Thorns F.C.: Silly Season

silly season


I thought I’d written my last post for the year two weeks ago after the title match.  The story of the Thorns FC 2013 seemed to have a happy ending, and there remained nothing more than to bask in the glow of Portland’s second ever big-league sports title.

Then the club waived Nikki Marshall.

There was a brief discussion of the move over at Stumptown Footy.  From the comments there I think many of us Thorns fans were sorry to see Nikki go; for all that we accepted (or admitted) that she wasn’t the most brilliantly technical defender we all appreciated her hard-nosed play and commitment to the team.

A testimony to those qualities was the fact that she was the only player picked up off the waiver wire (by the Washington Spirit, sorry to say…) from a group of ten that included German WNT players Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss.

Marshall says she hasn’t decided whether to play for the Spirit or even play professionally at all next year, and noted that the move to release her wasn’t part of a post-season housecleaning but decided even before the team knew they had a shot at the title:

“The decision to waive Marshall a week later came as a surprise to outsiders, but Marshall knew her status before playoffs – Portland made the decision three weeks before the final, she said. Without revealing specifics, she called it “a business decision” that she understood.”

That got me thinking.

Assuming that the NWSL is on sound footing for next year – not always a sure thing, sadly, in women’s pro soccer – and assuming that we will see the same eight teams we saw this season open play in April 2014, what might we see in the coming autumn and winter for Thorns FC?  What could we hear from the Thorns FC between now and next March?

One thing I took away from the lack of interest in Fuss and Grings (presumably relatively expensive players) as well as – possibly – Marshall’s release (since though since we have no idea of her salary she is an experienced player who could presumably command something closer to the $20-30,000 reported to be the top level for non-allocated players than the $5-6,000 the poor replacement-level players were said to pull down…) was what is says of the continuing and ferocious downward pressure on salaries in the NWSL.

This league is not going to go broke paying its players, and so the chance of seeing big-money player signings here this silly season seems small.

But barring a thunderbolt, I suspect we will see some more moves.  After all, Coach Parlow Cone had very little time to assemble her squad for 2013.  This coming season she can, and we can presume she will.  So why not have some fun with speculating where might we see some of the original Thorns move out and some new Thorns come in?

Goalkeeper

So long as Karina LeBlanc is healthy and wants to play here I cannot imagine Coach Parlow Cone or the Thorns Front Office looking for a new starting keeper.

I wonder, however, about her backup.

Not only did Adelaide Gay never appear for Thorns FC in 2013, on the one occasion when she might have been expected to play – the Chicago match on 6/1/13 with Karina called up for international duty – she was passed over in favor of a college keeper with no professional experience.  That doesn’t argue strongly for the club’s and Coach Parlow Cone’s confidence in her.  We might see a new backup keeper, then, if CPC can find someone cheap and reliable that she trusts more than Gay.

Defense

The loss of Marshall would seem to open up a fullback position – except that Casey Ramirez and Emilee O’Neill are both fullbacks or can play outside back, and Marian Dougherty was fairly solid at the other fullback spot.  Between Beuhler, Williamson, and Ellertson the centerback position seems well covered.  For all that PTFC often looked shifty in back this past season I don’t see anyone out there who would represent a significant upgrade unless the Mexican national team players were to suddenly reappear as an option, and as of today I have not heard anything to suggest that.

So it seems to me that any changes in defense would be a black swan; I can’t guess who and how they would happen…

Midfield

Perhaps the single biggest headache for Thorns FC this past season was in midfield, and I have to think that CPC and GM Gavin Wilkinson are looking at options to strengthen this part of the squad.

Two players should be here in April: Tobin Heath and Becky Edwards.

But…

Heath is still listed on the roster of Paris Saint-Germain, so we can assume that we will either hear of an official move to Thorns FC or she will begin the 2014 season in France.  And Edwards’ will not be physically ready to return to training until mid-autumn after her AC surgery.

Interesting.  Not definitive, but interesting, and opens up possibilities in midfield.

