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Roses and Thorns: Get Ready for the Grind

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Britt Eckerstrom, Celeste Boureille, and Ana Crnogorcevic
Nikita Taparia

With preseason over and just a week and a half remaining until the girls in red head to Orlando for their season opener, the interminable offseason for Portland’s most successful soccer team is almost over—and your favorite Thorns column is back just in time. Here are a few of my takeaways from the Spring Invitational, and a look at the season ahead:

A rose to the team veterans.

If there’s one major positive to take out of last week’s first game, against the Red Stars, it’s that the big players who carried the team’s offense last year—Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, and Christine Sinclair—still very much look like themselves. Heath assisted on a beautiful goal by Sinclair, sending in a cross from the right that the captain handily sent into the net with a single touch. She also gave a reminder, in case anyone forgot, of just how dang fast she still is, absolutely torching several Chicago players, including Sam Kerr at one point, in sprints up the wing.

Sinclair, meanwhile, played the majority of the available minutes during the tournament, including a half in the number 8 slot on Wednesday. This is not the place to reiterate why Christine Sinclair is good at soccer, but suffice it to say she still looks like she’ll reliably be one of the best two players on the field at any given time in 2019.

So during the 61 minutes when those three players were on the field on Sunday (Horan, who’s still working her way back to full fitness, didn’t play the full 90), the Thorns more or less picked up where they left off last year, showing that the preferred setup going into 2019 will likely be the same as the one the team used at the end of 2018: Sinclair in the 10, Celeste Boureille in the 6, Horan lining up as an 8 on paper, but in practice dictating the game from all areas of the field, and Heath lining up on the left wing on paper, but in practice drifting central and out to the right at will.

Of course, with virtually no roster turnover over the offseason, Portland’s preferred setup was never really the question going into 2019; the real issue is how they’ll handle the massive roster disruption this World Cup year is going to throw their way.

A thorn to the World Cup.

The Thorns had their worst-ever season when the last World Cup happened. Back in 2015, the team lost eight players for various lengths of time around the tournament and missed the playoffs for the first and still only time.

And there’s no getting around it: things are going to be tough this time around, too. It’s not an exaggeration to say Portland’s whole offense is likely going to be packing up and heading to France—along with key defensive players in Emily Sonnett, Ellie Carpenter, and AD Franch. How they handle those losses are going to be the defining issue in 2019.

There are a few more reasons for optimism than there were in 2015. The roster is both bigger and deeper than it was back then. The coaching staff has both a better record and tangible experience dealing with a mid-season tournament (though the 2016 Olympics didn’t carve nearly as big a chunk out of the season as the World Cup will). The culture in the locker room is—let’s put it this way—a thing we can actually talk about, where last time around there was really no culture to speak of.

But ultimately, there’s simply no replacing Portland’s starters, and whether the Thorns are successful this season might come down to which bench players can step up and help the team grind out some tough points when those starters are gone.

A rose to the newcomers.

And just who looks like they might be ready to take that challenge on?

Last week we got a look at a number of players who didn’t see the field in 2018—either because they weren’t on the roster yet or were but physically couldn’t play—and saw some promising things.

Let’s start with the back line. One of the defining characteristics of the Mark Parsons era—2018 was a relative fluke in this respect—has often been a strong defense that can carry the team when key offensive players are missing. Defense is going to be key again this year, especially through the first few months of the season, as the team contends not just with World Cup absences, but also with a grueling six-game road stretch to open 2019. Fortunately, Portland has picked up some promising options in the back.

Gabby Seiler, who was drafted in 2018 but sat out the entirety of the season after getting injured playing NCAA basketball, got minutes in all three games, including a 90-minute stint against Chicago. Other than some sloppy mistakes against the Reign—the kind you might expect a newcomer to the NWSL to make against a team that was pressing as aggressively as Vlatko Andonovksi’s side was—she looked like an excellent option at center back. She kept up against the likes of Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato, and looked amazingly locked in with all the center back partners she was paired with, including Emily Sonnett, Elizabeth Ball, and Katherine Reynolds, given how long she’s been training with the team.

The other revelation in the back line was trialist Madison Pogarch, who got a number of minutes at right back and turned a lot of heads with her energetic play up and down the wing. In terms of pure quality, she’s not Ellie Carpenter, but she brings speed and a similar attack-mindedness to the position and connected some excellent passes against the U-23s. “It was probably the 80th minute and I turned to the bench,” said Parsons after Wednesday’s game, “[and said], every action she has is positive... she’s positive with her defending, passing forward, dribbling forward, driving forward, crossing, wants to cross, has an engine. I think she’s going to be one to keep a good eye on.”

The other two who looked ready to make an impact last week were in the midfield.

Dagny Brynjarsdottir, obviously, is not new to the Thorns, but after a year of maternity leave, it was always an open question how prepared she’d be coming back in. While she certainly wasn’t perfect (as almost no one was), starting against the Reign, she was a clear veteran presence on a side that otherwise looked rattled under a high press. “It’s a starting point for what we need from Dagny,” said Parsons Saturday night. “We’re not there, but considering that she’s had a few setbacks on the physical side, getting her fitness up to play in this fast, furious game, she looked like she was enjoying it! Other people were panicking, going, ‘what’s this speed? I’ve never felt this speed,’ and Dagny’s like, ‘finally, let’s friggin’ go, this is what I came here for.’”

Finally, Emily Ogle, Portland’s sole 2019 draft pick, could play a role this year as another option deep in the midfield alongside Celeste Boureille. Ogle had one eye-popping moment against the U-23s, when she curled a gorgeous free kick around the wall and just hit the goalpost, but Parsons was also positive about her presence in the run of play. “When she’s on the ball,” he said, “good things roll off it. She manages the game, she speeds us up, she slows us down.”

A thorn (still) to the injury bug.

If there’s one thing that might tip the scales against the Thorns in these early months, it could, yet again, be injuries.

If Portland has championship hopes this year, picking up points in the narrow window before the World Cup could prove to be critical. They should expect results against all the teams they face on this long road stretch: Washington and Sky Blue are Washington and Sky Blue, and Chicago is a good team that the Thorns have nonetheless historically matched up well against (though Orlando, which looked in real disarray last year, could be a wild card with a new head coach).

But there are reasons to worry. Chief among them is Emily Menges, who showed up to the Spring Invitational in a walking boot. Midge Purce, Hayley Raso, and AD Franch also didn’t dress last week. Supposedly, none of those injuries are particularly serious—but we’ve seen in the past how seemingly minor injuries can nag longer than they’re expected to, and how an accumulation of those nagging injuries can take a real toll on the Thorns’ performance. That’s a special concern for the defense, where Portland really can’t afford to undergo the amount of shuffling they did over the first half of last season.

Strap in. This season is going to be a wild one, and if the Thorns are going to get very far, they’re likely going to have to do it by gritting their teeth and grinding out some ugly points.