Thorns FC: Talking Thorns – The Midfield

Last week we looked at Thorns FC’s striking corps.  This week we take a look at what we have in the center of the pitch, and speculate on what might happen in the off- and upcoming season.

long-and-shim

On the morning of November 7 Thorns FC has a total of seven midfielders under contract.  The real question in my mind would be “which of these midfielders do what?”, so let’s look at them grouped into their roles.

Starting midfielders/primarily attacking:  under this heading I’d put Tobin Heath.  The Notorious TFH does her share of tackling, but her primary skillset is aggressive.

Starting midfielders/box-to-box:  I’d consider Allie Long entirely within this category, and about two thirds the time I’d suggest that Lindsey Horan and a third of the time Amandine Henry plays a #8 role, typically the two alternate one with the other; one pushes up while the other stays home.

Starting midfielders/primarily defensive: While she’s typically described as a “ball-winning” midfielder I think that Henry, as noted above, was given license under Parsons to go forward when she had the chance.  Horan, some of the time.

Substitutes:  Dagný Brynjarsdóttir, Mana Shim, and Celeste Boureille are, at this point, depth or spot-starters, although Dagny (to my mind, at least) occupies a sort of gray-area between the other two, who are true reserves, and the starters.

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tfhTobin Heath:  Tobin will be 28 when the season opens in April 2017.  She began playing professionally for the Atlanta Beat in WPS in 2010.  She has played for Paris St. Germain and is a Thorns FC plankholder.

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 14   Games started  – 13

Shots – 33   Shots on goal – 13 (55%)

Goals – 1 (conversion rate: 7% of SOG, 3% of all shots)  Assists: 10

Comparison with previous years:

2015: Games played – 12  Games started – 12  Shots – 22  Shots on goal – 5 (23%)  Goals – 1 (20% of SOG, 4.5% of all shots)  Assists – 1

2014: Games played – 5  Games started – 5  Shots – 13  Shots on goal – 7 (54%)  Goals – none  Assists – none

2013: Games played – 7  Games started – 7  Shots – 17  Shots on goal – 11 (65%)  Goals – none  Assists – 3

Comments:  I was actually faintly surprised when I looked up Tobin’s previous-season stats.  She was such an important part of the team this season  (and, of course, there’s her famous “stand in the wall and look pretty” free kick in the 2013 Championship match that lingers in the mind’s eye) that I just subconsciously assumed that she would be similarly huge statistically, not just in 2013 but in the previous seasons.  As you can see, that wasn’t the case.

Nevertheless, this season Heath was the heart and soul of the Portland Thorns as well as playing the best soccer of her NWSL career.  While I understand why Emily Menges was voted the Supporters’ Player of the Year I thought the in terms of overall results that as Heath went so went the team.

That’s not entirely a blessing.  It meant that when Heath wasn’t good – as she wasn’t at Seattle away – or when opposing teams were allowed to play Hack-a-Heath and take her out of the match – as Rochester did in the semifinal – the Thorns struggled.  Here’s her PMR’s:

Player Heath
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI 16 11 +5
6/26/16 ORL 14 4 +10
7/2/16 SBF
7/9/16 KC
7/16/16 HOU
7/30/16 SEA
8/27/16 SEA 21 15 +6
9/4/16 BOS 13 4 +9
9/7/16 HOU 15 5 +10
9/11/16 WNY 14 5 +9
9/25/16 SBF 26 7 +19
10/2/16 WNY 10 9 +1
Totals (12 matches) 129 60 +69
Average (12 matches) 16 7.5 +9
Mean +/- (team) +5

Notice Tobin’s lowest ratings; Chicago (where the Red Stars concentrated on hacking her), Seattle away (where she was just poor) and the semifinal (a.k.a. “Let’s Not Call Fouls on Heath and See What Happens).  See what I mean?

Tobin also seems to have Mattocks-like moments where she forgets that the point of the game is not to show off beautiful ball skills but to put the biscuit in the basket.  Stepovers are great, Tobe…but not if they don’t lead towards the opponent’s goal.

