5 Players To Watch: Portland Thorns
The National Women’s Soccer League features some of the biggest stars in the world. With the Summer Olympics kicking off in July, many of those starts will be absent for a significant portion of the season. Additionally, the start of the league’s Challenge Cup competition will fall in an international FIFA window, meaning the national team players will be called up instead of being with their club teams to start the tournament. Fortunately, the league’s impressive depth will be showcased while the internationals are away. This series will highlight five players from each NWSL team who can take advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves this season.
It’s odd to call four years a dry spell, but in a league as young as the NWSL, four years is a lifetime. And it has been four years since the Thorns have been truly dominant in this league. But, all that could change in 2021. After acquiring Becky Sauerbrunn in early 2020 and Crystal Dunn in the 2020 offseason, keeping a majority of their starting 11 from 2019/20, as well as making it out of the expansion draft relatively unscathed, the Portland Thorns are bound to be the league favorite heading into the 2021 season. Even with losing Tobin Heath to Racing Louisville, Portland returns a strong core of powerhouses and they are seemingly only getting better with each day. However, they are littered with international talent that will be off to Tokyo this summer and missing a good chunk of club duty in the heart of the regular season. In all likelihood, Dunn, Sauerbrunn, Lindsay Horan, Sophia Smith, and Christine Sinclair will be wearing their countries’ colors in July and August. Their departure presumably leaves five starting spots to be filled, including some major opportunities for complimentary players to become primary. Luckily for Mark Parsons, the well is quite deep, and while he will certainly miss some of his star power, he has plenty of options left that will keep the Thorns not only successful, but potentially dominant.
Is this a cop-out? Maybe. But truly, after the spectacular showing of goalkeepers across the league during the 2020 Challenge Cup and Fall Series, eyes will be on the primary net minder for the Thorns this season. With Adrianna Franch and Bella Bixby both returning from injury, there is an opportunity for a young unknown, Shelby Hogan, to get valuable minutes at the start of the season. Hogan comes to the Thorns via Big East stalwart Providence College. During her time with the Friars, Hogan was named the program's first ever Big East Goalkeeper of the Year, and was an all-conference selection each year in the program. Goalkeepers have always been one of the deepest positions in the NWSL, and perhaps Hogan will be the next keeper to make her name in the league.
A betting person would assume that once Franch or Bixby is fully cleared, they will be returning to the starting line-up, The question is: which of the two does Parsons tap? Franch was seemingly the heir apparent to the USWNT number one spot after her tremendous consistency, incredible reaction time, and athletic prowess. With her untimely injury, many doubted the Thorns ability to be competitive in the Challenge Cup. Enter Bella Bixby. The relative unknown burst onto the NWSL scene with a near perfect showing in the net for Portland. Then another untimely injury... luckily Britt Eckerstrom said “no worries, I got this.” With the retirement of Eckerstrom and Portland shockingly holding onto both Franch and Bixby in the draft, the team's primary net minder spot is up for grabs, and will be a huge position to fill.
Rodriguez was a huge pickup for Portland in the 2019 off-season. She is exactly the player the team was missing in 2019, a hole which was exploited beautifully by the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL semi-finals. Rodriguez’s soccer IQ is through the roof, only second to her technical ability, vision, and power. She can play almost any position in the midfield, which allows Parsons flexibility to move other superstars up and down the pitch. Rodriguez draws attention from other teams, giving her teammates the ability to play in behind, and be on the receiving end of her stupendous service ability.
Rodriguez will spend much of the time in the midfield without internationals Christine Sinclair, Crystal Dunn, and Lindsay Horan. Instead, she will be leading the link-up to a less experienced (but still dangerously talented) attack. Much of the Thorns’ offensive leadership will fall into the hands of Rodriguez as she navigates the heart of the NWSL season without her international companions. Little worry here. Rodriguez is finally in the right situation with the Thorns, and is primed for a breakout season. NWSL fans truly only got a taste of how good Rocky Rodriguez is for the Thorns during a shortened 2020 season, and look to her to keep the Thorns firing on all cylinders through July and August.
