We’re up to the third of our “Final Grades” series, and have moved up the pitch to the middle, where we’ll take a look at the Thorns midfield from 2023.
The Midfield from above
In his pre-season meet-the-fans presser head coach Mike Norris said something to the effect that he is a “4-3-3 guy” and, yes, when the club ran out against Orlando on Matchday 1 a 4-3-3 was what we saw and, yes, the formation was the most commonly used by the club in 2023.
Between his responses to individual callups and injuries, and opponents, and some factors I honestly can’t figure, the Thorns also formed up several other ways.
Here’s the midfield for 2023 broken down by formation and roster, after which we’ll break it down in a bit more detail:
So the 4-3-3 got a run in the first three matches of the season, with Sam Coffey holding down the back and Crystal Dunn and Christine Sinclair as the 8’s.
That changed against Houston here on Matchday 3, with Sinclair out after playing for Canada over the FIFA break and Olivia Moultrie in her place:
The first two games were walkovers and didn’t really test the Thorns in any way other than their goal celebration creativity.
Houston, though…here’s what Arielle Dror saw the Thorns looking like:
At the time I thought the midfield looked kind of a mess; failing to connect with the forwards and turning over or dropping back under pressure.
I suspect that Mike Norris thought so, too, because he ran out something that looked more like a 4-2-3-1 double pivot over the next four games before reverting to the 4-3-3 against Chicago:
The formations as listed above are how they’re shown on OPTA’s chart at the league site.
In reality they looked much different. Here’s Arielle Dror for the Louisville match on Matchday 4:
As you can see, Dunn’s more of an 8 than a DM here, and overall this doesn’t look so much like a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-4-2 diamond as it does a sort of skewed 3-5-2.
Here it is against North Carolina in Cary:
That looks…sort like a 4-3-3 with both fullbacks pushed way up, Norrisball-style. Only the midfield is all scrunched together, with Sinclair, the notional #10, dropping behind Coffey, the notional #6.
Anyway, this set wasn’t effective. After clubbing Racing here it coughed up draws to the Angels and Carolina away, and then cratered in Houston, so, as noted above, Norris returned to his beloved 4-3-3 to whip the hapless Red Stars.
That began a run of matches where 1) we saw mostly the 4-3-3 and 2) ran off some good results; beating Seattle away and the Spirit here.
Let’s look at the last three:
Orlando? Yep; Coffey at the 6, Dunn and Sinc the 8’s. Chicago? Yep. Same. Washington? Yep. There they are again.
It’s kind of a weird 4-3-3 because the fullbacks are so high it’s almost a 2-5-3. But that’s Norrisball for ya.
Then came the World Cup, and the Replacements took over.
Kansas City was a shitshow, with Taylor Porter overrun at the 6 while poor Coffey wandered about wide. At Gotham Norris “fixed” that but the “fix” was…well, let’s roll the tape, shall we? Here’s what I said at the time:
“This is so weird I don’t know where to begin.
For one thing, WTF is Vasconcelos doing? She’s supposed to be right wing but she’s faffing around the center circle. D’Aquila is pushed up as the nine (not that she did much there – another awful game, and we’ll get there…), and Morgan Weaver is in some sort of weird AM/LW limbo.
The midfield looks somewhat sensible, but the fullbacks? Kuikka is tracking back trying to keep a leash on Yazmeen Ryan. But what the hell is Reyes up to? She’s got Purce steaming at her, and she’s still damn near in the Gotham back right corner. That, in turn pulls Menges out of position.
I didn’t mention Klingenberg as the supposed 8 (I think) being overrun by Reyes from behind and Weaver from up top.
Well, thankfully after that shitshow the regulars returned and Norris responded by re-tooling his midfield again:
For three matches he ran some sort of 4-4-2 or 4-4-2 diamond or 4-2-2-2. But I dunno, look at these last two…
…what the hell is that? Washington looks like some chaos-theory diamond, maybe. Louisville is more 4-2-2-2-looking, only with the fullbacks so damn pushed up it works more like a 2-2-4-2.
Which might explain a LOT about fucking Louisville away…
After that debacle Norris settled into the stretch run by giving up the 4-3-3 and going with the double pivot:
Included in this was the weird notional placement of Hina Sugita at DM. That…didn’t actually happen. Here’s the squad against LA:
Coffey is effectively a lone 6 in some sort of 4-1-3-2. The semifinal did look more conventional (Arielle Dror had been hired by Bay City with the consequent loss of her wonderful passing diagrams):
Here’s the thing about that, though; Rodriguez (#11) is playing a DM alongside Coffey but Norris yanked her as one of his usual Hour Subs for Sugita, who tried to push up but had an awful match, so in the final hour the Thorns went to something more like the ACFC away formation.
