BEAVERTON, Ore. – Thorns FC’s squad would be forgiven if, over the course of their month-long preseason, they started staring into the distance.
Preseason can feel long, after all, with the lack of competitive games providing few meaningful measuring sticks along the way. Exhibitions games help, as did the week the Thorns spent focused on their Spring Invitational Tournament presented by Tillamook Yogurt, but every preseason is really about one thing: building toward the regular season’s game one.
And the Thorns certainly have a big game one. After defeating North Carolina, 1-0, in last year’s NWSL Championship game, Portland is tasked with opening its title defense in the Courage’s backyard, with Saturday’s Lifetime showcase (12:30 p.m. PT) giving former Thorns head coach Paul Riley a chance to exact some revenge after 2017’s season-ending loss.
That’s the big-picture perspective. For Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, though, the context is more limited. North Carolina is, simply, the first game of the season.
“We’ve been very good at having the binoculars and knowing what’s next, what’s coming, which is Carolina, from day one,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said last week, before the team’s final game of the preseason. “Preseason is about preparing the body, and the mind, and the social, and the emotions for the season, but specifically, for the first task, which is Carolina away.”
Chicago has also been in the coaching staff’s thoughts, Parsons confessed. The Red Stars host the Thorns in the season’s second game, on March 31. But Parsons’ staff is also keeping an eye on the NWSL’s newest team, the Utah Royals FC, who the Thorns visit for the first time on April 28.
It’s part of a coach’s mandate, to stay focused on the rest of the league, a mandate that isn’t passed on to the players. They are asked to take a more short-term view of their preparation, one that often precludes looking beyond a day’s training, let alone the next opponent.
For Parsons, it’s a binoculars versus magnifying glass approach – the new terms he uses for a mindset he instilled in his initial days as Thorns boss.
“We’ve had the binoculars out, and at the same time, we get the magnifying glass out, to take the detail a day at a time, a week at a time,” he said. “So, we’ve been looking at Carolina from day one, but then, we’ve also been looking at Chicago. The players haven’t … but [the coaching staff] have to.”
The players, though, have been looking to North Carolina. Given the stature of the game, it would be hard not to, and as preseason reached its finally stages, players were willing to admit their heads were turned.
“A little bit,” defender Katherine Reynolds confessed, when asked about the Courage matchup, before Portland’s final preseason game. “Obviously, we’re focused on [preseason] and still working on things we need to work on. Yeah, we’re kind of all talking, ‘It’s coming. It’s not far away, now.’”
“While we are still focused on Houston,” who, at the time, were the Thorns’ final preseason opponent, “we also need to make sure that we’re doing things to prepare for North Carolina, because playing North Carolina is way different than playing Houston. It’s coming quick, and we need to be ready.”
But whereas last week the North Carolina matchup was “coming,” now, the reality is here. Ahead of Saturday’s opening game, the Thorns will take part in their final local practice Wednesday in Beaverton, Oregon. Early Thursday, the team will fly back to North Carolina ahead of a final, Friday session on the field. Come mid-day Saturday, the regular season will be here, bringing what was once in the distance into the champions’ full view.
Were this just a title rematch, the game would have enough hype behind it, but the nature of last year’s Championship game leaves Saturday’s meeting even more anticipated. Since the Courage’s core group was assembled three years ago, the team has developed a reputation for being one of the fastest, strongest, and hardest working sides in the NWSL. Together, that translates into physical play, with Riley’s team usually able to use their physicality to maintain an advantage on their opposition.
Last fall in Orlando, the site of the Championship game, the Thorns set the tone early, taking physical control against the league’s most-physical team from the opening kickoff. The approach blunted the match, temporarily putting North Carolina on their heels, and forced Riley’s squad to adjust. Before that adjustment took hold, though, Lindsey Horan scored the game’s only goal, giving the Thorns enough to claim their second title.
Saturday’s match may only be the first of 24 this regular season, but between two teams who have become a type of NWSL Big Two (having claimed all four of the league’s trophies, over the last two years), the game gives Courage players a chance for redemption. For Parsons’ part, though, he hopes his team’s focus is still short-term, on the little things the group needs to do to be prepared for its season’s first kickoff.
“I hope they’re just focused on just having a good training session …,” he said, last week, when asked about the looming Courage match. “If someone asked me, this morning, what’s the biggest objective for the next 10 days, it was to train really well today and have a good recovery.”
Ask the players to use their magnifying glasses. Leave the binoculars to the coaches. On Saturday, the two converge, with Portland set to face what will be a primed North Carolina Courage.