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Rob Gray/isiphotos.com

Remembering 2020: When Thorns FC's future shined through in Utah

There was a point in the middle of this July, before the vibes of the NWSL’s Fall Series surrounded the Portland Thorns with a hopeful feel, that the team’s year was defined by doubt. Amid COVID-19, worries about whether the team would play or how safe those games would be had been answered, allowing fan’s focus and worry to move back to the field. Coming off 2019’s third-place finish, had Portland figured out how to right its course? And what would an avalanche of offseason changes actually mean on the field?

Four games into that transition, it was too soon to tell. But that didn’t absolve head coach Mark Parsons from having to face skepticism. It came in questions from the press, who asked why his team’s attack wasn’t clicking. It came implicitly from the standings, with the Thorns dropping to eighth out of eight teams by the end of the tournament’s preliminary round.

“Everything we wanted to show tonight, apart from the final third, was there,” was head coach Mark Parsons’ refrain three games into the tournament. His team had just come off a 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit, a result that pushed Portland’s record to 0-1-2. His team had scored twice in three games despite generally controlling possession. They’d only conceded three times. People began wondering why they couldn’t score four.

“Here we are, game three,” Parsons said at the time, and “[the attack] hasn’t clicked in the final third, which is disappointing. At the same time, no team comes to a tournament, catches fire, and stays alight for the whole thing.”

It felt like a coach trying to stay positive; trying to maintain perspective amid a tournament where playing was an achievement of it’s own. But it only took one more game, a scoreless draw that closed the preliminary round, to add more urgency to Parsons’ words. Four games into the tournament in Utah, the Thorns had scored twice, failed to win, and were looking up at the rest of the field.”

“[I’m] proud of [our] progress,” Parsons insisted in the days before Portland’s Challenge Cup quarterfinal. “What we’re doing in performance. What we’re doing in preparation. What we’re doing on the field. What we’re doing off the field.”

There was no better way to show that progress than another matchup against the league’s standard-bearers: the two-time defending champions North Carolina Courage. The Thorns had lost to the Courage, 2-1, to open the tournament, and like most teams in the NWSL, Portland was trying to catch up. Two seasons earlier, the Thorns had defeated the Courage in 2017’s title game, but in the interim, a gap had opened. A loss to the Courage in the 2018 final. Being eliminated before a possible rematch at the end of 2019. North Carolina was pulling away from the field.

“We knew heading into this tournament that, chances are, if you wanted to win it, you would have to beat North Carolina,” Thorns’ captain Christine Sinclair said before the teams’ quarterfinal. “We’re going to try and do it right off the bat.”

In hindsight, it’s hard to remember the Courage were huge favorites in the game; hard because of what the Thorns would do. Besides, the stakes weren’t high enough. This wasn’t the Miracle on Ice or Douglas beating Tyson, but there was an air of dominance around North Carolina that Portland had to overcome. They’d played North Carolina well to open the tournament, but the teams’ paths had diverged over the rest of the round. Would that opening-game performance even matter in the knockout round?

At the onset, it looked like it wouldn’t. As usual in North Carolina games, the Courage began racking up shots, pushing Portland’s back line toward its own goal, and testing whether the Thorns’ defense could maintain their composure. For so many games across the last four seasons — across a league that had struggled to solve the Courage — the story stayed the same. Could you handle the pressure, the intensity, the power? For most North Carolina opponents, that answer was, “no.”

But for the first 45 minutes, Portland endured, surviving a 12-4 deficit in shots to reach halftime scoreless. The same defending that had been so strong in the preliminary stage — that would finish the tournament allowing only four goals in six games — was again proving a bright spot. Britt Eckerstrom was giving an all-time performance in goal, while the Thorns gave their attack time to find solutions.

In the 68th minute, that solution arrived. It arrived in a way that had been missing over the tournament’s first four games; a way that showed the final pieces that Parsons and his players so eagerly sought. Through one of the central players in the team’s offseason shakeup — and number two college draft pick Morgan Weaver’s first professional goal — Portland struck a blow that, in retrospect, provided the first flash of their potential.

It was the match’s only goal. And, it was the last goal of the Thorns’ tournament. They defeated North Carolina, eliminating the tournament’s favorite and the knockout round’s top seed with a 1-0 triumph, but Portland went to lose by the same score in the next round. The Houston Dash, with successive shutouts of the Utah Royals, Thorns and Chicago Red Stars, would claim their first major NWSL honor.

“I think we’re going to leave disappointed, for sure,” defender Emily Menges said in the minutes after the loss. “I don’t think we reached the best version of ourselves. But there were definitely some positives, so I think we have a good launching point for whatever comes next.”

In that last thought, perspective came through. The Thorns knew the Challenge Cup would be about more than what happened in Utah. They knew it was the first step toward something else - toward what their team would be expected to do when the world got back to normal. That they even put themselves in a position to have expectations — to feel like “[they] definitely [knew] they deserve[d] to be in the final,” as Kelli Hubly put it — was a type of accomplishment, if a mild one. The initial stage of their team building was done. The next stage, where a team tests its growth, had come.

Beating North Carolina showed the foundations were there. It showed the team was ready to push on, demand more of themselves, and expect better performances whenever they returned to the field. When that happened for the Fall Series, Portland went 3-0-1, claimed the Verizon Community Shield, and built a platform for 2021.

That win in Utah was about more than beating a rival. It was about knowing what a team could do. It was about the Thorns delivering on their promise, and giving themselves a reason to aspire to be more going forward.

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