The 2017 Portland Thorns will look very similar to last season’s team, and if you’re a Rose City fan, that’s got to be a great feeling. For Portland, three important elements of the NWSL Shield-winning 2016 team are back: an explosive offense, a core veteran group, and a dominant defense. There’s only really one area of concern–who will stand in goal for the Thorns–but we’ll dive into that below.
The Thorns were lucky this off-season, not having any major holes or weak areas that need addressing, but with a handful of European internationals likely to be called up for the 2017 Euros in July, head coach Mark Parsons had to be strategic in his pick-ups and trades.
Michelle Betos (GK) – Left to play professionally in Norway for Valerenga. Being the solid starter for Portland in 2016 and earning NWSL Goalkeeper of the year the season before, Betos will be missed greatly. She was one of the leaders and fan-favorites as well. I’m still not sure how Portland were not able to keep her in a Thorns uniform, she was extremely important to the success this team had.
McKenzie Berryhill (D) – Selected in the third round of the 2016 draft, Berryhill played in five matches. She was claimed by Orlando City on waivers last August. With such little time on the field, her absence won’t likely make a big impact on the Thorns’ performance this season.
Maureen Fitzgerald (M), Shade Pratt (D), and Samantha Lofton (D) – These three amateur players called in last June to help fill in during for National team players Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, and Emily Sonnett who were away for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The trio are back on the reserve team to start the 2017 season.
Jennifer Skogerboe (D) – Portland signed her last June as Mark Parsons realized that she was a versatile player, someone who could play full back, center back, attacking midfielder, and even holding midfield if needed. With so many players on NT duty over the season, this kind of versatility was much needed. Skogerboe appeared in three matches and after the Thorns declined her 2017 contract option, she went on to sign with the South Korean club Suwon FMC.
Kat Williamson (D) – Williamson spent three years in Portland, winning the 2013 Championship with the Thorns as well as helping win the 2016 Shield, and announced her retirement at the end of last season. The 27-year-old was the club’s first-ever draft selection back in 2013 when they took her eighth overall from the University of Florida. She appeared in 47 matches and had become a reliable player. While it is unfortunate she chose to retire, Portland’s defense is very strong. Still, her experience on the field will be missed.
Britt Eckerstrom (GK) – This is the most exciting addition the the Thorns for me. The second-year player was acquired from the North Carolina Courage in a trade that sent two fourth-round picks in the 2018 NWSL College Draft to the newest franchise in the league. Eckerstrom is young and appeared once with her draft team (known at the time as the Western New York Flash), but she has the talent and work ethic to make it in the NWSL. Considering the fact that Adrianna Franch’s play can be questionable at times, I would like to see if Eckerstrom has what it takes to earn the starting spot. This position will be a battle all season long.
Ashleigh Sykes (F) – It was announced at the beginning of March that Portland had signed Australian forward Sykes. She won the Golden Boot for Canberra in the 2016 season, grabbing 12 goals. Sykes has explosive talent and a serious knack for scoring. She will be another weapon for the Parsons arsenal to be used, and is expected to report in June.
Let’s begin with the offense.
Portland scored 35 goals in 2016, second only to the Western New York Flash (now North Carolina Courage), who ended up taking home the NWSL Championship trophy in October. Good news for the reigning NWSL Shield winners–Portland’s leading scorer in the 2016 season, Danish international Nadia Nadim, will be returning to PDX to cause havoc for the opposition once again. Nadim will be looking to best the personal record she set last season, netting nine goals in 21 games.
But Nadim certainly wasn’t the only one who found success on Portland’s score sheet last year. Canada’s pioneer Christine Sinclair contributed seven while the Iceland international and NWSL newcomer Dagný Brynjarsdóttir found the back of the net five times. Two Americans rounded out the high scorers, with newcomer Lindsey Horan and longtime Thorn Allie Long each adding six to the Thorn’s total goals.
The most important piece of the offense, though, is midfielder Tobin Heath. Considered a mastermind of tricky foot skills (especially her nutmeg and snake skills), and one of the most intense players on the pitch (although she makes everything look relaxed and effortless), Heath is always up for some one-on-one action. She only managed one goal last season but she was the league leader in assists with 10. What makes it even more impressive is that Heath did that in just 14 games.
Still, in addition to Heath, French star Amandine Henry must also be mentioned here. Henry played just nine games in 2016 for Portland after being acquired from Olympique Lyonnais in March. Hopefully Henry can get healthy and have more of an impact this season, especially now that she’s had successful groin surgery this past November to repair some nagging damage.
It’s not too outlandish to say that if Henry has a more productive season (and all the other pieces fall into place) Portland could find themselves in the title game. Henry was on the FIFA shortlist for best Women’s Player of the Year in 2016. She has the ability to turn the game around with just one pass, one goal, or one world class play. While Portland have many of the necessary elements to get them to the post-season again this year, Henry was brought to the Rose City for a reason–to win Championships. They were so close last season, they could find themselves in the title game if the French star plays her part.
Plenty of Experience
Every successful team needs a group of veteran players to help guide the mission and vision of the squad, and to share their knowledge and experiences. The core group that has been in Portland since day one consists of Heath, Sinclair, and Long. With a combined 189 appearances for Portland, they have more than committed to this team. Each player comes back every year with one goal in mind-winning the NWSL Championship.
Since winning the NWSL championship back in 2013, these veterans have each been vital to the Thorns becoming one of the most respected teams in the world. They each bring something different to the pitch–Heath distributes the ball very well, while Long and Sinclair have been two of the best finishers since the league began in 2013.
