The Portland Thorns have long been a household name in the NWSL, and are arguably the most established club in the entire league. The Thorns have created something special in the football-mad Rose City, garnering an incredibly large fan base and playing football that is attractive, yet effective. Since head coach Mark Parson’s arrival in 2016, the Portland Thorns have flourished by winning the NWSL Shield in 2016, the NWSL regular-season title in 2017, and coming close in 2019 by making it all the way to the NWSL playoff semi-finals before falling 1-0 to the Chicago Red Stars. However, for such a high profile team like the Portland Thorns, these results have not met the fans’ expectations, forcing Parson to dive deep into the transfer market in order to restructure the team.

The recent signings of Sophia Smith, Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez, Becky Saurbrunn, and Morgan Weaver will look to provide Parson’s side with a much-needed sense of stability in the back and an injection of pace up front. This tactical analysis will review how the Portland Thorns latest signings can contribute to the team after reviewing last season’s tactics in the form of a comprehensive scout report.

2019 Lineup:

The Thorns have been privileged to showcase a wide array of star-studded talent ranging from the likes of Lindsey Horan to Christine Sinclair, Adrianna Franch, and Tobin Heath. These players are especially important to Mark Parson’s tactical components of the Thorns  1-4-2-3-1 formation in 2019. Parson implements a fairly fluid midfield rotation which lets Sinclair, Horan, Heath, Brynjardottir, and now Rodriguez, to interchange positions in accordance with where the opposition leaves space. These movements often create quick counter-attacking scenarios which also encourage the likes of Klingenberg and Reynolds/Carpenter to get forward from wing-back.

Occupying the centre-back position will most likely consist of Becky Saubrunn in place of Emily Sonnett, forcing Mengers to form a new centre-back pairing. Upfront the pace of Foord and Purce will most likely be replaced by Smith and Weaver, who have both recently finished decorated collegiate careers in the PAC-12. In between the sticks is the consistent Adrianna Franch, who continues to establish herself as one of the top goalkeepers in the league after winning the NWSL goalkeeper of the year award in 2018.

Portland Thorns 2020: Transfer strengths - Scout report

However, the glaring concept that comes into play for the Portland Thorns is how they will handle the departures of Emily Sonnet, Caitlin Foord, Midge Purce, and Haley Raso.  Newcomers Sophia Smith, Becky Sauerbrunn, Morgan Weaver, and “Rocky” Rodriguez have some big shoes to fill in order to improve from last season’s trophyless campaign.

A new look at the Thorns:

The 2019 NWSL season saw the Portland Thorns struggle to balance impressive, free-flowing/attacking football with the combination of compact defending. The Thorns were able to create a fair amount of chances in attack by scoring 40 goals, placing them at 3rd most in the league. But defensively the Thorns struggled, conceding a total of 32 goals over the course of the season which placed them at 5th most in the NWSL. The loss of Gabby Seiler to an ACL injury early in the year left Mark Parson’s side somewhat fragile in the middle of the park and in the back.  With a healthy Seiler set to return soon and the incorporation of more defensive players, the Thorns look to be more structured to handle the rigors of the NWSL season.

Mark Parson’s squads have typically finished seasons on a high note, building and peaking at playoff time. But the 2019 season saw the Thorns lose 5 of their last 10 matches showing signs of inconsistency at a critical point of the season. On the other hand, teams like the Chicago Red Stars and the North Carolina Courage seemed to surge into form despite having their own bouts of injury and season stressors. This may be contributed to how each team is constructed in relation to their average ages and experience playing.

Portland Thorns 2020: How the Thorn's new transfers fit - team analysis - scout report
Here we can see that the majority of the league is arguably starting to shift to younger players. This may be due to the players overall quality, the size of each teams roster, and overall availability. Many of the “older” teams have declined later in the year while the younger teams seem to peak.

