NWSL Preview 2015 – Portland Thorns

Projected Full Strength Lineup

Possible Lineup During Women’s World Cup

When Portland brought in Paul Riley as their manager before the 2014 season, few could’ve expected the Thorns to need a win late in the regular season to just qualify for the playoffs. When the Thorns did their best Galacticos impression in signing Nadine Angerer and Vero, few could’ve foreseen the limp playoff semi-final defeat to FC Kansas City, the side they had vanquished at the same stage in 2013. Instead of being the NWSL’s most dominant team, they were its most frustrating. A team capable of beating playoff side Washington, 6-1, and eventual league champions FCKC 3-1 and 7-1. They were also a side that lost to Boston, 4-1, to Western New York, 5-0, and to Seattle, 5-0, amongst other infuriatingly inconsistent results throughout the season.

Judging by the above, you’d think that the Thorns would ante up on defense, but instead, the club have doubled down on offense. The team may have lost Jessica McDonald and Vero, but they’ve also added Jodie Taylor and Genoveva Anonma to a very crowded frontline. The other additions are, for the most part, massive gambles. Kathryn Williamson and McCall Zerboni’s stock sunk after an underwhelming season in WNY, while Kendall Johnson seemingly stagnated at SBFC after a promising rookie season. Canadian duo Kaylyn Kyle and Rhian Wilkinson have failed to impress thus far in the NWSL, while Sarah Robbins is untested at this level.

What Paul Riley makes out of this coterie is anybody’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: The pressure is on. Ambition has always been high given Portland’s resources, but the bar was raised even higher after the club won the title in 2013. Simply scraping their way into the playoffs this year might not be good enough after last year’s close shave.

Coach/Tactics

A pro WoSo league without Paul Riley just didn’t feel right, so Riley’s entrance into the NWSL with Portland was much appreciated by neutrals everywhere. And it was quickly apparent that Riley hadn’t changed a bit, from the media banter to the more undesirable tics, such as the complete apathy towards the draft and college talent. But at times, Riley also looked like a man out of time, as his Thorns defended nothing like his Philly WPS sides of old, putting in some of the most shocking defensive performances in the two-year history of the league.

While Riley’s ambition to someday coach the USWNT took a major blow with last year’s middling season, his reputation as a top coach at this level could very much be on the line this year. The Thorns boss has essentially doubled down on his philosophy of constructing a team, loading Portland up with attackers while opting only for a minor facelift on the defensive side of the ball which could ultimately prove costly come the WWC, where the Thorns will largely be counting on keeping foes off the board considering their limitations on offense. With a team clearly built to succeed in the short-term, at the cost of any semblance of a long-term vision, Riley clearly has to win now lest more critics begin to wonder if the game at this level is beginning to pass him by.

At full strength, the Thorns look like a fearsome side attacking, with the main concern likely to be how Riley keeps all of his forward options happy. When there and healthy, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan are undisputed starters, but the question is what to do what everyone else. Riley prefers 4-4-2, but considering neither Jodie Taylor nor Genoveva Anonma are likely to be content with a super sub role, he may have to switch to a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system. With Morgan and Anonma able on the wings, Taylor looks likeliest to miss out when all four forwards are available. At the same time, Riley could push Sinclair into an attacking midfield role and bring Taylor in up top, nominally making the formation a 4-2-4. But for a club that couldn’t defend last season and didn’t make spectacular defensive changes this year, that could be a bridge too far.

If Portland does go 4-3-3, Tobin Heath would probably slide into the attacking midfield role, while Heath could also end up as a left-winger if Riley sticks with a 4-4-2. The pure playmaker options on this Portland team aren’t great with Vero having gone, and Heath looks like the best option as a #10 unless Riley wants to subject us to another season of Sinead Farrelly in the role. A partnership between McCall Zerboni and Allie Long in central midfield could bear fruit, though neither is a true anchor, which the club might be missing in the center of the park with things so gung ho the other direction. Conceivably, Long could slip into the deep midfielder role with Mana Shim playing on the right of the club goes to a midfield diamond, though that’s still not an option that fills me with total confidence.

The defense picks itself mostly when everyone here, save for right-back, where Emily Menges will have to fight off Kendall Johnson and possibly Rhian Wilkinson for the role. Until someone establishes themselves there, that is likely the zone opposing teams will attack.

