There wasn’t much for Thorns fans to be excited about on Saturday night. Portland played well enough in the first half but were unable to convert their chances against the North Carolina Courage. Their rivals were able to convert their chances, courtesy of an in-form Lynn Williams. The Courage came out 2-0 winners and the Thorns’ three-match winning streak was snapped by their rivals.
As the clock ticked down, the mood among Thorns fans was somber, but there was some brightness to lighten Portland’s dour mood. Yazmeen Ryan replaced Morgan Weaver in the 70th minute to make her professional and Portland Thorns debut.
“When I first was told I was going in I was like ‘Hell yeah.’ Like, that was my mindset, like ‘Hell yeah, let’s do this,’” said Ryan in the post-match presser.
Ryan was the sixth overall pick of the 2021 NWSL Draft, and the Thorns’ first overall pick. She arrived in Portland on May 14th after finishing her final collegiate season at Texas Christian University.
Coach Mark Parsons recognized the stress of finishing college, traveling across the country and starting a professional career and introduced Ryan slowly. She arrived just as the team was leaving for a grueling away trip that included a visit to Orlando and a stop in New Jersey in the space of four days.
Ryan stayed in Portland with fellow 2021 draftee Hannah Betfort and a small group of Thorns players that didn’t make the trip. Ryan trained in Portland and waited to make her pro debut. She was included in multiple matchday squads prior to the match against North Carolina but finally got on the field 164 days after being drafted and 43 days after arriving in Portland.
The debut was well worth the wait as Ryan displayed the talent that Parsons and the Thorns front office felt the need to trade up for. Her first touch came when she received a goal kick in the middle of the pitch.
“Yeah, what a fantastic debut,” said Parsons in the post match press conference. “I’m really happy for her. I mean her first touch, bringing a ball out from a goal kick just to set the left back and then the second action to go on the dribble … She’s cool, calm, and collected. She’s got a great brain, great technique. It’s just the beginning and I can’t wait to see her continue to grow and glad we got that first game out of the way.”
Ryan handled Adrianna Franch’s goal kick beautifully, laying it off to Madison Pogarch. Pogarch turned out of pressure and found Crystal Dunn, who returned the ball to Ryan. The TCU grad received the ball in stride and drove at the defense. She surveyed her options before delivering a driven pass across the field in stride to Rocky Rodriguez.
Ryan was the target of the next goal kick as well. She flicked a header onto Dunn with precision. The third goal kick since Ryan entered the pitch found Dunn. Dunn dribbled toward goal down the left side of the midfield. Ryan recognized the vacant space in the left channel and used her pace to burst past Dunn. She got the ball and dribbled into the box and played a well-disguised left-footed pass to Dunn, who was positioned in the center of the 18-yard box. Dunn’s touch got away from her and the chance was gone but Ryan had already breathed life into the Thorns offense.
Dunn and Ryan were involved in another potential goalscoring opportunity in the 83rd minute. Dunn spun her defender and got to the end line. She lofted a cross to the head of Celeste Boureille. She headed it to Ryan in the box. Ryan showed patience and poise to recognize that she couldn’t get a shot on goal. She turned and laid the ball to Christine Sinclair at the top of the 18-yard box. Again the chance was spurned, but the calmness on the ball for a player making her professional debut was impressive.
“The most important thing is that [Ryan] really helped us in this game,” said Parsons. “She really helped calm us down and connect again and I thought we got back on the front foot.”
Ryan is best with the ball at her feet and she got on the ball often in her 20-minute cameo. She had 25 touches and played on both sides of the diamond midfield, showcasing one of her best attributes — her versatility. Ryan was also safe on the ball while giving the Courage back line headaches. She completed 16 of her 17 attempted passes and added one key pass.
The Thorns’ midfielder also showed great spatial recognition defensively. In the 77th minute, Kristen Hamilton was left unmarked at the top of the 18-yard box as Williams dribbled down the left channel. Ryan recognized this and sprinted to cover her. Hamilton altered her run as Williams played her cross and Ryan did well to step into the passing lane and nullify Hamilton.
“I’ve just been super excited to go out there and play with these girls in a real life game and so going in, my goal was to really make a difference and bring the energy up and just support my teammates in any way I can and the best I can,” said Ryan. “And obviously a little bit of ‘Don’t mess up.’ But just keeping it calm, just reminding myself to stay true to myself and my strengths while also remembering our tactics as a team.”
Ryan was impressive in her debut and is sure to get more minutes as the Olympic Games approach. She is young and it will take time for her to adjust to the NWSL, but she demonstrated her quality and skill in her first appearance away in Cary, North Carolina. Ryan has the tools to become an extremely impactful and important player in Portland. It will be exciting to watch her develop and contribute to this Thorns team that could use more creativity to unlock their potential in the final third.