Morgan Weaver might be the most dangerous player on the Thorns frontline. I have been known to be hyperbolic, but Weaver may have the highest ceiling of any single player on the Thorns’ roster. Weaver is built like a Division I power forward, can change directions on a dime, and while her introduction to the professional game was brief, the Challenge Cup showcased flashes of her brilliance. Weaver moves incredibly well in space, and her size and strength make her both an aerial presence and a target within the box. Her favored right foot brings incredible power from inside and outside the box. Weaver has already put her big-goal stamp on the NWSL, scoring the one and only goal defeating the heavily-favored Courage in the Challenge Cup. This upcoming season will see if she has made the necessary improvements to be an elite scorer at this level.
For Weaver to become next level, there are a few things that her game needs. A stronger left foot, quicker decision making, and the ability to move in tight spaces. There is no doubt that she dominated the college game due to her size, speed, and strength. Now that she faces deeper, more talented opponens, Weaver needs to hone the skills that made her successful in college while adding layers to her game to become more multifaceted. She will benefit greatly from the pace of Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi, who are likely to be her partners on the flank, as well as the great service from a talented midfield. Weaver is likely to be the Thorns’ target in the middle of the field, and on paper she has the ability to take advantage.
The story of Simone Charley is well known to NWSL fans. A non-drafted invitee turned practice player in 2018, then invited onto the squad as a supplemental player in 2019, turned into a protected player in a 2021 expansion draft. Simone Charley has truly made a name for herself in the league, and is on the brink of a true breakout season. Charley might be the most decorated amateur athlete in the NWSL, winning nine state championships in Georgia in both soccer and track, before going onto Vanderbilt where she was named to multiple All-SEC teams, as well as being named an All-American in Track and Field. I mention this not only to gas Charley up, but also note her incredible athletic prowess, winner’s mentality, and untapped soccer potential. Charley, unlike many of her professional peers, has spent most of her athletic career focusing on more than just soccer. Multi-sport training not only makes you a better athlete, less injury-prone, and more versatile, but it also means that Charley likely has not had the same intensive, repetitive soccer reps, and likely has a longer runway to getting even better.
Charley has already taken off down this runway, getting noticeably better season after season. The Thorns will look for her to be a dynamic piece in their scoring arsenal. Charley is fleet of foot, and can break down backlines with her pace off the ball, and with the ball at her feet as well. Her two way game has improved tremendously, she is better at possession, and has developed more accuracy in front of goal. Charley started three of four Fall Series games, and will look to build on an already solid 2020 season. Her service ability will be key in creating chances for the Thorns offense. So will her ability to link up with outside backs in the final third. I would not be surprised if Charley is a mainstay on the front line, and takes on a big scoring role with the likely loss of Sophia Smith to the Olympic alternate roster.
It would not be a Thorns preview without mentioning Emily Menges. An NWSL stronghold, Menges has been a tent pole of the Thorns backline since 2014. A STEAL in the draft at the 25th pick, Menges proves how important a draft can be for the future of teams. She briefly flirted with the USWNT in 2016, instead becoming the face of the Thorns backline, and, in this contributor's humble opinion, one of the most underrated center backs in the NWSL. She was the cornerstone of the Thorns defense in their Shield win in 2016 and their league championship in 2017. Consistency is her middle name, and Menges will be vital to the Thorns’ continued success in 2021.
Where she becomes especially important is in her leadership. With the 2021 Challenge Cup falling during an international cycle, and the Olympics on the horizon, the Thorns will be without their regular captain Christine Sinclair, as well as the tried-and-true leadership of Becky Sauerbrunn. They will look to Menges, and likely backline partner Meghan Klingenberg, to shoulder much of the leadership burden. With not only a young team, but a team with many fresh faces, enough cannot be said about the demeanor, quality, and approach of veterans like Menges. The Thorns are too talented (and too deep) to let something like inexperience be their Achilles heels. There is no doubt that Menges will be trusted to hold the backline, as well as show the way for the Thorns this season. There are few people more ready for the job.