Adrianna Franch, Les Portraits, 5.13.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns in France: Les Portraits | Adrianna Franch: The First Step

PORTLAND, Ore. Adrianna Franch remembers what it was like to be a backup, though it’s a role she’s rarely filled. From high school through her ascent to the U.S. Women’s National Team, the reigning, two-time National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year has almost always been her teams’ starter. There have only been two times where she had to take a backseat.

The first game in 2014, before her second professional season. Coming off a rookie year that saw her help the Western New York Flash to the top spot in the NWSL’s inaugural regular season, Franch tore her anterior cruciate ligament, the recovery from which would take a year from her career. She had to go abroad to reestablish her form, spending the 2015 season in Norway while awaiting her next opportunity in the NWSL.

That’s when her second departure began. In 2016, Franch returned stateside to Portland Thorns FC, and although she was expected to claim the No. 1’s gloves, a shoulder injury helped push her into a reserve’s role. With full health coming too late in the season to unseat the league’s 2015 Goalkeeper of the Year, Michelle Betos, Franch was again left in an unfamiliar spot.

Next month, Franch is expected to return to a backup’s role, albeit for a short window, and not without reward. At the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, the Thorns star will get her first exposure to soccer’s greatest stage, fulfilling what she sees as “an opportunity for everything that I've worked for as a kid to become reality.” But if her past is any indication, the reprieve from the spotlight only foreshadows another surge. This may be the 28-year-old’s first World Cup, but given her career’s ascent, it’s unlikely to be her last.

Image: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC

“There's a reason that at the end of the (NWSL) championship game in 2017, Nadine (Angerer) was jumping on me, me and Britt (Eckerstrom) were jumping on each other.”

The three had supported each other all year. One, Angerer, still a new goalkeeper coach. Another, Franch, a star trying to reclaim her course. Then a third, Eckerstrom, striving for an opportunity to show her talents.

The scene came two seasons after Franch’s return to the United States, at the end of the season where she reclaimed a starting role. The Thorns had posted the best defensive record in the NWSL that season, in large part behind Franch’s performances. That winter, she’d be recalled into the USWNT, resuming the ascent she’d started in her first years of college.

There, at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, she’d been part of the U-20 national team pool, then the U-23s. She’d been called into full national team camps under former head coaches Pia Sundhage, in 2012, and Tom Sermanni, a year later. Four all-conference selections at OSU, two All-America honors helped make her the first goalkeeper selected in the NWSL’s 2013 College Draft, but come 2017, her career’s momentum. Injury and competition had thrust her on a different course.

She’d been in Eckerstrom’s spot the year before. She knew what it was like to be on the sideline, having to both compete and reinforce. The training sessions where you’re trying to improve yet, within the small sorority of goalkeepers on each team’s training ground, having to be each other’s support? Over the previous seasons, Franch served both. The competing during the week. The help warming up the starter before games. The time made her cognizant of Eckerstrom’s part.

“Honestly, what she does is unreal,” Franch explains. “The support that she provides, the competitiveness that she provides, and her work ethic.”

“It's a special, unique situation,” she admits. “You don't always get that within goalkeeping. It can be a little head knocking, because you are competing for the same spot.”

For the U.S. team in France, that spot will belong to Alyssa Naeher, a player two-and-a-half years Franch’s senior who has been head coach Jill Ellis’ No. 1 for much of the last three years. That’s the amount of time that’s passed between major tournaments for the U.S. – since the 2016 Summer Olympics. During that time, Ellis has had to replace a legendary goalkeeper, Hope Solo, while Franch has fought to get back in the pool.

The first year was a regroup, with Franch returning to Portland to sit behind Betos. The next year was an proclamation, a league title and a Goalkeeper of the Year award forcing her way back into the pool. But after dealing with an injury and failing to make progress in the U.S.’ 2018 January training camp, Franch needed another standout year to affirm her place. A second Goalkeeper of the Year award later, and the Salina, Kansas, product will be a backup at the World Cup.

“I needed to do that for Michelle when she was playing,” Franch remembers, when asked about returning to a backup’s role in France. “(It was) the same kind of thing. I wanted her to do well.”

“And that's the same thing that I look for to do within the national team,” she says. “Keep doing my job, continue to grow, continue to learn and push the others in areas that I can and support them in areas that I can.”

