There is a trinity when people think of Portland Thorns FC – three talents that pop to mind most often, when people are describing the team: Christine Sinclair, the team’s captain, is on the short list of greatest women’s players who’ve ever lived; Tobin Heath, widely considered one of the game’s most skilled talents; and Lindsey Horan, an NWSL Most Valuable Player candidate who is on course to become one of the best players in the world.
There is another Thorns trinity, though, one that has built its reputation on success at the other end of the field, who may be as important to Portland’s title defense, and while the names Adrianna Franch, Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett may not carry the same international renown as their famed teammates, they are each well-established within the NWSL. And the numbers say their presence to the Thorns is crucial.
Thanks to knee (Franch), back (Sonnett), leg and other injuries (Menges), Portland’s defending trinity has only played together for eight games this season. The numbers during those matches, as compared to the 15 without at least one of them, are striking.
with Franch, Menges, <em>and</em> Sonnett
without Franch, Menges, and Sonnett
It may not seem remarkable to imply “all-NWSL-caliber talents are good,” so let’s focus on just how good they are. The Thorns are average 0.875 goals per 90 minutes when their first-choice goalkeeper and central defenders play together. It’s a rate that comes out to 20 goals per 24 game season – or, the exact same number the team allowed last season, when their defensive core missed a combined 93 minutes.
By the numbers, Seattle Reign FC and the North Carolina Courage both have better defenses, this year, but as 2017’s success shows, a team that can prevent goals the way the Thorns currently are can carry a club to a title. And, as each player showed on Saturday in the team's 1-0 win over Washington, their complementary skills explain why, so often, the trio feels like more than the sum of their parts.
The theory of a strong combination
That feeling, when it comes to a good central defensive pair, as well as their relationship with the goalkeeper behind them, often comes down as much to complementing skills as it does to the players’ raw talents.
When creating center back partnerships, you want a duo who can handle both speed and strength. You want an element of aggression, but you also want a measure of control. You need the level-headed, steadying presence, but you often want the emotional player capable of responding to a heightened challenge. Between two or three center backs, you want combinations that check more boxes than one player could on their own. And ideally, you don’t want your players to be redundant.
That’s because attacks can be built on one dominant element. You just can’t be sure which, over the course of a season, teams are going to offer, on a given weekend. You can have success with an FC Barcelona-esque array of small, quick, cerebral playmakers, or you can be a brutish power-based force. A team’s defense has to be able to respond to any challenge an opponent may offer. If you can only stop one type of attack, you’re going to be exploited.
That’s why Menges and Sonnett complement each other so well. And Franch, too. Sonnett’s ability to physically dominate in moments has been clear since she was taken by Portland first overall in the 2016 College Draft two-and-a-half years ago, and with the positional versatility and technical quality she has a habit of flashing in the Thorns’ most-needed moments, she is the rare central defender who can be a decisive (not just limiting) force in the Thorns’ most important moments.
And in Menges, Portland has the rock that enables Sonnett to explore all those physical powers. She is the stay-at-home foundation that can be relied on as a last line of defense when the scheme fails. Her game isn’t one dependent on taking chances or leveraging aggression. She’s arguably the cleanest defender in the NWSL, somebody who is rarely going to put herself in a place to act on positional weakness. If Sonnett is the flash of the Thorns backline, Menges is its heart – everything that the defense is built around.
Behind those defenders, though, is another enabling force, somebody whose ability to read the game allows her defense play high, while her athleticism and decisiveness enables the team to play a lower block, when needed. Adrianna Franch’s shot-stopping has always been at a high level, something that explains why she has been able to compete for NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year honors in each of her two previous full league seasons. But the all-around keeper she has now developed into allows Portland to play any scheme head coach Mark Parsons wants. And, should those schemes fail, her pure ability to save a ball, snare a cross or devour a through ball not only save goals, they often prevent the follow-up shots that make the first save irrelevant.
Even on this shot from Rose Lavelle on Saturday, you see Franch’s technique in action. Perhaps, in her ideal world, she doesn’t want to put this ball back into play, but when she has to, look where the ball ends up: both in an innocuous spot, and in a place where she retrieves the rebound before anybody else can get to the ball:
That wasn’t the only flash of the trinity’s skills on Saturday, even if the lack of Spirit danger meant the strengths of Franch, Menges and Sonnett were rarely on display. But here, against one of the more physically gifted forwards in the league (Ashley Hatch), you see an explosion that makes Sonnett an elite defender. How many players are physically capable of making this play, and how often do we see this from Emily Sonnett? (Few, and often.)
