Paul Danzer On Soccer: NWSL Portland team 'looking to a new era,' Coach Parsons says

Come the first 2020 training session on March 9, coach Mark Parsons hopes to have all the parts he needs to make Portland Thorns 3.0 a reality.

What is Thorns 3.0?

Parsons talks in broad strokes about becoming the best women's soccer club in the world. Striving for that explains "difficult decisions" to part with popular players in order to retool the roster.

"We've just lived a four-year cycle, and we now need to launch into a place where we haven't been before and be brave in that vision," Parsons said. "It's time to make that giant leap into what we want to be."

With president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson leading the way, the Thorns have been bold.

In recent weeks, Portland traded U.S. national team defender Emily Sonnett and 2019 breakout player Midge Purce. When the dust settled at the Jan. 16 National Women's Soccer League college draft, the Thorns had the first two picks and grabbed 19-year-old forward Sophia Smith out of Stanford and Morgan Weaver, who had a breakout senior season at Washington State.

Also on draft day, Portland addressed needs on defense by acquiring the rights to Christen Westphal from Reign FC and drafting two-time Big East defender of the year Meaghan Nally from Georgetown.

NALLYFigure those moves are only the start. Parsons confirmed the Thorns are negotiating with a French midfielder — multiple reports have linked Portland with 24-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star Kadidiaton Diani — and a pair of high-end central defenders.  

Additional moves within the NWSL also are in play. Parsons emphasized that Portland is not looking to simply add depth pieces.

"When you have this single vision of what the future of our team looks like, it's not loads of players that fit that," Parsons said.

Smith seems to fit. The forward has scored at every level she's played, including for three United States three age-group teams. At 19, Smith seems on the cusp of breaking into the senior women's national team.

The 5-7 Colorado native scored 24 goals in 33 games over two seasons at Stanford, including a hat trick in the recent semifinal win over UCLA. She scored 21 goals in 25 games for the U.S, under-20 team and will be expected to give the Thorns the natural striker they have lacked in recent seasons.

It was no surprise that Smith decided to leave Stanford early after the Thorns acquired the No. 1 pick in the trade that sent Sonnett to Orlando.

The surprise came when Portland traded up to get the second pick, which they used to select Weaver. Even Parsons was surprised that Wilkinson was able to acquire the pick.

"Very surprised. And so happy we could do it," Parsons said. "We're bringing in another top, top player, and someone that fits what we're trying to do."

Unlike Smith, who will be expected to contribute immediately, Weaver is more of a long-term player for the Thorns. Weaver scored 15 of her 43 college goals this season to help WSU reach the national semifinals for the first time. Parsons describes the 5-10 native of University Place, Washington as a relentless player with the quality, finishing ability and mentality to become a striker who will "make life horrible for the back line."

Nally can play anywhere on the back line and is another player who will be given time to develop. Parsons has no doubt about the commitment of the two-time Big East defender of the year. He said he received more compliments about the Nally selection than either of the first-rounders.

Parsons said drafting strikers with the first two picks was not a reaction to Portland's woeful finish to 2019, when the Thorns scored one goal — one — in their last six games.

"Of course there's been a review and analysis and a deep look at last year, but it's more about looking to the future," Parsons said of Portland's offseason maneuvers, "looking to a new era, and looking to what we believe the Portland Thorns can be and the standard that we can set. That's what has driven us." 

For Parsons, the draft was payoff for some difficult decisions in parting with Sonnett and Purce, who was sent to Sky Blue for midfielder Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez. The coach admitted there have been some emotional moments as the Thorns focused on upgrading their talent.

"It's been really hard, and sometimes emotional, to do what we need to do," Parsons said. "At the same time, I think we are now looking forward to potentially having the best group of players on the field in 2020 that we've ever had — the best balance, the best chance for getting it right on the field, the best chance for getting it right off the field."

Defender/midfielder Gabby Seiler and midfielder Angela Salem are on track to return from their ACL injuries. Seiler won't be 100% when camp opens in March, and Salem won't join the club until May as she finishes studies, but Parsons believes it won't be long before both are full go. 

One player the Thorns wanted back who won't be here is fan favorite Hayley Raso, a Australian forward who signed with Everton of England's Women's Super League.

It wasn't a matter of money, according to Parsons.

"What we can't provide is what she needs now, which is a different experience in England," he said, keeping open the possibility that the 25-year-old Raso might someday find her way back to Portland.

In theory, the NWSL adding the option of teams using $300,000 of allocation money, increasing the salary cap and for the first time allowing multi-year player contracts should help clubs retain key players.

The intricacies of how NWSL allocation money works — or how much of it changed hands in a flurry of trades around the draft — remain a mystery. And it remains to be seen if such a tool strengthens the league or only clubs like Portland with ownership committed to building a championship club.

The ambition of the Thorns is tied to the evolution of a league that enters its eighth season poised for some significant change, including a 19.33% bump in the salary cap to $650,000.

Maximum salaries (for players not paid by U.S. Soccer or Canadian Soccer) are climbing to $50,000 and, more important, the minimum salary is rising to $20,000, with players' housing costs paid for by teams.

Also significant is Sky Blue playing home games at Red Bull Arena and the Washington Spirit playing four games at Audi Field, both MLS venues. Only Reign FC does not play at a soccer-specific stadium, and seven of the nine NWSL teams play games at MLS stadiums.

All of those developments are positives for women's pro soccer, and if draft week is any indication, the Thorns will continue to be the trendsetter in the NWSL.

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