Thorns running, training, 6.9.20

One of the things we lost from the cancelled National Women’s Soccer League preseason was a chance to learn about Portland Thorns FC's new players. Under normal circumstances, March and half of April would give us six weeks to talk to new draft picks, consider star signings, and evaluate the non-rostered players fighting for spots. Instead, thanks to 2020’s prolonged Fury Road impression, that time has been spent at a social distance, with minutes on the mic transforming into periodic Zoom calls.

But now here we are, days before Portland’s Challenge Cup start, and the team’s roster is full of new names. And what, exactly, do we know about any of them? Not much, Farley. You’ve let us down.

Fair enough. Mea culpa. As part of my penance, let’s get you caught up. Here’s a guide to the eight players new to the Portland Thorns:

Meaghan Nally
A third-round pick in January out of Georgetown University, the former Hoyas defender seems to have two Thorns paths she can follow. On her left is the one blazed by Emily Menges, another former Hoyas defender who, like her, was selected in the third round of her College Draft (in 2014). On her right, though, was a fight over the correct spelling of Meaghan. Meghan Klingenberg wants a word.

After starting over her final three seasons at GU, Nally has taken the first steps on her pro path, and if her time in college is any indication, she has the potential to stick. She was a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, played in two College Cups, and was part of teams that claimed two regular-season and three tournament titles at conference level.

New faces bring skill, talent to Thorns ahead of Challenge Cup -

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

Life isn’t easy for third-round picks. The NWSL hasn’t expanded in forever. Rosters are stacked with talent. But you don’t win Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East without being able to play. You certainly don’t win it twice. Now it’s time to translate that success to a new level.

Anika Rodriguez
Rodriguez’s name will standout to college soccer fans for both the highs and, through injury, lows she endured at UCLA. The first was a redshirt year, after which she posted 11 goals and 17 assists over her first two collegiate campaigns. Her junior year was cut short by an ACL injury, with the timeline of her return extending into her senior year. Back in the Bruins’ first XI for her team’s final 10 games, the Southern California native ended her college career with a six-assist season.


New faces bring skill, talent to Thorns ahead of Challenge Cup -

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

With another healthy year under her belt, Rodriguez could reclaim the form she showed as a junior, when she averaged 1.05 goals-plus-assists per 90 minutes over that year’s first 11 games. Capable of playing both forward and attacking midfield, Rodriguez could prove a valuable depth piece as her progress continues.

Rocky Rodríguez
How often does a team acquire one of the league’s best midfielders only for that acquisition to go overlooked? Perhaps the lack of games contributes to that. Or perhaps the phrase “one of the league’s best midfielders” overhypes the acquisition. Still, have you read an outlook of the Thorns’ season that focused on the upgrade Portland made in midfield? Because that upgrade, it’s kind of a big one.

And what, exactly, is that upgrade? We talked about it when the trade happened, but as it concerns the Thorns’ lineup, the team has added another Lindsey Horan-esque player. Rodríguez and Horan have different strengths, different weaknesses, but each is an all-around midfielder whose skills are balanced with an often controlling physicality. They can be deployed anywhere from the midfield’s deepest positions to its most advanced, thriving equally as ball-winners and chance-creators. Like Horan, Rodríguez’s past features her in goal-scoring roles (especially for her country). And like Horan, Rodríguez is still only 26 years old.

Perhaps the relative shadow at Sky Blue FC left Rodríguez overlooked, but just as that team is primed to claim more light, so too is Rodríguez ready for her next challenge. Hers was a major acquisition to the Thorns’ midfield.

Becky Sauerbrunn
Sauerbrunn has a place in the conversation of the best defenders in women’s soccer history, a status that’s become so recognized, it’s hard to remember when she was struggling to break into the U.S. Women's National Team. But at the dawn of the country’s previous professional league (2009), Women’s Professional Soccer, Sauerbrunn was still proving herself, doing so by building a reputation as an ironwoman in the Washington Freedom’s center defense. Eventually Pia Sundhage gave her a look. Eventually Sundhage’s successors appreciated her virtues.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

Few players have ever read the game as well as Sauerbrunn, which is why, when charting games, you find few central defenders who can match her level of impact. The pure number of plays she gets involved in often dwarfs her peers’ activity. It’s part of the reason why she’s collected 177 appearances for her national team. It’s why she’s seen as a solution to some of the Thorns’ 2019 faults.

