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Thorns Continue to Refine Roster

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The Thorns added four players in the last week, and more moves are on the way.

Rhian Wilkinson challenges new Thorns teammate Alex Morgan during the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Final in Vancouver, B.C..
Rhian Wilkinson challenges new Thorns teammate Alex Morgan during the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Final in Vancouver, B.C..
Rich Lam/Getty Images

With the Portland Thorns acquiring Portland-native Kendall Johnson, for their two remaining 2015 draft picks, and being allocated Canadian international defender Rhian Wilkinson and midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, they appear to have gone a long way toward fixing the defensive issues that plagued the Thorns throughout the 2014 season by bringing in three more potential starters.  Additionally, the Thorns acquired forward Jodie Taylor from the Washington Spirit in a draft day deal for two draft picks acquired from the Houston Dash just a few minutes early, as well as their second round draft pick in the 2016 NWSL College Draft.

Johnson, 23, has appeared in 37 matches (34 starts) for Sky Blue FC over the past two seasons, including starting every match of 2013 at outside back, giving the Thorns a young, starting-caliber player that should be looking to prove herself after falling out of favor with Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra.  She last started in their 5-0 loss to FC Kansas City on July 6, but was pulled in the 63rd minute and only appeared in reserve once over the last 7 matches of the season, where she was otherwise an unused substitute.  Despite falling out of favor, she looked to be one of the top rookies during the 2013 season, and a return home could do wonders for her confidence.

Kyle, 26, had made 21 appearances (20 starts) between Boston and Houston last season and 21 appearances (19 starts) for Seattle in 2013, appearing as both a defender and a midfielder.  She will give the Thorns another solid presence in central midfield, and is also capable of dropping back onto the backline, if needed.  In 2013, she scored 3 goals with the Reign, all on penalty kicks, and has 5 international goals with Canada in 83 appearances (53 starts).

Kyle brings another versatile player to the Thorns.  Primarily a defensive midfielder, she is capable of pushing up into the attack when needed and dropping back to add another layer of defense to shut down the opponent's attack.  She can have a bit of a reckless streak in her and is prone to yellow cards (4 in 2013, 2 in 2014, and 9 internationally), but her physical nature should help the Thorns even if it comes at the cost of fouls or cards, as they have often lacked a truly physical presence on the pitch.

Wilkinson, 32, appeared in 14 matches (11 starts) for Boston in 2013, recording 2 goals and an assist, before returning to Canada prior to the 2014 season, which she spend with the Laval Comets, making four appearances for the USL W-League side.  Internationally, she has appeared in 153 matches (127 starts), scoring 7 goals and is just the third Canadian with at least 150 caps.  Another player capable of playing both outside back positions, Wilkinson will likely battle with Johnson for the starting right back position.

Wilkinson will be a solid, veteran presence to a star-laden Thorns side.  While she may have lost a step compared to her earlier years, she will still get up the field into the attack and knows when to pull back defensively, which will be necessary in Paul Riley's attack-minded system.  Additionally, Wilkinson has served as a coach for Canada's U-20 WNT, so in addition to being a very experienced player, she will hopefully help mentor and coach her younger teammates on the defensive side of the ball, an issue that challenged the Thorns much of last season.

While these acquisitions address major issues that the Thorns faced going into the off-season, namely the lack of depth at outside back and central defensive midfielder, they also present problem of their own where Kyle and Wilkinson are concerned, as both of them are fully entrenched with their national team program and will leave the Thorns several times for international duty.

Taylor, 28, joins the Thorns after spending last season with the Spirit, where she scored 11 goals and added 2 assist in 21 appearances (19 starts).  Prior to joining the Spirit, she played for Australian side Sydney FC, where she scored 11 goals in 12 appearances.  In her senior career, beginning in 2006, she has scored 79 goals in 109 appearances and has made 4 appearances with the English Women's National Team.

