Why the Portland Thorn's most important player this season could be Celeste Boureille.

The defensive midfielder. The number-six. The central anchor of the defense. While it can be the most over-looked and least-glamorous position on the soccer field, it is often the most important. A reliable "d-mid" is the skeleton of a three-person midfield and can often stop opposing attacks before they even begin. They extinguish fires, some of which haven’t even happened yet. Some examples include N’Golo Kanté of Chelsea, Sergio Busquets of Barcelona, and Diego Chara of the Timbers. For Portland, it’s Celeste Boureille, and this season she could play a bigger role than ever in the Thorns system.

Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016 out of the University of California, Boureille faced an uphill battle to get onto the field. With the Portland Thorns, she couldn’t afford to be just "good," she had to be great. Boureille was competing against the likes of fan-favorite Allie Long and eventually one of the best midfielders in the world in Amandine Henry for playing time.

Boureille’s never going to be the midfielder that charges into the box and finishes off loose balls-- much like a Long or Lindsey Horan-- instead; the Thorns rely on her consistency in the middle of the field. Over her time in Portland she has become better with her distribution and ability to win the ball back in defense; she’s there as a connector, not to dribble around. Boureille might not be flashy (she hasn’t scored a single goal in 38 appearances with the Thorns) but she is an integral part of the team’s scheme.

Her development has continued to be a positive trend for the Thorns over the past three seasons. After playing the full-90 minutes in just 26% of games her rookie season, the number has steadily climbed to 42% in 2017 and a career-high 65% last season. After the departure of Long and Henry, Parsons had a large gap to fill in the midfield, and so far Boureille has done a pretty good job of stepping up.

In the summer, Boureille plies her trade for the Brisbane Roar in Australia along with Portland teammate Hayley Raso. That has certainly helped her continue to develop in game situations during the long offseason. Last season, Boureille finished third in the Westfield W-League in completed passes (603) which included seven "key passes." 70.5% of her passes in the opponents half of the field were successful. Defensively, Boureille put in 28 total tackles while intercepting the ball 41 times.

With international players gone for a long chunk of the year, it is important to maintain consistency. The team’s depth will surely be tested with the potential for around nine of their players to be gone. The only year the Thorns missed the four-team playoffs in their history came in 2015 during the last World Cup.

That’s where Boureille wants to step up. It was reported recently by Caitlin Murray of The Athletic that Boureille wants to take on more of a leadership role for the Thorns this season, especially while the internationals are away. In Australia, she played with a lot of younger players where she got to develop her leadership skills and develop more of a comfort with being vocal.

What is known is that this season is Boureille’s biggest one yet. With it being her first with the team during a World Cup year, she will be one of the players that the Thorns rely heavily upon with Horan, Heath, and Sinclair unavailable. It will certainly be intriguing to see who Parsons decides to go within the midfield. Either way, Boureille will have to show her adaptability as the midfield could be in a constant state of flux this summer. The stars are aligning for this to be the best season of Boureille’s career. The only question is if she is ready for the moment.