PORTLAND, Ore. – At first glance, the move looks like a no-brainer. Thorns FC lost a forward before the season began, with Caitlin Foord going down with a foot injury in the final game of her Australian W-League season. Given the chance to get an established international such as Ana-Maria Crnogorčević – Switzerland Women's National Team's all-time leading scorer with 101 international appearances and 50 international goals – the team would certainly jump at it the opportunity, right?
Not necessarily. When Mark Parsons first arrived in Portland over two years ago, he inherited a team that was built to play Christine Sinclair at forward. Halfway through that season, after the arrival of Amandine Henry, the team was also playing Lindsey Horan higher up the field, in a No. 10's role.
It made sense, at the time, and the approach was successful, to the tune of an NWSL Shield in Parsons’ first year in charge. But halfway through his second season, Parsons changed the team’s approach, dropped Horan and Sinclair into positions where they would get more time on the ball, and began playing the Thorns as they do now: a high-pressing approach that’s created heightened demands on his forwards.
Crnogorčević would be a great signing for any team in the NWSL, but for Thorns FC, she was a necessary signing. With Foord sidelined for most of the season, Crnogorčević's is one of the few available who could immediately fit in with Portland’s new approach.
“She can play up front, winger, or fullback,” Parsons explained, while zeroing in on one of those roles. “We going to look at her at forward, whether it’s a one- or two- or three-front. Not only is she going to be up for the hard work that it takes to play up front for us, but she’s going to bring great movement off the ball and quality on the ball.”
That element of hard work cannot be understated. The NWSL is filled with athletic, fast forwards who are capable, over short stretches, of terrorizing defenders. How long players maintain that mentality, however, is what distinguishes a good and a bad fit for Parsons’ approach. When the Portland boss says his new signing “is … going to be up for the hard work,” he expects a good fit for his culture.
“We have a player profile,” he said. “We have a character and mentality profile for what we need. For the forwards, they need to be able to move off the ball, they need to be able to create and score goals, be versatile, and they’ve got to have a hard-working, athletic base.”
Character, too, is another way in which Crnogorčević meets Portland’s narrowing demands. Over the course of two years, Parsons has been intent on maintaining a culture that can not only meet the demands of Portland’s environment but also nurture the team’s next generation of talent. That approach is now endemic to the Thorns, so when looking to bring in players from outside the organization, Parsons must be sure they fit Portland’s approach.
“We’ve been watching and scouting her for two years, now,” Parsons said, about Crnogorčević. “What we’ve loved starts with her mentality. She’s a winner. She’s a very positive leader. She’s someone that wants to be her best every day and wants people around her to be their best.”
It’s the second plank of what the Thorns require of forwards. Not only do you have to be willing, able, and adept at the work that goes into the team’s pressing ways, but you have to have an attitude that embraces the task. Combine those traits with the more traditional, physical skills, and you have three facets any recruit must nail if they’re going to fit in Portland.
“She’s a very good athlete, one of the most athletic players that’s been in the Bundesliga or in the Swiss National Team over the last few years,” Parsons said, lauding Crnogorčević as a player who has “great movement, technical ability, can hold up the ball, beat players one-v-one, cross, and shoot.
“Bring all that together, and you see why she’s proven she can score goals.”
She may also fits a major need, one born of Foord’s injury, Hayley Raso’s absence (international duty) and Tobin Heath’s continued recovery. It’s born of Sinclair and Horan’s need in midfield, Midge Purce’s need at right wing back, and a collection of other forwards who are still developing under Parsons.
The broader need, though – one the team has been trying to address over the last two years – is the way the NWSL game is evolving. In 2014 and 2015, the league was dominated by possession-based teams, with FC Kansas City and the Seattle Reign FC not only embodying that approach but also meeting in consecutive league Championship games. The next year, though, that began to change.
“The biggest transition was when the league, from 2016, went from a very pace- and possession-oriented league and quickly turned,” Parsons explained. “Washington and the Western New York Flash made it very direct. Now it’s fast. It’s athletic. And it’s still very, very direct.”
It was something Portland saw first-hand in the 2016 league semifinals, when Western New York came into Providence Park and eliminated the regular-season champions in extra time. The Flash have since moved to North Carolina and become the Courage, but the change they helped usher in continues. The NWSL was already the fastest, most athletic league in the world, but over the past two years, those qualities have become turbo-charged.
Finding somebody who can keep up that pace can be hard. Require the mentality to fit a specific culture, and the options narrow. Demand they can score goals, too, at an elite level like the NWSL, and field becomes impossibly small.
That’s why Crnogorčević is such a good fit for Portland.
“While we’ve liked her for a long time, the urgency picked up when Foord went down,” Parsons admitted. “We’re fortunate that this [signing] could happen, and we can’t wait to see what she brings to the club.”