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Red Smoke Radio Presents: The first annual Smokies

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Your Thorns beat writers dole out the first-ever — let’s call them alternative — club awards

Nikita Taparia

Yesterday the club released the team awards (which are great!), but Stumptown Footy and Red Smoke Radio felt as though the awards handed out by the team and the league didn’t reflect the full team experience over the course of the year. To really describe the experience of following the team, we needed to develop other awards that showcased both the depth and breadth of talent up and down the team.

Your Thorns beat writers present, for your consideration: the Smokies.

The Jacks Award for Excellence in Social Media: Midge Purce

Midge Purce may not be the Thorns’ Most Online player, but her off-field shenanigans were truly historic this season, especially in the later months. Her Instagram stories are the stuff of legend, giving us numerous small glimpses into the Thorns locker room: the team eating pickles, Emily Menges alley-ooping some trash into the garbage can — as well as some excellent cross-club content, like the time Purce was captured on camera having just lost a game of Settlers of Catan that included Jeremy Ebobisse and Kendall McIntosh. The story of the season, of course, was the time Kelli Hubly started a fire in the oven and Britt Eckerstrom swooped in with the fire extinguisher, all while Elizabeth Ball calmly sat at the kitchen table eating in the background.

Purce’s magnum opus, thankfully, was archived for posterity in an actual Instagram post, a reimagining of Vanessa Carlton’s 2002 single “A Thousand Miles” in which she, Hubly, and Ifeoma Onumonu boast about having stolen the listener’s man, and proceed to dunk relentlessly on said listener. This is top-tier content, folks.

— Katelyn Best

“Sergio” Memorial Super Sub Award: Caitlin Foord

You people wanted us to give this one to Midge Purce, by a pretty good margin. I get why. I also like Purce. She’s an exciting young player with a big upside, and if she keeps growing, she has a bright future. I don’t think she deserves this award right now, though. Her contributions were just too inconsistent: On a good day, she dazzled with her pace and skill on the dribble, injecting energy into the right side of the attack. On bad days, though, she looked unfocused and undisciplined; the moments she fell asleep on defense outweighing her offensive contributions.

The other two contenders were Andressinha and Caitlin Foord. I gave serious consideration to Andressinha. Her outing against Chicago in August may not have fit the classical super-sub mold, but it certainly changed the game, perhaps more than any other single substitution this season. Coming on for Celeste Boureille, Andressinha was able to unlock the midfield for the Thorns with her passing, almost immediately setting in motion the sequence that led to Portland’s first goal.

Ultimately, though, that single-game performance, spectacular as it was, isn’t enough. The Thorns just haven’t figured out how to use Andressinha in a way that brings that kind of performance out consistently.

So, we’re left with Foord. In a couple senses, she’s a strange choice for this award: She didn’t score a goal, and — more to the point — she obviously belongs in the starting lineup, but in every other sense, she fits this description best. After sitting out most of the season, she made an immediate impact in her first outings as a second-half sub, completely changing the the game when she slotted in up front for Ana Crnogorcevic. With her combination of pace, relentless energy, and excellent vision, she’s the archetype of both the super sub and the mythical “Thorns forward.”

— Katelyn Best

Best New Signing: Ellie Carpenter

We decided to side with the fans on this one. There’s an equally strong case for Foord, but we didn’t want to double up. The dark horse in this race, for me, is Crnogorcevic. Despite her resume, the Swiss forward didn’t turn out to be a consistent scoring threat, but she wound up contributing in ways we might not have anticipated early on: Not only is she the top wide defender on the bench, but her high-level experience and good-humored, welcoming personality made her a great addition to a young locker room.

With all that said, Carpenter is a fairly easy choice. At just 18 years old, she’s a remarkably confident and reliable defender. Despite coming from a less competitive league, she seemed to have no trouble adjusting to NWSL pace and immediately established herself as the Thorns’ best choice at right back. The most exciting thing about Carpenter is her age: If she’s this good at 18, how good might she look in two, three, or five years? This is a player who could have a long, successful career with the Thorns.

— Katelyn Best

Most Improved: Celeste Boureille

At the end of the 2017 season, after getting shifted around across the defense covering for whatever the team was missing at any given time, Boureille found herself on the outside, looking in. Her 2018 emergence as a lock for the starting eleven in the Thorns has been as unexpected as it has been delightful. She could have been any one of the thousands of undrafted college players to never see a minute of professional soccer. Boureille brought an incredible work ethic to one of the most competitive rosters in the league, however, and the hard work she’d been putting in for more than two years finally paid off.

Fans and media have relentlessly compared her negatively to Amandine Henry because, in their minds, the two players swapped places. Even from a strict personnel situation this isn’t true: Boureille wasn’t first choice to play in midfield and had to win her spot from Andressinha, one of the league’s best in 2017. Boureille also isn’t a player who will do everything on the field. She isn’t going to make a run into the box, and even on set-pieces she’s looking for a flick on rather than a header at goal. She’s there to facilitate, to keep the offense ticking, and to read opponents’ attacks. It isn’t flashy, and it’s not always so exciting, but it was essential for the Thorns this season.

The thing is that playing alongside a midfielder as dominant as Lindsay Horan (more about her next) doesn’t offer her many opportunities to do more in attack, and she looked rusty when Horan was forced off the ball, and she had to create offense for the team herself. That’s room to grow though, and if she’s allowed to, she could get even better next year.

— Tyler Nguyen

Team MVP: Lindsay Horan

Could it have been anyone else? She’s the MVP for her team and her league this year — and for good reason. Horan was already pretty darn good last year. She pushed the team through difficult stretches of the season, perfecting her late runs into the box. This season, she became the team’s go-to scorer from deep in midfield. Everyone knows about her unmarkability on set pieces, but more important was her ability to read attacking plays as they developed and arrive just in time to put a fierce shot on goal. The Thorns’ whole offense would eventually be set up for her to succeed, with forwards deployed to hold the ball long enough for her to arrive from deep areas.

Are there limits to what Horan and the Thorns can do when she runs the team by herself? We don’t know the answer to that one quite yet, but the final was pretty strong evidence for this thesis. Maybe more teams will just throw all their spare players at her when she has the ball, and maybe more Thorns players are going to need to step up to be comfortable on the ball in crunch time. But this season has made her impossible to ignore, no matter where she is on the field. 2018 will be remembered as the year that Horan truly became great.

— Tyler Nguyen