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Thorns Down Under: What I did on my Winter Vacation

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W-League Rd 6 - Canberra v Brisbane
Hayley Raso never stops.
Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images

It hasn’t been what you might call a slow NWSL offseason: between two-time championship winning FC Kansas City folding and being replaced by the Utah Royals, an exciting finish to NCAA soccer this past weekend, and some exciting international friendlies, there’s plenty to keep any Thorns fan busy—not to mention plenty of MLS drama besides. You might be forgiven for skipping out on some of our players’ offseason Australian vacations. That would be a mistake.

The W-League is fast-paced, physical and competitive league stacked with international experience and a really scary selection of young Australian talent. It’s a lot of fun to watch. For NWSL players, it’s been a place to go to raise their profile and take their game to the next level. Sofia Huerta used a very strong W-League performance last season to cement her claim for a national team spot.

The Thorns on loan to the W-League are the two Aussies—Hayley Raso and Ashleigh Sykes—joined by Celeste Boureille, Emily Sonnett and Britt Eckerstrom, players with something to prove to someone, whether it’s Mark Parsons or Jill Ellis. It’s worth watching for sure to see how our players measure up against some of the best in the world, and you might even get some insight into how the Thorns will line up next year.

Stumptown will be covering the W-League games we can watch and keeping readers up to date with how our players are doing every Monday after W-League weekends.

Hayley Raso, Brisbane Roar

What a year it’s been for Hayley Raso—not a starter for club or country at the start of the season, and at the end of the year, the Riveters player of the season and an established player for an extremely talented Matildas team that look like they can beat anyone in the world. Raso has always had the ability to run for 90 minutes; what has changed to make her a world-class player is her ever-improving football ability. Every time she plays, her reading of the game gets a little better, her crossing improves. Now and again she still runs frantically into dead ends or plays a ball behind someone, but the extra match experience is doing wonders to improve her decision making.

The only concern for Raso is exhaustion. She’s just had her first full NWSL season, and combined with regular starts for the national team and Brisbane, you wonder if at some point she might run out of steam. One of the possible reasons the Chicago Red Stars faded in the late season was that they had a full eight regular starters play complete seasons in the W-League as well as the NWSL. While it made them a lot better as a unit, they were also completely out of gas by the end, which really showed in their semifinal against North Carolina. Raso’s certainly not going to go into games with anything less than full commitment—all you can ask is that her coaches manage her well.

Celeste Boureille, Brisbane Roar

Boureille is the ideal player for a W-League winter—a player just outside her first team who wants to make her case for regular starts. Thorns fans will know Boureille as a player who can come in and do a job wherever there’s an absence in the defensive line: she started a lot of games at right back in Katherine Reynolds’ absence this last season and looked solid, if unspectacular. Her flexibility in being able to play across the back line ensures she’s always going to have a place in the squad, but in order to become a regular starter she has to demonstrate more capacity in a specific position.

In Brisbane, she looks like a commanding presence at the heart of the midfield, breaking up play effectively and recycling balls quickly back into attack. The caveat is that Brisbane are such a good team that teams often drop deep against them, so we don’t get a chance to see how Boureille reacts under the kind of pressure the Thorns can face in the NWSL. Whether she can fill the Amandine Henry-shaped hole in our midfield is still an open question.

If Boureille is a bit underrated on the Thorns, she certainly isn’t in Australia, where everyone is in love with her. One of Fox’s commentators is her former coach at Canberra who takes every possible opportunity to sing the praises of her ability and work rate, and Brisbane fans even have a song for her. It rhymes Boureille with “hooray”.

Emily Sonnett, Sydney FC

It’s hard to imagine that Sonnett would have agreed to spend the offseason in Australia had she known she was going to rejoin the US national team camp, and while she must be delighted to be back in the squad (and in contention to retain her USWNT paycheck) she’s had to limit her commitments to her loan team in order to sit on the national team bench. Meanwhile, she’s racked up about 54 hours of inflight movies and Sydney FC are languishing in the bottom half of the ladder (Australian for “league table”) without her.

The really disappointing thing is that when she has played, she’s been hugely entertaining. For the Thorns, Sonnett isn’t exactly a classic defender—she’s aggressive in pursuit of the ball to the occasional detriment of her defensive positioning, she gets strikers to foul her (most hilariously Alex Morgan), and is more or less constantly flying around the pitch. The surprise of watching her play in the W-League is learning that Sonnett is actually the restrained Sonnett: in the 45 minutes she’s played for Sydney on television, she regularly carried the ball out of defense, played some one-twos and played as a striker for a few minutes. She even managed to talk her way into taking a penalty, which she scored. If she can continue playing like that despite all the disruption, Sydney games are a must-watch.

