Mark Parsons, Thorns vs. Utah, 9.20.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Two games, two wins but Thorns aim to get even better: "There’s a lot more in the tank for this group"

The home phase of Portland Thorns FC's NWSL Fall Series ended on Wednesday night, and vibrantly so. Led by three goals from team captain Christine Sinclair, Portland defeated OL Reign, 4-1. Combined with their victory nine days earlier over the Utah Royals, the Thorns went 2-0-0 on their homestand, scoring seven times through five players while conceding only once.

“I feel good, feel great,” was head coach Mark Parsons’ reaction to his team’s progress. “It is about growth, but also about confidence, and tonight (against OL Reign), even when the unforced errors happened, it didn’t shake us.”

Now Utah and the Reign get their chances at redemption. On Saturday, Portland will be in Sandy, Utah, for their first of two games away from home (7pm PT, CBS Sports Network). Seven days later, the Thorns’ season finale will take place in Tacoma.

The change in venue should be significant, and not only because of the inconvenience of travel. Over Portland’s last two games, Parsons was clear on the value he saw in Providence Park. “It’s good for the soul to be playing in this stadium.” In that respect, a few road games may be good for the team, in the bigger picture.

The Thorns have begun to show that, freed from the burden of playing on the road, the team might be able to put up impressive numbers. Two home games is a small sample, but it’s a still sample. It’s also not the reality of an actual season, or what 2021 will be about. At some point, Portland will have to face the challenges of the road, and any information the coaching staff can get on that before the 2021 preseason will help.

That’s part of the importance of Saturday’s game, though more broadly, the Thorns will be working on the same things they’ve worked on at home. A lot of that comes down to “confidence,” to use Parsons’ word, in the team’s style.

“We’re very clear on what we want to be and how we want to play,” Parsons said after his team’s victory over OL Reign. “This is about improving. This is about growing.”

Sinclair offered specifics.

“The thing we’ve been working on is finishing our attack,” she explained. “It was something that was kind of lacking in the Challenge Cup earlier in the year, and it’s been a really big focus for us. I think you’ve seen against Utah and then again tonight, that not only are we finishing chances but we’re creating a lot of chances.”

“Of course there's always a lot of things that we have to get better at,” Rocky Rodríguez, one of the Thorns main offseason acquisitions, said on Wednesday. “And we will, and we want to. Because I think that the more that this team plays together, the more that we grow. So it's only exciting and promising.”

It would be fair, here, to note the team has shown promise throughout 2020, and for a lot of fans, that’s probably also exciting. But the one thing that was missing earlier this year during July’s Challenge Cup was the end product. Despite making the semifinals of that tournament, Portland only scored four times in six games. As promising as their process might have been, it was also frustrating when the team didn’t break through in front of goal.

Through that tournament, Parsons focused that process – the pieces that built toward Portland's actions on goal. Those might have needed work, but what came before was good, he’d imply. The attack was improving despite the results.

“Something we came out of the Challenge Cup and wanted to instill and be stronger in this Fall Series was this really brave and bold attacking mentality,” Parsons said. “When things are tough and when you misplace a pass or you haven’t got the momentum, not to shy away from being that team that can get us back on the attack. I thought we did that really well [against OL Reign]. Even after some mistakes, we stuck to who we are and it paid off.”

From that, we can see some of the goals for the Thorns on the road. The bravery needs to persist, the mentality has to become a constant, but as much as anything, the team needs to show their act transcends one venue. Providence Park needs to be a “fortress” – to use a term that’s come up often around the Portland Timbers, recently – but Portland’s teams have to be able to take some of their success on the road.

Plus, for Parsons, there’s more to give. As much as Portland showed in the last 60 minutes against the Reign, their coach thinks there’s still another level.

“It’s scary to think there’s more in the tank,” Parsons said, “but there is. There’s a lot more in the tank for this group, collectively and individually.”