Our final look through the Portland Thorns FC’s positions may be, in terms of intrigue, our least interesting. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Amid the team’s goalkeeper pool, there are clear roles, few doubts, and no need for concern going into the 2020 season.
It all starts with Adrianna Franch – one of the Thorns’ most-valuable players since her acquisition prior to the 2016 season. During that time, Franch has won two National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year honors (2017, 2018), been part of teams that have won two major league honors (2016 NWSL Shield, 2017 league title), and worked her way into a regular role with her national team. Along with the Chicago Red Stars’ Alyssa Naeher, Franch defines the upper echelon of NWSL goalkeepers. If you have one of those two players, you’re set between the posts.
It’s worth a moment to consider, though, how far Franch has come during her time in Portland. Franch proved she could be an NWSL difference maker during her rookie year with Western New York, but between that 2013 debut and her Rose City arrival, a knee injury forced a type of professional reset, one that saw her spend time abroad in Norway. Though her return to the States quickly reminded all of the promise she carried from Oklahoma State, she has since improved in almost all areas of her game. From distribution to decision-making, to refining techniques that make her one of the league’s least-likely `keepers to give up a costly rebound, she has put growth mindset into action. With Franch coming off her first World Cup, it’s tempting to think how much the 29-year-old could still grow between now and 2023, when she’ll still be within a goalkeeper’s prime years.
Behind Franch on Portland’s depth chart, Britt Eckerstrom has made her case as one of the better backup goalkeepers in the league, stepping in for 10 starts over the course of the 2019 season, only two of which the Thorns lost. With saves on 75 percent of the shots she faced, Eckerstrom took a step forward during her third season in Portland, and while, at 26, she probably deserves a chance to compete for a starting job, her presence in Portland makes the possibility of another summer without Franch (should she be selected to join the United States at the Olympics in Tokyo) more palatable.
This, though, is where we have to raise the specter of expansion. Again. As of now, we don’t know if there will be a 10th team in the NWSL next year, but if there is, there will undoubtedly be an expansion draft, and that expansion team will be looking for goalkeeping options. A scan across the league finds other No. 2s who could step into a top-line role – North Carolina and Utah are among a number of teams with particularly talented backups – but having started 20 games over the last two years for a playoff team, Eckerstrom has made a case for more responsibility. Without knowing the expansion rules or who the Thorns are going to protect, it’s difficult to know how likely a new team is to take Eckerstrom, but if a new team comes into the league, losing a goalkeeper is a possibility for the Thorns.
Even if that happens, Portland would have reason to feel good about their goalkeeping depth, thanks in large part to Bella Bixby. A 2018 draft pick, Bixby has yet to make her NWSL debut, though this offseason she is playing overseas in Israel, enjoying her second loan spell since joining the Thorns. In terms of tools, Bixby has everything you would want from a goalkeeping prospect, and in an alternate universe where she wasn’t behind Franch and Eckerstrom, she could be enjoying a rise similar to one of her peers: Reign FC goalkeeper Casey Murphy, who returned from France this season to a starting job in Tacoma. Instead, Bixby’s progress has happened away from crowds and cameras, her improvement the sole province of goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer. Within that province, though, the Oregon State and Rex Putnam High School product remains highly thought of. Whatever mental image we have of the future Thorns, Bixby should be standing near the middle.
In all, Franch, Eckerstrom and Bixby comprise a depth chart that should leave no complaints. With Franch, the present’s accounted for by somebody with a claim to being the NWSL’s best at her position. Behind her, Eckerstrom has demonstrated the ability to assume a starting role for long periods of time, keeping her team on course throughout her time in the lineup. Then, for the future, the Thorns continue to be excited about Bixby, whose development may demand the 24-year-old get her first NWSL minutes soon.
When we looked at Portland’s defense, we wondered how prudent it would be for the Thorns to devote resources to a unit which, while off its 2016 and 2017 best, was full of solid options. There may not be a right answer to that question, just preferences as to how the team should move forward. In goal, though, there is a right answer as whether anything should be addressed. At the moment, the Thorns’ goalkeeper depth chart is all Portland could reasonably want.