It wouldn't be much if a stretch to call Amandine Henry the biggest signing in Portland Thorns history.
The 26 year-old French star has built quite the resume over her professional career, most recently named to the first-ever FIFPro Women's World XI, which comes on the heels of a runner-up finish in the 2015 UEFA Best Women's Player in Europe and winning the Silver Ball and the 2015 World Cup in Canada. If not for incredible performance by Celia Sasic and Carli Lloyd, she likely runs away with both awards.
The Thorns have always had a star-studded roster, from being allocated Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, and Christine Sinclair, to luring Nadine Angerer and Vero into a new and cap-tied league, Portland has never had a problem attracting star power.
15,000+ fans in the seats, a ravenous fan base, world-class facilities, the Thorns can provide all of that for their players, so while the financials of the deal, which are unlikely to be released by the team or league, she will be unlikely to draw the salary she received in Europe, Portland brings so much more to the table than most women's teams in the world, and Henry brings just as much to the Thorns.
More than just the awards she has won recently, Henry caps off the complete rebuild of the Thorns midfield and solidifies perhaps the key position of weakness that has plagued them since Becky Edwards went down mid-season in 2013: defensive midfielder.
How important is a defensive midfielder? Just imagine the Timbers without Diego Chara bossing the midfield and springing the counterattack. No one can deny that he is the is the pivotal force in the middle of he pitch, but the Thorns have never truly had a player to match. While they have tried a variety of players in this position over the past three seasons, there has varying degrees of success.
Henry Represents a Shift in Focus
Henry is coming to the Thorns as she enters her prime and on the heels of her best season yet. At only 26, she is already considered the best defensive midfielder in the world, and she is only trending upward. It would not be surprising to hear her called Europe's, if not the world's best player when France hosts the next World Cup in 2019.
Pair her signing with the acquisitions of Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett, and Dagny Brynjardottir, and add in Betos, Heath, Menges, Nadim, Sinclair, and Taylor, and you have a team that is not only built to win now, but to continue to win for years to come.
For Henry, this move makes sense in multiple levels. She is a Nike Soccer athlete, so being just down to road from their World Headquarters can be seen as a key motivator. Also, while she is clearly one of the highest regarded players in Europe, and playing alongside some of the best in the world, France, like many leagues around the world, is a two horse race. It's Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, and everyone else. If she subscribes to the idea that if you want to be the best than you have to beat the best, then the NWSL is the place to be. While the season runs counter to the world calendar and the pay is low, the parity of the NWSL is unmatched in the world, and you can bet that if Henry is talking up the quality of play in the NWSL, other stars will follow, especially as we move into the non World Cup and Olympic years next season.
As long as the NWSL operates under such a strict salary cap, teams will have to use this as a selling point to international stars. For teams like the Thorns is easy. The top flight facilities speak for themselves in places such as Portland. Houston, and Orlando. Chicago has just moved into Toyota Park with the Fire, while Kansas City has a strong partnership with SKC, playing a couple matches a year at Children's Mercy Park, while Washington has probably the strongest following of a side without a shared MLS ownership or affiliation, the quality of the facilities the teams play and train at are getting better as the league grows, and if the smaller teams in the league are going to keep up, they'll need to follow suit.
On the Pitch
For some followers of women's soccer, Henry's introduction came at last year's World Cup, when she hit an absolute screamer against Mexico:
She didn't just hit the ball in the perfect place, but she adjusted her position just enough to split the defenders, but the perfect amount of spin in the ball so that it would go in the one place that the goalkeeper couldn't reach. It's a level of precision that simply can't be taught, but is a hallmark of her game, and exactly what the Thorns have needed at the base of the midfield.
in the press release, head coach Mark Parsons said this about her influence of the team: "Her ability to control the game in the center of midfield helps everyone else do their job better. She has exceptional passing range, is very intelligent on and off the ball and can score special goals, as she proved in the World Cup last year. Amandine brings a winning mentality to a talented group and I believe she will play an important role in supporting our team chemistry and culture, on the field and in the locker room."
Imagine the freedom Sinclair, Taylor, and Nadim will feel when the look back and see Henry sending them a pinpoint ball in transition, knowing that the ball will be placed exactly where they need it, or for the defenders, playing with the knowledge that Henry will break up the attack if they try to move the ball through the center of the pitch.
When Will She Arrive?
As with past European signing, Henry will likely not arrive until the beginning of June, at the earliest, depending on where Lyon finishes in the UEFA Women's Champions League. Lyon has quarterfinal matches against Czech side SK Slavia Praha scheduled for March 23 and March 30, while they finish their league schedule on May 21 against Montpellier.
On the national team level, France has a EURO 2017 qualifier on June 2, with the FIFA window for that period from May 30-June 7, while the Olympics will run from August 3-19, with France allowed to call in players two weeks before their first match, which would be July 20, per the FIFA calendar, while France also has another EURO 2017 qualifier on September 18, with the Thorns having a match immediately before that FIFA window opens.
Using the FIFA calendar as a guide, Henry would potentially be available for seven matches between June 12 and July 16, and five matches following the Olympics, which would make her available for 12 of 20 regular season matches for the Thorns, which gives her international obligations a much lesser impact than the Thorns saw last season.
Whenever she arrives, the Thorns have made a huge acquisition. The Thorns not only improved a significant area of need by acquiring not only the best player available, but by the time the next World Cup cycle comes around, potentially the best player in the world, and needless to say, she certainly sounds excited to be joining the Thorns
Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) March 16, 2016