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Unsung players, defense, top goalie have club near top

If you had told the Portland Thorns FC that seven matches into the National Women’s Soccer League season, five national team players had not touched the field and that striker Christine Sinclair had not yet scored a goal, the team would have been in full panic mode.

Somehow, though, the Thorns have ham-and-egged their way to a record of 4-1-2 (14 points) which has them in second place.

Portland coach Paul Riley is as surprised as anyone that without striker Alex Morgan, midfielders Veronica Boquete and Tobin Heath and defenders Rachel Van Hollebeke and Stephanie Catley, the club is still getting consistently good results.

Says Riley: “If somebody had said we’d have this record without ‘Sinc’ scoring a goal, without Alex playing a minute, without Vero’ being here, without Catley being here, without Tobin being here, I would have said, ‘Are you out of your mind? There’s no question you’re out of your mind.’”

The Thorns have had to rely on formerly unproven and unheralded players to carry the club. They have done just that.

“The role players have done well,” Riley says.

Striker Jessica McDonald and midfielder Allie Long have been particularly stellar.

Though only 26, McDonald came to Portland as a bit of a journey-woman. Last season, she bounced between the Chicago Red Stars and the Seattle Reign, finishing the season with three goals in 16 appearances. This year, filling in for Morgan, while she recovers from an ankle injury, McDonald has scored five goals, the second-most in the NWSL.

“It’s me surrounding myself with the players I’m surrounded by and being in the right place and the right time,” McDonald says. “We’re working hard for each other. I haven’t been any happier than I’ve been here. That’s where I build my confidence from: being here in Portland and playing for Paul.”

Last season, Long was much more of a holding midfielder. This year, though, she has ramped up her ability to attack. She has four goals, third-most in the NWSL.

“I’m not surprised, because I play like this in training,” Long says. “I’ve been able to bring my training to the games. I have this confidence. I don’t really know how to explain what switched on, or why I’m scoring these goals. But I’ve been working really hard, and I’ve been wanting to play the way I’ve been training. I guess it’s just working for me, and I’m focused. I feel like I’m on a mission, and I keep going each game.”

Right now, Portland is extremely young on defense. However, defender Nikki Marshall says the backline has risen to the challenge.

“I’m happy with the defense right now,” Marshall says. “I’ve been blessed to be in a leadership role. We have a good marriage within the back line. We’ve done really well thus far.”

The back line also has the luxury of having goalkeeper Nadine Angerer in the net. Angerer, a German national, who was brought in this season to take over goalkeeping duties for the beloved Karina LeBlanc has proven why she is widely considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world. This year, Angerer has 30 saves against only five goals allowed.

Even with how well things are going for Portland, the side cannot wait for Sinclair to start scoring goals and to get its five national team players back on the field.

Until then?

“I just keep my fingers crossed in my pockets,” Riley says. “Every time you see me.”

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