Of the remaining midfielders only Meleana Shim played so well in 2013 she should be confident of April.  Angie Kerr and Allie Long were up and down all season; Long did as well as she could filling in for Edwards and Kerr played better in late August than she had up until that point so that on a team with a deeper roster they might both be confident of a place as role-players at least.  Given the NWSL roster limitations, however, I’m not sure that if a better midfielder were to emerge for a reasonable price that they might not one or both be gone.

Likewise, Courtney Wetzel did decent work as a substitute and spot starter.  I have no confidence whether that translates into a job next season.

To my mind Thorns FC most needs one or two speedy outside midfielders who can provide dangerous service to the strikers.

The starting winger of 2013, Nikki Washington, was perhaps the single biggest failure of that season; unless she was sandbagging for some bizarre reason she seems like an excellent candidate for trade – assuming any coach who saw her play would take her – or release.  However as a national team player she doesn’t represent a salary liability to Thorns FC; that complicates matters.  Were I CPC I wouldn’t keep her, but to me many of Parlow Cone’s player moves are opaque and I don’t have a good feeling for what she’s doing with Washington.  She may be CPC’s “project” player for next season, given her low cost.

Still, it seems like we still need outside midfielders.  My only question is where we’ll find them.

Ingrid Wells – who was released by Western New York – has signed with the Frauen-Bundesliga, and none of the other midfielders on the 2013 waiver list seems promising and cheap, both requisites for the NWSL.

Supposedly the 2014 draft looks sweet, but as defending champions Portland will probably miss out on the hottest midfield prospects such as Vanessa DiBernardo (Illinois) and Mandy Laddish (Notre Dame).   For those interested, Chris Henderson at All White Kit has a rundown of who the hot prospects were at the close of the last NCAA season.  A college player might well be in our future this spring, though, and I’ll be following this season’s NCAA play with added interest.

Forwards

The difficulties Thorns FC had up front don’t really seem amenable to trading for or buying another forward.  When you have a Morgan and a Sinclair up front the issue is – or should be – simply figuring out how they work together, making that happen, and then sitting back smiling whilst they score goals by the bucketful.

Since that didn’t happen consistently last season if Parlow Cone can figure out why – and solve it – she will have gone a long way to assuring her cubby in the coaches’ mailroom for many seasons to come.

If anything were to change up front  I could see CPC moving either Foxhoven or Weimer formally back into an attacking midfield position, or possibly using one or the other as trade bait, but both were useful up front in 2013 and I can’t see them being displaced unless it was for a much better – and more expensive – attacker.  So while of the four forwards they seem the most likely to be gone come next year they seem just as likely to remain.

In Conclusion

I suspect that we will see a new midfielder or two before next spring, and possibly a new defender and a backup keeper.  Who, and how, and who on this past season’s squad will have to leave to make space for them, I cannot guess.

One of the consistent heartaches of supporting a professional teams is that of opening the newspaper or the browser to find that your favorite player has been cut or traded.  We haven’t had to face that yet here in Portland; our championship team is – short one player – still intact.  But I can’t imagine that this will continue through the coming months, and can only hope that my favorites will run out in red next spring and that I will be there to sing for them.

Onward, Rose City!

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4 thoughts on “Thorns F.C.: Silly Season

  1. I feel bogus being the only commentor to my own post, but I wanted to note that Stacey Neves has an excellent observation up over at Stumptown Footy (http://www.stumptownfooty.com/2013/9/22/4759610/everybody-is-sending-players-on-loan-why-arent-the-thorns) about the complete lack of activity in Thornville as many of our NWSL rivals are busy loaning players out to keep them (or get them) seasoned during the long layoff between now and April.

    And, again, one of the huge issues I see here is the lack of clarity from the Thorns FO. We just don’t know WHY the heck we’re not sending Allie Long and Kat Williamson and Mana Shim out to play in Europe. Surely if Erika Tymrak can get a spot with FC Bayern-Munchen Frauen we could find Mana Shim somewhere in Germany to play? Are we trying and failing? Are we not trying? What the heck is going on..?

