A lot has changed at Portland Thorns between the 2021 and 2022 NWSL seasons, with former manager Mark Parsons leaving to become head coach of the Netherlands women’s team (a post he had already been sharing with his Portland responsibilities during the second half of last season), as well as major members of their 2021 roster moving on. However, these departures have been offset by the arrival of a new coach, Rhian Wilkinson, who was most recently an England assistant under Hege Riise, whilst fellow Canadian Janine Beckie has signed from Manchester City Women to replace the goals of Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi, both of whom left after last season.
Another departure was influential midfielder Lindsey Horan, who sealed an 18-month loan switch to European giants Lyon Féminin in January, returning to France six years after joining the Thorns from PSG Féminine. Her replacement in Oregon is Japan midfielder Hina Sugita, who was added from Japanese WE League side INAC Kobe Leonessa, and her arrival has sparked plenty of interest from fans and analysts, with her ability to play in multiple roles making her a fitting replacement for the USA international.
However, the question is: how good of a replacement is she?
This tactical analysis will look to provide an answer to that big question by examining both her and Horan’s individual playing styles before analysing how Sugita has fit into her new surroundings so far. The analysis will also compare their key data, picking out how Sugita will improve Portland from a statistical point of view.
Whilst playing in Kobe, Hina Sugita tended to have a box-to-box role, with the licence to move around the pitch and affect the game in different ways. We saw her play a key role in their ability to score goals and prevent the ball from going into her own net too.
One key aspect of Sugita’s play that needs mentioning is that she is not the quickest player around and is often outrun by opponents when out of possession. However, she makes up for this with her awareness and anticipation, getting into positions early and making it harder for opponents to beat her in 1-v-1 battles.
In this case, her AC Nagano Parceiro opponent initially started behind her and looked to move the ball up the pitch. However, because Sugita knew that this was her plan, she has positioned herself to close off the easy options, with her opponent now forced to play either backwards, which would lose momentum, or forwards, where the angle is tighter and INAC’s defensive line would have a good chance of regaining possession and clearing their lines.
Therefore, when ouy of possession, Sugita is key to her team’s ability to slow play down, giving them a better chance of preventing goals from being scored, and this is one reason why INAC are currently still unbeaten in the WE League, having conceded just twice.
When in an attacking role, Sugita has demonstrated excellent spatial awareness and is constantly seen making runs into the final third behind opponents, often without them noticing; this gives her team a constant passing option in dangerous areas of the pitch. When the defenders do see where she wants to go, they are forced to drift apart and leave space open for the ball to be played through, as has happened here, with Nagano’s Moe Kimotsuki being forced to move away from her defensive teammates in order to try and cover Sugita’s run.
Getting up the pitch is not something that Sugita only does when the ball is in the final third, as it is quite common to see her getting forward when in the central third too, allowing her team to build from the back when they have time to weight their passes. In fact, it is often the case that she will have started her forward run before her teammate has turned to even look for a pass, and this again highlights her impressive anticipation of play during matches.
Sugita is just as capable when operating in tight spaces too, with her between five NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza players here while being closed down. However, with her aforementioned spatial awareness again coming into play, she always keeps her head up in these situations and looks for where the best passing option is. In this sense, she acts as a playmaker for her team when in the final third and a pivot that they can build their attacks from, never taking many touches with the ball and risking being caught in possession.
These qualities have been key to INAC’s productivity and efficiency in front of goal this season, with 18 league goals to their name at the time of writing — the same number as second-placed NTV Beleza and two fewer than current top scorers Urawa Reds Ladies.
Whilst those qualities are important, there is no doubt that the American league is a different beast entirely to the Japanese equivalent. Therefore, in order to see what Sugita would need to bring to Portland Thorns, we need to look at Lindsey Horan’s style of play from last season too.
Like Sugita, Horan was given a deeper midfield role at Portland for most of last season, but still had freedom to roam around the pitch and help out in both defensive and attacking situations. Here, the USA international is on the nearside wing and in a 1-v-1 situation with one of the Houston Dash defenders. At first glance, it appears as though her options are limited but one of her key individual qualities is winning individual battles, and she ends up taking the ball forwards and beyond her opponent here, waiting for the right moment and giving herself enough space to deliver an accurate cross into the box.
It was important last season to have players on the wings who were capable of delivering well, with Portland’s tactics revolving around using the wings to build attacks whilst the two strikers generally stayed more central, ready to meet any balls that came into the goal area. As a result, players like Horan were crucial for them, with her abilities in these channels allowing the likes of Charley, Lussi and one of last season’s standout players, Sophia Smith, to flourish (Smith was the joint-fourth highest scorer in the league last season, alongside North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams and OL Reign’s on-loan striker Eugénie Le Sommer, with each netting seven times.)
Horan also came inside the pitch and linked up with teammates when necessary, opening up spaces and creating opportunities to shoot at goal. In this example, she has passed into fellow USA international Crystal Dunn, in the yellow circle, before running behind her and receiving the ball back in the gap between the Racing Louisville defenders, putting her in the perfect position to shoot at goal.
On this occasion, her effort misses the target, but the attempt was there and Horan’s ability to see opportunities was again demonstrated. However, this link-up play was something that Portland really benefitted from last season, with it leading to chances being created and the Thorns opening up their opponents time and time again. The fact that Horan is someone who can score goals from deeper areas again helped to increase the team’s overall goal threat.
