Natalia Kuikka was named the Budweiser Player of the Match on Sunday against the Orlando Pride. This was the second consecutive match for which the defender won this award.
Kuikka signed for the Portland Thorns on Oct. 29, 2020 from Damallsvenskan side Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC. The Finnish international has talked about the difficulties of moving to Portland during the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioning to a new league.
I had the opportunity to ask @nataliakuikka about transitioning to the NWSL. She spoke about the difficulties of the transition because of the pandemic, her performances in the first three matches and always demanding more of herself on the pitch #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/7LvXMsS7ET— Grant Little (@grantlittle09) April 29, 2021
Kuikka has been crucial to the Thorns' success since joining and has made the right back position her own. The Finnish defender is naturally a center back and has played there a few times for the Thorns. But the majority of her minutes have come at right back where she has strengthened the back line and bolstered Portland’s threat down the flanks.
Kuikka demonstrated her defensive and offensive prowess against Orlando. Because of the Thorns’ reliance on their fullbacks to provide width, Kuikka gets on the ball a lot. She had the second-most touches in the match with 89, only two behind Meghan Klingenberg.
Kuikka completed 82.4% of her 51 passes. This is impressive because of the types of passes Kuikka makes. She is good at recognizing space and playing penetrative passes through the opposition’s lines and can play the ball to her teammates’ feet or in behind the defense. Kuikka played a wonderful curling through ball to Sophia Smith late in first-half stoppage time. Smith was unable to convert, but Kuikka had easily unlocked the Pride defense.
The Finnish defender uses her ability to identify space to drive into open areas on the pitch. She often advances the attack single-handedly down the right flank with her line-breaking dribbling. Kuikka plays one-twos with the midfielder and forwards and makes penetrative off-ball runs to drag defenders and serve as another passing option. She forces defenders to step to her, which opens up space for other Thorns attackers, or uses the space vacated by the defenders to play killer passes behind the back line.
Kuikka also has the passing range to find players with accurate long balls. She has taken corners previously this season and she showed her ability to play accurate passes over distance against the Pride. Kuikka did this in open play and in dead-ball situations but they were often wasted by the Thorns against the Pride.
The Finnish defender is relentless in defense. She is a solid one-on-one defender and tracks off-ball runs well. Kuikka completed three of her four attempted tackles. Even if a player is able to initially beat Kuikka, she recovers and continues to challenge the attack.
Kuikka also brings a unique ability to read and deal with aerial service that is not typical of fullbacks. Because she is naturally a center back, Kuikka is much more accustomed to dispelling aerial service than the typical fullback. When one center back steps to a wide attacker, Kuikka is able to slide behind the other center back and operate momentarily as the second central defender. She was able to put off Orlando’s main attack threat, Sydney Leroux, who is a strong presence in the air, multiple times.
Kuikka continues to grow in the right back position. She is a dominant defender that also has a lot to offer going forward. The Thorns are just starting to reap the rewards of the Kuikka signing. She has earned two consecutive Budweiser Player of the Match awards and is just starting to unlock her potential at right back.
Statistics retrieved from nwslsoccer.com and Thorns FC. Video retrieved from @nwslofficial on Twitch.