The contrast on game days is the most striking part. The starting keeper’s focus is on herself, preparing her body and mind for the opponent that awaits. The backup keeper, though, has no time to think about themselves.

“I was just like, ‘Hey, what do you need for warm-up?’” Franch remembers, of a recent national team performance. “‘Like for crosses, do you want me to come and put more pressure on you? You want to get your feet together and just catch a few? Feel it?’ Different things like that. Those little things are important.”

“I want Alyssa to do well, I want Ashlyn (Harris),” the U.S.’ other backup in France, “to do well when they're in. Because we want to win, right? That's the ultimate goal.”

That may be the only goal for the U.S. over the next two months. The three-time world champions enter the World Cup as the competition’s holders and are widely seen as the most talented team in the world. They’ll be the favorites, albeit not dominantly so, with a collection of established powers (France, Germany) and rising threats (Australia, Canada, England) making 2019’s field as open as ever.

In the short-term, Franch will be focused on playing her part. In the long-term, though, the Portland standout is intent on making sure her first World Cup is only a start.

Image: ISI Photo

She uses the term “growth mindset,” one that’s not unique to her yet has become definitional, something that she didn’t have before. It’s the idea that no matter what you’re competing for or who you’re competing against, there is always personal improvement to be had, be it season-to-season, game-to-game, training-to-training or drill-to-drill. It’s about respecting what you can be as a player, always looking to improve, the implication from which becomes liberating: Take care of what you can – yourself – and the rest will take care of itself.

“With training: growth mindset,” she recites. “With being a player: growth mindset. With being a partner to my fiancée: growth mindset.” The approach is application on the field and at home.

“Those different things, ever since 2016, that’s going to continue to be the rest of my career. And it doesn't matter injury, position, whatever. If I continued to do that, I think I'll set myself up for some success.”

Her confidence is born not only from her future, one in which, at her position, she could compete within the national team for at least one more World Cup cycle. It’s born of self-reflection: of realizing that the habits she has now aren’t the habits she needed, before; of realizing where, in her past, in difference approach cost her.

Franch has been honest about her experience in the U.S.’ 2018 January camp. She picked up a thigh injury, one that kept her from fully competing against the squad’s other goalkeepers. But she also didn’t arrive as ready as she could have been, something that temporarily left her on the outside looking in at the U.S. pool. Another stellar season at club level forced her way back in, but the need for it provided new lessons.

“I definitely have a little bit of different mindset than I did then,” she says, thinking back to not only 2018 but also 2016, and 2013. What would the 22-year-old Adrianna Franch have done with the 28 year old’s focus?

“I wonder what it would have been like if I would've had this mindset back then. I think that would have changed a couple of things.”

With Franch, the changes are sometimes difficult to see. She can be intensely focused, and highly demanding of herself. That hasn’t changed much since she turned professional. But whereas once those qualities seemed to be born from an athlete’s naturally competitive nature, now, they feel like an active approach.

She embraces the demands, not only from herself but from others. The expectations laid by Angerer. The push she gets from Eckerstrom. These aren’t threats to Franch as much as they’re requirements to take her to the next level, with even the moments’ frustrations from a given challenge eventually, after some introspection, becoming driving forces toward the next obstacle.

At times, she can be stoic about it. Introverted. More times than not, though, she’s demonstrative, not only in action but, occasionally, words. Over three years into her Portland journey, Franch’s desire for growth has made her into a leader by example, with teammates knowing the demands she makes of others are an extension of the demands she has for herself.

“For me, it's about training and playing and performing,” she says. “I'm naturally loud, yes, but I don't tend to speak in group settings when we're like, ‘Okay. We need to do this, this or that ...’

“Whenever I can and whatever it calls for, that's what I try to be. But I don't think about it. I don't think ‘I need to do this for the team to be a leader.’ I just naturally be me and let that serve.”

That, too, is part of the growth mindset. “I am aware,” she says pensively, when asked about how her temperament translates to a leadership role, but she’s also aware of how if influences the lives of Eckerstrom, or second-year goalkeeper Bella Bixby. Goalkeepers have to be vocal because they organize, they direct, she reminds, but beyond that, there’s a place where being vocal has to fit within the larger group.

“You don't need all vocal leaders, and leaders in different ways,” she admits, acknowledging the presence of legends like Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath within the Thorns’ group. “If there are individual questions, I help individual teammates, at times.”