The picture changes considerably during the WWC. If Rachel Van Hollebeke is chosen for the WWC, Riley likely has to decide between Menges or Courtney Niemiec for the center-back role, with neither option particularly bringing a lot of confidence to Thorns supporters. If Menges plays in the middle, Johnson could slide to right-back, with Zerboni filling in at left-back, though that seems to just shift the club’s problems to another zone.

Riley may opt for a midfield diamond with Long sitting at the base during the WWC, though there would naturally be fears about the team being overrun in the middle of the park. Another option is a 4-2-3-1, with Sarah Robbins coming in and partnering Long in the defensive midfield band, with Zerboni-Farrelly-Shim sitting behind Anonma as a lone striker. If Riley goes with two forwards, the only other option on the roster right now is Hanna Terry.

To sum up? Deadly going forward at full strength but counting on a lot of players to have much better seasons than they had last year when the stars are away on international duty.

Goalkeepers

Between the posts was a site of great intrigue going into last season after the Thorns promptly traded away Karina LeBlanc, who they’d won the 2013 title with, and signed Nadine Angerer in a rather shocking move for a club in a league as young as the NWSL.

The signature of Angerer before the 2014 season was another big statement of intent from a Portland side hellbent on carving out a space for itself as one of the world’s elite women’s clubs. Angerer came into the season off a Balon d’Or winning year after helping lead Germany to glory in UEFA EURO 2013. Angerer’s North American club career began to mixed reviews, with some wondering if the thirty-six year old German was beginning to look a bit past her best behind a porous Portland backline. Angerer will look to silence doubters and add another winner’s medal to her personal trophy cabinet this Summer with Germany in the WWC, meaning she’ll be missing a solid chunk of the season. She’s the undisputed #1 here though, and with time inevitably running down on her glorious career, she’ll want to add an NWSL title to her honor roll before hanging up the gloves.

When Angerer is away, the gloves will be with Michelle Betos, entering her third season in the Pacific Northwest and her second with the Thorns. A veteran of both the North American and European club scene, Betos will probably see this as her best case at making a statement for herself as a potential #1 somewhere in the league, be it elsewhere or be it with the Thorns as their long-term solution once Angerer departs down the road. A fantastic shot-stopper, consistency in Betos’ kicking game and organization of the backline will probably be key for her to be at her best this season in between the pipes for the Thorns.

When Angerer is away on international duty, the third option is likely to be Cal alum Emily Kruger. Kruger has nice footwork and is able to come off her line quickly but needs to be better with her handling and decision making. There are worse options out there for a #3 though, and Kruger will probably be fine if called into duty.

How much time Angerer misses and how much she still has in the tank when she’s in Portland are key questions for the Thorns’ season at-large. Betos is a fine stand-in keeper though, and there are probably other areas on the pitch that are more concerning going into 2015 than goalkeeper for Portland.

Defenders

Portland’s defense looked shaky on paper last season, and they definitely played to type, giving up almost a goal and a half in the league. That may have been good enough for a mid-table finish in the goals allowed category, but that mark was blighted by some insane defensive meltdowns, including conceding four to Boston and five to WNY and Seattle at different points in 2014. With the club losing Nikki Marshall and Sarah Huffman to retirement, trading Rebecca Moros away, and likely to be without Steph Catley for a large chunk of time due to international commitments, there’s no guarantee that things are going to get markedly better in the short-term.

Riley will be hoping that a single trade is the ticket to getting the Thorns’ defense back on track. In a deal with the WNY Flash, the Thorns brought Kathryn Williamson, the club’s starter at center-back during their title triumph of 2013, back to the Rose City. Williamson will probably be happy getting back to Portland after a season in Rochester that probably didn’t do much for her stock, as the former Florida player was another Flash player that was off-song in a nightmare year for the WoSo powerhouse. With upheaval around her and Rachel Van Hollebeke on the bubble for the WWC roster, Williamson is going to be counted upon to be an anchor on the backline. With Williamson and Van Hollebeke having played together in 2013, Riley will be hoping the chemistry the two have already developed will lead to better performances from a backline that was beleaguered in stretches last season.

