Portland Thorns FC head coach Cindy Cone has a lot on her plate.
With national team allocations, an inaugural National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft, new player signings, and getting herself and her husband, John Cone, the new Timbers Director of Sports Science, settled into their new city surroundings, it’s safe to say that Cone is busy.
But even with all that, Cone knows she’s found a great city to call home and one that has a particular element she values greatly.
“The first thing that I really appreciate and enjoy about Portland is the food,” she says with an affable laugh. “I mean, the food is amazing.”
Portland is not an entirely new environment for the one-time U.S. National Team striker, as she experienced first-hand the passion that is Soccer City, USA when the USWNT was battling in the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Playing at JELD-WEN Field—then known as PGE Park—Cone was a starter in the frustrating semifinal 3-0 loss against Germany that year.
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Fast forward through a decade which saw her become among the leading scorers in American women’s national team history (75 goals, 35 assists in 158 caps), win a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics (add that to one from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and a FIFA Women’s World Cup victory in 1999), and enjoy a six-year assistant coaching stint alongside legendary head coach Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina, it becomes clear that though she has accomplished much Cone was ready for a new challenge across the country.
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“The thing that really drew me was, when I came for my interview, was just the excitement from everyone that I met for having the Thorns join the Portland Timbers,” she remembers.
Unique in the NWSL in being the only women’s team that shares an MLS partner, Cone saw it as a real resource and one that helped tip the scales in her decision to head west.
“I think we have a huge advantage over a lot of other teams in the league because we do have the support of the Timbers and all of their staff,” she said. “I think that’s going to be huge for us. I couldn’t be more excited.”
It also doesn’t hurt having had an incredibly solid NWSL national team allocation.
In early January, national team players from the United States, Canada, and Mexico were split amongst the eight NWSL team to form the base of each squad. Each national team player allocated has their salary covered by her respective national federation, thus helping the new league’s teams adjust for operating costs. The Thorns FC haul included the 2012 U.S. leading scorer and London Olympics gold medalist Alex Morgan as well as University of Portland Pilot legend and Canadian star Christine Sinclair. The potential pairing of the two already have Thorns fans clamoring for goals and Cone is confident the duo will present an intimidating attack.
“Alex Morgan is fast, great on the dribble, and a world-class finisher,” said Cone. “Christine is obviously a world-class finisher as well but she’s also a tremendous passer and a great header. I couldn’t pick two players that I’d want to have complement each other more than those two.”
American Tobin Heath was also allocated to Portland and while she recently signed a short-term contract with Paris Saint-Germain in France, Cone is very familiar with the person as well as the player, having helped coach Heath to an NCAA national championship with UNC in 2009.
“Tobin is versatile as well, she can play out wide, as well as centrally,” said Cone. “Obviously, we’ll be missing Tobin for the first few months of the season and then we’ll have to implement her and get her back on the field when she comes back from France.”
But with all the talk of offensive weapons, it’s the defense that may be an overlooked secret weapon. Mexicans Luz Saucedo (106 national team caps) and Marlene Sandoval (85 caps) join American Rachel Buehler (98 caps) on an intimidating wall of a backline with Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc (100 caps) directing traffic from the net. It’s an experienced and veteran group.
“I think our defense is very solid,” said Cone simply. Moreover, she added, “The best offense is a good defense. It doesn’t just start with the backs. It starts with the forwards that we have and the midfielders that we have. They’re all good defensive players. We’ll look to high press as a team, win the ball as high as we can.”
But before all of that, melding the team together into a cohesive group that will merge nationalities, a crop of recent NSWL College Draft selections as well as some free agents remains the first step. It’s a daunting challenge and even with the excellent local food scene—“it’s very important and dear to my heart”— the decision to take on the new team in a fledgling league really came down to an equal, if not more imperative, motive:
“A close tie for first place is just the amazing support that Portland has for soccer in general and women’s soccer, specifically.”
With a wealth of great players and supportive environment backing her up, she should have no trouble kicking off things just right.