Her other issue this past season was with her setpieces.  That memorable free kick seems to have a long comet-tail behind it, because Heath took nearly all Portland’s free and corner kicks this past season and – especially after her return from Brazil – did not do great work with them.  I’d have to go back through my match statistics to check, but I can only remember a short handful of Thorns goals scored directly off a corner or free kick.  In her PMRs Heath had a significant number of “minus” spot kicks, either too long, too short, or just far off-target.  That needs to be an off-season-workout item, Tobin, K?

But this is really quibbling.  Heath was, and remains, the heart of the Portland midfield and, assuming that she can maintain her 2016 level of play (and at 28 I see no reason to assume she won’t) she should be the touchstone of the Thorns midfield next season.

Should she be here in 2017?  Is that an actual question?

Will she be here in 2017?  Yes.

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long-allie_0Alexandra “Allie” Long: Allie will be 29 next season.  As her age suggests, she is a contemporary of TFH; she began playing professionally for the WPS Washington Freedom (actually, she first played for Long Island during her college years under Paul Riley…) as well as following Tobin to PSG before joining the Thorns in 2013.

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 15   Games started  – 15

Shots – 29   Shots on goal – 14 (48%)

Goals – 6 (conversion rate: 43% of SOG, 20.6% of all shots)  Assists: 2

Comparison with previous years:

2015: Games played – 20  Games started – 20  Shots – 53  Shots on goal – 27 (51%)  Goals – 10 (1PK; 37% of SOG, 19% of all shots)  Assists – 4

2014: Games played – 22  Games started – 20  Shots – 44  Shots on goal – 21 (48%)  Goals – 9 (4PK; 43% of SOG, 20% of all shots)  Assists – 3

2013: Games played – 22  Games started – 22  Shots – 23  Shots on goal – 9 (39%)  Goals – 3 (33% of SOG, 13% of all shots  Assists – 3

Comments: Long, aside from being consistently among the best players for Thorns FC, has had an interesting playing history, both here and with the US National team.  She spent parts of 2010 and 2014 with the Nats, the latter almost entirely as a holding midfielder.  She started play here in 2013 as a central midfielder under Parlow Cone.  Riley, seemingly influenced by the national team’s vision of her, tended to push Allie further back down the pitch (you’ll note that 4 of her 9 goals in 2014 were from the spot…).  She played largely as a central or holding midfielder for two seasons until Parsons allowed her more freedom to go forward this past year.

Update 11/11: Allie’s USWNT has taken an even more interesting turn since September, as Ellis has now slotted her in at centerback (!) for three friendlies.  The friendlies in question were the usual cash-generation gimmicks against tomato cans rather than a test for her and so far she’s looked fairly respectable as a CB.  The change is still a peculiar one (especially in the recent Romania match where Allie played the lone CB in a three-back and was torched by the Romanian forward Rus several times, including for a goal admittedly on a fairly awful Harris blunder…) and seems to me to be unlikely to do anything to change her playing position here.

Regardless of where she has played on the field she has always been a danger to score, and very efficiently; her conversion rate is among the best on the team.  Were it not for Tobin Heath’s surge in form this year Long, with her national team career seemingly returned from the dead and her usually solid season in the NWSL, should have been the story of the Thorns midfield.  Her ratings reflect her quality:

Player Long
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI
6/26/16 ORL 8 3 +5
7/2/16 SBF
7/9/16 KC
7/16/16 HOU
7/30/16 SEA
8/27/16 SEA 21 4 +17
9/4/16 BOS 22 3 +19
9/7/16 HOU 29 4 +25
9/11/16 WNY 13 7 +6
9/25/16 SBF 26 7 +19
10/2/16 WNY 15 16 -1
Totals (12 matches) 134 44 +90
Average (12 matches) 19 6 +13
Mean +/- (team) +5

Long’s positives are consistently among the highest of the team.  It’s instructive to note that she had perhaps her least effective match when the team needed it most, however; in the semifinal.  This is not to day that Long is not a big-game player, but simply that she has off days and picked a bad day to have one that day.  Without her quality during the run-up to the playoffs it is possible that the Thorns would not have been in the playoffs…

Long has been playing at a consistently high level for the past four NWSL seasons and it is difficult to imagine that, barring injury – see below (are you listening, Jose!?!), she will continue to be an integral part of the Thorns midfield in 2017.

