NWSL 2023: Portland Thorns look to go back-to-back

The perennial powerhouse Portland Thorns reigned again in 2022, winning their record third NWSL Championship. With largely the same cast of stars, the club will look to extend its league dominance and bring home a fourth title this year.

Last year, the Thorns finished the regular season in second place, a point behind regional rival OL Reign. The team continued its impressive form into the playoffs, defeating the San Diego Wave in the semifinals via a dramatic stoppage-time goal scored by Crystal Dunn and then resoundingly defeated the upstart Kansas City Current 2-0 in the title game.

Goalkeeper Bella Bixby and veteran center back Becky Sauerbrunn anchored a defense that posted nine shutouts and conceded the third-fewest regular season goals. While the Thorns defense was solid, it was the league-best offense that got most of the headlines last season. Superstar forward Sophia Smith, 22, led the way, scoring 14 of her team’s league-best 45 regular season goals and then its first goal in the title clash.

In addition to being named the 2022 NWSL MVP and NWSL Championship MVP, US Soccer named Smith the Female Player of the Year as she scored 11 goals in 17 international appearances. 

Like many other NWSL teams, Portland was greatly impacted by the Yates Report. In December 2022, club owner Merritt Paulson announced he was selling the club. A couple months earlier, he stepped down as CEO of the Thorns and Timbers and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub both were relieved of their duties from PTFC. The league is in the advanced stages of vetting prospective new owners of the Thorns and the Chicago Red Stars, the other team up for sale.

Head coach Rhian Wilkinson, a Thorns player under Riley, resigned despite being cleared of any misconduct tied to an investigation that she may have gone beyond a friendship situation with a player. Two more league investigations into separate incidents resulted in the firings of the team’s assistant coach Sophie Clough and Dunn’s husband, trainer Pierre Soubrier.

Looking to keep things in-house, the club promoted last year’s assistant coach Mike Norris to be its fifth head coach. Before joining the Thorns, he spent eight years coaching in Canada, primarily with the country’s senior and youth women’s national teams. Norris recently completed his coaching staff, hiring new assistant coaches Rob Gale and Katie Quinlan to join returning assistant coach Vytas Andriuskevicius and goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer.

Despite a shake-up of the coaching staff, the Thorns ensured that the majority of last year’s players remained together. Midfielder Rocky Rodriguez signed a new three-year contract. The Costa Rican international had another productive season, scoring two goals in the regular season and her first career playoff goal. Fellow starter Sam Coffey earned a three-year contract extension after the rookie defensive midfielder cemented herself as a critical component of the starting lineup and was named a Rookie of the Year finalist. 

Although Smith is the current star attraction, she is not the only talented forward on the Thorns. Morgan Weaver, 25, received a new contract through 2024 with an option for 2025. She scored the second-most goals on the team (seven) and added three assists last season. The third member of this talented attacking trio, club captain Christine Sinclair, re-signed on a one-year deal ahead of her 11th season. Lindsey Horan, an international teammate of Smith and Sauerbrunn, is playing on loan with French club Lyon until June.

Defenders Natalie Beckman and Gabby Provenzano, and midfielder Taylor Porter, all got their contract options picked up to serve as roster depth this year. In addition, Portland brought back five out-of-contract depth options. Free-agent forward Michele Vasconcelos re-signed on a one-year contract with an option for a second year, as did midfielder Tegan McGrady. Forward Hannah Betfort and defender Meaghan Nally are signed through 2024 with 2025 options, and goalkeeper Shelby Hogan will be a Thorn through 2025 with an option for 2026.

The team only experienced a few player departures this offseason. Marissa Everrett, who played in 10 games last year,  retired from soccer to start nursing school. Midfielder Yazmeen Ryan, who posted two goals and five assists in 20 appearances, was traded to Gotham FC in a multi-team trade that netted Portland the fifth pick in the 2023 NWSL Draft. Free-agent goalkeeper Abby Smith signed with Gotham for a chance at more playing time.

To replace these players, the Thorns made four selections in the NWSL draft. First, the club selected Alabama’s first team All-American defender Reyna Reyes with the fifth pick. Then, with the 12th pick, Portland chose forward Izzy D’Aquila, who tallied 50 goals and 16 assists at Santa Clara University. It wrapped up its night by drafting Michigan State teammates Lauren DeBeau and Lauren Kozal. D’Aquila and Kozal, a goalkeeper, are officially Thorns, earning three-year contracts after performing well in preseason training. DeBeau was released and Reyes is still in contract talks with the club.

Portland spent the first week of preseason training a couple months ago in Bend, Oregon, and then practiced at home for the rest of the period. The team hosted a preseason tournament during which it registered a 1-0 victory over Racing Louisville and a 4-1 triumph against the U.S. U-23 women’s national team before succumbing in a 1-0 defeat to OL Reign. In preseason action, forward Janine Beckie suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

Portland Thorns Roster:
Goalkeepers (3): Bella Bixby, Shelby Hogan, Lauren Kozal (Michigan State Univ.)
Defenders (8): Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka, Tegan McGrady, Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Gabby Provenzano, Becky Sauerbrunn
Midfielders (7): Sam Coffey, Crystal Dunn, Olivia Moultrie, Taylor Porter, Rocky Rodríguez, Christine Sinclair, Hina Sugita Forwards (7): Janine Beckie, Natalie Beckman, Hannah Betfort, Izzy D’Aquila (Santa Clara Univ.), Sophia Smith, Michele Vasconcelos, Morgan Weaver

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