Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews
It was two and out for ex-Portland manager Paul Riley, who was sacked unceremoniously after a brutally disappointing 2015 season. After edging their way into the playoffs a year before and being turfed out early, the Thorns suffered the ignominy of a sixth place finish after a team heavy on players who played a part at the Women’s World Cup crashed and burned when the club’s depth was exposed as little more than a thinly veiled sham. The offense was middling, the defense stunk, and most of Riley’s signings flopped pitifully.
By the end of the 2015 campaign, Riley was dealing with an injury ravaged squad that had somehow managed to go through twenty-eight players on the season. He managed just four games out of a chronically crocked Alex Morgan and three out of key defender Stephanie Catley, while reserves like Taylor Comeau and Sarah Jackson ended up playing nearly half the season. Unsurprisingly, Riley’s exit has brought a clearout from last year’s underachievers and a new influx of big name talent from many corners of the globe. The edict from up high is the same as always: win now and win big, though, on paper, this year’s squad shares some unsettling similarities to last year’s.
Loyal but very demanding, the Thorns’ fanbase never particularly warmed to Paul Riley as coach, and as the team lurched towards mid-table anonymity last season, there were few tears shed when it was confirmed that the club would be looking in another direction for a manager. But rather than some of the tortured job searches this offseason from other clubs, Portland struck quickly, tabbing rival coach Mark Parsons as their next boss and plucking him away from the Spirit with little difficulty.
Parsons wasn’t particularly loved by some sections of the Spirit support, but it’s hard to argue that he didn’t steer the ship in a more positive direction after the club’s feeble first season in the league. A pair of playoff berths after that calamitous 2013 season was a job well done, though you also got the sense that something drastic would have to happen for the Spirit to break into the upper echelon of the league, even if Parsons had stayed with the club.
Some Portland supporters may be skittish with Parsons’ team building acumen he showed with the Spirit. The club burned through their international slots with players far too green to make an impact in the league like Ngozi Okobi and Hayley Raso while also using slots on some in the vein of Laura Del Rio, who added little in the end. The new Thorns boss has argued though that it will be much easier to attract international talent to the Rose City, though time will tell if the new boss can get the right fit with his signings from abroad. Parsons was also hit and miss with his drafting, though he fared well in 2015, with Whitney Church and Megan Oyster making an immediate impact on the backline.
Indeed, it’s making a club more than the sum of its parts that Parsons succeeded most with during his two plus years with the Spirit. Though the team had a cobbled together look at times, they also outperformed opponents with far greater resources and star power over the past two seasons en route to playoff berths. The most pressing concern may be Parsons’ ability to mold together an elite defense. His 2014 Spirit nearly gave up two goals a game, and while they improved markedly last season, the rearguard was nowhere near the calibre of the top teams in the league. Parsons will need to show better in this regard if he’s to be a success with the 2013 champions.
So much for the goalkeeping situation in Portland being settled. Michelle Betos looked to have finally earned the undisputed #1 slot in between the pipes last year after winning NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year honors for a season of heroics that included a last ditch headed equalizer and a year full of keeping scorelines respectable playing behind a backline that was pried open far too often. A well-past-it Nadine Angerer did start six matches for the Thorns in her final season, but few believed at the end of the day that she was anything more than second choice here behind Betos. Angerer’s retirement (albeit from only a playing role, as she’s the new goalkeeper coach here) seemingly opened up Betos to holding the starting spot full-time heading into 2016.
And then Mark Parsons made a shocking trade in wheeling and dealing to bring AD Franch to the Rose City. Franch was last seen on these shores turning in a sensational rookie season in Rochester for the Flash and looking like the heir apparent to Hope Solo with the USWNT. But Franch tore her ACL in 2014’s preseason and was at loggerheads a year later over her contract with WNY, with the result being a lost year in Norway with Avaldsnes, where she didn’t exactly find herself as an undisputed first choice, spending a considerable amount of time on the bench with the Scandinavian club.
Which naturally started the murmurs that French simply wasn’t the same goalkeeper as she was pre-injury. Some would argue that it takes a while to recover from such a serious knee injury, but there are worries that a keeper who was such an explosive athlete between the pipes before could be permanently affected by said injury. The Oklahoma State alum didn’t exactly cover herself in glory in the friendly against Houston this preseason, and that display probably scuppered any short-term plans for French to ascend to the top of the depth chart. But you don’t trade away what Portland did for just a backup keeper, so French may well see major minutes at some point this season for the Thorns creating an intriguing battle between the pipes.
The battle isn’t likely to be early in the season on Franch’s preseason form though, and Betos should enter the season as the #1 here. Betos tends to play on the razor’s edge in goal, and it proved costly at times last season. However, she’s also a streaky keeper, and when she’s on form, Betos has the ability to compensate for the shaky defenses she’s often played in front of in her NWSL career. The reigning Goalkeeper of the Year in the league has never really played behind a top notch backline as a pro at this level, something that may not necessarily change this season. It means that Betos may have to again be at her best for the Thorns to ensure themselves of a playoff spot, especially when the likes of Emily Sonnett and Meghan Klingenberg are away on international duty.
Many may envy the depth Parsons has in goal with both Betos and Franch capable of being strong #1s when on form. Whereas some NWSL clubs don’t have a single keeper who has started many games in this league, Portland has a pair of said keepers. But few will envy Parsons’ task at keeping both of those netminders’ egos satiated over the course of an entire season with both likely to be here all season long. Franch didn’t come back to these shores to ride the pine, but she may have to work her way into major minutes given Betos’ incumbency and her own shaky preseason form. Still, it’d hardly be a surprise if Parsons tries to ride the hot hand all season long, for better or for worse.