After a frenzied pace of three games in nine days to begin play in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret, Portland Thorns FC now find themselves nearing the tail end of a week-long break before they play their final preliminary round match Monday against the OL Reign at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah (9:30am PT, CBS All Access).
With all teams moving on to the knockout rounds, Monday’s result will determine the seeding going forward. With five teams on four points in the middle of the standings—Portland is sitting on 2 points after two straight draws—Thorns defender Emily Menges believes that the team has adjusted well to the challenges of high altitude and summer heat Utah.
“It was really tough, day three through five like we were told it was going to be,” she said about the altitude. “[The] heat is terrible but we’ve been training early enough that I don’t feel affected and our night game the other day was, once warm up was over and the sun went down…it was totally fine.
“We’ve got through the hardest of those.”
With all the players and staff of all the participating NWSL teams quarantined in a hotel while training and playing in Utah Royals FC/Real Salt Lake’s Zions Bank Stadium complex, there are also challenges of being isolated. However, Menges believes the team has acclimated to that as well.
“In terms of the ‘bubble,’ it’s definitely more mental than physical but I think our team’s doing such a good job, we’re in a good place.”
Ahead of the tournament, the team had seen a host of new players come into the squad. While head coach Mark Parsons has had to rotate the lineup often, given the number of games played over a short period, Menges feels that the process has gone smoothly.
“We wouldn’t usually be rotating as much but we have such strong principles on this team, so everyone who’s been through preseason knows what they’re expected to do. So it’s easy to trust the people around you,” she said.
For example, a player like defender Christen Westphal – who came over to the team in an offseason trade with OL Reign – has seen good deal of playing time on the backline. For Menges, her inclusion has been seamless.
“She’s definitely a calming player to play next to,” Menges said of Westphal. “She never looks like she’s panicked or tired or anything so it’s great to have that kind of person next to you.”
Another player that may appear new to some fans though she’s been with the team for three seasons is goalkeeper Bella Bixby. With U.S. international Adrianna Franch back in Portland due to injury, Bixby has started all three matches for Portland while picking up a shutout in a scoreless draw against Chicago.
Again, Menges points to the team’s commitment to their own identity that helps these different players come in and perform right away.
“I think what I’ve seen, at least, from Bella is just her confidence grow and grow,” she said of the former Rex Putnam High School and Oregon State star.
“It’s similar to how anybody who’s a defender on this team can seamlessly enter. You know what the principles are…[Bella’s] loud. She’s helpful and all that a backline could ask for from a goalkeeper.”