Analysis

Fitting in Henry: How do the Thorns incorporate a star without rocking the boat?

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Amandine Henry's arrival will be a boon for the Thorns, but also creates a logjam in the team's starting XI. Richard Farley breaks down the options.

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Amandine Henry is not going to sit the bench. That should go without saying in any conversation about one of the best holding midfielders in the world. The 26-year-old is one of the game’s elite players, and it’s amazing to consider how a salary-capped league could lure another world-class talent.

The discussion of her role, however, is complicated. Despite trading Alex Morgan this offseason, the Portland Thorns have one of the most talented rosters in the women’s game, with much of the team’s assets concentrated in its front six. In attack, head coach Mark Parsons is using the iconic Christine Sinclair and 24-year-old Bayern Munich alum Dagny Brynjarsdottir. The Iceland international’s role up top has forced Danish striker Nadia Nadim wide, where the nominal number nine’s insanity and strength has been put to good use. On the opposite flank, U.S. star Tobin Heath has been the NWSL’s Most Valuable Player at the one-third mark.

All of which is to say there may be no place to move U.S. internationals Lindsay Horan and Allie Long, the players operating in Parsons’ central midfield. While the team’s current formation, functioning as a 4-4-2, could easily be adapted to a pure 4-2-3-1 that could accommodate all of Horan, Long and Henry, that change would disrupt that current, highly successful setup.

At 3-0-3, and coming off a resounding 4-1 win over first-place Washington, the Thorns look like the best team in the National Women’s Soccer League, but in a few weeks, they seem destined to shake things up. Here are their options:

Drop Allie Long

For a couple of reasons, this seems like the obvious choice. Long is playing Henry’s natural position, and although her and Horan both have license to get forward (Long leads the team in shots), it’s Long that tends to drop deepest to support the defense when the Thorns build out of the back. If Mark Parsons set up this team with Henry’s arrival in mind, he probably had the former Lyon star in Long’s position.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Long would be out of the team, but what are the options? Replace Nadim or Brynjarsdottir? That would make sense, except their size and ability to switch with each other has proven valuable. Brynjarsdottir’s strength on the ball, potentially with her back to goal, could prove valuable as Sinclair drops in space behind the midfield, while Nadim’s tenacity and goal-scoring are distinct if Parsons wants a blunt option up top.

Long is a better holding midfielder than either of those players, and her move to that role has been one of the keys to the balance the team’s achieved early on. She's also found a way to continue contributing going forward, leading the team with 17 shots thus far. A Thorn since game one, Long's long-term place in the squad cannot be taken for granted, either. The 28-year-old is rightly considered a favorite among fans who factor her history and personality into her value.

Still, if Henry and Horan are the team’s two best holders, there may be no role for Long higher up. Her competition offers too much, even if Long’s capable of resuming a more attacking role.

Drop Dagny Brynjarsdottir

Poll Thorns fans and those who cover the team, and this would be the assumption. Brynjarsdottir is young, still relatively unproven, and doesn’t have the same claim within the team as Long. At least, that’s how the thinking goes. If one person needs to be dropped, Brynjarsdottir is the obvious choice.

Based on that premise – that one person needs to be dropped – that’s probably true, though that doesn’t mean we should roll with the conclusion. Brynjarsdottir and Long are drastically different players, even if both are midfielders by trade. Tall, capable of playing wide or through the middle, Brynjarsdottir profiles a midfielder-cum-forward who offers hold-up play, versatility, and reliability on the ball. Long’s skills, however, are now translating better in deep midfield, where a person  was likened to a No. 10 before may actually now be an eight, or a six.

Beyond their skills, there is the assumption that Long is the more established player, an assumption that may not necessarily be valid. Brynjarsdottir is only two years removed from Florida State, but she has made 57 appearances with the Icelandic national team. She’s also played professionally in Europe and, at 24, is in the prime of her career. Brynjarsdottir may be new to Portland, and many might not be familiar with Iceland or college soccer (where she won a national title), but she’s just as accomplished as Long; perhaps more so.

The differences in skills, however, carry major implications, should Brynjarsdottir give way to Henry. A new formation may be needed, or Nadim could assume a permanent role up top as Long shades toward a wider role.

Either way, Henry’s arrival would no longer entail a like-for-like switch. If Brynjarsdottir is dropped, the Thorns would have to subtly tweak their approach.

Drop Nadia Nadim

Because Nadim and Brynjarsdottir have proven somewhat interchangeable, this option is really the Brynjarsdottir choice, just with a different outcome. You’re still sacrificing an attacking option to keep your three midfielders in the team, entailing a potential change in formation while disrupting what’s worked through the first third of the season.

If that happens, though, Nadim versus Brynjarsdottir may hinge on formation. If it’s a 4-4-2, Nadim and Sinclair up top could make more sense, while a 4-2-3-1 that leaves room for only one true forward and could relegate Nadim to sub and spot starter’s role.

Move Lindsay Horan back to forward

'But wait!' you might be saying. There is a way to a.) keep Long in the team, and b.) not appreciably change how Parsons has been playing, without c.) sacrificing Henry or Horan. Why not move Lindsay Horan back to her natural position? She’s a forward, European soccer fans will say. Play her at forward!

'Was,' though, is the word we’re looking for, here. Lindsay Horan was a forward. Could she be a forward again? Yeah, sure, but for now, for both club and country – and for the sake of the form she’s shown throughout her time in midfield– she is not a forward. Any move back would only hurt the transition to her new position.

Besides, as important has Heath’s dynamism has been, Horan’s play has been just as important as a linchpin to Thorns’ entire formation. Her assured play on the ball in the middle of the field provides the focal point when Portland establishs possession in the final third. Her ability to get forward and supply a threat has already paid dividends with a team-leading three goals.

If part of the goal while introducing Henry is to minimize disruptions, relocating Horan is a terrible idea. The move would be more problematic than switching formations.

Take it game-by-game

Is there even a need to make a firm decision? If Parsons is ready for this, that’s exactly what he’d be asking, only 1,000 words higher up. Fitness issues, absences and suspensions might allow the Thorns to make it through the season without making a commitment. Waves in form and matchup issues could also justify an open mind. Why commit to something if you’re not compelled to do so?

Because one day, there may be no fitness issues. There won’t be absences or suspensions. Everybody will be playing well enough to expect a start, and then what? What do you tell the person who sits? The person who hadn’t been given a clear message for the previous two, three months? Does “I’ve chosen our best XI” work when that player was under the assumption she was part of the best XI?

In that sense, this is a psychological decision as much as a tactical one. If Parsons thinks he has relationships that allow him to put off a decision, that’s his best course of action. It’s always possible an injury makes discussions like these irrelevant.

But, if Parsons feels Brynjarsdottir, Long or Nadim deserve to know where they stand, he needs to tell them soon, if he hasn’t told them already. That explanation could be ‘we need to see you win this job,’ or ‘this is what we planned all along.’

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Richard Farley is West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.