PORTLAND, Ore. – Preseason around the National Women’s Soccer League always takes on a very NWSL feel.
That may sound tautological, but there really is something distinct, something “NWSL-y” about each March. Because of international commitments, teams are usually without their best players; or, if their best players are around, they’re likely leaving for international duty soon. Amid the veterans who form each training session’s core, there are a slew of hopefuls hoping to claim professional jobs.
Such was the case on Monday at Providence Park, when Portland Thorns FC held their first practice of the 2020 season. A number of names on the field were recognizable, with both Meghan Klingenberg and Katherine Reynolds on the cusp of their fifth seasons in Goose Hollow. Others were lesser known, though, with many of the day’s numbers made up by drafted players and non-roster invitees.
“At this stage of the season, I think [the absences are] a massive advantage,” head coach Mark Parsons explained when asked about his group. “We're choosing to make it a huge advantage.
“The players we do have here, it's a smaller group. We have more contact. We have more social contact. We have more technical contact. So [we’re] taking advantage of that first week, getting to know these people, getting to know these players on the field, as much as possible before the group gets bigger.”
The team’s captain, Christine Sinclair, is away playing for Canada. United States internationals Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn are with their country at the SheBelieves Cup. Although January’s second-overall pick, Morgan Weaver, trained on Monday, the College Draft's first pick, Sophia Smith, is with the U.S.’s Under-20s. Elsewhere, Ellie Carpenter is helping Australia with their Summer Olympics qualification, while Costa Rican international Rocky Rodriguez is still in the process of coming to her new NWSL home.
There’s also the contingent who have spent their offseason in Australia, who are beginning the transition back into their North American world. Simone Charley and Celeste Boureille have started that process. Emily Menges and Carpenter will, too, once their teams conclude their W-League playoffs.
Add in Angela Salem, who will join the team later this week, and Portland’s numbers are drastically reduced, giving a series of new players a chance to impress.
“Number one, they're going to learn what being a Thorns means, what the expectations are,” Parsons said of the new players’ challenges. “But something I've already said a lot over the last couple of days: while they're going through that journey of understanding what being a Thorn is, they're here because of who they are.”
Thus begins a process that has proved fruitful since Parsons’ arrival in Portland: trying to unearth overlooked talent. Last season, six undrafted players signed during Parsons’ tenure combined to play 2,623 minutes. As a point of reference, Klingenberg led Portland in minutes last season with 2,017. Between Elizabeth Ball, Boureille, Charley, Kelli Hubly, Madison Pogarch and Marissa Everett, the Thorns got the exact same amount of playing time from undrafted players as they did from their two NWSL originals, Sinclair and Heath.
Of course, Portland is not the only team scouring the landscape for new talent. A scan of most NWSL rosters reveals gems who’ve fallen through the cracks of the league’s annual College Draft. If anything, though, that makes this time of the preseason more important. Teams may not have their full rosters in place, and the steps they can take on the field may be mitigated by the absences, but in the time they can devote to the players who are training, a new Boureille or Charley might be found.
“All I ask of our players on day one of the preseason,” Klingenberg explained, “is to be open to learning and to be open to hearing what they need to hear, from coaches or from players who have been in the league for 10 years. If they are able to take that information and then translate it onto the pitch, then we're going to be in such a better place. All I ask is for them to work hard and be open.”
“We've got some fantastic people, fantastic qualities, individuals with great qualities there,” Parsons said. “Knowing and remembering and playing like those everyday is as important as being a Thorn.”
Much has changed around the Thorns this season. The full impact of this offseason’s turnover be evident later this month. For now, though, the 2020 NWSL season has a very NWSL-y feel. There’ve been some arrivals. There are some absences. But the search for new talent continues.