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Will Thorns rise to the new season challenge?
With a solid core of accomplished players, the Portland Thorns are positioned again to be one of the National Women's Soccer League's best defensive teams.
But there is plenty elsewhere for coach Mark Parsons to sort out as the Thorns prepare to kick off the season Saturday at North Carolina against a Courage team they beat in October for the league title.
How will Portland stack up to contenders that strengthened their rosters during an offseason in which Boston folded and Kansas City become the Utah Royals?
By comparison with most of their competitors, the Thorns' offseason was low-key. Portland returns — when healthy and present — 14 players from the 2017 champions, including nine who started the final. Will stability and the Thorns brand stand up in a league where other playoff teams made significant additions?
And, can Portland make up for the departure of two important offensive players? The Thorns knew before they left Orlando with the 2017 trophy that midfielder Amandine Henry and forward Nadia Nadim were headed to big European clubs. To counter those departures, Portland's big offseason acquisitions were Brazilian midfielder Andressinha and Australian attacker Caitlin Foord, who once played for Sky Blue of the NWSL.
Parsons is thrilled — but will have to wait for both. Andressinha is expected to arrive in late April, after the Copa America tournament. Foord ruptured a foot ligament in Australia's W-League playoffs and, after reported surgery, probably won't be a factor for Portland until at least midseason.
Two other Australians — Hayley Raso and young defender Ellie Carpenter — won't arrive until late April, after Australia plays in the Asian Cup tournament.
Add that Tobin Heath is working her way back from offseason ankle surgery, and Parsons will have to wait to have the roster he envisioned.
That challenge should be familiar to the 31-year-old coach. A year ago, injuries kept several key players sidelined early in the year, but Portland was 11-1-1 over the final 13 games, including playoffs.
"To have that record in the most competitive league in the world shows how close we were," Parsons says. "And we saw the power of that. We saw that a together group can achieve anything, and we wanted to continue to make sure this group is close and together."
On-field chemistry could be an ongoing experiment in midfield. For the first time in club history, Allie Long will not be part of that mix. Among the more popular players and the club's top scorer over five seasons, Long was traded to Seattle in a move that brought Foord to the Thorns.
While that might have surprised, Long's role was significantly reduced during the second half of last season. She played a total of 10 mop-up minutes in the two playoff games.
At least until Andressinha arrives, the question will be who best to pair with Christine Sinclair in attacking midfield and with two-way midfielder Lindsey Horan.
In the Thorns' three preseason games, Celeste Boureille got significant time in midfield. A year ago, Boureille filled in at right back early in the season with Katherine Reynolds injured. Boureille had a strong winter season in Australia.
At 29, Angela Salem, acquired in the Boston dispersal draft, provides Parsons with a veteran option in midfield, having played more than 100 NWSL matches.
Ultimately, though, Andressinha is the player Parsons wants to build his attack around.
"Andressinha is the signing we feel can take us forward and make us better in creating chances, creating big chances," Parsons says.
There are more questions about the forward position — particularly until Raso returns and, eventually, Foord heals.
Heath, not likely to play until at least Portland's home opener on April 14, figures to have a vital role in an attack that scored only two goals in three preseason matches. After missing most of 2017 with back trouble, Heath underwent surgery this winter to "clean up" an ankle.
Parsons is anxious to get Heath back but won't push her return. When Heath is ready, "we're going to get a player who has missed a lot of football and is going to be very, very excited," he says.
Based on preseason, multiple players have a chance to step forward to lead the attack. The list includes returnees Tyler Lussi, Mallory Weber and Meg Morris — none of whom got significant action in 2017. Also available are 5-10 Ifeoma Onumona, 24, and Midge Purce, 22 — both acquired when Boston disbanded. Listed as a defender on the Thorns' season-opening roster, Purce appears to be a player who can provide depth in multiple spots.
Another option is to play Sinclair up front rather than as the attacking midfielder.
Parsons says a lot of time and energy during preseason was spent on the attack and "we've taken some good steps there." His goal is to be dynamic and unpredictable. As he analyzes his forwards, the coach is asking: "Can they be really hard-working and can they be dangerous?"
The situation is much clearer in the back, where the Thorns return goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and defenders Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, Reynolds and Meghan Klingenberg.
Carpenter, who turns 18 next month, and rookie free agent Elizabeth Ball, 22, who was signed after camp, are new defenders on the roster.
This is a younger team than last season — by design.
"Younger players who haven't won trophies turn up reminding you every day with the look in their eyes that they want to do everything they can to grow and win," Parsons says. "These players we brought in have a huge upside."
By playing and training alongside players such as Sinclair, Horan, Heath and Sonnett, Parsons says the upside of the younger players can begin to blossom in 2018.
"We're almost building this second layer for the core of the team," he says, "so it's exciting."
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