Christine Sinclair, NC vs. Thorns, 6.27.20
(ISI Photos)

No lucky breaks but a good performance in NWSL Challenge Cup opener for Thorns

Be honest. You don’t have to hold your tongue anymore. Nobody’s going to think you’re being a downer, or being disloyal. Just tell people the truth. When you saw this starting lineup on your timeline this morning …

...what did you think was going to happen?

Portland Thorns FC were facing the North Carolina Courage in the first match of the NWSL Challenge Cup, a Courage that’s not only the two-time defending league champions but one that outscored their playoff competition 8-1 last season. We don’t talk about that enough. Eight goals to one, against the NWSL’s best competition, over the span of 210 minutes. It makes me mad just thinking about how good that is.

So when we saw a Thorns lineup without Tobin Heath and Adrianna Franch, with a new look and new options compensating for the departures of Ellie Carpenter, Andressinha, Hayley Raso and Midge Purce, what was your prediction? Did you really think this game was going to be close?

It’s OK if you didn’t, but it was. It was very close. True, for the first 10 or 15 minutes, it looked like it might not be. The Courage weren’t breaking through, but the field was tilted. The game had a very North Carolina feel. Still, it took the defending champions 75 minutes to break through, after which the Thorns produced a quick response. The game ended 2-1, but no doubt, the full 90 minutes were close.

Again: It’s OK to admit you were pessimistic. In fact, I think it’s the only way to properly contextualize the result. The Thorns were expected to struggle, an outlook that was less about the massive changes they made this offseason than the reality of the Courage. They were expected to struggle because every team struggles against North Carolina. Nobody comes close. And yet, the Thorns came close. They didn’t get lucky.

Beyond this being the first of five, six or seven games, the performance didn’t feel like a fluke. Perhaps North Carolina didn’t play to their potential, but neither did Portland, and in a world that gave us our first glimpse of each team’s level, these new Thorns – dealing with injuries and absences, and trying to establish a new approach – competed with the recognized standard in the NWSL. How they did that, we’ll get into below. But it’s important to remember this is only game one, something that could be a virtue or a vice.

If this is a stepping stone, even the most modest of incremental improvements will put Portland in contention. Mark Parsons’ prediction that his team “have a sneaky little chance here of being really successful” could prove modest. The Thorns might be real contenders come July 26’s final. They also could have overperformed. We’ve only seen this group together once. Who knows? If we’re being fair, we’ll keep the whole range of possible outcomes in mind. They could end up resting on their laurels, assuming their work has had its pay off, and lose focus on the work that’s to come. They wouldn’t be the first team to do so.

For now, they’re off to a great start. They have something to build on. And here are the building blocks that matter most:

1. Bella Bixby in goal – Milwaukie’s Best finally debuted for her hometown club, reaching a huge benchmark for both her and the organization. For two years, the Oregon State alum worked in the shadows, forced to maintain faith in an improvement that couldn’t be tested on the field. Today, though, she has reason to be proud, with giving organization reason to believe its investment is playing off. Bixby showed she has an NWSL future.

2. Becky Sauerbrunn’s presences – Thorns fans have gotten used to seeing their team’s defense turn chaotic in the face of North Carolina’s pressure. But that never happened on Saturday. The Courage broke through with two late goals, but each goal was a right-to-left cross that came down to execution, not chaos. Those times in the past when we’ve seen Debinha and Crystal Dunn thrive in space between lines, and North Carolina exploit the spaces those threats created, never surfaced this morning. It’s truly amazing the calm that comes with a player like Sauerbrunn, as well as the hard work that happened around her.

3. The new look midfield - I could write 4,000 words about this, but do you really want that? No. Of course not. So let’s blurt this out:

a. Lindsey Horan might be on a mission to put 2019 behind her;

b. her tandem with Rocky Rodriguez was versatile enough to send one player into the wide spaces while the other got forward, both shifting the attack to offsetting numbers and putting more stress on Courage back line;

c. Angela Salem’s ability to read the game and anticipate North Carolina’s next point of attack was a great complement for Horan and Rodríguez, who proved willing to slide into the space she left behind;

d. and, Christine Sinclair looks every bit like her normal self. Her ability to surge into space behind the opposing midfield, lay a perfect ball into the next level of attack, then ghost into the space created by her forwards is still … well, Sinclairian. I know that’s a lot, but this midfield is a lot. This is what Mark Parsons and Gavin Wilkinson wanted. The first proof of concept was persuasive.

4. Depth at forward - The Thorns don’t have a Best XI candidate up top. We know that. But what they have is depth. Marissa Everett and Tyler Lussi started. Simone Charley and Morgan Weaver came on later, to attack a fatiguing defense. The result was Charley’s first Thorns goal. At some point, Sophia Smith will join the crew, adding yet another option, but for now, the Thorns can bring the NHL back early, making line changes with their four healthy, almost interchangeable options.

There’s going to be more to talk about with the Thorns. Utah’s games are coming so fast that we’re going to see a lot of changes. Different personnel. Different looks. We may see everything this Thorns’ roster has to offer, giving us a full view of the team’s offseason makeover.

But at first blush, that offering shows promise - more promise than most of us would have imagined four hours ago. On a day that started with doubts, the Thorns gave fans a reason to be confident.