A turn on her left ankle, and Midge Purce was in pulling away from the crowds, looking to enter a different world. The game was still too new. The final whistle had blown roughly 15 minutes before, but the missed chances were still on her mind. One stuck out most.
In the face of grateful fans, her smile was trademark. The enthusiasm in the post-match autograph line was a nice distraction from the field. But that game still finished 0-0, with Utah Royals FC earning a point at Providence Park, and Purce was still thinking about the close calls. Despite all the work she’d done to create chances, her mind settled on the end product.
“That’s a really loaded question,” she said after a long pause, asked what she thought of her own performance. It was the first question of an interview that could have gone in any direction. Focused on what she didn’t do, Purce may have sensed an interrogation.
This was the opposite. Instead of dwelling on the half-chances that couldn’t be converted, the focus was on her ability to create those chances out of nothing. Picking up the ball 35 yards out. Making one move to find space. Surging toward that edge of the box for a shot which, yes, on some occasions, players will bury.
“In the second half, I had a shot that went wide of the post a little bit, and I can bury that,” she later says. “I think it should be (buried).”
Expected goals (xG) models can be inconsistent regarding expectations we should have for each shot. Most of their data comes from the men’s side of the game, anyway. But a quick survey of a few that put their data in the public space hint Purce had a 30 to 40 percent chance of going in. Some models disagree, but with most, that chance is missed or saved more times than not.
Most of Purce’s Friday chances were like that. We focused on another one, in the first half. She’d been played into space down the left flank by Meghan Klingenberg and eventually set up a 1-on-1 at the wide edge of Utah’s penalty box. Defender Sydney Miramontez gave her enough room to cut onto her right foot, but she’d held Purce up enough. By the time the shot was off, multiple defenders were planted as human pylons between her shot and goal.
At first, Purce doesn’t want to hear it. “I definitely think that I’m capable of scoring in a game,” she says, “so walking away 0-0 at home is disappointing.” Then we talk through the chances: the obstacles that were there; the distances she had to settle for; the work she did to create what she could.
She relents, though it’s possible she’s only being polite. “I did decently and I did what I could,” she concedes, “but I would have liked to have finished some of those chances.”
There’s a perspective from which Purce’s self-evaluation seems disproportionate – a perspective that goes beyond “scoring goals is hard.” She’d scored four goals over her previous three games: evidence she’s capable of getting that “hard” work done. Last Friday, she was facing the league’s best defense, one that had kept clean sheets in two of the preceding three matches. Scoring against Utah wasn’t an impossible task, but in the face of their quality as well as her broader run, Purce shouldn’t beat herself up.
At least, that’s what we’re supposed to say here, right? In truth, whether the attitude is constructive or not, a player can beat themselves up however much they want. Nobody else gets to decide what their ceiling is. If somebody like Purce thinks she should have scored two, three goals against Utah, it’s rude for anybody else to say, “No, you did all you could.” The best we can do is assure her, “it’s alright that you didn’t.”
“This year is a really important year, for me,” Purce said. It’s her third year as a professional, second year in Portland, all of which came after a stellar collegiate career that earned her a spot in the 2017 College Draft’s first round. She’s been called into two United States national team caps and, while the U.S. is away at the World Cup, has been given an extended period of time at striker, where she’s excelled.
“I’m trying to make the national team,” she said, when talking about her 20-40 percent chance, “and I think I need to finish that … I need to put that away.”
She might be right. It’s one thing to sit here and say the chance is worse than 50/50 opportunity, missing should be the expectation, and players should put more weight on chance generation from spots that will require volume. That’s all very logical in a here’s-the-median kind of way. But Purce isn’t operating at the median in terms of her game or her aspirations. Her goal is to be elite. If that meant providing an elite finish to Friday’s chances, so be it. That’s where she wants to be.
For us, though, it wouldn’t be fair to judge Purce by her own standards, mostly because it would be unfair to apply those standards to other players, too. It’s a strange kind of paradox, but when asking how well Purce is playing – whether she’s meeting a national-team standard, or even whether she should continue getting the same amount of playing time when nine Thorns return from the World Cup – we implicitly use a more general standard. We don’t ask what a Midge Purce can and should be doing based on her standard, nor do we tailor our standard to another players’ skills. Within our subtext, we’re asking how a player’s production compares within a set of other performances, whether that set be other professionals, national team candidates, or world class-level performers. Purce always withholds the right to be as hard on herself as she wants. We, however, can’t get that personal.
There’s another trap we’re falling into here, one that’s been highlighted by the talk around Purce during her scoring surge. For example, when Purce scored twice against the Chicago Red Stars in a 3-0 win on June 2, onlookers rightly lauded her goals. Again, goals are hard to score. But she was also instrumental over the first 25 minutes, with an intensity that pressured the Red Star defense helping set the match’s tone. Along with forward partner Simone Charley, she embodied the Thorns’ game plan, with her commitment defining that match from the opening moments.
The story was similar on Friday against the Royals. Purce didn’t get on the scoreboard, so few talked about her performance, but as Portland struggled to generate good opportunities, there were times she was able to take matters into her own hands. Particularly in the second half, when Utah had become accustomed to the Thorns’ early tactics, Purce was able to show the variety in her game – to try something different than the way she scored he goals against Chicago.
She was winning balls sent out of Portland’s defense, turning to face Utah’s back line, and creating opportunities on her own. Perhaps none of those opportunities were better than a 40 percent shot, but when it’s you against the world, 40 percent is a better chance than most.
It was reminiscent of the prior week’s game, one in which Purce scored in the first half to stake Portland to a lead against North Carolina. While the outside-of-the-boot finish she used on that score won’t easily be forgotten, it was her effort throughout the match’s final moments that stood out most. “Yeah, Midge scored a goal,” we’ll say years from now, “but I really remember her almost passing out trying to kill off the clock.”
If Purce’s goal is to get into the national team, she’s going to be compared to other players who get goals. So, she’s right. She probably needs to do something special. But in a world where special is competing against more special, the little things become the tiebreakers: the way you defend, win a ball, hold up play, or take advantage of your support; the willingness to leave everything on the field, or to keep fighting when the game plan hasn’t paid off.
Over her last two games, Purce has touched on all those qualities, and while she may be right to want more, we would be wrong to ignore all the things she’d done well.