Saturday’s games close the first chapter of the National Women’s Soccer League’s season. There’ll be three more.
The first was the period before teams lost players for the Olympics. The second is the Olympic period itself, and the third starts when teams get all their players back. Then, it’s a full sprint to the final part: this season’s playoffs.
Like most stories, that final chapter will be the most important, but every character and plotline will be defined by what comes before. This period — a second chapter that tests each squad’s depth — reveals the foundations each team is built on.
“We've got a period, obviously, where there's more opportunities coming for everyone,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said on Saturday, his team having played their final game before their Olympians’ departures.
In 2019, the Thorns thrived in this period. Players like forward Simone Charley emerged during the World Cup, revealing what Portland had been cultivating beneath its surface. The team surged to first, but that surge eventually gave way to fraught transition. Struggling to shift from one identity to another, Portland fell from first after their stars’ return, playing their playoff semifinal on the road before missing the NWSL title game for the first time in three years.
A team’s success won’t be measured by its performance while stars are gone, even if that’s still important. Instead, success needs to be measured by how a team set itself up for the postseason. After all, what good are July points if, in the choices you make, you compromised your team’s November hopes?
With that, we have our measuring stick for next seven games. At least, that’s the early estimate for how long Thorns players might be gone. Given how major tournaments play out, that span might be shorter, but no matter the point at which players return, the standard for players remains the same. Did you show you can contribute to where the team wants to go? And beyond wins and losses, did you show you can play a part at season’s end, when games are tightest and the ability to provide small, unique contributions could mean the difference between important roles and not playing at all.
Here’s a quick look at how the Thorns are impacted by their five Tokyo losses – a level-by-level, position-by-position look at who’s gone, who’s here, and who has a chance to step up:
Gone: Adrianna Franch (United States)
Here: Bella Bixby, Shelby Hogan
Chance: Bixby gets her regular-season shot
Over the course of three months, Adrianna Franch went from knee-injury recovery to splitting time with Alyssa Naeher in the United States’ first Sendoff Series game before Tokyo. It feels like we should take a moment to recognize that climb. 2020 was a tough year for Franch. She never got on the field. But seven games into her 2021 campaign, she’s back at the level she was at, before.
Now she gives way to the player who stepped in for her at last summer’s Challenge Cup, Bella Bixby. During that tournament’s preliminary rounds, Bixby showed she might be one the best young goalkeepers in the NWSL. Unfortunately, she suffered her own injury in Utah, killing her momentum until this moment.
Starting Saturday, Bixby’s back in full, and given the time the U.S. is expected to be in Japan, she’ll have a long spell as Portland’s number one.
Gone: Becky Sauerbrunn (United States)
Here: Hannah Betfort, Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka, Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Christen Westphal
Chance: Hubly back into the lineup
In terms of the defense absences, this position is pretty straight forward. Kelli Hubly is going to step in for Becky Sauerbrunn, partner with Emily Menges in the middle, keep everything as close to normal as possible.
Simple, right? not so fast. In terms of the team’s larger team needs, the defense might have to make some more adjustments. There are a couple of players on this part of the depth chart who can also step into midfield, where the Thorns will be missing a number of key players.
Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan will join Franch and Sauerbrunn with the U.S., while Christine Sinclair, as much a forward as a midfielder in the Thorns’ setup, will be away with Canada. Up to three players across Portland’s options could be asked to step into the midfield’s holes.
This spring, Meghan Klingenberg was among those options. She ended up playing there and playing well. Christen Westphal also trained in the middle, but when Menges got hurt and Natalia Kuikka was moved to the middle, her time returned to her right back’s role.
Still, as Portland looks at up to seven games without their stars, the team’s full array of options could be tested. Be it from the start or in late-game scenarios, we might eventually see Klingenberg or Westphal pulled back into the middle.
Gone: Crystal Dunn (United States), Lindsey Horan (United States)
Here: Celeste Boureille, Olivia Moultrie, Rocky Rodríguez, Yazmeen Ryan, Angela Salem
Chance: Ryan’s, Moultrie’s chance at bigger parts
There aren’t a lot of names on the “Here” part of the list, hence the possibility of some fullbacks moving into the middle. Though the team has added two players as national-team replacements, the bulk of the midfield minutes are going to go to incumbents. Olivia Moultrie may not be that far from getting real time with the Thorns.
Right now, though, we know Rodríguez and Salem are near locks. They’ve already been regular parts of the team’s starting lineups. Boureille, too, has gotten consistent minutes this season off the bench and should be one of the first options for a starting role. And given what Ryan did on Saturday, she can’t be far from getting her first walkout.
Players like Marissa Everett may help here, too. More on that, below. Based on pure numbers, though, this is where the Olympic absences hit the hardest, and while there are still quality options for the starting lineup, depth may have to come from other places on the field.
Gone: Christine Sinclair (Canada)
Here: Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver
Chance: For Everrett? Yes. For the others, the fight continues.
Everett has 61 career regular-season minutes, but based on how Parsons has chosen his teams during other absences, the former Oregon Duck might eclipse that total tomorrow. While players like Rodríguez or Ryan could play in Sinclair’s spot, Everett looks like the most likely choice. She made two starts and played 148 minutes in Sinclair’s position during Challenge Cup.
As for the team’s two pure forward positions, the biggest change is injury, not absence. Tyler Lussi didn’t make the trip to Louisville and will be out for a couple more weeks, according to Parsons. A right hip problem sidelined her last week against the North Carolina Courage. Sophia Smith also missed that game, but with her leg injury improving, she could see minutes tomorrow.
For now, that means more reliance on Charley and Weaver, with Everett capable of moving forward as needed. But as Lussi and Smith return to health, forward will again become the most competitive spot in the Thorns’ lineup. Expect all four players to keep seeing significant minutes throughout the season.
Get caught up on the latest from Thorns FC:
- MEDIA | Parsons talks Racing, Moultrie, development breakthrough
- FARLEY | Yazmeen Ryan shined in her Thorns debut
- Why It Matters: Moultrie is now a full Portland Thorn
- REACTION | Thorns assessing lessons after loss at NCC
- HIGHLIGHTS | Courage take close contest with Thorns
- POSTGAME | Sauerbrunn assesses loss to Courage