2023 Final Grades – The Coaches, Trainers, and Management

So the last time we did this – in 2023 – we closed out the “Final Grades” series with a look at the folks up at what when I was a GI we called the Head Shed.

That included the folks at the top end of the organization diagram; the ownership, the general manager, the head coach (and one of the assistants, too) and the athletic training staff.

The time before that (2019) that was a pretty deep dive, because then we had a lot to talk about. The GM at the time had a c.v. going back to 2013. The head coach had been in place for four seasons, the assistant for the same. The training staff…well, we didn’t have much to go on about them as individuals, so we looked at the general health of the 2019 squad, which was actually a big deal because there were a lot of injuries that season.

In 2023 the coaching change of Rhian Wilkinson for Mark Parsons made that dive somewhat shallower but because of the Riley scandal and the pending sale the revelations regarding the ownership went quite a bit deeper.

With Wilkinson we skipped the dive into previous seasons and only discussed how well she’d done that season (pretty decent, third star, not too shabby, eh?), including some issues that had come up during the season.

Given that in 2023 we had a nearly identical coaching swap it seem reasonable to discuss the same issues.

This season we had a similar tradeoff but of ownership, so we can’t really delve into the new management’s soccer experience – they have none. We can briefly mull over what potential issues and promise they bring and leave it at that.

The training staff…Jesus wept; that’s a whole nutroll.

Let’s begin just over the touchline with…

The Coaching Staff

…the difference from 2022 being that the head coach will return in 2024.

I think it’s worth looking back to the last time we did this, because 1) Mike Norris got the gaffer’s job primarily because he was here as Wilkinson’s assistant and 2) supposedly the players liked him.

Did he bring anything over from his old boss? Or did he strike out on his own?

Last year I wrote:

“I think Wilkinson had an ultimately successful year but made the season harder than it should have been, largely because she had several fixed ideas that weren’t true.”

I think more-or-less the same about Norris but for slightly different reasons.

He was…well, if “you’re as good as your record says you are” second-best regular season boss or third-best playoff manager in 2023, coming within a couple of points of the Shield and a couple of goals of the Final. I see some similarities he seems to have with his former boss, but some critical differences.

The Formation

Wilkinson‘s single biggest issue was her early irrevocable fixation on playing a 3-5-2 formation. That, through one issue or another, dropped points along the way, mostly thru draws rather than losses.

She did change formations after Matchday 10 and the club went from 3-1-5 over the first nine matches to 10-2-5 over the stretch run.

Norris had a different love-object; the 4-3-3.

He wasn’t as fanatic about it, though. As we discussed in the midfielders post, when he had problems defending he’d switch up to a double pivot. Like a cat with a favorite napping spot, though, he’d return to it when he could.

I’m torn on Norris’ formation jiggering.

On the one hand, it was not an unreasonable response to issues on the pitch and with the roster, and I can see him, like a carpenter with a particularly odd-shaped piece of timber, puttering and pondering how to put everything together in ways that worked better than the last attempt.

On the other, though, I think the lack of continuity made things more difficult than they needed to be for his players, who had to constantly relearn and respond to those changes. I’d have liked to have seen him try and figure out how to run out a more consistent formation and, with it, a matchday XI, which brings us to…

The Player Positions

Wilkinson‘s other – to me, anyway – kind of offbeat idea was her conviction that all players did not have strengths and weaknesses that make them better in some situations and at some positions than others. She said she felt that players didn’t have “positions”, and that players should be able to do well at whatever they’re set to do.

I wrote:

“She had Hina Sugita, possibly the Platonic Ideal of a #10…(playing)…all over; as an #8, as a winger, as a central midfielder, everywhere except the backline.”

I pick Sugita just for example, but she moved several players around like that; Kuikka from right to left, for another example.

Luckily for Wilkinson her roster was so strong that in effect she was right; the players WERE good enough to win it all even playing in places that minimized their strengths.

Norris didn’t seem to share that conviction, at least not as strongly.

What he did was plug players in and out, especially in trying various combinations in midfield. Just like with his formations, I get that some of that was forced by circumstances. But some seemed like just fiddling to see how things worked, the result of a lack of clear vision of how his players’ skillsets fit with his tactical vision.

