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ON SOCCER: Absences give meaningful minutes to developing players for Portland Thorns.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Midfielder Marissa Everett, pictured in a July 11 match against Gotham FC at Providence Park, is one of the Portland Thorns players who has an opportunity to contribute with teammates on Olympic duty.From their debut season in 2013, the Portland Thorns brand has been synonymous with star power. With some of the most well-known players in the world on the roster, the Thorns' crowds opened eyes and minds and helped the National Women's Soccer League outlast previous women's professional soccer leagues.

Star power is nice, of course. Any opportunity to witness the best in the world ply their craft is special.

But, in the eight years since the NWSL debut, the league has matured into a competitive circuit where a match missing the elite international players can attract fans by the thousands.

Providence Park, of course, is different from the other stadiums that NWSL teams call home. It was hardly a surprise that 14,731 flocked to the place on Sunday afternoon knowing that Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn and Adrianna Franch are busy preparing for the Olympics.

Sure, they came to celebrate the reopening of the place. For the first time since a Timbers match on March 8, 2020, the place was allowed to fill up, unmasked fans gleeful to express their support.

But the experience was all the more special for Thorns coach Mark Parsons because the understudies for those superstars had their day in the sun.

Parsons has long said that player-development was the thing that drew him to his profession, so the opportunity for players stuck behind international stars to shine really gets him excited.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Midfielder Celeste Boureille's work rate in midfield is one example of how the Portland Thorns' depth is serving the club during Olympic absences.So Parsons takes special satisfaction watching Celeste Boureille boss the midfield by winning challenges and getting the ball where it needs to go and seeing Marissa Everett drive the attack from the position often held by Sinclair. He expects Bella Bixby, the Milwaukie native, to play like one of the best goalkeepers in the league. (In posting shutouts in her first two starts this season, she has done that). He believes Madison Pogarch can be one of the best left backs in the league.

"We have a lot of players with a lot of qualities that people haven't seen yet. And I can't wait to see them express themself and them to be given this opportunity," Parsons said.

Those who follow the club give special love to the players who have worked away from the spotlight for the opportunity to bask in the adulation of Thorns fans.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Goalkeeper Bella Bixby (from left), midfielder Olivia Moultrie and defender Kelli Hubly are celebrated by the Rose City Riverters supporters' group after the Portland Thorns 0-0 tie with Gotham FC on July 11 at Providence Park.It's not as if the Thorns lack firepower with the big names off chasing gold. Which is why Parsons sounded disappointed in his team's play (not effort, but execution) in the July 11 scoreless draw against a Gotham FC team that has surrendered only three goals all season.

He'll look for better this week, when the Thorns play host to Orlando at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 18 — a match that features two of the teams tied atop the NWSL standings.

After her Providence Park debut on July 11, Bixby recalled watching her first soccer game at Providence Park, a 2008 match involving the U.S. Women's National team. She said that playing for the first time in front of Portland's passionate fans was special.

"I think that this stadium and the fans that fill it are something so special, it's very unique to this city and this club," Bixby said. "The last

eighteen months has been really hard for everyone, for a lot of different reasons and this is something that we can kind of all just get together on the weekend and kick around a soccer ball and have people enjoy it.

"I think that it's something so simple, but something that not only us as players but the city has been excited for, for the last year and a half. So, it's awesome."

A restart for Timbers

After a welcome 16-day break, the Timbers get their chance to experience a full house for the first time on Saturday, July 17, when FC Dallas stops by Goose Hollow. They hope that support — and the return of some significant players — can produce a much-needed win.

At 4-6-1, Portland enters the weekend ninth in the Western Conference. Gio Savarese's club has produced a couple nice results and two real clunkers in a challenging first third of the 2021 season. It will be nice if all three of the club's Designated Players — Sebastian Blanco, Yimmi Chara and Jaroslaw Niezgoda — are available for the first time in 2021. Chara and Felipe Mora, at least, should be available after missing four matches while with their national teams for Copa America.

The team's most consistent player is gone. Midfielder Eryk Williamson is on Gold Cup duty with the United States (which plays group stage matches Thursday against Martinique and Sunday against Canada). Williamson made his senior national team debut on July 11 as a late substitute in a 1-0 win over Haiti.

Also absent is the man who's played the most minutes for Portland in 2021. Claudio Bravo, the only pure left back on Portland's roster (and the MLS leader in tackles won), is part of Argentina's roster for the Olympics, where men's soccer kicks off July 22 and runs through Aug. 7 (with matches starting between 12:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. PT).PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - On the first opportunity to fill Providence Park since COVID-19, almost 15,000 fans showed up to watch the Thorns take on Gotham FC on Sunday, July 11.

Paul Danzer
Sports Reporter
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