iPTFC Thorns, 9.6.18
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Inside PTFC | The depth and options that will try to replace Hayley Raso

It was the day before Hayley Raso’s 24th birthday that fans got a glimpse of what her life is like, now, as she recovers from a broken back in a Washington, D.C.-area hospital. The pictures were posted to social media, of her on a stationary bike and doing exercises targeting her core. The large brace around her sternum was the most striking part, overshadowing a smile that undoubtedly relieved all.

After a week-and-a-half of uncertainty, Portland Thorns FC fans can take heart in the fact that the team’s starting right wing is on the road to recovery, one that will see her back to her normal self within a couple of months. Unfortunately for Raso’s teammates, though, that road extends well past the sunset on the 2018 season, meaning if the Thorns are to defend their 2017 NWSL title, they’ll have to do so without their Australian international’s help.

With two goals and two assists in 12 appearances, this season (774 minutes), Raso hasn’t accumulated the most impressive statistical resume – at least, it isn’t impressive next to the seven-goal campaign she registered in 2017 – but as with so many things statistical, it all depends on the numbers you choose. On an individual level, perhaps Raso’s contributions don’t scream “impact,” but when you look at what the Thorns have been able to do with her on the field, you see a drastically different level of performance.

Let’s go to the on-off metrics, something we used last week when quantifying the Thorns’ performance with and without Adrianna Franch, Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett at the heart of the team’s defense. Those numbers showed Portland allowed 26 percent fewer goals with those three on the field while, perhaps surprisingly, scoring 69 percent more often. We think of those three as defensive players, but having strong defenders allows a team to change their entire approach.

Raso’s on-off numbers tell a similar story. She may have only two goals and as many assists this season, but the team scored 30 percent more often when she is on the field …

Thorns FC goals for/90 minutes, when individual is on the field
Player Minutes Played Thorns Goals/90
Lussi, Tyler 366 2.21
Raso, Hayley 774 2.09
Carpenter, Ellie 1,208 1.94
Menges, Emily 1,216 1.92
Andressinha 847 1.91

… and, understatedly, prevents over 30 percent more goals.

Thorns FC goals against/90 minutes, when individual is on the field
Player Minutes Played Thorns Goals Allowed/90
Foord, Caitlin 190 0.00
Ball, Elizabeth 99 0.00
Lussi, Tyler 366 0.74
Raso, Hayley 774 0.81
Franch, Adrianna 1,170 1.00

These numbers may be purely coincidental, but there is a theory behind them, too – an idea of their causation. Raso, Tyler Lussi and Caitlin Foord have combined for three goals in 1,330 minutes this season, but they may also be the team’s three most tenacious pressing threats (Mallory Weber deserves a mention here, too). When they’re in the game, opponents are not only more likely to have to play extra passes to get out of their own end but also face more situations where they’re losing possession closer to goal. In theory, that means the Thorns could be played through, when teams beat their press, but as Raso, Lussi and Foord’s numbers imply, that hasn’t been happening. With them on the field, Portland’s defending may truly be starting from the front.

All of this only complicates the task put before Mark Parsons. In losing Raso for the season, the Thorns head coach may only be losing a player who has been a part of four goals, but in the team’s results when their first-choice right winger is on the field, we see somebody who may be one of Portland’s most impactful contributors.

How does Parsons go about replacing her? There’s no lack of options. In fact, that key decision may be less about who replaces Raso than what, in the qualities of those Parsons has at his disposal, the Thorns want to accomplish, stylistically, with her replacement.

The like-for-likes

The most obvious play is the one we’ll likely see on Friday against the Seattle Reign, with Foord in line to get her second start as a Thorn. The real impacts on the lineup, though, will come around the Australian international.

Ana Crnogorčević can play as a striker or winger, having often switched places with Raso when the two are together, on the field. But the Swiss international is a markedly different player, part of the reason switching with Raso and moving the Australian’s energy up top serves as such an effective change of pace. Crnogorčević’s intelligence in executing at the tip of Portland’s formation provides an element of stability, but sometimes, you just want somebody to annoy the hell out of your opponents.

That’s where players like Ellie Carpenter and Midge Purce come in. Carpenter seems entrenched as the team’s starting right back as of now, but she has also gotten time at right wing since arriving in Portland. Based on her time in Australia and with her national team, she could have even more to offer up top. Even if she isn’t called upon higher up the field, the speed, tenacity and pure physicality she’d offer can be replicated by Purce. If the qualities most missed by Raso’s absence will, in Parsons’ estimation, be that ability to chase down and harass opponents, Carpenter and Purce become even more viable options.

