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How might the Portland Thorns line up in 2021?

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Grant Little takes a look at how the Thorns might line up at the start of the season and during the Olympics.

Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign

The recent trades of Emily Ogle and Gabby Seiler got a lot of people talking about Portland Thorns FC’s roster makeup and how the team might line up going into 2021. We are only a couple months out from getting a better idea of how the roster will look, with players reporting to their clubs on Feb. 1.

That being said, I get the feeling that the Thorns’ roster is a long way from being solidified. Portland currently holds the 7th, 12th, 22nd, 32nd, and 37th picks in the 2021 NWSL Draft. There is almost no chance that the Thorns will use all of these picks. That means the Thorns are most likely trading picks for a better pick(s) or they are trading picks for a players, allocation money, etc.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we will likely see two very different rosters throughout the season. The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled from July 23 to Aug. 8, and respective national team camps will be held in preparation for the competition. If the USWNT wins gold at the Olympics, they will most likely be called up for a victory tour as well.

Vlatko Andonovski will almost assuredly call up Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn, and Lindsey Horan. It is much more unlikely but there may be a slim chance that Sophia Smith could get called up or be asked to be a reserve player. Christine Sinclair will also be called up for the Olympics to represent the Canadian Women’s National Team.

The NWSL Challenge Cup is planned for around mid-April and the start of the regular season is slated for mid-May. The NWSL has also reformatted the playoffs, extending it to six teams with the top two seeds getting a bye in the first round. The championship will be held on the weekend of Nov. 20th.

Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign

So really we are looking at two pretty different rosters considering the Thorns will be missing at least four starters during pre-Olympic camps and the tournament itself. But before we speculate about the roster during the Olympics, let’s look at how the Thorns will line up if all their players are healthy and ready to go at the start of the season.

I think coach Mark Parsons will most likely stick with a formation that has four midfielders. The Thorns have a lot of attacking talent in the midfield and I don’t see a way to accommodate all of the team’s best players without running four players there. Similarly, I don’t think the Thorns have the traditional or inverted wingers to play a front three. They have a lot of young attacking talent, but Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi, Morgan Weaver, Sophia Smith, and Marissa Everett all seem like they thrive more centrally rather than being the players putting in crosses to one central striker.

This is not to say we couldn’t see a 4-3-3 at times. Smith and Weaver definitely have the skills to be dangerous on the wing. But, again, the 4-3-3 requires the Thorns to drop a midfielder and this doesn’t seem likely.

The defense is pretty straightforward. Parsons will have his hands full deciding which of Bella Bixby, Adrianna Franch, and Britt Eckerstrom will start between the sticks, but the backline will look very familiar at least at the start of the season. Meghan Klingenberg should start at left back and either Kelli Hubly or Christen Westphal will start at right back. Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges will make up the familiar center back pairing.

Natalia Kuikka could work her way into a starting center back position but I expect to see more of her as the season wears on. I think the three center backs and Hubly will rotate to save legs and keep everyone fresh. Kuikka is definitely a quality defender and we will see a lot of her during the Olympic period.

Netherlands Women v USA Women - International Friendly Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The midfield is the big question. Dunn has made it clear that she doesn’t want to play as a defender and the Thorns seem willing to accommodate her (especially because she is actually a midfielder). So where does Dunn fit? I see two real options: As a box-to-box midfielder beside Lindsey Horan and in front of Angela Salem or in the No. 10 role at the point of the diamond.

Personally, I think the midfield that gets all of the Thorns’ best players on the pitch is the diamond midfield that Parsons ran in the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series, with a twist. Salem would be the first choice holding midfielder. Horan and Rodriguez would play as the two No. 8s much like they did this season with Celeste Boureille as an option off the bench. Finally, Dunn would play as the 10 in the position normally occupied by Sinclair. This would mean Sinclair would move into the front two for the most part.

This also provides tactical versatility because Sinclair can still play at the 10 and Dunn could drop into the No. 8 position depending on the match and rotation.

Ideally, the front two would be Sinclair and Smith. Smith would be more of the out-and-out nine while Sinclair can still operate behind Smith a little bit. Sinclair and Dunn could also be very interchangeable, linking up and occupying different spaces in between the lines to unlock stubborn defenses.

So here is how I think the Thorns will line up when everyone is available at the start of the season. Weaver and Charley will likely be the first attacking subs off the bench and Boureille can slide in to provide a different look in midfield.

Now let’s look at how Portland may line up without the likes of Horan, Dunn, Sauerbrunn, and Sinclair (assuming Sophia Smith doesn’t make the hyper competitive 18-player Olympic roster).

The backline will stay pretty much the same with Kuikka sliding in for Sauerbrunn and Hubly serving as the third center back if needed. Kuikka’s preferred position is center back but she can also slide in at left back to serve as Klingenberg’s back up.

Salem will still anchor the midfield, but then things start to get interesting. Will Parsons stick with the same system or will he make adjustments? If he sticks with the same system, Rodriguez and Boureille will be the two No. 8s. The No. 10 position is difficult. He may elect to drop one of his forwards like Weaver or Smith into that position. Whoever stays at striker would probably be accompanied by Charley up top.

During the Olympics, when the Thorns will lose a lot of its midfield talent, Parsons may switch things up and go to a 4-3-3 with the three-player midfield of Boureille, Salem, and Rodriguez and a fluid front three of Charley, Weaver, and Smith. I think the 4-3-3 at the moment — assuming this is the roster — might be the most effective formation during the Olympic period. They could still defend and press in a defensively solid 4-4-2 but would allow for offensive fluidity and the attacking, possession-based style that Parsons strives for.

Ultimately we will have to wait and see how this roster fills out and how Parsons tries to accommodate these players. One thing is for sure: With both Emily Ogle and Gabby Seiler being traded to the Houston Dash, the Thorns are in desperate need of another holding midfielder. Salem was good in that position last year, but Portland can’t go into the long, Olympic-interrupted season with only one No. 6. I’m sure that Parsons and the Thorns’ front office and ownership realize this and a signing will come.

There will likely be more moves in the coming month. The Thorns will make some draft picks, but I highly doubt it will be five draft picks. But with the season fast approaching it is interesting to speculate how all the pieces fit going into 2021.