Thorns FC will have its full team together for Wednesday night’s game against OL Reign, meaning players returning from international duty will be back for Portland’s third game of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup. But as talents like Christine Sinclair and Becky Sauerbrunn return to their club, it also feels like the right time to recognize the players who helped Portland succeed in their absence. After all, how can we know how good Thorns FC could be this season without recognizing the quality players like Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and Sophia Smith are returning to?
This isn’t just a thought exercise - the type of things posts like these dream up for the sake of content. In terms of the NWSL landscape, the perspective is important. Players who make up the world’s most famous international teams are an vital, sometimes definitional part of the league, but so are players like Emily Menges, who has established herself as an indispensable part of the Thorns. Beyond Portland, there are players like Lauren Barnes of the Reign, Kristen Hamilton for the North Carolina Courage, or Chicago’s midfield duo of Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo. None are regular internationals. All are difference-markers in the NWSL.
To wit, let’s talk about Natalia Kuikka, somebody who is a regular international for Finland. The Thorns decision makers made a big deal of the defender’s signing this offseason, making it clear to those with no access to Swedish first-division games that a special player was coming to Porltand. Over the first two games of the Challenge Cup, those words have proven prophetic, albeit in the understated way defenders always excel.
“She’s going to be a much better player than we thought she could be,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said on Tuesday, in his regular pre-match press conference, “which is scary, because we had real high hopes for her.”
There has never been a moment’s worry when Kuikka’s been called on, even though she’s had points where teams have tried to pressure her off the ball. The poise she’s shown in those situations has been exceptional, to the point that her play’s looked simple. In her body language, she gives no indication that taking a touch into midfield to avoid a press, creating extra time to find a pass, then playing a 40-yard ball to feet is an uncommon skill. Those things are supposed to look more difficult.
“We knew she was going to be effective on the ball with decision making and her range of passing,” Parsons said. “We felt she could be a very effective defender technically but also, in the demands of the NWSL and the types of strikers that you face on every single team, we felt she would have the physical qualities, the mentality, the tenacity to be able to manage all of that …
“And what’s my quick take now? She’s doing a very good job, and we’ve seen two out of 10 of what she’s going to produce.”
It’s still unclear where Kuikka will get most of her playing time in 2021, but it’s hard to imagine it will be central defense. Between Menges and Sauerbrunn, the Thorns have two entrenched starters. If Kuikka plays most of her minutes there, something’s gone wrong, and as Parsons shared on Tuesday, Kuikka spent most of the preseason in a fullback’s role. Wherever she’s deployed against the Reign, we should learn more about Kuikka’s fit in Portland.
We could also learn more about Adrianna Franch’s progress. To this point, things have been relatively tame for the U.S. international, though that calm shouldn’t be mistaken for happenstance. As we’ve seen throughout her time in Portland, Franch’s ability to organize a defense and influence play before it becomes dangerous are part of her virtues. When she’s on, things can look calm. If Portland has been relatively untested over the course of their first 180 minutes, their goalkeeper has been a big part.
“February, we all got back as a team, and I was like a little puppy dog when we first came in,” Franch said, reflecting on her comeback from last season’s knee injury. Before Portland’s Challenge Cup started, Franch hadn’t played since the end of 2019. “My tale was wagging [in February], I was so excited to see everybody.”
Franch is still adjusting after over a year without a competitive game, and for her, there’s a journey that will be defined by her rate of improvement. But for the Thorns, there are also points where individual journeys start to overlap. It’s one thing for Franch to be playing at her best, or Kuikka to be fulfilling her potential, but the point of bringing talents together is to transcend the sum of their parts. Franch plus Kuikka can be better than Franch and Kuikka.
“Building that relationship with Natu,” as Franch and her teammates call Kuikka, “and even Becky — I’ve played with Becky on the [United States] national team but not in full, live games as much – it’s learning [about] everybody throughout this preseason. And with the preseason being longer, it allows us to create those relationships and start to see their [level of] understanding.
“For me, that is something that I do think about: What are people’s tendencies? That’s something that we try think about before players even come in, so we can [say], ‘OK, how are they going to adapt to our tactics, what we’re trying to accomplish?’ And it all really does form around what the team is trying to do.”
We’ve focused on Franch and Kuikka, here, but they’re not the only reasons Portland has six points through two games. Tyler Lussi has excelled in attack, and over the last 45 minutes in Chicago, Morgan Weaver showed she can be a game-changing force. Meghan Klingenberg has performed well in a midfield role she hasn’t reprised since college, Celeste Boureille’s second-half pass delivered the game-winning goal against the Red Stars, while Angela Salem’s inclusion at halftime changed how that game was played in midfield. Even drifting back to Franch’s and Kuikka’s teammates in defense, Kelli Hubly and Christen Westphal have carried over their 2020 form, while Madison Pogarch is showing she’s could be ready for more first-team minutes in this, her third NWSL season.
The Thorns are perfect through two games for a reason, and if Parsons’ plans come to fruition on Wednesday, those reasons will be augmented by the quality Portland’s internationals add with their return. The ideal of this year’s Thorns will need all those parts in sync if the team is to reach its potential.
“When everybody has their own little flavor but also sticks to our principles,” Franch said, “we can be something special.”