If you saw nothing other than this sequence, below, from Yazmeen Ryan’s professional debut, you’d start to understand why Portland Thorns FC were so high on the Texas Christian midfielder going into last January’s draft:
Nothing came of this sequence, and when you isolate any of her positives, yes, perhaps there’s a risk of making too much out of one Ryan moment. After all she only takes four touches. But between the speed, recognition, execution and, ultimately, delivery for a good scoring chance, the moment is how you’d want any player to execute in that situation. And this came four minutes into her professional debut.
“When I first was told I was going in, I was like, 'Hell, yeah,’” Ryan said after her debut. “That was my mindset. ‘Hell, yeah. Let's do this.’”
There’s something powerful about a rookie saying “Hell, yeah” twice in her first press conference.
“I've just been super excited to go out there and play with these girls in a real-life game,” Ryan continued, “so just going in my goal was just to make a difference and bring the energy up, and just support my teammates in any way I can, the best I can.”
Saturday was our first glimpse of the player who, coming out of the NWSL’s January draft, Thorns head coach Mark Parsons identified as his top player on their board. Portland started the draft with the night's seventh pick up and traded up to six when Ryan fell. That close, they didn't want to risk missing out. They're traded for their first-round picks a few weeks before with the hopes somebody like Ryan would fall. The final cost ended up being two midfielders, Gabby Seiler and Emily Ogle, as well as a third-round pick, all for a player whose college season would keep her from Portland for another five-plus months.
“It’s been a stressful first hour, because Yazmeen was our number one target …,” Parsons said at January’s draft, minutes after telling Ryan she would be a Thorn. “She’s someone that we feel we need right now, that helps us right now, and there was only a couple of those [players] in this draft. Yazmeen’s profile fit us. She was our number one target.”
(Note: Portland also got a fourth-round pick in 2021 from the Houston Dash in the Seiler/Ogle deal. That pick became defender Hannah Betfort, who arrived in Portland with Ryan after college’s spring season.)
Coaches are always biased toward their own picks. It’s almost tautological. A player wouldn’t have been picked at all if the team didn’t like them. But in Parsons’ proclamations, there was a standard that became a test: Was Ryan worthy of more than the sixth-overall pick?
Twenty minutes isn’t enough to know, but we can read the tea leaves. There’s the leaf above, where she bursts from deep midfielder into space left by an opposing right back. As she races past the opposing midfield, she slows and opens up for the ball she’s expecting. Once she has it, she closes in on the defense, gets the defense to set and commit before she plays back to an open Crystal Dunn. This sequence probably should have been a goal, or at least a quality shot.
It wasn’t the only time Ryan used her speed and recognition to attack the Courage’s penalty area. In the sequence, below, her touch betrays her as she tries to set up a shot. But the work she puts in to get in position reveals confidence, as well as imagination. Here again, we should remember these are the first minutes of her professional career, and playing among the Courage and Thorns, she’s been inserted into the most competitive dynamic in the NWSL. Yet she’s executing a give-and-go with the leading goal-scorer in international soccer history. Most players would be focusing on the basics.
“When people were trying to tell me about how different [the NWSL] was going to be, you really don't know until you experience it,” Ryan said on Saturday. “it's just a whole `nother level, not only the speed but just how sharp.”
The remarkable part of the last clip isn’t the give-and-go. It’s what happens before Ryan gets the ball. Watch as she shifts while North Carolina responds to Becky Sauerbrunn on the ball. She moves into a space that doesn’t seem to provide a passing lane. But once the Courage defense is done moving, Ryan is Sauerbrunn’s best option.
Also, look at Ryan check over her left shoulder as she’s receiving the ball. She knows what she wants to do. She just has to check to make sure Christine Sinclair is open. Before getting the ball, she’s decided her next action, verified her teammate’s open, and puts herself in position to execute.
This type of awareness was also present on the defensive side of the ball. Look at how conscious Ryan is of the Courage midfielder behind her, below. Count how many times she checks over her shoulder.
In the first part of the clip, Ryan cancels out the player who can get North Carolina into space on the other side of the field, as well as clogs up the middle. Courage have to either play through traffic or go back to their defenders to try and access the space they need. Conscious of their outlet, Ryan eliminates North Carolina’s easiest option.
That’s not the only time Ryan showed that kind of awareness. Though she was making her Thorns debut, Ryan still showed a comfort with her position’s responsibilities – an awareness that was evident in her movement, positioning, and execution. In little moments like this, below — her first touches as a pro — Ryan displays her knowledge of Portland’s system.
“Her first touch, bringing that ball out from a goal kick just to set the left-back,” Parsons remembered with reverence. “And then the second action to get on the dribble. She is cool, calm, collected. She's got a great brain. And great technique … The most important thing is she really helped us in this game. She really helped calm us down and connect again.”
Yes, Ryan’s debut was only 20 minutes, but within it you we saw enough glimpses of an all-around skillset that hinted Parsons’ January praise may have been more than a coach capturing, as far as drafts go, a long-sought target. Even in some of the things that aren’t worth their own paragraphs, like her willingness to contest and win possession in aerial duals …
… to the smaller bits of execution that leave you saying, “yeah, that’s just what a high-level midfielder should do,” we saw upsides, best-case scenarios, as well as a high floor. We all saw the same things Stumptown Footy’s Grant Little did when he wrote about this on Sunday, processing the type of excitement that lingers when new impact player debuts. Ryan not only looks ready to play now but, as long as we’re ignoring every caveat about 20-minute samples, she also looks like a player with the awareness, imagination and confidence to reach the highest levels.
After Saturday’s game, Parsons spoke before Ryan during Portland’s postgame media. As he left frame on the Zoom call, Ryan was waiting behind the fourth wall. Her new coach couldn’t help but acknowledge the occasion, while trying to maintain perspective on the 20-minute snapshot.
“I can see Yazmeen by the door, outside,” Parsons said, aware Ryan could hear. “Be gentle, guys. This is a young player. We've got a lot of years. Let's keep her grounded and keep her head nice and small.”