The Thorns will be waiting with bated breath when Jill Ellis reveals her final WWC roster to see if veteran Rachel Van Hollebeke makes the cut. While it seemed like the experienced center-back was being phased out of the team during the early months of the Ellis regime, she’s battled doggedly to the point that she may sneak one of the very last spots on the roster for Canada. It would be a remarkable turn of events, not just because Van Hollebeke was scapegoated for much of the last international cycle for the USWNT’s defensive issues, but also because the former Stanford defender missed a giant chunk of last NWSL season through injuries. If Van Hollebeke doesn’t make the cut, she and Williamson could still combine to form one of the league’s better partnerships in central defense if the chemistry from 2013 is still there. If Van Hollebeke does go to Canada, the Thorns will have to sweat in finding another solution at center-back.

For most of these previews, I’m not putting players joining midseason high up in the pecking order for each section, but I’ll make an exception for Australian Steph Catley, who has the potential to be a major difference maker once she gets back to Portland after the WWC. Catley didn’t join up with the Thorns until June last year but was quality once she did, putting up assists in five of six matches during a late season period at left-back. With time, Catley has the potential to turn into one of the world’s most dangerous full-backs, and her absence early on is going to be missed dearly by the Thorns. She should be even better this year with more experience at this level and could again have a major impact on the Portland backline after she arrives following the WWC.

Emily Menges got a trial by fire in the Portland backline last season after being drafted by the club out of Georgetown. There were early concerns that Menges was going to miss time at the beginning of the season to finish up with school, but the Thorns’ early defensive crisis forced Menges into the starting lineup right from the off. Starting at center-back while Van Hollebeke was out injured, Menges shifted to right-back when the USWNT player returned to the lineup. When Van Hollebeke is here, it seems likely Menges will be the starter at right-back once again, with the second-year player a contender to move back inside when Van Hollebeke isn’t here. Riley will be hoping that a year of experience will have helped Menges to settle, and that the backline will be better because of it.

The Thorns added to their full-back ranks by bringing local favorite Kendall Johnson back to the Rose City after a few years with Sky Blue FC. Johnson was a bona fide star in college with Portland and looked to be a future contender for a USWNT spot but has seen her career stall out a bit. She was definitely out of favor at times in New Jersey last season and was often called upon to play right-back for SBFC despite being a natural left-back. It’s at left-back where Johnson may start the season while Catley is away, though once the Australian returns, Johnson may end up on the opposite side of the pitch, the experience at right-back adding to her versatility. Johnson can also play as a winger higher up the pitch and makes an intriguing super sub option late in games thanks to that versatility.

Another second-year player, Courtney Niemiec, will also be looking to keep herself in the mix for major minutes after making the club as an undrafted free agent out of La Salle last year. Niemiec began the season as the club’s top option at right-back, and started for the club in the opening months of the season until injury ended her rookie season prematurely in the middle of June. Playing time probably isn’t going to be as easily obtained this season when the club is at full strength, and you wonder if Niemiec’s a better fit in the middle of the defense given her size anyway. When Menges moves inside though, Niemiec could easily take up her post at right-back, though the Thorns also have other options there this season.

Part of the reason Niemiec might lose minutes this season is the addition of Canadian Rhian Wilkinson to the Thorns’ roster. Wilkinson had played intermittently for Boston in 2013 as an allocated player but took last season off and was perhaps surprisingly re-allocated this season to Portland. Capable in both defense and midfield, Wilkinson’s versatility should make her a nice asset for the Thorns once she returns from international duty. If Wilkinson hasn’t lost too much of a step (which is very possible considering she turns thirty-three in May), the Canadian could contend for a starting spot at right-back. How quickly she settles could be an issue though, joining up in mid-season.

At full strength, this unit looks passable at least, even with the losses from last season. But without Catley for sure and potentially Van Hollebeke, there are some worrisome drops in talent to their stand-ins. Given the club’s defensive frailties in sections last season, Riley has to hope he can dial up the right combinations in defense lest his side take some hammerings once more by high-powered offenses.

Midfielders

The Thorns midfield caught its fair share of heat last season. The signing of Vero and Amber Brooks was supposed to solve a lot of problems, but instead, the group was uneven to a fault. The changes have been swift and sweeping, with Vero and Brooks both gone (though Vero may return after the WWC), along with the retired Sarah Huffman and Angie Kerr, while Rebecca Moros was shipped to FC Kansas City as well. Many of Riley’s favorites remain, but favorite or no, the group will collectively need to improve if Portland is to stand a chance of lifting a second title.

