Guest Blog: A Portland Thorns Primer

Guest Writer Nikki Flores, The NWSL Show

“Roses Fall, But the Thorns Remain:  The Dawn of a New Era in Portland”

Team: Portland Thorns

Head Coach: English-born Mark Parsons took over the team in 2016, and promptly made his presence known with some big moves, acquiring USWNT goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, French superstar Amadine Henry, and Danish striker Nadia Nadim.  2016 is also the year the Thorns selected Emily Sonnett as the first pick in the Collegiate Draft, and acquired midfielder Lindsey Horan on her return from French side PSG as part of a trade that dealt Alex Morgan to the Orlando Pride.  This will be Parsons’ 5th season leading the Thorns.  Previously, he coached the Washington Spirit.

2019 Record: 11W – 7D – 6L

The Thorns finished the season in third place, and then lost in the semi-final to the Chicago Red Stars.  After winning the 2017 NWSL Championship, and finishing as the runners-up in 2018, last year was a disappointment for a Thorns team that has been consistently at or near the top of the NWSL.  In fact, in the team’s seven years in the league, they have only failed to make the postseason once.

National Teamers:  

Arguably one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the game, Lindsey Horan is hungry to find her 2018 form.   Her story is oft repeated because it is remarkable.  Horan passed up a scholarship at legendary UNC to become the first American woman to skip college and go straight to the pros.  Passing up an opportunity to sign with powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais before she even graduated from high school, Horan went to world-renowned French side PSG after her senior year.   She returned to the States to fulfill her dreams of playing for the USWNT in the Olympics and the World Cup.  She was part of the team’s disappointing finish in Rio in 2016, but at age 25, could already call herself a World Cup Champion.  The tough choices she made along the way have paid off, but Horan is far from done.  She wants to win more hardware for her teams, and she has no plans of stopping until she becomes the best player in the world.  Horan makes magic happen with the ball at her feet.  Her nuanced services into the box for teammates are only bested by her quality in the air.  As the Riveters have so aptly explained, the only sure thing in life are death, taxes, and Horan headers.  Her defensive work-rate is unmatched.  There may not be a more complete player that she lines up next to on either her club team or for her country.  Horan was integral in a stacked USWNT midfield in France a year ago; with so many changes on the Thorns roster, she will be even more vital for her club this summer.

The G.O.A.T. herself, though she will never admit it, Christine Sinclair is back for another year.  The Thorns captain is the undisputed #1 in international goals scored.  Yes, that means she’s has more international goals than any man who has ever played football, ever – 186 and counting with the Canadian National Team.  She made that team at the young age of 16, by the way.  Like new teammate Sauerbrunn, Sinclair is a quiet force to be reckoned with on the field, always leading by example.  The 37-year-old just doesn’t stop.  Her focus is intense, her speed deceptive, her composure impressive, her physicality punishing.  Her runs behind defenses are hard to mark.  And if she is marked, it will open up space for the likes of Horan and Rodriguez.  Sinclair may go down as the best in history to never win a World Cup, but she will leave everything she has on the field to add another star to the Thorns jersey.  Simply put, Sinclair is incomparable.  Her competitive fire still burns bright and she is ready to lead her team back on the pitch after a long break.

Nary a bad word has ever been spoken about the woman fans refuse to stop calling Captain Broon.  During the off-season, the Thorns acquired defensive legend, center back Becky Sauerbrunn, from the Utah Royals in exchange for Elizabeth Ball and allocation money.  Sauerbrunn had been itching for an opportunity to play for the city in which she resides, and the trade of Emily Sonnett to the Orlando Pride left an opening for her.   Sauerbrunn is tough – we all have that image of her bowed, bloody head during the World Cup final fresh in our minds going on a year later.  She’s a cerebral defender, almost always positionally sound.  She is a quiet leader amongst leaders, organizing her backline and serving as the President of the USWNT Players’ Association.  And Becky Sauerbrunn is almost always underrated by everyone outside of her own teammates, who know exactly how valuable the 35-year-old is.  The veteran will provide a calming presence and a sense of stability to a Portland backline missing two of its starting defenders and goalkeeper from last season’s roster.  For the Thorns to succeed in this tournament, Sauerbrunn will have to be an absolute anchor.  When she retires, which hopefully won’t be for a few more years, Sauerbrunn will go down in USWNT history as one of the best center backs to ever play the game.   Welcome home, Captain Broon.

