PORTLAND, Ore. – “Our last trip, things happened, and I ended up having lunch with Tobin.”
That’s Tobin Heath that Midge Purce is talking about; 138-time United States international, Tobin Heath. It was the day before the team’s Aug. 25 game in Washington, D.C., and despite the two having only been together on the same team for a matter of months, circumstances cast the duo alone, getting lunch together, 2,800 miles from home.
For some teammates – ones who’ve built a relationship together over many seasons – the event would be unremarkable. But for players eight years apart in age – people who have only played 11 games together, ever; and who, with Heath’s international commitments, often live in different worlds – it felt refreshingly casual.
This is Purce’s life now, something not so dissonant with what she was experiencing 12 months ago. She was, after all, still playing in the National Women’s Soccer League. But back then, the 22-year-old was just approaching the end of her first professional season, doing so amid an organization that was experiencing the harsh realities of a budding professional league. In January, that organization (the Boston Breakers) ceased to exist, commencing a process that’s landed the Maryland native in Portland.
Here, life is different. Instead of being cast in the context of professional survival, she spends her days practicing in a stadium that can seat over 21,000; her afternoons, often, studying for the LSAT she plans on taking; and the rest of her time embracing her new life as a Portland Thorn.
And that life, apparently, involves talking to one U.S. international about meals with another.
“Lindsey [Horan] was like, ‘What did you [and Heath] even talk about?’” Purce recalls, laughing beneath her words at the mundane absurdity of it all. “I was like, ‘I don’t even remember.’”
“Everyone’s great, so humble. It’s a great place to be.”
That’s the real reason why Purce is laughing. Twice called into U.S. Women’s National Team camps, Purce isn’t unduly awed by the Heaths and Horans in the world. Instead, her awe at the moment, as she looks back at her teammates from the sidelines of Providence Park, is inspired by something different.
“It’s abnormal, actually – that our team gets along so well,” she explains. “I think it’s so strange.”
Purce isn’t wrong. Divisions within locker rooms are the rule, not an exception, something that’s unremarkable when you consider having to spend so much time around the same 20, 25 people. But when Mark Parsons arrived as head coach between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, that all needed to change, and while it took time to identify who would and would not fit into the Thorns’ new, to-be-forged culture, the desire to move beyond the clichéd divisions remained true.
It’s part of the reason Ana Crnogorčević was targeted when the team needed a striker earlier in the season. Thanks to various sources, the Thorns believed she would fit within the team’s culture, a belief that has proven well-founded. The same logic underpinned the offseason acquisitions of Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter and, when the Breakers squad was dispersed through the rest of the NWSL, influenced the team’s choices.
Ifeoma Onumonu was targeted. She was a former roommate of Thorns midfielder Celeste Boureille, when the two were at Cal-Berkeley. Angela Salem was rated highly, too. She was one of Parsons’ former midfielders at the Washington Spirit.
And then there was Purce, somebody who had no such connections to anybody with the Thorns. But Purce’s reputation after one year in the league was already well-established, and in identifying her as a target with Portland’s first pick in dispersal, Parsons had faith that reputation would hold true.
“The personalities that we have, there’s this common ground of kindness,” Purce says, “That has made the move so seamless. I don’t feel uncomfortable talking to anyone one-on-one, which I would (normally) feel uncomfortable doing that.”
It’s the main reason why, away from the field, Portland has become a “great” landing spot, she says, evoking a true Rose City spirit when calling her new home, “strange, in the best way.
“I think 'strange' has this aura around it, this negative connotation, and I think Portland is so beautifully strange. And I love being here.”
That leaves life on the field, where things have gone equally well for Purce, if not necessarily as straight-forward. Though she started her first game for Boston, last season, as a fullback, the trained attacker spent most of her rookie campaign further up the field. In Portland, she’s played both roles, but the spot that got her a June callup from the USWNT is her less familiar one. Purce doesn’t necessarily see herself as a full-on fullback, yet, but that role is clearly a part of her future.
“I consider myself whatever I’m playing that day,” she said, when asked about her positional identity. “I have a lot of walk-by conversations with Mark, and he’s like, ‘Don’t know what you’re playing, yet, but be ready for either.’ So, I don’t think I can define myself as a fullback, just yet.
“In general, I break it down to there’s only a few options that you have, when you’re on the ball: go back; go forward; or keep it. That, keeping it simple, for me, is what helps the most.”
