Wednesday’s game between Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign is not your typical National Women’s Soccer League game (7pm PT, Twitch).
In a year defined by the COVID-19 virus, the league has not been able to play a normal season, and until the last two weeks, it had only been able to play July’s NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah. With the arrival of the NWSL’s Fall Series, each team gets four more games within regional pods, but divorced from the stakes of a normal schedule, it’s unclear what, exactly, these games mean.
There are no playoff spots on the line. There’ll be no champion, in the traditional sense. Player statistics do not count toward their normal, NWSL-career numbers. To the extent the games are competitive, the stakes are far different, and lower. Like 2020 itself, the context around this fall’s games is abnormal.
That leaves teams to make of these games what they will. For some people, that means finding pleasure in the mundane.
“I think, one, I'm very grateful we have games to play, and to put on a Thorns jersey again and be able to play a game at Providence Park.” That was Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan’s response on Monday when asked what she hoped to accomplish during the four-game Fall Series. The Thorns won the first of their Series’ games last weekend, 3-0, over visiting Utah Royals FC.
For Horan, any accomplishments from this Series’ remaining games take a backseat to something more immediate. “I think we need to be very grateful that we have that opportunity.”
That type of sentiment was more overt among coaches, players and fans when professional soccer returned to the United States in June. As the NWSL started its Challenge Cup, and Major League Soccer followed soon after with its MLS is Back Tournament, our mornings, days and nights were occupied by something we missed during spring’s shutdown: live sports. Combined with the returns of the NBA and WNBA, soccer came back at a time of need. We had gone too long without something we loved.
Since, we’ve fallen back into our old ways of talking about sports, shifting every “what does it mean” question from the existential to the practical. Now, victories by teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle Storm and Portland Timbers make us look at brackets, and standings, but not each other. Not anymore. Sports have been back for a while, and with the same words we used before, we’ve gone back to talking about sports.
All of which brings us back to the NWSL’s Fall Series. What does it mean? Not in terms of our lives and sports’ place in them, but in terms of something far less important. What does it mean in terms of competition? And a team’s status? In terms of players’ careers, and the perspectives around them? What does Fall Series mean for our very tunnel-visioned, points- and goals- and wins-driven selves?
“It's just another way to get better, and another way to play with our team,” Horan said, shifting from the philosophical. “I think we're lucky enough to say that we have a lot of our players here. Mostly all of them. It's another way for us to keep improving and looking forward to the 2021 season.”
Ah, there is it. The reveal. Though every Fall Series game features two teams trying to win, those victories don’t happen for 2020’s goals. There are no playoffs to qualify for. Instead, the next thing any NWSL team can clinch is a place in the next postseason, next fall.
Like teams out of a playoff race looking toward next season’s horizon, all nine NWSL teams are playing for tomorrow. They’re playing for the next time there’s something on the line.
“It's hard to say one [thing],” was Thorns head coach Mark Parsons’ response when asked the same question as Horan: What’s the one thing he’d want his team to accomplish during the Fall Series? “One is growth,” he added, quickly, “but I'll attach a second point to it ...
“Number one is absolutely improving, growing individually and collectively. But number two is building confidence, building belief in what this team is going to be about in 2021. Both of those answers are in relation to the future, but the only way you can take care of the future is to take care of every day, one day at a time, one week at a time, one game at a time.”
It’s the same approach we’ve had to accept since March. Faced with the indefinite, and posed questions about what now means in the face of tomorrow, we always have a next task. A next worry. A next obstacle, but also, a next solution. We’re tasked with creating something now with the hope it will get us to tomorrow, and if we do it right, we’ll reach that tomorrow as a better version of ourselves.
For the Thorns, that process also involves soccer, and games, and Providence Park. And on Wednesday, that will involve OL Reign, too. But for Horan, amid a fall that’s forced every player to define their own context, that process also involves that people closest in her soccer world:
“The environment that we have here with the Thorns, and the players we have here ... that's motivating in itself: to keep getting better; to keep improving; and developing our team and really pushing toward next season. I think that is the biggest motivation.”