson had no effect on the squad).
But the story is that Menges herself asked for the move, meaning something(s) weren’t working for her anymore after ten years here.
I’m sorry they weren’t; I’ve been a huge fan of this player for that entire time.
It’s hard to imagine a Thorns defense without Menges, but this offseason is starting to look more like the huge rebuilding year of 2015-16 than other offseasons, and moving on from the last crumbling stones of the Great Wall is part of that,
Another piece of the Second Great Rebuilding is the loss of
Natalia Kuikka (RB)
The Finnish international took an offer from Chicago and will play centerback (her more favored position) there next season. We discussed the concerns regarding this move in the earlier post.
Look back up at the Gordon stats and you can see that Kuikka had a good season by the numbers. Her PMRs bear that out:
Kuikka, much like several other Portland backs, had a handful of really poor outings; both ACFC games as well as Louisville away. The bulk of her season, though, tracks well within the squad mean; indeed, Natu looks better overall than most of the other starters. Her issues, when she had them, seem to relate as much to Mike Norris’ tactics as her own form.
Frankly it’s difficult to see how the Thorns can find a better replacement for Kuikka. I’m not saying they can’t…but she’s a hell of a good – as in “good-international-grade” – player. Those are not easy to find.
That was our starting backline in 2023, We had two reserves, one of which had moved up to spot-starting by the end of the season:
Reyna Reyes (FB/CB)
Reyes’ may have had the single most appalling rookie debut in Thorns history, making a farcical error – stepping completely over the ball – that allowed Ashley Sanchez to nip it away and stroll in for the gimme putt.
OMFG, the panic. The weeping.
I said at the time I thought the player had good tools and, sure enough, she settled in to have a productive season, subbing in largely at left fullback but also at centerback and right back.
Her PMRs track with the squad’s and generally look fine:
Reyes has turned out to be a good young player, and I have hope that she’ll be a solid performer in 2024.
My only concern is the right back situation. Reyes should take over from Klingenberg this season, but she can’t if she gets yanked across the pitch. RB is not her strongest position, either, another argument against it. I have no idea how Mike Norris and KK plan to skin that cat, though, so…
Meaghan Nally (FB/CB)
Here’s what I wrote about Nally in 2022:
“(S)he’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.”
Early in the season Mike Norris still did; Nally appeared in four of the first seven games, including a start against Houston on Matchday 7.
Two starts in the international windows, one in Orlando, the other in Washington, and a sub-on in the Carolina Hubly Red Card match.
I’m not sure why she fell out of favor. Nally is only depth; she hasn’t shown the skills to break into the starting XI. She was better depth than Provenzano or Beckman, so she got at least a few minutes when they didn’t get any.
But something he saw last season convinced Norris that Nally wasn’t his first choice off the bench, so her minutes damn near disappeared after midseason.
Just like 2022, it’s hard to consider Nally’s issues to be her own fault. Much of her struggles appeared to be related to her coach, who seldom subbed her in the same place twice. As we observed last season, Nally is less perilous as a centerback, but the Thorns had depth there they didn’t have out wide, so Nally tended to get put in as a fullback. That was not generally a happy choice.
Now the Thorns depth in back is stretched even further. Does that mean more work for Nally? Or will rookies like Kaufusi shoulder past her?
The Thorns backline had a rough 2023, between injuries and individual issues, but I think the real trouble was their gaffer’s unshakeable belief in bombing his fullbacks forward and Bixby’s shocking season.
With Sarah Gordon and Katie Lund you could do that and profit from it. With Kling and Nally and Bixby? Not so much.
The questions linger.
Can Sauerbrunn stay healthy? Can Hubly get back to her pre-derp form? Can Klingenberg beat the reaper another year? Who’s going to be the right fullback? How will the rooks like Kaufusi and Msckenzie, or Obaze, the Danish international, fit in? What does Mike Norris do with this group, tactically and organizationally?
I think the backline needs to do better this coming season, both as individuals and as a unit. I think Mike Norris needs to do better, as well, both with his tactics and with his roster. There’s a lot of talent here, but it desperately needs to be better organized.
Overall Grade: C+ (with a note from the teacher: “I’d like to see improvement in the collective work next year.)