As Thorns FC players have returned to their field, beginning individualized training this past weekend, two themes have emerged from the team's first sessions.
The initial practices have been "pretty similar to what I’ve been doing" before, were captain Christine Sinclair's words, a sentiment that was echoed by the team's head coach, Mark Parsons. His "top players," he said, "invest time on their own, already. The offseasons they have, they've had experience doing" the type of workouts that have begun at Providence Park.
The fact those workouts have moved from "random fields and training in your garage," as Sinclair describes, to one of the most celebrated venues in the National Women's Soccer League was the second theme to emerge from Portland's workouts. From players experiencing their first sessions in red and black to long-time Thorns reliving memories in Goose Hollow, a return to Providence Park felt like, in Parsons' words, "a fantastic first step."
"It's extraordinary," United States international Becky Sauerbrunn, traded to the Thorns this offseason, said of the first session in her new home venue. "I've been wanting to play here for a little bit. Finally getting to be here, just training on the field I'll get to play at, and just seeing and imagining all the fans that are going to be here come the start of the season, it feels really good."
For one of the Thorns' more tenured players, the return to Providence Park rekindled memories of normal times, when gamedays see empty stands give way to singing crowds.
"Probably the thing that I miss the most is our corner kicks," another U.S. international, goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, said of the stadium she's played at since 2016. "I know I have nothing to do with [attacking corner kicks], but I get to stand in the back right before it all happens and this entire stadium is chanting 'PTFC.' Some [fans] pretty much stomp their feet, too. I can feel the vibrations. I'm getting the chills I do in the games. That's how long it's been since I felt that, here.
"Don't tell the coaches this," Franch continued, "but sometimes you can catch me chanting myself, with the crowd. I definitely have to be switched on, just in case of any counter attacks, but right before that kick, I'm right there with the fans. I'm a fan myself, in that moment."
For the most part, Portland players have had to relive those memories in isolation, with groups of Thorns rotated throughout the day to use a field which, promoting social-distancing standards, has been divided into quadrants. Each player is responsible for their own equipment, with the locker rooms and amenities of Providence Park kept off limits. Even the normal entrance players would use, one that takes them through a reception area, is to be avoided, with a new route guiding players directly from their cars to the field.
"Everything is on your own unless you happen to live with someone on the team," Sinclair said. "Then you can train with them. It’s a lot of individual drills, pretty similar to what I’ve been doing for the past eight weeks."
"Every single one of us, [and] athletes in general, we have times when we have to train by ourselves," Franch explained. "Some [players] have personal trainers and different things like that, but in the offseason, we have to find ways to make things happen. It's kind of the same thing here."
- PHOTOS: Thorns in individual workouts
According to Parsons, there is another benefit to being back at Providence Park. At the stadium, the same technologies used to monitor normal sessions can be leveraged for the individualized training, too.
"The technical staff have done a superb job, assistant coaches have done a superb job," Parsons said, "in not only planning and design but also filming the sessions to be able to support."
The new sessions may merely be a small step forward, but like so many other signs of progress during our era of COVID-19, it feels like an important one; at least to the Thorns players and staff, a step toward normalcy has real emotional value. After so many weeks of uncertainty, the team is able to return to something solid.
"For me, it was like a minor step, but a step in the right direction," said Sinclair. "A step in the direction of hopefully being able to play some meaningful games throughout the rest of the year. A necessary step."