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ON SOCCER: Unbeaten Portland building for future, but can win something now with Saturday victory; Timbers continue strong form

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - The Portland Thorns had plenty to celebrate in a Sept. 30 home win over OL Reign. They shoot to cap a productive NWSL Fall Series on Saturday with a rematch against OL Reign at Tacoma. A victory would clinch first place in the Fall Series for Portland.The Portland Thorns visit rival OL Reign Saturday, Oct. 10, for their final match of the foreseeable future.

A win would clinch first place in the National Women's Soccer League Fall Series, the Verizon Community Shield and a nice grant for Mimi's Fresh Tees, a Portland-based T-shirt company.

Founder Kamelah Adams is a North Portland native who started the company more than two years ago to allow people to "wear their truth."

The Thorns players chose to play for the Black-owned business during the Fall Series. In announcing the choice last week, the club emphasized that Adams has found a creative way to address social issues such as systematic racism.

In a partnership with Verizon, the NWSL has pledged $25,000 to the first-place team's chosen local business or charity, $15,000 to the second-place team's choice and $10,000 to the third-place team's choice.

With a convincing win over rival OL Reign and a gritty draw at Utah in games four days apart last week, the Thorns put themselves in a strong position to give Mimi's Fresh Tees a financial boost while building for what they hope will be a big 2021 season.

Of course, no one can say when after this week the Thorns will again have something to play for, or what the club will look like when that happens.

The NWSL is scheduled to add Racing Louisville as its 10th franchise next season, which means an expansion draft will add to the intrigue of the offseason.

Also uncertain is whether or not Tobin Heath will return to Portland following the Olympics (if they happen). But Thorns fans should be excited by how the team has attacked three games into this modified four-game fall event.

Even in their 1-1 draw on Saturday at Utah, the Thorns had several chances to get more than a draw. In her first start for the Thorns, Sophia Smith had a few exciting moments, including a pass across the front of goal that fellow rookie Morgan Weaver just missed putting home.

Had Weaver finished the play, it would have been the perfect snapshot of what the Thorns hope will be a long-term partnership between the first two picks in the most recent NWSL Draft. Along with the growth shown by Simone Charley this fall, the future of the attack looks exciting.

And midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, who coach Mark Parsons has been encouraging to shoot more often, scored a spectacular goal for her first with Portland in the Sept. 30 win over OL Reign.

For the Thorns, much of the value of this abbreviated fall season is getting professional experience for young players, including developing the training habits necessary for consistent performance.

If the Thorns do win funds for Mimi's Fresh Tees, the elder statesman on the club will be a significant reason for their success.

Christine Sinclair, at age 37, scored four of the Thorns' five goals last week, three of them in the 4-1 win on Sept. 30 over OL Reign at Providence Park.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - The development of attacking players, including Simone Charley (pictured delivering a cross that produced a Rocky Rodriguez goal on Sept. 30) is part of a positive fall for the Portland Thorns.After that "unbelievable performance," Parsons said it was a glimpse of what his team might one day become with a full season's worth of training and competition.

"There's a lot more in the tank for this group, collectively and individually — led by Sinc, who keeps getting younger and younger," Parsons said on Sept. 30.

Sinclair's impact went well beyond her world-class finishing, pointing to the work she did defensively and to create space for herself and teammates against a Reign set-up intent on limiting her influence.

"I know we're focused on (Sinclair's) goals, which were world class, but the defensive work that she did, the influence that she had creating space for herself and others" was impressive, Parsons said.

While the attack has been a bright spot in the three fall matches, Sinclair said defensive work is a big reason for that — both from forwards pressuring opponents and from a defense that has been reliable.

"I think our forwards have been playing great. They've been putting the opposition under tremendous pressure," Sinclair said.

And there is a growing trust among teammates that takes time.

"We feel that we can take risks now, because our backline is so solid."

Saturday's 5 p.m. match in Tacoma, which will be streamed live on Twitch.tv, will be the 10th competitive match of 2020 for the Thorns. That would be the middle of a normal season, a time at which Parsons would want his club to be rounding into form.

In fact, the coach this week said it feels like the regular season should only be starting.

"The whole year has felt like a stop-start preseason and we're ready to go and play a regular season now," Parsons said.

In this most unusual time, Parsons and his staff are taking the long view. They have been emphasizing core fundamentals of their philosophy, getting players comfortable with their roles rather than with building specific partnerships among teammates (Smith and Weaver, for example).

"When we get more and more time, I think relationships between players will also develop. Right now, just trying to improve our principals and our nonverbal communication within those principals is key," Parsons said.

Timbers resume push — While the Thorns wrap up their 2020 competitive schedule this week, the Timbers began a frantic push through the final five weeks of MLS play with a 6-3 win Oct. 7 over the L.A. Galaxy.

Their Oct. 3 match with Colorado was rescheduled for Nov. 4 because several Rapids last week had positive COVID-19 tests, giving the Timbers a welcome nine days without a game before traveling to Los Angeles, where they looked energetic in scoring a franchise-record six goals for the second time in three weeks. Jeremy Ebobisse was named MLS player of the week for his performance in that win, which included two goals and defensive work helping rookie Pablo Bonilla defend the Galaxy's Cristian Pavon. Pavon had a goal and assist, but couldn't lift the LA attack to the level of Portland's.

Now the matches come quickly. Portland plays host to San Jose at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11, then visits Real Salt Lake at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14.

The Timbers (8-4-3) enter this weekend with eight games left to play and second in the Western Conference, three points back of rival Seattle.

T2 wraps up — Portland Timbers 2 finished its 2020 USL Championship season on Saturday, Oct. 3, with a 4-0 loss to Sacramento Republic FC. T2 finished 3-13, with the three wins coming in five September matches.

It was another challenging season for Portland's second-division side, but one highlighted by plenty of playing time for young players because there was no sharing of players between the Timbers and T2.

Because of the coronavirus, Timbers players who needed game minutes could not be loaned to T2 (Tomas Conechny and Pablo Bonilla played in T2's only March match before the pandemic shutdown). That meant Portland's USL championship roster was among the youngest in the league.

Jorge Gonzalez, a rookie midfielder from Spain out of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, led T2 with eight goals (in only 10 games). Midfielder Marcus Epps, who has spent time in MLS with Philadelphia and the New York Red Bulls, had four goals.

In his fourth season appearing with T2 (and first as a professional), Cornelius native Gio Calixtro had a team-leading three assists.

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Twitter: @pauldanzer


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