PORTLAND, Ore. – Pity the NWSL’s left backs if this, a scene from Sunday’s game at Providence Park, is going to be repeated throughout the season.
The victim here is the Orlando Pride's Carson Pickett, but she’s not alone. Police reports in Cary, North Carolina, or Bridgeview, Illinois, could have just as easily been filed. When it comes to Midge Purce, Portland Thorns FC’s new right-wing back, a trail of one-on-one destruction is being laid across the NWSL.
“Midge showed why she’s been one of the most dangerous players so far, across the league, at beating people,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said following his team's 2-1 win. “Her final product, creating chances was really, really good tonight, putting them into the right areas.”
“It’s going to be a long night clipping Midge’s clips, tonight, because she had so many great actions.”
It certainly was a long night, coach, as there was truly was no shortage of examples. There may be better one-on-one players in the NWSL, right now, but very few of those players are coming from that deep, wide, right-wing back spot – a position that almost guarantees Portland can create a one-on-one matchup for Purce whenever they want. On Sunday against Orlando, those moments were plentiful.
It was the best night Purce has enjoyed as a Thorn, something that was, in her view, largely defined by the crowd. Though she was with the Boston Breakers when they visited Providence Park last season, Sunday was her first match in red in front of her new supporters. Her impressions of that debut were typical Purce.
“It was sick,” she said, laughing while applying the description to Portland’s crowd. “It was really cool to be a part of the whole atmosphere at the stadium. I feel like a real Portland Thorn now that I’ve got to play at home. It was unreal.”
Her assessment of her own play, however, was a little more muted, commensurate with somebody who is seeing her new position as part of a larger process. Yes, one-on-one, she created chances, she knew, but what exactly did she do with those chances?
“I think the quality in a lot of my service could be a little bit better,” she said, committed to ignoring the silver linings of an otherwise intimidating outing. “Mark and I have been working on that a lot, so going through film is going to be frustrating. But I’m proud of my effort, and I worked hard.”
Chart out her Sunday performance, and you see both Parsons’ and Purce’s point of view, starting in the game’s early minutes, when she truly began exploiting the matchup. That’s when the Thorns started grasping the fact they had a numerical advantage in the middle of the field. Not only did that lead to Portland’s first goal but, as Orlando’s three central defenders tried to close down channels, it left space in the wide areas. With Lindsey Horan in the middle, Portland had no trouble swinging the ball to the flanks, and when, in the second half, Orlando committed an extra player inside to try and offset Horan and Christine Sinclair, the flanks were free for Purce and left-wing back Meghan Klingenberg to roam.
That second half saw Purce exploit her matchup in the 52nd minute. In the 62nd minute, she created a shot on goal, and she was able to get another good ball into the penalty area 12 minutes later. In all, Purce created a game-high four chances, and if it wasn’t for Horan’s seven tackles, Purce would have led the game in that category, too (six).
What makes moments like these even more dangerous is the fact that Purce is not really a wing back. At least, she wasn’t a defender until this season. Though the Breakers fooled around with Purce at right back to start last season, she is trained as an attacker, almost exclusively playing that position through her four-year career at Harvard. Now in her second season of professional soccer, Purce is being converted to a role that has previously intrigued the U.S. Women’s National Team staff, part of the reason she got brief look from Jill Ellis last July.
But if Purce can maintain the attacking instincts that got her into the NWSL, imagine how dangerous these GIF’d moments become. Beating fullbacks, Purce is not just a player that’s going to look to play in a good ball. Instead, she is somebody who can move toward goal with authority, forcing defenses to commit to her instead of just preparing for the next pass.
That context makes Purce’s position switch in a high-reward scenario. As Portland showed late in their first two games, against North Carolina and Chicago, Purce can still play as an attacker, and when the team’s full complement of players comes in, the Thorns will havbe the flexibility to get her forward more often. But if she can, in time, be fully converted to this new, wingback role, Ellis’ curiosity could be rekindled.
One good game does not a switch make, though, but in the season’s previous two games, there’s been a consistent, upward arc. Opening the season against North Carolina, Purce had few opportunities to try and beat Courage fullback Jaelene Hinkle one-on-one. Such is life against good teams on the road. A week later in Chicago, though, Purce showed what her athleticism could do in pressing Red Stars' left back Sarah Gorden, producing multiple moments like this one.
Sunday’s match at home, however, was the first glimpse of Purce’s full power. With no choice but to prioritize managing the likes of Horan and Sinclair, Orlando had to bet on a slower learning curve to Purce’s new position. Instead, they got a player whose one-on-one ability already rivals any fullback’s in the NWSL.
She’s going to get better, too. Perhaps that improvement won’t be as dramatic as these first two months have been. The nuances, after all, can be far more complicated than the obvious. But as she matures over the course of this season, Purce is still going to have Horan and Sinclair drawing attention. She’s going to have the likes of Tobin Heath, Ana Crnogorčeviç and Hayley Raso to occupy defenders. And she’s going to have Andressinha to help get her the ball. In the years to come, teams may have to pay more attention, but in the interim, Purce has a runway to improve.
The Thorns felt fortunate when Purce fell to them in this winter’s Dispersal Draft, but nobody was sure how quickly she’d adjust--particularly with the knowledge that Australian Ellie Carpenter would be arriving later this season. Now, she is not only meeting her challenge, she’s forcing the league to adjust to her.