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Portland Thorns 2019 season preview: Navigating major World Cup absences

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

The Portland Thorns’ 2018 season ended bitterly when a historically good North Carolina Courage beat them handily in their own house in the National Women’s Soccer League Championship, on a day they no doubt felt was supposed to belong to them. Erase that final result from the schedule, though, and Thorns fans have to feel good about a season where a second-place finish belies a rocky first few months.

Where in the previous two seasons in the Mark Parsons era, Portland’s biggest strength was their league-leading defense, the Thorns’ back line often floundered early in 2018, as a succession of injuries forced a nonstop churn of substitutions to the first-choice back four of Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Ellie Carpenter.

If there’s one player who kept the team’s playoff berth afloat until some degree of stability was reached, it was 2018 league MVP Lindsey Horan, who led the team in scoring and came in third in the league-wide golden boot race. But of course, that rough start to the season is not what anyone remembers about Portland’s nor Horan’s season.

Instead, we remember just how good the Thorns’ offense looked once things came together, with a healthy Tobin Heath fully integrated into the team, Christine Sinclair connecting play in the No. 10 role, and Horan given the freedom to roam the length of the field and dictate the game as she saw fit.

Add Celeste Boureille deep in midfield, Caitlin Foord acting like a gravity well for defenders from the No. 9 spot, and Hayley Raso threatening with her speed from the right wing into the mix, and last year’s best starting lineup is also this year’s, as the Thorns had virtually no roster turnover in the offseason.

But to some extent, all that is beside the point.

The key issue facing the Thorns this year is how they’ll manage the impact of the World Cup on their first-choice starting lineup. It’s an issue facing every team in the league, to some extent, but Portland looks like they’ll get the worst of it, with nine players — four Americans, three Australians, one Canadian, and one Brazilian — likely to head to France in June.

Making that number even worse is the fact that many of the players leaving form the core of this Portland team. You don’t simply swap Horan out for a different midfielder and expect the team to work the same way. The same goes for Sinclair, Heath and Foord. Any one of those players is irreplaceable — to lose all of them, plus Raso, plus Andressinha, plus key defensive pieces in Sonnett, Carpenter, and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, will completely change the way the Thorns play in 2019.

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Yet another wrinkle is the fact that Providence Park is currently undergoing a renovation. That means Portland will open 2019 with a grueling six-game road stand that has the potential to make or break their season. There’s no getting around the fact that the first half of the season will be chaos, with nine internationals in and out over the course of that road stretch, followed by the potentially month-long period during the World Cup itself when the Thorns have their stadium available but will still be missing most of their starters.

What all this means is that if Portland wants to make the playoffs this year, they’re going to have to gut out some ugly points over those first 12 weeks, and that means their defense has to start strong. Fans have some reason for apprehension there — the fact that Menges is currently sidelined with a foot injury is bound to cause some deja vu, as is the club’s vagueness around a timeline for her return — but there’s also room for optimism. Gabby Seiler, who sat out what would have been her rookie season due to injury, saw plenty of minutes during preseason and looks like a great addition at center back. Katherine Reynolds is back from a nasty knee injury sustained late last year, and Elizabeth Ball also performed well in preseason.

But just as important as personnel is the coaching staff’s attitude toward personnel, which Parsons says involves a renewed focus on preparing all players at a given position equally. In a typical year, “one of our strengths is the way we get our team playing on the same page,” he says. “The way we get to build that understanding is building chemistry, cohesion, relationships in as many practices as possible.”

With the instability the team knows is coming over the first half of 2019, though, the approach has to be different. Every player on the bench has to be ready to step in. “We’ve structured meetings, we’ve structured training [to focus on] the engagement of players,” Parsons says, “and knowing all of the roles, all of the principles.”

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Defensively, Boureille is likely to once again play a big role; Portland will depend on her to sit in front of the back line and disrupt opposing plays from developing.

While the starters are gone, the rest of the front six is up in the air, to some extent. Dagny Brynjarsdottir, returning from a year of maternity leave, is a likely lock in the Nos. 8 or 10 role. After that, it’s very much an open question who among Angela Salem, Emily Ogle, Sandra Yu, or even Seiler fills out the midfield. Up front, expect the Thorns to lean heavily on the experience of Swiss international Ana Crnogorcevic, either in a wide or central role. They’ll also hope for Midge Purce, who clearly has a high upside but often fell short when it came to delivering the final service into the box last season, to find another notch in her game.

It’s once the World Cup is over that the series of early challenges Portland will face turn into potential positives. “I don’t mind being on the road, and us building our character, grinding points, finding a way to win and get points,” says Parsons, “then be in a place where we have all these home games.”

Over the final 14 games of the season, the Thorns have 10 home matches, and travel only to the Reign and the Royals, who they play twice each on the road. If they’re in the middle of the table by that point, as their starters come back, they could go on a real tear to close out the year.

This season is going to throw some big challenges at Portland, but if they make it through, they could find themselves positioned to make yet another title run.

Read all 2019 team-by-team NWSL previews here

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