After a long offseason, the Portland Thorns take the field in Orlando this Sunday to kick off their 2019 NWSL season. Like the Timbers, the Thorns will be away from home for a stretch because of the stadium construction at Providence Park: their first 6 games of the season will be on the road. Once they close out this stretch, however, it’s a whole lot of home games at a shiny new stadium with some incredible soccer to carry us through the summer. As great as the Thorns have been over the last few seasons—and they have been great, winning an NWSL shield in 2016, a championship in 2017 and coming in second on both counts last year—one big question hangs in the mind of everyone watching.
Can The Thorns Make it to the Next Level?
On one hand, the Thorns proved themselves to be clear and away the second-best team in the league. On the other, when the championship was on the line, the gap at the end of the season between second and first felt larger than ever. For those who would prefer to forget: the Portland Thorns rallied from fourth in the table all the way up to second place (finishing the season with a 12-6-6 record and 42 points) and a home playoff spot on the last day of the regular season and hosted the NWSL final at home, only to get stomped on 3-0 by the North Carolina Courage. After such an impressive rally to close the season out, it was a little disorienting for many fans to be dropped back to earth so abruptly. The question of how to get the team to the next level of competitiveness is one in the back of every fan’s (and every Thorn’s) mind as they enter the 2019 season.
How’d they do Last Season?
That’s not to say that all of last season the Thorns even looked like a lock to make the playoffs. It’s easy to forget now but the team opened the season 2-3-3 while struggling with major injuries to Emily Menges, Adrianna Franch, and new signing Caitlin Foord, among others. Much of the early season involved grinding out results where they could be had with a back three that was never seen again after halfway through the year. Meghan Klingenberg said of the time, despite never giving up on the prospect of possibly overtaking the Courage, “We lost the Shield in the first two months of the season.” Slow starts are nothing new at the club, however, and the team would go on to close the season on a 7-1-1 stretch. Watching the team come together as a unit through all the disruption was a joy, one all too quickly left behind by fans because of how abruptly it all ended.
I Heard there was a “World Cup” this year.
Yes, the 2019 World Cup is in France! It’s very exciting. 9 Thorns will be attending, which is more than any other team will be missing. (Stumptown Footy’s coverage of the Thorns that will be stepping up to cover can be found here.) Yes, 3/4ths of the Thorns’ 2018 goals will be away when Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair are on their summer vacation. Emily Sonnett, Adrianna Franch and Ellie Carpenter are massive contributors to the team’s defense, and they’ll be out, and the team will have to do without the attacking impact of Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso and Andressinha. There are players waiting in the wings for their turn to take the next step, though, so stick with us as we watch who steps up.
If it weren’t for that little mid-season disruption, this would be a continuity year for the team. After a big influx of new talent that was integrated over the course of the season, top players are entering their second year at the club and will be eager to show their ability. There haven’t been any major outs (Andressinha will be spending the year on loan in Brazil until May in an attempt to get herself more solidly situated on Brazil’s World Cup team, where she hasn’t been starting) and the additions are mostly players quite familiar to many Thorns fans. Chief among them is Dagny Brynjarsdottir, an impact midfield player who missed the 2018 season due to the birth of her son, and last year’s late first round draft picks Sandra Yu and Gabby Seiler. The team is flush with tidy midfield talent that has the potential to play multiple positions: Brynjarsdottir will likely be the replacement creative midfielder in Christine Sinclair’s absence but can fill in in most of the attacking third, Seiler was trialed at centerback where she looks capable, and Yu (who has been training with the club for a year now without making an appearance) looks ready to make an impact on the wing. The Thorns 2019 draft pick is Emily Ogle, one of the most technically gifted players in her college class, who fell to the 3rd round because of questions about how well she will hold up physically at the top level. This is a team who have chosen to double down on their strengths of ball movement and technical ability with their additions.
Pending the club’s official roster release, we won’t know who of the non-roster invitees are on contract this season, but there’s no doubt a few more will be sticking around than usual. When asked about how he decides to cut his roster down, Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said, “It’s gonna take 28-30 players for us to reach our goals this year”, and with roster limits at 22 players per team, that means a solid group of training players will be sticking around unrostered for the time being. Expect to see names like last year’s trainee forward Simone Charley and recently-graduated Rutgers fullback Madison Pogarch at least make the bench this year when circumstances require it.
