BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Ex-Georgetown athlete brings speed, power to Portland defense

COURTESY: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/PORTLAND THORNS - Emily Menges is writing a book about the lives of 20 imaginary characters while she enjoys life in Portland and as a top defender for the Thorns.As the 2014 National Women's Soccer League draft moved along, Mark Parsons had his eye on an athletic defender from Georgetown.

It was Parsons' first draft as coach of the Washington Spirit, and he was ready to take Emily Menges with the 26th selection.

Then Paul Riley and the Portland Thorns took Menges at No. 25.

"Now I know — trade up and take her. I learned that lesson," Parsons says. "It was my first college draft, and I got caught on my heels."

Three years later, Parsons is thankful for that lesson and for the way things played out. Because for all of the lineup and roster juggling Parsons has had to do since becoming the Thorns coach prior to the 2016 season, Menges has been a constant in the middle of the defense.

Menges, Parsons says simply, is a rock.

She has started and played every minute of the last 34 Thorns matches — 3,060 minutes, not counting stoppage time — and often covers more ground than anyone on the team. Her mileage (she runs about seven miles per 90 minutes) is a subject of jokes between Menges and center back Emily Sonnett, and an inefficiency in her play Menges doesn't worry about.

"It's something I can't control. I've watched film, and there are times when I drop too far and then I get up too much and then I get where I'm supposed to be," Menges says. "Meanwhile, Sonnett's been where she is supposed to be."

That Menges chuckles as she delivers this self-evaluation reflects how at home she is playing soccer in Portland, a place she describes as "less of a city and more of just a big neighborhood."

A native of Garden City, New York, who will turn 25 next week, Menges enjoys reading ("Treasure Island," currently), exploring Portland and its coffee shops, and being outdoors.

She grew up with three brothers. Her father, Peter, played college hockey at Hamilton in upstate New York.

Menges, 5-7, played lacrosse through high school, and basketball until an agreement with a health teacher forced her into running track. But by age 9 or 10 she knew soccer was her favorite sport. On career day at school, her answer was always professional soccer player. "Same as a million other girls," she says.

Menges played some midfield for her high school team but by eighth grade had settled in at center back for her club team — the Albertson Fury. Unlike most players, scoring goals was never her thing.

"I like being the last man," she says. "Not necessarily when I'm on the ball, but even in practice I feel very uncomfortable when I'm up (field) and I'm relying on other people defending behind me."

Riley was in charge of the Albertson Fury youth club in New York when Menges played there. He remembers a player who was super athletic but not very technically skilled.

She has improved that part of her game, Riley says. "Her positioning is so much better," he adds. "And I think her mind-set is much different than it was six, seven years ago."

Riley now coaches the North Carolina Courage. Last Saturday, he watched Menges' speed and savvy quiet his team's attack in a 1-0 Portland home victory.

"I'm proud of Emily," Riley says. "To see her doing so well is unbelievable. I hope she gets a chance with the national team."

In November, Menges experienced her first U.S. training camp. The speed of play was different for her.

"The experience was really good for my career here in terms of knowing what it takes to get to that level," she says. "I think the hardest thing is in order to be successful at that level, at least for someone like me, is there's no preparation for that except for being there."

The same can be said for juggling jobs as a professional soccer player.

In addition to playing for the Thorns — which during the six-month season involves training four or more days a week and games and travel — Menges works full-time for Revcaster, a Rainmaker Group firm that forecasts hotel rates. She works remotely on reports that help hotel chains set rates. During the Thorns season, the company avoids assigning her work with a tight deadline.

Forecasting hotel rates might not be an ideal career for someone with a Georgetown degree in psychology and a minor in English. But the job with a Portland-based company (she learned of the opening through a friend of her dad) provides the flexibility to play in the NWSL.

As a freshman at Georgetown, Menges ran the 400 and 800 meters and relays for the Hoyas' track team. Ater narrowly failing to qualify for the NCAA regionals in May 2011, she gladly walked away from running. She never enjoyed middle-distance racing, and only took it up in high school to placate a health teacher who was less than enamored with Menges' attendance record.

Focusing on the sport she loves, Menges thrived. Georgetown posted shutouts in 40 of her 84 career games, Menges was named all-Big East Conference three times.

She attended her first Thorns camp during spring break 2014, then returned to Georgetown to complete the final classes to graduate. When Rachel Van Hollebeck suffered a preseason injury, Menges met the Thorns in Houston and played center back in a season-opening 1-0 win.

Her college studies are put to use on a writing project she started in high school — a novel centered around the lives of some 20 characters who Menges began imagining in her childhood.

"Part of it is murder mystery, part of it is coming of age, part of it is kind of this internal religious battle," Menges says. "It stems from different things I've felt and thought about and channeled into a character."

Menges will write — longhand — at coffee shops and on plane rides, when she has the time and inspiration.

"I generally write in scenes, so a thought will come to me, something I know needs to happen, and I will write the entire scene. Whether that's one page or 20 pages, I'll get that out," she says.

Menges has no deadline, which makes sense given her other commitments. Besides, her favorite author, Donna Tartt, takes a decade to write a book, so what's the rush?

"At some point, I'm going to have to start writing faster if I'm going to ever finish it," Menges says.

In the short term, Menges is focused on the Thorns' 2017 story.

"Front and center in my goals right now is a championship for Portland," she says.

Parsons is glad Menges is around to chase a championship. When coaching the Spirit in 2014 and 2015, he tried several times to trade for her.

"When we first sat down for coffee here in Portland, I said, 'Well I've been trying for two years to get you to Washington. I thought it was just easier to come to Portland,'" he says.

The speed, athleticism and competitive toughness Parsons saw from her at Georgetown are still there.

"She's an amazing person who wants to listen, who wants to learn, who wants to get better," he says. "She wants to learn from staff, wants to learn from (other) players and wants learn from herself and analyze herself. She's a real student of the game."

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