2020 Thorns: Back on track
In looking back at what the Portland Thorns accomplished in a unique 2020, a word that those around the National Women's Soccer League club like to use is: transformational.
Coach Mark Parsons describes the Thorns entering 2021 like a car that's on a clear, straight road.
"This car is moving fast," Parsons said, noting that the vehicle might not have the very best engine or top-of-the-line parts everywhere, "but we've got the best fit."
The Thorns lost some sense of direction in a challenging 2019 season. Parsons and Gavin Wilkinson, the GM and president of soccer, knew some change had to happen after the team started strong but petered out after players returned from that summer's World Cup.
Significant roster moves followed, with the goal of building the best women's soccer club in the world, according to Parsons. Along with roster moves, Parsons and his staff moved the Thorns toward a more aggressive brand of soccer.
Clarifying that identity was one of the accomplishments of 2020, according to Parsons.
The identity Parsons is shooting for is "a team that will attack opponents in all areas of the field."
"I feel like I had been too short-term (focused) previously, and needed to think bigger and be more bold and more courageous in how we attack everything that we do," Parsons said on Nov. 18. "From this point 12 months ago to today, I would never have guessed we'd have gotten to where we are this fast. We're very, very excited about what this group can do going forward."
The addition of forwards Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver with the top two picks in the 2020 college draft sped up this transition, as did the acquisitions of midfielder Rocky Rodriguez and defender Becky Sauerbrunn. The return to form of midfielder Angela Salem from a knee injury and continued elite performances from of Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan helped Portland reach the semifinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup, then win the MLS Fall Series.
One unexpected negative was the loss of Tobin Heath, selected Nov. 12 by expansion club Racing Louisville FC.
Parsons said he was "very surprised" Louisville selected Heath.
"It is very emotional for everyone — none more than Tobin," Parsons said.
Of course, it's possible Heath might someday again play for the Thorns — Mana Shim was selected in the Houston Dash expansion draft and traded back to the Thorns.
"We have to see how things progress, but right now it doesn't look like that's possible," Parsons said.
Heath did not play for Portland in 2020. She opted not to play in the NWSL Challenge Cup, then signed with Manchester United (where she is playing now) and didn't play in the NWSL Fall Series. But the Thorns navigated the on-field challenges pretty well in 2020, including finishing with the best record in the NWSL Fall Series.
"What we found out is, there's a lot of Thorns ready to step up," Parsons said. "We've got a lot of great people and great talent that really want to give to this club and support this club."
The departure of Heath is offset by two significant additions since the end of the Fall Series. The acquisition of U.S. Women's National Team player Crystal Dunn reunites one of the top players in the league with Parsons, who with the Washington Spirit was Dunn's coach in 2015 when she led the league with 15 goals and was the NWSL Most Valuable Player. Parsons said Dunn will be in an attacking role, be it midfield or forward, for the Thorns.
"She has a toolbox that has so much quantity of world-class qualities," Parsons said. Add in a "fireball of competitiveness" to push herself and her teammates to get better, and Dunn's impact can be "off the charts," according to Parsons.
A more under-the-radar addition is Finnish defender Natalia Kuikka, who the Thorns have been trying to add since she helped Florida State to the 2018 NCAA championship.
Parsons predicts Kuikka will be popular with Thorns supporters for her ability to be a playmaker from any defensive position and for her toughness and passion for defending — a unique combination.
"She's going to be key," Parsons said, adding, "The city's going to love her."
Portland's transformation began last offseason, when it traded for Rodriguez and acquired the top two picks in the college draft to land Smith and Weaver.
A playmaking midfielder from Costa Rica who was the NWSL rookie of the year in 2016, Rodriguez had one goal and one assist in 10 games in 2020. Parsons believes Rodriguez can be significantly better than what she was this season, given a normal season of training.
"We're going to see a level of Rocky that no one has seen before," Parsons predicted.
Parsons expects more smart, reliable soccer from veteran midfielder Angela Salem, whose ability to read the game Parsons considers unmatched in the NWSL. And, of course, more world-class play from Sinclair, when she isn't representing Canada at the Olympics.
Not to be overlooked, the Thorns have the deepest group of goalkeepers in the league. U.S. National Team backup keeper Adrianna Franch and Milwaukie native Bella Bixby each are on the path to returning sometime in 2021 from knee injuries — injuries that allowed Britt Eckerstrom to shine in 2020, evidence of the work put in under the guidance of Nadine Angerer.
• In addition to national-team allocated players Sinclair, Horan, Dunn, Sauerbrunn and Franch, Thorns under contract for 2021 are goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom; defenders Kuikka, Meghan Klingenberg, Kelli Hubly, Christen Westphal and Meaghan Nally; midfielders Celeste Boureille and Rodriguez; and forwards Smith, Weaver and Marissa Everett.
Bixby, defenders Emily Menges and Madison Pogarch, midfielders Salem, Emily Ogle and Gabby Seiler and forwards Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi have been offered new contracts. Parsons said he expects each of those eight players to re-sign with the club.
Of course, there could be moves before the team reconvenes on Feb. 1 to begin preseason training. The Thorns often have been active on draft day (see 2020). The 2021 NWSL Draft takes place Jan. 13. Portland, as a result of finishing at the bottom of the NWSL Challenge Cup round-robin phase, has the second pick (behind Racing Louisville FC) in rounds 2-4. The Thorns traded away their 2021 first-round pick in the deal that brought Rodriguez to Portland.
Regardless of other moves that happen before the start of the 2021 season in April, Parsons said the culture established in 2020 and his players' commitment to each other have the club on a good path.
"This phase is about looking to the future," Parsons said. "Being successful now, but not just for one year or two years. Being successful in the long term."
• The NWSL plans for 2021 start with another Challenge Cup, beginning in mid-April either at one site or multiple sites depending upon the status of COVID-19 protocols. The 24-game regular season will run mid-May through October, followed by an expanded six-team playoff in November.
Parsons said the NWSL executives and players union deserve credit for coming up with a plan to expand the NWSL season beyond the six months it has traditionally run. He noted that the expanded season will allow players to be full-time Thorns and not go on loan overseas or, in some cases, take second jobs.
"In a challenging period, here is the NWSL thriving and making more progress than I think they had done in multiple years prior," Parsons said.
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