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On Deck: Celeste Boureille

Boureille won her spot in the team last year. Can she keep it?

W-League Rd 2 - Canberra v Melbourne City
Celeste Boureille and Jess Fishlock squaring up in 2016 in the W-League, the first of their many battles over the years.
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Coming into the team on a regular basis after Amandine Henry departed the club, Celeste Boureille was always going to incur unfavorable comparisons with one of the best midfielders in the world, but she’s held off challenges from the depth in the squad to end up as the clear starter in defensive midfield. Can she keep up her success for another year?

Boureille joined the Thorns as an undrafted rookie out of UC Berkeley in 2016. She won a roster spot immediately and made some appearances during the Olympics, but mostly spent her first season training with the club and developing. Boureille is one of the success stories of the Thorns developmental practices under Mark Parsons — a part of of the club that he personally is very proud of, even if it makes a fanbase who expect superstars slightly confused. Bringing through undrafted talent is, at this point, a consistent feature of the club’s identity, and a necessary one for a team that is far too good to get regular decent returns from the NWSL college draft.

Where will she play?

Boureille started in the team playing wherever she was needed in defense, playing a critical defensive role in the Thorns’ 1-0 victory over North Carolina at right back, and even seeing time at center back away at Boston. It was after 2017, when Amandine Henry departed for the comforts of home to Olympique Lyonnais, that Boureille began to make her case to start in midfield. It started in the W-League, where she was a key member of the Premier’s Plate (the NWSL Shield equivalent) winning Brisbane Roar team with far and away the best defense in the league. The W-League is just as technical as the NWSL but generally has a slower pace, and it was a perfect place to demonstrate her strengths: subtly breaking up play, steady passing and just generally being in the right place at the right time. Since returning to the team at the start of the 2018 season, Boureille has been in regular contention to start in the team and managed to secure the starting spot in defensive midfield midway through the season, and she hasn’t let it go yet.

The height of Boureille’s success at the club so far was, without a doubt, the back-to-back games against the then-Seattle Reign to close out the 2018 season. She did a masterful job against Jasmyne Spencer, and especially on Jess Fishlock: Fishlock is faster than she is and beat her in the open field once or twice, but Boureille does an excellent job on Fishlock when she tries to slow down and make plays in front of goal. Spencer is an aggressive and very effective presser off the ball, but Boureille can hold her off to safely make passes.

In the defensive third, Boureille moves to the ball, stays tight to her marker, and wins challenges, like here, where she prevents Fishlock from turning:

Here she holds off Fishlock, who comes in for a strong challenge, in order to retain possession and play a simple pass:

Of course, there’s the absolutely masterful read on Allie Long’s pass in the semifinal (first pointed out by Richard Farley), where Boureille manages to both win possession and draw Fishlock into a clear yellow card:

Allie Long is going to the World Cup.

This play turned the tide of that semifinal: The Reign were the better team for much of the first half and generated four excellent opportunities, of which they could only put away one, but after that the Thorns put themselves on top and never looked like falling behind again.

When she’s playing that smart, her weaknesses recede into the distance. Boureille’s so effective in these games at knowing where the open space in defense is and filling it, and she does just enough to keep the ball moving on offense.

That’s not to say that people have forgotten her weaknesses. Boureille has had challenging games defensively, especially in a situation where she’s the last line of defense against fast defenders and she has to cover a lot of ground. The recent 2-2 draw with Sky Blue is probably the worst possible outcome here. Tasked with tracking Imani Dorsey on the break, she got blown by on a couple of crucial possessions and decided to go in for some ill-conceived tackles instead of following the runs and staying in shape. Counterattacking games can pass her by: If there isn’t any actual attacking midfielder for her to track and the play goes largely down the wings, there isn’t a lot for her to do on the field.

