Thorns.vsNC103021.CM121

Bella Bixby has yet to spend a full season as Portland Thorns FC’s starting goalkeeper, but thanks to today’s news, there’s little doubt of her importance in the team’s future. As announced by her club today, Bixby has signed a new, three-year contract with the Thorns, one which will run through the 2024 National Women’s Soccer League season.

“Bella’s leadership on and off the field is integral to the core of this team,” Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc said in her team’s announcement. “She is a part of our long-term vision for the club, and keeping Bella in her hometown remains a priority of ours.”

For those who closely follow the Thorns, this type of deal will feel like a no brainer. Bixby, 26, has been a Thorn since she was drafted by the team in 2018, and though it took two years before she made her professional debut, she’s performed like one of the NWSL’s best goalkeepers since. Having grown up in Portland’s suburbs and played at Oregon State, Bixby is also a hometown product.

For those who aren’t as familiar with the Thorns, though, there is a natural question: Why does this matter? We’ll start with the context, but in terms of what this deal says about Bixby and the Thorns’ future, the commitment is most important.

What happened?

Because Bixby has been the Thorns’ starting goalkeeper since the middle of the 2021 season, a new contract comes with a slight pro forma feel. But in the NWSL, there’s a little more context.

It was only two years ago that the league’s rules allowed for these types of multi-year deals. Coincidentally, the Thorns quickly signed one of their young players, fullback Ellie Carpenter, to that type of deal. Whereas before players were limited to one-year contracts with the potential for a team-held option year, the 2019 rule change allowed deals for up to be to three seasons, again with the potential for a team option.

Despite that change, the one-plus-one deals are still the NWSL norm, which makes Bixby’s new one a little special. As with the resigning of Emily Menges last season, Portland’s used the relatively new mechanism to commit to one of their squad’s core. Now explicitly, Bixby is part of that foundation.

How did we get here?

For most Thorns, their connection to the club goes back a few years. Players like Christine Sinclair — here since the team’s first games in 2013 — have become the exception. But Bixby’s past connects her to the team in an unparalleled way. A graduate of Milwaukie, Oregon’s Rex Putnam High School, Bixby grew up with the Thorns.

20210702 bella bixby portland thorns.jpg

She attended games when a professional career was still a dream. She stayed close for college. She was drafted by her local team and has spent most of her time as a Thorn improving in the shadows. It was only last summer that the world saw how much she’d improved.

But that improvement is why we’re here. With her chance at 2020’s Challenge Cup, Bixby played like of the best goalkeepers in the tournament, and when a trade elevated her to Portland’s No. 1 spot this summer, that quality persisted. Bixby quickly showed she could be a professional starter.

“Bella is a young and talented goalkeeper that has a very high ceiling,” Nadine Angerer, the team’s goalkeeping coach, said. “A key part of a strong spine, she is calm and composed under pressure with a strong ability to read the game and make smart decisions, while her character has made a positive impact inside the locker room.”

That character is difficult to capture in a space like this, but it was an important part of Bixby’s value. It’s no secret that the Thorns experienced a difficult season off the field, and in those difficulties, there were myriad tests of the team’s leadership. Bixby may have far less on-field experience than the Sinclairs and Mengeses of the team, but with her perspective, she’s become a valuable voice. Bixby’s already become a leader within the Thorns.

Combined with what she brings on the field, Bixby is an obvious choice for this type of deal.

Why does it matter … for next season?

Other than confirming Bixby will be a Thorn in 2022 — about which, there was no real doubt — today’s news doesn’t change much for next season. Bixby is committed to the team. The team is committed to her. There was no reason to suspect otherwise, before.

If anything, today’s news eliminates any room for speculation. Of course, the contract means more certainty for the Bixbys as well as Bella’s professional future, but in terms of the sports' dynamic, deals like these kill gossip before it starts. The types of “are they happy” and “could they move on” speculation people use to fill gaps can be skipped, for now. Bixby and Portland have made their intentions clear to the world.

Why does it matter … in the long term?

Given her path, it’s easy to see Bixby’s present as something that will persist. But this is professional sports – a career where it’s especially difficult to predict what will happen two, three years from now. Bixby’s been through some of those realities with her injuries, having overcome a broken wrist and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in recent seasons. Contracts like these give players a little more security should those types of obstacles resurface.

There are also better-case scenarios. Take Carpenter’s situation. Shortly after signing her new Thorns deal, she was a player of interest for France’s Olympique Lyonnais, who eventually paid a transfer fee as part of Carpenter’s European move.

Every player’s preferences are different, but should Bixby’s preferences ever draw her from Portland, her new contract gives the club some insurance. In exchange for the security they provide with the years on the deal, they get the security of more certainty, knowing an important player is more likely to stay a Thorn.

What’s next?

To the extent it was ever diverted, focus can stay on the field, now. There Bixby and the Thorns seem to have two goals.

The first comes back to how 2021 ended, and the feeling of finishing a season short of the team’s goals. With their 2-0 home loss to the Chicago Red Stars in this fall’s playoff semifinals, Portland was deprived of the only trophy they hadn’t claimed over the previous 14 months: the NWSL’s championship trophy. Coincidentally, that’s now the only league trophy Bixby hasn’t won.

20210801 bella bixby

Along with those team goals, though, are Bixby’s personal goals. That means continuing to improve. Though she is already playing at an international level, there’s a higher ceiling. After all, she’s only played 1800 professional minutes. As that number grows, there’ll by new challenges, battles against inconsistency, and the burden of more expectations. Bixby’s no longer a player judged by development. Her improvement is now measured in on-field results.

By the end of this new contract, those results should be more apparent to Thorns fans, those who follow the NWSL, and the eyes of the world. They should also, if 2021 is any indication, mean more silverware for Bixby and Portland.