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Portland Thorns FC find opportunities for exciting youngsters

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The Thorns might have stumbled into a blessing in disguise by having to put big international signings on hold.

Portland Thorns Individual Training Session

The Portland Thorns are often portrayed as the NWSL’s evil empire. As the regular attendance leaders, and with its connection to a successful men’s club that’s willing to spend money, the Portland is the league’s model franchise. It gets all the international press coverage, it attracts stars like Amandine Henry, and it’s the club USWNT stars most frequently request trades to.

But things didn’t quite go right for Portland last season. Between injuries, national team absences and some players just plain under-performing, the Thorns never quite looked like championship contenders. As a result, the team let go of most of its internationals and traded for the top two picks in the draft, where it selected forwards Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver. USWNT center back Emily Sonnett moved on, while Becky Sauerbrunn came in to replace her. Forward Margaret Purce was traded for midfielder Raquel Rodriguez.

“I think I was prioritizing short term success too much last year,” head coach Mark Parsons says when asked why his team made the moves it did. “We weren’t looking at the long term boldly and bravely enough. We’re trying to win now, but we’re trying to do it in a way where we get to the top and we stay at the top. We need a strategy to get to where we’re the top club for 5, 10 years running.”

With Smith and Weaver, he appears to have a couple of core pieces for a future contender. But the COVID-19 pandemic nixed the Thorns’ plans to add a couple of high profile international players, and its roster is not quite as strong as it would have been under normal circumstances.

For that reason, very few people are expecting Portland to win the NWSL Challenge Cup. But having to give a lot of minutes to youngsters and fringe players could seriously benefit the Thorns long-term. And Parsons is a lot happier with the locker room’s culture than he was at the end of last season.

“There’s a vibe right now that we are capable of being really special,” Parsons says. “Is that going to happen in the next five weeks? I can’t tell you. But we’re heading in the direction we should be heading.”

Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights

Sophia Smith was the No. 1 pick for a reason. I think she’s going to be a superstar, which you can read a long article about if you want, but you’ll get the idea with this short video too.

Who’s missing?

Tobin Heath is the only player who opted out of the tournament for the Thorns, citing concerns about Covid-19. Without her, the team doesn’t have much in the way of wide players, and might just opt not to use any. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was on the initial roster, but will miss the tournament with an injury.

Projected lineup

“I wonder what a diamond midfield would look like, with Christine Sinclair as a 10 and Gabby Seiler as a defensive center mid,” Leo Baudhuin of Rose City Review told me, and I think they’re on to something. Parsons wouldn’t tell me what formation he planned on running with, but what he did tell me about his team suggested that this was a distinct possibility. I think it gets all of the Thorns’ top talent on the field in a sensible way.

Lineup questions

This, of course, comes with a multitude of caveats. The first being that the Thorns have played a lot of back three under Parsons, and he’ll probably go back to it as matchups or player fitness dictates.

The other really big one is that Weaver is coming back from a minor knock, while Smith was injured during United States Under-20 qualifying a few months ago. Expect to see a lot of Simone Charley, who played well in Australia during the offseason, and Marissa Everett, who Baudhuin wrote more about this week.

The Thorns have a lot of players who can play multiple positions, which Parsons is likely to take advantage of. Katherine Reynolds can shift inside to play center back, while Gabby Seiler can play absolutely anywhere. Celeste Bourille will be competing for time at defensive midfield, while Madison Pogarch could come into the lineup on the left if Meghan Klingenberg has to switch sides and play right back, following the departure of Ellie Carpenter.

How do the Thorns play?

Despite Parsons’ frustration with the way his group finished the season, they were probably a bit unlucky. The Thorns finished with a goal differential of plus-9, but the team’s Expected Goals differential was plus-17.

Portland might be a bit too patient around the penalty area. The club had the league’s shortest average shot difference and highest number of completions within 20 yards of goal, but was below league average in both clear shots and counter-attack shots, according to StatsBomb. Too often, the Thorns were taking shots with defenders between them and the goal, even if those shots came from decent locations. Portland’s best chances actually came from set pieces — the Thorns were second in set piece goals and first in set piece xG.

But Portland also had the league’s lowest average passing percentage at 70 percent. Parsons will be hoping that the acquisitions of Sauerbrunn and Rodriguez change that.

Morgan Weaver is getting a great opportunity

Weaver had an incredible run in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, carrying an unseeded Washington State team to the College Cup and scoring in the semifinal. But despite that, she’s considered much more of a raw talent than Smith, her younger counterpart.

“Around the draft, it sounded like Weaver was going to be more a development player,” Baudhuin told me, “but now she’s in the same position as a lot of the Thorns roster where rotation is going to happen in this tournament, and she’s going to be getting probably significant minutes as a result.”

The Thorns front office had been eyeing up some superstar international forwards before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but ended up deciding to wait to sign one. That could be to Weaver’s immediate benefit.

Part of what makes Weaver’s transition to the Thorns tougher than Smith’s is the type of team she played for in college. While Smith played on a team with other pro-quality players that had a lot of possession, Weaver’s Washington State team was regularly less talented than its opponents on the whole, and played a direct style where she had to make a lot of solo plays.

But Parsons thinks that was good for Weaver’s development, even if it makes the initial settling in period difficult.

“I think the best thing that happened to her was going to Washington State,” Parsons says about Weaver. “She’s got this relentless energy, relentless mentality. This desire to chase people and press that never ends. Sinclair asked me if she ever stops running, and I said no, she doesn’t stop. If Weaver went to a possession school she wouldn’t be the player she is now.”

Gabby Seiler is a Swiss army knife

Seiler has some pretty funny looking StatsBomb radars because she plays all over the place, and changes her game based on the demands of her position. She’s one of the league’s hardest workers and best ball-winners at center back.

And she still looks like she wins a lot of challenges by the standard of a defensive midfielder despite playing a lot in the back line. Her passing percentage is low because the whole team’s is, but she doesn’t turn the ball over cheaply.

Seiler’s ability is one of the big reasons that Parsons can shift between different formations and rotate other players in and out as he desires. She can play any central midfield or defensive role, whether the Thorns are playing in a back two or three. There probably isn’t a more versatile defensive player in the league.

What’s a successful tournament for the Thorns?

Everyone cares about winning, and when you’re the Portland Thorns, you have to aim to win trophies. But long-term development is pretty clearly more important to Parsons right now than winning the Challenge Cup.

“We’re here to grow, we’re here to improve, we’re here to get better,” Parsons says. “We’re here to be the best Portland Thorns we can be and grow in our identity on the pitch. We’re focused on the process because we believe that leads to winning championships.” He added that the team’s priorities were health and safety first, improving on its principles of play second, and winning third.

Fans will be expecting Portland to win a knockout game at the minimum, but the more important thing is Parsons figuring out what he has in his rookies and fringe players, so he can decide where the team needs to spend big in the offseason.

Schedule

Courage vs. Thorns — Saturday, July 27

Thorns vs. Red Stars — Wednedsay, July 1

Thorns vs. Spirit — Sunday, July 5

Reign vs. Thorns — Monday, July 13