Likely pleasing owner Merritt Paulson, the 2013 NWSL season essentially ended up being all about his Thorns by the time the confetti had been cleaned up from Rochester in late August. His side was able to lift the trophy after a season that had featured a little bit of everything. There was player grousing, fan grousing (including a rather pointed tifo aimed at head coach Cindy Cone), roster shakeups, and untimely injuries as the league’s glamour club was a constant source of drama. Predicted to walk away with the title in some quarters, the Thorns instead found themselves having to win two playoff games on the road to lift the league title when all was said and done. The mission was accomplished but not without some serious bumps in the road.
It proved to all be a bit too much for Cone, who resigned after the season. Into the breach steps Paul Riley, back at the top level after a season away. Riley immediately proved himself to be one of this level’s top bosses by masterminding Philadelphia’s rise from obscurity to title contenders in WPS but also gained a reputation for being unable to seal the deal, getting crushed by FC Gold Pride before a heartbreaking penalty defeat to the WNY Flash in 2011. It’s a reputation that may have cost him a shot at coaching the USWNT, but Riley certainly looks to have a good chance of setting things right this season. The new boss has turned over much of the club’s insufficient depth, while adding two of the world’s best players in Nadine Angerer and Vero. Again, the Thorns figure to be in the headlines in the NWSL in 2014.
Riley inherits a talented squad, but he also inherits massive expectations after Portland’s title triumph last season. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that this may be the first time Riley’s come into a season with his team expected to come away with a title after operating as underdogs during his two-year tenure with Philadelphia in WPS. A brilliant motivator, Riley has nonetheless made use of a siege mentality in his past seasons at this level, something that plainly isn’t to be taken seriously here given such a talented set of players he has at his disposal. It’s hard to envision Riley co-existing with U.S. Soccer’s meddlesome executives that canned Tom Sermanni, but his getting the job in the future probably depends on his ability to show he can finally win the big one. It’s something that will likely be weighing on him this season, and the experienced boss has already shaken the side up, likely to ensure the hunger to win a title is still there after 2013′s victory.
The Thorns’ new boss has preached attractive, passing football for his regime, but having watched his Philadelphia side, you wonder if he’s just paying lip service to the league’s neediest fans. While the Independence weren’t a bunch of long ball merchants, calling them the second coming of Barcelona isn’t an accurate portrayal of a side who made use of the athletic front-running of Amy Rodriguez and Tasha Kai. It’s difficult envisioning too much tiki-taka here early either, considering injuries and absences that will loom large early. Considering the likely starting midfield features Allie Long and Sinead Farrelly, both Riley favorites who underachieved last year, as well as the young Mana Shim and Amber Brooks, the onus might be on the center forwards to do the business. That’ll probably suit Christine Sinclair fine, the Canadian probably working best as the focal point of the attack, which she’ll have to be until Alex Morgan and Vero are on the pitch here.
Things figure to change markedly once the club gets all its pieces in place. Steph Catley will probably allow the club to open up the offense a little with her forward runs from left-back, while Tobin Heath on the left flank and Vero in the playmaking position should ease Portland’s midfield from being a land of questions to one of the league’s premier units. An attacking triangle of Vero, Sinclair, and Morgan sounds like the stuff of nightmares for opposing defenses. But as Sinclair and Morgan’s struggles in gelling together last season show, football is not a game played on paper, and the best laid plans can sometimes go awry. Still, you’d bet on Riley getting it right once he has everyone available to him. It’s just a matter of bridging that gap now, something not made particularly easy by injuries and absences for various reasons.