For Portland Thorns FC midfielder Hayley Raso, it's been a sweet return to her former club Canberra United FC.
Raso, an Australian native who signed her first professional contract with Canberra in 2011 and played a small role in the team's first-ever Westfield W-League championship that season, went on loan to the Australian club this past offseason along with Thorns teammate Celeste Boureille.
“For me, it was really nice to come back,” said Raso. “I really enjoyed my time here and played with a really good group of girls when I was here and I was a young player and looked up to a lot of the girls that I was with...There's still some familiar faces around from when I was here, but it's just good to be back.”
Together, the two Thorns midfielders have helped Canberra achieve the first of what the club hopes will be two major trophies.
In order to do that, however, Canberra had to first get past the Melbourne Victory, a feat they achieved with relative ease, cruising past the Victory 5-1 last Friday.
Then came the waiting game.
“We didn't know we'd won the Premiership until we were all sitting in front of the TV watching the [Sydney FC] game [on Saturday],” Raso explained. “That was all exciting for us when the result ended the way we wanted.”
Sydney FC had started the final round of matches on top of the league table, but a stinging 5-2 loss to Adelaide United sunk Sydney's hopes and propelled Canberra atop the table for its league-record third premiership title.
Now the Canberra club hopes to make its way to the league's Grand Final on February 12 and secure both league trophies. They meet Melbourne City FC at 1:00am PT local time on Feb. 5 (ESPN3.com) in the playoff semifinals.
But if there had ever been any doubts about what this team might accomplish, Raso says that she and her teammates quickly shook those off after an impressive display in their opening match of the season.
“We knew from the first game [that this would be a special season],” she said. “We came out against the team that won the league last year...and we played some really good football. We lost by one goal but I think we knew from there that we were going to work very well this season.”
After that opener, a 2-1 loss to Melbourne City FC in November, Canberra United went on to win or draw nine of its remaining 11 matches.
“We've played really good combination football. We have some really good attacking threats. It's been really good for us,” Raso said.
For Boureille, a California native who had never before made the nearly 8,000 mile trip from Portland to Australia, the journey with Canberra United has been fulfilling both personally and professionally.
“My time here has just flown by,” she said. “It's been awesome being able to come here right after the NWSL season and keep playing. I think it would have felt like too long of a wait if I hadn't played in the offseason, so it's been great being able to be in...a semifinal match and have [everything] to play for.”
And despite being so far from home, Boureille has settled right in both on and off the field, a transition made smoother by the presence and support of Raso.
“Hayley and I talked a lot before my arrival about what I was expecting with Canberra United,” Boureille explained. “So I wasn't as surprised with any aspect because I had Hayley...so in that sense I felt prepared coming in.”
Whether or not Canberra United advances to the Grand Final in two weeks, both Raso and Boureille say that they are returning to Portland better players, energized and prepared for what they hope will be an even more successful season than last year's NWSL Shield-winning campaign.
“I just want to go back with an open mind,” Raso said. “I think it's good for me coming here: I'm fit, I'm ready to go. So I'll be jumping right into preseason over there. I just want to go there and get as much playing time as possible for me. So now I need to work harder in training, prove myself in front of the coaches.”
Adds Boureille: “[I want to continue] my growth and development as a player. I'm concentrated on...being able to add specific things to my game to bring back to Portland.”
But even after an offseason full of achievements, Raso says that there's still one thing that's missing.
“I saw the snow out,” she said of Portland's recent snow storms. “I'm actually a little jealous! I'd love to be in the snow – that's so cool!”