The area Boureille has to improve on most, however, is offense. With Horan in the team, she basically doesn’t have any responsibilities in the offense: Horan is one of the best midfielders in the world, can hit Hayley Raso on the wing as easily as she can play a one-two to unlock a double team. Boureille’s job, most of the time, is to be the “two” in that equation — to keep it simple and just generally not give away possession. She can succeed or fail at that task, but that’s the task, and nothing else.

In last year’s championship match, North Carolina recognized this and schemed accordingly. Horan got double-teamed with the ball at her feet and left Boureille wide open in the middle of the field. The Reign’s midfield packed the center of the field to deny her the ball as if she were a genuine threat going forward, but the Courage gave her no such respect. Boureille got a few chances to spark some offense, but letting her do this for the first time all season in the biggest game of the year wasn’t ideal.

Look at this play: Horan (circled) has pushed up to the wing in this attack and Boureille has space to herself in the middle of the park. Boureille’s instincts here are to find Ellie Carpenter on the wing with a quick pass, but Carpenter isn’t having a good game: after she receives the ball here she underhits a pass to Horan that Jaelene Hinkle doesn’t have any problem picking off. Debinha, by the arrow, is the closest player to Boureille here and she’s moving away from her in order to pressure Carpenter. If Boureille is able to recognize that she’s being left in space, she would have time to turn and find Christine Sinclair, who is getting ready to sag off the backline, Tobin Heath, who is getting ready to make a run down the left wing, or even try to hit Horan on the right wing, who has an advantage in the air on Hinkle. It’s hard to be too harsh on Boureille here—she’s sticking to her assignment, and keeping the ball away from stifling Courage pressure is no easy task—but it’s the fact that North Carolina were able to recognize that Boureille wasn’t going to be able to hurt them with the ball at her feet that ultimately results in the turnover.

Can she keep her spot?

The Thorns are a big club, and the threat of a major international signing is always floating in the background to keep the players here on their toes. Defensive midfield is a favorite subject of speculation: after all, its a place where the team once had one of the best players in the world. There aren’t, however, a whole lot of world-class defensive midfielders out there, and even fewer who are willing to take a backseat while other players do most of the attacking work. Julie Ertz, for instance, nominally plays the holding position but in reality is constantly making runs into the box like a 8, putting pressure on the other midfielders around her to cover defensively. Allie Long in theory has the range of passing to be a deep-lying midfielder, but lacks defensive consistency, and she’s stated on several occasions she believes she’s best as a 8. The situation in defensive midfield in the USWNT has been so confusing that for several months Andi Sullivan was considered to be the solution there until it became clear that she was a little too green for the spot and might, like all the others in this paragraph, just be another box-to-box midfielder.

It’s clear that the Thorns have benefited from having someone playing defensive midfield rather than no one there. Andressinha is a much better attacking midfielder than Boureille, but she couldn’t cope with the defensive responsibilities of the position. Now the problem is an opposite one: not enough attacking consistency at the position in the most important moments. Boureille should have the ability to be a playmaker: She started out as an attacking midfielder in college, after all. With the level of talent in the squad and the kinds of roles she’s been asked to perform, it’s also not entirely surprising that these skills have atrophied; with the talent around her, her job has just been to get the ball to some of the best players in the world. It’s just that when it mattered most, she had to do something that she hadn’t been asked to all year.

If there’s ever an opportunity for Boureille to step up and contribute on offense, now would be the time. With all of the Thorns’ primary playmakers out for a few months, the team needs to put together a coherent strategy in attack. In particular, her long passing has to improve: She hit only 38 percent last year, compared to Horan’s 60 percent, and she’s only completed one so far this year. When she gets the ball in space deep, the team needs her to be capable of doing at least a little bit of long passing — if only to keep the midfielders crowding Horan out honest.

Last year we learned, courtesy of a gameday flier from the club, that Boureille (a San Francisco native) wears the number 30 on her jersey as a tribute to Steph Curry. That’s a high bar to aspire to, but maybe she can take a page out of her favorite player’s book and extend her range.