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The weird NWSL season is upon us

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USWNT players are out until July — the bench digging begins

Gabby Seiler, Katherine Reynolds, Emily Menges and Ifeoma Onumonu, waiting in the wings.
Nikita Taparia

Prepare yourself: the NWSL, and the Portland Thorns in particular, are about to be disrupted.

The American internationals — Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Emily Sonnett, and Adrianna Franch — have played their last games for the club until at least July (depending on how long the inevitable USWNT victory tour is). Christine Sinclair would be sticking around for another game if it were the case that the Thorns had another game this weekend, but they have a bye week, so she’s out as well. The Australian and Brazilian national team selections have yet to be announced, but it’s expected that Hayley Raso, Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord, and Andressinha will be out the door soon enough. Thorns fans are about to be treated, for three straight months, to a series of lineups with names they might usually gloss over on the team sheet, some non-international stalwarts, and some brand new faces.

There’s no sense in being too stressed out about this part of the season: the Thorns have always been a team that prioritizes playing well at the end of the season anyway, and you only need look at the 2015 season to see the way that World Cup absences can ultimately have limited effects on who the best team in the league is. The then-Seattle Reign stormed to a Shield win on the back of Kim Little’s amazing World Cup season, but Kansas City, despite posting a losing record in June and July, still went on to handle them in the NWSL final. The Thorns will put up some weird results. It’s going to be almost a completely different league than it normally is. The only thing to really do is sit back and enjoy it. The players who step in during the World Cup season will become a part of Thorns lore. Even the ones who don’t go on to make a splash in the team have a way of sticking around in the community, continuing to contribute in their own ways.

That isn’t to say it will have no consequences for the league afterward: yes, points will count the same, and there’s no doubt it will be a challenge for the players who have to stand in, but it should also be looked at as an opportunity for them to make a case they should keep playing a part on the team after everyone returns.

Seasons Within a Season

There are roughly three phases to this season’s disruption for the Thorns: the partial departure time where the non-US internationals are still around (where we are now), the World Cup season itself, and the resolution period, where players will be trickling back and rejoining the team at whatever rate they do.

We can look forward and make some predictions about how the team might line up during all of these periods, but the thing is that it’s such a long stretch of time that it’s almost inevitable there will be some churn as players step up and distinguish themselves.

The First Period

The Thorns will face the Orlando Pride on May 11th and the Washington Spirit on May 18th. Those two games will see the non-North American internationals taking center stage. It’s a favorable few games for the players to demonstrate their skills, no doubt.

Of all the x-factors that might show up big time in this stretch, none is more intriguing than Andressinha. Andressinha is going to be stepping into the playmaking role that Christine Sinclair normally takes during this time. The club is extremely excited about her getting a chance to step into the #10, and they have good reason to be — when Andressinha last played for the Dash in this position, she was one of the best players in the league. Andressinha posted an 81.6% pass completion rate in 2017 playing as a forward-thinking, attacking midfielder who sent only 12% of her passes backward, which is absurdly good. She made 46 key passes for the season. In her first season for the Thorns, Andressinha got pretty badly miscast as someone who might be able to do a job at defensive midfielder and had to spend a lot of the season riding the bench in favor of Celeste Boureille, a worse player in theory but someone actually capable of playing as a defensive midfielder. With Sinclair and Heath out, she now becomes the Thorns primary creative threat in midfield, at least for a few games, and there’s no reason to not expect her to impress.

Hayley Raso, after missing the first three games of the season due to some unspecified visa issues, will more than likely be returning to take Tobin Heath’s place in the starting lineup. It’s worth remembering here that the only reason Raso has the role she does with the Thorns is because of Heath’s extended injury in 2017, and will be just fine playing in the team without her. She’s still one of the only players who consistently pushes wide in attack, which has a big impact on the team’s effectiveness, although her ability to be dangerous cutting inside continues to improve.

Caitlin Foord has proven to be an excellent attacker in combination with Tobin Heath: in this interim period the onus is on her to show off her ability as a primary threat. Playing the 9 for the Thorns is a tough job but Foord’s mobility and her ability to switch wide will match up well against two relatively slow backlines.

