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2014 NWSL preview: Portland Thorns FC

New Portland Thorns FC coach Paul Riley will have to deal with the pressure of being favorites and defending champions. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

When Portland Thorns FC players take the field on Saturday for their 2014 opener, last year’s champions will be starting anew almost as much as their opponent, the expansion Houston Dash.

Thorns FC enter the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League season as the inaugural title holders, but begin 2014 with a new coach, Paul Riley, and only eight of the players who were on the roster when the team lifted the championship trophy in Rochester last August.

They once again will start the year without star midfielder Tobin Heath, who is with French side PSG until June. And Portland enters this season without U.S. striker Alex Morgan, who hasn’t played in a match since November and could still be two months or more from returning from a stress reaction in her left ankle.

But despite all the changes, the Thorns are viewed as a vastly improved side on paper, and they will once again carry the pressure of being favorites.

[MORE: Team-by-team 2014 NWSL previews]

Riley has brought in Veronica Boquete, who won the 2011 WPS MVP award with him in Philadelphia, in addition to orchestrating the return of defender Nikki Marshall after an untimely offseason exit. And he’s brought in former Philadelphia midfielder Sinead Farrelly to join Amber Brooks from Bayern Munich. FIFA World Player of the Year and German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer is in net now, with 2013 starter Karina LeBlanc traded to Chicago.

Those are just a few of the bevy of changes, but perhaps none is more indicative of the new beginning in Portland than Boquete – “Vero,” as she’s known more simply. Boquete plays a creative, up-tempo style of soccer that Riley wants to implement. It’s a style – and, at times, an energy and passion – that the Thorns lacked throughout stretches of 2013 under ex-coach Cindy Parlow-Cone.

“Vero was an easy one for me,” Riley said. “Obviously Vero has played for me as she was MVP in the WPS (in 2011). I think she’s the best No. 10 in the world. She can break you down on the dribble, she can break you down on the pass, she’s very clever, she can score goals and she’s unbelievably fantastic in the locker room.”

There were hints of cracks in the locker room environment in 2013, and they came to public light after a 3-2 home loss to FC Kansas City on August 4. This year, like a broken record, the universal message from the few returning Thorns players is that they have to be better than their 5-4-2 home record last season.

“Last year, especially at home, our form wasn’t as good as it could’ve been,” Sinclair said last month.

In theory, Providence Park should be a fortress for Portland, who led the league with 13,320 fans per game in 2013, nearly tripling the next-closest team. Whether or not the Thorns improve their home form will determine the success of their ultimate goal: Winning the title on home soil.

Strengths

This Portland team’s midfield is loaded. There aren’t enough positions to fit all the talented players on the field come summer, but the timing of arrivals (Heath, Boquete joining late) will help solve that in the interim. Mana Shim looks to improve upon a great rookie season and Brooks will hope to boost her stock ahead of World Cup qualifying with a strong league season. Boquete is a “game-changer,” as Riley calls her, and Heath helped right the ship for the Thorns when she returned from France midseason, ultimately scoring the title-clinching goal. But the greatest strength of the Thorns – once fully healthy – may also be the biggest question mark…

Questions

Morgan is out until at least sometime after Memorial Day, and the slow healing process of her injury makes even that questionable. When she returns, a Morgan-Sinclair tandem up top is, on paper, one of the best in the world, nevermind the league. But that was what everyone thought in 2013, and both players struggled relative to their usual form.

“Last year with Alex and I playing together, it actually didn’t click very well, to be honest,” Sinclair said. “Part of that was I dropped down into midfield towards the middle of the season. Obviously anytime you are missing a player like Alex, your team is going to suffer, but we’ve experienced the whole preseason without her and we are very confident heading into the season that we’ll be able to perform and score goals without her. Obviously we’ll welcome her back when she is finally healthy.”

One of the problems was that Sinclair was asked to do too much to help out a midfield that was too often bypassed with long-balls, so the Canadian dropped deeper and deeper to find the ball in the middle of the season, drawing her away from goal.

That won’t happen in 2014, if Riley gets his way.

“She’s the best pure goal-scorer in the world, so we’ve got to put her in front of goal and that’s what we intend to do,” he said.

Outlook

By all accounts, the defending champions are a much better team than they were in 2013. How Paul Riley meshes all of his star-studded pieces will be critical to Portland’s success. Riley thrived in the underdog role in Philadelphia in 2010 and 2011, but now he’ll guide the Thorns under the pressure of being the team expected to win (playing the Marta-Morgan-Sinclair-led Flash role of 2011).

As mentioned, home form will be critical to Portland’s success, too. If the Thorns can pick up near-maximum points at home, they should get at least one extra game at Providence Park come August.

Possible lineup

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