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On Deck: Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic

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Bennett Dewan

The World Cup season is going to see the Thorns lose 3/4ths of their 2018 season goals when Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, and Lindsay Horan depart. One of the solutions to this is Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, who will not be going to the World Cup after Switzerland failed to advance from European qualification.

Where can we expect her to play?

To answer this question, we have to dig into the thorny (if you will) topic of what role a Thorns forward plays when the team is at full strength. In ideal conditions, Thorns forwards are asked not only to score goals but also to drop back and play provider for the onrushing Lindsay Horan and (now world-class finisher and in the form of her life) Tobin Heath, as well as putting in the miles to drag defenses out of position and allow penetration down the wings. Sinclair at the peak of her powers is the perfect player to be at the point–not only a physical battering ram capable of moving defenders around at will but possessed of great vision and a savvy finisher to boot–but she’s now 35 and better served quarterbacking the team behind the forward instead. Nadia Nadim is a good example of how a talented striker can struggle with the demands that the Thorns put on their forwards. She’s well remembered at the club for her time in the center but ended up being more effective in the championship season on the wing, because of her crossing ability and willingness to track back.

Caitlin Foord is undeniably the striker who was promised, and even though coming back from a serious injury into a team gearing up for the playoffs didn’t flatter her, she’s clearly got all the tools to succeed with the club. Without Foord in the team, however, the Thorn’s depth at striker looks thin. Tyler Lussi and Mallory Weber are the only other options who have played real minutes for the Thorns there. Crnogorcevic is clearly the most talented of the group, and her long history of scoring goals for her country is evidence of her ability in this department.

Despite this pedigree, Crnogorcevic no longer plays as a striker for her country, filling in at right back instead (note: AMC played as a striker against Slovakia on April 9th). How is it that the most decorated scorer in her country’s history is now putting in hard work on the wing? There’s a variety of reasons why this has happened but foremost among them is simply the rapid rate of change in the women’s game. Over the course of her career, the game has become more professionalized and the level of skill across the board has gone up. As a result, specialty positions, defenders among them, are getting trained specifically as defenders from a young age rather than simply the most talented players getting put up top to play as strikers, as happens at American colleges. It’s clear that Crnogorcevic’s skill set is more like Nadim’s than it is like Sinclair’s: she’s a real wrecking ball up top, and her ability to occupy defenders with her movement is world-class. However, she can linger on the ball for too long, and isn’t as effective in build-up as her tireless off-ball work is.

This might not be a disaster during the World Cup season. There’s no doubting Crnogorcevic’s instincts to find loose balls in the box and put them in the net, and against non-national team defenders that might be enough. She scored five goals in her inaugural Thorns season, mostly from defensive breakdowns, but it’s a key part of her skill set to force opponents to make mistakes. At her best she has absolutely bullied opposing defenders, pulling them completely out of position and opening up space for attacks from the wing. Watching her batter Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Corsie at home against Utah last year was a glimmer of the possibilities she offers when she’s at her best; but can it be sustained for a good stretch of time? It will require a different style of play than the Thorns are used to deploying to really work, but that’s to be expected anyway. After all: Heath, Sinclair, and Horan will all be gone. Crnogorcevic has proven her ability to do damage to backlines without a ton of support and, in the circumstances, it’s as good a solution as fans could reasonably have hoped for. Whether it’s successful or not depends largely on what kind of relationships Crnogorcevic is able to form with her partners up top.

Can she keep her spot?

This isn’t really the right question to ask about AMC: she’s a huge asset to the team in all circumstances for her cool head and consistent play and will always be a viable option off the bench in a wide variety of positions. At the same time, it seems unlikely that she would start at striker with a full complement of players. She was trialed at striker in preseason, switching positions with Caitlin Foord from the wing: this seems to be the best outcome for her season. Foord and Crnogorcevic offer two completely different skill sets and the two working in concert to relentlessly probe for weaknesses in opposing backlines is potentially a thrilling (and, for defenders, bruising) prospect. The onus is on Crnogorcevic to prove that she can hold the team’s attack together on her own, and if she can make a big impression, it sets up potentially a very interesting face-off between her and Hayley Raso to determine who closes the season out.

The subject of our next profile is one of the players that Crnogorcevic is going to need to get on the same page, and also another competitor for that right wing berth: the breakout star of early 2018, Midge Purce.