Should she be here in 2017?  Yes.  If will be interesting to see, however, where she plays.  Ellis played her at centerback in the recent Switzerland friendly, suggesting that her role in the USWNT may be returning to a more defensive one.  I cannot see her there for the Thorns unless Coach Parsons gives serious consideration to moving Horan further forward…which is not entirely impossible, given the potential for issues upfront.  We’ll talk more about this in the Horan comment.

Will she be here in 2017?  Yes, barring something freakish like an injury while making money for playing with the Nats.  If she gets hurt playing for the Nats I will personally find where they are staying and sneak in disguised as a maid and short-sheet Ellis’ bed.  I swear.

(In totally soccer-unrelated-but-just-kinda-adorable news Ms. Long can now also call herself “Mrs. Bautista”; Allie and her longtime inamorado Jose Bautista got hitched this past weekend.  She has a sort of wedding album on ESPN-W and she’s been putting all sorts of wedding-related stuff up on her Twitter and Istagram feeds.  I’m a sucker for romance so in my biased opinion it’s all very sweet.

allie-and-her-wedding-party

And, of course, I wish Allie and Jose all the best, except that it’s critical that Jose and his pals do NOT break La Blanquita while playing futsal.  Got that, ‘vatos?  Are we crystal clear on this?  IT’S NOT OKAY TO BREAK OUR ALLIE!!!!

Good.  Glad we cleared that up.)

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horan-lindseyLindsey Horan:  You probably know Lindz’ story; the first U.S. player to go to Europe out of college, played for Paris St. Germain for three years before signing with the Thorns.  Horan will turn 23 in May, 2017.

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 15   Games started  – 15

Shots – 29   Shots on goal – 14 (59%)

Goals – 5 (conversion rate: 35.7% of SOG, 17% of all shots)  Assists: none

Comments: It’s difficult to compare Horan’s NWSL stats to those of her time at PSG, but worth noting that playing as a striker there she scored 6 goals in 9 games in 2015-16 and 9 in 11 games the year before that.  It’s also worth noting that she was consistently losing minutes there; from 20 games in 2012-13 and 18 in 2013-14 to the numbers above.  It seems that she picked a good time for a fresh start.

Horan’s play in the matches I rated this year seemed to consist of a broad plateau of very high quality spiked by some sudden downspikes;

Player Horan
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI 9 14 -5
6/26/16 ORL 8 2 +6
7/2/16 SBF
7/9/16 KC
7/16/16 HOU
7/30/16 SEA
8/27/16 SEA 20 20 0
9/4/16 BOS 24 6 +18
9/7/16 HOU 11 4 +7
9/11/16 WNY 13 2 +11
9/25/16 SBF 22 4 +18
10/2/16 WNY 18 9 +9
Totals (12 matches) 125 61 +64
Average (12 matches) 16 8 +8
Mean +/- (team) +5

She had a terrible outing against Chicago here for reasons I can’t recall and was ineffective at Seattle.  But other than that even her “lows” – Orlando away and Houston here – are higher than the team average; she’s just a very solid midfielder.

And, importantly in the small-roster world of NWSL soccer, adaptable.  Horan provides service forward (surprisingly, though, not as assists) as well as scoring, distributes within the midfield, and tracks back effectively.  She provided cover for Amandine Henry during the latter’s forward runs.

Every time I watch her play I think I’d like to see her try to go at goal more often…but I look at her SOG and conversion rate and realize that she’s doing just fine, so it’s not her, it’s me.  She, Dagny, and Allie, chipped in something like 40% of the total goals scored last season; not too shabby, and if she and Allie continue at that pace we should be fine next year.

Should she be here next season?  Yes, and playing essentially the same role.

Will she be here next season?  Barring all the usual whatifs, yes.

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thorns-henry_-002Amandine Henry:  Amandine will be 27 in the spring.  Her playing career dates back to 2004 when she broke in with Féminin Hénin-Beaumont.   She is best known for her career at Olympique Lyon where she played 122 games over 9 seasons.