In the image above, the top two teams in the NWSL (Chicago and Carolina) have an average age of around 26 years old, which could prove to have an effect on player’s abilities to handle the strenuous characteristics of an NWSL season. The Chicago Red Stars have an average age of 26.07 while the North Carolina Courage average around 26.60, compare these numbers to the Portland Thorns who have an average age of 27.31 and now some differences are starting to be seen.

It is particularly evident that the majority of the league is beginning to look younger which may be due to the younger player’s abilities to recover quicker, league movement in the transfer market, and the growing need for replacements who are not on international duty.

Teams like the Washington Spirit and the Houston dash have seen recent success from creating younger sides with the Spirit finishing the 2019 season in 5th place close behind the Reign, and the Dash consistently showing room for improvement. This trend is particularly evident with how the Thorns recruited Smith, Weaver, Rodriguez, and Sauerbrunn into their team to not only fill vacated gaps but to also inject some youth into the fray. Smith and Weaver are fresh out of college boasting ages 19 and 22 years old respectively, while Rodriguez is approaching her prime playing years at 26 years old.

The only outlier is Becky Sauerbrunn (34 years old) who will rival Christine Sinclair (36 years old) for the oldest on the team but brings a wealth of defensive experience. Mark Parson has made some bold moves over the transfer period by opting to bring in more high-quality youth players in attack, and more well-rounded/experienced defenders in defence.

Projected line up:

Portland Thorns 2020: How the Thorn's new transfers fit - team analysis - scout report
The image above is a projected line up, forecasting where Mark Parson’s latest additions of Sauerbrunn, Smith, Weaver, and Rodriguez may fall in the Portland Thorns 2020 1-4-2-3-1 formation. The template shows Saurbrunn replacing Sonnett, Rodriguez replacing Brynjarsdottir, Weaver replacing Purce, and Smith replacing Raso out wide. These placed positions may seem to be fairly subjective or biased at first glance, but the data provided from these players’ past performances may show that they fit into the Thorns system seamlessly. Although the Thorns have undergone massive reconstruction, these transfers may provide a different dimension when evaluating even further.

Sophia Smith:

Sophia Smith comes to the Thorns on the back of an incredible 2019 College Cup-winning campaign with Stanford. Smith led the Cardinal with a total of 17 goals and 9 assists on the year, with 6 of her 17 goals and 4 of her 9 assists coming in the NCAA College Cup run. Perhaps even more impressive, was that in 2018 Smith suffered a season-ending injury against PAC-12 opponent The University of Utah, breaking her ankle in a 1v1 challenge. Her 2018 season ended prematurely, but she still managed to land a pace on the All PAC-12 freshman team and All PAC-12 second team with 7 goals and 2 assists. Smith’s overall production rate for the Cardinal is even more daunting having scored a grand total of 24 goals in 34 games boasting a 0.70 strike rate over the course of her short career.

Many of Smith’s goals have come from her dynamic wide play which terrorized teams due to her rapid dribbling ability. Smith’s positional sense is often showcased in similar terms to how Haley Raso operated at right wing for the Thorns in the 2019 season. The Thorns would often counter at lightning pace and utilize the midfield’s passing range to switch the ball to wide areas for Raso to run onto. These actions are particularly familiar to Stanford’s utilization of Smith last season.

Sophia Smith is particularly good at running into the half-space behind wing-backs. This “Out to in” run will fit seamlessly into the Thorns high powered attack.

Here we can see that Raso is in space on the right flank. Sinclair attracts the movement of the left-back to pressure her, leaving Raso space to run into. [Credit: Wyscout]
Here Sophia Smith is receiving the ball in front of the left-back, giving her space to run at the backline. [Credit: Wyscout]
The Thorns break quickly on the counter and Raso finds space in behind. The Thorns consistently look to exploit the wings with players moving “out to in”.[Credit: Wyscout]
Here Stanford breaks by playing Smith into space to run at goal. Her run is classified as “out to in.”[Credit: Wyscout]
Many of Smith’s “out to in” movements would exploit teams that didn’t transition effectively to cover their weak side once the ball was switched. Smith would time her runs to perfection or wait to receive the ball on the touchline to take on the wing-backs 1v1, showcasing her ability to directly run at defenders.

