The main story of the 2019 NWSL season centers around the absence and return of players due to the World Cup and how each team will fare in the process. This narrative rings especially true for the Thorns, who have nine players, representing four countries, in France this summer. Here’s what you need to know about those countries:
Australia (Group C)
A team with a talented and experienced core group of players, Australia will be one of the most exciting teams to watch in this World Cup. The Matildas have embraced the long-term model of building a team by focusing on the development of youth players, and now they look to reap the rewards of their system.
They enter France under the leadership of new head coach, Ante Milicic, after Football Federation Australia infamously fired his predecessor, Alen Stajic, just months before the tournament. In their brief time under Milicic, Australia has posted an up and down 3-2-0 record, with one loss (and a second in a closed-door friendly, not counted in the overall record) coming against the Netherlands, and the other being a wild 5-3 defeat to the United States.
With the goal-scoring prowess of Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord, the Aussies promise to generate opportunities going forward; they’ve scored multiple goals in four of their six games this year and have been shut out only once. Defense presents a much larger question mark, as centerback Alanna Kennedy has looked sloppy and downright exhausted in recent months, and left back Steph Catley is still working her way to top form after an injury. The question for Australia becomes: Can they score more goals than they allow?
Drawn in a group with Italy, Brazil, and Jamaica, the Aussies have the ability to take points from a developing Caribbean side and a Brazil team that’s struggled as of late (more on that below). Their opener could present a challenge — Italy is coming off a strong run of form going into France — but if the Matildas can capitalize on chances, they should be able to find points there as well (though defensive inconsistency could always lead to their World Cup run going wildly off-kilter).
How will the Thorns contribute?
Despite only recently turning 19, Ellie Carpenter looks to be a lock on the right side of Australia’s defense. Carpenter offers solid, international-caliber 1v1 defending and a willingness to take on players and attack up the flank. Her athleticism and composure — both when defending and with a ball at her feet — make her an irreplaceable asset for the Matildas.
Although her exact position on the field will depend on the formation her team is playing, Caitlin Foord will play a vital role in Australia’s attack. Foord has recorded 16 goals in her 72 international appearances. Since recovering from an injury last year, Foord has been in fantastic form for both club and country, playing valuable minutes for the Thorns — where she recorded three goals and one assist in five games — before departing for the World Cup. Her vision, physicality, and creativity make her a threat on and off the ball, and her partnership with Sam Kerr is one to watch as the duo look to carry Australia through potential poor defensive performances.
Still working her way into full fitness after a back injury, Hayley Raso is the only player of the three who is really vying for a starting spot. Australia’s changing formations as of late make it unclear exactly what that spot is, but Raso likely has to challenge Emily Gielnik and Lisa De Vanna for minutes. Gielnik’s height, strength, and left-footed long balls provide a different look for an Australian side that relies heavily on athleticism and physicality; it’s hard to justify taking Gielnik off the field, especially when she’s producing goals. At 34, De Vanna provides experience and leadership as a veteran player, but the longevity of her career means she’s not going to be playing full 90-minute games throughout the tournament. Even if she doesn’t start, Raso’s skillset can benefit the Matildas coming off the bench. Her scrappiness and ability to run at tired defenders can cause chaos late in a game and provide an extra attacking spark as players begin to fatigue.
— Leo Baudhuin
Brazil (Group C)
No other team has been left behind by the global advancement of women’s soccer more than Brazil. Despite a hugely talented squad and a legacy of competitiveness that saw strong performances through the early 2000s, Brazil is in an extended period of underachievement due to decades of neglect and underinvestment from their federation.
The team has settled into a pattern of being comfortably the best team in South America — they ran through last year’s Copa America Feminina undefeated — but they are outmatched against all other competition, especially recently. Despite impressing at the 2016 Olympics, they’ve been looking ragged in all performances ever since the team unceremoniously fired their first-ever female coach, Emily Lima, over the objections of many of their senior players, leading many to temporarily quit the team. Recently they’ve been on a streak of nine games without a win against World Cup competition, including most recently a loss to debutants Scotland, where the team dominated possession but failed to execute in either final third.
In a group with now-old rivals Australia, up-and-comers Italy and young debutants Jamaica, Brazil look well placed from a talent perspective. They’ll be expected to advance to the knockout stages, but it could be a rough World Cup for them should they fail to improve on their record.
How will the Thorns contribute?
Despite starting all of Brazil’s group games in the 2015 World Cup and having 43 appearances for her country, Andressinha has been on the outside looking in in the past few years, not even making the matchday squads of the SheBelieves Cup games earlier this year. The situation has improved for her since then after making a concerted effort to impress her national team coach (including going on loan to Brazilian club Iranduba da Amazonia during the part of the season where she wasn’t assured of a starting place at the Thorns) and she’s gotten minutes off the bench in recent games.
Andressinha’s path to starting minutes in this team is a tough one. With Brazil running four central midfielders (two nominally wingers cutting inside and two deeper players sitting centrally), there should be room for Andressinha somewhere in the team, but the spots are fairly locked in. Andressa and Debinha are a very talented attacking midfield partnership. Deeper in midfield, Brazil has preferred Thaisa alongside stalwart Formiga to add some more work rate and all-around tackling ability in their starting lineup. The latter are the spots that Brazil have decided have decided that Andressinha is competing in, and they appear to be using her as a substitute to add more attacking ability from deep late in games. Against tired defenses, she could potentially do damage with her incisive passing and dribbling ability, and she’ll need to take advantage of the limited time that she will see on the field.
