Skip to content

The Portland Thorns’ defense is somehow both chaotic and stable

Portland’s backline looked a mess on opening day. But now? Key contributors are keeping things strong from week to week.

6 min read
Portland Thorns

Say what you will about Portland Thorns former head coach and current technical director Mike Norris, he took a big swing on the opening day of the 2024 NWSL season when the club traveled to face the Kansas City Current.

New European signings Nicole Payne, Isabella Obaze, and Marie Müller all found themselves in the backline, not having played a single NWSL minute before that day. Goalkeeper Shelby Hogan was appearing in only the fourth game of her professional career, having joined the league in 2021. Maybe what happened that day was inevitable. 

The Thorns shipped five goals, a mirror of their 5-1 loss to Angel City on the final day of the 2023 regular season. 2.3 non-penalty xG suggested a less calamitous performance at the back, but every area in the Thorns’ defensive third was cut through like a hot knife through butter. Portland had not put up such a dire defensive performance (when national team players were available) in more than a year-and-a-half. 

Was this the future? Thankfully for Portland fans, no. Norris transitioned into his new role away from the sidelines just a month later and the team went on a six-game winning streak under interim head coach Rob Gale. The club now sits fourth in the NWSL standings, the worst of their wobble seemingly behind them. 

The defense remains curious. Though they haven’t been nearly so leaky at the back since that opening fixture, their underlying performances go up and down from week to week. In the aggregate, however, the underlying performance from the backline (accompanied by central midfield steel) has been impressively consistent. 

Let’s figure out why. 

Kelli Hubly and Becky Sauerbrunn are up to their old tricks

Last season looked like the end of the road for a center back partnership that had first solidified way back during the 2021 campaign.

Hubly, then 26, found her way back into a starting lineup that was welcoming the most famous center back in American women’s soccer into its ranks. Backy Sauerbrunn’s positional sophistication and Hubly’s passing range helped the Thorns win a championship in 2022, and smoothed the bumps that four different head coaches in as many seasons could have experienced. 

Last year was different. Hubly was 28. Sauerbrunn was injured for much of the year, and when she came back after turning 38, she was a shell of her former self. The Thorns had the best attack in the league by far last season, but 24 non-penalty xG allowed, per American Soccer Analysis, was middle of the pack. Their passing had eroded, as well, muting their effectiveness on both sides of the ball. 

This post is for free subscribers


Already have an account? Log in