Believe it or not, the World Cup mini-NWSL season is already wrapping up. Andressinha arrived in Portland on Monday night, and the Matildas were back in the United States just a couple days later.
While the rest of the world has been focused on France, Portland has put together some solid — if not pretty — performances. “We’ve shown great quality in this period,” said coach Mark Parsons. He praised the Thorns that have remained in Portland during the World Cup stretch for “their work ethic … their quality, their efficiency.”
Since the last of the internationals departed after the match against the Washington Spirit, four players have made their NWSL debuts and others have been called to take on more significant minutes and leadership roles for the Thorns. “You can’t replace the quality of a Tobin [Heath] or a Sincy [Christine Sinclair] or a Lindsey [Horan] or an AD [Franch] or whomever else,” explained Meghan Klingenberg, “but you can replace their energy, and you can replace their commitment to being the best that they can be on any single day.” And many of those players — newcomer or otherwise — have stepped up to that standard; a handful of Thorns have made a case for themselves and could challenge for a starting spot once the World Cup players return.
Who’s challenging for a start?
Purce leads the Thorns in goals this season, scoring four in her last four games, and that pretty much says it all. Kidding. Actually, there’s a lot more to it: Her goal-scoring ability is only one facet of her consistent, well-rounded performances.
After playing a significant chunk of her minutes last year as a defender, Purce’s return to the front line has proven monumental for the Thorns. Along with her impressive finishing, Purce has shown the ability to create for herself going forward: She can receive the ball with her back to goal, spin, pull away from her defenders, and dribble into space to get a shot off, as she’s shown on many occasions throughout the season. She has good awareness with her attacking runs, allowing her to find the ball in dangerous areas. She has the confidence to take on players and take ambitious shots — it only took a sliver of space for her to find the game-winner against Sky Blue. On the other side of things, Purce brings a willingness to defend, as she can pressure the ball and force turnovers in Portland’s attacking end.
Despite not having the international profile of Heath, Foord, or Raso — the latter of the three presents the most direct competition, as the qualities Raso brings overlap most closely with Purce’s — it’s going to be hard for the Thorns coaching staff to justify benching Purce. Her willingness to work hard for both herself and her team, the leadership role she has taken on, and her production for Portland have made her an invaluable piece of the Thorns attack during the World Cup period.
You can’t talk about Portland’s offense over the past four games without mentioning Charley. After spending 2018 as a training player for the Thorns, Charley finally got her chance when she was signed to Portland’s supplemental roster in early May, making her professional debut just weeks later against Sky Blue.
Charley impressed from the start: picking up the ball, beating players on the dribble, and wreaking havoc throughout the defensive lines of her opponents. Despite the two having limited time training together, she and Purce impressed with their play off one another: Charley assisted both of Purce’s goals against the Chicago Red Stars, and it was Charley’s blocked shot that fell to Purce in New Jersey, essentially providing the assist to a fantastic strike.
Against the North Carolina Courage, she again showed flashes of brilliance. On multiple occasions, Charley jumped on the end of a poor touch or slow pass out of the Courage back line, breaking through and finding herself with a fantastic chance on goal. Unfortunately, Charley still looks hesitant on her scoring chances and was unable to get off a good shot, but her speed, technical skill, and ever-growing tactical awareness make her a valuable wrinkle in Portland’s attack.
Seiler has quietly been one of the Thorns’ best players during this World Cup period. While not the one shining the scoreboard, Seiler has made meaningful contributions in the minutes she has played for Portland, aided by her creativity and versatility.
Despite this being essentially her rookie season, Seiler has already played all over the field for the Thorns: She’s spent a couple matches in the center of the park on top of dropping back into defense as both a fullback and centerback. Her read on the game has been fantastic throughout it all; she knows when to step, when to hold back, when to drive forward and spring an attack. Seiler has seemed unfazed by pressure, making a number of key defensive blocks in the time she has spent in Portland’s back line.
