2023 Final Grades – The Forwards

In this fourth installment of the “Final Grades” series we’ve moved upfield to where the fun happens; the scorers, the forward line, the people who put the biscuit in the basket.

Our survey of the rest of the team from last season showed us a lot of talent…but a disturbing amount of what the Fat Controller would have called “confusion and delay”. This largely related to managerial tinkering and a failure to integrate that talent into a consistently cohesive unit that would successfully defend the 2022 crown.

Will we see the same up front?

The Forwards as a Unit

Portland rostered four actual forwards in 2023 (technically Sinclair is a forward – which seems to be some sort of organizational concession to how she wants to think of herself – but played as an attacking midfielder and we’ve discussed her as such); Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver, Izzy D’Aquila, and Hannah Betfort.

How’d they do last season? Well, here’s a table of who scored and when. It’s broken down into the four forwards and “everyone else”:

That’s a little hard to read, so let’s just break it down to a bar graph. Who scored how much again?


Sophia Smith scored about a quarter – 26% – of the team goals, no surprise there. Morgan Weaver was a ways behind with 16%. The “other” scorers included:
Hina Sugita – 6 goals (14% of the team goals)
Crystal Dunn – 5 goals (12%)
Christine Sinclair – 3 goals (7%)
Two with two goals (Hannah Betfort, Olivia Moultrie, 5% each)
Several others with one goal, including Bella Bixby.

So the forwards between them scored about half – 47% – of the team goals, with the midfielders pretty much bagging all the rest. That sounds about right.


Sam Coffey was the assist leader with 8 (26%) of the total of 31.

Smith and Weaver were next with 5 (16%) and 4 (13%), respectively. Behind them were Meghan Klingenberg, Hina-san, and Olivia Moultrie with 3 (10%) each, Natalia Kuikka and Dunn with 2 (6%) each, and Sinc with one.

Again, that sounds about right; the midfield provided just a little more than half of the service, Smith and Weaver about a third, and the fullbacks just about 15%.

So pretty much what you’d expect, and want to see, from a club with players like Smith and Weaver up front…with the bonus that one of those two was the Golden Boot for 2023.

Let’s break it down a bit.

Sophia Smith (F/CF)

What more can you say?

I’d just say: “Forgawd’ssakes don’t get hurt again!”

Because her knee injury, scary enough as it was for her, derailed her season and with it the club’s. Here it is in PMR form:

You can see it perfectly on the plot; first, the gap between the injury on Matchday 13 and her brief two-game return after the World Cup, the second gap is the long rehab spell after Matchday 17, and scrap of blue to the right is the sad little coda at the end of the season, with Smith brought down from the stratospheric heights of the first half of the year.

The head-shaking part of Smith’s 2023 is that her coach seemed to believe that she was the soccer version of Manic Pixie Dream Girl; if you just pitched the ball up to her she’d do magical things with it. Luckily for him by and large, she could.

But that also produced a lot of punishment, as defenders who realized they couldn’t beat Smith realized that PRO refereeing meant they could beat ON Smith to take her out of the match.

They did and the knee injury that was waiting to happen did.

So the key for 2024 is keep Smith healthy.

The key for seasons beyond that is keep Smith happy, and hopefully the club has a plan for that, too.

Grade: A+

Baseball pitcher Tom Seaver was considered so important to the New York Mets that his nickname was simply “The Franchise”; with him the club were champions, without him, tomato cans.

Smith is the Thorns Franchise.

It’s just that simple.

Morgan Weaver (F/LW)

Laverne had Shirley. Calvin had Hobbes. Thelma had Louise. Bert had Ernie.

Smith has Weaver.

Smith is the baby-face assassin, Weaver is Wolverine, all flying blades and passionate intensity. Smith is the brain, Weaver the body.

Together they are melding into a hell of a partnership.

Here’s her numbers:

…and here’s her ratings:

Weaver was a monster all year last year, and had Smith stayed healthy the pair might – might – have dragged Portland up to the top step.

There’s some things I’d still like to see Weaver work on.

Her touch still occasionally fails her. If she could take a skosh off her drives, if she could add finesse in the form of a chip of the keeper or a bluffed shot she’d be utterly terrifying for defenders, as much good trouble as she already is.

But, overall?

Grade: A+

What I said for Smith?

Same goes here.