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 9   Games started  – 8

Shots – 10   Shots on goal – 2 (20%)

Goals – none  Assists: 1

Comments:  While Henry has helped lock down the back of the Thorns’ midfield she has shown an almost Charaesque talent for pushing up the field and distributing.  Her play over the last twelve matches was what you’d like to see from a holding midfielder; unspectacular and solid:

Player Henry
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI 9 6 +3
6/26/16 ORL 11 4 +7
7/2/16 SBF 14 4 +10
7/9/16 KC
7/16/16 HOU
7/30/16 SEA
8/27/16 SEA 4 1 +3
9/4/16 BOS 11 3 +8
9/7/16 HOU 13 4 +9
9/11/16 WNY 13 3 +10
9/25/16 SBF 22 10 +12
10/2/16 WNY 17 7 +10
Totals (12 matches) 114 42 +72
Average (12 matches) 13 5 +8
Mean +/- (team) +5

Aside from two matches – Chicago here (her first appearance in 2016) and Seattle away (when the whole team pretty much took a dump…) – Henry was consistently good and often, as in the final five matches including the semi, very good.  With her the Thorns finally have the defensive cover in midfield that Allie Long’s attacking skill was often sacrificed to ensure.

One thing to note is that Amandine seems to have picked up a groin injury (a “sports hernia“) late in the season that required a surgical repair.  That, in itself, is a little odd; typically groin pulls and strains are RICEd and respond well to non-invasive rehabilitation.  A surgical repair indicates that Henry had a full tear, probably of one of her adductor muscles.  That’s not “good”…but it’s also not “bad” in the “hard to recover from and prone to re-injury bad” kind of way.

Should she be here in 2017?  Absolutely.  I would be very surprised if the groin repair didn’t rehab well, and injury is the only reason I could see for her being absent in April

Will she be here in 2017?  I certainly hope so.  The sad reality (and painful truth behind our team and league) is that she is undoubtedly being criminally underpaid for her work here.  Hopefully the semifinal loss has galvanized her to want to return to the playoffs and win it all in 2017, though, so as to take a bit of the sting out of the meager paycheck.  Henry said that she wanted to come here to play in the best, most competitive league in the world and I hope she still feels that way, especially now that there are mutterings of discontent among players about pay issues; I’ve heard names like Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn among them, but I’m not sure if the owner of the Spirit isn’t part of the problem as much as the skimpy checks.

Well, that’s the starters.  Now let’s look at the players who were primarily (or largely) substitutes in 2016

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brynjarsdottir-dagnyDagný Brynjarsdóttir:  Dagny will be 25 in April 2017.  She started playing at the age of 15(!) in the Icelandic Úrvalsdeild.  She spent 9 matches with Bayern before returning to Selfoss, and signed with Portland after a trade from Boston.

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 17   Games started  – 12

Shots – 13   Shots on goal – 8 (62%)

Goals – 5 (62% of SOG, 38% of all shots)  Assists: 1

Comments:  Although I’ve placed Dagny in with the subs she started more than half the games in 2016, largely playing as an attacking/central midfielder when Long was absent or wide when she was on the pitch.  Here’s her PMR’s:

Player Dagny
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI 2 2 0
6/26/16 ORL 2 1 +1
7/2/16 SBF 11 4 +7
7/9/16 KC 15 7 +8
7/16/16 HOU
7/30/16 SEA 12 7 +5
8/27/16 SEA
9/4/16 BOS
9/7/16 HOU 0 1 -1
9/11/16 WNY 7 2 +5
9/25/16 SBF 8 4 +4
10/2/16 WNY 10 4 +6
Totals (12 matches) 67 32 +35
Average (12 matches) 7 4 +4
Mean +/- (team) +5

It’s worth noting that these numbers are probably too low.  Some of Brynjarsdóttir’s better matches were earlier in the season, and the sample here includes a high number of her partial games such as Chicago and Orlando where she came on late just to see out the wins.

