clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Top 10 Thorns Stories of 2017

New, 15 comments

From the championship to the league-leading defense to the rise of Hayley Raso, here are our ten biggest stories of the year

Nikita Taparia, stepoverfc.com

2017 will go down in the PTFC annals as one of the biggest years in the Thorns’ history. This wasn’t just the year Portland won a second championship, but perhaps the first year the team—with its biggest-in-the-world fanbase and famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) star power—really lived up to its potential. After squeaking into the playoffs in 2013, looking mediocre through 2014 and 2015, and dominating in 2016, only to crash and burn in the semifinals, the Thorns finally went all the way in 2017—and were, by the end of the season, arguably better than their shield-winning 2016 iteration.

This was a team stacked with talent, obviously, but promisingly, for Mark Parsons, that wasn’t all they were. This was a team that overcame early injury trouble and had to change course tactically mid-season, and did both successfully. They were also a team that genuinely seemed to like each other, and the coaching staff, and to appreciate their fans. This was a team that, even for the hardest-hearted in the Rose City, was damned hard not to like.

Here are our picks for the ten biggest storylines from 2017:

10. The Great Horan

Lindsey Horan was named MVP of the NWSL Championship game for good reason - she was the clear top performer on the Thorns side from the opening whistle and scored the only goal of the match. As Tobin Heath had grabbed the 2013 Thorns by the scruff to take home the inaugural trophy, Horan did in the 2017 edition. Oh, she was also awarded CONCACAF Female Best XI and NWSL Second Best XI.

None of this was any surprise to the faithful. Beginning in mid-season, Horan emerged as the driving force for the Thorns. She saved the team blushes with a stoppage time equalizer in Houston on the 8th of July. According to our unofficial stats, she was the top performer on the Thorns in nearly every match thereafter. -Richard Hamje

9. 2017 AD, the Year of Our Franch

Going into last season, one of the biggest concerns was the loss of goalkeeper Michelle Betos. Betos’ replacement, Adrianna “AD” Franch, if known to the fans at all, was known for being the Western NY keeper the Thorns beat in the 2013 championship match, and for filling in for Betos for six games in 2016.

Franch was a trifle sketchy in March and April, but once her defense quit dinking the ball around their penalty area and the group settled down, Franch proceeded to show us how good she was.

She played every single minute for the league champions, posting the lowest concession-to-SOG rate of any starting keeper in the NWSL last season (20%; 20 goals on 100 SOG), and notching a 0.83 goals-against-average that tied the regular season record set by Hope Solo in 2014. Set the new NWSL record of 11 clean sheets. She was good enough to be selected as both NWSL, and CONCACAF Goalkeeper of the Year.

So, yeah, that good; the Ice Bear kinda killed it in 2017. -John Lawes

8. The Great Wall of Emily (and Kat, and Kling, and Ashleigh)

At first glance, the Thorns should not have been a defensive fortress in 2017: there wasn’t a single current international on the back line, no one played the whole season at fullback, an undrafted walk-on who didn’t even stay at the club the whole season got regular minutes, and one of the best players in the unit, Katherine Reynolds, spent most of the season injured. At the start of the season, they looked shaky in possession and at times uncommunicative. Yet over the course of the season, they let in the least goals of any team and kept the most clean sheets.

The defense of the team was built not from the back but from the front. The Thorns’ defensive strength, from the start, has been its ability to win the ball anywhere on the pitch. In Nadia Nadim and Hayley Raso, we had two of the hardest-working forwards in the league. In the midfield, Amandine Henry could go for long stretches of time without losing a single 50/50, and Horan seemingly always walked away from a tangle of legs with the ball at her feet.

At the core of it all, the Great Wall of Emily simply did not let opposing teams get good shots on goal, aggressively closing down and getting blocks in, knowing that their teammates were there to drop in and cover. And on the rare occasion that shots did trickle through, AD Franch was there to meet them. The depth of the defense across the field was deeply impressive, and it's a testament to Mark Parsons and his staff for orchestrating it. -Tyler Nguyen

7. The old adventures of new Christine

Christine Sinclair is a player who’s shockingly easy to take for granted. We all know she’s a living legend, the longtime core of the Canadian national team, trailing Abby Wambach’s international goal record by just 15.