“[Seiler]’s an exceptional player with great tools,” Parsons said following the match against the Utah Royals FC. “She’s also a decision maker and a thinker … she’s our playmaker.” Parsons emphasized the importance of Seiler relying on her instincts and intelligence, rather than trying to fit the role that she believes the Thorns want her to play. “If we keep working with Gabby, if we keep giving her the tools to get better each week, better each month,” Klingenberg expressed, “I really think a few years into this league she can be one of the very best … in the league.”
It feels weird to put Reynolds on this list; barring the time she missed due to injury, she’s has been a starter for the majority of her career in Portland. However, Parsons’ favored lineup for the full strength Thorns is a back four of Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Ellie Carpenter, leaving Reynolds the odd one out. If Menges continues to struggle with injury or Sonnett works her way back into the Thorns squad more gradually, Reynolds’ playing time won’t be a discussion. On the other hand, if the preferred back four is available, Reynolds has capitalized on the opportunities presented to her during this period, and has built a strong case for herself. She will hope to continue to earn minutes as the internationals return.
With a fantastic read on the game, accompanied by stellar positioning, passing accuracy, and long balls out of the back, Reynolds’ veteran experience has helped to anchor Portland’s back line. Especially with Menges sitting out the last couple of matches with an injury, the stability Reynolds brings to the Thorns defense has been essential in helping Portland earn an almost perfect defensive record during this period.
Salem had a phenomenal start to her 2019 campaign. In her three appearances for Portland, she asserted herself as a defensive midfielder, popping up everywhere against Sky Blue. With Celeste Boureille’s starting spot seemingly up for grabs, it appeared that Salem was the player who would take advantage, sitting back and freeing up Horan in the attack when the national team players returned to the team. With a high tackle success rate — out of an admittedly small sample size — Salem looked like she could be the holding midfielder the Thorns had been looking for. Unfortunately, an ACL tear in Portland’s home opener cut her season short; she’ll have to wait until next year to challenge for a spot in the Thorns’ starting XI.
Always a player with an enormous amount of potential, Eckerstrom has really grown into her own this year. Gone are the nerve-riddled performances of 2018, the timidness off her line the disproportionate amount of fumbled crosses; Eckerstrom has looked confident, calm, and up to the task of keeping the ball out of the net. She’s been the keeper between the pipes for three out of Portland’s four shutouts this season, and her shotstopping ability and newfound composure have helped her to establish herself as a solid option in goal for the Thorns.
In her second season in Portland, Ball has stepped in as a fullback for the Thorns, putting together solid defensive performances throughout her four games. She’s done a good job holding down the right side of the field, showing particularly well when asked to track the runs of Sky Blue’s Imani Dorsey. In the words of Klingenberg, “[Ball] has done a fantastic job jumping in. She’s been lights out on 1v1 defending, and I think that her passing forward has been quite good.”
Along with Madison Pogarch and Kelli Hubly, Everett was one of the players who saw spot minutes during the World Cup period. Although none of them put forth bad performances, it was Everett who really made her mark, scoring for Portland in her home debut — the only player besides Purce to score for the Thorns while the internationals were gone. Coming off the bench in the closing minutes of games, Everett has found a way to get shots on frame, adding a dangerous spark to Portland’s attack.
Who might be seeing less time?
Crnogorcevic was supposed to be one of the players who really shone during the World Cup mini-season; her maturity and international pedigree hinted at her ability to be one of the Thorns’ best during this period. It isn’t that Crnogorcevic has actively taken away from Portland’s performances, but she also hasn’t produced anything of note. Dropping into more of a ten role, Crnogorcevic hasn’t created much on the attacking end of things, though her play off the ball has been solid. With Heath, Foord, and more healthy Hayley Raso coming back into the Thorns squad and Purce — and even Charley — performing the way she has this season, it seems like Crnogorcevic is going to be the fifth or sixth forward on Portland’s depth chart.
Lussi’s always contributed best off the bench — her speed and scrappy play can add another burst of energy to a fatiguing front line — and the question was always going to be if she could sustain that for a full 90. After her lone start on the season had her fading in and out of the first hour of the Sky Blue game, Lussi returned to that initial role, subbing into the following matches. Although she played well with Everett in moments, Lussi won’t be happy with how quiet she’s been during the World Cup period.