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In limbo, coach analyzes what went wrong this season

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley, chatting with team owner Merritt Paulson, says he takes full responsibility for the team missing the playoffs this season.No one could blame coach Paul Riley if he thought his team had what it took to make the playoffs.

A scan down the Portland Thorns roster reads like a who’s who of women’s professional soccer. Firepower came from both star national team players and prominent domestic names at the club level. Combined with the resources of the Timbers organization, a playoff spot seemed obvious.

Yet, that didn’t happen. The Thorns finished their season this month a disappointing sixth out of nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Riley, who knows that poor performance puts his job on the line, feels that disappointment deeply. He will continue to feel it all the way through next season, he told the Tribune this week.

“I’m just hugely disappointed, almost devastated,” Riley said, when asked what he wanted fans to know. “Such high expectation, and I look down the list of players and I just wanted to do better. I wanted to bring the playoffs to Portland, and I have to take full responsibility. It’s hard to swallow this for the next five, six months.”

Now that Riley is out of a contract, his future with the club is uncertain. General manager Gavin Wilkinson, who collaborated directly with Riley on roster-building, said a decision will come by the end of the month.

“It’s a decision that we’re evaluating, to be honest,” Wilkinson told reporters on a postseason conference call. “It’s a situation where we had clear objectives over the last two seasons, but especially this season that need to be met, and also need to be met moving forward.”

For the Thorns, it’s a question of looking at what went wrong and whether Riley can be the one to fix it for next year.

Looking ahead

Riley admits it has been difficult working in Portland and being apart from his wife, who lives in Long Island, N.Y. In the same breath, he calls the Thorns the best women’s club in the world. In other words, it’s something of a dream job.

Though Riley’s contract has expired, creating a convenient separation point if the Thorns front office opts to part ways, Riley and the Thorns front office had long discussed a three-year plan. The groundwork already is being laid for next year, whether Riley is at the helm or not.

“When you build a team, you need three years,” Riley said. “The first two years you need to get experienced players, you need to get the gut of your team. You can build from that with the draft the third year and get some younger players, but you first need your base.”

The Thorns are likely to spend their offseason looking for players at a few key positions. Wilkinson specified a dedicated holding midfielder as a missing piece. Canadian Kaylyn Kyle filled that role well at times last season, but the club may look for a replacement if Kyle will join a long pre-Olympics residency with her national team.

The back line also needs work, Riley said. Rachel Van Hollebeke has retired. Australian Steph Catley and Canadian Rhian Wilkinson both missed much of the season with injuries and international duty, and both should play in the Olympics, making their returns question marks.

That means this offseason may be the one where the Thorns look find to some young talent in the draft. But signing recent college graduates presents a unique challenge for Portland, Riley said.

“The profile for a Portland player is slightly different,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, Paul and Gavin don’t like the draft,’ but that’s just not true. It’s very difficult for a 21-year-old to come into Portland and play in front of 20,000. It just is, and I don’t think anyone understands that.”

International problems

International players, on the other hand, are used to the pressure to perform. But they present their own problems, and one thing was immediately clear at the end of the season: The number of Women’s World Cup players the Thorns carried was a mistake. Nine Thorns players reached the quarterfinals of the tournament, leaving a large gap in the season where the Thorns dropped 15 points and didn’t win a game.

The problem won’t be going away soon, with next year’s Olympics pulling players away again. The decision already has been made to release some of the club’s international players, Wilkinson said.

“We will reconsider carrying that many internationals again,” he said. “Each player will be sat down with, and we’ll be going over every player’s situation with them individually.”

National team status wasn’t supposed to have the sort of impact that it eventually did. After the World Cup, all those players were supposed to return and finish the season, when another 30 points would be up for grabs. With a roster size of just 20 players under league rules, it is impossible to have backups for every position.

As the Thorns struggled during the World Cup, the line of thinking was, “They’ll be back soon,” Riley said. Instead, many of those World Cup players came back injured. Proven goal-scorers Alex Morgan and Jodie Taylor played through injury in Canada, but needed to rest as soon as the tournament ended.

“We never got our best team on the field at any point,” Riley said. “When we went through the projections of how many games everybody would play, Alex (Morgan) was at 13, Jodie (Taylor) was a 14, Christine Sinclair was at 13 or 14. What actually happened during the season is those numbers were two, three, four. What we projected didn’t turn out at all.”

A striker conundrum

Perhaps one of the most controversial choices for the Thorns heading into the season was the transfer of striker Jessica McDonald to the Houston Dash draft picks. McDonald was the Thorns’ top scorer last season and, as a non-national team player, would be around the full season.

No reason was given for the trade. Now, Riley tells the Tribune she was cut due to a loan with Herforder SV that was supposed to delay her return to the NWSL.

“It wasn’t our decision. She decided to go play in Germany, and they told us she wouldn’t be back until May 20,” Riley said. “I don’t know how she got out of Germany for the start of the season in Houston. We felt we needed to get somebody in her spot for the early part of the season.”

McDonald was replaced by England’s Taylor, who was available immediately. But she was injured during training in early April. Riley and Wilkinson knew Taylor eventually would leave for the Women’s World Cup, but her injury before the tournament dampened her impact even further.

Though a lack of forwards was a huge problem for the Thorns this season, next year should self-correct somewhat. England won’t play in the Olympics, meaning Taylor will be available.

Midseason signee Genoveva “Ayo” Añonma didn’t have enough time to adjust to the league’s speed of play, but she can either be developed more in the offseason or be replaced early with a more finished product. Whatever the Thorns decide, finding depth at the striker position is firmly on the to-do list.

“When the World Cup players were away, we scored once in six games,” Riley said. “We were very ineffective up front, and if you don’t score goals, you’re not going to win games.”

Coach or players?

That is the crux of the decision that lies ahead for Wilkinson and the front office: Is swapping out some of the players enough, or is a new vision needed? How much of the Thorns’ underperformance was primarily Riley’s fault and how much is the front office to blame?

Wilkinson said the decision-making process will involve interviews with players, discussions with Riley, and every level of management will be held accountable, including the front office and assistant coaches.

“To pin everything on Paul, while some may believe that’s fair, I disagree, and it’s a collective effort with everybody involved,” Wilkinson said. “That means going through every individual player and asking every player: Did they perform to their capacity, and did they perform as expected?”

With 25 years in coaching, Riley knows what happens when a team misses the playoffs: People call for the coach to be fired. The Thorns’ underwhelming season can be blamed on a mix of bad luck and mistakes, but Riley said he is ready to accept whatever consequences lay ahead.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t get it done. I’m the guy that puts the team on the field, and I have to take full responsibility,” Riley said. “I couldn’t ask for anything else as a coach — they gave me everything I asked for.

“You’ve got everything you need to win in Portland. It’s the best women’s club in the world, I’ve said it time and time again, and they deserve better than they got this year. If I have to leave to make it better, so be it.”

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