It would be unfair to continue alluding to the U.S. international as if she is merely a physical freak. There are players all over the college ranks who have amazing physicality but never develop into nearly the player that Sonnett’s become. What truly separates her is how she applies those physical gifts, whether it’s in situations like the above, the versatility to play right back at the international level, or when she goes into a more midfield role as she did in college and this offseason, in Australia's W-League.
Those skills combine with an intelligence that allows her to read plays, like the one on Saturday. Or like the plays in the postseason where she’s found opportunities to go beyond her base role and, on multiple occasions, find her way onto the scoresheet. At times, it’s the type of daring that leaves opportunities for opponents, but at its peak – a peak that has tended to surface in the postseason – Sonnett is the factor that raises Portland’s defense to a dominant level.
If Sonnett fuels the defense’s peak, Menges constructs its floor, one that is much higher than most defenses in the league. Even this year, when the team has gone through periods of permitting random goals (periods that have often coincided with Menges’ absences), Portland’s healthy back line is still playing at a near-elite level.
That, in large part, comes down to plays like this, sublime in their simplicity but crucial in their execution:
This looks like the simplest play in the world, as if the defender passed it right to Emily Menges, and all she had to do was not screw up. But early on in this sequence, Menges sees the play is developing to try and hit Hatch (the Spirit forward) in the channel between her and left back Midge Purce. She doesn't stay close to Hatch. She doesn't let herself be pulled out of position. She plays the ball. She watches the midfielder, who is trying to play Hatch in. She defends the play, not the movement, and not only that. When her awareness pays off and the ball is passed right to her, she doesn't clear it high or into touch. She makes the simple play; the right play; the play she does so often, and with so little drama, that she doesn't get noticed. Menges not only stops this attack, she retains possession for the Thorns.
These two GIFs, above, tell a lot about the difference between Menges and Sonnett. Menges is not a slide tackler. She’s not an explode, recover, and roll the dice player. Perhaps she only stays with Hatch, keeping her from playing a ball across. But the steadiness with which she goes about her game makes her the player who, when matched one-on-one with a Mallory Pugh, you absolutely know will prevent the worst-case scenario.
Then there’s the element that underpins it all, a part of defending and setting up a team that isn’t discussed enough. The qualities that a goalkeeper brings to the field enables what a team can do, something that we’ve seen in its most awkward realities for the U.S. women’s national team, as they’ve occasionally tried to evolved not only their style but how their goalkeepers play. Without skill on the ball and the proper ability to read play, a goalkeeper prevents her team from playing higher lines, or styles which rely on circulating play to maintain possession. Conversely, inconsistency in reading or managing crosses – dealing with congestion in the penalty area – may deter coaches from playing lower blocks that can be pushed deep or concede more corners and dangerous free kicks.
When Adrianna Franch first arrived in Portland, her game wasn’t rounded out to the level it is, now. But her ability to grow from an already high level – from somebody whose physical talents were always national-team caliber – to what she is now explains why, in situations like last year’s NWSL Championship Game – when the Thorns shut out the North Carolina Courage – Portland’s defense can feel impenetrable.
Washington rarely tested that feeling, and when they did, it was with unlikely chances like Lavelle’s, above. But in another late moment in Saturday’s match, you saw why players like Menges and Sonnett can feel so secure that, whatever happens behind them, Franch has the ability to smother opponents’ chances.
This was off a corner kick, so not the type of play where Portland’s defenders would be paranoid about what’s happening “in behind.” But it also, subtly, showed where Franch differentiates herself from her peers.
Franch not only read this ball correctly, makes an assertive decision, and gets to her spot in time. She never gives up on the chance to catch this ball, whereas most goalkeepers would never engage the possibility to begin with. All the while, she maintains control of her body: never compromising the base she needs to explode from; never jeopardizing her balance, putting herself in position to be moved off her route, even though she had to fight through a Spirit player to maintain her course.
This is a play were almost no coach would be upset if a `keeper just punched the ball clear. But in that choice comes the possibility of losing possession – of giving opponents another chance. Franch elects to make the more difficult play, but the confidence she has in her technique makes this a high-percentage move.
In reality, Franch would fit with almost any pair of central defenders, and while there are certain schemes her skillset is more suited for than others, she could also fit into any team’s defensive approach. In that way, the relationship among the Thorns’ defensive trinity is less about the goalkeeper than about how well the team’s central defenders mesh.
But beyond that mesh – in the totality Franch, Menges, and Sonnett have become – is the explanation for why a full-strength Thorns defense has been so difficult to beat. It’s why the team’s numbers with and without their standard trio describe two drastically different worlds, and it’s why, no matter the opponents going forward, Portland has at least a chance of staying on top.