A Preseason Look at the Portland Thorns
Who are they?
The Portland Thorns are one of eight original NWSL teams, established in 2012. The team is owned by Peregine Sports LLC, which also owns the MLS team, Portland Timbers. This makes the Thorns one of three NWSL teams directly affiliated with an MLS team. The Thorns have won two NWSL championships, 2013 and 2016 as long as the 2021 Challenge Cup. They have also won two NWSL Shields for top NWSL regular season performances in 2016 and 2021.
Their badge features a rose surrounded by a ring of thorns and is black with red lettering and detailing. The team’s name is on the outside of the badge with two championship stars above it. Their colors are red, white and black.
The Thorns are led this season by Rhian Wilkinson after former head coach Mark Parsons left to coach the Netherlands Women’s National Team. They also have Karina LeBlanc as their new general manager. On September 30, 2021, Meg Linehan of The Athletic published an article “This Guy Has a Pattern” detailing the abuse and sexual harassment by former head coach Paul Riley as former NWSL players spoke up for the first time in years. Within the article, Linehan wrote about how owner Merritt Paulson and former Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson both knew about the sexual harassment that occurred during Riley’s time with the Thorns. G. Wilkinson was in charge and responsible for the hire and release of Riley as the head coach. He was put on administrative leave after the article broke and was replaced by LeBlanc in November 2021. Thorns fans were very local (and continue to be) about the removal of Paulson and G. Wilkinson from the Thorns’ front office. They have protested using signs, chanting during games, refusing to renew season tickets, boycotting the concessions at the stadium, etc. The fight continues in Portland to remove Merritt Paulson from his position and get him to sell the team.
As for their new head coach, R. Wilkinson is a former Canadian international. She played with the team from 2003 to 2017 and recorded 181 appearances during that time. R. Wilkinson has formerly managed the Canadian U-17 Women's squad and the Canadian U-20 Women's squad, and assistanted Great Britain during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Alongside Rhian Wilkinson are assistant coaches Sophie Clough and Mike Norris. Clough has been with the team since 2016 whereas Norris joined the technical staff this season. The Thorns are also very lucky to have Nadine Angerer as the director of goalkeeping. Angerer has been with the team since 2015. Angerer played for the German National Team from 1996 to 2015 and established herself as one of the best goalkeepers in women’s soccer history.
So far this year in the Challenge Cup, the Thorns are 3-1-1 having beat expansion squads, San Diego Wave twice as well as Angel City FC. They have drawn and lost to rival, OL Reign thus far. Their most recent game as of April 21, 2021, finished 3-2 after a goal from Sophia Smith and a brace from Hina Sugita. The Thorns will look to finish the Challenge Cup on a high as they play Angel City FC on April 24 as they currently sit behind the OL Reign with 10 points. They will kick off their regular season with a home game against the Kansas City Current, looking to defend their NWSL Shield.
Meet the Players
The Thorns have 24 players currently on their roster including three rookies plus multiple veteran players. They have a very similar roster to last year but currently do not have Lindsey Horan as she is out on loan with Olympique Lyonnais Féminin or Crystal Dunn who is out on maternity leave.
Just last week the Thorns added Canadian star winger, Janine Beckie to their roster via a transfer with Manchester City in England. Beckie signed a three-year deal with the option for a fourth after a trade with Racing Lousiville to acquire Beckie’s NWSL rights in exchange for allocation money. Beckie last played in the NWSL with Sky Blue FC (Gotham FC) in 2018. Beckie spent four years with Man City while staying an integral part of the Canadian National Team. She joins a star-studded forward group for the Thorns with the likes of Canadian legend Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, and Morgan Weaver. Beckie is a versatile player and able to play just about anywhere on the wing and will add experience and depth to this Thorns’ squad.
The Thorns added three rookies this offseason with former Penn State midfielder Sam Coffey, former Rutgers defender Gabby Provenzano, and former Denver forward Natalie Beckman. Coffey starred for Penn State, after two years at Boston College, earning Big Ten Midfielder of the Year in 2020-21. She was drafted by the Thorns in 2021 before opting to play another season with Penn State. Provenzano starred for Rutgers and earned Big Ten Defender of the Year in 2021. She helped bring Rutgers to their first Final Four appearance since 2015 last season before entering the NWSL draft. Beckman starred for Denver and earned Summit League Offensive Player of the Year back to back in 2020 and 2021. These three young players will join the Thorns’ roster bringing more depth and talent to the squad. Another new player with the Thorns is Hina Sugita of Japan. Sugita joined the Thorns on a transfer from INAC Kobe Leonessa and signed a three-year deal. She has already made her mark in Portland, scoring her first NWSL goal and brace in the Thorns’ win over San Diego Wave last week.
As for players already with the squad, the Thorns will continue to look to Sophia Smith for goal production as she enters her second year in the league after being drafted first overall in the 2020 NWSL Draft. Smith has shown her quality with both the Thorns and the US Women’s National Team, scoring her first international hat trick in the USWNT game against Uzbekistan on April 9 and having scored three goals in her last four games in the Thorns. Center back pairing Kelli Hubly and Emily Menges will look to continue to grow their connection with each other while veteran Becky Sauerbrunn is out recovering from a knee injury. Behind them is Bella Bixby who has recently risen into a starting spot with the trade of Adrianna Franch to Kansas City. At six feet, Bixby is one of the tallest goalkeepers in the league and is beginning to solidify herself as one of the best.
What do I want to see?
The Thorns have consistently been at the top of the league and made it to the playoffs. Something for them is now finishing off their seasons by bringing the NWSL Championship back to Providence Park. The Thorns fight for success and I am sure they will be at the top of NWSL even missing their key midfield pieces with Dunn and Horan out. But without these key midfield pieces and the retirement of Angela Salem, they will need to establish a solid midfield for the season. Coffey and Sugita have both shown their quality but building that midfield chemistry will be very important for the Thorns to have success this season.
I am very excited to see the Thorns’ young and new talent work together, especially under a new coach who will look to get the best out of them. Between Smith, Weaver, Coffey, and many others, the Thorns have the talent for both now and the future. Finding the best ways to utilize this talent will be very important to how their season goes this year. They will need to make sure to solidify their defense as they gave up two goals in the second half of their game against the San Diego Wave, especially with not being 100 percent sure when Becky Sauerbrunn will return from injury.
Last season, the Thorns trailed off at the end of the season but had a large enough lead to maintain the top spot. This season being consistent and trying to maintain their top form throughout the season but especially towards the end in case of a necessary playoff push would help the Thorns be a top team in the league this season.
Goalkeepers: Bella Bixby, Abby Smith, Shelby Hogan
Defenders: Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka (INTL), Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Becky Sauerbrunn
Midfielders: Sam Coffey, Crystal Dunn (ML), Olivia Moultrie, Gabby Provenzano (CDP), Rocky Rodríguez, Yazmeen Ryan, Hina Sugita (INTL)
Forwards: Natalie Beckman (CDP), Hannah Betfort, Marissa Everett, Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver, Janine Beckie
CDP- college draft pick
ML- maternity leave