Costa Rican International Rocky Rodriguez will step into the Thorns midfield alongside Horan.  Her football pedigree is strong.  She played on a high school team while still in elementary school, and was a four-year starter at Penn State, where she won award after award, and the 2015 College Cup.  She totaled 23 goals during her time with the Nittany Lions, including the game winning goal against Duke in the championship match.  In 2010, she made her way onto the Costa Rican senior national team.  Her hard work paid off when she represented Las Ticas in the 2015 World Cup, and she scored the first goal by a Costa Rican woman in a World Cup.  Rodriguez went #2 in the 2016 Collegiate Draft, picked up by Sky Blue FC.  She was Rookie of the Year that year.   This past January, Rodriguez was traded to the Thorns in exchange for Midge Purce and a 2021 draft pick.  Arriving at Providence Park seems fitting for Rodriguez.  In 2016, the Thorns traded that #2 pick to Sky Blue FC for Danish International Nadia Nadim, passing up Rodriguez.  She is excited to finally don that Thorns jersey for the Challenge Cup.

Midfielder Tobin Heath has opted to sit out because of concerns over COVID-19.  Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch had to withdraw from the tournament due to a knee injury.

Players You Should Know:  Forward Morgan Weaver of Washington State was the #2 pick in the 2020 Collegiate Draft.  She was the top scorer for her college team four years in a row, and helped her team make it all the way to the College Cup semi-finals in her last year with the Cougars.  In their final six games of the 2019 season, the Thorns were only able to score one goal.  Weaver will be essential if their struggling offense is to find its footing during the tournament.  The Thorns seem to have faith in Weaver’s long-term impact, signing her to a multi-year deal.

Changes in the Off-Season:  Take a Thorns starting XI from any game last season.  Draw a line through everyone who is no longer wearing the red and black.  Who are you left with?  The Thorns had one of the most dramatic turnovers in the NWSL this off-season.

Gone are fan-favorites Emily Sonnett (traded to Orlando Pride) and Hayley Raso (signed with Everton of the FAWSL).  Fellow Aussies – goal scorer Caitlin Foord wingback Ellie Carpenter, thought to be the jewel of the Portland defense – have signed with European clubs, Arsenal and Olympique Lyonnais respectively.  Carpenter’s announcement, after signing a multi-year deal with the Thorns, must have come as a huge shock for a team already facing the loss of Sonnett.

In the trade for Sonnett and the rights to Foord, the Thorns gained the #1 pick in the 2020 Collegiate Draft.  They used that selection on Sophia Smith, the highly rated sophomore striker out of Stanford.  That move may be attributed to the Thorns scoring drought as the 2019 season wore down; the team only found the back of the net once in their final six games.

The Thorns were also involved in several other deals during the offseason.  One saw the Thorns acquire the second overall pick in the draft from the Chicago Red Stars, which they promptly used on Washington State star Morgan Weaver.  Another sent Thorn Midge Purce to Sky Blue in exchange for Rocky Rodriguez.

Strengths:  The team should be solid down the core.  The pairing in midfield of Lindsey Horan and Rocky Rodriguez should be formidable, and behind them, Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges will shore up a defense hurt by the loss of Sonnett and Carpenter.

Beyond that, the Portland Thorns embody heart, and what it means to play for the badge.  Portland is Soccer City USA, the team drawing an average of just over 20,000 fans to each home game at Providence Park last season.  The next highest draw (Utah Royals) was a little over half of that total.  While some may view game without fans as a setback for Portland, this team feels a unique responsibility to its fans.  In last years 6-0 routing by the NC Courage in Providence Park, the Rose City Riveters not only stayed the entire game, but stood cheering for their team as goal after goal slid past Franch and the Thorns defense.  These fans never give up on the team; do not expect the team to give up just because the fans aren’t in attendance, because they will be watching in droves at home.  The Thorns know how to win; now it’s about finding the chemistry.

