NWSL season preview 2023: Portland Thorns geared up for a repeat

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: The Portland Thorns raise the NWSL trophy during NWSL Cup Final game between Kansas City Current and Portland Thorns FC at Audi Field on October 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: The Portland Thorns raise the NWSL trophy during NWSL Cup Final game between Kansas City Current and Portland Thorns FC at Audi Field on October 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

With a new leader on the sidelines, Sophia Smith and the Thorns have all the tools to return to the pinnacle of the NWSL. 

It was quite an interesting offseason to say the least for the defending champions. After Portland hoisted its third NWSL championship in November, the coach that led the club to the promised land, Rhian Wilkinson, officially resigned. Wilkinson took the reins from Mark Parsons, and just a year after leading the Thorns to the title, Portland will be heading into 2023 with a new manager.

The announcement came following the investigation into the head coaches’ conduct where she and a current Thorns player expressed feelings for each other. Unlike many of the investigations throughout the offseason, Wilkinson self-reported herself meaning she did not violate any team or league policies.

With that, Karina LeBlanc appointed the team’s former assistant coach Mike Norris as the Thorns’ full-time leader. Despite not having held a head coaching role in the past, experience through the Canadian coaching ranks combined with his influence on the club during its championship season was enough for the franchise to put full trust in him.

That was not the only turnover that occurred off the pitch for the current titleholders. Just less than two months after Merritt Paulson announced his intention to sell the Thorns and maintain the Timbers, the NWSL franchise appointed Heather Davis as the new Chief Executive Officer. It is now the second straight year in which the Thorns replaced two high-ranking members of the organization. Paulson was told by many to sell following the dismissal of a number of club executives for their roles in the systemic abuse and misconduct that ran rampant through the league.

With all of the chaos off the pitch, Portland still possesses one of the most talented rosters the NWSL has to offer. Behind the potent Sophia Smith leading the line, the Thorns have the depth at each level to compete for the club’s third NWSL Shield. During the offseason, the club only really experienced two significant losses.

One of the most influential pieces to the run to the championship, Yazmeen Ryan was dealt in a three-team deal that sent the No. 5 overall selection in the 2023 draft, a 2024 second-round pick, and $200,000 in allocation money to Portland from its California rivals, Angel City FC. Ryan takes her elusive attacking talents to Gotham FC after starting in both of the Thorns’ playoff matchups in 2022.

Just a few months before that, Portland lost Abby Smith to the NWSL’s first-ever free agency period. Smith signed a contract with Gotham FC through the 2025 campaign as the New York side adds goalkeeper depth to a room that lost its No. 1 option to retirement during the offseason. The loss of Smith creates a much younger goalkeeping unit behind Bella Bixby, with the majority of the pressure now being put on 24-year-old Shelby Hogan to step up as the backup. Even with these two losses, and all of the noise off the pitch, Portland is still the defending champions. The majority of that roster is still intact, making another deep postseason run all the more likely.

Portland Thorns projected starting XI (4-2-3-1):

Goalkeeper: Bella Bixby

Defenders (4): Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelli Hubly, Natalia Kuikka

Midfielders (5): Raquel Rodríguez, Sam Coffey, Hina Sugita, Morgan Weaver, Christine Sinclair

Forwards (1): Sophia Smith

Portland Thorns Most Important Player: Midfielder, Sam Coffey

If it was not for Naomi Girma’s sensational year in the backline, the Rookie of the Year would have surely gone to the Thorns’ Sam Coffey. In just her first professional season in the NWSL, she established herself as one of the league’s most elite defensive midfielders. The 23-year-old started in 23 of the 24 contests in which she played last season in all competitions, netting one goal to go along with two assists.

She finished 2022 12th in the NWSL in total interceptions, and second in the entire league behind only Carsen Pickett in passes into the final third of the pitch. Coffey was an orchestrator. She pulled all of the strings for Portland in the middle of the park. The 2022 NWSL Best XI selection earned a contract extension following the season through 2025.

What she does, few in the league are able to duplicate. From her range of passing to her tenacity defensively, Coffey was the definition of what a consistent player is in this league. Considering how influential she was for Portland in 2022, there is no telling what she could do in her second campaign.

Portland Thorns best case scenario for the 2023 season: Become the third team in league history to repeat

It is quite evident that Portland is going to finish among the top-six teams in the league. The Thorns have missed the postseason just once since the league was founded. Norris may be new to the role of head coach, but he is not new to the players he will be coaching. Many teams around the league brought in someone from outside the organization. Portland did not.

That alone could help with the transition for these players as they seek to adapt to the kind of play Norris wants to pursue as the leader in the dressing room. Crystal Dunn will have a full preseason to get acclimated to life in the NWSL rather than joining things in the middle of the season.

All of the Thorns’ top-four contributors in the goal-scoring department are making their return to the club. For the Canadian legend Sinclair, this could be her last season with Portland having signed just a one-year contract with the club after 2022. Repeating as a champion in any league is difficult, but looking at the number of players that are returning, it is not out of the question.

Portland Thorns projected finish: Shield winners, Bounced in semifinals

The league’s most prestigious club was just one point away from securing their third straight Shield. Portland won the regular season Shield in 2021 on 44 points, and the Community Shield in a shortened 2020 campaign. Seeing their biggest rivals take another trophy away from them right at the end of the season must still be in the back of the mind of many of these players.

Despite ending the year with the league’s highest team honor, Norris and his players will be out to come back this season to achieve the NWSL’s best regular season record. Just two out of the last five Shield winners have gone on to win the championship in the same season.

Behind one of the most passionate fan bases at Providence Park, this very well could be the team to repeat as champions. Considering the improvements that many of the clubs around the rest of the NWSL, it is going to be a tall task. Anything is within reach for this club in both the regular season and the Challenge Cup. The only question is if they can sustain the same type of consistency and quality under Norris as they did with Wilkinson at the helm.

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