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Open Questions: Looking Ahead to the Thorns’ 2018 Season

With the Thorns’ best-ever year in the rearview mirror, the new season is closing in fast and the pressure is on. Although Portland has been very successful over the two years of Mark Parsons’s tenure, 2018 poses new questions for him as a coach. Having built a championship-winning roster that changed relatively little between 2016 and 2017, he’s having to contend with some major losses: Nadia Nadim, Amandine Henry, Allie Long, and Ashleigh Sykes have all moved on, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir is out for at least the 2018 season.

Much of the team’s core, though, is intact: Meghan Klingenberg, Katherine Reynolds, and both Emilies return from a defense that’s been the best in the league two years in a row. Lindsey Horan, one of the best players in the NWSL last year, returns to the central midfield. Christine Sinclair is still Christine Sinclair, Hayley Raso, hopefully, will continue the upward trajectory she started on last season, and—knock on wood—Tobin Heath is expected to be healthy in time for the season.

Although, as usual, Portland has picked up some big names over the offseason, not everything has gone according to plan: Caitlin Foord, the 23-year-old Australian who was expected to be central to the Thorns’ offense, sustained a major foot injury in a W-League semifinal. That brings us to our first question:

Just how damaging could Foord’s injury be for the Thorns?

The Thorns’ single biggest weakness last year was up front. Early on, they looked flat and directionless in the attack, scoring just three goals from the run of play in the first six weeks of the season.

Although they eventually adjusted their formation and figured out how to score consistently, they did so without a goal-scoring center forward, instead deploying Christine Sinclair as an attacking midfielder who linked up with two wide forwards—some combination of Hayley Raso, Nadia Nadim, and, for a brief moment in time, Tobin Heath.

“Teams playing us probably felt,” Parsons told me at the draft, “that’s the one area we don’t want the Thorns to get better.” Of course, at the time of the draft, the context was completely different: Portland had just acquired Caitlin Foord, who Parsons absolutely gushed about, saying, “[she] has the potential to be one of the top two, three, most dynamic, best players in this league.”

Parsons’s intention, at that time, seemed to be to focus the attack around Foord, deploying her as a central forward who could both score goals and drop back to create chances.

“The dynamic ability that [Foord] brings in the front line is probably something we haven’t seen at this club,” he said last week at training. “What [she] brings is her ability to relentlessly work off the ball, thread in behind, then, when she needs to, break free, like we saw on the goal before she was injured. She can beat people on the dribble. She really has it all.”

Having lost Foord until, most likely, the final weeks of the season, essentially puts the Thorns’ offense back at square one. They haven’t signed another proven forward. Their three starting attacking players are likely Heath, Sinclair, and Raso—leaving them with the same setup they had last year, minus Nadim.

So what happens next? Parsons is vague in answering that question, naming a list of players he says “fit the athletic, dynamic mold” of Foord. It’s a list that also happens to be his entire pool of forwards: Meg Morris, Mallory Weber, Heath, Midge Purce, Ifeoma Onumonu, Raso, even Simone Charley, a non-roster invitee out of Vanderbilt. “Whether they have the technical and tactical ability, we’re going to find out in the next four, five weeks,” he says. “We’re losing quality, without a doubt.”

Here’s the thing: an attack centered around a player like Foord doesn’t work without a player like Foord, and none of those players are like Foord. Heath, obviously, has the technical ability, but she’s otherwise a very different player. Raso certainly has pace and mobility to spare, and she’s shown she can score, but she doesn’t have Foord’s technical brilliance and her natural position is out wide. Morris, in her limited NWSL experience, has looked pacey and aggressive, but won’t likely morph into the focal point of the Thorns’ offense, especially as she’s still feeling the effects of her gruesome 2016 hip injury. Purce mostly played out wide for Boston, whether in the midfield, up front, or even as an outside back.

Bennett Dewan

Maybe Morris, Purce, or Onumonu steps up and turns out to be a viable starting center forward. If not, the success of the offense seems to hinge largely on two factors: whether Heath shows up healthy, and how Andressinha ends up getting deployed. On the Heath factor, Parsons is cautiously optimistic, saying he expects her in Portland around the second week of March. “I think it’s realistic she’ll be playing,” he said.

The Andressinha issue gets at another big question Portland is facing going into the season:

How do the Thorns compensate for losing Amandine Henry?

There’s no replacing Amandine Henry, because there’s no other player in the world like her. “We got two years of the very best in the world, in her prime,” says Parsons. “It takes a lot to get over losing Mandy.” Nonetheless, her departure leaves a hole in the midfield that has to be filled one way or another.

The 2017 midfield didn’t deploy Henry as a true holding six, instead using her as one of two eights, alongside Lindsey Horan. Rather than looking to replicate either Henry or Horan, Parsons picked up a very good, but very different midfielder in Andressinha.

