Thorns destined for huge changes, should be even stronger in 2018
The champagne is still bubbling in the Thorns locker room, so you can forgive them for, momentarily, pushing the long-term picture out of view. With Saturday’s victory at Orlando City Stadium, Portland became the second National Women's Soccer League team to win two league titles and the first to, combined with last year’s NWSL Shield, claim three major honors.
There’s always next year for the league’s nine other teams. But much like last year, when Western New York’s young team augured a bleak future for much of the NWSL, Portland’s time at the top of the league may not be short-lived.
Though the title-winners are destined for some heavy, unavoidable turnover, open international slots plus unmatched drawing power give the Thorns something that should scare the rest of the league: an opportunity to inject a new class of talent ahead of their 2018 defense.
Context for the turnover
Win or lose, Portland was destined for a shakeup. It has no choice. Two of its key players have already committed to European moves, while two more from the team’s regular rotation are major doubts for the 2018 season. A number of key depth players throughout the roster may be difficult to retain, while a couple of players are prime candidates for age-based regressions.
Even if none of these factors were in place, the continuous, upward nature of the NWSL’s product on the field compels even the most successful teams to prod for improvement.
For most teams, these issues would constitute major concerns, and no doubt, they will make for a more demanding offseason for head coach Mark Parsons and general manager Gavin Wilkinson. But where other teams see holes, a team with the Thorns’ resources and drawing power have opportunities.
Two internationals leave? That’s two international slots Portland can scour the world to fill. Two players leaving for more playing time? That’s a chance for the Thorns to bring in even better talent. Other players potentially age out of the rotation? The Thorns have the ability to get better as they get younger.
It sounds like something that you might hear from a Portland partisan, but it’s also true. It’s why players like Nadine Angerer and Amandine Henry have ended up in Portland, and it’s why the team has the resources to trade into position to select Emily Sonnett. It’s why Portland had the resources to get Lindsey Horan, and it’s why, when Adrianna Franch came back to the States, she ended up at Providence Park.
These are the advantages the rest of the league’s fans bemoan when they say the landscape tilted. And those advantages are why Portland’s offseason turnover could leave the Thorns much stronger come 2018’s kickoff.
The players who will depart
Henry’s year and a half in the NWSL came to an end on Saturday, with the French international previously announcing she was returning home to rejoin Lyon. Though you don’t have to go far to find an NWSL viewer who was underwhelmed by Henry’s performance stateside, Thorns’ staff saw her as an invaluable part of the team, one that’s going to be difficult to replace.
It would be generous to say the same about Nadia Nadim, but underselling her contributions would be a grievous a mistake. With 15 goals in 38 appearances since arriving from Sky Blue two seasons ago, the Danish international has been Portland’s most reliable scorer. While she departs for Manchester City having been squeezed out of the Thorns’ starting lineup, the loss of her hold-up ability, presence as a target and ability to play both through the middle and wide presents the organization with an immediate need.
Those are the losses fans already know about. Less so: Starting right wingback Ashleigh Sykes’ future is unknown. The Thorns will try to keep her, but is she willing to come back in an unnatural wingback’s role? Perhaps, and there is no guarantee the Thorns will be exclusively a 3-4-1-2 team next year. Sykes’ positional versatility would be a major boost if Portland wants to play multiple systems.
There are also questions around depth players who could get more time playing time elsewhere — Dagny Brynjarsdottir is the best example of one that will likely depart — though Allie Long is a very special case. A starter for most of her five years in Portland, the U.S. international was pushed to the bench once the dust from the team’s midseason formation shift settled.
As she’s made clear on social media, she doesn’t see herself as a bench player, and even with Henry’s departure, there’s no guarantee she will be gifted a spot in next year’s starting XI. It’s very possible Long has played her last game in Portland, and there’ll likely be no shortage of suitors hoping to add her to their midfield.