Izzy D’Aquila (F/CF)

D’Aquila is a 2023 draftee out of Santa Clara; first rounder, twelfth pick overall. At the time she looked like a terrific prospect:

I wasn’t quite as excited:

“I kinda have to trust Henderson on this one. I like it fine, but looking at Fisher I don’t love it. I keep telling myself that I think we needed defensive depth more, so I need to be okay with losing the shot at Hocking or Hopkins or Spaanstra to grab Reyes.”

I was mollified by the second round grab of Lauren DeBeau, Michigan State forward and Top Drawer’s #27 nationally. I gushed:

“That’s terrific. That’s fucking outstanding. That’s a Wilkinson/Parsons-grade Late Round Steal. Between DeBeau and D’Aquila the front line should be sturdy enough to withstand the World Cup gutting.”

Ah, the triumph of hope…

Because neither player developed from there.

DeBeau was dropped even before the season opened, for reasons that were never explained. It happens; some people just don’t or can’t make that big step up to the pros, It’s a tough gig.

D’Aquila struggled to make it. She looked great in preseason, just like she was promised to be, and then…well, here’s my match report for her against Louisville on Matchday 4:

D’Aquila (17′ – +4/-1) I’m reading a lot of love for her, but she just looks like a promising youngster to me, with all the pluses and minuses that implies. I liked her sweet little turn along the byline in the 76th minute a lot! – she really has some nice skills – but other than that? She’s fine, and we’ll have a lot of time to see more of her in midsummer. Let’s see how she shows then before loading a bunch of expectation on her.

By Matchday 11 in Orlando things were getting a bit less sunny:

D’Aquila (23′ – +1/-3) Unfortunate that her most significant action was to start the implosion that led to the third concession. Just a bad night in a bad position when the whole team had a bad night.”

After a series of appearances as a late substitute D’Aquila finally got her first start with the Replacements against Kansas City on Matchday 14.

It…didn’t go well:

D’Aquila (+2/-4 : +6/-5 : +8/-9) Here’s what I wrote about Izzy D’Aquila back in March:

(Long citation from the laudatory comment I wrote after the U-23 preseason game)

What the hell happened?

This player was worse than a nullity against KCC. She killed off promising attacks with poor touches, weak shots, and a lack of ideas.

D’Aquila can still find space, but she couldn’t do anything with it. I’m not sure if this is just rust, or whether the glimpses in preseason were fool’s gold, or whether she has legitimately gotten less effective here. But at the moment, she’s not adding value.

Update 7/4: I looked for this earlier, but Henderson is having a bit of a hissy about Twitter and he didn’t post it in time for publication, but here’s his xG/post-shot xG plot:

What it says about D’Aquila is utterly damning; with the opportunity to create more than a goal all herownself, she got nothing. I’ll expand in my reply to Barcasiempre below, but that’s not viable for a primary striker. You gotta sink your putts. Period. And when none of her teammates were getting anything better that half- or quarter-chances? Even moreso.

We need D’Aquila to be better at Gotham. Full stop.

Well…she wasn’t:

D’Aquila (78′ – +0/-4 : +0/-0 : +0/-4) At this point I’m not sure if the D’Aquila Experiment should run any further. When we drafted her Chris Henderson noted that “Her conversion rate ran a little hot and cold…” but we haven’t seen so much as “tepid” since preseason. I don’t think she’s the droid we’re looking for.”

That was pretty much it for D’Aquila in 2023. She got some garbage minutes in the Hubly Red Cardapalooza against Carolina, and even fewer in Louisville on Matchday 18, and that was all.

Somehow she’s still here.

I hate to write stuff like this. The young player is trying. She’s not jakin’ it, she’s doing her best, or at least putting in the work. She is trying to keep her dream of professional soccer alive.

I’d like that to happen.

But for it to happen, D”Aquila has got to be better than she was last season. If she can’t be, well…the NWSL rosters are small, and if she can’t even be decent depth she can’t remain on ours.

Grade: F

C’mon, D’Aquila. Let’s make it happen.

The final player is no longer here; Hannah Betfort was traded to the Utah franchise for expansion draft protection.

Hannah Betfort (F/CF)

Well, she scored two goals, the only forward not named Smith or Weaver who did.

You probably recognize the photo above; that’s Betfort ringing up the equalizer in her monster game against The Damned after Hubly’s Boner.

