The 2015 NWSL season will be a landmark year, not just for the league itself, but for the teams and players in it as they are asked to maintain a level of performance and entertainment that will keep women’s professional soccer thriving. The most complicated aspect of this season has already been talked to death over the offseason: missing national team players. The Portland Thorns will be missing more than their fair share and will have to do without some of their biggest stars for the first half of the season.
With the FIFA Women’s World Cup set to run June 6th to July 5th, the biggest stars in women’s soccer will be pulled from teams around the world and nowhere will that be felt more than in the NWSL. The league will take a short break during the tournament, but not for the full duration and it is still unknown if players will be allowed a break after their national teams have finished in the tournament.
Still, the league will need to capitalize on the attention that a World Cup year brings.
For the Portland Thorns, 2015 has an air of intrigue and freshness at the offset. Head coach Paul Riley comes into his second season as Thorns manager this year and has assembled a squad with experience and creativity at its core. Off-season personnel losses ranging from retirements to trades have mixed up the squad, while players already familiar with Portland join, or in one case rejoin, the club.
In 2015, Riley will continue building on the philosophy of last season, emphasizing possession and an attacking-style of play with high pressure on defense to win the ball back. The midfield will be expected to drive the team productively and pitch in on the goal-scoring front. The base for all of this? An organized defense that will count on a combination of championship-winning experience and the inexhaustible energy of youth. Squad depth will be vital over the course of the year and players that may not see playing time once some of the national team players return will need to step up when given the opportunity. For the Thorns, the 2015 season could be a stage for new heroines to make history.
Here are five key points that the Thorns will have to address during the 2015 season, and one the NWSL…
Get off the blocks fast: In 2014, Portland only lost once in their first seven matches, taking 14 of 21 points (4-1-2). A solid start to 2015 will also be a way of easing pressure down the stretch, as well as getting the most out of star players while they are with the club. The squad will include players that weren’t around at the start of last season, with Alex Morgan fit, and Tobin Heath also with the team. New signing Jodie Taylor will mean that Christine Sinclair, who is training with the Canadian national team, is not as missed as she might have been otherwise. Portland was a combined 4-3-5 in 2014 against their first four opponents of 2015, and have the advantage of playing three of those matches in the Rose City. Points are the most valuable currency and the Thorns will want to open their account early with a large deposit.
Home field advantage: The mantra around the club during preseason was "build the house." Now it’s time to defend the house. Providence Park needs to be a source of confidence for the team, knowing that any club coming into Portland is going to have the toughest possible time picking up points. The Thorns don’t need to win every game, but with the experienced and solid defense Riley has assembled, any loss at home should be a huge disappointment. Key matches during the World Cup against FC Kansas City (June 19) and Sky Blue FC (July 3), could be critical. If the Thorns win the majority of their games in the Rose City, the pressure will be eased substantially on the road and in fixtures played during the World Cup.
Spread the Love: In the buildup to preseason, a number of Thorns players were active on social media showing early preparations with their teammates and even team gatherings. This showing of camaraderie should be encouraging to the Thorns faithful as squad chemistry will play a vital role this season. Kat Williamson has been an example of this and Riley has already sung the praises of her leadership and ability to bring teammates together. As players move in and out of the squad this term, team chemistry will need to stay especially strong to ignore the distraction. Equally so, the players coming and going need to feel included and comfortable despite time away in order to seamlessly integrate back in and perform. Even more importantly, when the going gets tough, trust and the expectation of being supported could prove the catalyst to gaining valuable points from desperate situations. All evidence so far points to a positive foundation in this regard.
Goals, Goals, Goals: Three clean sheets leading the way to three wins in preseason shows the Thorns defense is already forming up well. At the other end of the field, questions remain as to who will be the spearhead of the attack when Alex Morgan, Jodie Taylor and Christine Sinclair are at the World Cup. Hannah Terry was signed last season as a promising attacking player, while Genoveva (Ayo) Añonma was brought in during the offseason, but hasn’t joined the squad yet. Notably, none of the trialists that featured in the Thorns preseason matches were listed on the 2015 active roster that was released Monday afternoon, including Kelsey Haycook, who scored in three-straight matches during preseason. That means, as of now, Añonma and Terry will be the first line of attack come international call-ups. While this can change down the road, Riley will be counting on contributions coming out of the midfield and for Terry and Añonma to prove his confidence well placed.
Play well and they will come: The Rose City has the greatest fan experience in the NWSL. Portland continues to set record numbers in attendance, capped by a near sellout in the 1-0 win over Seattle to clinch a playoff spot in the final home match of 2014. The World Cup offers more of an opportunity than a distraction or detriment to the NWSL. Yes, the biggest names in the league will be away from their club teams, but World Cups and the Olympics have always generated a high amount of interest in women’s soccer. Demand will be there for high-caliber women’s soccer and the NWSL needs to be ready to deliver, with and without their headlining players. Clubs will need to do all they can to entice fans to the matches, while players will be responsible for providing the spectacle to make it worthwhile. The games during the World Cup will matter to teams’ postseason aspirations and after the World Cup, people will want to see the players that starred on the game’s biggest stage.
With Portland set to kickoff the NWSL season against the Boston Breakers on Saturday at home, the Rose City won’t have long to wait to see the squad in action. With familiar names on the team sheet bolstered by exciting new talent and determined veterans, the Thorns will look to set a precedent for what should be a highly entertaining 2015 season.