Dig up your scarf. Rest your voice. Get excited. The 2017 NWSL season is almost upon us, and it opens this Saturday at noon with a (nationally televised!) Thorns home match against Orlando.
Last season was something of a breakout year for Portland, a team that's always excelled in terms of fan support and talent, but often struggled with consistency, especially when it came to getting results on the road. They picked up head coach Mark Parsons from the Washington Spirit, a manager with a clear vision for the team who excels in getting buy-in from his players. And thanks largely to a trade that sent Alex Morgan to Orlando, the Thorns were even more stacked than usual last season, and they've retained all the talent they picked up in the wake of that move. After winning the 2016 NWSL Shield but falling in the playoff semifinals to Western New York, the Thorns are on a mission to win it all this year—and don't be surprised if they do just that. Here's a peek ahead at what the season could hold for the Thorns:
2016 Record: 12-3-5
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in semis by Western New York Flash
Key additions: none
Key losses: For strictly on-field purposes, none. Michelle Betos was a big loss from a fan love angle, though, and I don't say that to be dismissive.
Projected starting XI: A 4-3-3 with Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds in the back, Amandine Henry, Allie Long, and Lindsey Horan in midfield, and Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, and Nadia Nadim up front. That's assuming Heath and Horan are both healthy by this weekend, which isn't a sure thing at this point. Adrianna Franch looks to be the starting keeper, at least for now.
Major trophies won all-time: NWSL Championship 2013, NWSL Shield 2016
What we think of our team: The Thorns are the inaugural league champs and the NWSL's biggest success story. Since the arrival of Mark Parsons last season, they've grown into the dominant side their stacked roster always promised but never consistently delivered.
What outsiders think of our team: “NWSL Shield winners the Portland Thorns have an impressive fan base and perhaps the best home atmosphere in the league. They had a dominant 2016 season featuring a 12 game unbeaten streak under first year manager Mark Parsons and should still be a force to reckon with in 2017 especially with few international obligations taking key players from the squad over the summer.“
Biggest Rival, and why: The perennial answer is the Reign, because, duh, Seattle.
This year, though, it's the North Carolina Courage who have it coming. The team formerly known as the Western New York Flash humiliated the Thorns in their own house in the playoffs, and I was left with a ticket to Houston to cry into my beer as Sabrina D'Angelo saved Ali Krieger's penalty kick.
The Courage are, in many ways, Portland's ideological opposite. They're fast and scrappy where Portland is collected and technical. They have youth and athleticism where Portland has experience and world-class talent.
It's not that I don't respect what the Flash did last season. They started 2016 as a team that everybody expected to spend the season languishing near the bottom of the table, and kicked and sprinted and clawed their way to the championship. They beat the Thorns fair and square, the only team other than Seattle to do that while Portland had all their starters.
All that is true, but here’s the thing: Portland is better. They lost to a worse team that made the right decisions on the right day. Playing a possession game well, like the Thorns do when they’re at their best, is harder than forcing a turnover and putting on a burst of speed at the right time. It takes skill and cohesiveness and real teamwork. The Thorns have a bone to pick not only for themselves, but to prove that skilled isn't just better to look at, but better, period, than fast.
There's also the Paul Riley issue. He spent two years in Portland fiddling with a three-back and making nonsensical personnel choices, then went to Buffalo and won it all on the first try. Ouch.
Finally, the Courage seem so nice. Mark Parsons can show up in a black button-up as many times as he wants, but if the Thorns are going to fulfill their destiny as league villain, they're going to need to make Lynn Williams sad.
Best social media follow: Merritt Paulson, the spiciest owner in the league. You have to be there when he @s Sydney LeRoux in his post-game smack-talk, or gets bitten by a literal alligator and tweets a photo—if for no other reason than to get the screencap before he deletes it.
Our season hinges on…: The team's adaptability. They lost in the semifinals last year because they couldn't adjust to the Flash's high-pressing, direct play—and they should have seen it coming, since they very nearly let a 3-0 lead slip away when the two teams met just three weeks before that. Beautiful combination play is beautiful, but sometimes you have to know when to just kick the dang thing.
Why this year won’t be like last year: As long as they stay healthy, there's no reason to think the Thorns won't be even more of a force than they were last season. Their shield-winning roster is almost unchanged, plus they won't be losing half their starting lineup to the Olympics mid-season. They're going to hit the ground running, and maintain their momentum through the course of the season. Even if they do have to contend with some absences, they look to have more depth than they have in previous years. Celeste Boureille and Mallory Weber both put in serious work in the offseason, and Mana Shim had as good a game against Houston two weeks ago as she has in a couple years. Watch out, y'all.
Key player (and why): You could make an argument for almost any of Portland's starters, but I want to talk about Allie Long.
Long has been at the center of this team since the beginning, usually as a prolific goal-scorer, but things may shape up differently this year. It's not clear exactly how Parsons plans on deploying her, but if preseason is any indication, it looks like she could be spending a lot of time sitting deeper, trading attacking and defensive roles with Amandine Henry (another hint to how Long sees herself as a player, whatever it's worth, is her much-professed admiration for Sergio Busquets).
I don't totally understand the impulse to put her anywhere but in an attacking and playmaking role, where she excels—especially with Henry on the field. But in any case, it's going to be interesting to see how this shapes up.
Predicted finish in 2017 (place in standings): 1. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Wild prediction: Meg Morris, roaring back after having her 2016 season cut short by injury, will be Portland's top scorer.
Also, the whole back line will roll up to the season opener with topknots like Kling’s.