The type of tunnel vision Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons adopts in the days before a game was on display Thursday morning, when his video conference ahead of Saturday’s trip to Tacoma, Washington, cast him as unwilling to look beyond his team’s NWSL Fall Series finale against OL Reign (5pm PT, Twitch).
“You certainly, with your two questions, are thinking a lot more about it being the last game, the offseason, and other things that are coming our way than I am,” he said, when asked about the feeling and priorities heading into Saturday’s game. “You're thinking a lot more.
“We're really focused on the present,” he continued. “We're really focused on today's training, tomorrow's training, and the game Saturday. And maybe [that’s] because I'm not willing to accept or get my mind onto this [as] our last game with this group in this challenging year, because the vibe throughout, it feels like preseason. This whole year has felt like a stop-start preseason, and we're ready to go play a regular season right now.”
Parsons would repeat his preseason analogy later in his press conference, and looking at the Fall Series schedule, it’s a parallel that should have been drawn before. Over nearly a month’s time, teams are getting four games – the amount Portland plays in a normal March, between the Thorns Invitational and a scrimmage against a collegiate foe. During that time, assessments have to be balanced against results. Wins are important, but only so far as they say something about the future. The 2020 NWSL Fall Series has been about what 2021 could become.
To that end, all signs have been good for the Thorns. Since picking up from their semifinal run at summer’s NWSL Challenge Cup, Portland have seen their attacking woes wane, going from scoring four times over six games in Utah to averaging 2.0 goals per game this fall.
Small sample sizes? Sure, but progress has to start with a small sample, and while it would be wise to wait and see if the team’s newfound attacking confidence will carry over to next preseason, the trends are flowing in the right direction. Both in attack and defense – where Portland have conceded twice in three games – the Thorns are getting closer to Parsons’ whiteboard vision.
“We have a lot of optimism and a lot of excitement, but there has not been a single game where we've had everyone available for selection,” Parsons explained. “Despite all our positivity and optimism, there has definitely been adversity, and there have definitely been lots of challenges, which creates more excitement for the future, that we still have not had everyone available.”
But again, this may be diving too deep into the future; at least, it’s too deep for both Parsons and rookie forward Morgan Weaver, a native of suburban Tacoma who will be making her first trip home as a professional.
“I'm super excited,” she said, when asked about playing so close to home. “It kind of sucks that my parents can't come, but they'll still technically be there, because they're going to be watching from afar, they said. So, whatever that means.”
Like Parsons, Weaver isn’t looking at Saturday’s game as a finale, even if she knows that’s the case. Instead, she’s looking at it as an extension of something positive – the fact the Thorns have been able to get back on the field at all.
“I'm very thankful that we got a season, even though it wasn't that long ...,” she explained. “Not many other teams are able to do it. For the NWSL to be able to get these games in is awesome.”
With most of those games in, the Thorns sit at the top of the NWSL’s standings, albeit with a game in hand on the co-leading Washington Spirit. With the Houston Dash only one point behind, Portland will need a win to clinch first place without help. Should they do so, they will secure the Verizon Community Shield, an honor that comes with a $25,000 grant to the Thorns’ Fall Series community partner Mimi’s Fresh Tees, a company that uses fashion to promote conversations around social justice.
“It would mean an absolute huge amount [to finish first],” Parsons said. “We're supporting Mimi's Fresh Tees. The opportunity to give back to a local business and really continue the conversation, important conversations, that needs to happen. It needs to continue to happen across the country, not just in Portland and Oregon. That gives [finishing first] special meaning.”
In reality, Mimi’s Fresh Tees is likely to get some money, regardless. The Fall Series’ second-place finishers win $15,000 for their partners; third place earns a $10,000 grant. Though lopsided results could still sway the standings against the Thorns, Portland goes into their last game with the league’s best record, goal difference, and can only be fully passed by the Dash. Other teams that can match Portland’s point total will also have to win the tiebreakers, too.
In that sense, the Thorns have already accomplished a couple of things this fall. They’ve made progress from Challenge Cup, and they’re on the brink of helping a good cause. Until Saturday night, that’s as far as Parsons is willing to look.