So for a “4-3-3 guy” Mike Norris 1) played less than half the regular season games in his preferred formation, and 2) within those formation changes swapped his midfield cast around a lot. He never really did settle on a consistent 4-3-3 matchday XI:
At first glance his most preferred set – 4-3-3, Coffey at the #6, Dunn and Sinclair (or Moultrie) as dual #8s (or 8 and 10) – looks the most successful as well. Until you think about the opponents; a dire Orlando on Opening Day and an equally awful Kansas City on Matchday 2, as well as the Chicago dumpster fire (which even then was a hard-fought 2-3 away win). Then throw in the loss at Orlando and only the Washington win here looks good.
Perhaps the best game of the season was the 4-3-3 Coffey-Dunn-Moultrie Seattle away win on Matchday 10, but that midfield had only two other games, and those included a dour Houston draw and a Chicago-tomato-can-drubbing here.
Pretty meh. Disregarding the Replacements the 4-2-3-1 in all its variants went only 3-4-3, and the 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 was a bland 1-1-1.
I’m not sure what all this tinkering means for 2024. But in 2023 it meant a midfield that never really developed an identity, and wasn’t able to respond well to adversity. Part of it was personnel, but a ton of it was tactics and the instability of the roster and the formations. That’s on the gaffer, not the troops.
The Midfield up close
The 2023 midfield was anchored by Samantha Coffey, so we’ll talk about her first. The other starter midfielders who are returning this season are Olivia Moultrie and Hina Sugita (although Hina-san was used as much or more as a right wing in 2023…). Christine Sinclair remains rostered at forward but was most commonly used as an attacking midfielder, so we’ll talk about her here.
Two players who were starters in midfield have been released (Crystal Dunn) or traded (Raquel Rodriguez); because of their importance last season we’ll discuss them, as well.
Four other players were rostered as midfielders. Michelle Vasconcelos made two starts, so well talk about her briefly, but she’s been released and won’t figure in 2024.
Three others played so little as to be difficult to discuss; Taylor Porter, who had a single start and six other appearances (and has since been released), Natalie Beckman, also waived after a single substitute appearance, and Gabby Provenzano who, despite not playing a single minute last season, is the only one of the three still on the roster (as a defender, but given that she has no 2023 data, who knows?).
They’re so scanty I can’t really say anything, so let’s start with…
Samantha Coffey (DM)
Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Worth a thousand words, etc.
So does this:
The 2023 squad had two players that stood head-and-shoulders above the rest.
One, obviously, was Sophia Smith. Sam Coffey was the other, and the obvious concern for me in 2024 is that US Soccer will recognize that and steal her away as they did Smith, the greedy creatures.
I’m not sure what I can add here to what I’ve already said about her.
Note the bottom right hand corner. A defensive midfielder with forty-one key passes? Jadyn Shaw, who is listed as an attacking midfielder and shared the Best XI honors with Coffey, had 40 in about 1,500 minutes. Denise O’Sullivan had 17 in 1,800 minutes. Savannah DeMelo had 33 in about 1,600.
Well, okay then.
Barring injury, Coffey should be midfield key again in 2024, and, barring mental breakdown on the part of the front office, should be a huge piece of the Thorns midfield for years after that.
Olivia Moultrie (AM)
Young Moultrie had an…interesting…season.
For much of the first half of the season she was “decent or better”, but couldn’t break into the starting XI regularly. She started on Matchdays 2 and 3 and played well. Out the following match. Subbed in Matchdays 5 and 6. Started the next two, played very well. Subbed in Matchday 9. Started the next game in Seattle, subbed in the following game.
You get the idea.
Her big chance might have come in the Replacement games, but after a solid start against Kansas City Moultrie was unimpressive in the New Jersey loss.
She was a monster in the Carolina Red Card Comeback; +25/-2, the single best-rated match of any Thorn in 2023.
But then she faded; unimpressive against Washington (+3/-1) and in Louisville (+4/-0), and it was back to the bench.
Moultrie had another terrific game in the Gotham win on Matchday 21 (+16/-2) but was benched again in LA the next game.
