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Roses and Thorns: Taking Stock

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Midge Purce in the Houston Dash preseason game
Nikita Taparia

It was a weird but beautiful three days of preseason games last week at the University of Portland, as the Thorns came in dead last in their own tournament against Chicago, Houston, and the USA U-23s. The atmosphere at Merlo Field was different, but fun. The soccer itself was predictably sloppy—preseason, in a nutshell. Here are a few takeaways from the week:

A rose to the new Thorns from the Boston dispersal draft.

It’s impossible to write this guilt-free, but the three players Portland picked up in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft—Midge Purce, Angela Salem, and Ifeoma Onumonu—are looking like a huge boon for the Thorns.

The Breakers were a bad team for the last three seasons, but as we saw last week, they weren’t a team of bad players. Salem looks, if not necessarily a lock to start, like a very solid role-player in the central midfield. As I wrote before the tournament, the job she ends up taking on will depend on how Mark Parsons decides to set up the midfield—which will shift throughout the season, especially early on. To my eye, though, she was better throughout preseason than Celeste Boureille, who, despite some good moments was largely inconsistent, especially under the high pressure applied by the USA U-23s. Salem was calm and composed in that game, looking like a good option as a holding defensive midfielder, if and when the Thorns end up playing with one.

Onumonu, meanwhile, scored a great goal against the U-23s, picking up a through pass by Lindsey Horan and sending an angled shot to the far post. She looks to have the potential to be a consistent goal-scorer for the Thorns, if she can get good service from the midfield and the wings—something that was lacking in Saturday’s match against Houston.

Ifeoma Onumonu in the Houston Dash preseason game
Kris Lattimore

The breakout star, though, especially on Saturday, was Purce. She played 90 minutes in Ashleigh Sykes’s old spot at right wingback, looking like her life depended on earning a starting spot. Like the rest of the team, she never quite found the right pass in the final third, but she made fools out of Houston’s defense over and over—and had the pace and stamina to get back and defend afterwards.

“Midge has been a massive addition to our team,” said Parsons after the game. “[She’s] been the biggest, best student of the game in [preseason]. Her growth throughout the four weeks has been enormous... She gives us quality on the right side that Kling continues to produce on the left.” Parsons also alluded to the role Purce might play in another tactical setup, saying, “Midge playing in a front line, especially against a nervous back four or back three in game one is also an exciting idea.”

A thorn to the NWSL roster limit.

It’s a tired complaint by now, but the promise of the former Boston players serves to highlight one of the NWSL’s most pressing issues: its ludicrously small roster size. The league’s decision to allow teams to take on former Breakers without counting against the salary cap, roster limit, or international allowance, means this season is serving as a test case for what a bigger limit would look like.

Looking back at this preseason tournament, though, it’s a little painful to imagine how things would have gone without Purce and Onumonu. Adding just three players has changed the team’s outlook substantially, especially in the upcoming stretch of international absences. When Andressinha and Hayley Raso eventually arrive, we’ll get to see what a Portland team that has legitimate choices in most areas of the field looks like. That’s something we’ve really never seen before.

There’s a good reason for the roster limit (money), and unfortunately, there’s always going to be a compromise to strike between the number of players on a roster and the amount each of those players is paid. Expansion is another issue to take into account, so as not to stretch the player pool too thin. As it stands now, though, extending this temporarily-expanded roster size should be a priority for the NWSL, especially as we head into a World Cup year in 2019.

A rose to the W-League.

Not only did the availability of W-League matches sustain me through the winter, but the Australian league is having a visible impact on certain Thorns. Boureille, in particular, looks to be continuing her climb up the depth chart. She put in a good performance against Chicago in the first game of the tournament and looked commanding and confident on the ball in the central midfield. The U-23 game was messy from her—as it was for pretty much everyone—but we got to see a level of confidence we hadn’t yet seen from her in a Thorns jersey.

Emily Sonnett, it has to be said, was poor in that midweek match, reprising her early 2017 form with some fairly awful distribution and lackadaisical back-passing. She seemed to have gotten that careless passing out of her system by Saturday, though, after a little more time with the team; in that game, we got a few glimpses at the Sonnett we saw at Sydney FC this winter as she drove straight up the center of the pitch into the attack a handful of times. As I wrote in my preseason preview, Sonnett’s a viable option at defensive midfield—but the three-back formation Portland used on Saturday also allows her the flexibility to break loose on a transition. Going to Australia brought out a different side of Sonnett, one we should hope to see more of in the NWSL.

Emily Sonnett in the Houston Dash preseason game
Nikita Taparia

I’d like to jump back, briefly, to my earlier point about roster sizes. Somewhere out in the multiverse is an alternate reality where the Australian federation subsidizes Matildas players to play in the NWSL, thus lowering the overall cost of roster expansion. We can dream, folks.

A completely predictable thorn to the injury report.

The first month and change of the season is going to be rough, as it so often is. On top of Andressinha and Hayley Raso’s absences for their respective World Cup qualifying tournaments, Portland is contending with injuries to Emily Menges and (sigh) Tobin Heath. Missing Menges—she of the heroic block against Jess McDonald in the championship—is going to be a problem against North Carolina.

As discussed, though, the bright side is that the Thorns are deeper at more positions than they’ve ever been. To spin things a little further, this is probably the best time of year to deal with injuries to key players; the early part of the season is always unpredictable, and the Thorns would likely drop some points in this stretch anyway. That assumes, of course, that everybody actually recovers at some point.

Buckle up. Preseason was messy, and things are going to stay messy for some time. But, if Portland can survive the first month of the season without too many losses, they’ll be in good shape as players get healthy and arrive from abroad.