PORTLAND, Ore. – Even if this wasn’t an Olympic year, it would be natural for Portland Thorns FC to reflect back on four years ago. Though few players will be thinking about 2016 as they, today, report to Providence Park for the first day of their new National Women’s Soccer League season, the subtext around the organization is entwined with the choices of then, and whether a similar choice will pay off now.
Back then, the Thorns were coming off their first season without postseason play. Thanks largely to the moves they made that offseason, 2015 still stands as the only time the team has missed the playoffs. Since, the team’s had first-, second-, second- and third-place finishes in the regular season, with the 2017 campaign culminating in Portland’s second league title.
Following the 2015 season, the team traded its most recognizable player, Alex Morgan. It parted with its head coach, Paul Riley. A slew of other international-caliber players also left – Genovena Añonma, Steph Catley, Kaylyn Kyle, Claire Polkinghorne, Jodie Taylor, and Rhian Wilkinson among them – while the core of a championship team was formed. Lindsey Horan was brought in, as was Emily Sonnett. Meghan Klingenberg, Adrianna Franch, Katherine Reynolds, Nadia Nadim and Hayley Raso arrived, while Amandine Henry marked one of the league’s early high-profile international arrivals.
And of course, Mark Parsons took over as head coach. Now Parsons is part of another overhaul, one that’s cast 2019’s third-place finish in the same light as the worse one of 2015. Among the new faces that will arrive over the coming weeks is first-overall draft pick Sophia Smith, a standout for Stanford and the U.S.’ U-level teams; striker Morgan Weaver, a dominant presence over the closing months of Washington State’s fall campaign; Rocky Rodriguez, one of the better two-way midfielders in the NWSL; and Becky Sauerbrunn, whose career has earned her a place in any Best Defender of All Time discussion.
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“We need to be incredibly clear on our identity this year, like we have been in `16, `17 and `18,” Parsons said earlier this week on a special edition podcast. His thoughts were in response to a question about Sauerbrunn, but the ideas could be applied to the team’s entire overhaul.
“[In] `19, we had a strategic approach of changing that style of play, multiple times,” he admits. “Clearly, [we] paid a huge price for that, especially near the end. Because that’s one factor of multiple factors, obviously, that led to our problems.
“We need to have a very clear and precise identity, but we also need quality players that have a certain, specific profile to be able to reach that.”
Sauerbrunn and Rodriguez fit that profile, and in time, Smith and Weaver could, too. But there will be more arrivals. Parsons said as much earlier this week, saying two international signings are close. The club has already been linked with the arrival of another prominent European, and while it would be hard for any player to have the impact of an Amandine Henry, the reputations being linked with Portland are just a stratosphere below.
Consider those changes the true context of the 2020 season, with 2016 being the standard. When the Thorns undertook their shakeup four years ago, the team went on to claim its only NWSL Shield. The first-place finish in the league’s regular-season was surprising at the time, but in hindsight, it feels much less so. Time showed Parsons and team president of soccer and general manager Gavin Wilkinson had forged a championship core, and while it may be too much to expect Portland’s new, refactored group to immediately claim a Shield, the long-term standard is along those lines. In tweaking the team’s previous championship core, Portland hopes it has formed a new one.
“Right off the bat, [Wilkinson] was very passionate about trying to bring in four to five top starting-caliber players,” Parsons said of his team’s offseason. “We still have a little bit of business to do … we’re not done. There are two negotiations going on now with international players … They’re close, and we’ll see if they come over the line …
“We’ve had blows as well, losing good people and good players. We have to be very, very happy where the recruitment coming in has been, and the quality of the players coming in has been. At the same time, no single team has won a championship in this league with just talent.”
Plenty of obstacles await this group’s year one. Like most NWSL teams, the Thorns will be missing part of their squad over preseason’s first weeks, with United States internationals, among others, away at tournaments. In the ramp up to this summer’s Olympics, international commitments will continue, with the U.S. persisting with its typical, active pre-tournament buildup. Just as with last year’s World Cup, teams will be disrupted by midseason returns. Those that manage their challenges best before November – the latest date yet for the league’s championship game – will be in position to claim the league’s eighth title.
In the past, the Thorns have met those challenges with varying success. 2016’s Shield came in an Olympic year, but only after the failure of 2015’s World-Cup season. 2019 was more of a mixed bag, but Portland’s clearly above mixed bags. The disappointment of last season is what sparked an overhaul for this one.
“This league pushes everyone to its absolute max to be a team, to be cohesive, to be connected, to be on the same page,” Parsons explains. “It’s really, really exciting about the talent that has come in, and one thing that you can’t often speed up … [is] the progression of a team, the development of a team, on and off the field.”
How quickly that development happens will define 2020, as well as the standard for this squad’s new chapter. For some, that standard will be trophies. The team will say as much. The real standard, though, is how this overhaul sets Portland up for their next burst. That burst may last four years, or it may be shorter. It may come in 2020, or 2020 may light the fuse. Regardless, there needs to be a burst. 2020 needs to get the Thorns back on course.
“We can’t be what we were last year,” Parsons concedes. “We’re going into what feels like a new era, a brand new cycle with the changes we’ve made.”
Too many changes have happened for last year to repeat itself. The new names across the locker room say as much. Now, it’s time to put those changes in motion. It’s time for the Thorns to move forward.