Taylor's addition brings another proven striker into the Thorns, but with her involvement with England, it remains to be seen how long she'll be missing for the World Cup.  With the full roster, she'll likely slot in behind Morgan and Sinclair in the striker rotation and will have to battle to earn a starting spot over either of those two international icons, especially if they come back from the World Cup in good form.

While the Thorns will surely field a strong side in the very early and latter portions of the NWSL season, once players report to their respective national team camps, the Thorns could be without goalkeeper Nadine Angerer (Germany), defenders Stephanie Catley (Australia), Nikki Marshall (USA), Rachel Van Hollebeke (USA), and Wilkenson (Canada), midfielders Tobin Heath (USA), Kaylyn Kyle (Canada), Allie Long (USA), and Vero (Spain), and forwards Alex Morgan (USA), Christine Sinclair (Canada), and Jodie Taylor (England) for most of May, June, and early July, leaving the Thorns with some major holes to fill if every aforementioned player is brought into their national team camp, though players like Long, Marshall, and possibly Van Hollebeke are teetering on the edge of selection to the World Cup squad and Taylor is still a relative newcomer to the English program.

Perhaps even bigger news out of the allocation announcement was that the Canadian internationals will be made available for their NWSL sides prior to the World Cup.  It had been speculated that they would hold a full residency camp until June, leaving the Thorns without their Canadian contingent, but that does not appear to be the case anymore.   Even with that though, the Thorns will still find themselves severely shorthanded come May and June, especially if the roster cap stays at 20 players, with the potential for 11 players to be missing extended periods of time.

The Thorns currently have 24 players listed on their roster for the upcoming season, including Vero, who has yet to officially re-sign.  While the Thorns no longer have any glaring holes in their roster, there are still positions which will need to be filled.

With the draft now past, the Thorns will now need to look to acquire players through trades or signings, including an additional roster slots that Riley has already stated he intends to use.   While the thought may have been that he would look to solve the central midfield or backline issues with this slot, the Thorns could now go any number of ways in filling out their roster, especially with up-field positions needing to be filled during international call ups.

Without the services of their internationals, the only positions the Thorns appear to really be set on is on the backline and back up goalkeeper, with the midfield being the area most greatly affected without the services of Heath, Long, Kyle, and Vero, all presumed starters in their respective positions, though Kyle will definitely be battling with Zerboni for that defensive midfield position if Riley chooses to go with a lone defensive mid, which seems likely with the players available from the full roster.  The other position that the Thorns will probably need to look at is forward, since Jackie Acevedo appears to no longer be a member of the Thorns and only Danesha Adams and Hanna Terry will be available up top for most of June, depending on how far Morgan, Sinclair, and Taylor go with their respective national teams.

In his post-draft interview, Riley indicated that the Thorns will have 12-14 players available to them during the international call ups, which is less than ideal but can likely be augmented by calling in amateur players to fill out the bench so that the team can field a full 18 player roster for most matches and the Thorns typically have several amateur players who train with them throughout the season, so they should be able to bring in players familiar with the team's approach and tactics, though the likelihood of Riley actually using these players is probably relatively small given his penchant for more proven players.

Riley also indicated that the Thorns have two more big signings coming in to fill out their roster space.  While he did not elaborate, he has been clear in previous interviews that he wants players who will be around all season, so it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that the Thorns could be looking at players from top European sides did not make the World Cup, such as Italy, Scotland, the Netherlands, or Ukraine,, all nations that finished just outside of qualifications or have players already represented in the NWSL, such as Wales.

The construction of the Thorns roster seems to indicate that they are looking go "all in" this season, despite the long absences of several players.  While it will surely be an exciting team to follow, there is also a high possibility of frustration if all the pieces to mesh well together, as we saw for much of last season.  If Riley can find a way to unlock the potential throughout the roster, this Thorns side may be the best yet.

Special thanks to Emily Duhanty of Red Nation Online for her insights into the Thorns new Canadian internationals.