Still.  One big problem for Dagny (and for the Thorns) is that, while she’s a useful player, the team has several other people who can do much the same things that Dagny does.  Her great advantage is height (she’s 5′ 11″) but the Thorns were not particularly successful at converting that into goals as discussed in the Heath comments above (she did have a thumping header in the win over Sky Blue, though…)

She’s fast, but not as fast as Heath, or Long.  She distributes well, but not as well as Horan or Long or Heath.  She’s decent tracking back but not a particularly skilled defender like Henry.

She’s more useful than Shim or Boureille – which is why she gets more minutes than they do – but not so good that she can edge the four starters onto the bench.

One possible means to resolve this problem might be to convert her to a pure forward.  I’m not sure she has the speed or the shiftiness to be a Dunn-type active striker, but with her height (if she has good positional and ball-control skills) she might make a very effective hold-up-type forward.

Another might be simply to accept that her role here is to be a sort of “middle reliever”; spot starts for injuries or absences, late-match sub or when she can get a particularly good matchup against an opposing centerback or fullback.  As a roleplayer, Dagny still has a valuable role to play next season.

Should she be here in 2017?  I think so.  If the team can’t secure a solid prospect from the draft, or trade up for an attacking midfielder or forward/midfielder Brynjarsdóttir will have good work to do next season.

Will she be here in 2017?  Not for the European championships in July, no.  Otherwise, assuming that she, like Henry, is willing to work her tail off for relative peanuts…yes.

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shim-mana_0Mana Shim:  Mana will be 25 in April 2017.  She’s another Thorns FC plankholder and has played her entire professional career in Portland (with a rather bizarre aborted jaunt to Houston, but that’s another story…)

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 14   Games started  – 9

Shots – 7   Shots on goal – 2 (29%)

Goals – none  Assists: 1

Comparison with previous years:

2015: Games played – 18  Games started – 13  Shots – 21 Shots on goal – 13 (62%)  Goals – 4 (30.7% of SOG, 14% of all shots)  Assists – 4

2014: Games played – 17  Games started – 14  Shots – 14  Shots on goal – 6 (43%)  Goals –  none  Assists – 2

2013: Games played – 19  Games started – 17  Shots – 25  Shots on goal – 13 (52%)  Goals – 5 (38% of SOG, 20% of all shots  Assists – 2

Comments:  Perhaps one of the most beloved of all Thorns players, the hard fact is that Mana has failed to live up to her spectacular debut season.  At the end of 2013 she looked poised to become one of the better midfielders in the NWSL and possibly even get a look at an international spot.  But she didn’t get on well with Riley, who is very likely to have been a major factor in her seven-day trade to Houston and who appeared unhappy to see her return.

Since then her role has been as a substitute.  Her play in 2016 was much the same as it was in 2015; generally decent without being particularly outstanding, as her PMR’s from the last 12 matches show:

Player Shim
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI
6/26/16 ORL
7/2/16 SBF 7 3 +4
7/9/16 KC 17 7 +10
7/16/16 HOU 13 14 -1
7/30/16 SEA 13 9 +4
8/27/16 SEA 14 5 +9
9/4/16 BOS 7 0 +7
9/7/16 HOU 2 1 +1
9/11/16 WNY
9/25/16 SBF
10/2/16 WNY
Totals (12 matches) 73 39 +34
Average (12 matches) 10 6 +5
Mean +/- (team) +5

Shim had two very good outings in the latter part of the season; FCKC here and Seattle away – both in losses, one as a starter and the other as an early sub for Henry.  She had a terrible match in Houston (welcome to the club, Mana!) and was respectable for the home win over Boston.  Other than that her work was no better than average.

Saying bad things about Mana Shim feels to me like kicking an adorable fluffy kitten.  She just seems so…nice.  But.  As a player she’s not a particularly effective midfielder if she is going to continue to play at the level she’s been playing.  In a bigger league, with bigger rosters she might be valuable as what she is; depth off the bench and, occasionally, a good addition to the game.  In the small-roster NWSL, however…

Should she be here in 2017?  Only if the team is feeling confident that she can lift her game closer to 2013, or is feels flush enough to carry her along as pure depth and occasional starter when one of the starting XI is out.

