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Roses and Thorns: Rejoice, for the Drought is Ended

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Tobin Heath is back, finally. Plus: Franch sets a record, McCall Zerboni weighs in, and some notes on the salary cap

It’s been another busy weekend, between the 0-0 slugfest on Saturday and Sunday’s announcement about Nadia Nadim and Amandine Henry’s looming departure. Let’s chat, shall we?

A rose to AD Franch, the new league record-holder for single-season shutouts, after getting her eleventh against Orlando this weekend.

Goalkeeper stats are difficult. A keeper with a lot of saves isn’t merely a great keeper, but more likely, one playing behind a poor defense; conversely, a keeper with a lot of shutouts probably has an airtight back line in front of her.

So we should be cautious, when congratulating Franch, to give credit where credit is due. It’s an accolade that should go as much to the indomitable Emilies, Katherine Reynolds, Meghan Klingenberg, Celeste Boureille, Amandine Henry, and everybody else who’s done their defensive duty this season, as to Franch herself. As long as we’re here, we might as well note that the success of the season as a whole rests largely on the backs of those same players, who held enough offenses in check to compensate for an often-laggy Thorns attack.

On the other hand, none of that should diminish the fact that Franch is a legitimately world-class keeper. A number of times, especially early in the season, she made up for some serious defensive errors. Emily Sonnett’s slip-up against Kansas City back in May, letting Sydney Leroux get one-on-one with Franch, comes to mind.

Franch inherits this record from Nicole Barnhart, one of the all-time greats in the league—and another keeper, it should be noted, who plays behind a famously strong defense in Kansas City.

A thorn to Portland’s midfield, which, top to bottom, had one of the weaker first halves we’ve seen in a while.

This game, which was billed as a highlight of the season, turned out to instead be a showcase of ineffectual route one ball by both teams. Nobody could find anybody else; more than once, Sinclair went ignored, wide open, in the middle of the pitch. When the ball did find her, she was often left isolated, and at least once turned it over with a poorly-judged pass.

When plinking the ball around the midfield didn’t work, Portland, noticing Orlando’s high line, went direct—except Nadim and Hayley Raso were both a step off all day. With Raso, at least, that off-ness is understandable: she’d just flown, after all, to the bottom half of the globe and back in the space of about a week, and played soccer while she was there. In fact, it’s probably fair to assume that ridiculous travel schedule had something to do with the rough quality of the game as a whole. Orlando had five players on the field who traveled to Australia and back for international duty. I’d have been asleep on the field.

More troublesome than the lump-it-forward play, though, was the chippiness of the whole affair. Let’s be completely open and honest with ourselves and admit that Allie Long probably deserved a second yellow for taking down Camila from behind in the 38th minute. Let’s also admit that Raso didn’t play totally clean.

Of course, Camila wasn’t free from sin here, herself, nor was Alex Morgan. In short, it was yet another match where the overall temperature seemed to slowly ratchet up while referee Christopher Spivey mostly uselessly watched things play out around him.

A rose to all of us, for surviving a Tobin Heath-less season until Saturday.

Heath subbed in for Nadia Nadim in the 60th minute and quickly made her impact felt. A Thorns side that had spent most of the game trying to bypass Orlando’s midfield and defense with balls over the top suddenly had a whole new set of options available to them. Not two minutes after subbing on, Heath dribbled down the left wing, drawing the attention of three defenders, then played a pass to Christine Sinclair in the space she’d opened up.

Portland is in second place in the league, but at times, it’s looked like they’ve gotten into that position almost in spite of themselves. They’ve certainly had some stretches where they’ve looked like a championship-quality team, and we’ve seen, at times, great individual performances by the likes of Lindsey Horan, Raso, and Sinclair. But adding Heath to that mix throws into bright lights the fact that they’ve had a hole in their starting lineup this entire time. And fortunately, fears about Heath being rusty, or having trouble reintegrating with the team, look, so far, to be unfounded.

For a glimpse at what could have been this season, go back and watch the 82nd minute, when Heath, Horan, and Sinclair arrange themselves into an equilateral triangle in the center circle. Horan passes to Sinc, who takes one touch to pass to Heath, who adroitly flicks the ball back to an onrushing Horan. Heath then runs into the gap between Monica and Toni Pressley, and Horan’s attempt at a through ball up to her is only interrupted by what should have been called a foul on Camila.

There’s simply not another player on the Thorns’ roster who can create as consistently as Heath can. For all the appeal of nutmegs and rainbows and “Tobin Heath things,” simpler moments like that one-touch flick, or the pass in to Sinc, are what make her—even now, with the season all but over—a crucial piece for this team.

A thorn to the NWSL’s salary rules, which make it impossible to keep international stars around for more than a year or two.

The Thorns will lose two starters, Nadim and Henry, at the end of the 2017 season. Henry has always been fairly clear that to her, Portland was an adventure, not a long-term destination, and I don’t think many people expected her to stick around past the end of her two-year contract. With the next World Cup cycle looming, a desire to be closer to home also surely factored in for both players.

But the financial bottom line is obvious. $41,700—the NWSL’s maximum salary—isn’t bad for six months of work, especially in the world of women’s soccer. More relevant than that number, however, is the team salary cap of $315,000. Unlike with MLS, there’s no NWSL players’ union to release a list of salaries, but some simple math reveals that few, if any, players are likely actually making anywhere near that maximum.

According to the roster rules, the team cap must be spread across a minimum of 18 players. As RJ Allen wrote for Backline Soccer in July, subtract $41,700 from $315,000, and you’re left with $273,300. That gives the remaining 17 players roughly $16,000 each—just above the minimum of $15,000. If we were to pretend that Nadim and Henry were both making the maximum, that would leave less than the minimum salary for each remaining player.

But wait: Portland has somewhere between four and six federation-subsidized players. Doesn’t that give them more leeway with the salary cap? Well, no. If a team is paying fewer than 18 due to the number of federation players on their roster, as the Thorns are, minimum salary spots are added to the budget in order to calculate the cap.

In short, it’s numerically possible that either Nadim or Henry is making the league maximum, but not both—and it’s unlikely that either is making that much.

I should be clear that in principle, I’m absolutely pro-salary cap. In large part, these roster rules are what make the NWSL the top women’s league in the world. The Thorns might have the advantage of good facilities, a strong organization, and an atmosphere that every player wants to experience, but they don’t have a financial advantage over teams like Kansas City or Sky Blue. That’s why every game is a real game, where on any given day, any team could come out on top. When top internationals are attracted to the NWSL, the league's high level of competition is what draws them.

It’s also important to remember that spending limits have kept the league solvent, where its predecessors have gone down in flames. But one day, it sure would be nice for the Thorns to be able to offer players more than just the atmosphere.

A rose to Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds, for being named the Thorns’ representatives in the NWSL Players’ Association. Menges will also serve as treasurer on the group’s executive board.

The Players’ Association itself, which was announced back in May, is old news. This announcement, however, is a glimpse at the actual shape the group will take. It’s good to see two stalwarts in Portland’s defense playing a part in what’s hopefully a step toward a real players’ union.