In what could be considered down years in 2014 and 2015, Portland finished third and sixth respectively. They had players like Alex Morgan and Rachel Van Hollebecke on the roster then, but during that time National Team players were frequently gone for World Cup Qualifying events and eventually the World Cup in 2015. When that happens it is extremely difficult to sustain any kind of the chemistry needed to be successful.
In 2016 they reached the semifinal game but lost to Western New York in a wild seven-goal overtime thriller at their home pitch, Portland’s Providence Park. Like many fans, I expected them to win and be in the title game, but it wasn’t to be. Heath and Long played a solid game, Sinclair got on the score sheet. But none of that was quite enough. WNYF youth combined with pressure on the Thorns midfield eventually wore down Portland’s attempts moving forward. The Flash offense wouldn’t stop, they kept finding cracks in the Thorns defense and eventually the effort paid off for them.
So to say that this season those veterans are returning and will be hungry to accomplish even more would be an understatement. That loss in front of 20,086 Rose City faithful surely left a bitter taste in their mouths.
But their veteran depth doesn’t stop with that core. This season Meghan Klingenberg and Nadia Nadim will be returning to play in Portland again. These two players were key in the Thorn’s drive towards the 2016 playoffs. Nadim took fourth in the league in scoring, while Klingenberg helped to anchor the best defense in the league’s historic fourth season. The fact that both will be proudly wearing Thorn colors again this season is welcome news for the fans.
A Steady Defense
The 2017 Thorns will be able to boast the return of their strong defensive line, a backline that allowed in just 19 goals in 21 games. Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds led the league in goals against last year, with Chicago and KC close behind with only 20 each. But the Thorns aren’t just concerned about this year–they’re interested in building for the future, which is why it’s important to note that Sonnett and Menges are just 23 and 24 years, balancing the more veteran players with them on the line (Reynolds and Klingenberg are 29 and 28, respectively) and certainly benefiting from both the experience and the guidance.
Last season was the first these four played together and it was uncertain how (or if) they would pan out. Menges joined the team as the 25th pick at the 2014 draft, and has already become an extremely reliable defender, appearing 59 times, while Sonnett was drafted first overall in the 2016 NWSL College Draft and has a reputation for being very organized on the line. Both work well in tight spaces, using their quickness to get out of trouble.
Kling and Reynolds have been around a bit longer. Klingenberg, drafted by Houston in the 2014 Expansion Draft, was part of a three-way trade that sent Alex Morgan to Orlando in late 2015, and briefly landed her in Seattle for about a week before being sent to Rose City. Reynolds has been shopped around a little more, playing for WNYF in 2013-2014 before being traded to the Washington Spirit in 2015. But she seems to have found a home in Portland. Kling brings the energy all game and she likes to get involved in the offense as well. Reynolds also is known for getting into the attack, not afraid to take that chance to create a scoring opportunity. Now that this group of players have a year under the belt as a defense, I expect more of the same from these two in 2017
With these four returning to the Thorns backline, I see no reason why they can’t once again be dominating and unforgiving to opposing offenses.
Dilemma between the posts?
With the departure of starting goalkeeper Michelle Betos, the Portland Thorns now have to figure out who they can rely on to keep their Goals Against stats low. Adrianna Franch has been with the Thorns just one season after playing for WNYF in 2013 and in Norway for Avaldsnes in 2015. And in this past off-season, Portland landed Britt Eckerstrom from WNYF in exchange for two fourth-round draft picks in the 2018 College Draft.
Franch will have the slight upper hand having played in the league already and with 28 appearances to her name. But 26-year-old has yet to prove she can again be a starting keeper for a whole season, something she hasn’t done since 2013. In the six games she started for Portland last season Franch earned three shutouts while making 19 saves. How well she performs in pre-season will decide who is the clear front-runner. Even with this small sample size, could Franch live up to her full potential and be the starting keeper for the Thorns? My answer is no. I believe Franch would be better utilized as the back-up. She has not played admirably or consistently since 2013, and I just don’t have that kind of faith in her anymore.
Meanwhile Eckerstrom is a fresh talent and eager to make an impact. She led Penn State to a DI Championship in 2015, and ended her college career with a .80 goals against average and had an impressive record of 64-14-3. In her brief time with Western New York she made one appearance for the eventual NWSL Champions while showing a .67 goals against average and looked strong as a rookie under Sabrina D’Angelo. Some could say that going with Eckerstrom would be a risk considering she has minimal professional experience but I actually am hoping she wins the job in preseason. I want to see how well she works with this backline when it matters and if she can help fill some of the void that Betos has left.
Considering all of the above, this is a team that is ready to go on paper. But we all know that’s not what it takes to win championships. With this kind of roster I fully expect the Portland Thorns to make the 2017 playoffs.
2017 Portland Thorns Roster
GOALKEEPERS (2): Britt Eckerstrom, Adrianna Franch
DEFENDERS (5): Kendall Johnson, Meghan Klingenberg (FED-USA), Emily Menges, Katherine Reynolds, Emily Sonnett (FED-USA)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Celeste Boureille, Dagny Brynjarsdottir (INTL-ISL), Amandine Henry (INTL-FRA), Lindsey Horan (FED-USA), Allie Long (FED-USA), Mana Shim, Mallory Weber
FORWARDS (6): Tobin Heath (FED-USA), Meg Morris, Nadia Nadim (INTL-DEN), Hayley Raso (INTL-AUS), Christine Sinclair (FP-CAN), Ashleigh Sykes (INTL-AUS, OOM)