Portland Thorns FC were unable to start either of their starting center backs for the first two matches of the NWSL Challenge Cup: Becky Sauerbrunn was away with the U.S. women’s national team, and Emily Menges was dealing with a knock.
These absences forced coach Mark Parsons to move players around. The first decision was to slide defender Kelli Hubly into one of the center back slots. Natalia Kuikka lined up beside her, despite spending most of the offseason training as a right back.
Hubly showed her ability as a center back last year, and her performance against North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the 2020 Challenge Cup was a testament to her class.
Kuikka signed for the Thorns this offseason. She previously played for Goteborg FC (now BK Hacken) after graduating from Florida State. The reigning Finland Female Player of the Year is a solid defender, but adapting to a new league can be difficult. It hasn’t taken Kuikka long to find her footing with the Portland Thorns, though.
“I think [Kuikka]’s adapted quickly and obviously is a testament to those two performances,” said assistant coach Rich Gunney in the post-match press conference. “But I think behind the scenes in practice, in training, she’s physically doing extremely well and adapted to her new team environment and her new teammates particularly well.”
Both Hubly and Kuikka have played every minute for the Thorns in their first two matches. They have formed a strong center back pairing that is difficult to break down and have demonstrated the quality of the Thorns’ depth at the position.
The Portland Thorns allowed one goal against Kansas City NWSL and kept a clean sheet vs. Chicago. The Red Stars dominated Portland in the first half, keeping 53% possession and pinning the Thorns in the final third. Portland adjusted at the half, but the possession stats stayed the same.
The Red Stars also put the Thorns’ defense under a lot of pressure. They crossed the ball 34 times. It was a testament to the Portland defenders that only eight of those crosses were successful.
Hubly and Kuikka were busy throughout the match. Hubly made nine clearances and was two-for-three in tackling. Kuikka made seven clearances and completed one of her three attempted tackles. Each center back also made three interceptions.
Natalia Kuikka (@nataliakuikka) with 7 and Kelli Hubly (@kellihubly) made 16 clearances combined, the same number as the rest of the Thorns' XI and the same number as the entire Chicago Red Stars team. pic.twitter.com/GskE6DVqoX— NWSL Analitica (@NwslAnalitica) April 16, 2021
“The past couple weeks, we were able to build our partnership in practice,” said Hubly in the post-match press conference on Thursday. “The main thing for us was just a lot of communication because she has been playing more on the right, I’m more on the left side. So we haven’t been directly next to each other. But communication has been our biggest thing for each other, just being overly communicative … It’s made things pretty easy for us.”
The center backs’ understanding of one another and their communication was visible throughout their two matches. Both defenders like to step into midfield to pressure the player receiving the ball or make tackles. Hubly and Kuikka communicated well to make sure one did not step without the other covering the vacated area.
They also have attributes that complement each other. Hubly displayed her recovery speed against Chicago. She was tasked with tracking runners when the Thorns were caught upfield in transition. Hubly also never gives up on a play. In the 51st minute, Hubly was knocked off the ball in midfield and onto the ground. She immediately recovered and sprinted into the box, and then made an important clearance in the six-yard box.
Kuikka demonstrated her ability to stay home and read attackers one on one. Her decision-making allowed her to stay in front of the attackers while not over-committing. Makenzy Doniak tried to get past Kuikka in the 37th minute by hitting the ball around the center back and running onto it from the opposite side. But Kuikka read the play and used her body positioning to win the ball back and recover possession for the Thorns.
Hubly and Kuikka were also integral for the Thorns in the 18-yard box. In the match against Kansas City, the Thorns struggled to clear second balls, which led to the goal they conceded. Hubly and Kuikka were not going to let that happen versus the Red Stars. The center back pairing showed great anticipation and awareness to get to loose balls in the box before the Red Stars. The Thorns relied on this throughout the match with both defenders making key interventions inside the 18 and six-yard boxes to prevent clear opportunities for Chicago.
Hubly and Kuikka were key in possession and not just relied upon in defense. Hubly has had the highest pass accuracy in both of the Thorns’ matches, completing 84.7%, but she is less involved in possession than Kuikka.
“I think that [Kuikka] brings a lot of quality in possession of the ball,” said Gunney. “And she seemed very calm, composed in terms of distribution. But she’s very tenacious and determined defensively. I think we relied on some of her kind of aerial presence and disrupting the play and just dealing with their threat particularly well.”
Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch almost always passed to the Finnish defender when the Thorns tried to build from the back. Kuikka’s overall passing percentage is 76.5%, but she is confident on the ball and is vital to moving the team up the pitch with 55.6% of her passes going forward.
Kuikka’s passing range is also impressive. She has completed 50% of her long balls and was tied with Danielle Colaprico for the best passing accuracy in the final third.
Madison Pogarch (@maddiepogarch) played the more passes to the final third, with 13. Natalia Kuikka (@nataliakuikka) and Danielle Colaprico (@dannycolaprico) were the most accurate (87%). pic.twitter.com/Yvhc0EZnE8— NWSL Analitica (@NwslAnalitica) April 12, 2021
The Portland Thorns will have key center back pieces missing on and off throughout the season due to FIFA dates and the Tokyo Olympics — but the Thorns defense should be in good hands regardless of the starting center back duo. Fans are well aware of the impact that Menges and Sauerbrunn have on the backline, and these two performances by Hubly and Kuikka should instill similar confidence.
Stats retrieved from Opta at nwslsoccer.com.