When the 2016 season began, it began with 12 new faces -- Portland’s new coach, Mark Parsons, shook up the lineup and brought in some amazing new talent. Thanks to the new players, the team was able to perform amazingly. Nadia Nadim was scored some great goals, Hayley Raso was the speedforce we needed, Dagny moved the ball around the field, Emily Sonnett defended like a champion, and Adrianna Franch was a quick and reliable goalkeeper. Now, as it draws nearer to the 2017 NWSL Draft, the question arises: what are Mark Parsons and his assistants looking for? What does Portland lack?
The NWSL Draft will take place on January 12th this year, and will be live streamed for any soccer fanatics as excited about this year's lineup as I am. 164 players submitted their interest in playing in the NWSL, representing a wide variety of countries including Canada, England, Jamaica, Germany, Norway and Japan.
Portland has no draft picks in the first round of the draft this year, which means their selection is not going to be as rich as last year, when they had the first overall draft pick and picked Emily Sonnett. This year, Thorns has the most picks in the draft since 2013 though: compared to 2016 and 2015's two picks, Portland has four this year. Their picks, 14, 20, 27 and 40 are not ideal, but as every single Thorns fan will point out in the coming week, Emily Menges was a 36th pick in the 2014 draft, and she's been a wonderful asset for the Thorns.
One of the key things that Portland is looking to bolster is its bench. This means I believe Parsons will be looking to bring on two defenders, a midfielder and a forward. This will also help fill the gap of the three international players, Nadia Nadim, Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Amandine Henry, who will leave to play in the European Championship between mid-July and early August. The crucial thing for Portland's draft picks this year is to pick players who are celebrated amazing players, but who aren't in the top 10 of every single coach. As a result, I am looking at both the players nominated by The Equalizer and Women's Soccer United as the top 10 of their position, and looking further afield, for more risky draft picks that, like Emily Menges, would pay off in the long run.
I will go through the draft by position now, looking at what players I believe the Thorns staff should be giving a closer look at this coming week.
First off, goalkeepers. Although normally keepers don't go in the first round, the fact that Boston now holds four of the first round draft picks might mean that a keeper does go early. Either way, this is of no interest to the Thorns, who have two great keepers. I highly doubt that Mark Parsons will use his draft pick on keepers when there is such a talented pool of more crucial positions.
So second; the defenders. The Thorns have always used the draft as a source of defenders. Both in 2014 and in 2016, the only two draft picks were defenders. The Thorns has always prided itself on its backline, and with Kat Williamson’s retirement, there will need to be some shuffling around.
With an eye for defenders with US Women's national team call ups, Mark Parsons might be looking at Christina Gibbons, who was cited as an underrated player in 2013 and has since grown and become the talent that Jill Ellis called up in her coming January camp. It's doubtful whether Gibbons will stay on the plate until pick 14 though, especially since the Equalizer nominated her as one of their top five defenders in the draft. Another defender Parsons might have his eye on is Southern California's Mandy Freeman, who was crucial to the Trojan's victory this year. Gordon noted that Freeman "moved from center midfield to center back, could play along the backline or as a defensive midfielder," which would make her a crucial addition for a team that might lose one of its best defensive midfielders during the Euros later in the summer. Women's Soccer Weekly predicts that Gibbons and Freeman will be fourth and eight draft pick respectively though, so I don't expect the Thorns will bag either.
As a result, for defenders I would call attention to USC's Kayla Mills, who is an incredibly solid member of the Trojan's backline, and, along with Freeman, helped with the trophy this year. The Equalizer doesn't her consider one of the top five defenders, but Women's Soccer Weekly does see her going in the first round. She was on the watch list for the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy Award, was awarded Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and would really offer some presence for the Thorns backline. Her ability to play as a winger should also be noted -- in 2015 she clocked two goals and six assists, no small feat for a defender.
