Ellie Carpenter, Thorns vs. NC, 8.11.19

Two questions linger heaviest after this morning’s surprise news, the announcement that Portland Thorns FC's right back Ellie Carpenter is no longer Portland Thorns FC right back Ellie Carpenter: Why, and what now?

The first is much easier to answer, and that answer will probably feel obvious to those familiar with the women’s soccer world. Within that space, Olympique Lyonnais has crafted an unmatched reputation, one defined by six European titles since 2011. Combined with the 14 times they’re won their domestic league, Lyon has become the standard bearer in women’s club soccer. Their squad is arguably the most talented in the world.

This might not be a once-in-lifetime opportunity for a player as young as Carpenter. She’s been a prominent international player since the 2016 Summer Olympics, but she’s still only 20 years old. There’s still time for her to make a number of other Lyon-esque moves. But Lyon is unique, and within the women’s soccer world, it’s special. It’s a threshold. You can’t blame a player for wanting to reach it.

For a player like Carpenter, a move like this was always on the horizon, but who knew that horizon would be so close? This offseason, she signed a new contract with the Thorns, and having just completed her second full season in Portland, the 20-year-old seemed primed to continue her growth. As last year’s World Cup faded into the past, Carpenter’s present would be about her ascent as a pro.

But when an elite player has the opportunity to join Lyon, their path is usually defined by another fact: either they’ve been there and done that or they’re still waiting to do so. Players like Nadine Angerer, Amandine Henry, Lindsey Horan? They knew what Europe was all about. Carpenter? Well, if Europe was in her plans and she was in Lyon’s, this was probably the right time to make her move.

“This transfer provides Ellie with an opportunity that she wanted to pursue,” Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson explained, “while also giving the Thorns flexibility to strengthen the team as we build beyond the 2020 season and is a move that makes sense at this time for all concerned.”

When she joined Portland in April 2018, just after her 18th birthday, Carpenter’s presence asked fans to imagine what she’d be when that investment paid off. Flashes of that came through last summer, when her return from the World Cup coincided with some of her most encouraging Thorns performances. If that level could be combined with another year’s experience and the virtues of a slightly more normal preseason, Carpenter could be one of 2020’s best at her position.

Perhaps that possibility is why Lyon came calling now, and why Carpenter is no longer a Thorn. That logic shouldn’t make her departure any easier for fans, though. In fact, it should make her loss tougher. The promise Carpenter showed for two years, the investment fans made in her – those things never got a full payoff. Lyon came too soon. The Thorns may get compensated for Carpenter’s transfer, and the team never has much trouble finding capable replacements, but in the thought Carpenter’s best days will be in Lyon blue, Thorns fans may always feel a loss.

“The Thorns have played an extremely important role in helping me grow and develop as a player over the past two years,” Carpenter said, “and I am grateful to everyone who invested in me during my time in Portland.”

Beyond her absence, Carpenter’s move forces Portland to deal with the second question we mentioned, above: What now? More specifically, who can play right back for the Thorns at the coming NWSL Challenge Cup.

The good news: Portland doesn’t lack for options. The bad news, though: You’re likely to hear a lot of different opinions about those options. Some of those opinions will contrast knowns with unknowns, and in the process pit age versus potential, experience with hypotheticals. Perhaps a player’s performance in another uniform will be contrasted against what somebody has done as a Thorn, and in some instances, performances at positions other than right will inform what people think a player could do in Carpenter’s spot. When a starter leaves, they leave a void for our imaginations, and until the Thorns kickoff in Utah, none of those imaginations are wrong.

So let’s walk through the options. They start with Katherine Reynolds, a player who has logged the most minutes at right back for Portland since her 2016 arrival. She was in the starting XI the last time the Thorns played a competitive game all those months ago, when the team was waging a playoff semifinal in Chicago. She made 18 total starts last year and logged 519 more NWSL minutes than Carpenter.

Christen Westphal will also be part of the picture. After two injury-filled years with the Reign, the former Boston Breaker has returned to health with the Thorns, landing with Portland was the result of a draft-day trade in January. Like Reynolds, she can play both center back and full back, and like Reynolds, she should  be an option to pick up where Carpenter left off.

Kelli Hubly is also a name that deserves some mention here, with the fourth-year pro having started 12 games over the last two seasons. The rest of the team’s options may force us to leverage those imaginations, though, as we don’t know if Madison Pogarch is ready for her second NWSL start; whether Celeste Boureille can again deputize at a full back’s position; if the plug-and-play virtues of Gabby Seiler’s rookie year could apply to another position; or whether possibly Meghan Klingenberg could be switch from her normal left side.

And what of the long term? Whether a coach was creating a depth chart for the next game, next month, next year or next three years, Carpenter at right back was a given. Until it wasn’t. Now what is the three-year plan at right back? Or even the one-year, or one-month outlook? Amid the strange state of our COVID world, where the Thorns don’t know if they’ll be playing four games this season or 14, it might make sense for the team to take their time. There’s no need to make a commitment based on pressures of the moment. At some point, though, the team will need to decide the position’s future. With Carpenter’s absence, that future is unknown.

In the now, some of the roster sheet’s options may not even be realistic. Not only has there been eight months since the Thorns’ last game but we’re three months into a world where media sessions are infrequent, trainings are not open to the public, and the slew of games that would normally inform opinions have been lost. All we have to go on is a roster page, some common sense, and today’s news. If transfers leave voids for our imaginations under normal circumstances, today’s context makes that void feel enormous.

Hopefully our guesses can become educated over the next two weeks. For now, we know: the Thorns have a question mark at right back; in two weeks, they’ll need some semblance of an answer; but as they seek one, Ellie Carpenter will be moving on. It is time for the next chapter of her story. The part where she was a Thorn is done.

“Ellie has been a fantastic member of the Thorns and will always be a part of this special family ..,” head coach Mark Parsons said. “I know everyone will join me in wishing Ellie all the very best in her next step.”