The Thorns are going to be missing quite a few senior players off their roster in the opening month. Hayley Raso, Ellie Carpenter, and Andressinha are away for World Cup qualifiers until the end of April. Gabby Seiler, Sandra Yu, and Angela Salem are away at school until May, though Salem will be occasionally available. With Emily Menges picking up a knock in preseason and Tobin Heath still yet to fully recover from ankle surgery, the squad isn’t quite at the level of not being able to fill the bench, but its limits are being stretched.
The next month might be a trying time for the Thorns, but it’s also an opportunity for players to step up and make a name for themselves. After all, Hayley Raso might not be the player she is today if Tobin Heath weren’t out for so much of last season. Check out some of the Thorns who might be getting their shot this weekend and in the coming weeks.
Ball, a Penn State graduate and former college teammate of Britt Eckerstrom, did not get picked in this year’s NWSL College draft despite being a projected third round pick on a few boards. She is the only undrafted rookie in the entire league to get a contract this year. A technical and athletic defender, Ball showed excellent covering ability during preseason, and with Emily Sonnett being the team’s primary defensive stopper, her ability to read the play will likely see her start ahead of Kelli Hubly, who is a more aggressive defender among the trialists. Mark Parsons praised her comfort with the ball at her feet, her “reactive ability” in defense, and her ability to deal with “emergency and chaotic situations”. Away to a team with some of the most exciting and talented attackers in the league, she’ll have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that ability.
Almost all defensive midfielders in the women’s game are box-to-box in some capacity. Julie Ertz is the prototypical player in this mold. She loves making runs into the box late for a scrappy goal off a loose ball in the box. Boureille, on the other hand, is a dedicated six: she stays behind the play at all times and is almost never found in the box (except on set pieces, where her heading ability can cause havoc).
After getting playing time last season at right back, Boureille spent the offseason in Australia playing in her college position at the base of midfield where she excelled; helping to drive Brisbane Roar to first in the regular season, earning the plaudits of fans and managers, and scoring her first professional goal. In preseason, in the process of getting on the same page as Lindsay Horan, both midfielders stayed relatively deep in a double pivot. If Boureille can prove her defensive responsibility and her passing range to be up to snuff, she should allow Horan to make forward runs and be more of an influence in the final third. Boureille is not a lock to start Satuday—she will have to compete with Angela Salem, but as Salem is only with the team part-time until May, Boureille has the advantage in terms of getting on the same page as her teammates.
After a rookie season as an impact sub in a struggling Boston Breakers side, Onumonu went fourth from last in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft, the Thorns’ third pick. She’s quickly proven value that far outweighs her draft position, starting all three preseason games and scoring one goal. More often than not when a player found themselves with a good shooting opportunity in preseason it was Onumonu. The onus is now on her to put them in. Portland has proven to be a good environment for her in many ways: she’s linked up again with Boureille, her college roommate of three years, and absences on the front line mean she will likely get the opportunity to play serious minutes for the first time in her professional career. Onumonu will want to win the third winger spot permanently from Mallory Weber like Hayley Raso did last season, and with the team looking like it may struggle for offense, Onumonu must play a part if the Thorns are going to score.
The standout Thorn of the preseason, Purce provided a lot of excitement in a team that was still finding its attacking mojo. Parsons praised both her attacking ability and her tenacity to make 80-yard recovery runs right after putting in attacking runs. With Onumonu occupying opposing team’s fullbacks, Purce will be defended by opposition wingers more often than not. At North Carolina, this could mean going up against Crystal Dunn, who is not only an excellent attacker but also a top defender. Two young and talented attackers running at each other and and tracking back to put in tackles on defense will be a hugely compelling battle and is potentially an opportunity for Purce to make an argument that she should be back in the national team squad.
The former NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner for the Washington Spirit returns to the league for North Carolina having already played a half-season for Chelsea in the English WSL . Dunn is well into mid-season form: she was a key piece in Chelsea’s rise to the top of the table and run through the Champions League. Whether she can go the distance in a season heavy with international responsibilities remains to be seen, but expect her to be a step ahead of the other players on the field.