Revamped Thorns to begin title defense

NWSL champs have just eight returning players

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 

PORTLAND — The accomplishments were plentiful during the first season for Portland Thorns FC.

Top of the list, of course, was winning the National Women’s Soccer League’s first championship. But the league’s flagship franchise did not rest in the offseason.

From the coaching staff to the roster, significant change has happened since Aug. 31, when Portland beat Western New York 2-0 to claim the first NWSL title. The Thorns begin their second season on Saturday in Houston, against the newest team in the second-year league.

Only eight of the 22 players on the roster as the 2014 season starts were with Portland at the end of last season. But the returnees include most of the standouts: forwards Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, midfielder Tobin Heath and defender Rachel (Buehler) Van Hollebeke.

The most significant change was at the top, where Paul Riley replaced Cindy Parlow Cone as head coach. A Liverpool, England, native who came to the United States for college, Riley has coached at youth, college and professional levels.

He said replacing Parlow Cone is a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity.

One of his primary goals is to bring success to Providence Park. Despite averaging more than 13,000 fans — more than triple the league average — the 2013 Thorns won only five of their 11 home games.

“Our home record really wasn’t very good and we want to improve that,” Riley said. “The No. 1 goal is to make the playoffs, and to try to get the playoff games at home, which we didn’t get last year.”

Since he was hired in December, Riley has worked with general manager Gavin Wilkinson to build a roster that includes some of the top players in the world, and some of the best young players in the United States.

The biggest name on the list of additions is German national team goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who was the 2013 FIFA women’s world player of the year. Portland traded popular Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc to Chicago.

“We felt we needed a goalkeeper with a little bit better feet, who was more aggressive off the line,” Riley said.

The other international additions are Spanish midfielder Verónica Boquete and Australian defender Stephanie Catley, Boquete was the 2011 Women’s Pro Soccer MVP playing for Riley in Philadelphia. Boquete, Catley and U.S. women’s national team midfielder Heath will join the Thorns after completing obligations overseas.

Also missing to start the season is Morgan, who is recovering from a serious ankle injury. Riley said this week he hoped to have Morgan join the team soon.

Even without one of the world’s most dynamic forwards, the Thorns have top-notch weapons — led by Canada’s all-time scoring leader Christine Sinclair, a former Portland Pilot.

“Anytime you’re missing a player like Alex, your team is going to suffer,” Sinclair said. “But we’ve experienced the whole preseason without her and we’re very confident heading into the season that we’ll be able to reform and score goals without her.”

Jessica McDonald, who scored three goals in nine games with Seattle last season, is one of four former University of North Carolina standouts on the roster, joining midfielders Allie Long, Amber Brooks and Heath. Brooks scored 10 goals in 22 appearances for Bayern Munich’s women’s team in Germany.

Long, Meleana Shim and Angie Kerr are returnees in midfield. Portland also added midfielders Sarah Huffman, who played against the Thorns in last season’s championship match, and Sinead Farrelly, who played for Riley in Philadelphia and last season was with FC Kansas City.

Again this season there is a Vancouver presence in the Thorns defense. Columbia River High School graduate Kat Tarr signed this week after going through the local tryout process. Tina Ellertson, who played as a substitute in the 2013 championship match, decided to focus on her coaching career.

Van Hollebeke is expected to anchor the defense, but she suffered a left ankle injury that forced her to exit seven minutes into Thursday’s national team win over China.

Marshall is a veteran who can play multiple back line positions. Outside back Rebecca Moros played the past two seasons in Japan. Rookies Emily Menges and Courtney Niemiec also play defense.

Even with many of his key pieces missing as the season kicks off, Riley expects success. This week, the coach said, he told owner Merritt Paulson: “If I had to go with what I have right now the rest of the season, I would be quite happy with that.”

Thorns at Houston

Kickoff: 5 p.m. Saturday.

Live webstream:portlandthornsfc.com.

TV: 10 p.m. tape delay, Comcast SportsNet, cable ch. 37.

Storyline: The expansion Dash play their first game. The match features two first-year coaches in Portland’s Paul Riley and Houston’s Randy Waldrum who coached Notre Dame to two NCAA titles.

Thorns home opener: April 26 vs. FC Kansas City.