And in those times, you see the last parts of the full Adrianna Franch coming into focus. From Oklahoma to Rochester, Norway to Oregon, the women’s soccer world has seen a prospect become a standout, with skills being added as she’s grown. Development in her ability to read the game and distribute the ball have taken leaps on the field. Mentality and leadership have accelerated off.

Now, entering the prime of a goalkeeper’s years, the full “A.D.” package will have a chance to surge. And with a World Cup’s experience, she’ll be ready to attack the next cycle.

Image: ISI Photo

The present shouldn’t be ignored, though. There’s a real chance she will be called into action in France, be it by injury, suspension, rotation or selection. As of now, it’s unclear who the No. 2 is behind Naeher, nor is it clear what the World Cup will ask of the U.S. As Eckerstrom does each week in Portland – as Franch did in 2016 behind Betos – she will have to prepare herself as if she’ll be called to the field.

Still, because of the nature of the World Cup, being selected for the tournament can be seen as a singular accomplishment – as if a mountain within a players career has been, finally, summitted. At Franch’s age, and because of the close calls she’s had with the national team in the past, that feeling seems more acute. On a certain level, the player feels that, too.

“You have the dream to go to the World Cup, you have the dream to play in a World Cup ...,” Franch says, before revealing the last stop in that journey.

“Then there's that dream of being a starter and being the keeper. And within everything that I just said, there are steps. There's making the (World Cup) roster, there is getting playing time – well there’s getting playing time before the roster. All of that intertwines. But having that ability to still see the very top for you, and what is that? For me, it's being the keeper for the U.S. national team.”

It’s being the number one. Making her first World Cup is a honor not lost on Franch, but it also doesn’t carry the same finality as it might have for others. For her, going to France isn’t the summit of her journey. It’s a stop along the climb.

“It may not happen,” she admits, of her dream to be the starter, “but if it is in five years, the game's going to be changing. The game's changing all the time. So, I don't know what it's going to look like in five years. I don't know. It could happen in two years, whatever it may be. And again, it could not happen. Whatever it may be, I’ve just got to keep growing just for my career, and I'll end up where I'm supposed to end up.”

It’s the growth mindset. It’s the growth mantra. Take care of what you can, which is yourself. It’s an outlook that’s vaulted Franch back into the national team player pool, and if the next five years of her career play out as planned, it’s an outlook that could have her building on the single senior cap she’s already won.

“There's so much potential,” she says, “and I'll continue to grow. Because that's the most important thing for me. Because my career will go as long as I'm still growing.”

Image: ISI Photo

“I’ve got a little ways to go,” she concedes, knowing what the past few years have shown her. “I still got some work to do, and even when I'm there, I'll still have work to do. I'll still be learning.”

With the setbacks she’s had, it’s the only way to approach it. Had Franch avoided injury after her rookie season, her ascent may have been quicker, allowing her to seamlessly build on her talent. But her mentality would be different, and at this point of her career, she may be less willing to grow. Likewise, had she not been forced to fight to claim the Thorns’ job when she returned from Norway, she may not be ready for the fights that are about to come – the battles that will determine if the next rung, the one leading to the U.S. starter’s job, can be vaulted.

“If I were to be like, ‘Oh, this was great, this is enough,’ then I might be satisfied just being a rookie at Western New York and just be like, ‘Okay, I'm here’ …,” she explains, while also acknowledging her misfortunes. “But I wouldn't want to change it, because I'm where I am right now.”

She knows the legacy that’s in front of her. The careers Brianna Scurry and Solo are the reference points, with the name of the former adorning her jersey during her first national team start. “For being an American, the goalkeeper position has been a high expectation,” she knows, but it’s no greater expectation than she has for herself. “Control the things you can control,” she says, as mantra, “and if it happens for you, you're ready. And for me, it's that same mindset even as we continue going towards it.”

“It,” two months ago, was this summer’s tournament. But “it” could just as well have been the period after France, into the next phase of her career. “It,” for Franch, is now about what she can become, not whether she can make a World Cup.

When she stands alongside her teammates in Reims on June 11, listening to the national anthem ahead of the U.S.’ World Cup opener, one of Adrianna Franch’s dreams will have come true. The next dream, however, lies in front of  her. Franch’s place in her squad isn’t the last step of a journey. It’s the first step toward a bigger one: discovering what she can become.

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