With Adrianna Franch called into national team camp ahead of the World Cup, the Thorns will turn to Britt Eckerstrom to step up in goal. Filling the shoes (or cleats, or gloves) of the reigning two-time NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year is a tall ask for almost anyone in the world. Luckily, Eckerstrom is accustomed to the task, having filled in last year when Franch was dealing with injury or out for international duty.
Playing time for second-string keepers is not easy to come by in the NWSL, as Eckerstrom saw in her first season with the Thorns. Her move to Portland followed a solid rookie season with the Western New York Flash; Eckerstrom shut out two of her three appearances and was voted Player of the Week for her performance against the Orlando Pride. After being traded from the newly rebranded North Carolina Courage ahead of the 2017 season, Eckerstrom spent the year on Portland’s bench. Instead of resigning herself to limited minutes, she looked to overseas opportunities during the NWSL offseason. Eckerstrom went on loan to the Newcastle Jets, making ten appearances for the Australian side’s 2017–18 campaign.
The professional experience Eckerstrom gained in Newcastle proved valuable early in the following NWSL season. When a meniscus injury rendered Franch unable to play, Eckerstrom was called to step in. Over her ten appearances for the Thorns in 2018, she shut out two games and posted 37 saves, including a diving far post tip that won her Save of the Week honors.
Eckerstrom is returning to the Thorns after another stint in Newcastle during the 2018–19 season. She played every minute for the Jets, led the W-League in saves (61) by a significant margin, and was voted Newcastle’s Player of the Year.
Where will she play?
This one’s a little up in the air. Don’t be surprised to see Eckerstrom thrown into any number of positions throughout the course of the season. After all, none of us would be shocked to see Mark Parsons sub her in at left back, right?
Can she keep her spot?
Short answer: no.
Parsons has made it clear that he sees Eckerstrom as the team’s second keeper after Franch, and — barring anything wildly unexpected — there’s no reason to believe that will change. Portland’s third-string keeper, Bella Bixby, has been dealing with a right hand injury that has kept her out of preseason and on the NWSL Injury Report for the first few weeks of the regular season. If Bixby is still injured come Saturday, Portland can turn to former NWSL backup keepers who haven’t signed with a specific team, as they did with Adelaide Gay last year.
Despite being an almost guaranteed lock in goal while Franch is absent, Eckerstrom’s past performances have pointed to a number of areas where she can grow her game. The biggest thing will be further developing positional awareness and confidence under pressure. Last year saw Eckerstrom struggle with doing just that. At times she looked lost and was unable to come out decisively on corners or lacked the self-assurance to commit to her decision to claim a cross. Eckerstrom’s handling also suffered moments of shakiness, something she will want to focus on this season.
These weaknesses are especially notable given Franch’s composure on corners: How often have we seen her rise up and coolly collect the ball under pressure?
If Eckerstrom continues to build her confidence and decisiveness through game experience, her stock as a goalkeeper can only grow, and she can further cement herself as Portland’s backup. Her athletic style of play will serve her well as she hopes to grow into a more confident and well-rounded player. However, given Franch’s run of form over the past couple years, Eckerstrom will need to put together calm, consistent, out-of-this-world performances to present any legitimate challenge for the starting spot.