The Portland Thorns kick off their season today as they take on the NWSL newcomers, the Houston Dash. The Thorns are built around the same core of players that propelled them to the Championship last season, but with a new coach there have been some big changes made and fourteen new players brought in.
After winning the NWSL Championship in the league's first season, the Thorns looked set to roll into year two under Cindy Parlow Cone's leadership. There had been some grumblings, but it is hard to argue with a trophy. In December, however, Cone stepped down and shortly thereafter the Thorns brought on board Paul Riley.
A fixture in American women's soccer over the last two decades including a coaching stint with the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS, Riley took over the team and immediately began reshaping it with the goal of playing attractive, attacking soccer in route to bringing a second championship to Portland and winning the league along the way, something that the Thorns fell one point short of in 2013.
In the team's first practice of the preseason, Riley told the press that he would prefer to win games with a score of five to four and that his team would look to keep the ball on the group in a quick-passing, possession-based style of play.
Karina LeBlanc was a finalist for the keeper of the year in 2013 and, with her outgoing personality, big saves, and shock of dyed red hair, was a favorite of the fans. That did not stop Riley from trading LeBlanc to the Chicago Red Stars in a move that caught many Thorns fans off guard.
In her place the Thorns brought in German net-minder Nadine Angerer just hours before she was awarded the Women's World Player of the Year award by FIFA, making her the only keeper, man or women, to have ever won soccer's highest award.
Angerer has been a fixture for the German national team since 1996, picking up 131 caps along the way, but only became the first choice keeper for the side after over a decade as a reserve keeper, taking over the starting spot in the 2007 Women's World Cup. Angerer did not allow a goal in the entire competition and has been considered one of the best keepers in the world since.
With the Thorns looking to play with a heavy emphasis on attacking soccer, Angerer's ability to make big saves will be important for the team this season thanks to their skew toward big-name attacking players. An underrated quality of her game, however, is her distribution, something that will also be vital for the Thorns as they look to keep possession and play the ball out of the back.
Goalkeepers: Nadine Angerer*, Michelle Betos* (* - new arrival)
As soon as the national team allocations were released in 2013 it was obvious that the Thorns would be an attacking force. With Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath on board, the team was loaded with attacking talent. At times, however, the Thorns struggled to play a complete game and get the ball to their attack in good positions.
As the club looks to put together an even more overwhelming attack this season, the emphasis has been on strengthening the midfield. Amber Brooks, who was picked by the Thorns in the 2013 college draft but had already headed abroad to Bayern Munich, was the first piece of the puzzle as she returned to the states and signed with the Thorns over the offseason.
Brooks brings a defensive bite to the holding midfield spot for the Thorns, while also being capable of playing further forward or out wide. During her time in Germany, Brooks developed her attacking instincts, scoring four goals in her ten appearances for Bayern.
Further up the pitch, the Thorns have added an attacking powerhouse in Spanish attacking midfielder Veronica Boquete. Rumors that Boquete would be joining the Thorns started as soon as Riley took over, but it was only a week ago that the Thorns' new boss was reunited with the playmaker from his Philadelphia side.
A classic No. 10, Boquete will be at the center of the Thorns attack when she arrives in the states after her current side, Tyreso FF of Sweden, finishes their current run in the UEFA Champions League. Capable of scoring goals and providing assists in equal measure, Boquete is exactly the sort of play that could allow the rest of her teammates to flourish, something that Thorns fans have been pining for since last year when a number of players, including Sinclair, were shoehorned into the role.
While the team waits for Boquete to arrive, however, they will also be without one of their other prime attacking weapons in Alex Morgan. Morgan suffered an unusual ankle injury during the Thorns' playoff push last season and, after brief returns with the Thorns and the USWNT, has been sidelined for several additional months. Although she should be back this summer, the Thorns will have to do without Morgan in the early days of the season.
The question of who will line up alongside Christine Sinclair on the forward line is one that has yet to be conclusively answered during the preseason, although new arrivals Jackie Acevedo and Jessica McDonald have both stated their cases. Acevedo, a Mexican international who earned her first cap last year, is a short, speedy forward, while McDonald, at 6'0", is the tallest player on the team.
Forwards: Jackie Acevedo*, Jessica McDonald*, Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, Elizabeth Sullivan*
At the back of the pitch, the Thorns will once again be anchored by Rachel Van Hollebeke, formerly Rachel Buehler, and alongside her will be Nikki Marshall. Those two, however, are all that remain of the 2013 Thorns' defensive line. The rest of the team's defensive corps are new arrivals.
In the case of Stephanie Catley, however, calling her a new arrival would be premature. The highly touted Australian 20-year-old fullback will not be arriving until after her time with the Australian national team wraps up in June. Catley is a fast player capable of getting up and down the wing and the Thorns will want their fullbacks to be capable of getting forward into the attack.
When she arrives, Catley will compete for a starting spot, but in the mean time several other players will be looking to cement their spots in the starting lineup. Rebecca Moros, who joined the Thorns after spending two years playing in the Japanese professional league, will compete for one of the fullback spots, while veteran Sarah Huffman will take the other.
Defenders: Stephanie Catley*, Sarah Huffman*, Nikki Marshall, Emily Menges*, Rebecca Moros*, Courtney Niemiec*, Katarina Tarr*, Rachael Van Hollebeke