Tobin Heath will enter 2015 at a career crossroads. At least at a club career crossroads. The USWNT midfielder played just six matches last season, beginning the year with Paris Saint-Germain and struggling to make much of an impression with the Thorns upon arriving back in the U.S. Heath has been star-crossed to say the least in terms of her American club career. While she’ll always have a place in Portland hearts after her playoff heroics in 2013, there have to be increasing concerns as to whether she’ll ever be able to live up to her potential consistently at club level. With Heath again likely to miss much of the season with the USWNT, she may struggle again to get into a consistent groove with the Thorns upon her return.

One of the most polarizing figures in American women’s soccer, Allie Long comes into 2015 off likely her best season as a pro after tallying nine goals and four assists. While four of those goals came from the penalty spot, there was still enough in Long’s season to fire back at critics after a torrid 2013 where she was mostly noteworthy for being a foul machine. While Long’s WWC dream likely died a while ago despite getting a call in for a handful of games by the USWNT, she’ll still be a very important part of Portland’s midfield, especially when the club’s star players are away on international duty. Where she lines up this season will bear watching, as Long can play across the midfield and has done so the past two seasons, though she may not end up on the left given the club’s personnel already there. With some of the question marks elsewhere in midfield, Portland is going to need a big season from Long if they’re to challenge for honors.

A longtime favorite in Rochester, McCall Zerboni will be looking to reinvigorate her career after a poor 2014 with the slumping Flash. Zerboni did have a stretch of three goals in five games in the middle of 2014, but for the most part, it looked as if the Flash’s captain had gone off the boil, along with a good many of her other teammates in WNY. A fresh start may be the best thing for the fan favorite’s career, with the Thorns hoping that Zerboni can approach 2013’s level of play, when fans were clamoring for the influential midfielder to finally get a shot at the next level. Where Zerboni plays is anybody’s guess. She can play as a winger, usually on the left, or as a box-to-box midfielder centrally as she did during the Flash’s days with Carli Lloyd and Angela Salem, forming a highly effective triangle. Much may depend on the other personnel Riley chooses to line up in the middle of the park with Zerboni.

Mana Shim enters 2015 hoping that her third year in the NWSL is a lot more like 2013 rather than last year’s tepid campaign. Shim was a sensation after the 2013 season, having made the team through tryouts and having played a very real role in getting the club to the playoffs and to the top of the mountain come season’s end. Last year was anything but a reprisal, with Shim starting just four matches for the club, not scoring, and tallying two assists as she fell out of favor with new boss Paul Riley. With the club thin on midfield depth this season though, Shim should at least get plenty of chances to get back in Riley’s good graces and to jump start her pro career once more. She’s purportedly in fine fitness going into 2015, which certainly isn’t going to hurt the odds of her making an impact on the pitch.

Some years on from her pick at #2 in the 2011 WPS Draft by Riley’s Philadelphia side, it’s safe to say Sinead Farrelly has been a massive disappointment as a pro. At the fringes of the USWNT early in her professional career, Farrelly has seemingly dropped off the side of a cliff, toiling for scraps with FC Kansas City in 2013 before hooking back up with Riley in Portland last year. Farrelly would start most of the season in the midfield, out wide when the club played with four and in the middle when they played with three. It mattered little, as Farrelly seldom went the distance and didn’t put up a single point for the club last year. With little in the way of midfield reinforcements brought in, Farrelly won’t lack for opportunities for big minutes this year either. But her ceiling is also shrinking rapidly, to the point that many have to be wondering if she’ll ever develop into more than just a minutes eater in the middle of the park at this level.

The news that the Thorns had signed Canadian Sarah Robbins likely sent many scrambling for Wikipedia. Robbins was a U20 international for Canada in the club’s forgettable 2012 U20 WWC showing and was hardly a star at college level for Kansas either. Fortunes were better with Aland United in Finland as Robbins began her club career with three goals and seven assists with the Women’s Champions League side. Brought in for defensive midfield cover, it’ll be interesting to see how much Riley trusts the Canadian given his propensity for letting young, unproven talent wither on the bench at times. With the numbers crunch this season though, Robbins is going to get major minutes out of necessity.