Ashleigh Sykes, Canberra United

Sykes came to Portland last year on the back of her Golden Boot-winning season in Canberra, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect her to play on the front line. Indeed, Lifetime’s commentators last season all did until it was evident she was lining up as a deep-lying right midfielder. She seems to have made that position a permanent home, which probably makes sense for her career—the Matildas are stacked up front, whereas the right side of their defense is in a bit of a transitional period. Hayley Raso even played a few games there for Australia this season. The fact that it’s also a question mark for the Thorns is a plus as well.

As a result of the positional shift, she seems unlikely to continue her goalscoring antics from last season, but it isn’t for lack of trying. Canberra is a team that switches their players all over the field depending on how play is going, and she’s spent a lot of time putting in good work higher up the field on the right, as well as further back. She’s only scored once so far this season (against Britt Eckerstrom!) but she’s been doing everything else very well. She picked up an assist against league-leading Perth Glory, got into good positions and got good shots away.

Britt Eckerstrom, Newcastle Jets

Goalkeeping in the W-League is a high standard, with arguably more quality across the board than European leagues, and goalkeepers are expected to do a lot. It’s not uncommon to see W-League keepers well outside the box when their teams are in possession helping their team keep the ball. Consequentially, they sometimes make mistakes in possession of the kind that would make Aly Wagner tear her hair out—as she frequently did commentating on Adrianna Franch’s play with the Thorns in the early part of last season.

Compared with some W-League keepers, Eckerstrom has a more conservative role in a Newcastle team that plays fairly direct. The quality of her long distribution is high, she looks good coming off her line to sweep up through balls, and she’s imposing in the air as well. In a defensively leaky Newcastle team, she’s seeing plenty of shots, and looks decent under pressure despite being stranded by her defense at times. We don’t yet know a lot about how she looks with the ball at her feet, though, and she may not get a chance to practice this as long as Newcastle keep their current style.

Overall, she looks solid, and though its not a big enough body of evidence to unseat the best goalkeeper in the NWSL quite yet, Eckerstrom looks more than capable of stepping in should Franch start to get called up for the national team for next year’s World Cup qualifiers.

Weekend in Review

Brisbane Roar 1, Canberra United 0

A game between two teams at the top of the ladder was completely bossed by Brisbane. Canberra found it very difficult to keep the ball, and Boureille was a big part of that, intercepting passes well, cleaning up loose balls, and playing simple passes out wide and to her more creative teammates. She very nearly got her first goal of the season with an excellent shot from outside the box, but for the most part sat deep and looked to retain possession.

Raso, meanwhile, was her usual nonstop self, with a lot of effective running on the right. Had Brisbane’s finishing been any better she would have had three assists: the quality of her crossing was very high. At no point in her playing life does Raso ever switch off from playing incredibly hard for her team, and she often makes something out of nothing—at one point she chased down a ball that was being shepherded out for a goal kick, and she managed to get around the defender and win a corner of the onrushing goalkeeper. The flipside of this is that she earned a yellow card for a bad tackle on Ashleigh Sykes. Another late challenge on her Portland teammate caused Sykes to have to leave the game early with an injured ankle. No pity shown, even for fellow Thorns.

Sykes battled and held up the ball well under adverse conditions, having one of Canberra’s better looking shots from distance, but it wasn’t her or her team’s day. She was under Brisbane pressure almost as soon as she received the ball, and showed some skill to turn out of it, but when she did, her teammates often weren’t available for a good pass. It’s hard to be too harsh on her coming up against what looks like the best team in the league on form.

Sydney FC 2, Melbourne Victory 0 (not streamed)

Emily Sonnett returned to the Sydney lineup after getting over her jetlag and helped Syndey to their second win of the season.

Newcastle Jets: Bye Week

Britt Eckerstrom and the Newcastle Jets took the week off.

Next week

Ashleigh Sykes, if she can recover from her ankle injury, will play for Canberra against Melbourne City next weekend.

Emily Sonnett and Sydney FC will be travelling across town to Western Sydney Wanderers as they continue to try and dig themselves out of their early season hole.

Meanwhile, Hayley Raso and Celeste Boureille are taking on Newcastle Jets for Brisbane, which should be plenty of opportunity for Britt Eckerstrom to demonstrate her credentials in goal.

How to watch

Oz.com carries streams of some of the W-League games broadcast on Fox in Australia. They offer a free trial for a month, and it’s $4.99 a month for W-League games after that. Fox has great commentators, and sometimes they leave their mics on during halftime. They say some hilarious stuff.

However, if a game isn’t on Oz, options are often thin. Some are broadcast over the radio, and clubs provide minute-by-minute reports on twitter.