Sauerbrunn turned 35 this month, but in terms of longevity, she plays a position with an extended arc. Now playing in her adopted home, Sauerbrunn should be one of Portland’s most important parts.

Sophia Smith
Smith was the most sought after player in January’s College Draft, compelling the Thorns to trade an established United States international in the hopes she’d turn pro. Over the course of two seasons at Stanford, the Real Colorado product posted 24 goals in 33 games, concluding her collegiate career with a 17-goal season that earned her second-team all-Pac-12 honors. Already getting senior national team callups (as she’s done since she was a 16-year-old,) Smith was ready for the next level.

Her ability to square up, dribble past and score on opponents proved too much for even Pac-12 competition. The fact that she can do so from any position in attack only makes those skills more valuable. Though she still has to prove herself at the professional level, the skills are there for Smith to become a star. Her future is worth the price Portland’s paid, now.

Autumn Smithers
Smithers left the University of San Francisco after three seasons to finish her collegiate career at Notre Dame, where she ended the 2019 season with two goals and an anchoring role in the Fighting Irish defense. In the process, she collected a masters’ degree, building on the undergraduate work she completed a USF thanks to an early redshirt season.

New faces bring skill, talent to Thorns ahead of Challenge Cup -

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

A native of Modesto, California, Smithers brings good size (5-foot-8) not only to the team’s backline but, potentially, in midfield, where she logged roughly one-third of her minutes in 2019. Over her final three college campaigns, she also showed a sense for goal, scoring seven times and logging two multi-goal games.

As an undrafted rookie, she has an uphill climb. The Thorns roster is typically one of the league’s most talented. But that fact she’s made the team for Utah says something for the coaching staff’s regard. Smithers has her foot through the door.

Morgan Weaver
Run from it or don’t, but the comparisons are inevitable. Weaver admits that the other half of her defining comparison, U.S. legend Alex Morgan, was her favorite player growing up, partially explaining the obvious. January’s number two overall pick plays the same position as Morgan, utilizes a very similar style, has similar physical attributes. There’s more to this parallel than the name “Morgan.” At surface level, Weaver is Alex Morgan-esque.

At least, she’s Morgan-esque in terms of style, In terms of performance, the comparison is a high bar, but Weaver’s 2019 run through the NCAA tournament flashed her potential. Capping a 15-goal season at Washington State, Weaver caught fire at the end of her senior year, carrying the Cougars to College Cup and fueling a meteoric rise in the NWSL College Draft. Few had the Puget Sound native going second the draft. She not only did she go second, but she had teams bidding to trade into her spot.

This is where the Morgan comparisons get unfair. By the time the U.S. star went pro, she was already established in her senior national team and playing like one of the best strikers in the world. That’s not realistic for Weaver. What is realistic, though, is building on the momentum she crafted in Pullman, doing so with a style that will feel familiar to the U.S. women’s national team’s support. Should she do so, Weaver could have an impact in Utah, even if her long-term fit is most important.

Christen Westphal
In 2016, Westphal was the third overall selection in the NWSL College Draft, joining a young core in Boston that looked primed to carry the Breakers out of the NWSL’s cellar. Four years later, Westphal is coming off of two injury-defined seasons, seeing periodic time as a valuable piece of OL Reign’s team offset by long stretches with an injured right foot.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

Thus far in Thorns camp, she’s been healthy, but it’s unclear how much she’ll contribute in the tournament. In theory, she is the logical replacement for Elizabeth Ball – the former Thorn who, traded to the Utah Royals this offseason, was capable of playing both center and right back, providing valuable depth at both positions.

The version of Westphal we saw in Boston could do that, easily. She has the athleticism to make an impact at right back and the presence to help anchor the middle. But she is also coming off of two seasons where she played 830 minutes, total. Her first months as Thorn may be about getting back to her normal.