Now that the NWSL College Draft has come and gone, the Portland Thorns’ roster is continuing to take shape. With training camp reportedly starting March 10, many players will be given looks by the team, trying to field the strongest roster possible. With two international roster spots still available and Riley strongly indicating that he has several players in mind, look for the Thorns to make a few more signings.
Here is a current look at the team by position.
The Thorns went out and made perhaps the biggest signing in the NWSL’s young history, signing German Captain and 2013 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Nadine Angerer as their starting goalkeeper. Angerer brings a commanding presence to the backline, known for her organization and ability to play with the ball at her feet and distribute the ball up the field, bringing an added dimension to the Thorns’ attack. Currently with the Brisbane Roar, she will join the Thorns in April.
Michelle Betos brings an experienced goalkeeper to train behind Angerer and step in when needed. While her stats last season in Seattle were less than impressive, going 0-6-1, with a 2.0 goals against average, facing 49 shots and saving 35, she also faced three playoff teams in five of her starts, including two games each against FC Kansas City and the Thorns. Considering the uninspired play that plagued the Reign during her time, her stats could have been much worse and she should benefit from a solid backline should she be needed in a backup role, as well as playing behind the best player in the world.
Perhaps the greatest strength for the Thorns last season, allowing just 1.136 goals per game, three of four starting defenders return, with only Marian Dougherty retiring following last season. Nikki Marshall and Kat Williamson started every game last season, while Rachel Buehler started 20, only missing two due to national team duty. Emilee O’Neil and Casey Ramirez both made a start for the Thorns, while Tina Ellertson surprisingly joined the team at the end of July, making limited appearances last season.
The Thorns acquired the discovery rights to Rebecca Moros following an offseason trade with Seattle. Though her signing has yet to be announced, she appears on the Thorns roster on both the team and league websites. Appearing for top side INAC Kobe Reonessa of Japan’s L. League for the past two seasons, making 37 appearances and 27 starts, Moros adds to the attack out of the back and will help push the ball up the field, adding an element the Thorns didn’t have last season.
Emily Menges, a speedy defender out of Georgetown, was surprisingly available for the Thorns with their 3rd round draft pick, though she has decided to remain in school until mid-May to complete her degree, meaning she will not likely be available to join the Thorns until at least early June. A player familiar to Riley from youth days, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her step right into the team once she is ready.
With Buehler, Marshall, and Williamson presumed starters, it remains to be seen who will start at right back, but it is likely between Ramirez, who joined the Thorns late in the season, and Moros at this point, assuming she has in fact signed with the team. Given what they gave up to acquire her, it is likely Moros’ job to lose. While there is still the potential for another defensive signing, it is likely that that the defense is set until training camp starts.
Midfield was an area of frustration for the Thorns last season. With Tobin Heath not arriving until July and the early injuries to starting midfielders Becky Edwards and Nikki Washington, the Thorns’ midfield was always in a state of flux, forcing forward Christine Sinclair to start at attacking central midfielder and midfielder Mana Shim, who had previously never started at forward, up top with Alex Morgan. The only midfielder to start every game last season was Allie Long, who started out initially as out wide, only to move into defensive midfield, a position she had to significantly adapt to, occasionally appearing alongside defensive midfielder Courtney Wetzel, who made 6 starts in 16 appearances. Angie Kerr also made significant appearances in midfield, but never seemed completely on the same page with her teammates, which was the story of the Thorns’ midfield in general. This neutered the Thorns attack, often forcing the team into a long ball approach, which often led to the offside flag coming up or the ball being turned over before the attack could begin. While the midfield play improved greatly once Heath arrived, they will once again be forced to wait for her arrival until summer this season, unless she decides to come home early, as Seattle’s Megan Rapinoe did this week.
With a new coach, new system, and some new players coming in, the Thorns look to have made their midfield stronger, which they did by adding 2013 draftee and U.S. Women’s National Team pool player Amber Brooks, who most recently played for Bayern Munich of Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, where she scored 10 goals in 21 appearances and earned her first cap with the National Team in November. The addition of Brooks will add another strong attacking presence for the Thorns and will help improve their play moving from defense to offense and springing the attack, adding a spark that was sorely lacking much of the season and she should fill in nicely until Heath arrives.