— Tyler Nguyen
Canada (Group E)
After making the quarterfinals as hosts in 2015 and making the podium at the 2016 Olympics, expectations feel higher than usual for the other CONCACAF heavyweights. Canada are integrating some very young talent this World Cup at the same time as seeing possibly the last World Cup cycle ever for their golden generation of players. It’s a tricky balance for relatively new manager Kenneth Heiner-Moller to strike.
They’re undefeated so far this year, but that has included a lot of draws and a few 1-0 squeakers. Success for the Canadians will require them to keep games tight and be competitive, but they’ve got enough spirit within their old core to drive them far into the tournament on their grit alone. In a group with Cameroon, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, they should advance, but finishing second could set them up with a round of 16 date with a dangerous Swedish team. They’ll need to catch some breaks to make it far.
How will the Thorns contribute?
Christine Sinclair is not only Canada’s best-ever player, captain, and top goalscorer, she’s also very close to breaking the all-time international goalscoring record, held by Abby Wambach. Thorns fans will be very familiar with her transition to playmaker over the last few years: She’s taken her hold up play and translated it to being able to shield the ball and compete in midfield. She brings a striker’s physicality to midfield: the height that she used to compete for crosses is now being put to work picking up second balls, and any one who thinks she can’t put in a tackle will end up regretting it.
Sinclair is in no hurry to break records: She’s trying to be the best player she can for her team and is more than happy to set up her teammates. It’s hard to escape the sense that her team wants her to make the record though, and her recent strike rate in friendlies make it likely to happen. Ultimately, to her, it just doesn’t matter — she’s been with this team through high highs (two Olympic bronze medals) and very low lows (last place at the 2011 World Cup), and will do everything she can to take her team as far as they can go.
— Tyler Nguyen
United States (Group F)
The reigning World Cup champions enter the tournament as one of the clear favorites to clinch yet another title. Still under the leadership of Jill Ellis, the USWNT has evolved tremendously over the past four years, looking like a completely different team than the one that shone in Vancouver.
The Americans are lacking the defensive stability that carried them through the early parts of the 2015 World Cup; where they are now is a far cry from the “defense wins championships” mentality that earned them a shutout streak six seconds off Germany’s 540 minute record. Ellis’ preferred backline going into the tournament holds room for just one of the players who featured prominently in 2015’s defense. (Julie Ertz is still on the pitch, but she’s been moved up to a defensive midfield role.)
However, the USWNT attack should be strong enough to make up for defensive lapses, especially early on; the front three of Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Tobin Heath are a force to reckon with on, not to mention the midfield’s ability going forward and Ellis’ use of wingbacks (both of which we’ll look at below).
In the group stage, the sheer caliber of their offense should be enough to get the Americans comfortably past Thailand and Chile. Sweden presents a potential challenge for the United States; their ability to sit back and absorb pressure most notably led to the USWNT exiting the 2016 Olympics in the quarter-final round, losing out to the Swedish side on penalties. However, coach Peter Gerhardsson plays a less conservative style than Pia Sundhage did, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Americans emerge from their group with a full nine points.
How will the Thorns contribute?
Whether or not you agree, Jill Ellis has made it pretty clear that she sees Adrianna Franch as her third-string keeper. Of course, weird things can happen in a tournament, but it’s unlikely Franch will see time during the World Cup.
At this point, it’s not news that Ellis likes to play Emily Sonnett as a right wingback, pushing up the line and combine with the attacking players. We see this consistently with Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn, Ellis’ preferred starters on the outside of defense. With O’Hara still working her way back from an ankle injury and, therefore, unable to play throughout the entire tournament, it seems that Sonnett will be called to step in — although Ali Krieger, a natural right back, could slot in there as well.
Sonnett’s time on the right side of the USWNT defense has pointed to clear areas where she can be exposed. It seems that she’s still working out the defensive positioning side of things, at times tracking back too centrally and leaving a player from the opposing team open on the flank. The attacking side of Sonnett’s role has seen significant improvement; she’s looked significantly more confident working up the right flank in her recent appearances. If Sonnett can continue to contribute going forward and figure out her defensive positioning, she can assert herself as a solid option in times when O’Hara cannot play.
Reigning NWSL MVP, Lindsey Horan, has established herself as an essential part of both the Thorns’ and the USWNT’s midfields. Portland fans already know what The Great Horan can do, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Horan’s ability to win tackles, draw fouls, make the late run out of midfield, and get on the end of chances and finish them have all been showcased clearly in league play. Playing as an eight with Julie Ertz hanging back as a six and Rose Lavelle pushing forward as a ten, Horan is able to make her presence known around the field. Ellis especially seems to favor Horan’s talent going forward, encouraging her to push high and add to the already loaded USWNT attack. After all, the other team can’t score if you spend the entire match on the offensive, right?
It’s been said a lot, but Tobin Heath is in the form of her life. In recent years, Heath has found a way to channel her technical skill, creative flair, and willingness to take risks with the ball at her feet into a productive playmaker on the right side of the USWNT offense. This is highlighted by Heath’s 30 goals — five of which have come in 2019 — and 37 assists over the course of her international career. There’s no doubt that she’ll be one to watch in France as she looks to humiliate world-class defenders, find players in the box, and add to those numbers.
— Leo Baudhuin