But with the Thorns, somehow, she can almost disappear. Not in the sense that she stops doing her job, which, over the course of four years, she’d always done consistently, the right way, every single day—but in the sense that we so expect her to produce at a certain level that we only take notice when she doesn’t.

So when, after the season opener, Sinc went nine weeks without scoring (not counting a penalty against Sky Blue), heads started to turn. The problem, though, wasn’t with her, but with how she was being deployed. Most of the time, she looked isolated as a lone central forward: Nadia Nadim and Hayley Raso couldn’t create like Tobin Heath, and the mess in the central midfield meant she wasn’t getting any help from there, either.

The solution? Drop the veteran into the midfield and use her as the connective tissue between the deeper-lying mids and Raso and Nadim. Her powerful frame and exceptional vision and passing accuracy made her a prime candidate for the #10 role the Thorns had been lacking, and the transition helped turn Portland’s season around. Sinc looked like her old self again—just in a new role.

6. Fear the bow

July 15, 2017: the Thorns were 5-4-4, sitting in an uneasy 4th place, and coming off a rather shambolic draw in Houston, when the league-leading North Carolina Courage came to town. The Courage were a terrifying offensive machine, capable of channeling their frighteningly fast attack through pretty much any area of the pitch. Making matters worse, the Thorns were short-handed, with Nadia Nadim, Amandine Henry, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir away at the Euros.

The Thorns’ 1-0 win that day was one of the most exciting games played at Providence all season, and would set the tone for the back half of Portland’s 2017 campaign. And it was Hayley Raso—standing all of 5’4—who notched the game-winning goal with a header past Katelyn Rowland.

It wasn’t Raso’s first or even best goal of the season (that distinction goes to this freakishly-angled stunner against FC Kansas City), but it made a statement about just how big the Australian can be for the Thorns. The player who arrived in Portland in 2016 with plenty of speed and grit, alongside a touch that left something to be desired, had finally grown into the role Parsons envisioned for her when he brought her over from Washington. By season’s end, she’d notched 6 goals and 3 assists—including the brace in Seattle that netted the Thorns their first-ever win at Memorial.

The best part? At just 23 years old, she’s only getting started. -KB

5. Henry and Nadim head home

After Vero Boquete’s departure at the end of 2014, Thorns fans learned not to get too attached to big international signings. We all saw these departures looming, but it still hurt.

Amandine Henry, over the course of her two years here, was a major reason for the Thorns’ success. Henry is widely hailed as the best defensive midfielder in the women’s game, and she proved she deserves that title, again and again. She rarely lost a duel, displayed unparalleled passing range and accuracy, and even scored a few nice goals in her time here. Plus, she turned out to be just the kind of weird goofball who fit in great in the Rose City:

Nadim, meanwhile, came aboard expected to score goals, and she did, but she turned out to be more than a pure striker. She had some world-class moments out wide, had a tremendous work rate, and famously missed just one penalty kick in her whole Thorns career. Then, of course, there’s Nadim, the person, a living refutation to xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment: a whip-smart Muslim woman who swears like a sailor, speaks nine languages, and is close to wrapping up her time at medical school—and is alive to do all that because she and her family were granted asylum in Denmark.

How remarkable that for two short years, we had them both. -KB

4. Breaking the curse of Memorial

Since moving from Starfire at the end of the 2013 season, the Seattle Reign bossed Thorns FC around Memorial Stadium like a big ol’ boss. Between April 2014 and July 2017 the toll was five matches, four Seattle wins. In those five games, Seattle outscored Portland 14-2, including 5-nil and 3-nil beatdowns in 2014 and 2015, and a 2-nil whipping in early 2017.

So when Thorns FC traveled up the interstate this August for the final meeting with Seattle, coach and team were looking at having to overcome the accumulated weight of a truly brutal string of bad matches and poor results. Another ugly beating at Memorial risked sending the Thorns’ season cartwheeling off-track.

