NWSL Preview: After a tumultuous year will Portland Thorns thrive under new leadership?

The National Women’s Soccer League preseason is underway and 12 clubs are beginning their journeys to the 2022 season. The 2022 Challenge Cup will kick off on March 18 with the Cup final closing on May 7. You can NWSL action on Paramount+

Head coach Rhian Wilkinson took over Portland Thorns after manager Mark Parsons spent six years with the club before moving on to coach the Netherlands women’s national team. The club also hired a new general manager, bringing Karina LeBlanc into the administrative fold. 

Like so many NWSL clubs during the 2021 season, Portland got headlines for terrible reasons after reporting via The Athletic told the story of former Thorns players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, and highlighted sexual misconduct and coercion connected to former Thorns head coach Paul Riley. Former Thorns GM Gavin Wilkinson stepped down after current Thorns players requested investigations continue, though remains general manager of MLS side Portland Timbers. 

Both Wilkinson and LeBlanc are former Canadian internationals and Thorns players, with LeBlanc a 2013 NWSL Champion with the side. The two are now in leadership positions to navigate the team moving forward, as Thorns ownership continue to navigate the fallout from last season’s revelations. Let’s take a look at the Thorns as they prepare for the upcoming 2022 NWSL season:

Finish in 2021: Challenge Cup Winners, NWSL Shield winners, but Lost in NWSL semifinals to Chicago 2-0 

Let’s take a look at Portland Thorns FC and the roster ahead of the 2022 NWSL season:

Offseason Overview

Finish in 2021: Early in the season the club announced 2021 would be Parson’s final season with the club as he’d accepted a position to become Netherlands women’s national team manager. The team won almost every possible trophy in their path, starting with the 2021 Challenge Cup, the 2021 WICC title, and the 2021 NWSL Shield — though the club fell short of what is considered year’s biggest prize, the NWSL Championship when they were eliminated in the NWSL semifinal, 2-0, against the Chicago Red Stars. 

Biggest losses: Like most clubs in the offseason, a double expansion draft impacted Portland as they bid farewell to forwards Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi who went to Angel City FC. Defender Christen Westphal went to San Diego Wave FC, along with the player rights to prospect Amirah Ali. Long time NWSL midfielder Angela Salem announced her retirement after 12 seasons in the league. Midfielder Celeste Boureille announced her retirement as well. The club also announced USWNT midfielder and franchise star player Lindsey Horan is on an 18 month loan with French division 1 side, Olympique Lyonnais.

Biggest acquisitions:  The club dedicated their time largely to reworking contracts to retain key players, including long time Thorns captain Christine Sinclair and defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Becky Sauerbrunn. Horan also signed a contract extension before her departure to France. Defender Kelli Hubly and Forward Marissa Everett were also re-signed. The biggest offseason acquisition is Japanese international Hina Sugita, the midfielder signed a three year contract with the club.

Burning Question Entering 2022 Season

With tons of movement late last season and through the offseason and again in the offseason, can the Thorns remain a top contender after changes to the roster and administrative level? 

What the players are saying

Forward Sophia Smith is entering her third year with Portland, and the striker sat down with CBS Sports Attacking Third podcast and discussed navigating the early days of Thorns preseason, and getting acclimated to new head coaching and new faces.

“It’s really exciting to kind of build off what we did last season, but at the same time start something new and try new things with this group,” said Smith.

Want more coverage of women’s soccer? Listen below and make sure to follow Attacking Third, A CBS Soccer Podcast devoted to bringing you everything you need to know from the NWSL and around the globe.  

Who will crack the starting XI

Even with some new faces, a ton of re-signed players could slot in ready on opening day. Hubly and Everett are two players who were clutch during Olympic stretches for the club last year, and could be contenders for starting positions this year. Expect to see veteran players manning the lines as well with Klingenberg, Sauerbrunn, Menges, and Sinclaire.

Preseason Roster

Thorns previously announced a 24 player roster, though Salem has since retired and Dunn announced her pregnancy last season. For the preseason roster as the team prepares for the 2022 season, the positional breakdown is mostly even with seven defenders and midfielders, and six forwards listed. Teams will likely narrow down rosters ahead of the 2022 Challenge Cup. 

Goalkeepers (3): Bella Bixby, Shelby Hogan, Abby Smith

Defenders (7): Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka (INTL), Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Becky Sauerbrunn

Midfielders (7): Sam Coffey, Crystal Dunn, Olivia Moultrie, Gabby Provenzano (CDP), Rocky Rodríguez, Yazmeen Ryan, Hina Sugita (INTL, NYR)

Forwards (6): Natalie Beckman (CDP), Hannah Betfort, Marissa Everett, Christine Sinclair (NYR), Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver

Final prediction

There will likely be adjustments as players and coaches get acclimated to each other, but familiarity among the roster will only aid the club moving forward. If the chemistry builds quickly, expect the Thorns to contend for a place among the top four teams in the league. 

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