The result was that it often appeared that he didn’t have a vision; that his tactics were undeveloped or barely visible at all. As with formations, that led to dropping points unnecessarily. In the end it could have made a difference between finishing atop the league or second, or finishing the season in the semifinal or the Final.


The GOAT in the roster room was…

Christine Sinclair

Last winter I wrote:

“Repeatedly starting Sinc over players who were in better form made it clear that Wilkinson’s judgement was not objective about her former teammate and longtime professional first-among-equals.”

I get it; Sinc is a club legend and if put to the test probably a bigger force within the team than either Wilkinson was or Norris is. I get why Wilkinson would be pressured to play her. But she let those pressures push her into a choice that hurt her own team.

Mike Norris probably faced similar pressures and, I think, dealt with them as poorly as Wilkinson did.

Sinclair is back for 2024.

We’ll see if Norris has the guts to handle her as the reserve/depth piece she should be, or not.

Summing Up

In 2022 Wilkinson had some obvious issues but overcame many of them to make the playoffs. There she rode a couple of golazos to the Final and was fortunate to encounter a Kansas City that was having a very, very bad evening.

Fair enough; lucky can be as good as good, and Wilkinson had to be at least “good” to get that far.

Last season Norris didn’t have that luck. Somewhat similar formation, roster, and performance issues snatched the Shield away from his club on the last day of the regular season, and this time the golazo went the other way and the dream died in the semifinal.

Grade: B-

I won’t kid you; I was so frustrated with Norris last season I reeeeeally want to hand him the “gentleman’s C” you get for just showing up and putting in the minimal work.

But the guy piloted his club damn near to the Shield and within 120 minutes of the final, so I can’t. Not if I’m being honest.

Still. It’s hard not to think that given the strength of his roster Norris should have run away with the league, and at least made the Final. A lot of the troubles that, compounded with shit luck, ended the 2023 season short of the Shield and the Star seem to circle around the management of the squad.

I handed Wilkinson an A- last year, so it seems fair that her former assistant gets a slightly lower but still you-finished-second-of-twelve-and got-to-the-semi kind of above-average grade,

To me the big test is the coming year. Norris has the lessons of 2023 to learn from.

Will he?

Nadine Angerer

2023 marked the last season for the single longest-serving coach in the entire Peregrine system.

Nadine Angerer resigned after the semifinal and eight years with the club under three coaches – four if you count her playing career.

That is unusual in itself. Assistants usually follow the head coach, the tail to his or her comet. Angerer was, instead, a pole star, year after year producing top goalkeepers one after another. Her pupils were a terrific argument for her tenure.

Until this past season.

We’ve talked about what happened to Bella Bixby in 2023. What we can’t discuss, because we have no evidence, is the why. But whatever the reasons, the Thorns starting goalkeeper was, for the first time in Angerer’s coaching career, not just poor but the worst in the league.

My old battery commander once told us that you can delegate authority but not responsibility, so ultimately the burden of Bixby’s failure in 2023 falls on Mike Norris.

But, for the first time in her life, Angerer was unable to solve her keeper’s problems or help her boss come up with a different solution. In the end that cost their club points and silverware.

That failure clouds the question of Angerer’s departure.

Did she merely reach a place where it was time for her to make a change? Angerer had been here far longer than any typical assistant. Two of her keepers had brought in championships under her tutelage, and she’d produced even more who were among the best in the league. She’d long earned an honorable retirement.

But was Bixby’s struggle a reflection of her mentor’s? Did Angerer hit the wall last season, finally run out of whatever had made her so successful? Did she leave under a cloud instead of pursuing a dream of a sunny beach somewhere?

Unless she, or someone who lived through the year close to her, tells us?

We’ll never know.

Grade: D

The only reason I’m not simply failing Angerer for 2023 is because I don’t know what happened or why. It’s entirely possible that she did everything she could do and nothing worked, tried every idea and suggestion and got shot down by echelons above her. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt built up over so many good years.

But…it was her only job to put the best possible player between the posts.

That didn’t happen.

The Training Staff

It’s deeply ironic that last season I used this photo of Crystal Dunn and her husband Pierre Soubrier to headline the “Training Staff” section.

