Mallory Weber, Thorns vs. Dash, 3.17.18
Photo by Sam Ortega

Thorns FC Season Preview | Player development put to the test in Portland's title defense

Portland Thorns FC have been a star-laden team since the National Women’s Soccer League first player allocation five years ago, but if the defending league champions are going to retain their title, it may not be the Christine Sinclairs and Tobin Heaths that get the team past its final obstacles. After an offseason of prominent departures, Mark Parsons’ ability to develop the less renown names on his roster will be tested like it’s never been before.

To this point, that ability has become one of the Portland head coach’s most respected skills. Before coming to the Thorns, Parsons helped a second-year Crystal Dunn to the league’s MVP award, guiding her to scoring levels (15 goals) she’s failed to reach since (seven club goals since 2015). He helped build Christine Nairn and Megan Oyster into occasional U.S. national teamers, got 11 goals out of Jodie Taylor in 2014, and, that same year, led Diana Matheson to her most productive professional season.

Over the past two years, the Portland Thorns have been the beneficiaries of that guidance, with players like Emily Menges, Adrianna Franch, and Katherine Reynolds reaching their career highs under his watch. Hayley Raso has developed into a starting-caliber forward under Parsons, while young talents like Emily Sonnett and Lindsey Horan have been nurtured toward stardom.

This season, however, Parsons has to offset the departures of Amandine Henry, Nadia Nadim, Allie Long and Ashleigh Sykes, four prominent contributors to his 2017 title-winning club. One of the players the Thorns brought in to help, Australian forward Caitlin Foord, may miss most of the season, while the core of his roster will miss time at various points of the season while answering their national team calls.

That’s where Parsons’ player development has to pick up the slack, especially up top, where Portland’s forward corps needs multiple players to set up. Mallory Weber was a productive scorer at Penn State who, to date, has proven a versatile option off Portland’s bench. But in the wake of Foord’s injury, Raso’s early-season international absence, and Heath’s continued recovery from ankle surgery, the 23-year-old may be asked to step into the starting lineup. Whether Parsons has developed another scoring talent could dictate how often the Thorns attack clicks early in the season.

Beside Weber up top is Ifeoma Onumonu, a tantalizing prospect who failed to score in her rookie year with Boston. Meg Morris, returning from injury, is also an option in attack, as is Tyler Lussi, who worked her way into a brief starting role last year after reporting mid-season from college.

Each forward fits the fast, willing profile Parsons needs at the top of his formation, but amid the quartet’s 2893 professional minutes, they’ve only scored three goals. There’s still some development to be done.

In midfield, Parsons faces similar questions with Celeste Boureille, a third-year ball-winner who has played well over the last two offseasons in Australia's W-League. Add in Midge Purce – an attack-minded right-wing back who, like Onumonu, came to the Thorns from Boston – and the defending champions have players who’ll need to step up at all levels of the field. Though each player has, in their own way, enjoyed a strong preseason, there is still a level of uncertainty with the NWSL champions that you rarely see in holders.

Perhaps that’s why, in surveys posted on the league’s web site, the Thorns were only picked by 10 percent of NWSL media members to retain their title. Among league GMs, the Thorns only garnered enough support to be listed as “Also receiving votes.” Saturday’s season-opening opponent, North Carolina, was picked as the preseason favorite by both groups, with the Chicago Red Stars getting more support than Portland among general managers.

Of course, the Thorns do still have Adrianna Franch, the reigning league Goalkeeper of the Year. She is one of six parts to a league-best defense which is returning five starters. Lindsey Horan is back in midfield, with Christine Sinclair above her, while Tobin Heath is expected to play far more than the 245 minutes she could last season. It feels important to note: Portland’s core is still as enviable as any in the NWSL, even after accounting for all of the team’s offseason departures.

Add in internationals Ellie Carpenter (Australia) and Andressinha (Brazil), and the Thorns look primed for another successful season. How successful, however, may come back to Parsons’ player development. If players like Boureille, Onumonu, Purce and Weber emerge, the Thorns could actually be better than they were a year ago, and while players like Amandine Henry may prove impossible to replace, Parsons’ track record hints there’s more talents will be developed.