I’ll always love that moment.

But then two matches later came the Louisville away loss, and:

Betfort (90′ – +2/-2 : +1/-3 : +4/-5) After her blinder against Carolina here I wrote that stuff like that was pushing me off the fence about Bets.

Games like this one push me back on it.

She’s not a bad striker. She works hard and gets into dangerous positions. And we’ve seen that she has both skills and can convert. But…then she has games like this, where she spends ninety minutes doing…not much.

I’d really like to be convinced about her. But I’m not.”

That was kind of her season. Not awful, not terrific, lots of strengths (Betfort is a terrific forechecking forward) but lots of holes, too. Decent depth, at least you’d think.

But there must be something else involved we’re not seeing, because D’Aquila is still here and Betfort isn’t.

Grade: C+ (overall) B (as a sub)

If anyone took over the role of “class cut-up” from Emily Sonnett it was Bets. She didn’t quite have the same goofy lunatic photobomb mojo…but she was close. I’m gonna miss that, and her.

We’ll always have Carolina.

Summing up

Any forward line running out Smith and Weaver can’t really be any less that “damn good”. And in a sense those two sort of “coach-proof” the frontline. If you were, say, Mike Norris, you wouldn’t have to come up with tactics to consistently spring your strikers with through-balls or connecting one-touch passing or clever buildup. You could just huck it up and expect your star to do heroics.

The problem was, and is, depth. Smith’s injury revealed that. There was just nobody behind the top two.

Mind you, there’s no actually “replacing” a player of Smith’s quality; even Weaver, good as she is, is more the sidekick than the hero. But after those two the quality drops off a lot. And of the two reserves from 2023 the FO seems to have kept the lesser of the pair.

What now?

The keys to 2024 and beyond are, first and most obviously, keeping Smith and Weaver healthy and happy. But right after that is providing them with solid backups and additional support. Can we do that? I hope so; those two have soldiered for several seasons now. It’s be nice if we could help them out.

Overall Grade: A-

The half-grade deduction is purely for the lack of depth,

Next up: The Coaches, Trainers, and Management

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

8 thoughts on “2023 Final Grades – The Forwards

  1. Smith and Weaver are a terrific attack duo and as you note need more help up on the front line, but they were getting the appropriate amount of support from the midfield. In fact, it seemed to me that the biggest problem with the 2023 Thorns was the defense. And yeah tactics cost the team games too.
    But Morgan needs a running mate for when Soph is at the Olympics. Even more problems if Weaver gets a shot too. That is possible if she continues with her great progress every year. Realistically as good as Morgan is the competition at forward for the Nats is brutal.

    1. As you can see looking back up at the chart, the support was highly sporadic. Take out the two opening match romps and Smith is stymied until Matchday 10. That kind of matched the eye test; there was a LOT of expecting Smith to make magic. I mean…it’s great that she got service from Weaver and Sugita on the wings and from the midfield…but a hell of a lot of Smith’s goals were those she made herself.

      That’s great! But that’s 1) a heavy load and 2) not repeatable if your CF is a Betfort or a D’Aquila. So it’s not finding a Smith to be Smith when Smith isn’t here; that’s fucking impossible. NObody is Smith but Smith.

      It’s those “tactics that cost games”; there has to be a set of team tactics for “not-Smith” that can still produce goals. Can Norris think that up?

      Because here’s the thing about all those goals.

      Here’s the top six Thorns scoring matches with goals-for:
      Orlando (MD1) – 4 (win)
      Kansas City (MD2) – 4 (win)
      Angel City (MD5) – 3 (draw)
      Carolina (MD6) – 3 (draw)
      Chicago (MD8) – 4 (win)
      Washington (MD13) – 4 (win)

      Wow! 6 games, 22 goals (3+G/Gm). 14 points (4W 2D)

      But…here’s the reverse fixtures:
      Orlando (MD11) – 1 (loss)
      Chicago (MD12) – 3 (win)
      Kansas City (MD14) – 0 (loss)
      Carolina (MD16) – 2 (win)
      Washington (MD17) -1 (draw)
      Angel City (MD22) – 1 (loss)

      That’s…not so great, 6 games, 8 goals (1.3G/Gm), 7 points (2W 1D 3L)

      So if we’d gone Full “You score 5, fine, We’ll score 6” Brazil? I’d be okay. But we didn’t, really. Take away those six games and the other 16 we nicked 20 goals and about 1.3pts per game.

