Forecasting how players from other leagues will translate to the National Women’s Soccer League is a peculiar, underestimated challenge. Because of the athlete factory that is NCAA soccer, the U.S.’s top professional league has a depth of mature, competitive, physically-adept athletes that is unmatched in world soccer. That’s led to a style of play that sorts viewers into fans and detractors, though both groups can agree: The physical challenges of the NWSL make it the most unique high-level league in the world.
Natalia Kuikka is going to be thrown right in next season, but although she’s spent the last two seasons playing with Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC in Sweden’s first division, the 24-year-old Finland international is very familiar with soccer in the United States. Her four-year career at Florida State University ended in 2018, with prowess helping captain her team to a national title.
“Natalia is a key acquisition we believe strengthens this team in several areas as we look ahead and prepare for the 2021 season,” Gavin Wilkinson, the Thorns' general manager, said in the team's Thursday press release. “She is a versatile, quality, athletic player we have followed for several years and we’re delighted to finally bring her to Portland.”
With her signing comes an assumption of Kuikka’s talent, one that’s borne out in both her performances as well as the context around her recruitment. International spots in the NWSL are scarce, as is room within the salary cap for a team like the Thorns. If you’re going to use such resources, you’re going to use them on a player that’s expected to contribute. For Portland, that’s a relatively high standard. When the team underwent its makeover after the 2019 season, Wilkinson was clear on the production he sought from the Thorns’ international players. That standard still applies now, and it’s a standard Kuikka appears ready to uphold.
When Kuikka was converted from midfield to defense at Florida State, Seminoles head coach Mark Krikorian said she could be the best central defender the program has ever had. He also projected that future where Kuikka could perform at the same level, in the same role for her national team. In time, that outlook’s proven prescient. Though she still has the ball skills of a midfield distributor, Kuikka’s ability to read and break up play often flashes a destroyer’s instincts, allowing play to be broken up before it hits the back line. The vision it takes to read those plays, let alone execute them, is likely why Krikorian moved Kuikka into defense. In doing so, he helped craft a unique central defending profile.
Still, what’s interesting about Kuikka is as much her standard as her geography. By many sources, she’s still listed as a midfielder, but she has spent most of her recent time at her new position, in central defense. Athletically, she has the ability to play fullback, too, with her short-yardage burst and low center of gravity some of the most intriguing parts of her physical profile.
If that versatility makes your back-of-the-envelope Thorns lineup unclear, you’re probably not alone. There are a number of different places where Kuikka could end up fitting into her new team by the end of the 2021 season, especially if a potential Tokyo Olympics comes to fruition.
“Natalia is a modern, ball-playing defender with a great range of passing, who also has the characteristics of a no-nonsense defender who loves to defend,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons explained. “Her character and team-first attitude will add to the strength of our locker room.”
In a way, questions about where Kuikka plays could highlight one of the differences between forging a squad and imagining what a team should be. Coaches and general managers have to indulge both, but in terms of their day-to-day lives, they’re anchored to the former. What a team becomes is a process. It’s multi-branched. There’s no inevitability. During the journey, new possibilities emerge. Part of forming a team is staying open to what you can’t know.
From the outside, though, we tend to be impatient. We’re eager, and particularly during an offseason, we can get a little bored. It’s too tempting to play out the what ifs, go through envelope after envelope, passing over the practices, meetings, recovery sessions and lessons that bring clarity to a squad. We skip to the end game, all its hypotheticals: That’s the future of position X or Y? How does the team feel about this player, or that one? How else is the team going to change – or need to change? What does this move say about how the Thorns see themselves?
They’re all fair questions. They just don’t always have clear answers, especially when applied to a player like Kuikka. The answers we have on Kuikka are about her talent, as well as her versatility. They’re about her profile, and what that profile’s been tested against so far. They’re about the 51 caps she’s accumulated since making her international debut as a 17-year-old, and they’re about being chosen as her country’s best player two years ago. They’re also about the contributions she’s made to Goteborg in both the Damallsvenskan and in UEFA Champions League. With Kuikka, there’s a track record of excellence that extends back to her time in Tallahassee, as well as reasons to think her excellence can be replicated in the NWSL.
And, it’s about strengthening the squad. Though it may not be clear where Kuikka will help the Thorns first, it’s clear Wilkinson and Parsons feel this is a significant step forward. The rest can be figured out once Kuikka is in Portland.