It's the fit: Why Thorns FC are bringing Dagny Brynjarsdottir back to Portland

Thorns FC’s GM and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson teased the signing before Christmas, though his words on Timbers in 30 sent some fans in the wrong direction. An international would be returning to the team, he said at the time, with the player having been away from Portland for the 2018 season.

In fairness, the Thorns’ NWSL history left supporters with a number of players who hit that criteria. And having spent a year away from the game entirely, Dagny Brynjarsdottir was understandably not the first name on a lot of fans’ minds. But with today’s announcement, the Icelandic international is back with Portland, set to return for a third season with the club, marking the first major Thorns acquisition of the NWSL offseason.

“I was about to re-sign with the Thorns (last offseason) when I found out that I was pregnant,” the 27-year-old explains, her son having arrived last June, “so as soon as they showed interested in having me back, I immediately got interested.

“Top clubs in Europe were interested, as well, but in my opinion, the NWSL is the strongest league in the world. The Thorns are one of the best clubs in the world with the players, staff, facility and fans they have, so I decided I wanted to play for the best, while I can.”

That decision allows Brynjarsdottir to pick up where she left off two seasons ago. Over 31 games (18 starts) beginning in 2016, Brynjarsdottir proved a valuable piece for the Thorns, one that was likely to see increased time after the team’s 2017 NWSL Championship season. But pregnancy and childbirth meant the Florida State product spent a celebratory year away from the game. Now, as she makes her comeback to the field, she also makes a comeback to her only NWSL home.

“We hoped Dagny would be in Portland last season,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons says, “and when that wasn’t possible, we wanted to make sure it was an option in 2019.

“Dagny is a Thorn. She is a winner and someone who always pushes herself to be the best she can. This team is built on people like that, and I can’t wait to welcome her and her family here, soon.”

The level at which Brynjarsdottir returns remains to be seen. Until she is competing against NWSL competition again, it is difficult to know how much, exactly, the 27-year-old will be able to contribute. Those questions can’t be answered until players return to Portland for their preseason, a mark that’s still over a month off.

“I always put high expectations for myself,” she said. “I was playing my best soccer when I got pregnant,” having helped Iceland to the cusp of World Cup qualification with a two-goal performance against Germany, “so I’m aiming to get better in every way.

“My main goal is to stay healthy, as my body is still recovering after giving birth, but I want to be better than I have ever been. I’m eager to get back out there and play the game I love so much again and improve as a player, because I know I will in that environment.”

The fact that Wilkinson and Parsons have brought Brynjarsdottir back before those questions can be answered, though, speaks to the impression she made during her two years in Portland. Highly regarded coming out of FSU – where she was runner-up for the MAC Hermann Trophy and helped deliver a national championship – Brynjarsdóttir carved out her fair share of time in a midfield that included players like Lindsey Horan, Amandine Henry and Allie Long. Though she didn’t establish herself as a regular starter, that fight was completely understandable, given the strength of her team’s depth chart. Had she returned in 2018, she would have had an inside track on a starting spot.

“I played in Portland for two seasons, so it will also help that I know the place, the staff members and most of the players,” Brynjarsdottir said, about what will be a near-3,750-mile move. “I’m sure (the team) will help me and my little family out as much as they can while we are so far away from our family and friends at home.”

The familiarity is the easiest thing to grasp about Brynjarsdottir’s fit. What was clear, though, are the culture factors that have led to this reunion – the type of qualities that rarely filter into the public sphere. Even there, though, some details surfaced on day like July 1, 2017, in the middle of her second season in the Rose City. That’s when the natural midfielder, in a derby against Seattle Reign FC at Memorial Stadium, was thrown into action at right back, a position she’d played sparingly before that point. Parsons had players like Ashleigh Sykes, Kendall Johnson and Celeste Boureille at his disposal that day – all players who had more experience at that spot than Brynjarsdottir – but when the decision was made as to who would be tasked with matching up with Reign dynamo Megan Rapinoe, the choice was Brynjarsdottir, a player whose attitude through one-and-a-half years’ competition showed Parsons she could matchup with the American international.

“Dagny has been very versatile for us in the past,” Parsons explains, “and while that can continue to be valuable, we look forward to seeing her compete in our midfield.

“Dagny has a fantastic engine, passes well and loves to join in and score goals. It will be a pleasure to also welcome back her tremendous work rate, ball winning and strength in the air.”

That skillset, along with her mentality and positional versatility, is a big reason why Brynjarsdottir still appeals to Portland. As World Cup absences will hit the club hard this summer, Brynjarsdottir could potentially play as a 10 (Christine Sinclair’s role) or as an eight (in place of Horan). She might slide into defensive midfield, if needs pull Boureille elsewhere, or she may be the person whose approach and all-around skills see her drawn into different spots. She did, after all, start her Portland career in more attacking spots over the summer of 2016.

“I am a central midfielder, and that is my best position,” Brynjarsdottir reminds, “but I’m competing with the best in the world, so I know it won’t be easy. But I’m excited for that challenge.”

Her versatility, though, isn’t the main reason why Brynjarsdottir’s back, and if you were to ask why, among all their options, Portland would focus on her, only the simplest of explanations is needed: The Thorns want Brynjarsdottir to be here. And if Brynjarsdottir’s decided that Portland is the right place for her and her new family, the questions about her return are less about fit with a culture than, eventually, what she’ll be able to contribute.

Those answers will come, and no matter what they bring, Portland will be able to deal with the outcome. But when it comes to players the Thorns want in their locker room – players they want with them along the journey of a season, and potentially the years to come – Brynjarsdottir is somebody Wilkinson and Parsons did not want to miss out on.

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