Portland also added another Canadian in the form of Kaylyn Kyle, who has almost played for half the league now. Kyle has played for Seattle in 2013 (7th place), Boston in 2014 (8th), and Houston in 2014 (9th). Thorns supporters will be hoping that Kyle isn’t an albatross at her fourth NWSL stop upon her return from the WWC. With Kyle having been famously loath to play center-back in the past, she may instead be used as a defensive or box-to-box midfielder here. Riley’s not one for suffering prima donnas though, and Thorns supporters will have to be hoping that their manager can get the most out of a player who has disappointed at this level over the past two seasons.

On paper, this group doesn’t look extraordinary, but it does have a lot of experience, which should help during what promises to be a grueling, unpredictable season. Few in this group had a great season last year, so there shouldn’t be any shortage of motivation ahead of 2015. Whether that’ll be enough to turn this unit into one that can lift Portland to a title is another matter entirely.

Forwards

With the Thorns’ dynamic duo up top, Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, likely to miss big chunks of the season on international duty, most figured that the club would be leaning heavily on Jessica McDonald in 2015 after the forward netted a team leading eleven goals last year. But shockwaves were sent through the league when the Thorns sent McDonald packing to Houston, getting Jodie Taylor from Washington in return. It’s a move that could be a serious misstep if McDonald stars in Houston and the club’s likely starter up top during the WWC, newly signed Genoveva Anonma, doesn’t star.

All eyes in Portland again will be on Alex Morgan, the long-term cornerstone for the Thorns and a big part of the present for the USWNT. Morgan’s 2014 was star-crossed though, as she struggled with ankle injuries that kept her out of NWSL play until June. In the league, Morgan was erratic but brilliant in stretches. When Morgan was on though, Portland often crushed their opponents. The Thorns missed her scoring late though, as Morgan scored just one goal in her last five appearances for the club last year, though that was a huge goal to seal a playoff spot in the regular season finale against Seattle. The ankle again acted up with Morgan missing time for the U.S. after the NWSL season, and her health will seemingly be a big concern until she goes a long stretch without injury. If at the peak of her powers though, Morgan has the potential to lift the Thorns into the playoff places. Of course, Morgan will likely miss much of the season with the USWNT, meaning the Thorns better have other options up front.

The other half of Portland’s irreplaceable duo up front is Canadian legend Christine Sinclair, who will be hoping to come back to the Rose City having fired the WWC hosts to glory. Most probably would’ve called that notion folly considering Sinclair’s form for much of last year. She failed to score until May 28 in 2014 and scored just two goals against the three other playoff sides, netting seven in total. But Sinclair also netted no goals in the club’s last five regular season matches or its playoff defeat to FCKC, causing some to inevitably wonder if time was beginning to catch up to the scoring machine. However, the Canadian has started scoring again with regularity at international level, with Thorns fans likely hoping that that form will carry over to the NWSL season. It remains to be seen how the strain of the WWC will affect Sinclair, with participation in the Pan-American Games also a real possibility. If anything, the bulked up strike force should ensure that Sinclair benefits from necessary squad rotation to keep her fresh down the stretch.

Trading away McDonald was one shock. Bringing in Jodie Taylor was another, mostly down to the English international being yet another player likely to miss major time on international duty. But when Taylor’s actually in Portland, she has the potential to be yet another big hitter in attack for the Thorns. Taylor proved to be the scoring threat the Spirit needed to make a playoff run in 2014. The English forward netted eleven goals in her debut NWSL season, but critics would argue that Taylor played the role of a flat-track bully, netting just one of those goals against the other three playoff teams. If Taylor can prove she can net against the top teams as well, she could prove to be one of the steals of the seasons for Paul Riley’s arsenal.

Three attacking stars would be enough for most teams, but Riley went ahead and just decided to add a fourth in Equatorial Guinea striker Genoveva Anonma. Anonma first rose to prominence playing with Jena in Germany before her big turn on the international stage at the 2011 WWC. Over fifty goals with Turbine Potsdam followed, making it all the more disappointing that her national side bowed out so early in the run-up to this year’s WWC. That gave the Thorns a big opportunity to make Anonma their forward of choice during the WWC itself though, and they jumped on the chance to take the striker in once her contract with Turbine Potsdam expired. However, Anonma could end up missing more time, not getting to Portland until June in all likelihood because of Olympic qualifiers, while also potentially missing the second half of July for the same reason. If she does settle quickly with her new side though, Anonma could be the piece of the offense that keeps the club afloat during the WWC.