In terms of midfielders, the Thorns will be hard pressed to get any outstanding players, with Boston, Sky Blue and WNYF all dominating the first round of picks. A midfielder that might just make it to the second round draft pick, but that the Equalizer and Women’s Soccer Weekly both like is Meggie Howard-Dougherty. The Gators central midfielder was listed as SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player after registering an assist in each tournament match, as well as a golden goal. She has experience as part of the U23 Women's National team and played in the Washington Spirit Reserves in 2016. I think her presence on the field might lessen the blow of Nadim’s departure in July as she goes to play for the Danish National Team.
But I think an underrated midfielder that might really entice Parsons is definitely Duke's Toni Payne. Not on The Equalizer's top picks, she is on the Women's Soccer Weekly top picks though, so she might also not make it to the second round. Women's Soccer Weekly describes Payne as a "another speedster on the flank, [who] can succeed in both build up play and the counter-attack." Bagging her would be a real win for the Thorns, as she would be able to take Tobin Heath's position while the latter was at US Women's National Team Camp.
The midfielder Nickolette Driesse is the penultimate midfielder I'd look at for her ability to be a wild card player for the Thorns. The Equalizer cited her as a player without "any particular gaudy numbers" but "does rarely commits turnovers and does a good job of keeping the ball circulating." The only senior in this year's PSU team, Driesse was team co-captain and made the All-Big Ten First Team. Penn State ended the season ranked 26th out of more than 300 teams, and this was partially because of Driesse's ability to keep the team together and organized. She started in all 21 matches and netted 1700 minutes throughout the season (from 1890 possible). She's quick player with a good sense of the midfield, and I think she could be an invest for the Thorns that would definitely pay off.
Lastly, a midfielder that neither Women's Soccer Weekly or the Equalizer put forward was BYU's Michele Vasconcelos. An excellent midfielder who scored 16 goals in the 2016 seasons, as well as registering 13 assists, Vasconcelos is a staple part of BYU’s soccer success. Named the West Coast Conference player of the year, Vasconcelos is an incredibly hard working player, who I think can make the jump to the NWSL and continue performing at such a high standard. I see her working very well with connecting the backline and the forwards, creating and completing opportunities on the pitch.
In terms of forwards, I would love to list any of the top players of this season, such as Florida’s Savannah Jordan, UConn’s Rachel Hill or BYU’s Ashely Hatch. But historically, forwards are snapped up in the draft — four of out the first ten draft picks in 2016 were forwards. As a result, I didn’t look at any of the Equalizer’s top five forwards for the Thorns, focusing instead on more niche players.
Stephanie Ribeiro didn’t make The Equalizer’s list, despite the fact that she’s tied for first place as top scorer for the NCAA (21 goals) and second overall top assist (14) in the NCAA. Women’s Soccer weekly described her as not only a “a goal scorer,” but also a player who “sees the field extremely well.” Her ability to both create chances, and finish them, would make her a great asset to the Thorns, as she could play as both an attacking mid and a forward when necessary, supporting Sinclair further up the field. Although Women’s Soccer Weekly believes Riberio will be a 10th draft pick, I am keeping my finger’s crossed that she will be available until 14.
To some people’s surprise, Mexico’s forward Katie Johnson of USC also registered for the draft. An incredibly talented USC player who scored two goals in the final against West Virginia’s Mountaineer, the young forward finished the season tied for the team lead with 10 goals. Johnson’s talent should be noted, and if she’s available later on in the draft, she should be snatched up immediately. Her ability to control the ball would make her an asset to the Thorns, and I would love to see what combinations she would create with Heath and Horan.
A more local player that might also be an invested is Norway's Helene Haavik. Haavik is a graduate from Oregon State University, and she shows a lot of potential. In the 2015 NCAA season, she netted only one goal and one assist, even though she played 19 games. In the 2016 season, this rose to six goals and three assists, making her one of Oregon State's leading scorers. More than this, she played for the U16, U17, and U19 Norwegian National Teams, helping her team to the European Championships all three years. A quick and smart player, I think that Haavik might be another worthy investment for the Thorns.
In conclusion — this year’s draft is going to be fun. With such a wide variety of players available, and such a wonderful pool of talent, I think that whoever the Thorns chose, there is a very high likelihood the players will make the jump to the NWSL, and we will see new and exciting talent emerge.