Bella Bixby is right at home as the Portland Thorns' goalie
In the fall of 2012, Bella Geist was in a math class at Rex Putnam High when she learned that Portland would have a team in the newly forming National Women's Soccer League. Already a regular at Portland Timbers home matches who loved the energy in the stadium, the idea of seeing people like herself competing in such an environment was exciting.
Fast forward nine years. Now Bella Bixby, she remains a regular at Providence Park, although, as the Portland Thorns' starting goalkeeper, her view has changed.
"To play here on the field, it feels like it's been a part of me for a long time," she said. "It's really special to be able to experience it as a player, because I've been in the stands cheering for players and it's a blast. I've had that chance as a fan, I've had that chance as a teammate on the bench, and now I have that chance to experience it as a player in goal."
On occasion, during a break in the action, Bixby will sometimes look around Providence Park and marvel that she finds herself defending the goal for the Portland Thorns.
"It will just hit me for a second, where I'm standing, and what I'm doing. Pretty awesome."
Bixby is thriving on that home turf. She ranks among the best keepers in the NWSL, posting six shutouts in 11 starts this season. Taking over the starting role when Adrianna Franch joined the U.S. Women's National Team for the Olympics this summer, Bixby played so well that the Thorns last month traded Franch to Kansas City.
While she is playing close to home — Bixby still lives in the Milwaukie neighborhood where she grew up — the path to becoming the Thorns primary shot-stopper took some challenging turns. In her first year as a pro, Bixby dealt with a grade-2 quad strain and injured a wrist while playing on loan in Germany. On the day she was fully cleared from that wrist injury, she broke a finger.
The most recent of those challenges came just as she announced her presence, by starting all four preliminary round games at last summer's NWSL Challenge Cup Tournament. In training ahead of the quarterfinal match, Bixby took a misstep during a game of soccer tennis and immediately knew something significant was wrong with her knee.
She didn't waste time feeling sorry for herself.
"I forced myself to process it immediately. On the way to the hospital to get imaging, I really took a deep dive emotionally and just assumed the worst —that I tore my ACL," she said. "After that, it was day by day. Whatever I can do to take another step forward, I'm gonna do it and it was just those little (goals) that kept me going."
In fact, Bixby now counts that injury and the relatively quick six-month recovery as a blessing.
"My ACL injury really put me in a good spot because I had to relearn a lot of my own body mechanics," Bixby said. "I feel like I'm in a good spot, athletically. And I feel a lot stronger and more in control of my body so I haven't, knock on wood, had these kind of nagging things that I've always had in the past."
Bixby said her ability to focus on small improvements during a challenging time developed while at Oregon State. The Beavers did not have a winning season while she was there, but she learned to separate her own performance from the team's struggles.
Her success as a young athlete wasn't limited to the soccer field. She played basketball and softball and competed in track and field. An all-state keeper at Rex Putnam, she gained more notoriety kicking for the Kingsmen football team. She made some big kicks, including a playoff-win clinching extra point. The most memorable was a 40-yarder to beat rival Wilsonville.
In addition to the magnitude of the moment, it was the confidence of the head coach to send her out for the kick that still resonates with her. She had not kicked a 40-yard field goal in a game before, and the special teams coach initially told the boy who kicked kickoffs to attempt the long field goal.
"The special teams coach had called upon our second kicker to take it. And I remember my head coach said 'No.' He looks me dead in the eye and said, 'Bella's got it.' I was just stoked that he believed in me in that moment."
The Thorns saw Bixby's athletic ability when the 6-foot tall goalkeeper filled in for training sessions while still at Oregon State, where she made a program-record 395 saves over four seasons.
Thorns goalkeeper coach Nadine Angerer was thrilled when Portland traded for a third-round pick to select Bixby in the 2018 NWSL College Draft.
"She was already athletic, and I think if you want to be a goalkeeper with the Thorns, you need to be athletic. You need to have a good mentality and Bella had the athletic skills, she had a good mentality. She had a good work ethic, and on top of it, she was a perfect teammate and she's a very very good person," Angerer said.
For Bixby, the process of becoming a pro under the tutelage of one of the best keepers ever to play the game meant starting from scratch. In essence, Angerer, a German legend, does not want her keepers leaving their feet until absolutely necessary —Â a much different approach than Bixby learned as a young keeper.
"It's a lot more explosive, and it takes a lot more body control than the technique I learned growing up, that's why it was so hard to learn," Bixby said. "I had to go in the gym and build these muscles to be able to do the technique, I had to learn the timing of the technique. It's very, very nuanced."
Along with improved technique, Angerer said Bixby is much more composed than she was as a young pro.
"She can read the game very well — and think," Angerer said. "Meanwhile, after four years, for every situation in games she has a solution. And if she misreads the situation or is in a stressful situation, she is able to have a Plan B and adjust."
Bixby credits Angerer's support for helping her through the development process and the injuries that extended her learning curve. She also points to support from and competition with Franch for her success. While they competed for playing time, Bixby said she and Franch became friends and developed "a culture of support and helping each other grow and truly caring about each other's success. It was an emotional parting and I miss having her as a teammate."
Still learning her craft, Bixby hopes to have a long goalkeeping career, but Bixby's interests extend beyond soccer. She is studying for a master's degree in fish and wildlife administration through Oregon State.
"I'd love to get to have a career in conservation or restoration projects, whether it's habitat or with different species in Oregon," she said.
In the short term, her focus is on making the most of this Thorns season. Bixby's play has helped Portland build a cushion atop the NWSL standings. Despite a 2-1 loss on Sept. 25, the Thorns remain atop the league entering home games Oct. 2 against rival Reign FC and Oct. 6 against Houston.
Timbers on a roll — Portland jumped into fourth place with an impressive 6-1 thumping of Real Salt Lake on Sept. 25 and has two chances this week to improve its playoff position, visiting LAFC for a 7:30 p.m. match Wednesday then hosting Inter Miami on Sunday, Oct. 3.
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