The Second Period

The second period of the season is sure to be the strangest season of all. For a full two months of NWSL play, the Thorns are going to be diving into their bench options in order to find starting players. Should everyone remain uninjured, the team actually should be able to fill their bench once the supplemental players and international replacement players get signed, which is a significant improvement in roster rules from past years. There are going to be some major roster holes during this time but we expect them to at least be filled.

We’ve been going over the bench options in detail and will continue to, but the general depth options look a little like this:

The Thorns have yet to sign any supplemental players or international replacements, but they can be expected to do so in the coming week from a selection of players who were on their preseason roster.

By far the most important influence in the team in this period will be Meghan Klingenberg. With many team leaders out, she becomes the voice in the squad. Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic scored in the draw against Chicago after spurning a few chances the week before: that kind of production needs to be sustained.

The attack looks fairly set in stone, though there could be some movement at left wing if Sandra Yu makes a breakthrough and beats out Tyler Lussi. Maybe the biggest question marks are in the middle of the park and at right back. Celeste Boureille seems like a lock, though Angela Salem will be returning to the team after finishing up another year and will be an experienced option deeper in midfield. Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who is expected to play as a box-to-box midfielder before Andressinha leaves, suddenly becomes the most experienced attacking-minded midfielder on the team. Given the rest of the midfielders available for the Thorns, it seems more likely than not that she is going to get run out at the number 10. This might look a little funky: Brynjarsdottir is an excellent crosser and loves running the lines, so her playing in the middle might just involve moving out to the wings in possession rather than being a typical pivot playmaker. It might not be the worst tactical adjustment for coach Parsons to be forced to make: most of the forwards left on the team are going to enjoy drifting inside even if they start on the wing, so having some extra width will be helpful in attack. Gabby Seiler could fill in at either spot and probably will see time in both positions, depending on which one of Emily Ogle or Madison Pogarch pan out.

The Resolution

When are the players coming back? Well, it depends on a lot of things: when teams drop out of the World Cup and how long they stay afterward being the two most important. The USA and Australia are both expected to have long tournaments, so we shouldn’t expect any of the seven Thorns on those teams to be back in Portland any time soon. Brazil and Canada are different stories. Brazil have been underachieving for years now, and though they still have enough talent to go far, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them return early. Canada are underpowered and in a transitional period, attempting to bring through a new generation and continue to be competitive at the same time, but they have a favorable group and Sinclair has carried them far single-handedly in the past.

Either Andressinha or Sinclair coming back a little bit early could make a big difference in one game in particular: the Thorns host the Reign on July 5th, a few days after the semifinals, and it projects to be a tough one with Jess Fishlock back in Tacoma. Without wishing either team an early exit, a quarterfinal out for each team could see either player back in Portland in time to make an impact.

Somehow or another, all of these changes are guaranteed to have some kind of long-term impact on the team. The defensive midfielder spot and the right winger aren’t in any way locked down permanently even when the team is complete, and plenty more players could make their case for having an impact off the bench. And the team will be facing challenges: everyone wishes that a full season can be gotten through without injury, but it never happens. The depth the club will be able to call on through the experience players get is going to be essential. Mark Parsons, before the season, was frank about the challenges some of the players further down the depth chart were facing: “There will be people, unfortunately, on the bench, not playing for the Portland Thorns, who played 8-9-10 games last year. I’m not even thinking of a single name — I’ve just got so many players who have played lots of minutes and have experience being a Portland Thorn. There’s depth there in experience.”

Talking about what makes Lindsey Horan special, more than anything Parsons pointed to her work ethic as a player: “What defines [players] and their development is their willingness to improve. It’s a core part of being a Portland Thorn. [Some] people last year didn’t have the best year. The biggest reason they didn’t is because they weren’t willing to learn or grow as much as others. Then there’s [other] players who had amazing years — what’s the defining fact? They were willing to listen and grow. When I say listen and grow: coaches probably have the answers 20–30% of the time, [players can] get feedback from themselves, [or] listen to a teammate, or things that are standing right in front of them that you can make excuses for.” Thorns fans and watchers are going to be able to experience this process in real time over the next few months: non-superstar players will be developing in real time before our eyes. Fans should be patient with them: some silly mistakes are inevitable (and in any case not a new phenomenon on the Thorns). What really matters is who emerges from the period stronger, smarter, and better than they were before, ready to contribute at a high level on the biggest stage for women’s professional sport in the world.