That – the breakdown of how Purce sees the game – has been her greatest challenge since coming to Portland, something that continues to evolve as her relationship with Parsons grows. Six months into that partnership, though, the two are still figuring each other out, something that is of heightened importance as the Harvard alumna is being asked to learn a new position. Coach has to figure out the best way to teach. Player has to figure out the best way to learn.
“What we’ve been trying to fine tune is when it makes sense to look at it from different angle,” Parsons explains, “and when we’re overthinking and we just need to do what our strengths are – what suits her, her position in our team.
“I think that will be a continuous thing in the next few years, because something we’ve respected a lot is she’s an analyzer. She’s a thinker, but as we’ve seen in some games, if she’s thinking and analyzing when we’re trying to play at this NWSL speed, it doesn’t help anyone.”
That’s not news to Purce. Over her time in Portland, it’s become a theme; or, better put, a conflict that’s defined how she’s likely to grow. The same intellectual curiosity that’s made her who she is – that Parsons wants to persist in the time the team spends training, before the weekends’ kickoffs – becomes something that slows you down when it’s time to play competitive soccer.
“Mark and I, we don’t struggle, but it is time consuming when I don’t understand something,” Purce admits. “In general, the world, I’m a very black-and-white person. I like things to be extremely concrete, and the game is not that way. I think that, sometimes, is where I don’t have as much of an understanding.”
“I hope [Parsons] doesn’t get frustrated, because he’ll tell me something five different ways, and I’ll say, ‘I don’t understand,’ I will not leave until he figures out the way to tell me.”
It’s a contrast of conception, between a procedural outlook and one that needs a more wholistic view. For many coaches, lessons get boiled down into discrete choices – the way that Purce would also like to define her world – but for some, understanding those choices goes beyond stimulus and response. Why the stimulus is happening becomes an integral part of their decision-making process.
“To get the best out of her, I think she needs the first option,” Parsons says, when asked if he feels Purce works best with a narrow vision or a more complete outlook. “She has such dangerous weapons, such dangerous abilities, both with and without the ball. She can defend and attack by keeping it simple because of her initiative to beat somebody on that dribble; her athletic ability. And her defending. She’s improved in her one-v-one defending.”
She has the physical ability, Parsons says. She also has the instinct, as evident every time she lines up a fullback and beats them off the dribble, or figures out a way to separate an attacker from the ball. There’s nothing pensive about those decisions. But Purce’s instincts also tell her that with more information, she can make better choices, and any methods that try to narrow that process run counter to what she knows about herself.
“Mark’s like, ‘[the choices are] not binary,’ and I want it to be binary!” she explains, something that, when written out plainly, seems contradictory, until you wrap your mind around it. Shouldn’t Parsons’ want to simplify eventually lead to fewer options?
It doesn’t. That’s just not the nature of the world. Things aren’t always black and white, especially on a soccer field, so although it feels like boiling things down to binary decisions – yes-and-no scenarios; true-false problems – is simpler, the process you have to walk through to be left with only two scenarios is complex. It demands you gather a lot of information. It’s how Purce approaches the rest of her world.
Six months into her time in Portland, Purce knows she has to change. She knows she needs to train herself out of that instinct; at least, she needs to train herself out of that instinct while on the soccer field.
“That’s where I’ve progressed, mostly,” she concedes, her voice conveying a balance of concession and confidence. “I’m comfortable with it not being binary, anymore.
“I understand that sometimes, instead of thinking, you just have to move in the game, which is counter-intuitive, I think. When you talk about … processing things, it’s more your natural intuition that somehow gives you the right binary decision.”
You have to accept that the world can’t be yes-no whenever you want it. You have to, at an instinctual level, know that your actions can’t be reduced to true and false.
It’s why, when asked what’s changed most during her six months in Portland, Purce’s response comes quickly. That part, at least, is instinctual. It’s the thing she’s been tasked with from her first sessions with the Thorns, when her position change started in full. It’s what fueled her launch back onto U.S. Soccer’s radar this spring and, if her dreams of a national team future are realized, will likely become one of her biggest strengths, going forward.
“What separates players is that soccer IQ and understanding the game at a different level …,” she says. “[The Thorns] have big names, people who play at the highest level, possible; a level I want to be at, at some point. Being challenged like that every day makes me such a better player ....
“My soccer IQ has increased by more than I anticipated, and that’s the biggest thing that I would take from this season … I’m much more aware of what’s happening, and what needs to happen going forward.”