If it’s time for us to move on to Portland Thorns FC's second game of the season (July 1 vs. Chicago Red Stars, 9:30am PT, CBS All Access), we should do so remembering their first game was special, and for a number of reasons.
Not only was Saturday’s 2-1 loss the first game of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup but it also represented as severe a test as the Thorns could have faced – a matchup against the two-time defending league champions North Carolina Courage. With seven changes from the last time Portland took the field – in October’s 1-0, semifinal loss at the Chicago Red Stars –- the Thorns took an even scoreline deep into extra time, when a converted cross from the Courage gave the league’s pacesetters their winning margin.
“Being on CBS, I think that was a good opening game,” Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan said. “With goals being scored, coming back, and then the last goal was super unfortunate for us, and that’s mistakes we don’t want to make. But it happened and we’re learning from it ...”
It was also a game in which the Thorns knelt together, taking a knee in protest while adorning Black Lives Matter shirts. It was an action that had been agreed to as a group, and for a team that spent much of its tournament lead-up extolling their new chemistry, the action became the response to a test. Before their first moments of competition, the team had its first moment of unity, and did so before women’s club soccer’s first national television audience in the United States.
The tournament’s subsequent games have built on its opener, with the Washington Spirit’s 2-1, Saturday win over the Red Stars leading into Tuesday’s 3-3 draw between the Houston Dash and Utah Royals FC. All three games showed the unique energy the NWSL brings to their sport. All three games showed the league’s balance. North Carolina may be the favorites, while teams are only three matches into a 23-game slate, the Challenge Cup is giving off an any given kickoff feel.
“First game of the tournament,” Horan explained, “with everything considered, although we don’t like talking about it a lot – we have the altitude, the heat, first game against North Carolina, who is such a good team and has shown it in the past two, three years – I think it was a good game and a competitive game, and kind of showed what this tournament is about.”
But there’s another reality to this tournament, one which we should see over teams’ second games. This competition asks players to go from no games in at least three months to potentially seven games in 31 days. Not only do those competitive minutes come quickly but so do recovery days, preparation for the next kickoff, and rest that bodies, newly stressed, will require.
It’s a matter of when, not if. Teams are going to rotate their squads, and with only three off days between games, some Thorns may be off for Wednesday’s game against Chicago.
“This is a great opportunity for a lot of players because of the tournament [format], and [games come] really quick,” midfielder Angela Salem explained. “Most players should get opportunities.”
Many already have. Goalkeeper Bella Bixby made her Thorns debut on Saturday and earned positive reviews in helping hold North Carolina to two goals. Kelli Hubly was at right back as her team conceded only once in her 71 minutes, while Marissa Everett and Tyler Lussi got starts at forward. Few expected those starts. Add in the Portland debuts of Becky Sauerbrunn and Rocky Rodríguez as well Salem’s return from injury, and the Thorns played with a markedly new look.
“During preseason there’s a lot of new personalities,” Rodríguez shared, “myself being one of them. But the more that we play, the more comfortable that we get with each other ...
“It’s really different when you train versus when you play a game. There are awesome moments, and others where things didn’t work out the way we wanted them to. Like I said, it’s the first game. It can only get better from here.”
The team for Chicago may look markedly new, too. Sauerbrunn has already been ruled out with a hip injury, and while Christen Westphal made her Thorns debut as a substitute at right back on Saturday, she seems the next-most-likely center back on the depth chart. In turn, fellow center back Emily Menges is among a number of names who seem unlikely to be pressed into action on short rest. Christine Sinclair and Meghan Klingenberg are among them, though when you think of the physical demands field players like Horan and Rodríguez will face in July, how surprised should we be if they’re not in Wednesday’s lineup?
No team will be eliminated after the group stage of this competition. No matter how you play over the Challenge Cup’s first four games, you’ll get a game five. The only question is: against whom? But even that isn’t fully under your control.
What is slightly under your control, though, is how healthy you can stay, how rested you are, and how prepared you can be when that elimination game comes. In terms of trophies, that’s when the tournament really starts.
Until then, the process is defined by preparation, something that surely involves trying to games. But it also involves seeing what your bench has to offer, how players perform in new roles, and how, with one or two more days’ rest, players’ bodies recover.
We’re going to learn more about the Thorns tomorrow. Either we’ll see how a number of players perform on short rest or we’ll see how Portland’s depth can step up. Regardless, the game is match two of five, at a minimum. The ultimate goal is moving forward.