Hanna Terry was signed late last year and got brief action off the bench in two matches. She played a few matches in the Women’s Champions League with Cypriot Apollon Limassol in the offseason and signed for 2015 with the Thorns. It’s hard envisioning her doing much when everyone’s here, but during the WWC, she’ll probably be needed given the lack of pure attacking talent on the roster that won’t be in Canada. Terry’s an unproven commodity though, and she’s got it all to prove on this stage.

Ego management may be as big a challenge as anything else for Riley with his frontline. He has four leading ladies and only a limited amount of minutes to apportion out. Things will be manageable when players are away on international duty, but by the end of the season, AKA crunch time, when everyone’s here? A sticky wicket for sure and one Riley will have to get the best of if the Thorns are to lift a title.

Outlook

The Thorns might be this season’s most volatile team in terms of expectation and endproduct. They have a frontline to die for and that will likely be the envy of the league’s other clubs, but one wonders if putting four forwards who could each score 10+ goals together and trying to juggle those minutes could be too much of a good thing once everyone’s back from the WWC. It’s certainly a problem that Riley probably won’t mind too much considering some of the attacking situations elsewhere in the league.

But behind that frontline, there are some problems. The midfield is packed with underachievers and players potentially on the downside of their career, while the backline isn’t particularly the most convincing unit in the league, with the trade for Williamson perhaps an example of looking backward instead of looking forward. Things are going to get especially hairy here during the WWC, as the club gets slammed by losses, and it might be a case of damage control and grinding out wins until everyone gets back.

For better or for worse, Riley’s pushed all his chips to the center of the table, choosing to hope that a cadre of veterans will be able to push the Thorns back to the top. Given how some of the situations elsewhere in the league have eroded, he might just have a shot at it. But it’s also hard to argue that Portland doesn’t have some potential at being an absolute train wreck if they aren’t boosted by their stars returning from the WWC. Strength in depth here is on shaky ground and is suffering as a result of Riley’s anti-draft myopia. If that ground collapses, Portland could plummet, and Riley could be swept out of the Rose City in short order.

Prediction: 4th

2 thoughts on “NWSL Preview 2015 – Portland Thorns

  1. FDChief

    Seems pretty accurate to me. Riley was introduced here as the “anti-Parlow”, an experienced coach who would sort out the hot mess that was the Thorns inconsistent play and lineup issues in 2013 – even though the team got hot in the semi and final a lot of Portland fans didn’t forget that the team underperformed far below expectations. Instead we got even MORE inconsistency in 2014 and a pretty ugly beating by FCKC in the semi. The “excuse”, for those who are inclined to accept it, is that Riley didn’t have the team he wanted – he had to make do with a squad that was largely Parlow Cone’s. This season he doesn’t have that excuse, and you’re right – if the team falls apart he’s going to have a lot of fans howling for his head.

    Couple of nitpicks. So far this season Riley has used Farrelly wide right rather than the point of the diamond, and has used Long and Zerboni as alternately ACM and DCM – where they play seems to depend on the game situation. Also, Menges had some truly rough outings at FB last season. She actually did better as CB, tho even there her tactical naivety led to some awful defensive derps. It’s been hard to tell where she’ll end up, tho, since the preseason opponents have been so hapless as to provide very little challenge to the Thorns defending – he went with three in back, which we’re unlikely to see once the season starts.

    Also, in the match I saw them play against University of Portland Shim played underneath Taylor almost as a withdrawn forward or a very aggressive AM. Suspect she won’t end up there, but suspect she’s more likely to play high up rather than at RW, which seems to be Farrelly’s spot at the moment.

    Hope that the team comes together better and sooner than 2014, and finishes higher than 4th. Onward, Rose City!

    Reply
    1. Chris Henderson Post author

      Thanks for the insight. I haven’t seen any of the preseason matches, so a lot of the tactical guesswork has been from seasons past.

      Reply

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