Moultrie has developed into a very good attacking midfielder, but she seemed unable to break into the rotation consistently. Unfortunately some of that was because she shared Sinclair’s position, and she sat to give Sinc minutes; say what you will about that.
If I had one complaint it’s that I’d like to see Moultrie work on her sniping a bit; 2 goals on 24 shots is pretty wasteful. Put ’em on frame, and put the biscuit in the basket. That’s the ticket.
Given her progress I hope to see more, and better, from Moultrie in 2024.
Hina Sugita (AM/RW)
Sugita-senshu is my favorite player so it’s hard for me to be objective. But here’s some hard cold numbers that are:
See that, Livvy? 50% shots on frame, and of those 50% converted into goals. GodDAMN I love an efficient scorer.
Here’s her PMRs:
Sugita would probably have had several more +20 matches had she not been called up for Japan. As it was she was consistently terrific until after the World Cup break.
After that…not so much; she had a tough match in Louisville, was poor against San Diego on MD 20, and was ineffective in the semifinal, including the giveaway that began Gotham’s only goal-scoring attack. Fatigue and emotional let-down from the Nadeshiko‘s campaign were obviously a factor.
Still, Sugita was, and is, a critical part of the Thorns midfield.
I still consider Norris’ insistence on putting her at RW a mistake, albeit an understandable one. She’s left-footed, but Weaver has the left wing locked up. She’s more dangerous when she’s not pinned against the touchline, but Norris had to play Sinclair, and he had Dunn to find an ACM spot for, as well. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.
Lost half a grade for absences and then her post-World Cup slump.
The question for me now is; now what? Dunn is gone, Sinc should be gone…but Jessie Fleming is coming, and Moultrie is still here. There still looks like a lot of bodies in the way, and I’m afraid that we may see Sugita out along the touchline again this year.
Christine Sinclair (F/AM)
I’m sorry, but the domestic goat is just not a majestic animal…
…so this we-re-signed-The GOAT thing just comes off as kinda ridiculous (what, you couldn’t even find full-size goats?) and that silliness makes a rather painful point.
Yes, Sinc is the “greatest of all time”, and has been a legend here in Portland.
No, she can’t play at a consistently high level professionally anymore. She’s no longer a giant among mini-goats. She’s struggling to keep up with the herd.
In 2022 Sinc scored 5 goals in 1,064 minutes over 13 starts. Twenty-one shots, 14 on goal, conversion rate 23.8%. As you see, last season her production dropped to 60% on similar shots, shots-on-goal, and minutes.
She no longer takes penalties after missing 2 of 4 attempts in 2021.
She’s been fading for years now:
Here’s her PMR plot for 2023:
It’s the same pattern we’ve seen for the last couple of years. Starts fresh and plays well early in the season.
As fatigue begins to tear away at those thirty-something legs her form starts to slide. By midseason Sinc is struggling to make an impact; she’s still got the skills, but she can’t run with her opponents long enough to use them.
By the playoffs she’s cooked.
I’ll admit that Sinc still has some soccer in her. Every so often she’ll do something that reminds you who she is (she’s the maestra of the flick-on-header, for one…) but you have to sit through hours of her lumbering around midfield to find them.
It’s time to move on. Seriously. Shit, it was time to move on several years ago, and it’s past time now.
I’d give her a flag if not for those occasional reminders of her glorious past AND her effect on the squad; she’s still a hero and an inspiration to many of her teammates (Smith has said as much) and were she a coach that alone would be a solid positive.
She’s not, and as such is taking minutes from players who could be. That’s not okay; this is a team sport and if you as an individual aren’t helping your team? You need to change that.
Okay. New we’re out of the future and looking at the past – the players who are no longer here – and the margins of the present, the fringers and squad players.
Let’s look at the reserve first and get her out of the way.
Michelle Vasconcelos (AM)
Less than 350 minutes over 14 games, three starts. That gives you the understanding why Vasconcelos is now in Utah.
She bagged a nice poacher’s goal against Orlando on Matchday 1 and proceeded to fall off the depth chart. Here she was on Matchday 3 against Houston:
Vasconcelos (64′ – +7/-5 : +1/-1 : +8/-6) I’m trying to be charitable to Michelle Vasconcelos. She works hard, she’s always running, and she leaves it all on the pitch, and that’s terrific.
She’s also just not really that skilled. She loses possession fairly often, either by poor passing or getting tackled and losing the duel. I get that she’s a veteran and that’s reassuring, but I’m not sure what the point of not trying D’Aquila as a starter is. I hope we’ll see her get 90 here Wednesday.
