The most ardent Thorns FC fans might have highlighted it on their calendar the second they saw the schedules. Both the Asian Cup and Copa América were going to deprive Portland of prominent players this spring, with both set to end during the last weeks of April. You couldn’t blame Rose City Riveters if, long before the preseason, they took their calendars, found the week of April 22, and surrounded it in thick, red highlighter, marking the when their team’s full allotment of talent would return.
Now, that return starting to happen. Hayley Raso is hampered, but she’s also back. She told us so this weekend. Andressinha will arrive this week, and come Saturday, Ellie Carpenter will be 18 years old. How fast her paperwork is handled will determine when she can play, but either way, this week is living up to expectations. Caitlin Foord aside, the team’s roster’s finally filling out.
Amid those arrivals, though, it’s tempting to turn the page on the season’s first month, but part of that story isn’t exactly over. With the team missing players, the individuals who picked up the slack over the team’s first four games did more than just, well, pick up the slack. With seven points through four matches, the Thorns sit securely in third place, keeping an identical pace to last year’s start, and while the team has conceded more goals that they did through four games last season, the attack – one that was supposed to be hamstrung amid the absences of Foord, Raso, and Tobin Heath – has scored one more goal. The team, as a whole, is right on course.
As Heath mentioned this weekend, the internal competition increases now, but the challenges for players like her don’t suddenly go away. As her renewed health and the arrival of Ana Crnogorčeviç show, a star's presence, alone, is not enough to claim a starting spot, and while it’s expected players like Andressinha, Crnogorčeviç, Heath and Raso will eventually be in the lineup, the squad’s depth means there’s a higher bar they’ll have to reach before their first XI calls.
The interim provides a perfect time to take note of what the current starters have done. We’ve already done so, to a certain degree, with our look at Midge Purce, who’s put herself in position to keep competing for time at right-wing back, even with Carpenter’s arrival. Other players deserve their own spotlight, though, because while Mark Parsons’ starting lineup is sure to change, the players who’ve begun the season are bound to contribute more throughout rest of the 2018 season.
Kelli Hubly returned to Thorns camp this preseason having impressed Parsons’ staff last year, and while the signing of Penn State’s Elizabeth Ball hinted slots would be difficult to claim on the Thorns’ defensive depth chart, the former DePaul defender has staked her claim. Playing in place of the injured Emily Menges, Hubly has shown constant improvement over her four starts, casting her as a new, comfortable option at the team’s left-center back position.
The first game of the season may have offered the second-year pro a stiff challenge – games at North Carolina often do – but come week two, Hubly was already showing progress, making reads and plays like this one, at Chicago, more easily and more often:
Through four games, Hubly leads the Thorns in tackles, blocks and interceptions, and while defensive statistics can often be misleading, hers at least speak to an active role. At a minimum, Hubly has earned the team’s confidence, leaving many to forget, occasionally, that the Thorns are still missing a Best-XI caliber defender.
Portland’s biggest question mark entering the 2018 season may have been how the team was going to replace Amandine Henry. They weren’t, was the easy answer – Henry wouldn’t be Henry if her loss was so easily offset – but in the acquisition of a playmaker like Andressinha, the team hinted it might try something new. With the young Brazilian gone for season’s first month, though, somebody needed to step up.
Celeste Boureille has done that and more. We highlighted as much in our Washington preview, noting that her tackles, interceptions and successful passes were all up this season, and while her position “switch” makes that a slightly apples-to-oranges comparison (the natural midfielder played most of last season at right back) the eye test reinforces the numbers. In her third professional season, the Cal product has proven she’s ready for a bigger role.
That proof doesn’t usually hit that stat sheets, and since she’s not a pure defender, you don’t see her making many late-ditch, goal-saving challenges. But when little plays like this one, early on Friday against the Spirit, start to rack up, you understand why so few teams have had success in the middle against Portland.
Among regular midfielders in the NWSL this season, Boureille ranks first in clearances, second in tackles, and third in interceptions. In the other phase of the game, she’s also 10th among league midfielders in passing accuracy. Like defenders’ statistics, those might not tell the whole story, but it certainly depicts a player who has had no trouble staying involved.
|NWSL rank (among midfielders)||2nd||1st||3rd||10th|
Mallory Weber, Ifeoma Onumonu, Tyler Lussi
The progress Ifeoma Onumonu has made since joining the Thorns this preseason culminated on Friday, with her first true highlight of the season. Taking a pass from her former college teammate, Bourielle, Onumonu turned on her defender, drew a late first-half penalty, and allowed her team to claim a crucial equalizer going into halftime. Though she has yet to get on the scoresheet this season, Onumonu deserved an assist on Friday’s goal.
The play was reflective of the effort Onumonu and Tyler Lussi have been giving all season long: constant, improving, and increasingly likely to get on the scoresheet. Both have embraced the new ethos the team’s asked for from their forwards.
No player, however, has reflected that ethos more than Mallory Weber, the one Thorns forward to start each game this season. In a year in which Portland’s new, perpetually-pressing style is becoming better known, Weber has embodied that tenacity, leaving opponents susceptible to moments like this, from week two in Chicago.
This, along with her ability to fill in at left-wing back on Friday, is the kind of contribution that goes beyond a stat sheet, making it easy to marginalize its value. But look at the standings, consider the Thorns’ absences, and you start to see where players like Weber have made a difference. The absence of Heath, Henry, and Raso could have been severe, but thanks to the depth the Thorns’ have developed, the results have seen no decline at all. Through four games, this year and last, the team sits 2-1-1.
With more of the team’s roster arriving, players like Hubly, Boureille, Weber, Onumonu and Lussi don’t just disappear. As Heath said, they add to the competition within the group. However that competition ends up, the playing time Parsons has been able to spread throughout his team during this spring’s absence could, come the season’s most important moments, leave Portland with one of the league’s deepest, most tested squads. Even if it doesn’t, the spring’s new starters have stepped up.