What’s Up with the Jersey This Time?
The Thorns, once again, have put themselves at the forefront of design in the NWSL by having a custom jersey, and once again, it’s controversial. The primary kit features a black bar pattern meant to invoke the flag of Portland overlaid on a picture of red Riveters goal celebration smoke (possibly a reference to Stumptown Footy’s own Red Smoke Radio). For the away, they’ve moved on from last year’s tire track pattern into a more subtle grey smoke pattern on white. The jersey was developed in close consultation with Nike and is clearly more of a creative entry than past custom designs, so at very least Nike’s designers appear to be taking the Thorns increasingly seriously, but fans will have to decide for themselves whether they’ve truly made a worthwhile design investment.
How Will the Team Line Up?
At full strength, the team is expected to have a forward line of Tobin Heath, Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso, a midfield three with Christine Sinclair at the 10, Celeste Boureille holding and Lindsey Horan running between both boxes, Ellie Carpenter and Meghan Klingenberg the fullbacks, a centerback pairing of Emilys Sonnett and Menges and two-time NWSL goalkeeper of the year Adrianna Franch.
So many players will be missing at the World Cup that it’s worth speculating about what exactly the starting lineup will be during this time, if only for fans to laugh at when we’re inevitably wrong. The goalkeeper is likely to be Britt Eckerstrom, with Klingenberg and Menges remaining on the backline supplemented by Katherine Reynolds and Elizabeth Ball at either right or centerback, though these positions are very much up for contest. Boureille remains holding in midfield possibly to be joined by Angela Salem, with Dagny Brynjarsdottir at the 10. Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic is likely to lead the line with Tyler Lussi and Midge Purce most probably joining her on the front line.
The upside of having so much change in the World Cup season is that players currently not thought of as starters have a chance to make their case. Famously, Hayley Raso grabbed her opportunity to make her case as a starter after Tobin Heath was out for much of the 2017 season. Odds are that a new Thorn is going to work her way into the hearts of the fans.
Who’s on the Verge of a Breakout Season?
It was absolutely thrilling to watch Midge Purce wreck defenders one on one in the opening stages of the 2018 season. She couldn’t quite sustain that level of performance however, and ended up finishing the season on the bench, but she has all the tools to succeed and now that she has a full season in the new setup we can start to expect big things.
Notably, Purce’s decision-making in the final third and her crossing showed significant signs of improvement over the course of a season of training with new staff, and no one doubts her ability to beat players one-on-one. Purce starts the season in recovery, but given her desire to improve and the flashes of greatness she showed in only her first season with the club, fans should be excited to see what she’s capable of. She’s almost certain to destroy non-national team defenders and leave stadiums holding their breath in the process.
Who’s the One Player you Shouldn’t Miss?
No one should look past the reigning NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan. This is a team chock full of talent when at full strength: Tobin Heath has turned herself into a world class goalscorer on top of being one of the most creative players on the planet, Adrianna Franch is capable of incredible heroics in goal, and Christine Sinclair can summon all her experience to outwit the wiliest defenders. But there’s no one on the team capable of grabbing a game, and her team, by the neck and willing the ball into the net in quite the way that the Great Horan is.
How Unrealistic are the Expectations?
Even with all this disruption, expectations for the Thorns are always through the roof. Someone wrote an angry letter to the Oregonian after the team lost to a superior North Carolina team in last year’s final. Anything less than a finals appearance is a disappointment. Anything less than a playoff berth and questions will be asked about the managerial fit. Is this fair? Probably not, but these are the stakes of representing the most famous club in women’s soccer, and everyone involved understands that. Mark Parsons has earned himself a lot of goodwill for his time at the club, not only for making the postseason every year he’s been in charge but also for crafting a positive atmosphere in the locker room, but as last year’s loss to the Courage demonstrated, there’s always another level to reach. It’s that feeling that will drive the team on to hit new heights this year. This is a group focused on showing the world what it is they’re really capable of.