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Four Questions: for the Long Journey

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The things keeping us up at night on opening weekend.

Katherine Reynolds marking Alex Morgan at Portland in 2018.
Nikita Taparia

The NWSL kicks off this weekend, and with it, so does the Thorns extended away stretch. Portland’s six game trip while they’re waiting for the Providence Park expansion to be completed June 1st will be a long one. Here are a few burning questions that need answers ahead of the opener down in Orlando and the three game stretch before the US internationals take off for the pre-World Cup camp.

Is Tobin Heath in the best form of her life?

Nikita Taparia

Tobin Heath’s 2016 year was truly otherworldly. She broke the single season assist record with 10 from only 15 games, a record that still stands. At the end of the day it was the lack of appearances that hurt her case, though happening to play for a team who only played the bottom feeding Boston Breakers twice (when the eventual winner Lynn Williams played against them four times) didn’t help. Nonetheless her performances there and for her country rightly earned her the honor of being the US Soccer Player of the year.

Yet again her appearances are going to be cut short by her international obligations, but fans should hope this doesn’t stop her from putting up numbers. Heath is a very different player from the season where she should have gotten the NWSL MVP: over the course of 2018 she turned herself into not only one of the most creative players in women’s soccer but also an unbelievable goalscorer. Watching it happen in real time was one of the treats of the last Thorns season, even if it was a bit buried under Lindsey Horan’s incredibly consistent MVP-level production. Once she started stepping up to the same level of play for her national team, it became impossible to ignore. Her new form is exemplified by her recent goal against Brazil—she’s of course still capable of driving, cutting into space and opening up pockets for others with the ball at her feet, but she won’t hesitate to put in an unsavable shot into the top corner when the opportunity presents itself. It’s a unique combination of talents that, if given a whole NWSL season to play out, would almost certainly make her a strong case for an MVP candidate. The only question is how much magic she’s going to be able to rack up before the World Cup intervenes.

Is Foord ready to shine in the spotlight?

W-League Grand Final - Sydney v Perth Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

By her own admission (in a pretty fantastic interview with The Women’s Game), Caitlin Foord felt a little intimidated in her first season at Portland. Coming off a lisfranc injury to her foot that kept her out for most of the year and restricted her to four starts all season was always going to be difficult, but getting dropped out of that into the high stakes of a Thorns playoff run made it just that much tougher. “I’d never really doubted my ability in playing before until I had these injuries, and having these really big players around me, I didn’t think I was good enough to be there when I obviously was,” Foord said of her first weeks in Portland. The Thorns locker room is a pretty welcoming place these days, but with the stress of making their way back up the table so late in the season taking priority, the other players probably didn’t get the chance to make her feel as comfortable as they could have. Not that they weren’t trying to be helpful, but just that such a massive disruption to a career has a big impact mentally as well: “Everyone was amazing, even the players. Nobody probably thought [these negative things] about me, it was just me in my own head. Everything couldn’t have been better. It was just me at that time. Even the people around me, they wouldn’t have known that was going on [in my own head].”

Foord went back to basics in the W-League, working more on her finishing and putting in the work to build her confidence up. She was rewarded with 9 goals, second place in the Golden Boot race and a trophy for winning the Grand Final, and her form has carried into her national team appearances, with the highlight being her spectacular goal against the US early in April. Can she do it in the NWSL?

It’s going to require her to be a little more selfish. Foord only took 11 total shots during the 2018 season. The problem is her own range of talents: with the ability to work creatively between the lines, she can choose to hang back and pass first and still have a big effect on the game. But she won’t be truly unlocked until she decides to attack the goal for herself. Maybe she can ask Heath a little about that.

Can the defensive cover put fans at ease?

Nikita Taparia

One of the most difficult things in the way of putting together consistent results last season was the constant churn of players in and out of defense. Mallory Weber, a winger, played games at left back when Meghan Klingenberg was unavailable. Kelli Hubly (by trade a fullback) made some important contributions at center back in her 11 games last season but also made some high profile mistakes. With Ellie Carpenter’s late arrival to the club, Parsons was reluctant to throw her into the Thorns defensive scheme immediately, though she quickly won the spot at right back.

Emily Menges is out to start the season once again. This isn’t a great sign for a defense that wants to reclaim its 2016-17 back to back season awards as the best in the league, but there are reasons for hope going into this season, chief among them the fact that the options for filling holes in the defense have significantly improved. Elizabeth Ball had a somewhat disrupted first season after signing as an undrafted free agent last year but she showed well in her games later in the season and will be asked to contribute more. Gabby Seiler, having missed the whole season with an MCL tear (picked up playing D1 NCAA basketball!), is a defensively capable midfielder who was trialed at the back in preseason and earned positive reviews. Those are just the players on the roster as well: Madison Pogarch, a fullback who showed well in preseason, is training with the team and waiting for her chance to make a breakthrough.

Katherine Reynolds, the experienced veteran, is likely to start the first game at center back, but as she’s coming back from serious injury picked up late last season, she seems unlikely to finish the full 90 minutes. In any case, the Pride’s front line is extremely fast, and will roast her in the open field if given the chance. Ball seems likeliest to step up for the time being, but Seiler is an impressive talent that will be nipping at her heels for a chance, and what better way to introduce yourself to the league than having to go up against Alex Morgan?

If anyone is going to get minutes on the backline, they aren’t going to get them for free, even in the World Cup season: they’re going to have to earn them against the newly strong stable of Thorns defenders. The increased competition might need a few games to show results but the process for easing new faces in is significantly sounder than it was last year. Whether fans will be less on edge when the rotations eventually happen will remain to be seen.

Can Sonnett step up?

Australia v United States Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The most important player in the Thorns defense without Emily Menges involved is none of those players, however: it’s her co-Emily in the middle. Emily Sonnett had a mixed season in 2018, after playing herself back into USWNT contention in 2017. Her spot as a rotation player in the national team now seems secure, but her rangy play from earlier, where she was capable of covering space in behind as well as charging into the midfield to make aggressive tackles, seems less thrilling. She was still winning tackles and making interceptions at roughly the same rate but the highlight plays of the past turned into her getting caught upfield at inopportune moments.

Alex Morgan is coming off of a run of incredible form for the US women’s national team, but the Thorns have always defended her well. Her 11th minute goal off of a defensive mixup from Mallory Weber not only kicked off Orlando’s first ever win against Portland, but was also Morgan’s first ever goal against Portland. The team, for the most part, knows how to defend her, and Sonnett knows how to mark her, but this doesn’t mean that her threat is neutralized.

With Marta prowling beneath the front line and a priority given to keeping Alex Morgan off the ball, Emily Sonnett will be stepping up, and frequently well into midfield. The question will be whether she can juggle that and the responsibility of keeping a red-hot Morgan from unlocking the defensive trap that has worked so well against her in past seasons. Whether she’s playing with Katherine Reynolds or Elizabeth Ball—or, for that matter, any one of the number of players filling out the Thorns previously thin-looking centerback roster—the onus is on Sonnett to make the right calls about who to cover when.