    All very frustrating.

  2. I just found your blog, John. Thank you so much for writing this: I was searching for something both more in-depth and, crucially, more impartial, about the Thorns, of whom I am proud to be – so far as I know – the sole season ticketholder from southern California. :-). One quck question about this piece: you say that Nikki Washington doesn’t represent a salary liability as a national team player. As she’s not one of the allocated USWNT members, could you clarify what you meant by this? On a related note, the allocated player situation remains unclear to me, in regards to whether USSF will remove, add, or otherwise shuffle the deck for 2014, and what effect that might have on the Thorns. In any case, it seems as though Tobin will miss some or much of the season, so acquiring some sort of playmaking midfielder must be a priority, it seems to me.

    Finally, I’m quite open to the suggestion of some that Morgan play in a slightly-withdrawn left-wing position, leaving Sinc alone up-top, which she (No. 12) seemed to greatly prefer. Thoughts?

    1. I wrote that under the assumption that she WAS an allocated player. After your comment I checked the Thorns roster and she is not, she’s listed as signing as a free agent, and that makes her persistence on the squad even more of a head-scratcher for me. As a USWNT free agent she can’t be that cheap – certainly no cheaper than Marshall – so I’m puzzled what CPC is up to with her. I hope she’s got something in mind, because Washington was a mess last season and her problems helped a lot in the mess that was the Thorns midfield for much of 2013.

      The ACM/forward situation is another big question mark for me. In all honesty I thought that Parlow Cone didn’t do particularly well solving the problems her two strikers had all season. After Heath arrived and allowed Sinclair to move back upfront the team still didn’t seem to have any idea beyond “hoof it up and hope that Morgan/Sinclair can make something of it”. That’s not a solution, to me, and I’d be open to any number of possibilities to try and produce a more fluid and dangerous attack; make Morgan the trequartista, acquire a playmaking midfielder, make Morgan a free-running outside forward with Sinc playing the “fox in the box” or the big target forward similar to the way Wambach plays…

      And Stacey’s piece helped crystallize something I’d been fretting about over the past couple of weeks; the lack of activity from the Thorns to get their players more time on the pitch. I wonder if that has something to do with the NCAA roots of the Thorns coaching staff and CPC in particular. A professional coach is always looking for ways to get her players touches on the ball, but a U.S. college coach is used to the idea that outside the sanctioned NCAA “season” she HAS to be “hands-off”. Whatever the reason, I’m not thrilled that our players are idle while others’ are getting experience in other leagues…

  3. Excellent article! With the web hosting confusion, I had completely lost the Thorns thread at SRP.

    I’ve been wondering for some time what was wrong with the Thorns last year and have come to three conclusions: (1) the midfield is not threatening; (2) the fullbacks are too slow; and (3) CPC is not (yet) a good manager.

    #1 – when Heath showed up, things improved but we almost certainly won’t have her next year. Kerr improved as you noted, but there was never a lot of speed, we seemed unable to spray the ball wide with accuracy and the midfielders rarely took dangerous shots themselves. I came to believe that CPC does not really value the midfield – she seems to be a route 1 coach in the John Spencer mold. I am not confident that she acknowledges there are issues here, even with Heath’s obvious impact.

    #2 – our fullbacks rarely came forward. I don’t recall many overlapping runs (Of course, I was either watching a crappy webstream or sun-blinded in 107, so I may have missed some things). When they did, they were sometimes burned by being unable to get back fast enough. The last Boston game comes to mind. I wonder if Washington could play fullback? She is certainly quick.

    #3 – At a STH event Q&A session, CPC was asked about the mood in the locker room. She said, “I don’t go in the locker room, that’s the player’s domain.” She was not kidding and I was stunned. Surely that is not normal in the professional ranks? It made me wonder if her style is to be distant from the players, or slightly intimidating as with some old-school NFL coaches. She is clearly learning, as was evident at the tail end of the season, but I have my doubts about her. Maybe we’ve seen no action because she doesn’t know what to do, or doesn’t think anything needs doing…

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