Biggest Question Marks:  With all the changes, and a short run-up to the tournament, have the Thorns had enough time to gel?  This is virtually a new team, and while some of the additions should help in the scoring department, Smith will likely see limited minutes due to a nagging injury.  Down the road, the trade of Sonnett for the #1 pick might pan out, but it likely won’t help a bit in this tournament.  Combine the loss of Sonnett and Carpenter in the back with the loss of brick wall AD Franch, and the Thorns are hurting defensively, even with Becky Sauerbrunn.  Additionally, the Thorns look weak on the wings, without Carpenter’s penchant for pressing up into the offensive third, without Raso’s speed flying down the wing, and especially without Tobin Heath working her magic on the outside.

Preliminary Round:

Saturday, June 27 vs. North Carolina Courage

This matchup, which will be shown on CBS, pits two of the best teams in the NWSL against each other.  The last time the teams met, the Courage handed the Thorns their worst loss to date in a 6-0 drubbing that no one outside of the Courage camp could have predicted.   The Courage team remains largely intact, but the Thorns will look to redeem themselves against the two-time NWSL champs in front of a national audience in the opening match of the tournament.

Wednesday, July 1 vs. Chicago Red Stars

Revenge, revenge, revenge.  The Red Stars knocked the Thorns out of the playoffs in the semi-finals last year, ending their quest for another star on their jersey.  In the 1-0 loss, the Thorns did not play poorly, but couldn’t get any offense going against a stingy Red Stars defense that featured FIFA Best XI Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, Casey Short, and USWT #1 Alyssa Naeher.

Sunday, July 5 v. Washington Spirit

The Spirit look surprisingly strong and young this year.  USWNT superstar and Bronze Ball winner Rose Lavelle will pair with USWNT teammate Andi Sullivan in the midfield.  The Thorns backline will have to take on Spirit draft pick Ashley Sanchez of UCLA, selected 4th in the 2020 Collegiate Draft.

Monday, July 13 vs. OL Reign

The Reign will be without Megan Rapinoe, who has chosen to sit out, but don’t count them out.  Horan, Sinclair, and Weaver will be hard-pressed to score on the Reign, regardless of whether Casey Murphy or Michelle Betos (returning from injury) starts in goal.  The team sees the return of Jess Fishlock, also back from injury, and Bethany Balcer, last year’s Rookie of the Year, as well as the additions of Shirley Cruz of Costa Rica and Alana Cook of PSG.  OL Reign looks solid from back to front, and should provide a surprising challenge for the Thorns.

Fun Fact:  In 2015, current OL Reign goalkeeper, formerly of the Portland Thorns, became the only goalkeeper to score in the run of play in NWSL history, diving to head in a ball off a corner in stoppage time as the Thorns tied the game against FC Kansas City.  Her goal was featured on ESPN, and was the #2 play of the night.

Overall Outlook:  The 2020 Thorns are looking to reestablish themselves as soccer royalty in the NWSL.  This year may not be their year, however.  Too many roster changes, a shaky defense, and lackluster wings will hinder them.  Their preliminary draw is tough, facing off against three out of four of last year’s playoff teams.  Depending on seeding in the knockouts, it’s not impossible to think that we might witness the Thorns going out in the quarterfinals, and they almost certainly won’t make it past the semi-finals.  A Thorns team falling in the bottom half of the NWSL rankings is almost unheard of – blasphemy, if you will.  But the offseason losses seem too big of an obstacle to surmount in a short time thanks to limited training and a compressed tournament.  For the Thorns to make a deep run, they will have to count on their mentality – their grit, their determination, their pride for the badge.  In reality though, it seems the Thorns will be building towards a 2021 comeback and looking to reflect on their team culture going forward.

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