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, Horan tended to play in deeper positions for Portland last season, sitting mainly in front of the defensive line and offering them protection when it was required. This may sound odd, given her obvious attacking qualities, but another key aspect of her play was a wide range of passing. Therefore, positioning her further back meant that she had more of the pitch ahead of her and she could use this range of passing to find teammates and start attacks.
Here, she has received the ball in a wider area but has her body facing inside the pitch, meaning that she has a good view of her surroundings. Three players are close by, offering the option of moving the ball up the field at speed and playing through Louisville, but Horan instead opts to play a longer pass towards the other side of the pitch, switching the direction of play and finding open space, allowing her teammates to attack where their opponents are less protected. Therefore, by playing her in a naturally defensive role, she was actually more involved in their attacks than some may have initially realised.
A good replacement?
So far in this scout report, we have identified the key aspects of both Hina Sugita’s and Lindsey Horan’s individual playing styles, but we now need to focus back on the question at hand and determine whether or not Sugita has been a good replacement for Horan. In order to do this, we will now turn our attention to Sugita’s first few games at Portland Thorns, seeing how she has fit into their tactics and what she has offered them so far.
During the ongoing 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup, Rhian Wilkinson has tended to play the Japan international in a mainly box-to-box role, usually as part of a midfield three, and this has, so far, appeared to suit Sugita. In this situation, she can use her aforementioned game awareness to anticipate and intercept OL Reign’s pass, breaking up play and preventing them from creating a potential goalscoring opportunity; this is something that Portland have relied on her for when out of possession.
With Horan in more of a deep-lying playmaker role last season, as mentioned, it is clear that Wilkinson has looked to change the way her team plays this season. In particular, she wants the midfielders to work closer together and offer more protection for the defensive line, enabling them to focus purely on being organised and not allowing their opponents to get too close to their goal as can be seen here. Therefore, Sugita’s ability to slow down play in this way is one reason why her arrival has been a big positive for Portland so far.
Sugita has also taken control of situations well during her first few games for the Thorns, winning balls in the middle and then looking for the best option to play to. Here, she is just inside Portland’s half and sees the attacking run of wing-back Madison Pogarch, in the yellow circle, who was tasked, in this game, with holding the width and supporting their attacks.
To make this work, they needed a player in the middle with a good awareness of where teammates were, allowing quick passes to be made and attacks to be built at speed, giving OL as little time as possible to react. The fact that Sugita was given this vital role indicates the trust that Wilkinson has in her already, as well as the level of adaptability that she has needed to show so far.
As a box-to-box player, she has also needed to be in the final third at times, creating passing options and again helping her team to build attacks. As is shown here, this is where her movement comes into play, with her quick change in direction creating the space for her teammate in the yellow circle to play the ball into, with Sugita subsequently having time to receive the ball and turn to pick out a teammate in another area of the field.
Her constant movement throughout this game made it difficult for San Diego Wave, managed by former Manchester United Women head coach Casey Stoney, to adjust to Portland’s attacking setup, as they looked unsure of whether to close the ball down or stay in line and limit the Thorns’ ability to break them down — and that is the key point. Therefore, with Sugita on the pitch, Portland have a good passing option in the final third when needed, and someone who sees gaps early and occupies them, ensuring that the team keeps their momentum.
Now that we have looked at both players individually, and at the different roles that Hina Sugita has been given so far at Portland Thorns, we need to complete our scout report by comparing their key statistics, giving us an even better idea of whether Sugita is a good replacement for Lindsey Horan.
As can be seen, Horan is better in most of the attacking statistics, but where Sugita is better in the final third is shots on target. This was likely down to the different roles that both players had, with Sugita tending to get further forward on more occasions than Horan, but it still shows that the Japan international will provide a greater attacking presence which could lead to Portland performing marginally better in the final third than last season, allowing them to progress beyond the play-off semi-finals.
In defence, Sugita won a greater percentage of defensive and aerial duels and made more successful interceptions. This is really promising for Portland fans, because Horan last season was one of the Thorns’ best players when the ball was in the air, getting her head onto long clearances and goal kicks from opponents and setting up attacks for her team. This is likely to continue with Sugita in the side, but with even more success, which could perhaps lead to Rhian Wilkinson’s side being even more difficult to beat in their own third.
The fact that Sugita made more interceptions highlights why Wilkinson has perhaps seen her so far as someone who can offer the defence greater protection, enabling other players like Yazmeen Ryan, Rocky Rodriguez and Canada legend Christine Sinclair to concentrate solely on attacking and therefore increase Portland’s offensive capabilities, potentially leading to them scoring more goals than they managed to bag last season (they had 33 after the regular campaign, which was the second-highest number behind OL).
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at both Hina Sugita and Lindsey Horan, comparing their individual playing styles last season and assessing whether the former is a good replacement for the latter. The analysis has delved into each player individually, giving us a good foundation of how each plays, before drawing comparisons both tactically and statistically to answer the question raised at the beginning of the article.
What is clear is that 2022 is going to be a transitional year for Portland Thorns, with previous manager Mark Parsons having been at the helm since 2016, so he has had a chance to put a firm imprint on the team. Therefore, it will logically take the same amount of time for Rhian Wilkinson to have the same impact, but the high-profile signings of Janine Beckie and Hina Sugita have shown what she wants her new team to look like, and it is clear that Sugita can ably fill the hole left by Horan and is a good fit for the Thorns.