Gavin Wilkinson, Thorns press conference, 10.29.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Even in quarantine, Wilkinson eyeing "active" transfer market for Thorns

Much like their Major League Soccer counterparts, Portland Thorns FC may be allowed to resume a version of training, soon. At least if the progress outlined the team’s President of Soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, continues, his National Women’s Soccer League squad will be able to start its preseason in full. Thorns players were only days into training when COVID-19 precautions halted sessions at Providence Park.

“We were heavily engaged in the scheduling side of [the NWSL’s return] and moved away from that to focus more on how do we return to play,” Wilkinson said on Thursday, describing the league’s next steps. “What are the individual return to play protocols, making sure that the medical staff is aligned with the technical staff. And I’m sure now that we’ve got those things in place, all the emphasis will go back to the scheduling.”

For the Thorns, there are some additional if more mundane priorities, ones that felt more important two months ago. Amid an offseason rebuild that saw Becky Sauerbrunn, Rocky Rodríguez, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver added to their squad, the team’s decision makers hinted their maneuvering would continue into the summer. Two European-based targets were still being pursued.

According to Wilkinson, those targets are still in view, even if the context around potential signings has evolved.

“We’re still in building mode, where we start to look at how do we come out of this and what opportunities are created,” he explained. “I would say that we are still heavily engaged in negotiations with two players, and what we’re looking at is instead of structuring the deal where maybe it was two years, we’re saying can this now be a deal where we’re structuring over four years: so whether we’re amortizing a transfer fee over four years to make it more realistic, and also, to get the true value back on that player over a period of time.”

It was a hint toward the financial constraints every NWSL team is bound to feel. Throughout their history, the Thorns have been blessed with fewer constraints than most, and with their league recently adopting rules that allowed for increased spending on players, Portland is ready to leverage one of their advantages. But Wilkinson conceded that, in the team’s new world, “we don’t want to be in a position where we’re looking to acquire players when we don’t have revenue sources to offset.” How much revenue the team has will be dictated by when, in what way, and how soon the NWSL can return.

“The transfer market is still going to be active,” Wilkinson predicted, having already conceded, “we’ve had European clubs inquire about some of our Thorns players.”

“There are one or two clubs, I’m not going to be surprised if they’re not more than their usual active selves in this time period. Because there are prices for players that we can only have dreamed of. Those with resources will look to acquire those players, on both the men’s and the women’s side.”

Reports about potential NWSL acquisitions have already hinted which teams may have resources. This weekend, a story from the Salt Lake Tribune described two prominent players from France’s Olympique Lyonnais – German international midfielder Dzenifer Maroszan and French international goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi – as “set to join the Royals” when their contracts end after the current season. The Thorns had previously been the subject of their own France-to-Europe rumor, with Paris Saint-Germain attacker Kadidiatou Diani linked with a summer move.

Whether that link comes to fruition may be influenced by the world’s new transfer market, but even with those changes, Wilkinson’s made clear: his team intends to “[put] ourselves in a position both on the field and off the field to be successful. That means essential staff, that means improving the quality of the squad, but also how we’re using this downtime to get better.”

Soon, that downtime may shift from players’ homes to Providence Park. Wilkinson says the return-to-play protocols are in place. It’s just a matter of when those guidelines can be implemented and if they lead to a broader return.

When that happens, transfer news may feel important again. For now, it’s a nice diversion. And within that diversion, the Thorns are still positioning themselves for two summer moves.