In Houston, Andressinha often dictated the Dash’s offense, roaming throughout the central midfield, serving as the link between the defense or defensive midfield and the attack, and playing pinpoint passes in through opposing back lines. She’s a central playmaker of a kind Parsons hasn’t had in Portland.

Where the Brazilian ends up getting played, and whether she shows up in form, has potential ripple effects throughout the team. If she was used as a ten, that could free up Christine Sinclair to push higher. On the other hand, even with the addition of a creative central midfielder, Sinc’s current best position might still be in the midfield; if Parsons deploys her as an eight, which he says is his tentative plan, Sinc could reprise her role as a ten, with Andressinha sitting deeper, alongside Horan.

Depending on the balance of defensive and offensive work Andressinha takes on, the Thorns could also end up playing a true holding midfielder—an option that would give both her and Horan a little more freedom going forward. Angela Salem and Celeste Boureille—who had a great season in the W-League—are both viable options in that role. The interesting one, though, is Emily Sonnett.

“We’ve done it in practice a few times before,” says Parsons. “She can walk in there in a heartbeat and crush it.” Sonnett has the potential to be a true wrecking ball in the midfield, and her speed and passing ability are almost wasted in the back line. If you missed the W-League semifinal pitting Sydney FC against Newcastle Jets, please do yourself a favor and take a look at what Sonnett can do in the attack:

Indeed, looking at the current roster, using Sonnett as a six might not just be the most fun option, but the most logical one: with the addition of a young, forward-looking right back in Ellie Carpenter, Katherine Reynolds could move to center back with Sonnett ahead of her and Emily Menges. Horan and Andressinha would also gain more freedom to get forward with that setup.

As we reach the back line, though, we run into still more open questions:

Who starts on defense, and where?

Parsons is planning to have two defensive setups available: a four-back, and the three-/five-back the Thorns deployed in the latter half of 2017.

With four in the back, assuming Sonnett doesn’t move into the midfield, Katherine Reynolds is probably a lock to start at right back—based on what we know she’s the best pure defender at that position, and with Meghan Klingenberg’s tendency to get exposed going forward, having a player opposite her who prefers to stay home is all but necessary.

Bennett Dewan

This pool of defenders, though, might be better-suited to the triple-center back setup, with Menges, Sonnett, and Reynolds reprising their 2017 roles. Portland has no shortage of right backs who can get involved in the attack. “Go to five,” says Parsons, “it now suits Ellie and Midge and Cel [Boureille] a lot more, because they’re able to get forward.” I’d put Carpenter in that same group.

Much depends, though, on how quickly she adjusts to the league. “While Ellie’s a massive get for us,” says Parsons, “anyone who comes into the league takes time to adjust. Sykes was the best player in the W-League last year, and it took her a month to get used to it—and she’s 26.” The NWSL is a notch above the W-League in terms of speed and physicality, and as good as Carpenter already is, that’s not going to be an easy adjustment. “I don’t think Ellie comes in and plays 90 and kicks someone out,” Parsons says.

The Takeaway

It’s worth mentioning that there are a number of names here with one thing in common: they’ll be missing from the team early in the season. Andressinha will be in Chile for the Copa America until late April. Carpenter and Raso (assuming she’s healthy) are on a similar timetable at the Asian Cup in Jordan. Some combination of Heath, Horan, and Sonnett are likely to get called up for two friendlies against Mexico on April 5 and 8.

Coping with untimely international absences, however, is something Parsons—like most NWSL coaches—is accustomed to by now; and it’s probably better to get those vacancies over with early in the season than have to adjust and readjust mid-season.

Beyond just adjusting for absences, one thing Parsons mentioned more than once was the need to go in with a more flexible mindset than he did last season. You’ll recall that in 2017, the attack was supposed to rely on Heath and Nadim, a continuation of the “we’ve got fucking Tobin Heath” policy of 2016—and that when Heath took almost the entire season to get healthy, a too-slow pivot from that plan nearly buried the Thorns.

“Last year was very closed,” Parsons remembers. “We don’t want to be too open, but we’re trying to be more open, because that hurt us last year.”

Bennett Dewan

That openness could apply to all the questions discussed here and more: Sandra Yu and Gabby Seiler are basically unknown quantities. Players who were depth pieces in past seasons—Boureille, Weber, Morris, and Tyler Lussi—will continue to compete for playing time along with Purce, Salem, and Onumonu. These are players who could start for other teams. If there are still plenty of open questions in how this Thorns team will line up once the full team is healthy and available, one certainty is that the roster is deeper at more positions than it ever has been.

2018 looks promising for the Thorns. What remains to be seen is how, exactly, all the moving pieces fit together and how successfully Parsons can adapt to change—the changes that are over with, the ones in motion, and the ones that will undoubtedly come over the course of the season.