Sinead Farrelly also joins the Thorns this season from FC Kansas City, where she started 10 matches and appeared in 16, scoring one goal. Described by Riley as a “…versatile player and … one of the best box-to-box midfielders in WPS,” Farrelly adds a defensive presence to a primarily offensive midfield line up. Given Riley’s familiarity with her, she is another likely starter in midfield, either as the lone defensive midfielder or pairing up with Long or Wetzel and will strengthen the spine of the Thorns.
Much of how the Thorns’ midfield will look will depend on the type of formation that Riley will put out on the field, though with a possession-based approach, it is likely that we will see a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1. With the creative players that the Thorns possess and a system that emphasizes the skill of the players versus the system itself, the problems that presented themselves through the midfield should be a thing of the past, with Brooks and Heath especially bringing a creative flair that the Thorns missed most of last season.
The Thorns’ forward corps has seen the greatest turnover outside of goalkeeper, with Dani Foxhoven being sent to Seattle for Jessica McDonald and Rebecca Moros and Tiffany Weimer to Washington for the 31st overall pick, which was used to select forward Elisabeth Sullivan from Mississippi State.
Remaining from last season’s championship squad are Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, two of the greatest players in the game today. When they were allocated to the Thorns, Morgan and Sinclair were expected to take the NWSL by storm, scoring goals at will and dominating their opposition, but that’s not what happened. Playing in a disjointed system that relied on the long ball did little to open up the attack for Morgan, while Sinclair was pushed into a distributive role at the point of the diamond midfield, which diminished her attacking opportunities until late. While Morgan and Sinclair both finished with 9 goals each, among the league leaders, much more was expected and will be expected from them this season, while Mana Shim added 5 goals and two assists and she and Sinclair split time alternating between forward and midfielder.
Joining the Thorns as an allocated player from the Mexican Football Federation is forward Jackie Acevedo. While only receiving a single cap for the Mexican Women’s National Team this past November against Canada, Acevedo set scoring records as a college player with Southern Nazarene University, scoring 80 goals and 41assists in 62 games over three seasons, finishing among the school’s all-time leaders in several categories, including second for goals in a season (38 in 2011), first in game-winning goals (20), and first in total points (93 in 2011). Playing last season for the Houston Aces of the WPSL, she finished among the league leaders in goals (5), assists (4), and total points (14), while leading her team to a 12-1-0 record, only losing in the championship match.
Coming via a trade is Jessica McDonald, who previously appeared last season for both the Chicago Red Stars and Seattle Reign. She scored 3 goals and added 2 assist in 16 appearances (9 starts), including the game-winning goal against Washington on July 14. A versatile forward, McDonald adds an aerial aspect to the Thorns attack, another area where they needed to improve, only scoring a lone goal off a header last season.
Elisabeth Sullivan was a surprise pick for the Thorns, but was a player Riley said they had been following all season and called her a “sleeper” and “maybe the third or fourth best forward in the draft.” A record-setting forward for MSU, she scored 39 goals and finished with 92 points, both school records, while scoring a school record 16 in 2013. Described by Riley as “very quick, very explosive, she’s got two good feet and she’s great around the net,” Sullivan will likely get her chance when Morgan and Sinclair are out for national team duty.
Forward is both a position of strength and unknowns for the Thorns. While having two of the world’s best players in their starting lineup, what Acevedo, McDonald, and Sullivan can bring to the team remains to be seen. While Acevedo and Sullivan have lit up the scoreboard in the collegiate and semi-pro ranks, that doesn’t always translate to the professional game and while McDonald did score 3 goals, 2 of them came in the same game against a hapless Spirit side that finished last in the league. It’s hard to estimate how significant the addition of Riley and more fluid play from the midfield will increase the performance of the forwards, especially Morgan and Sinclair, but if they are able to translate their international form to the club level, this team should be the runaway favorites to win the league for a second season in a row.
How the roster shapes out will be unknown until the Thorns take the field for the first game in the 2014 season, but even as the roster currently stands they will field an even stronger team for the upcoming season. While it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Thorns add another forward and/or defensive midfielder at the very least, it’s up to the Thorns front office to make it happen.