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2015 NWSL Preview: Portland Thorns FC

World Cup absences will take away major stars from Portland early in the NWSL season. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

World Cup absences will take away major stars from Portland early in the NWSL season. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Only one-third of National Women’s Soccer League coaches have experience juggling the U.S. professional season with the World Cup. Portland Thorns FC coach Paul Riley is one of them.

In 2011, Riley managed the Philadelphia Independence to the WPS title game, where ‘the Cheesesteaks’ fell on penalty kicks to the Western New York Flash.

Riley, along with the Flash’s Aaran Lines and Sky Blue FC’s Jim Gabarra, brings the experience of that season into this new league in 2015.

“Everybody’s going to suffer,” Riley said of the World Cup intrusion. “It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”

[MORE: Team-by-team previews of the 2015 NWSL season]

Riley hopes that brings a return to the top for the Thorns, who won an unlikely championship in 2013 under Cindy Parlow Cone but lost in the semifinals last year under Riley.

Additions/Subtractions

Kat Williamson is back in Portland after a season with the Western New York Flash and Riley sees her as a leader on the back line, handing her the captain’s armband on day one of preseason. Williamson came over in the offseason in a trade that also brought longtime Western New York Flash utility player McCall Zerboni to the Thorns and sent away midfielder Amber Brooks, who is now in Seattle after the Abby Wambach-Sydney Leroux blockbuster trade. Where Riley has really bolstered the side is at the forward position, bringing in English international Jodie Taylor in a draft-day trade and signing Equatorial Guinea striker Genoveva Añonma, who will join the club in the second half of the season. Those two will fight for playing time with Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair after the World Cup, but Riley isn’t worried about having too many forwards — that’s exactly the point. Riley says that the best teams in the world have four great strikers to provide depth.

“We want the ability to change the game,” Riley said. “I thought last year that with 15, 20 minutes to go, we really couldn’t change the game up front. We didn’t really have another option to go to the bench to and I think that will change this year. We’ll have that option to go to the bench.”

Midfielder Veronica Boquete is the club’s biggest loss and it looks unlikely that she will return this season due to timing. The season ends in September, after the transfer window ends. That means she either would join after the World Cup and leave before the playoffs — which isn’t a deal the Thorns would do — or she wouldn’t get back to Europe until January — which Boquete wouldn’t do. Jessica McDonald’s 11 goals will also be sorely missed and the Thorns will feel the retirement of Nikki Marshall on the defensive end.

Sure Things

Zerboni and Long could combine to be one of the toughest central midfield combinations in the NWSL and both are slated to be with the team for the entire season. Riley said that Long will likely play in front of Zerboni as the attacking midfielder, while Zerboni “provides the tooth and nail” fighting mentality that the Thorns lacked in the middle of the park. Williamson will also be crucial for the Thorns. Now in her third professional season, the former Florida Gator is expected to lead the team, especially in the absence of so many international players.

World Cup Worries

The World Cup will hit the Thorns hard, despite Riley’s preparation for it. Sinclair and Morgan will miss a large portion of the early part of the season, as will Canadians Kaylyn Kyle and Rhian Wilkinson. Australian defender Stephanie Catley won’t play for the Thorns at all before the World Cup. And German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer will miss time for the World Cup. Riley brought in defender Kendall Johnson because he feels he needs a naturally left-footed player. And Michelle Betos has trained and practiced like a starting goalkeeper, Riley said, so he is confident there won’t be a drop-off when Angerer is away.

Despite the depth at the forward position, scoring could be a problem early-to-mid season due to all the absences. Hannah Terry — who has only eight minutes of NWSL experience — could be the go-to forward in May and June, which is a lot of pressure for her. Riley has expert knowledge on the unheralded amateur group of players that teams will call upon a lot this year, so he should be able to fill the gaps where needed. The Thorns don’t have a reserve team, but Riley said that is at least a year from becoming reality.

Outlook

Portland brings a certain pressure to win unlike anywhere else in the NWSL. Even in 2013, when the Thorns won the title, it hardly came easily. Portland could struggle early in the season with so many absences before picking up steam in late summer. But it isn’t always as easy as simply putting world-class players on the field; chemistry has been an issue for the Thorns in the past. As Riley mentioned, this season will be a marathon. Making the playoffs is all that is needed to be in the mix for a title, a scenario both attainable and with precedent for Portland.

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