The 2015 NWSL season is already showing how tumultuous it could turn out to be. In the last month we’ve seen Western New York and U.S. Women’s National Team forward Abby Wambach announce a sabbatical of sorts from the domestic season, yet later she was still involved in a trade with the Seattle Reign. The Flash sent Wambach’s rights, former Thorn Amber Brooks and a 2016 first round draft pick to Seattle for forward Sydney Leroux and defender Amanda Frisbie, all less than two weeks from the start of the season.
This events seem like just a taste of the kind of squad commotion the NWSL will face during the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup, as international rosters will pull players from teams in the midst of the league season. The Portland Thorns are no exception, but there is a solid core that can carry the club through the season.
The spine of the Portland Thorns squad is testament to veteran leadership. From the central pairing in the defense to the attacking midfield, the Thorns have a solid foundation on which to build a consistent and dangerous lineup. These players will be key in not only driving the club through the season, but anchoring the squad as players move in and out due to international commitments.
While the formations may shift and players may be utilized in different positions, there’s a clear sense that head coach Paul Riley is looking to several players to fill vital roles within the team. The main benefit to the Thorns is that these are players that may be with the squad the entire season.
Kat Williamson: Captained the squad during the preseason and provides confidence and important experience in defense. Riley says Williamson is a clear leader at the back to organize the backline. Along with Rachel Van Hollebeke, Williamson will provide the foundation and sense of security that the players in front of her will need to work the Thorns’ creative offense.
Rachel Van Hollebeke: Should Van Hollebeke go to the World Cup, the U.S. team will be better for it. Despite being used sparingly at the Algarve Cup, she’s a universally liked and respected player that brings a wealth of experience to the team and is a positive influence in a dressing room. Such is her dedication, that when given the option to rest following the Algarve Cup, Van Hollebeke instead chose to spend a week in Portland training with the Thorns. Should U.S. head coach Jill Ellis take a different route, the Thorns will have one of the most experienced backlines in the NWSL and one opposition forwards will not look forward to facing.
Sarah Robbins: The dedicated defensive midfielder that Riley sought and acquired. Robbins showed her positional acumen and ability to read the flow of the game in preseason, often covering for defenders that pushed forward. Robbins should allow Allie Long and McCall Zerboni the freedom to attack, slowing down counter attacks and reclaiming clearances while always looking to plug any gaps. More freedom for the attacking players can only work in Portland’s favor.
McCall Zerboni: Despite being a fresh face in the squad, Zerboni brings more experience and speed to Portland’s midfield. Riley’s style of play will work in her favor and preseason preparations should help her settle into the squad and learn her new teammates. All attacking intent and the ability to burst into space between defenders will get Zerboni into dangerous areas for the Thorns.
Allie Long: Thrived in an offensive role early last season, scoring in Portland’s first three games, and then provided the midfield foundation for Veró Boquete to attack freely. Capable of scoring goals and even carrying the team if necessary, Long will be key to Portland controlling the tempo of matches and orchestrating the attack. A solid start to the season would enhance the possibility of a roster spot at the World Cup, especially should an injury disrupt Ellis’ selection in midfield. Long already has a start and assist as an international and will lead by example in the Thorns squad to showcase her versatility.
This spine of the team will show leadership and consistency throughout the 2015 season, providing the building blocks for the players around them. This backbone will help the Thorns to pick up important points even when the World Cup causes international absences. As Riley said early in preseason, players will get chances and this core will help inspire confidence throughout the team. They will set the stage for players like Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Steph Catley, and Jodie Taylor to light up the pitch. This could be Portland’s greatest strength in a season where squad rotation will be so significant.