The images above provide further evidence that the NWSL’s number one draft pick will fit in seamlessly to the Thorns counter-attacking tactics. If Sophia Smith can carry her perennial scoring form into the NWSL, the Thorns will have a lethal weapon that can add serious pace to their already dangerous attack.

Morgan Weaver:

Morgan Weaver comes to the Portland Thorns as the number 2 overall pick in the 2020 NWSL draft just behind her new teammate and PAC-12 colleague, Sophia Smith. Weaver enjoyed a memorable 4-year career at Washington State as a striker, where she led the team with 43 career goals in 85 matches played. In Weaver’s senior season she led to Cougars to the NCAA College Cup final four, one of the deepest runs in school history. In her senior season alone she was involved in more than 20 of the Cougars 45 goals scored that season, accounting for more than 44% of Washington State’s goals in 2019. The bulk of her goal production was mainly in the final half of the season where she scored over 10 goals in the Coug’s last 8 matches, leading Washington State deep into the tournament.

Weaver’s goalscoring prowess comes from her versatility up front. She has incredible pace, size, aerial ability, and a wonderful strike, which makes her particularly lethal from distance. Many of her qualities fill the void that Foord and Purce contributed to last season which consisted of great hold up play, pressing from the front, and dynamic interchanges with the wingers. Washington State utilized Weaver mainly as a central striker in a 3 front while also in spells out wide. This can be related to how the Thorn’s play with an occasional three front which looks to put players in 1v1 positions on the wings. Players like Heath, Purce, and Raso were particularly good at this and it seems to already be an inherent skill that Weaver has honed during her time at WSU.

While at WSU, Weaver was particularly potent running into the channels, creating 1v1 opportunities. Blessed with strength and speed, Weaver will be a great asset that adds a vertical option to the Thorns.

Weaver’s movement to the far right side of the pitch has attracted 3 defenders. This opens up a passing lane for the left winger to run into. [Credit: Wyscout]
Purce is seen making a run that starts centrally and then pulls the defenders into the wide channel (“In to out”). Weaver looks to get into similar scenarios in order to use her pace. [Credit: Wyscout]

Morgan Weaver is seen peeling off into the channels after scanning where her markers are (“In to out”). This challenges the centre-backs to shift in order to cover space and places Weaver in an advantageous 1v1 opportunity.

Weaver’s ability to run into the channel and stretch opposition centre-backs apart will be a deadly combination with Sophia Smith and Christine Sinclair. This will create more opportunities for Sinclair, Horan, and Heath to get on the ball in pockets of space underneath opponents the backline. Weaver commonly exploited defences making the “In to out” run which showcases Weaver’s speed, power, and 1v1 prowess by starting centrally and drifting out wide to receive the ball.

Regardless of her goalscoring ability at the collegiate level, Weaver still has much to prove as a rookie. The Thorns may have picked up another potential star in the making, but only time will tell if her raw ability is able to compete in the NWSL.

Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez: 

“Rocky” Rodriguez comes to the Portland Thorns after spending four years at Sky Blue FC, playing 76 games and notching 8 goals and 5 assists as a versatile midfielder. The Thorns acquired Rodriguez after trading their 2021 first-round draft pick and forward Midge Purce to Sky Blue FC. Rodriguez’s undeniable talent has been quietly shadowed since her debut in the Costa Rican national team at the mere age of 13. Since then, Rodriguez has blossomed into a technically gifted midfielder who has grown to become Costa Rica’s all-time top scorer at the age of 26, with 40 international goals in 70 appearances. Rodriguez has also been crowned as the NWSL’s rookie of the year in 2016 and as the MAC Herman Trophy winner in 2015, after winning an NCAA National Championship in with Penn State that year.

