BEAVERTON, Ore. – Meghan Klingenberg welcomed the start of Portland Thorns FC's 2019 preseason with a clear vision for how to improve on the team’s last campaign: Get the Thorns’ defense back to its 2016 and 2017 level.
Klingenberg has been the team’s regular left back since joining Portland prior to the 2016 season. In her inaugural Thorns campaign, the team’s defense allowed the league’s fewest goals (19 in 20 games), claiming an identical honor the following season (20 goals allowed in 24 games).
Last year, the team’s defense slipped, allowing 28 goals in 24 games and finishing with the National Women’s Soccer League’s third-stingiest defense. It’s a performance Klingenberg doesn’t want to see repeated.
“We need to get back to our rock-solid defense,” she explained, before diving into specifics. “Not letting in goals; blocking shots; covering the back post; covering for each other; making sure we have two-v-ones; we’re never overloaded.
“Those are things we did really well in 2016, 2017. I think that we let it slip a little bit in 2018. So, that’s my focus this year: making sure the back line is as good as it can be, while team defense is supporting that.”
Klingenberg will have a significant part to play in reaching that goal. Along with Ellie Carpenter (right back), Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges (center backs), the team returns its entire starting back line, as well as the. reigning league Goalkeeper of the Year, Adrianna Franch. But Carpenter, Franch and Sonnett are all expected to miss large chunks of the season, with each currently in line to join their respective nations at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
That means more pressure will be on Klingenberg, 30, and Menges, 26, to carry the load.
“It won’t just be our team,” Klingenberg notes, when asked about World Cup absences. “It will be every team in the NWSL missing players. Whether it’s North Carolina, whether it’s us, it doesn’t matter.”
The Chicago Red Stars and North Carolina Courage will join the Thorns in being hit hard by World Cup call-ups, but those three teams won’t be alone. Reign FC will also have significant absences, while each of the nine-team league’s other clubs will also have to deal with losses.
From Klingenberg’s point of view, that will not only present a test of depth but, for those teams that manage the test, an opening
“I look at it as an opportunity to pick up points,” she explained, “and an opportunity for us and for players who aren’t [at the World Cup] to really show their stuff, and then be a huge factor not only during that period but then showing they can be a huge factor going into the back end of the season.
That back end of the season is what will matter most. Four years ago, an FC Kansas City team that was heavily reliant on U.S. internationals Lauren Holiday, Becky Sauerbrunn, Amy Rodriguez and Nicole Barnhart won a second-straight league title. The World Cup absences slowed them, but FCKC overcame the obstacle.
In contrast, 2015 remains the only season the Thorns, then with an international-heavy roster, have missed the playoffs.
“The core of the group, the mentality of the group, the core values of the group are there,” Klingenberg explained, when asked how 2019 could be different. “What we try to go during preseason is take all these new players, bring them in, and show them what we’re made of …
“That’s what preseason is about: making sure that we find the people that can live by those standards and live up to those standards, and then making sure that people that shouldn’t be here get off the bus.”
As of Monday afternoon, preseason had officially started. The next month will not only be about preparing for week one, but it will also determine who gets to stay on that bus.