My intent was to hand out a big ol’ rose to Soubrier and his physios for keeping the 2022 Thorns so healthy. After a swath of injuries had raked the squad in 2019 the only major issue in ’22 was Emily Menges’ foot injury. I wrote:

“For all that the Civic Stadium turf is better than the awful stuff that was a feature of the baseball field it’s still turf, with all that implies for leg and foot injuries. That Pierre Soubrier and the training staff helped the coaches keep this year’s club healthy, turf and all?”

I handed the trainers a straight “A”.

Well, last season the club was rocked by two major lower limb injuries to two critically important players; Sophia Smith missed much of the second half of the season with a knee problem, and Becky Sauerbrunn was out from April to late summer with a foot injury.

But that was largely bad luck and not on the trainers.

No, the real “trainer” issue was Soubrier himself getting canned in January 2023 for handing out controlled meds outside of his qualifications.

Now I don’t think Soubrier did anything truly criminal. This wasn’t dealing hillbilly heroin. Tylenol with codeine is a fairly common painkiller well down on the “controlled substances” scale.

But it IS a narcotic, and not something Soubrier should have been handing around like aspirins. And as a licensed trainer he should have known that and followed the rules. He didn’t, got caught, and got fired.

So why did that matter?

1) The Thorns were under the microscope because of Paulson’s fuckery,
2) That included multiple people, ranging from journalists to the league, poking in to club business to discover anything shady, so
3) Soubrier and everyone else in the administration should have known they needed to be cautious and careful.
4) He wasn’t, and got canned, and
5) That probably cost his former club the services of Crystal Dunn.

So despite being otherwise good at keeping their players on the pitch, Soubrier himself cost the club a hell of a lot through sheer carelessness. That’s not acceptable.

Grade: C

The training staff gets an “A” for actual physiological care. Soubrier gets and “F” for being a dumbfuck. That’s a hell of a way to end up with a “C” average, but there it is.

The Front Office Management

When I looked at the club in 2023 the Thorns FO consisted of owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Karina Le Blanc.

Paulson is gone, and good riddance. On top of all his other fuckery his foot-dragging on the sale of the club made it more difficult for the much-needed turnaround to occur. The Bhathals, as we’ll discuss, have been forced to leave the bulk of the Peregrine Front Office staff in place simply due to the lack of time before the 2024 season begins.

That includes General Manager…

Karina LeBlanc

Last year I wrote:

“…the whispering that began nearly immediately after her hire was that she (LeBlanc) wasn’t really up to the task of general manager, and the whispers became roars when the top pick in the 2022 NCAA draft turned out to be a Twitter Trumpkin and had to be flushed and wasted the Thorns best pick.”

I was then unimpressed with her handling of l’affaire Mengison. After the news of the Menges-Wilkinson menage broke she sat on it, received a delegation of players worried about the situation, allowed (or couldn’t prevent) the players’ names to leak and when the players, spooked, wrote to the league office, the whole mess exploded into the public, and the ensuing detonation cost Wilkinson her job.

The whispering continued this past offseason.

Rumors spread that she’d somehow missed (or deliberately ignored) the “restricted” free agent deadline and thus let Kuikka and Taylor Porter become unrestricted free agents. That there had been friction between her and Kuikka and, possibly, other players. That she’d erred in trading Menges and Betfort rather than protecting the core and letting the expansion clubs take their picks of the reserves.

Some of that whispering was hushed when LeBlanc reeled in Canadian international Jessie Fleming, a player she’d supposedly been working for years. The 2024 NCAA draft seemed largely successful, although due to the timing of Bixby’s announcement (of her pregnancy) a flurry of conspiracy theorism exploded around the selection of what at the time looked like a needless fourth goalkeeper pick.

At the time of this writing the rumors now claim that LeBlanc is pursuing additional players. She should be; the club is bereft at right back and thin in reserve everywhere. A lot is riding in newcomers like Obaze and draftees. Veteran depth would help a lot.

Right now LeBlanc seems to have a mixed record; the Fleming signing is good, as is getting several other critical players such as Sugita and Sauerbrunn to re-up.

Her drafting?

