After a busy offseason for Portland Thorns FC that saw a dynamic new coach named, a Ballon d’Or goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer get signed, and a busy trade-filled NWSL College Draft day, the team opened their 2014 preseason camp yesterday with a double set of training sessions at Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton and Providence Park.
For new head coach Paul Riley, it was a day that couldn’t come soon enough.
“It was great, better than expected to be honest with you,” said Riley. “The level is good, fitness level was really good. We gave the team a good pre-preseason packet and it looks like most of them have done it so the fitness level is way above what I thought it would be coming in.”
With the exception of forwards Jackie Acevedo (Mexico) and Alex Morgan (USWNT), all of the club’s national team players were still away with their respective squads at tournaments in Portugal and Cyprus. While Morgan returned to Portland to continue rehabilitation on her ankle, new offseason acquisitions Michelle Betos, Rebecca Moros, Sinead Farrelly, and Jessica McDonald along with NWSL College Draft selections Emily Menges and Elizabeth Sullivan were all on the pitch going through drills with the team.
Though that group joins an impressive core that includes Allie Long, Nikki Marshall, Mana Shim, Angie Kerr and Kat Williamson among others, Riley, is well aware of his challenges in taking over a defending championship side. Winning another title is only part of the high bar that he’s set for his team to accomplish this time around.
“The expectation is that we want to win it at home,” said Riley. “That’s the biggest thing for us is to improve is our home form, win a title on our own surface in front of our own fans. Our will is to win it here, which we didn’t do last year, and improve on our home form, which we will. We’ve added a little bit of speed, a little bit of skill, a little bit of creativity in the final third which hopefully gives us a little bit of nicer style to watch.”
For now, Riley was just getting his team used to playing with each other, getting their feet underneath them, and familiarizing them with his style. Many of them, Betos, Ferrelly, Menges and Long to name a few, have played under Riley before either in youth team set-ups or in the WPS.
“I’m very familiar with a lot of them, what they can do, what they can’t do, weaknesses, strengths,” he said. “I think knowing all that is going to help, too.”
Much of this week will be spent trying out different combinations of players and formations. With the national team players set to arrive later this month, Riley is also using this as an opportunity to see how the team operates without them.
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“That’s really the focus of the next week is how good will we be without them and can we play without everybody,” he said. “What system are we going to play without everybody and then what system are we going to play when we’ve got everybody.”
In two weeks, the squad will head south to Tucson, Ariz. to train at the Kino Sports Complex—the same facility the Portland Timbers spent time at earlier this winter. Hosted by USL PDL club FC Tucson, the Thorns will play two friendlies while there: one against the University of Arizona on Mar. 25 (7pm PT, TICKETS) and then another against Arizona State University on Mar. 30 (2pm PT, TICKETS).
“In Arizona we’ll put all the pieces together when everybody arrives,” said Riley. “Hopefully the fitness levels will be even better then and I think the knowledge that we’ll have of every player will be even better then and more impactful.”
For now, Riley is keen to keep his team working hard through intense two-a-day sessions that are set to challenge the team’s ability and focus.
“I think you’ll see the players, come Thursday and Friday, when they’re going to get tired, can they still play, can they still think, can they still work with each other?”
But with the rain stopping and the sun drenching a vibrant Providence Park pitch, Riley and his squad were happy to have the first training session under their belts.
"Any time you step into a stadium like this where you’ve got a place to train like this, it can only be good," he said. "This environment is fantastic."