Yeah, that was pretty much that. Could have stepped up with the Replacements and didn’t. We’ll see if her Utah work this season suggests that the issue was her or the issue was here.
She seemed like a decent player trying to get untracked. Kind of sorry she couldn’t.
Okay, so now we have two former-big-name Thorns to wrap up with.
Crystal Dunn (AM)
Marcel’s mom had a damn fine season in 2023:
Here’s her numbers:
Yep. That’s a good season.
Indeed; after kind of wandering around in her first season under Parsons and missing most of the following season (tho that 2022 semifinal golazo paid a lot of bills…) Dunn had a fine 2023 and looked poised to be a big piece here this year.
My guess is some kind of lingering anger over her husband getting canned, but possibly also some sort of friction between her and someone in the Front Office. Rumor has it that LeBlanc is not easy to get along with, so…
You’d think after Dunn’s gushing over how much the team had helped her through her pregnancy and recovery that wouldn’t be an issue…but, no. Something went wrong, badly wrong, given the little hissy Dunn put on at the “skills” exhibition in Los Angeles.
So the loss hurts, given that you’d think there might have been some way to make her happy to stay. A player of this caliber can’t ever be lost without regrets.
Just writing this makes me want to hunt up Pierre Soubrier and kick him dead square in the ass, and then find the physio manager who let him hand out narcotics like Tic-Tacs and boot them in the backside, too.
It’s just that sort of careless, grabass, slipshod stupidity that happened all too often in the Peregrine Thorns organization. Attention, Bhathals; that’s Job One when you get around to swabbing out the FO.
Raquel Rodriguez (MF/DM)
Rocky’s final season here was not what I think it could or should have been.
She never seemed to fit with something that Mike Norris wanted from his midfield, so she was out of the XI more than in it:
What’s frustrating about that is that she and Coffey made a solidly effective double pivot, and would probably have been even moreso had they had more minutes together.
There was no place in Norris’ 4-3-3 for her. Dunn was – not unreasonably – ahead on the AM depth chart, Moultrie brought more attack, as well, and Sinclair had to be played for something something reasons, so those minutes came out of Rocky’s.
But even in the 4-2-3-1 she was as often out than in. Look back up at the midfield charts. Ten double-pivot 4-2-3-1 matches; Rocky gets four starts at DM. Dunn (Dunn?) gets four. Sugita (Sugita??) gets two.
Rocky does get DM starts in the three 4-4-2-whatevers, too, but seriously? You’ve got a hard-as-nails DM and you only play her at DM in seven of thirteen matches where you run two DMs?
Rocky didn’t help herself by, as you can see, very seldom striking at goal. She has a good long-range shot, too, and I think the danger of her taking a crack more often might have helped take some pressure off Smith. Oh, well.
With Moultrie and Sinc still here and Jessie Fleming coming someone in midfield was going to lose out and now we know who.
Grade: B (for her individual work) C (for her work in the squad)
I think her final grade is more on her coach than on her. Rocky is a talented player, but she just never got a chance to show it here under Norris.
If Fleming is all that – and I have no reason to doubt she could be, though she seems to have struggled a bit recently – then I understand the deal. As with Dunn, though, it’s never simple or easy to part with a quality player. So buena suerte, Rocky…except when you play us.
The thing that comes to mind when I think of the Thorns midfield in 2023 is…so damn close.
So much talent there! Coffey the league’s top DM. Sugita being Hina-san doing Hina-san things. Dunn with a monster year. Gifted roleplayers like Rodriguez and Moultrie. Sinclair…well, even there a moment or three.
But somehow the whole never seemed to exceed, or even equal, the sum of the parts
I think a big part of that was, as we discussed with the backline, more an issue of management and coaching. The endless fiddling with formations and rosters. The uninspired tactics. Things like playing Sugita wide to find space for Sinc, or playing Sinc instead of Rocky or Moultrie. Dunn and Sugita at DM? Seriously?
Norris just never seemed to find the key to unlock all that talent. Close! But that only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. “Close” in soccer means just being “first best loser”.
Now the club has an opportunity to re-form the midfield using players like Fleming and Moultrie, incorporating promising newcomers like Linnehan, and returning veterans like Beckie. Can the 2024 midfield be crafted to work – consistently – at a level that the 2023 version reached only occasionally? You’d think so.
But then…given the individual quality here, you’d think that should have happened last season, too.
Overall Grade: B-