Well, here are my grades by year:

2021: Sydny Nasello – F; Gabby Provenzano – D, Natalie Beckman – F
KK’s 2021 was grossly impacted by the Nasello pick, but in hindsight looks worse unless lightning strikes Provenzano in a way it hasn’t so far. She’s barely replacement-grade and Beckman was a straight bust.

2022: Reyes – A-/B; D’Aquila – D-?; DeBeau – F; Kozal – Incomplete
The only solid success of LeBlanc’s first two drafts is Reyes. Izzy D’Aquila has been disappointing so far, and while whatever went wrong with LeBeau can’t be pinned on KK the player is lost and as such a failed pick. We simply have no idea on Kozal.

2023: The Linnehan and Wade-Katoa picks look solid, and it turns out we do need another keeper. Kaufusi looks like a longshot to me, but weirder picks have worked out. Call this one three “promising” and a “maybe”? We’ll see.

But not great at drafting so far.

Last year I concluded:

“I do think that she’s going to have to sell herself to the new ownership pretty damn hard. I know if I was a new owner I’d be looking at her fairly critically.”

Her work since then hasn’t changed my mind,

Grade: C (C+/B if additional signings take place)

And speaking of new owners…

The Sale

Meet the new bosses.

We actually haven’t met them yet! Just the other day I got an invitation to some sort of “preseason happy hour” on Monday February 5 that will include these two, Lisa and Alex Bhathal, part of the new ownership.

For their 60-odd million the Bhathals have promised things like a new training ground by 2025.

To my mind the most important thing the new owners need to do is to sweep out the old slipshod Peregrine ways.

Get good people into the Front Office and deal with them honestly and openly.

That includes a “communication director” that actually prioritizes communicating with the fanbase; it’s a minor thing, but it bugs me that it’s been almost a month since the sale and the “Thorns” website is still a tab of the Timbers site. Webpages are pretty simple, gang. You can’t run up a basic club page in a month? Seriously?

Figure out how to make the club the target of envy and spite throughout the rest of the league; we’re supposed to be “Soccer City USA”. Let’s get back to acting like that.

Summing Up

Last year I wrote: “Now we have a chance to change” from the troubles of the Paulson Era.

I think we do. But.

It’s going to depend. On the new owners and how committed they are to this club. They have fingers in a lot of sports pies; “…the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, the Stockton Kings of the NBA-G League and the Sacramento RiverCats Triple-A baseball team, among other sports ventures.”

You’ll note the locations there: Sacramento, Sacramento, Stockton.

This is the first big franchise outside of the Sacramento Valley for these people. We’ve had the whole “out-of-town owner” thing before with Paul Allen and the Trailblazers. That seemed strained at times, like the distance from his home in Seattle made it difficult for Allen to focus on his remote worksite.

Can the Bhathals not do that? Can they – or their proxies – be fully engaged here?

It’s also going to depend on how hard they’re going to keep a thumb on the management. Will they be willing to replace Norris in midseason if things look troubled? Is that why Lowdon was brought in? Will they be willing to replace LeBlanc if the rumors turn out to be true and she’s not up to the task?

Can they replace the old whatever, grab-ass, every-which-way, oh that’s just Golub being Golub and Soubrier being Soubrier and Menges and Wilkinson being…well, you get the idea.

Can they?

I’ll guess beginning in about six weeks we’ll begin to find out.

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

8 thoughts on “2023 Final Grades – The Coaches, Trainers, and Management

  1. For last year, I would give the coaching staff a C. I don’t know how much Norris did with the club, and the lack of notable improvement by the players is a definate negative. In fact, the only player who I think improved over the year was Reyes. Smith, Weaver, Dunn and Coffey were great as usual, but the synergy between them wasn’t noticibly different from 2022. I didn’t see the improvements I was hoping for from Moultre and Sugita. Menges and Klingenberg were adequate but certainly didn’t seem improved. Hubly and Bixby struggled. Reyes was a bright spot, but none of the other young players showed more than flashes when given the opportunity.
    Norris has to show a lot this year, because while the team will be good it can still be great.

    1. So if you look back up, I said: “I won’t kid you; I was so frustrated with Norris last season I reeeeeally want to hand him the “gentleman’s C” you get for just showing up and putting in the minimal work. But the guy piloted his club damn near to the Shield and within 120 minutes of the final, so I can’t. Not if I’m being honest.”