But where does this gifted midfielder fit into an already talented Thorns midfield? The likes of Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and Christine Sinclair already patrol the middle of the park for the Thorns, but Rodriguez has the ability to offer something completely different. Rodriguez embraces a playing style that is highly replicable to Juan Roman Riquelme, who was blessed with supreme technical ability and vision for a line splitting pass-especially while playing for Villareal in La Liga. But Rodriguez’s main attribute is her flexibility to play anywhere across the midfield and even as an attacker. She is a proven goalscoring midfielder for Costa Rica and has also showcased her ability to be a creative playmaker on the dribble, and with her passing range.

Rodriguez has had experience playing across the entire midfield. [Credit: Wyscout]
In the NWSL, Rodriguez ranks in the top 30 players for smart passes made (18th with 1.24 per 90), 1v1’s completed (24th with 4.97 per 90), fouls suffered (7th with 1.69 per 90), passes accurate to the final 3rd (6th with 72.41%) and total minutes played (27th with 2,029 total mins). These statistics indicate just how creative Rodriguez is on the ball and how great her vision is to unlock defences with her passing accuracy.

Rodriguez is particularly dangerous when playing in front of the opposition backline. Here she can thread penetrating balls into all three channels.

The Thorns now have the flexibility to deploy Rodriguez either as a replacement for any of the midfielders or even in place of Sinclair’s withdrawn forward position, which would allow the experienced striker to move back up top. Regardless, Rodriguez will need to understand her role with such a dynamic midfield consisting of Horan, Heath, Sinclair, and especially Brynjarsdottir, who continues to be a defensive stalwart for the Thorns. Rodriguez’s ability to drift into half-spaces and play in pacey newcomers- Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, will be a tough decision for Mark Parson to balance.

In this image, Sinclair drifts into space in front of the backline. Rodriguez is especially good at finding these spaces and can interchange with Horan and Heath to create imbalances in the opposition. [Credit: Wyscout]
Rodriguez’s dribbling ability forces the opposition to challenge her. This action opens up passing lanes for her teammates to run into. [Credit: Wyscout]
Here Rodriguez is able to slip in the right-winger after attracting pressure from 3 opposing defenders. [Credit: Wyscout]

Defensively, Rodriguez will need to prove to Parson that she can do the dirty work. In this image we can see the Thorns midfield is pressing very high up the pitch, recognizing to press once all wide options have been cut off. Rodriguez will need to handle these defensive duties in order to play.

Rodriguez could grow to be a real attacking force for the Thorns this year, as she will be surrounded by a much better supporting cast. The biggest question will be where Rodriguez fits into the squad and if Mark Parsons is willing to rotate his dynamic midfielders. Players like Brynjarsdottir and Sinclair will influence this choice greatly, as Parsons may look to push Sinclair into the centre-forward and move Rodriguez to the attacking midfielder spot, or straight swap Brynjarsdottir’s defensive presence for Rodriguez’s creativity in midfield.

Becky Sauerbrunn:

Last but not least is Becky Saurbrunn. Arguably the best centre-back that the NWSL has ever seen, Sauerbrunn comes to the Portland Thorns after playing two seasons for the Utah Royals. The 2020 season will mark Sauerbrunn’s 8th season in the NWSL where she has been honoured as NWSL defender of the year 4 times, NWSL best IX 7 times, and has logged more than 10,900 minutes spanning over 122 league matches. Saurbrunns arrival comes at a vital restructuring period where Mark Parson sold Emily Sonnetts’s rights to the Orlando Pride, leaving him without an experienced centre-back. But Suerbrunn brings just that-experience, to a side that so desperately needs structure in defence.

Sauerbrunn’s primary position for the Utah Royals has been at left centre-back. This may change depending on Mark Parson’s needs in the back and what her potential centre-back partnership will look like. [Credit: Wyscout]
Statistically, Sauerbrunn is a very accomplished possession-based player, ranking 3rd overall in ball progression passes per min (5.16), 3rd in overall passes per 90 (58.03), and 3rd in overall pass completion percentage (89.81%) in the NWSL. Accompanying her with superb passing range and possession qualities is her ability to defend competently. Saurbrun ranks 17th overall in interceptions per 90 (6.45), and 23rd in defensive duel winning percentage (67.31%) which shows just how good she is at judging players in the tackle. This quality will come as a relief to Mark Parson’s side that consistently struggled with backline issues, particularly towards the end of the season.

