Thorns kick off quest to regain title
Six and a half months after the Portland Thorns lost to the North Carolina Courage 3-0 in the National Women's Soccer League championship game, their chase of a third NWSL title begins on Sunday at Orlando.
Actually, the work never stopped for Mark Parsons.
"It hasn't felt that long," Parsons says, pointing to the loss as motivation.
During the offseason, the 32-year-old Thorns coach observed coaches and clubs in Europe as part of his own development.
"I'm not going to rest until we have that trophy back," he says.
The Thorns kick off the NWSL's seventh season with little change in the roster.
The only notable addition, so far, is Dagny Brynjarsdottir. The midfielder from Iceland returns after giving birth to a son in 2018.
A significant chunk of the team will miss substantial time over the first half of the season because of the FIFA World Cup. Portland expects to have a NWSL-high nine players involved in the tournament, which is June 7 through July 7 in France.
Forwards Christine Sinclair, Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso, midfielders Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Andressinha, defenders Emily Sonnett and Ellie Carpenter and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch are expected to come and go in the months leading up to the World Cup as well.
Andressinha's NWSL contract begins on May 1, so the Brazilian playmaker did not participate in the Thorns' preseason.
The World Cup also has prevented Portland from signing any of several off-season targets. National team coaches in Europe aren't keen on players traveling to America during the pre-World Cup period, so any significant additions might not happen until July.
Most of the Portland's big names are expected to be available for Sunday's opener, which comes after a two-week international break. But the Thorns won't fully take shape until the second half of their 24-game regular season, when veterans such as Sinclair, Heath and Horan are back in the fold and burgeoning stars such as Foord get their first steady chance to contribute.
The good news for Thorns fans is half of the 12 road games will be played in April and May while the expansion of Providence Park is completed. And, nine of Portland's 12 home matches are after the World Cup.
Sinclair, the ageless captain, is coming off one of the best seasons of her storied career. The Canadian star turns 36 in June, but hasn't slowed down. She was the only Thorn to play every regular-season minute in 2018, and is again among the most fit, according to Parsons.
Foord, a 24-year-old Australian star who missed most of last season with an injury, is coming off a strong W-League season. She had 10 goals in 14 games in helping Sydney FC to the championship of Australia's top league.
Defender Carpenter, goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom and midfielder Celeste Boureille also had successful W-League seasons. And, Hayley Raso got into several games coming off the back injury that ended her 2018 Thorns season.
The World Cup absences will provide opportunity for other players to shine. Up front, Ana Crnogorcevic figures to play a big role, while Tyler Lussi, Ifeoma Onumonu, Mallory Weber and perhaps a rookie such as Simone Charley will get shots. In midfield, Brynjarsdottir and Boureille figure to have significant roles, while Midge Purce, veteran Angela Salem and rookie Emily Ogle are among those competing for minutes.
Defense, the foundation of the Thorns' best teams under Parsons, might be the most unsettled position. Meghan Klingenberg is a proven left back, but Emily Menges missed time in preseason with an injury and Katherine Reynolds is coming off knee surgery that ended her 2018 season. Young players such as Elizabeth Ball, Kelli Hubly and Gabby Seiler will get the chance to step up.
Parsons was encouraged that his team gave up only two goals in three preseason games — none from the run of play — despite rotations in the back because of absences, injuries and fitness building.
In goal, Eckerstrom figures to be the first choice when Franch is absent. One of five Thorns who played in the W-League, Eckerstrom started all 12 matches for the Newcastle Jets and led the league in saves (61). Former Oregon State keeper Bella Bixby (Geist), a former Putnam High standout, missed preseason with a hand injury.
As disruptive as the World Cup calendar will be, Parsons says the Thorns' continuity and depth should pay off. Most of the players who will be called on have been with the club for at least a year and are familiar with its systems and immersed in its culture.
"It's a huge advantage," Parsons says, noting that his best seasons have come after little offseason roster turnover.
"I'm hoping we can build off the way we finished last season" when the Thorns were unbeaten over six matches (five wins) before the final.
Opener: 2 p.m. Sunday at Orlando Pride
Home opener: 3 p.m. June 2 vs. Chicago Red Stars
Schedule: 12 home games, 12 road games. The NWSL regular season ends Oct. 12, followed by the Oct. 19-20 playoff semifinals and Oct. 26 final at a site TBA.
Key games: The home opener is No. 7 of 24. … Portland plays defending champion North Carolina away on June 15 and Aug. 11 and Sept .11 at Providence Park. … The Thorns take on rival Reign FC (now with no city name) on July 5 at home and Aug. 7 and Sept. 29 at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
Can anyone stop the Courage?: Coming off a season of record-setting dominance (the only North Carolina loss last season was on a 94th-minute goal to Utah), capped by a win at Portland in the championship game, the Courage kept their roster together.
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