      I mean…you grade Norris a “C” where does that leave somebody like Sam Laity, whose Orlando finished out of the playoffs only on goal difference?

      I didn’t factor in player development for Norris largely because I’m not sure how much of that is a head coach issue or, for that matter, how much development you can expect from, say, Sugita who, at 27, is in her mid-prime and has been a professional for over eight years. For Menges? Klingenberg? If they haven’t “improved” by now to the extent they’re going to?

      As I noted; the issues I saw that can be linked back to Norris looked mostly like tactics and team cohesion. The whole team often seemed less – or no better – than the sum of its parts. Given how good the parts were (and are)? Second overall and a semifinal seem to be no more than a reasonable expectation.

      But looking at the season…my thought is that the club dropped more points than they really should have, and, again, a lot of that was not on individual player form so much as on not being able to work together better as a group. Things like playing Sinclair when she was obviously not contributing. The seemingly pre-scripted Hour Subs that often didn’t reflect or improve the game state.

      The guy COULD bring it; look at Seattle away, that was masterclass. Why couldn’t he bring it more often?

      And – more importantly to us now – can he bring it more often this coming season?

      We’ll have to see,,,

  2. I don’t like how KK handled the Wilkinson issue and the Nassello fiasco deserves criticism (I suggest people look back at that draft. Absolute garbage).

    She seems to have gaffes in every offseason and until she replaces Kuikka, that’s the one for this offseason.

    I like how she handled the 2021/2022 expansion draft. It could have been disastrous. I thought they were going to lose Simone Charley and Sam Coffey if they did nothing.

    100k and the 11th pick for Tyler Lussi is not bad even though she butchered the pick by selecting the best prospect in a weak pool without vetting her. The SD trade, to me, was great because I would have never even contemplated the deal she made and would have selected Coffey, Can you imagine this team without Coffey, because if I would have been running SD … she’d be on the Wave. Westphal, Ali, and 50k for keeping Coffey is probably the best deal she’s made since being GM.

    With regards to this last expansion draft, the last spot for protection would probably have come down to Betfort, Menges, Bixby, and D’Aquila. I probably would have rated D’Aquila as 4th on that list, but I’m not sure how Menges was fitting in the clubhouse after that stuff with Wilkinson and my guess is Betfort asked for the opportunity.

    1. What’s interesting is that I think we see Coffey with 2024 beer goggles. I looked back and in 2021 I had Coffey off my protected list, so clearly I didn’t see her as “the best deal” at that time. With 20/2024 hindsight? Yes, she was.

      The other significant question is how much of the pre-2022 work was LeBlanc and how much was GW. I’m not sure we know.

      1. I’ve been Team Coffey from her days at BC. I broke some electronics by my reaction when they drafted Ryan over Coffey, couldn’t believe she lasted past 4.

        I had her as my final protect after going back and forth over Hubly with Ryan third and Moultrie fourth. Ultimately, that list would look a tad different today.

        I think most of us were surprised that they protected Moultrie. When she was exposed, I just assumed SD would pick her.

        I never saw the 6 coming, but she’s been a great 6 even if I thought she was a pure 8 walking into the league

        1. You deserve a round on the house, then, because at the time Angela Salem was our starting DM, and as such she was one of my protected midfielders. Horan’s rights were #2, Dunn #3, and Rocky #4. (the only backs I thought we couldn’t spare were Menges and Kuikka…). Coffey seemed to me a nice promising rising-first-year-pro.

          So I’m kinda surprised that you were all in if you saw her as a #8 in 2021 because…well, we had a TON of #8s, including one of the best in the game (Horan), as well as Dunn and Rocky. Not sure I’d have seen her as valuable as she is today at the 8…

          1. I thought one of them would convert or we would move to a 4-4-2. Also there were already rumors of Salem contemplating kids and Horan wanting to go to Europe.

            Expansion drafts should be about protecting the best talent as opposed to position looks.

            Either way, I do think the trade to get protection from SD was one of KK’s best moves.

        2. And I looked; KK/GW left Coffey off the expansion protected list, so they didn’t see that #6 coming, either…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.