PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons is under no illusion when he says, of his team’s game on Saturday, “of course, it's a must-win.” He knows his team has already qualified for the National Women’s Soccer League’s 2019 postseason, and he knows, because of a format that grants playoff home games to only the league’s two top finishers, Portland will be on the road 11 days from now. No matter Saturday’s result against the visiting Washington Spirit (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, Yahoo! Sports), Portland can finish no higher than third in the regular season.
Instead, the game’s “must-win” nature owes to the Thorns’ form. With one win and one goal scored in the team’s last three games, Portland is at their season’s nadir, low on execution and, perhaps, confidence going into Saturday’s match. The only way to improve their state is a better performance in their Providence Park send-off.
“This is a must performance, our last home game in front of the biggest, the best fans in the world,” Parsons explained. “We’ve got to be our best, but also, we’ve got to finish as high as we can in the league, and finish on a positive before we turn and focus on playoffs.”
Preparation for that game has been marred by something that has defined this World-Cup year: international absences. “It’s the same for everyone,” Parsons insists, alluding to the fact all nine NWSL teams have to account for their players’ national-team responsibilities, but for Parsons’ particular set of internationals, the latest break has been more demanding than most.
“This will be our hardest challenge, without a doubt,” he said, comparing the reintegration of players this week to what he’s managed before. “We’ve got brutal travel for a majority of our players. Australians coming back from Australia. A Canadian coming back from Japan. Europeans coming back from Europe. Americans, not too bad.”
In all, nine Thorns will be rejoining their team over the coming days: Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso were with Australia; Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath and Emily Sonnett reported for the United States; Christine Sinclair was in Japan with Canada; while Dagný Brynjarsdóttir (Iceland) and Ana Crnogorčević (Switzerland) are the Thorns that will be returning from Europe.
Each will come back with their own set of needs. Travel was longer for some than others, though even when the mileage matches, the responses of individuals can vary. Over the course of 2019, each athlete has incurred different levels of stress and activity. Long travel coupled with physical exertion introduces another layer of variables.
“Every day is a reentry day, this week, for someone,” Parsons said. “Today (Tuesday) was the team reentry. Tomorrow is a couple of more. Then it will be Thursday, and Friday, some of [the players] will train once before Saturday. So, we have to manage.”
Per Parsons’ own words, though, the team has to do more than manage. Coming off a 2-0 loss in away to Reign FC, before the break, Portland finds itself in need to solutions, with their downturn over the last month taking the team from first place to third.
Ahead of potential October 20 playoff games at either the North Carolina Courage or Chicago Red Stars, Parsons knows his team needs to develop new looks.
“We wanted to push individuals who needed the attention they deserve, but also continue to give us different options as we reach the postseason,” he began, when asked about the previous week’s training. “I’m talking about players. I’m talking about systems. I’m talking about tactics. Giving ourselves different options, different looks will be key, and making sure everyone’s familiar with what those options are.”
Part of that need may be about the travel. Until his whole team is together and can be evaluated, it’s impossible for Parsons and his staff to know who is available for Saturday’s starting lineup. Even if the Thorns staff has an XI in mind, they have to be prepared to change.
Part of Parsons’ thinking, though, may also be the Thorns’ current reality. He admits the state “is new to us” – that Portland is used to performing better, especially going into a postseason. While the Thorns coach hopes “people can come back and be a little bit fresh rather than overthinking and being too down about the form,” he has to prepare for other scenarios. He has to have something in mind if progress continues to stall.
“It’s a huge challenge for everyone,” he admits, “We’ve got to set ourselves up to be the best we can, with those challenges in mind.”