PORTLAND, Ore. – Two days of fortune for Thorns FC around the NWSL Dispersal Draft culminated Tuesday with a haul that went beyond what head coach Mark Parsons could have reasonably expected. In Midge Purce, Angela Salem and Ifeoma Onumonu, Portland picked up three players who should be able to compete for playing time immediately – not bad considering the team made its final selection with the 22nd pick, overall.
“We can only be unbelievably happy with the three players we got,” Parsons said after today’s draft, one which dispersed the former Boston Breakers’ players throughout the NWSL’s nine teams.
Boston ceased operations on Saturday, leaving its remaining players, draft picks, and player rights to be dispersed via a special draft. In Monday’s weighted draw to determine the draft order—non-playoff teams received two envelopes in the pot, playoff teams receiving one—Portland defied the odds to moved up to the fourth spot, in a position which allowed them to select Purce.
“Positional needs, character needs and a mix of young players (Purce and Onumonu) with an unbelievably experienced pro,” was Parsons’ assessment of the Thorns’ new players, alluding to the 29-year-old Salem’s eight years in professional soccer. “[She] continues to prove everyone wrong in not just playing but being a very good player for every team that’s she’s been on.”
Parsons originally had Salem as head coach of the Washington Spirit in 2015. In moving to Portland, Salem is also reunited with an old Spirit teammate, defender Katherine Reynolds, though that reunion will come as a surprise to many NWSL observers. One of the best defensive midfielders in the league last season, Salem was not expected to fall to the Thorns’ second pick at No. 15.
“We’re shocked [she fell in the draft],” Parsons confessed. “You won’t find a better human being out there…
“When I was texting a few of the senior players this week, all of them talked about Ang. They said she’s a footballer. She’s an experienced pro and one of the best people you can imagine.”
With Amandine Henry returning to France this winter, the Thorns lost a ball-winning presence in the middle of the park. The acquisition of Andressinha from Houston gave Parsons a playmaker to partner in central midfield with Lindsey Horan, but with Salem, Portland will be able to employ another look, if needed.
“And then with Ang, by getting a true six, by getting a player of her qualities – defensive and playmaking from a deep position – it just means more flexibility, and more opportunity to look at [where] the other ones [should play]. The same healthy questions are there, there’s just more room for experiment.”
The same attitude of experimentation could apply to Purce. Drafted as an attacking player last year out of Harvard, Purce started her first professional game at right back for Boston in 2017. Although she saw more time throughout the year in her natural forward position—usually on the left side of an attacking three—Purce’s future may lie in defense, with the U.S. women’s national team having already examined her fit in that potential role.
“She can play right back, right wing back, right wing, No. 9, No. 11 …,” Parsons explained. “If we play the same shape as we did last year, to have her as a wingback, on the right side, is a fantastic option.”
Purce only scored once in 22 appearances in her rookie season, but the quality she flashed in her matchups against the Thorns made a lasting impression on Parsons.
“When we played Boston and had a really scary game away from home…Purce was the one we didn’t know how to handle, once she got on the [move] and was running at people. [Selecting her] gives us a player who was in the U.S. national team camp last season and has the potential to progress to that level in an area that we needed.”
With Purce as well as with Onumonu, Portland adds two more wide threats whose raw pace could trouble opposing defenses.
“Ife is someone who was picked in the first round last year, in a really strong draft …,” Parsons notes, Onumonu having been selected one spot ahead of Purce (eighth and ninth, respectively) in the 2017 NWSL College Draft. “She’s a powerful athlete that has such a good personality.”
Those mental qualities proved to be as important was Onumonu’s physicality, to Parsons.
“She’s a Portland Thorns player. She wants to listen. She wants to learn. She wants to be coached. She wants to be supported.”
Plus, Onomonu already has a friendly face on the Portland roster in Celeste Boureille as both played together at Cal.
“She is best friends with Cel,” Parsons explained, “and anyone who is friends with Cel is going to be an amazing person.”
Still only 23, Onomonu will have time to develop, especially with the Thorns’ expected absences early in the 2018 season. With Portland’s Australian players scheduled to miss half of April while at the Asian Cup, the depth acquired Tuesday – depth which, by the rules of the draft, doesn’t count against the team’s roster limits or salary cap -- will prove invaluable.
“Being in a fortunate position from unfortunate circumstance, [the new depth] helps us manage that first period [of the season],” Parsons said. “We’ve had experience managing [absences in the past] … but we were in a bonus position, being able to add these quality players who will be around during those periods.”
Portland’s new depth is one of many boons from the team’s banner day, one that not only exceeded Parsons’ expectations but leaves the Thorns in a better place to defend their 2017 title.
“We thought we could get two of those three,” Parsons said. “Other teams will be happy, because they got what they wanted, but [these are] three great picks, and [they] put us in a fantastic position.”