This ties into why, in theory, you think Raso’s on-off numbers are so good, especially in the defensive part of the game. If you buy the idea that her pressing has a carry-on effect throughout the team’s formation, if becomes imperative that you replicate that quality as much as possible. If, however, you think the Thorns’ goal prevention rests on other strengths, you look to others as your right-wing options.

The change it up

Among those others may be Parsons’ most intriguing option; at least, it’s most intriguing when considering the implications of starting Andressinha. At one time the team’s central midfield partner for Lindsey Horan, the Brazilian international has transitioned into a substitute’s role, the starts she has had since Celeste Boureille’s first XI ascent coinciding with Tobin Heath’s absences on the left wing.

But it’s what Andressinha has offered in that role, one that’s illustrated the different character Portland’s had on each flank, that makes her such an interesting option. On the right, the team has relied on a more direct approach with Raso, one that leverages on her ability to get behind defenders. On the left, though, Heath provides a more on-the-ball presence, somebody capable of breaking down defenders as well as creating opportunities for her fellow Thorns.

Andressinha may not have the one-on-one ability of Heath (who does?), but her ability to serve as a wide creator – as well as cut underneath the defense, as Heath does, when the ball is on the other flank – could provide some symmetry to the team’s approach. That could be a good thing, or the lack of diversity could be a bad thing, but it could also come down to the strengths of the opposition, and how that opponent likes to defend.

There may be some teams, over these last three games of the Thorns’ season, who won’t be susceptible to a one-on-one threat. Those same teams may be more likely to succumb to a well-weighted through ball than somebody who will physically attack the space behind. If, on tape, Parsons sees a team like that in Portland’s path, Andressinha could prove his best option.

The middle ground

The player most likely to take up Raso’s position is one that has already been in Parsons’ starting lineup – somebody who has already spent time playing with Foord. With Crnogorčević returning from a pair of World Cup qualifiers in Europe, though, it’s unclear how many minutes Portland can expect from her during a Friday game. If the team’s to-this-point number nine can’t play 90 in Raso’s spot, who gets called on to step up?

That’s covered, above, but the question will persist beyond the regular-season finale. When faced with a given week’s challenge, will it make sense to lean on Crnogorčević’s intelligence and all-around game, and when will it make sense to go with a more technical (Andressinha) or explosive (Carpenter, Purce) option?

Perhaps the most encouraging part about Crnogorčević’s game is that she offers a little bit of both. Is she as technical as Andressinha? No, but as we see in the times she ventures wide, holds up play, or combines with Portland’s wide attackers, she is more than capable of contributing in the possession game. And, while she may not have the explosion of Carpenter or Purce, Crnogorčević’s physical qualities are still more imposing than most.

As important, we’ve already seen how the Swiss international will be able to play with Foord. Though Crnogorčević was predominantly the striker when in the starting XI with Raso, she did spend time on the right wing, too. And when Foord replaced Raso against the Washington Spirit, Crnogorčević had no problem embracing a more consistent, wide role.

Undoubtedly, the two will still switch, as Foord can be effective wide, too. There are even times when, over brief periods of time, we see Heath exchange places with the team’s striker or right wing. Those swaps happen quite often. Keeping Crnogočević on the field gives Portland the best chance to maintain that continuity as well as, though her all-around game, check all the boxes they were marking before.

The depth to lean on

Deeper in the roster, the ripples of Raso’s absence are also felt. Whereas the team seemed to have a clear most-likely set of substitutions, before – Andressinha, Purce, and one of Crnogorčević or Foord – another player is set to claim those minutes. Lussi seems most likely, as she has been a consistent sub throughout much of the season, but players like Weber also becoming more likely to see the field. And, with a spot in the gameday 18 freed up, one of the attackers who hadn’t been dressing will be back on the field.

Ultimately, replacing Hayley Raso may prove a relatively straight-forward choice. Such are the pleasures of having a roster with Caitlin Foord, Ana Crnogorčević and Midge Purce. But in the team’s other options – in a player like Andressinha – there are other enticing considerations. Even if those considerations don’t breach the team’s first XI, they’ll continue to give Parsons an enviable set of options.