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On Deck: Midge Purce

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Last year’s early breakout star is poised to push her game even further

Nikita Taparia

Midge Purce entered the 2018 season looking like she was immediately going to be the next star of the Portland Thorns. In a few brilliant moments last season, Midge Purce looked like she could become one of the best wide players in the league. Unfortunately, as the season wore on and defenses had better scouting reports on her, her advantages began to slip away and, by the end of the season, she was only starting occasionally. Even after Hayley Raso’s gruesome injury, Purce found herself on the bench in the playoffs in favor of Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic’s skills at tracking back. With the team looking very light up top with the absences this summer, Purce has a real chance to demonstrate how much progress she’s made in the off season and, hopefully, to capture everyone’s imagination like she did in those early days.

What contributed to Purce’s incredible early season performances was the fact that opposing defenders would come out to challenge her and would get burned by her speed in the open field, leaving her with nothing but green space ahead of her. Once defenders figured out that this was what she wanted to do, however, they began backing off her instead, forcing her to make a choice between driving them back further or looking for a cross.

It isn’t unreasonable to expect a breakout season from Purce in her second year with the club. If Purce can continue the more sophisticated runs into the box that she was showing last season, along with continuing to improve her crossing, then there’s every chance that she can do it.

Where will she play?

Early last season, Purce found the most space in front of her as a wingback in Parsons’ makeshift 5-2-3, and while that formation had its uses, he seems unlikely to return to this given its attacking limitations. Nonetheless it was nearly a perfect demonstration of her skillset.

The early 2018 2-3 loss at home to the (then Seattle) Reign is a good example: Playing nominally on the backline meant that she was often defended one-on-one by wide forwards, whose day she was capable of repeatedly ruining. Here she turns Nahomi Kawasumi inside out:

On the other end, her aggressive-defensive style earned her several turnovers, as in the clip below, where she closes down Australian international Steph Catley, prevents her from turning, and wins the ball. It’s a gamble, but with the defensive support behind her, it’s one worth taking:

Getting the ball upfield and leaving defenders behind is the bread and butter of skillset, but once in good positions, the picture is more mixed. Her overall crossing success rate in 2018 was 21.5 percent, which is not horrible for most players. In the context of a Thorns team where Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg averaged closer to 29 percent, however, it’s a little less than ideal.

The biggest question mark, though, was her decision-making with the ball at her feet. When being immediately closed down by a defender, Purce was forced into making quick decisions — and frequently made a good one. When the field opened up to her and she had to settle the play, her passes could be rushed or overhit. For instance, at home against the Pride early, she gets good separation from Chioma Ubogagu, but hits a cross before anyone is making any movement:

Later on in the season, at home against Utah, a game in which she ripped Sam Johnson to shreds and won the free kick that would put the Thorns 2-0 up before going off injured, she just overhits a through ball:

You can see the evolution in her game over the course of the season in these two clips: She now has the patience to wait for defenders to overload (a common feature of Laura Harvey teams) and spots Sinclair making the run, but her touch is still too long. It may seem a little unfair to be asking Purce, who shows so well at other skills, to perform as a playmaker as well, but ball movement is a key feature of the Thorns offense.

Up against certain teams, she may still play as a right-sided fullback. With Klingenberg locked in on the other wing that’s a very attacking defense, however — especially for one already missing a key center back to the World Cup in Emily Sonnett — it’s more likely she will be played in attack. In the period since the 5-3-2 was scrapped, Purce has been most often used as an attacking substitute — on the right wing but also at striker.

Can she keep her spot?

The right-winger position is possibly the most wide-open position on the field for the Thorns right now. The flipside of that fact is that the competition for this position is incredibly fierce: Hayley Raso and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic — and even possibly Andressinha — are all top-line competitors at this spot, and the field of competitors behind them waiting for their shot shouldn’t be written off.

For the time being, Purce is getting a shot off the bench at striker, which will work well against some teams because of her speed — but if Foord and AMC can struggle to shield the ball against defenders at times, then Purce is going to have trouble. In the recent 4-4 draw against the Chicago Red Stars, she had success beating defenders over the top and even drew a penalty, but receiving balls to feet was difficult for her. It’s hard not to feel as though her game is best when she can isolate defenders and break into space, and this requires her to be on the wing. The only question is what distinguishes her there: Andressinha would be a better playmaker, and AMC and Raso both bring different levels of physicality that Purce can’t match.

Intriguingly, it’s entirely possible that Purce will get another shot in defense during the World Cup season, with Ellie Carpenter away and Gabby Seiler and Madison Pogarch still getting their feet wet in the squad. Could Purce carve out a long-term space in the defensive rotation? It would obviously be fantastic for her to operate as a secondary attacker, but the winger-as-fullback experiments of last season burnt Portland a few times, and in a flat four she would have to deal with the increased responsibility. Her situational awareness and ability to read the game suggests that she might be able to make a good defender of herself yet — and it would do wonders for her national team career if she could pull it off.

At her best, she’s a killer; one of the best one-on-one attackers on the team (think about who that includes!). If she makes a big leap during the World Cup season, it’s going to be impossible to put her on the bench. Purce’s ceiling is incredibly high as a player: It’s time for her to step up and take hold of her potential.