Instead, a combination of relentless Portland pressure, appalling Seattle defending, the lack of Megan Rapinoe, and the fierce opportunism of Hayley Raso’s brace, hammered out a dominating win; the 2-1 scoreline flattered a Seattle team that looked punchless and adrift most of the match. The win helped seal the Thorns’ playoff run-in and fired another torpedo into Seattle’s sinking season. The Curse was broken, and broken with a shout. -JL

3. The diminution of Allie Long

Long started last season full of promise. She came into camp in April a veteran leader of a team that was widely seen as a top-two finisher.

Long started the first six matches of the season, playing as a sort of hybrid defensive midfielder/box-to-box midfielder with Lindsey Horan and, after Matchday 5, Amandine Henry. Parsons’ idea seemed to be that either Long and Horan (or Long and Henry) would alternate, one dropping deep as a pure six while the other player pushed up.

It sorta worked. For a while. The first signs of trouble began to emerge late in May, but it was in July that Long missed Matchdays 17 and 18—for an unexplained “excused absence”—and after that, Long’s season spiraled down rapidly. Her only starts after that were at forward on Matchdays 21 and 22, when she played poorly. By the playoffs she was an afterthought; Long came in for just the final nine minutes of the semifinal, and the last minute of the final.

Long’s form had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t start over Henry, Horan, Sinclair, or Heath, and even as a sub she was below Brynjarsdottir. One of the four original 2013 champion Thorns, Allie Long ended the 2017 championship season sitting on the far end of the bench. -JL

2. Tobin’s injury odyssey

Tobin Heath didn’t just have a good 2016—she had an amazing 2016, setting the record for most assists in a season and winning U.S. Soccer player of the year. Her performance that season set expectations for 2017 high, with Parsons planning to build his offense around her.

It was in March that Heath was first reported to be out of the national team camp for the SheBelieves Cup with what was called a “minor back injury.” She kept missing camps, and then missed NWSL preseason, seemingly perpetually a few weeks away from returning. Heath told the media in May, “you guys never know anything”—but as it turns out, neither did the Thorns staff, who announced her anticipated return to the team repeatedly. She eventually left for Los Angeles to rehabilitate with national team staff. Heath ended up being injured for a full seven months in total, not making her first start until the second-to-last week of the regular season.

In the context of a general injury crisis that saw the team fail to fill their bench several times, Heath was missed the most. Her absence changed everything about the way the Thorns played in 2017: the rest of the team stepped up to play greater roles rather than just looking to her. Horan and Sinclair stepped up to create goals, and the extra spot opened up on the team ushered Raso onto the field and into the hearts of the fans. Heath will return in 2018 to a team that has matured and improved as a unit in order to cope with her absence. -TN

1. Let’s make a constellation

The 2016 season ended with the Thorns in tears at Providence Park, undone by aggressively physical play at the hands of the Flash and incompetent refereeing. For 2017, the team theme was “UNFINISHED BUSINESS” as the Thorns faced the relocated and rebranded Flash for the title.

The 2017 edition had the Thorns matching the now-Courage for aggressively physical play. The referees were better but the bodies still hit the floor. Lindsey Horan scored early in the second half and the Thorns were able to make the goal stand up. Emily Menges’ last-ditch block of Jess McDonald’s “sure” goal was the standout moment of the match and emblematic of the Thorns’ total determination to win.

Ugly trophy in hand, the Thorns celebrated with the traveling Riveters on the terrace and in the bar. The next day they arrived in Portland to a hero’s welcome by the homebound Riveters, followed by an epic rally at Providence Park. We all learned the tale of the ice bear and then ordered our UNFINISHED BUSINESS scarves. While there wasn’t a parade, there was an official proclamation of recognition from the City Council.

The trophy case now displays three pieces of silverware from the team’s short history. With most of the team’s core players returning, 2018 holds the promise of more. -RH

What were your biggest moments? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!