Mark Parsons #2, Thorns training, 2.19.18

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The injury looked innocuous enough, so much so that she was able to play through it; at least, Caitlin Foord played through it for a few minutes. With her team up 2-0 at halftime, though, the Australian international was pulled from Sydney FC’s Feb. 9, W-League semifinal against the Newcastle Jets, a move that initially looked precautionary.

The next day, Foord tweeted out one of the worst-case scenarios, saying she would undergo surgery to repair a lisfranc injury, describing the diagnosis as a rupture. Though the 23-year-old didn’t reveal a timeline for her recovery, the injury will severely compromise her 2018 NWSL season. Whether she appears for the Thorns during the coming campaign or not, Portland has to plan for life without her.

“Last year we were talking about a key player for a long, long time,” Mark Parsons remembered, when asked Monday about Foord’s injury. “You start to ask yourself, can we get through a year without experiencing that?”

Foord has since underdone surgery and could yet return to the Thorns this season. However, less than two weeks removed from her injury, any timeline comes with an element of speculation. Right now, there’s no telling how quickly Foord will heal, yet alone return to full fitness.

If the idea of Portland losing a prominent player sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Last year, the player was Tobin Heath, who missed most of the season after suffering a back injury during preseason. But she wasn’t the only Thorn whose 2017 health became a major concern. By year’s end, Katherine Reynolds was an invaluable part of the league’s best defense, but for the first half of the season, she was sidelined with a groin problem.

One year later, Portland’s dealing with similar misfortune, albeit with a player who has yet to adorn a Thorns uniform. Given Foord’s talent, though, her loss could make a challenge in the Thorns’ plans. The former Sky Blue player, whose rights were acquired by the Thorns this offseason, she was expected to be one of Portland’s most important attackers, potentially joining fellow Australia international Hayley Raso among the team’s starting strikers.

In her place, the Thorns don’t lack for quantity – there are at least eight other players in the team that have played forward in the past – but there is a reason why Portland management was so high on their new Matilda. You just don’t acquire somebody like Caitlin Foord every day. And when you do, it’s almost impossible to replace them.

“The dynamic ability Caitlin brings in the front line is probably something we have not seen at this club,” Parsons explained.

“She’s not specific. She’s a player that can do it all. The physical work she can do off the ball, the physical work she can do on it. You have to have that to be in our team, to be in our front line, today. Where we’ve progressed to, you have to have it.”

With Foord’s injury, Heath’s health becomes even more important. While the Thorns survived her loss during the 2017 regular season, the NWSL leaps forward each season in terms of quality. Competition at the top of this year’s standings will be even more intense. Shield-winning North Carolina acquired U.S. international Crystal Dunn in the offseason, while third-place Chicago traded for 2017 MVP Sam Kerr.

Having undergone offseason ankle surgery, Heath should be healthy come the season opener, even if she’s not with the team right now.

“She’s still doing some isolated work and building strength, and it made perfect sense for her to stay in LA where she has been working to continue that …,” Parsons said about Heath, projecting a timetable that would have her available for the season opener. “Right now, fingers crossed, toes crossed, we don’t predict any reason why that should change.”

Although it’s too soon to know when Foord will be ready, the best-case scenarios have her in the Rose City this summer, on a similar recovery timeline to Heath a season ago.

“I think July, August, is a nice, ambitious aim,” Parsons said, cautioning any timeline has to be considered “loose.” “Can we get her in three or four games before playoffs? [The timeline] could be better, and like we’ve known before, it could be worse."

In Foord's place, Mallory Weber and Tyler Lussi will have a chance to build on their strong 2017s. Midge Purce, acquired from Boston in January's Dispersal Draft, also augments Parsons' attacking depth chart, while Ifeoma Onumonu, another former Breaker, could provide some of the tenacity the Thorns were counting on from Foord.

In one sense, the Thorns’ new depth feels like a virtue, with Parsons unlikely to lack for quality options. Unfortunately, the main reason to leverage that depth is Foord’s misfortune, something that leaves the Thorns in the same situation they were last season. For the second year in a row, we may never get to see a full-strength Portland Thorns on the field.

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