The quest for a championship came up short, but the long view says the Portland Thorns will benefit from their participation in the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup.
The benefits include 21 players seeing the field for Portland during the monthlong tournament in Utah, some of them getting significant action for the first time. Field players who performed well when called upon include defenders Kelli Hubly and Christen Westphal. The list of players who responded well to challenging circumstances certainly starts with goalkeepers Bella Bixby and Britt Eckerstrom.
Each made 11 saves, highlighted by Eckerstrom's eight-save performance to carry the Thorns past top seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals.
Despite a rotating cast, the Thorns surrendered only four goals in their six matches, and just two of them after their opening-day loss to North Carolina.
Big picture, spending a month sequestered together in Utah might create bonds that benefit the club for seasons to come. So, despite coming up short of a trophy, on balance the NWSL Challenge Cup was a positive for the Thorns.
Still, coach Mark Parsons sounded surprised and perplexed that his team did not perform well enough in the July 22 semifinal loss to the Houston Dash. Portland never got going in that game, looked tired and unsettled, even with Houston letting the Thorns have the ball for long stretches.
The difficulties were at the attacking end of the pitch. Portland scored only three times in six games. The Thorns really didn't come close to threatening in their semifinal loss.
The scoring problem was hardly only a Portland problem. Half the teams scored two or fewer times over four preliminary matches and three of the four quarterfinals were scoreless draws decided on penalty kicks.
Portland's offensive struggles make a lot of sense. The absence of Tobin Heath, who chose to sit out the tournament, took away one of the most creative attackers in all of soccer — and one of the best takers of free kicks and corner kicks in the league.
Add the injury that sidelined Lindsey Horan for the final game and a half, and Portland was down its two most dangerous individual attackers. The injury that kept top overall draft pick Sophia Smith from participating also weakened the attack.
The impact of those absences was more than just the special talent. It meant opposing teams could focus on smothering 37-year-old Christine Sinclair. Not surprisingly, Sinclair was a rock for the Thorns in Utah. She started every game and played more than 500 minutes, including every minute of the last three games.
Sinclair and Meghan Klingenberg were the only two players to start all six games of the tournament. All that shuffling was another factor in the Thorns struggling to score. Portland wasn't only lacking experienced attackers, it was lacking the cohesion that comes with playing together.
Several times during the tournament, Thorns coach Mark Parsons commented that his team wasn't assertive enough with the ball going forward.
Perhaps that is a reflection of inexperience, or at least a lack of time playing together. Cautiousness is to be expected from players — heck, from any humans — in new situations, when the first instinct is to not make a mistake.
The natural question is: where do the Thorns go from here?
In the short term, there likely won't be any more games. The NWSL hoped to be able to continue with a somewhat regular season after its Utah tournament, but with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise around the country, that seems unlikely.
Given that — and even though the product on the field didn't often bring out the best in players or teams — the NWSL Challenge Cup was a win for women's soccer.
By pulling off the first professional sports competition after the coronavirus shut down everything, the league and its players provided some welcome entertainment. Parsons, after the semifinal loss, admitted he initially didn't think the NWSL could pull it off. But with new commissioner Lisa Baird and the NWSL players union working together, it happened without a player or team needing to leave the bubble (Orlando, of course, never made it to the bubble).
Aside from missing his wife and daughter for a month, Parsons called the tournament "one of the best experiences I've had in a long, long time."
To be able to make that statement given the challenges of these times says a lot about the direction of the National Women's Soccer League. And, while a Thorns championship would have been celebrated in Portland, seeing Houston win the tournament (the Dash beat Chicago, 2-0, in the July 26 final) is good for a league that has been dominated by Portland and Western New York/North Carolina through its first seven years.
Another positive for the NWSL was the July 21 announcement that a Los Angeles club will join the league in 2022. That will bring the league to 11 teams, with Racing Louisville slated to begin play next season. The Los Angeles effort is especially interesting because the 33 investors are almost exclusively women, many of them former stars for the U.S. Women's National Team.
Introduced under the "Angel City" moniker, the L.A. club will certainly become a rival for the Thorns. In addition to the natural dislike Portland fans have for teams from Los Angeles, this new club has investors with ties to Portland among the former national team stars.
So, the NWSL has given soccer fans some entertainment now, and something to look forward to.
Let's hope we can see more before 2022 arrives, and that sooner, rather than later, we can see how this tournament shapes the Thorns' story.
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