Part of the issue could have been due to Emily Sonnett’s overzealous decision making to tackle opposition players. Sonnett has been widely regarded as an “attacking centre-back” that likes to play on the front foot, constantly driving forward with the ball and tracking aggressively. These sets of traits have developed Sonnett into a highly touted centre-back, but, her qualities may not fit the Thorn’s needs at the moment as they need defensive stability more than aggressive tackling at this point in the team’s evolution. Sauerbrunn in contrast, is much more seasoned and positionally sound as she is more calculated when approaching challenges. Measuring Sonnett and Sauerbrunns defensive duels head to head, show Sonnnett averaging 12.19 duels per match-winning 55.5% of them while Sauerbrunn averages 9.88 duels per match with a 63.4% winning percentage. Total tackles do need to be taken into account and this varies amongst the gameplay of the Portland Thorns and the Utah Royals. Nevertheless, the additional information points to Sauerbraunn being more battle-tested and experienced than Sonnett.

Sonnett is forced to make a challenge and is dragged out of position. The Houston forward is slipped in and finishes to make it 1-1. [Credit: Wyscout]
Here Sonnett is caught out of position once again. The forward can now peel off into her vacated space to run at the backline. [Credit: Wyscout]
Sauerbrunn’s experience generally yields a more cautious approach to defending where she is always aware of the spaces she has vacated to make a challenge. Defending her “zones” of the pitch have helped distinguish were to follow opposition players into and where to pass them off in order to stay compact in the back. Many teams look to draw centre-backs out of position and then slip a 2nd or 3rd runner into the vacated spaces. Sauerbrunn is particularly aware of these scenarios and typically provides cover or pressures to force attackers back into another “zone”. Once pressure is ushered into another “zone,” the midfielders can double down and Sauerbrunn can drop back into her vacated space. 

Portland Thorns 2020: Transfer strengths - Scout report
In this image, Sauerbrunn forces the opposition backward to an area that the midfield can double down in. She can then pass on the attacker to the midfield and drop back in to cover her vacated space.

Sauerbrunn applies pressure and keeps the striker facing away from goal. [Credit: Wyscout]
Sauerbrunn then passes the striker along to the midfielder after vacating her “zone.” This helps cover the most dangerous areas in front of goal and forces the opponent backward and wide. [Credit: Wyscout]
Portland Thorns 2020: How the Thorn's new transfers fit - team analysis - scout report
To prevent the opponent from countering effectively, Sauerbrunn drops to cover space first. This forces the opponents o pass wide rather than central. [Credit: Wyscout]
Sauerbrunn can now force the attacker wide and make the opposition somewhat predictable. This also allows time for the other covering backs to mark in the box or reposition. [Credit: Wyscout]
It is safe to say that Sauerbrunn’s defensive competence will help provide structure to a previously unorganized backline. Sonnett was a quality centre-back in her own right, but further analysis shows Sauerbrunn’s experience and conservative abilities may bring a different dimension to the Thorns.

Conclusion

The Thorns have clearly made some incredible trades in the recent transfer window taking into account a wide variety of factors to prepare them for a successful 2020 NWSL season. The injection of high-quality young players such as Morgan Weaver and Sophia Smith will help provide needed legs and vitality to the group, while the marquee signings of Sauerbrunn and Rodriguez will give added stability and experience. The Thorns still have time to look in the market for another potential striker possibly from the FAWSL or France’s D1F, the female counterpart to Ligue 1. Regardless, Mark Parson’s ability to manipulate the market to interchange key positions within the Thorns may prove to be a masterstroke, but only time will tell if the NWSL trophy will be raised in the Rose City.

Kyle Emerick
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