When the Portland Thorns take the field on April 9 at Providence Park against Kansas City, they will be performing in front of their rabid fans for the first time in 18 months.
While key players remain from the 2019 team that struggled to the finish line, the 6,000 or so who attend the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup opener will see a club that has significantly changed.
The major personnel changes are no secret. The additions of Crystal Dunn and Natalia Kuikka in the most recent offseason join 2020's influx of young talent, highlighted by the top two picks in the 2020 draft, forwards Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver.
But the change in the club goes much deeper than adding talent. Coach Mark Parsons has called the upgrade "Thorns 2.0," which he defines this way:
"Most simply, we need to represent our fanbase. Our fanbase is high energy in everything and has unbelievable collective spirit," Parsons said.
To match the passion of its fanbase, Parsons, President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and owner Merritt Paulson made some bold moves.
The makeover of the Thorns began before the abbreviated 2020 season when they acquired Costa Rican international midfielder Rocky Rodriguez and U.S. Women's National Team defender Becky Sauerbrunn. Then, thanks to another pair of trades, Portland landed forwards Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver with the first two picks in the January 2020 draft.
Those moves helped the Thorns round into the team that finished atop the NWSL Fall Series last season. Then, a trade brought U.S. Women's National Team star and former NWSL most valuable player Dunn to Portland.
In a less flashy but perhaps equally significant move, the Thorns added Finnish defender/midfielder Kuikka — a tenacious player the club had followed since her days helping Florida State win a national championship.
The reinvented Thorns should be in attack mode from the opening whistle to the last. To explain the change in approach, Parsons uses words such as "brave" and "risk taking."
"We'll be an attacking team when we have the ball and an attacking team when we lose the ball," he said.
The focus isn't on winning trophies, so much, as it is on building a team that attacks every opportunity and every challenge with a zeal not found anywhere else in the world.
"We want to be the best in every moment of the game," he said, including every restart, throw-in, pass and touch on the ball in that list.
The excitement in Parsons' voice when he talks about the reimagined Thorns reflects the amount of talent he has to work with, the competition for playing time and a culture that he said has made the nine weeks of training enjoyable.
The addition of Dunn, who has played more than 100 games for the U.S. Women's National Team, brings another dynamic player to the Thorns midfield and offsets the unexpected loss of Tobin Heath to Louisville FC in the expansion draft.
Dunn's arrival in Portland was anticipated, given that her husband, Pierre Soubrier, is the Thorns' head trainer. Like Sauerbrunn a year earlier, Dunn wanted to play here in the town she calls home.
One of the most technically gifted players in the world, Dunn has primarily played fullback for the United States, but will bring a dynamic attacking presence to the Portland midfield.
Dunn won't make her Thorns' debut April 9. She is one of five Portland players away on international duty. Dunn, midfielder Lindsey Horan, defender Sauerbrunn and forward Sophie Smith are with the U.S. Women's National Team for friendly matches in Europe on April 10 against Sweden and April 13 against France. Forward Christine Sinclair is with Canada for friendlies April 9 against Wales and April 13 against England.
Kuikka did not join Finland in this international window, and Parsons expects Thorns fans will love the way the 25-year-old plays the game.
"She's better than we all thought she was," Parsons said, describing a player whose elite technical skills are matched by an ultra-competitive personality.
Kuikka likely will play outside back early in the season, but has the versatility to play central defense or to move into the midfield.
Parsons' excitement about this version of the Thorns grew during the nine weeks of training leading into the April 9 debut. He said the roster is the most competitive he's coached, that the differences between the top player at each position and the perceived bottom of the depth chart is narrow.
In fact, he's told the team that no one's spot in the starting XI is secure, that each player should be mentally prepared to contribute, whether playing 90 minutes, 45 minutes or no minutes.
The coach will have difficult lineup choices, even during the times when some of those stars are on international duty during this Olympic year.
At forward, ageless Christine Sinclair is joined by a group of young, surging attackers in Smith, Weaver, Simone Charley, Tyler Lussi and Marissa Everett.
In midfield, Dunn, Horan and Rodriguez provide flair while Angela Salem, Celeste Boureille and Kuikka are primarily ball-winners and distributors.
The backline is anchored by Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges in the middle and veteran Meghan Klingenberg on the left flank. Kelli Hubly, Christen Westfall, Madison Pogarch (third season) and Meaghan Nally (second season) are pushing for playing time after gaining experience during 2020.
At goalkeeper, Adrianna Franch missed all of 2020 and Milwaukie native Bella Bixby missed significant time. Both have recovered from their knee injuries to the point where they can play. Rookie Shelby Hogan (Providence College) replaces the retired Britt Eckerstrom and is a player the Thorns want to develop into a future starter under Nadine Angerer's coaching.
Parsons said he knows that constant competition for playing time and an expectation that players strive nonstop to improve can be stressful. His job is to make sure players embrace challenges and don't feel unhealthy stress.
Not that he'll ever lower the bar.
"We're looking to take on the world no matter what day it is," Parsons said.
NWSL Challenge Cup
The Thorns will play four games in the Western side of the now 10-team league. Their games are: April 9 at home against Kansas City, 7:30 p.m.; April 15 at Chicago, 4:30 p.m.; April 21 at home against OL Reign, 7 p.m. and May 2 at Houston, 4:30 p.m.
The top team from the West will meet the top team from the East at 10 a.m. May 8 (CBS/KOIN) for the Challenge Cup championship match.
How to watch: About 6,300 fans, 25% of capacity, will be allowed at the Challenge Cup home games. The April 9, April 15 and May 2 Thorns' Challenge Cup matches will be available through the Paramount+ streaming service (formerly CBS All Access). The April 21 home match against OL Reign will be televised by CBS Sports Network.
Paramount+ plans currently cost $5.99/month or $9.99/month (ad free).
The NWSL 24-game regular season schedule runs May 15 through Oct. 30 and has not been announced. Six teams advance to playoffs that culminate in a Nov. 20 NWSL championship match.
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