While Raso leaves on her own path, she departs Thorns having grown as player

Hayley Raso, Thorns vs Reign, 7.5.19

Her new team broke the news last week, beating Hayley Raso’s club of the last four years to the punch. Procedures and rules within the National Women’s Soccer League prevented Portland Thorns FC from acknowledging the deal until now, but acknowledge it, they have. The announcement came out today.

Adding to a list that includes names like Sonnett, Foord and Purce, Raso becomes the latest difficult departure in an offseason of turnover. Also set to leave her W-League team, Brisbane Roar, and join Everton – who currently sit fifth in England’s top division – the 25-year-old attacker is following in the footsteps of Australian soccer legend Tim Cahill, with the Toffees having already trumpeted their icon’s approval.

"When I spoke to Hayley and there were talks with Everton, it was very easy to tell her the best things about the club," Cahill told his former club.

There are, of course, great things about the club Raso’s leaving, too, which have led many Thorns fans to ask, “Why?” Ever since rumors surfaced over the last few weeks about the Australian international’s potential departure, fans have fairly asked why such an important part of the team – a player who had been recognized, in the past, by supporters as their player of the year – would be departing. Why is she leaving not only the club but also the NWSL and choosing a destination which, while on an upward trajectory, has yet to garner the same name recognition as, say, a Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea or Arsenal?

That speculation is probably best left for another space; or, the speculation could be avoided, entirely. Raso will undoubtedly have time to explain why, at this point of her career, this was the right move. And being young, having already spent four years in one place, it’s understandable that she would want a new challenge. Just as Matlidas teammate Sam Kerr opted to swap Chicago’s blue for Chelsea’s, or childhood friend Caitlin Foord appears set for a European jaunt of her own, so too does Raso crave another chapter, something common for athletes across all sports. For now, it’s better to remember the past, and in doing so, know what Portland has lost.

What they’ve lost is one of the most self-actualized players in club history, somebody who came to Portland having been cast off from the Washington Spirit and made herself into a consistent international. To do so, Raso translated a tenacity and toughness that had defined her game into an end product – a player capable of disrupting backlines, stretching defenses, and translating both into goals. She had help from coaches and teammates, but as much as any player, Raso is self made – forged by inability to accept failure, or be told she’s something less than she wants. Over the course of four seasons, she became a player who claimed consistent, starting playing time on one of the most talented teams in the world, and in the process, she became a player who, when playing to her potential, gave Portland its best chance to be its best self.

She was part of Shield winners. Part of title winners. She never missed the playoffs during her time in Portland. As she showed in the second half of last year’s semifinal in Chicago, she’s a player capable of changing matches, one casting constant torment on opposing markers. Whereas she had 229 minutes and two starts in the year before she joined the Thorns, Raso’s four years in the Rose City would end with 72 appearances, 48 starts, and 13 goals. She leaves transformed.

“The passion and energy that Hayley brought to this club will be missed and we appreciate all of her contributions over the past four seasons,” general manager Gavin Wilkinson said in the club’s release, acknowledging a profile which, in its uniqueness, could prove irreplaceable.

“I will be forever grateful to the Portland Thorns for taking a chance on me and allowing me to represent this amazing club for the last four years,” Raso said. “I am incredibly proud to have been coached by Mark [Parsons], who developed me into the player I am today, as well as playing alongside some of the greatest players in the world.

“To the fans, I’ve never experienced anything like the love and support you show. Thank you for supporting me and letting me experience your immense passion week in and week out.”

Those last words reflect the other ways which, during her time in Portland, Raso made her mark. 2018’s #RibbonsZ may be the most memorable example, but as her 2019 Community Player of the Year honor attests, that effort was part of a pattern. Over the course of her Portland tenure, Raso’s path off the field paralleled her path on, meaning the void she leaves in the community could resemble the one she leaves in the roster.

Of course, the Thorns are already planning around the latter. The two top picks in last week’s draft targeted attacking talent. Rumors of future arrivals from the French league may prove prescient or false, but they reflect an intention to keep adding to the team’s arsenal. The team’s attack is being reformed, and while that means favorites like Foord, Purce and Raso are gone, the potential of the Smiths and Weavers of the world could prove worth the gamble.

But again, that drifts us too far into the future. It also implies that decision was the Thorns’ alone. It wasn’t. For as much respect as Raso’s rise has earned, it also earned her an opportunity, one she’s chosen to pursue. Nobody should begrudge that choice. Instead, and in line with the memories she crafted in Portland, Portland should be happy for her, and optimistic about what’s to come.

“Hayley has been an important player who has developed tremendously over the last four years,” Mark Parsons said. “I look forward to supporting her from a distance in her next step and hope we can welcome her back to Portland in the future.”

“Raso has departed the club,” the team’s statement says. Maybe not forever, but for now, she’s gone. She started the next chapter, and though it's too soon to tell what that chapter holds, in Portland, she leaves a past worth writing about.