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ON SOCCER/PAUL DANZER/Milwaukie native Bella Bixby has solid debut, but Portland falls to North Carollina to open NWSL Challenge Cup

COURTESY PHOTO: ROB GRAY/ISI PHOTOS - Portland Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn jumps to play the ball during the first match of the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup on June 27. North Carolina beat Portland, 2-1.Playing her first professional match on national TV, Bella Bixby didn't flinch.

A standout player at Rex Putnam High and goalkeeper at Oregon State as Bella Geist, Bixby did not see the field in her first two seasons after the Portland Thorns drafted her. But with Adrianna Franch injured, coach Mark Parsons turned to the 6-foot Bixby for the Thorns first match at the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup.

Less than four minutes into the Saturday match, Bixby made a nice reaction shot on a close-range deflected shot. She made two more quality saves before halftime and did not look at all out of place with world-class attackers coming at her.

That the Thorns lost, 2-1, to the North Carolina Courage didn't take away from Bixby's performance.

Parsons certainly wasn't surprised.

"What you see is not someone who's just strapped a pair of gloves on and come out for the first time and delivered," the coach said. "It's someone who works, grinds, with the goalkeepers here … and continues to grow and develop."

COURTESY PHOTO: ROB GRAY/ISI PHOTOS - Milwaukie native Bella Bixby made four saves for the Portland Thorns in her first professional match on June 27,Bixby was one of four players who made their Thorns debut on Saturday. Portland, in fact, was at a fairly significant disadvantage in terms of experience against the Courage, whose lineup was a lot like the team that's won the last two NWSL titles.

Watching on CBS from more than 700 miles away, I saw what I expected from a Thorns team that has undergone significant roster turnover: a team with plenty of want-to but short on time to jell.

This month is a chance to help that process. The Thorns will play at least four more games and perhaps six. Next is at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday against the Chicago Red Stars, then a 7 p.m. match July 5 against Washington before a week to prepare for a match against OL Reign.

The young Thorns — including forwards Tyler Lussi, Marissa Everett, NMorgan Weaver and Simone Charley, who scored the Portland goal — are getting vital experience in a uniquely challenging environment. And newcomers such as Becky Sauerbrunn and Rocky Rodriguez can use these games to establish the on-field relationships needed to succeed.

Parsons, who has praised the commitment and togetherness of his team in the run-up to this tournament, saw flashes of the ball movement he wants from his team.

"If we can increase that quality, with our aggression, with our discipline and attack the opponent with quality and purpose, I think we're in a good place," Parsons said.

• Playing without fans, while unfortunate, did not impact the game according to Sauerbrunn. The U.S. National Women's Team veteran noted that players are used to fan-free training matches.

"You don't really realize that there's no fans after a while," Sauerbrunn said. "You have to create your own energy, so that's what we were trying to do."

The players and NWSL also want to take advantage of the opportunity to promote racial equality. Players wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups and Thorns coaches wore them throughout the game. Both teams kneeled during the national anthem, and players, coaches and officials kneeled during a pregame moment of silence to acknowledge the need to address systemic racism.

Being the first professional league out of the gate also is a chance for the NWSL to make a statement with its product. Saturday's game on CBS was the first time a women's professional soccer league has been featured on a major over-the-air network. The game, understandably, was far from artful. But it was still a good show, especially after more than 100 days without live team sports in America.

There has been some angst in women's soccer circles because the NWSL isn't being widely recognized as the first American professional team league to resume.

While some frustration is understandable from those involved with the league, the lack of publicity has little to do with it being a women's sport, or with that sport being soccer.

Rather, it is a reminder that the league still has a small footprint. In its eighth season, the NWSL already has accomplished more than earlier attempts at creating a pro league for women's soccer. But with only nine teams, the league has more of a regional presence than a national one. The New York City region (Sky Blue FC), Chicago and Houston have teams, but none have a history of drawing significant crowds and in terms of local coverage are drowned out by long established teams and sports.

The best team in the league plays in Cary, North Carolina. There are no teams in California (yet).

So, rather than bemoaning the lack of national buzz about the NWSL, we should celebrate being a rare market with professional women's soccer. And we should celebrate the players who are in Utah now, giving us reason to cheer.

Timbers gear up

July 13 will be a big day for area soccer fans. That Monday is when the Thorns wrap up group play in the NWSL Challenge Cup, taking on OL Reign at 9:30 a.m. It is also the date the Timbers return to action, taking on the Los Angeles Galaxy in their first Group F game at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida. That game is slated for 7:30 p.m. Pacific time and will be on FS1.

The Timbers second tournament game is at 5 p.m. July 18 against Houston. Their third match is at 7:30 p.m. on July 23 against LAFC. Those two games are on ESPN2.

The Thorns might be playing a quarterfinal match on July 18, but the kickoff time for that game would be 9:30 a.m. or 7 p.m. and would not directly conflict with the Timbers match.


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