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Portland begins nine-week preparation for expanded 2021 season with first training session at Providence Park.

COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/PORTLAND THORNS - New Portland Thorns defender Natalia Kuikka (center) dribbles the ball during a drill on Tuesday, Feb. 2, the first day of training for the club in 2021.The Portland Thorns held their first training session of 2021 on Tuesday, Feb. 2, the start of a nine-week run-up to the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup.

In a video meeting with media members following the session at Providence Park, coach Mark Parsons said the 21-player roster is "pretty set," adding that he would be happy if this roster remained intact throughout 2021.

"I'm probably most excited about the dynamic of our group as I've ever been," Parsons said.

Nineteen of the 21 players on the preseason roster return from 2020. Midfielder Crystal Dunn and defender Natalia Kuikka are the only newcomers, though a third goalkeeper will soon be added.

"I do think we've got a special group," Parsons said. "I think we've got a balance that, these players could push each other to a limit and a place where they maybe had not been before."

The 2021 season will be the ninth for the NWSL, and the longest. It is slated to begin April 9 with the Challenge Cup in home markets (schedule to be announced) followed by a regular season from May 15 through Oct. 30 and six-team playoff Nov. 6-20. The NWSL will not take a break for the Olympics.

"To be able to have a nine-, 10-month season is big progress," Parsons said. "Having more competition, more trophies to compete for (is progress)."

COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/PORTLAND THORNS - Veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn dribbles the ball during the Portland Thorns first 2021 training session on Tuesday, Feb. 4 at Providence Park.The Olympics (scheduled July 21-Aug. 6) will mean the Thorns and other NWSL clubs will rely more on their roster depth.

"I get excited about that. I love that challenge. Our staff loves that challenge," Parsons said. "To be able to work with players and be able to say 'Your opportunity is coming if you're doing the work' is really cool for a group dynamic. And we've got some great depth."

Here are some of the key points Parsons made on Tuesday:

• He expects goalkeepers Bella Bixby and Adrianna Franch to be ready to play when the Challenge Cup arrives in early April. Both are on the mend from knee injuries and participated in some of the on-field work Tuesday.

• With the retirement of goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom, Parsons said the Thorns soon will add Shelby Hogan, the 2019 Big East goalkeeper of the year at Providence College.

• Portland will not bring in any non-roster invitees — at least not now. The Thorns have traditionally had two or three invited players participate in training camp, but Parsons said at this point the team is happy with the group and wants to maintain some roster flexibility. He said there is room to perhaps add two more players, eventually.

• Portland residents Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn are in training with the Thorns this week ahead of rejoining the U.S. Women's National Team for the She Believes Cup. Those matches take place Feb. 18, 21 and 24 in Orlando, Florida. Coming off of a January national team camp, Lindsey Horan and Sophia Smith took Parsons advice to take a break rather than come to Portland for the early days of training camp.

• Christine Sinclair (Canada), Rocky Rodriguez (Costa Rica) and Kuikka (Finland) will also leave training camp during the February international window. Early March is when Parsons anticipates having the complete roster together for the first time.

• Two of the four players drafted last month — forward Yazmeen Ryan from TCU and defender Hannah Betfort from Wake Forest — are expected to join the Thorns in April, following the conclusion of the spring NCAA season. Two others — Sam Coffey (Penn State) and Amirah Ali (Rutgers) — plan to play college soccer in the fall and will join the Thorns in 2022.

• Parsons said the focus of the first four weeks of the nine-week run-up to the Challenge Cup will focus on individual and positional development. The fifth week will be a lighter recovery workload as players return from international duty. Then, the final four weeks will put a heavy focus on tactical preparation.

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Twitter: @pauldanzer

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