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Kelli Hubly’s defensive work shines in the Challenge Cup

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After an injury created an unanticipated need for strength at center back, Hulby stepped up admirably.

Portland Thorns FC v North Carolina Courage

Kelli Hubly has worked hard and waited for her moment to shine for the Portland Thorns. That moment finally came in the quarterfinal of the NWSL Challenge Cup against North Carolina, continuing a trend of big career-defining moments against the North Carolina Courage ending in a 1-0 score line.

Hubly was signed as a national team replacement player while former Thorns player Hayley Raso was with the Australian National Team and officially signed as a Portland Thorns player on April 27, 2018.

Hubly only made two substitute appearances in the 2017 season. She had a much better season in 2018, starting nine matches and making 10 total appearances. But just as Hubly was breaking into the team, her chances to solidify her starting spot dwindled and she started only three matches in 2019.

The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup looked like the opportunity Hubly had been waiting for. With the exodus of Ellie Carpenter, she would be able to start in her preferred RB position. Her moment did indeed come, but not at right back.

“So, when we start this tournament Kelli and all of us think we finally have her in her right position at right back,” said Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons after the quarterfinal match. “Her performances speak louder than what we think and she ain’t going anywhere.”

Hubly opened the tournament at right back against the North Carolina Courage. She had a decent match. She played 72 minutes in the 2-1 loss and completed three tackles (tied for second-most on the team).

Then Portland’s center back Becky Sauerbrunn picked up a knock in the same match and Parsons had to adjust on the fly. Hubly was on the bench for their next match against the Chicago Red Stars, but she started alongside Emily Menges in the following match against the Washington Spirit at left center back, with Christen Westphal and Meghan Klingenberg as the outside backs. This is the match where Parsons solidified his backline.

In 1-1 draw against the Spirit, Hubly won three out of her three attempted tackles, made three clearances, three interceptions and 10 recoveries. She started in that position again against OL Reign and put up similar numbers, showing her defensive consistency. Hubly attempted three tackles with a 100% success rate, and made two blocks, four clearances and five recoveries.

Kelli Hubly defensive actions against the Washington Spirit

But the moment she had been waiting and training for came against North Carolina again, playing against them for the third time in her NWSL career. She put in one of the best defensive performances of the tournament in a 1-0 win against the Courage in the quarterfinals. Hubly completed both of her attempted tackles and a tournament-high 14 clearances.

In this match, Hubly really showed how well-rounded a defender she is. North Carolina’s Lynn Williams opened the match with multiple good goalscoring opportunities down the Thorns’ right side, but as Williams drifted to the Thorns’ left she was unable to have as much success. In the 20th minute, Debinha was tackled by Hubly and the ball took a fortunate bounce to the feet of Williams. Hubly showed great recovery speed to track down the forward and put in a sliding challenge in her own box to block Williams’ shot.

Hubly also showed her ability to read passing lanes to effectively end multiple counter-attacking opportunities. In added time of the first half, Debinha took the ball off Klingenberg in the middle of the field and attempted to release Williams in behind. Hubly was well positioned and able to step up and recover the ball. She then dribbled into the offensive half to start a Portland attack. Her positioning allowed her to cut out a Lynn Williams square ball intended for Kristen Hamilton, which looked as if it would result in an easy tap in. She demonstrated her positional awareness and pace again in the 78th minute when the Courage played a ball over the top in search of Jessica McDonald, but Hubly was able to cut out a dangerous opportunity.

Throughout the match, the Courage took 10 corners and 24 open play crosses. Hubly showed her aerial prowess dealing with multiple corners and more and more crosses as the match wore on and the Courage trailed.

Hubly made good use of her physicality as well. In the 51st minute, Hubly positioned herself well and was able to hold off an onrushing Debinha, allowing goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom to dive on the ball. She finally dashed the hopes of the Courage in the 93rd minute. Williams was running Hubly down, but the defender, facing her own goal, was able to hold off Williams and clear it to safety.

Kelli Hubly defensive actions against the North Carolina Courage (quarterfinal game)

After the match, Hubly was clearly emotional about her instrumental performance in upsetting the Courage.

“Kelli was a bit emotional after the game because she has been the life and soul of our team,” said Parsons after the win against the Courage. “She has been our dinner host, she tells us when dinner has been excused, she presents the singer, and there has been a few [singers], and in training, she often keeps the vibe in a great place without losing focus and she’s performing on the field. She’s been absolutely tremendous.”

Hubly was not only good in defense, she began adapting to her new home at center back offensively as well. In that position, her passing percentages increased in every match, except the quarterfinal when the Thorns were under immense pressure. She completed 71%of her passes against the Spirit, 78% against the Reign and 86% against the Houston Dash in the semifinal.

Kelli Hubly pass map vs Houston Dash (semifinal game)

“I tell you one thing I do know: it’s that Kelli Hubly will be playing left center back,” Parsons said in the quarterfinal post-match press conference. “She’s been incredible in possession. She’s been incredible out of possession. She’s been one of the most consistent performers this tournament. So, while all these other players’ names we are talking about: Kat Reynolds, Menges, Christen [Westphal], we didn’t know who was going to be ready to go… But I knew Kelli was playing left center back and fingers crossed that doesn’t change because she has been very, very important in that position.”

Throughout the tournament, Hubly was a stalwart in defense and was crucial in big moments. She made 32 recoveries, 12 interceptions, and a tournament-leading 28 clearances. She also completed 91.7% of her 12 attempted tackles while only giving away one foul. Her completed tackles were second-highest on the team behind Menges, who only attempted four tackles.

Kelli Hubly tournament heat map

“She has been with the team so long and she knows the style of play we play, and she could have jumped in at any time,” said center back partner Menges. “And she did jump in a couple of times throughout the last couple of years, but I trust her wherever she is. There are many players that could jump in in those positions as well if given the chance. So, Kelli has taken her chance and done a really great job.”

The tournament has served as a coming-out party for Hubly, culminating in the 1-0 win over North Carolina, the team she made her debut against and the team she got her first start against. Hubly has found her place in the left center back position while also becoming a crucial leader for the Thorns on and off the field. Her performances in the Challenge Cup have impressed and Parsons had nothing but praise for the young defender. It is unclear when the Thorns will play again, but Hubly has forced her way into Parsons’ starting eleven and might have even won the starting spot from two-time World Cup winner Becky Sauerbrunn.

A special thanks to Antonio Maza of @NWSLAnalitica for the statistics and graphics.