Celeste Boureille, Brisbane Roar, 1.7.19
(Brisbane Roar)

W-League Update: Thorns FC players enter Australia home stretch fighting for playoff spots

Twelve months ago, regular-season success in the W-League cast five Thorns FC players into the Australian league’s playoffs. This year, however, the story has changed. Although the Thorns talents in Oz this year are enjoying individual success, their teams are fighting for postseason spots.

Brisbane Roar, for whom Celeste Boureille plays an important role in midfield, sits fourth, in the league’s last playoff position, one year after finishing a regular season in the league’s top spot. Back then, Sydney FC finished in second, three points behind, but this year’s team currently sits sixth despite another strong season from Caitlin Foord. A lack of goals for the Newcastle Jets has seen Britt Eckerstrom’s side fall from third to eighth despite a number of standout performances from the Thorns’ goalkeeper, while Canberra United, one place out of the playoffs last year, sliding to seventh despite the attacking contributions of Ellie Carpenter.

On an individual, player-by-player basis, the offseason has been a successful one for Portland’s players who’ve gone down under. Even a recovering Hayley Raso, yet to get back on the field for the Roar, has been able to progress in her recovery from last season’s back injury. In terms of team results, though, points will be needed over the regular season’s final rounds for the Thorns to return en mass to the W-League’s postseason.

Here’s more on how Portland’s four active players have done in Oz:

Celeste Boureille

Boureille’s time in Australia has become one of the best example of how the W-League can help NWSL talent. Debuting after a 2016 season that saw her make only six appearances in Portland, Boureille has seen both her W-League and NWSL profiles soar, using development time with Canberra United and, starting last season, Brisbane to become a regular starter in both leagues.

Back in the middle for the Roar, Boureille is third in the W-League in passes, averaging 59.3 per game while becoming the only non-Melbourne City FC player to snare a top-five spot. The club’s reigning Player of the Year, Boureille has combined with Katrina Gorry and Yuki Nagasato at the heart of the team’s midfield play, putting Brisbane in position to return to the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Roar, Gorry will miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury, one which will sideline her for four-to-six weeks. Combined with the ongoing absence of Raso, Brisbane continues to fight an uphill battle, one which will make Boureille’s consistency even more important.

What’s left for the Roar? Four games in four weeks will see the Roar close their season with matches at Melbourne City (fifth), versus Sydney (sixth) then versus Canberra (seventh), and at Adelaide United (third).

It’s a schedule that avoids matches with the league-leading Melbourne Victory as well as Sam Kerr’s Perth Glory (currently second). Combine that with form that’s seen Brisbane take seven points from their last three games, and the Roar have reason to believe injuries won’t deny them another semifinal berth.

Ellie Carpenter

Just as it was during her first NWSL season, Carpenter’s versatility has been on display during her second year with Canberra, where she has become one of the team’s most important attacking players. Between her 10 shots and the 14 chances she’s set up, Carpenter is been directly involved in 2.9 opportunities per 90 minutes, with a 75.3 percent competition percentage accumulated while playing largely a wing’s role.

Carpenter has also been taking free kicks for Canberra, who just welcomed former Thorn Ashleigh Sykes out of retirement and back to the field. Having also spent time with her national team this offseason – where head coach Alen Stajcic also, continuously, leverages her versatility – Carpenter’s roles remind all that her soccer profile is still a work in progress. Her ability to keep up with the NWSL’s physical demands stood out in her first Thorns season, but there are still nuances that will be added to her game – nuances that she layers in during each W-League season.

What’s left for Canberra? In seventh with only three games left, Canberra needs major points over what, per the standings, is a difficult schedule. Home field against Adelaide United and Melbourne City will help against tough opponents, but a season finale at fourth-place Brisbane could prove do-or-die, even if all goes well.

Britt Eckerstrom

One year after helping the Jets to a semifinal appearance, Eckerstrom has picked up where she left off, with a convincing start to her campaign casting Newcastle among the W-League’s best defenses early in the season. Through the middle of the campaign, though the team’s goal prevention regressed to the league’s mean, with Newcastle’s current 1.75 goals-per-game allowed sitting slightly worse than the league average.

A goalkeeper bears some responsibility for those numbers, but when you dig deeper on Newcastle’s season, you see context that needs to be added. The 59 shots on target the Jets have conceded are by far the worst in the W-League – 11 more than eighth-ranked Perth. While goalkeepers also have a role in preventing some shots, Newcastle’s opponents are testing Eckerstrom more than any other goalkeeper in the W-League, even if the goals allowed numbers stay close to the league’s middle mark.

Last season, Eckerstrom showed she’s capable of being more than a backup; she just happens to share a roster with Adrianna Franch, the best goalkeeper in the NWSL league. This offseason in Australia, though, Eckerstrom’s issued a reminder,  to whomever is watching: She is capable of holding down a regular role.

What’s left for Newcastle? In eighth with four games to play, the Jets’ next challenge is slowing down Sam Kerr and Perth, who visit on Friday. After that, Newcastle finishes their campaign at Melbourne City (fifth) and Adelaide (third) before returning home against the Western Sydney Wanderers (ninth). Seven points out of fourth, it’s going to take an unexpected hot streak for Eckerstrom & Co. to return to the postseason.

Caitlin Foord

Foord’s midseason debut with Portland provided a new, aggressive element in the Thorns’ attack, but finishing her first season in the Rose City without a goal, the lingering question on her Australia return was when the 24-year-old would return to the goal column. Since, Foord has racked up five goals in eight games (good for fourth in the league) and flashed the same explosiveness she did before last February’s Lisfranc injury.

Aided by Sky Blue FC’s Savannah McCaskill and Australian teenager Princess Ibini, Foord has helped guide Sydney FC to the league’s best attack (20 goals through eight games), with the team’s plus-six goal difference ranking second in the league. Unfortunately for Sydney, the way their goals have been distributed has led to some uneven results, with the club currently sitting two points out of a playoff spot.

For Thorns fans, though, the takeaway is Foord. Like many of her Rose City teammates, Foord will miss time in the middle of the season with international duty, as she is a lock to be selected to Australia’s World Cup roster. Beforehand, though, she will have the virtue of her first full preseason with the team, with a chance to benefit from the ramping-up time she’ll have with her fellow Thorns.

Just have they have this season in Australia, the goals will come.

What’s left for Sydney? A weekend derby against Western Sydney gives Foord’s side a chance to make up ground on the fourth-place Roar, who they’ll visit on January 18. After that, tough matches against Melbournes Victory (Jan. 26) and City (Jan. 31) will decide whether one of the W-League’s most talented teams will play beyond the regular season.

W-League games are available to stream via ESPN+, with most games played over the last month still available on demand.

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