Will she be here in 2017?  I suspect. Mana had become a very Portland-y thing; something people here just luuuuurve regardless of its merits.   And – speaking as a fan rather than an analyst I understand that.  Mana as a player, playing at the level she’s playing at now, is a replacement-level bench player and spot starter…but Mana as a person…you just want to give her such a hug. I’m not sure whether the Thorns Front Office is willing to risk the outcry that would follow trading or releasing her.

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boureille-celesteCeleste Boureille: Celeste will have just turned 23 when the season opens next year.  She was signed this season out of the University of California.

2016 Statistics:

Games played – 6   Games started  – 5

Shots – 5   Shots on goal – 0 (0%)

Goals – none  Assists: none

Here’s my ratings for Boureille this past season:

Player Boureille
Match + avg
6/22/16 CHI
6/26/16 ORL
7/2/16 SBF 15 8 +7
7/9/16 KC 8 9 -1
7/16/16 HOU
7/30/16 SEA 9 3 +6
8/27/16 SEA
9/4/16 BOS 3 1 +2
9/7/16 HOU
9/11/16 WNY
9/25/16 SBF
10/2/16 WNY
Totals (12 matches) 35 21 +14
Average (12 matches) 9 5 +4
Mean +/- (team) +5

What’s interesting is that in the one match that Celeste got significant minutes this season, the win over Sky Blue here, she really did quite well.  She was not particularly good in the first half against FCKC in the loss here but improved significantly in the second, and she played well in the home win over Seattle on 7/30.

This may sound heretical, but if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose between Shim and Boureille as depth I’d go with Celeste.  She’s two years younger and – here’s the thing – we don’t really know how good she could be.  Mana, we know; she’s not a bad player but, barring a sudden permanent upswing in her form, she’s not a particularly terrific player, either.  She is what she is.  Boureille…could she be better?  Could she be great?  Maybe.  Maybe it’s worth trying to find out.

Should she be here in 2017?  I think so, at least unless and until she shows that she won’t or can’t improve.

Will she be here in 2017?  I suspect, though with bench players it’s hard to tell.  Based on her current record she’s replaceable, and I can’t tell you how she’s looking in offseason workouts.  Certainly not a lock, but young and inexpensive often means keepable.

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So…does Thorns FC need to change or add anything particular at the midfield position right now?  Do you see any immediate needs that should be filled by trade or draft?

Here’s how I see it.

Thorns FC has four lock-solid starting midfielders; an attacker (Heath), two box-to-box types (Long and Horan) and a defender (Henry).  They have a solid bench with Brynjarsdóttir and Shim and Boureille.  As it stands I don’t see any glaring holes that need filling.  One possible option might be, as discussed in Dagny’s comment, looking at the possibility of using her as more of a striker.  Horan could fill that role, too, though I wonder if her position in the Thorns lineup and her declining role at PSG had to do with issues at that position…

However, we’ll be missing three players in July 2017; Henry, Dagny, and Nadim will all be playing for their national teams at the EUROs.  While I think that Shim and Boureille can fill in to some extent, I’d like to see the Thorns FO looking to pick up a versatile forward/midfield player to add either depth on the bench or a potential starter.

Trade?  As I noted discussing the forwards, the problem with a starting-quality player is that she is likely to come at a cost Thorns FC is unwilling or unable to pay.  A bench/replacement-level player is unlikely to be much of an upgrade on our three current bench players.

Draft?  The 2017 NCAA draft is reputed to be a deep one, and we will need it to be; as of today the highest pick our team has is fourth in the second round (14th overall), and two of our four picks are in the third and fourth (#40, last pick of all…) rounds.  What I would hope is that the Front Office is scouting some of the better attacking MF/forwards…but players likely to be left on the table in the second round, such as Ashley Lawrence (West Virginia), or Toni Payne (Duke).

How do you see the prospects for 2017 in midfield?

We have a solid starting corps with a solid bench.  The individual player issues such as Heath’s setpiece deliveries are eminently fixable.  The team issues are largely ones of communication and coordination and a full training camp and (most of) the season together with a relatively set XI should help with those.

With a deeper roster it would be nice to have another midfielder/forward, but given the 20-player limits…I think Thorns FC looks good through the middle of the pitch.

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Next week: defense wins championships…