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Predicting the Thorns’ Protected List

The 2022 Expansion Draft is on the horizon and the Thorns will lose one player to San Diego Wave FC. Who will the Thorns protect and who will they leave unprotected?

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North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The 2022 NWSL Expansion Draft is set to take place on Thursday, December 18 as both Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC enter the league. The Portland Thorns recently traded both Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi to Angel City in exchange for $100,000 in Allocation Money, a 2022 NWSL Draft natural second-round pick and 2022 expansion draft immunity from the LA-based club.

Now the Thorns only have to worry about San Diego and the one player they will select from Portland’s roster. As of now, San Diego has four forwards (Makenzy Doniak, Katie Johnson, Jodie Taylor and Kelsey Turnbow), two defenders (Abby Dahlkemper and Tegan McGrady), one midfielder (Angharad James) and one goalkeeper (Kailen Sheridan).

Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc and coach Rhian Wilkinson will be analyzing all of this and game planning how they can play the system and use the Expansion Draft rules to their advantage. After all, they can only protect nine players which is one less than the Thorns were able to protect last year when Racing Louisville entered the league.

Before I dive into this I want to say this was extremely difficult to do and I started and restarted and adjusted this list repeatedly. By the time this is out on the web I may have changed my mind again on who to protect and who to leave unprotected. The fact of the matter is this team is so deep and with only nine protected slots it is impossible to not leave great players and budding talents up for grabs. That being said, here is what I think the Thorns might do:

Sophia Smith and Becky Sauerbrunn are the Thorns’ two U.S. Allocated Player. Each team can only protect one U.S. Allocated Player and the Thorns should protect Smith. Also, Smith was protected in 2020 and Sauerbrunn was not. The forward is clearly a crucial part of the Thorns offense now and could be the face of this team in the future, not to mention the Thorns worked very hard to get her by trading for the first pick of the 2020 NWSL College Draft. Smith will be the first listed on the protected list which means Sauerbrunn will be left unprotected based on their statuses as U.S. Allocated players.

USWNT Training Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

From here on out it gets more and more difficult to decide who to protect and who to leave unprotected and the difficulty is exacerbated because we do not know the style of play or the formation(s) that Rhian Wilkinson plans to implement. But I still think there are two players that will be protected that are pretty easy to predict based on the club’s actions and both of these players were protected in 2020.

These two players are Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan. On Feb. 24, 2021, the two midfielders relinquished their NWSL allocations from U.S. Soccer and penned three-year deals with the Thorns. They aren’t going anywhere in the Expansion Draft. There have been rumors of Horan joining Olympique Lyonnais but I doubt the Thorns leave her NWSL playing rights available for selection.

I think Thorns FC could opt to take a calculated risk in the goalkeeping department and not protect any of their keepers. San Diego has already locked up their No. 1 with the signing of Canadian international Kailen Sheridan and need reinforcements elsewhere on the pitch. The Thorns left all of their goalkeepers unprotected in 2020 as well. If the Thorns don’t think the risk will pay off, the club will obviously protect Bella Bixby.

It is also possible that Portland takes a calculated risk with the forwards. San Diego has four forwards and may add Alex Morgan in the Expansion Draft or in the next transfer window. With that in mind, Wave FC will have no need for more forwards and will likely look to boost their midfield and defensive lines. That being said, I think the Thorns may leave Morgan Weaver and Christine Sinclair unprotected. It is a risk but I doubt Sinclair would be willing to play for another team. Sinclair and Weaver were both protected last year and I think they would be protected if Angel City and San Diego were selecting players but Wave FC have no need for more forwards.

It starts to get very difficult from here on out. This team is stacked with talent that they will not want to lose but they have to lose one player and it is all about trying to figure out how to make the most of your nine protected slots while assessing the needs of San Diego. To me it looks like Wave FC needs midfielders and defenders and I kept that in mind to decide who to protect next - three defenders and one midfielder.

OL Reign v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The three defenders are Natalia Kuikka, Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Menges. Kuikka was signed by the Thorns prior to the 2021 season. She is a Finnish international who came to the U.S. to play for the Thorns and she will likely be protected. Not to mention, she is a great player who is able to star at center back or right back - and sometimes even in midfield.

Klingenberg is the heart and soul of this team and is someone who would be a great leader for an expansion side. She is also coming off one of the most impressive seasons of her career. The left back will surely be protected.

Menges has been a rock at the back throughout the 2021 season and throughout her career with the Portland Thorns. She was a consistent presence in the back line during the Thorns’ defensively dominant season and I think she will be protected. By protecting Menges, the Thorns are only rolling the dice on only one member of their starting back line from 2021, Sauerbrunn, which they are forced to do by protecting Smith.

By protecting these three defenders, it is fair to guess that a few of the other Thorns defenders will not be protected: Hannah Betfort, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch and Christen Westphal - not because these players aren’t vital to the teams success but because it is difficult to select only nine players to protect from this team’s stellar roster.

Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign Photo by Stephen Brashear/ISI Photos/Getty Images

If Angela Salem accepts the contract extension that the Thorns offered her, she needs to be protected. Salem had an MVP caliber season and was described as the glue that held this Thorns team together. She is also the only true No. 6 in the squad and was Portland’s best player last season.

By selecting the above players, we are left with some difficult decisions of who we drop to the unprotected list. Unfortunately, the Thorns will be forced into leaving some bright talents and established stars unprotected because of their impressive depth. I think Thorns FC could leave Rocky Rodriguez, Yazmeen Ryan, Celeste Boureille, Marissa Everett and the NWSL playing rights of Amirah Ali unprotected.

There are a lot of quality players left unprotected and it will be a shame to see any of these players drafted to San Diego but the Thorns can take solace in the fact that they will only lose one of these quality players.

This leaves two more protected slots which I think should be used to ensure the future of each line. As previously mentioned, Smith is the future of the forward line and so I think the Thorns will use their last two protected slots to ensure the future of the back line and midfield. Kelli Hubly is 27 and is the youngest center back other than Kuikka (who typically plays right back for the Thorns). She could be the leader of this defense in the future. Wave FC is also in need of more center backs and that is why it is important to protect Hubly.

To ensure the future of the midfield, the Thorns might protect the NWSL playing rights of Sam Coffey. The four players who typically play in the three spots behind Sinclair in the midfield are Salem, Horan, Dunn and Rodriguez. Coffey can play in the No. 6, No. 8 and No. 10 roles and can learn a lot from these players. Coffey has a very high ceiling and can offer a lot in a variety of roles and her high profile status in college makes her someone San Diego could have their eyes set on. The Thorns should not risk losing Coffey.

Protected: Sophia Smith, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Natalia Kuikka, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Angela Salem, Kelli Hubly, the NWSL playing rights of Sam Coffey

Unprotected: Becky Sauerbrunn, Bella Bixby, Shelby Hogan, Abby Smith, Morgan Weaver, Christine Sinclair, Hannah Betfort, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Christen Westphal, Rocky Rodriguez, Yazmeen Ryan, Celeste Boureille, Marissa Everett and the NWSL playing rights of Amirah Ali

What changes would you make to my list? Is it worth it to take these calculated risks in the goalkeeping and forward departments? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

*According to the rules of the Expansion Draft, “Individuals on the Discovery List of a team are not eligible to be selected” Teams do not need to list these players as protected or unprotected. Discovery Lists are not disclosed to the public but I think it is fair to assume that Olivia Moultrie is on the Thorns’ Discovery List and will not be included in the protected or unprotected list. This could also apply to other players on the Thorns roster as well.