It’s easy to forget, but 2017 started out as a pretty difficult year for the Thorns. Tobin Heath was out almost all season after an all time year for club and country in 2016. It put a wrench in their attacking plans and they stumbled around a bit lost in the early part of the season but they ended up closing out the season with nine wins from ten and winning the championship. They learned how to defend as a unit, letting in the least goals over the course of the season of any team, and former bench players stepped up to make a name for themselves. Portland, historically a team of superstars, became a team of players with a point to make.
Head Coach: Mark Parsons
2017 record: 14-5-5, 2nd in the league.
Projected Starting XI:
Caitlin Foord was meant to be the new attacking addition that would make Portland’s offense tick. No one, however, does exactly what Foord does, and since she is projected to be injured for most of the season, expect Portland to rely on pushing their fullbacks forward to generate offense, perhaps morphing permanently into the back three that was hinted at last season.
Goalkeeper: Adrianna Franch
Defense: Midge Purce, Katherine Reynolds, Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, Meghan Klingenburg
Midfield: Lindsay Horan, Andressinha
Forwards: Hayley Raso, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath
Player you should know: Have you heard of Christine Sinclair, second all-time international goal scorer, most-capped Canadian international by a lot, and Portland legend? The veteran striker has been making adjustments to her game since she can’t just race past players at will anymore, dropping deeper and directing attacks, and she still looks like one of the best players on the field. Appreciate her ability and her vision before she calls time on an incredible career.
Under the radar: It’s almost a cliche to describe Emily Menges as underrated at this point, but until she gets a serious look in the national team, it will keep being true. The longest-serving member of an athletic and well-drilled backline that let in the fewest goals in the league last season, Menges is often tasked with cleaning up after players who get caught up the pitch. She’s rarely caught out of position, and when she is, she has the recovery speed and the tenacity to make decisive tackles anyway.
Biggest off-season acquisition: Andressinha. The Brazilian international midfielder acquired in a trade with Houston arrives as one of the top attacking players in the NWSL with excellent passing ability and a strong shot from outside the box. Where she will fit into a team that is flush with attacking midfielders is yet to be determined (she has played defensive midfield for Houston before), but once she gets on the same page as Heath and Sinclair, the Thorns might be able to play rings around their opponents.
Biggest rival: Traditionally Seattle, although in recent years games against North Carolina have been feisty enough to elevate the Courage to equal rivals in the eyes of many fans.
Most memorable moment from 2017: A 4-1 demolition of the Orlando Pride in the playoff semifinals at home, where the Thorns went up 2-0 in 20 minutes. They were creative in possession in the first half and ripped Orlando apart on the counterattack once their lead was solidified. It was one of their few complete performances in the league during a season largely defined by defending.
Why they’re the team to watch in 2018: They lost their European contingent in the off-season, but other than that, this is a team that has seen very little change for two seasons and won silverware in both. Despite those successes, however, this team still feels like it has a lot to prove. They won last year, but relied heavily on a strong defense, and provided little of the slick offense that the team wants to play. Can they be the first team to win the Shield and the Championship in the same year? Other teams at the top keep getting better, so it won’t be easy.
Predicted finish: 3rd. The Thorns will remain defensively strong and will retain their ability to shut down games, but the rest of the league is improving on offense and the Thorns, due to unfortunate circumstances, are standing still.
Success depends on: Will they stay healthy? Tobin Heath spent virtually all of last season injured and new acquisition Caitlin Foord—who was expected to be the lynchpin on the forward line—is going to spend most of this season injured. Last year the team went through a few games without being able to fill their bench, and this is a year with a heavier international schedule. Rotation players such as Celeste Boureille, Meg Morris, Midge Purce, and Mallory Weber will have to step up and play a big role.
Fun prediction: Look for Emily Sonnett to do some playmaking from the backline. It’s something she worked on when away at the W-League, and for a team without a clear starting defensive midfielder, she could well be in line to play as the league’s first libero. Fans of wildly attacking centerbacks, rejoice.