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Finnish international signed for two seasons; NWSL reveals expansion draft rules. Who will Portland protect?

The Portland Thorns on Oct. 29 made official the signing of Finnish international Natalia Kuikka to a two-year contract beginning with the 2021 season.

A versatile player who grew up as a midfielder and shifted to defense while at Florida State, Kuikka bolsters the Thorns defense ahead of the upcoming National Women's Soccer League expansion draft.

"Natalia is a key acquisition we believe strengthens this team in several areas as we look ahead and prepare for the 2021 season," said Gavin Wilkinson, Thorns general manager and president of soccer, in the team's announcement. "She is a versatile, quality, athletic player we have followed for several years, and we're delighted to finally bring her to Portland."

Kuikka played four seasons at Florida State, and was a captain for the Seminoles' 2018 national championship team. She played the past two years with Swedish top division club Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC, scoring six goals in 45 games.

"Natalia is a modern, ball-playing defender with a great range of passing, who also has the characteristics of a no-nonsense defender who loves to defend," Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. "Her character and team-first attitude will add to the strength of our locker room."

The 5-6 Kuikka (pronounced Qweek-uh) is 24. She hasd represented Finland 52 times in international competition. Kuikka and midfielder Rocky Rodriguez (Costa Rica) are the two international players on the Thorns roster.

The confirmation of the Kuikka acquisition comes a day after the NWSL made public the rules for the upcoming expansion draft for Racing Louisville FC, which is to start play in 2021.

The expansion draft is Nov. 12 and can be followed on the NWSL's Twitch channel.

Teams are allowed to protect up to 11 players, no more than two of them U.S. Women's National Team allocated players. Protected lists must be completed by Nov. 5 and will be made public that day.

Racing Louisville can select no more than two players from any one team — or only one if it selects a U.S. national team player.

This week, the Chicago Red Stars traded forwards Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato to Louisville for the promise that Racing FC will not select a Red Stars player in the expansion draft.

The expansion draft will be 18 rounds. Teams that lose a U.S. national team player in the draft will receive $75,000 in allocation money. Racing Louisville can choose to collect $75,000 of allocation money if it only selects one U.S. national team player, $150,000 if it does not select any.

Portland's allocated U.S. Women's National Team players are Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Adrianna Franch and Tobin Heath. Portland retains the NWSL rights to Heath, currently with Manchester United in England.

With the caveat that I have no great insight about the Thorns' thinking — about individual players' long-term plans, or about any contract tweaks or other deals in the works to protect valued assets — here is a guess about who the Thorns will protect:

Forwards: Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver, Simone Charley.

Midfielders: Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rocky Rodriguez.

Defenders: Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka, Emily Menges, Gabby Seiler or Christen Westphal.

Goalkeeper: None.

Portland has three proven goalkeepers (and Franch is an allocated player), so they'll be fine at the position if they lose one to Louisville.

The addition of Kuikka likely means versatile defender Kelli Hubly will be left unprotected despite a solid 2020. However, the Thorns could protect Hubly (whose contribution to team chemistry might be a factor) and leave both Seiler and Westphal unprotected.

There is no way Portland is going to leave Horan or Dunn exposed. That means the rights to Heath, along with Sauerbrunn and Franch cannot be protected. It's hard to know when Heath will again play in the NWSL, though I imagine she has communicated her plans to the Thorns. As for Sauerbrunn, at 35 and living in Portland, I figure she lets Louisville know she will retire after the Olympics (if they happen) rather than relocate to Kentucky.

Any way the Thorns decide to go, there will be some tough decisions to make. We'll get answers on Nov. 5.

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