A consummate connector
On June 2, 2019, Angela Salem made her second consecutive start for the Portland Thorns. In her second season with the club, the veteran midfielder was finally in a position to show her value on the field.
"It was going to be a key period (of games) for her," Thorns coach Mark Parsons recalled. "And then she snapped her ACL."
The injury happened just before halftime of a match at Providence Park, three weeks before Salem's 31st birthday, and about six weeks before she was due to return to Springfield College in Massachusetts for a final year of graduate-level studies in clinical mental health.
With all of that on her plate, and the commitment needed to rehabilitate the injured knee, it would have been perfectly natural for Salem to put playing again in the rear-view mirror.
"I did start thinking: Should I be done?" Salem said.
As the Thorns prepare to play four fall matches, beginning with a Sept. 15 battle with rival OL Reign at an empty Providence Park, Salem is right in the middle of the plans for Parsons.
"I'm pumped for all of us that we get to play these games," Parsons said. "But I'm especially pumped for Ang."
In January 2018, the Thorns selected Salem with the 15th pick in a draft to disperse players on the Boston Breakers' roster. Salem already was started on her graduate school studies, so she could only commit to Portland between May and August. Instead of having to choose between Portland and grad school, Salem was able to do both with the blessing of the Thorns.
For that, she is thankful. Late in a career where she has played for teams that struggled on the field and off, for teams and leagues that went out of business, joining the Thorns has been a treat. Salem said playing for the Thorns is everything she heard it was. The players have the support that professional athletes deserve, from the organization and from the rabid fan base.
"It's really been everything I thought it would be in terms of the environment and the facilities and the training and the players and the team," Salem said.
Just as significant, Salem shares the Thorns mission to grow women's soccer and opportunities for young players.
"Their mission, I really believe in — building women's soccer and giving back to the community and the youth," Salem said.
Parsons considers Salem one of the best holding midfielders to play in the NWSL, so bringing her to Portland made sense even if she could only be here for four months and might struggle for playing time.
Salem appeared in only eight matches over the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the Thorns. When the injury happened last June, Salem spent the next six weeks or so in Portland before heading back to Springfield for a crazy fall.
"Once school started, it was 12-hour days, six days a week," she said.
To pay for her education, Salem worked as a graduate assistant coach for the Springfield women's soccer team. In that role, Salem not only had soccer responsibilities, but classes to teach. There was a 20-hour-a-week internship in the campus mental health center. She was taking three night classes, and fitting in the rehabilitation work — with programs both from a local therapist and the Thorns to complete.
"Needless to say, the fall was a nightmare."
She said that with a smile, adding that, "When you're in it, you don't really realize how hard it is until you take a step back."
Salem was back at Springfield in 2019 after completing a two-year athletic counseling program.
"We had the option to do one more additional year in clinical mental health, and that was an area that a lot of the athletes talked about that I didn't feel equipped enough in when I met with them. So I wanted to do that additional year to make myself more marketable and to have a more holistic understanding of what individuals might be going through."
She was wrapping up her internship at Springfield College when the coronavirus arrived. Through video conferences, she spoke with students about their concerns.
"At the same time it was helping me, too," she said, "You hear new ideas and you realize the importance of keeping structure and routine — even if it's putting on normal clothes instead of just being in sweats. Just little things."
Yes, her Thorns teammates have come to Salem with questions about how to cope with COVID-19 related stressors. But Salem said her teammates have helped her through this strange year, too.
"I feel like everyone on our team is really supportive of mental health and wanting to advocate for it. So I've had really awesome conversations about that," she said.
With her graduate degree in clinical mental health complete, she was finally ready to commit herself to the Thorns full time in 2020.
COVID-19 prevented that, but it hasn't prevented Salem from her most impactful soccer since she started all 24 matches for Boston in 2017. She appeared in all six Thorns matches at the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup and played every minute of Portland's upset win over North Carolina in the quarterfinals.
"The Challenge Cup was the first chance to see what Angela's talents are," Parsons said.
Salem was an attacking player growing up in Akron, Ohio, and at Francis Marion, a NCAA Division II program in Florence, South Carolina, where she was a three-time team MVP. It was in her second year as a professional, while with the Atlanta Beat in Women's Pro Soccer, that Salem transitioned to playing as a defensive midfielder, known on a soccer field as position No. 6.
"I might not be the typical 6 who are taller, stronger, more disruptive," Salem said. "I like to be on the ball. I like to connect more than just disrupt. It works with some (tactical) systems and it doesn't work with others. I have an understanding of that and I'm OK with that. But I enjoy the way that I play and that's something that I want to stay true to. I get the ball under pressure. I outlet the ball, find the forward passes."
Parsons knew what Salem would bring to Portland, having acquired her to help with his rebuilding project with the Washington Spirit in 2015. Salem and close friend Katherine Reynolds helped turn the Spirit from the worst team in the NWSL in 2014 to a playoff team in 2015.
"Ang had been the best holding midfielder in the league up to that point, without a doubt," Parsons said, praising her leadership and soccer knowledge.
In her 11 seasons in professional soccer, Salem has never been the most talked about player on her team. But five years after she was instrumental in helping Parsons turn Washington into a playoff team, she remains an asset.
Parsons compares her role with the Thorns to what Diego Chara does for the MLS Portland Timbers. They are different players, to be sure — Salem doesn't dart around the pitch the way Chara does. But, like Chara, Parsons said that Salem's ability to read plays, be in the right position and to smartly move the ball, allows teammates to play with freedom.
"She's been one of the most important players on our team this season, because of what she does in connecting with other players," Parsons said.
When WPS folded, Salem was a champion in 2012 with the Western New York Flash in the semi-professional WPSL Elite league. In 2013, she was a starter for the Flash in the first NWSL season, and played against Portland in the championship match won by the Thorns.
Seven seasons later, Salem continues to evolve as a player at age 32.
"I respect a lot of the older players who've been able to move with the game. Because it has changed," Salem said. "The game has become a lot more athletic and transitional. So I've had to make sure my positioning is really good. I had to become smarter, because those aren't necessarily my strengths."
Salem isn't certain how long she'll play. She said that the coming expansion in NWSL and the Thorns' direction could factor into her decision. She enjoyed coaching college players at Springfield, has earned her C-level coaching license and participated in coaching seminars with some accomplished coaches. But she isn't yet sure how coaching might play into her future.
Whatever that future holds, Salem is proud she's played in the NWSL during its first eight seasons.
She said one of her main missions throughout her career has been to help the league thrive, "so that there is a league around for young women and other players to have access to. Not only to play, but also to watch and have those kinds of role models."
That's the reason she didn't hesitate to play in the NWSL Challenge Cup, held in a bubble in the Salt Lake City area, where she finally became a significant contributor for the Thorns. Salem is grateful for that opportunity, and to share a few more games with her Portland teammates.
"Being with the team, it's been nice to go through it with them, just to have that extra support," she said about life in our COVID-19 world. "But, there's still that constant thought that we're playing soccer when the world is hurting right now and people are losing their jobs. So, I feel up and down right now."
NOTE — This story was updated to reflect the postponement of the match against OL Reign to Sept. 15 because of dangerous air quality in Portland.
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