      So, yeah. Norris & Co. need to do some thinking.

  2. You will probably address this in the coaching section, but consistency was a real problem for the Thorns. We had a number of games where the team went ballistic, but then a number of games where the offense was pedestrian (or worse). Part of that is a lack of scoring from non-Smith/Weaver options, part of it is due to a lack of a plan of attack. Both of those items fall back on coaching. I hope that Norris has spent a lot of time coming up with tactics that fit the other players on the team, because the Route One option is always going to be there so long as we have Smith and Weaver.
    I’m pretty critical of Norris, but I do hope that he has learned a lot from last season. This team has amazing forwards, but it needs to develop other ways to score because it is loaded with National Team talent. If/when that talent is away there needs to be some way to be competitive. Parsons was really good at getting the second tier players ready to play, and that is what I want to see. Will Beckie, D’Aquilla and other be ready to carry the torch when we are missing Smith and/or Weaver? That is the critical question this year.

    1. Agreed.

      When you have a big sword you just swing it. But when all you have is a couple of daggers? You have to learn to fight. The problem last season is that unless Smith was lit and had perfect support the club struggled.

      Sometimes even when she was! Those 3-3 draws still bug me; you score three you ought to win.

      So it’s a full-field thing. Norris has to 1) replace his keeper, 2) shore up the backline, 3) field a consistently dangerous midfield, and 4) come up with tactics to ride Smith when she’s on and come up with workarounds when she’s not (or not here).

      Can he? I have no idea, but he didn’t last year. We’ll see if he’s been doing some woodshedding in the offseason.

  3. I think the Thorns this year and the future is keeping Soph healthy and happy. They are not disconnected. If Norris ball requires Soph to play with her back to those hard charging CB’s, then she gonna get beat up. We saw toward the end of last year just how much aggression PRO was going to allow. This goes hand in hand with being happy. Now Soph is a tough player, but. All the talk of Europe, more money in Europe, playing shards of rubber, I don’t think I would be all that happy. Yeah, hero ball, when it works, is fun to watch. But it could really hurt over the long term.

  4. I’m really happy to have a starting forward group in Weaver, Smith, and Sugita.

    The backup group of Beckie, D’Aquila, and Linnehan requires at least one young player to emerge behind Beckie.

    Beckie isn’t a great finisher, but I do think her speed, handle, and ability to create spacing should be a positive. As the primary backup winger, I like what she offers

    D’Aquila had two pretty bad games, but I still believe in her skill sets. Hopefully, we see an improvement because last year was pretty much a miss.

    I think Linnehan is going to push her with a little more complete skill set than Betfort.

    Sounds like they are trying to acquire two more players. I assume both will be defenders, but could see one forward add

    1. As I keep saying…the real critical factor in 2024 isn’t going to be the roster. It’s going to be the tactics, which means the coaching. If Norris gets that right he’s got the horses.

      That said…I kind of see the player groups above as very different. One (Smith-Weaver-Sugita) is starting-quality; highly successful at the professional level and as part of a squad.

      The other is either 1) unknown (Linnehan), 2) unsuccessful (D’Aquila), or 3) difficult to assess (Beckie) to the point where I’d say that rather than requiring a reserve they have to show something – or MORE something – to even argue for their continued roster space.

      Beckie WAS fairly speedy. What post-injury Beckie’s pace is we don’t know. She was relatively insignificant as a part of the squad before the injury; her last real season (2021) I rated her as more-or-less a squad player. If she’s the reserve RW? She’ll still be that, but her pace is critical for that, so we’ll see.

      D’Aquila was sub-replacement level; disastrous as a starter, and in her sub appearances typically somewhere between “marginal” to “not useful”. I’d like to think she has a chance – I like her effort – but she’s GOT to be better than she was.

      Linnehan is a pure rook. Could be genius, could be meh, could be disaster, could be Sandra Yu and never play a minute. We’ll have to cross our fingers and hope.

      1. As the league continues to expand, I think our position on depth is always going to be evolving as is the value of late first rounders.

        The forwards are a negative when we compare to the depth of a few years ago, but I think this is likely the path go forward.


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