BEAVERTON, Ore. – If there is a dominant inquiry that’s surrounded the first week-plus of Portland Thorns FC preseason, it’s focused on how the team will handle this summer’s World Cup.
Barely eclipsing questions about the North Carolina Courage, concerns about the Thorns’ readiness for their squads’ summer absences have been asked of each player, and not without reason. The last time the organization faced this challenge, in 2015, remains the only season Portland failed to make the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs.
Still, so much about the team has changed since then. And head coach Mark Parsons, available to the media for the first time this preseason on Monday, the club’s outlook on the coming challenge was partially revealed.
“An advantage for us is during that World Cup period where maximum players are away,” Parsons explained, alluding to a May-to-mid-July stretch that could cost the team eight-to-nine key players, “you look at the group and the roster, those players played the first six, seven, eight, nine games for us last year.”
Parsons is alluding to players like defenders Emily Mengesand Katherine Reynolds, fullback Meghan Klingenberg, wide threat Midge Purce and midfielder Celeste Boureille, among others. While injuries and absences left the team shorthanded for many of the season’s opening rounds, players like Britt Eckerstrom, Mallory Weber, Ifeoma Onumonu, Tyler Lussi and Kelli Hubly helped Portland survive.
This year, with the return of Dagny Brynjarsdottir as well as increased availability from Ana Crnogorcevic and Angela Salem, the Thorns may be better equipped to deal with the season’s challenge. Elizabeth Ball will also be back, with the draft picks made over the last two years (Gabby Seiler, Sandra Yu, Bella Bixby, Emily Ogle) only adding to Parsons' options.
“Our experience in our roster, our depth in our roster, is very strong,” Parsons feels. “That’s an advantage and a positive, but we have to use that advantage. It doesn’t mean that everything is going to be perfectly smooth. I’ve enjoyed looking at what that looks like, because we’ve got a huge amount of players. But we had nine, 10, 11 players missing for the first six games last year, and those first four (games) went well.”
That depth was one of two themes Parsons hit on when talking about 2019’s challenges. The other was quality, and not only in the caliber of his personnel. With so many players due to miss significant time this season, Parsons is tasked with making every moment he has with his players count. He can’t rely on quantity to make up the difference, a lesson he feels would have served his staff well last year, too.
“Remove the challenges of only having the group there at the end for only eight games (in 2018),” Parsons says, creating a quick thought experiment. “I need to be better, and our staff needs to be better at if you lose the quantity of training repetitions, and training hours, and video hours because of the change, how can you improve the quality of what you are doing? How can you achieve more with less? And this year presents us with that, straight away.
“We know we only have certain players for this many training sessions or this many games, so our quality and our impact of our training and our videos have to be better than what they were last year. While I repeat that to get in a home playoff and to beat a rival and to get to that position is unbelievable achievement considering what we went through, in the end, it still wasn’t enough to get what we came to this party for.”
That end point, when the Thorns could very well face the Courage again (should either team get that far), is another challenge that will define the 2019 season. But come that point, Portland will have their full roster. To reach that level, the Thorns may need to maximize every asset they have in their squad. And in terms of those assets, Parsons feels his team is better situated than most.
“Our biggest advantage is our depth, our experience in that depth, our quality in that depth,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of NWSL minutes that will be playing in that period.
“I’ll be honest with you: There’ll be a lot of NWSL minutes that won’t get on the pitch during the World Cup. No matter what way we cut those numbers up, there will be players on the bench who can’t get on the Thorns’ field, and they’ve played five, six, eight, nine, 10 NWSL games in the last 12 months.”