Mark Parsons, training, 7.20.20
Photo by Kayla Knapp

One-time underdog Thorns now see pressure shift for semifinals against Dash

And now, the pressure shifts.

Before kickoff last Friday, Portland Thorns FC could embrace life as an underdog, play without pressure, and know anybody with context on the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret would cast the North Carolina Courage as favorites in the teams’ quarterfinal matchup. But then the two-time defending league champions fell, 1-0 on rookie Morgan Weaver’s first professional goal. In addition to a place in the Challenge Cup’s semifinals, the Thorns also raised expectations. Ahead of Wednesday’s match against the Houston Dash (9:30am PT, CBS All Access), Portland may be the tournament’s favorites.

I say “may” because their list of obstacles is still very long. And by obstacles, I’m talking about the Thorns’ absences. No disrespect to the teams still alive in this tournament – from the Dash to the two teams on the other side of the bracket, the Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC – but even before the Challenge Cup began on June 27, the Thorns’ biggest obstacles were always internal.

The Thorns arrived in Utah without two of their best players: goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and attacker Tobin Heath. Right back Ellie Carpenter had been transferred to Olympique Lyonnais in the weeks before, while the first pick in January’s College Draft, forward Sophia Smith, was already unlikely to play in the tournament. Then, over the course of the competition, U.S. international Lindsey Horan has missed time, as have long-time defensive stalwarts Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds. A hip injury has also sent another U.S. international, Becky Sauerbrunn, back to Portland, while a knee ailment meant goalkeeping standout Bella Bixby went back to the Rose City after the win against the Courage.

If the Thorns had all those players, it’d be fair to cast them as the tournament’s favorites. Each of them were projected as or eventually became starters in Utah. But nobody gets their ifs back in this tournament. This tournament is the Hunger Games, but with a nicer President Snow. Each team has volunteered as tribute, and when you lose your full arsenal of weapons, the margin between survival and extinction gets small.

“Before we left Portland, we felt that we had something special,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said after Friday’s 1-0 victory. “I said early, our team is a team. Our team really believes in each other.

“We’ve had curveballs after curveballs, setbacks after setbacks, and the power of our group is our strength. The togetherness of our group is our strength.”

Despite those strengths, Portland’s thin margins have shown in attack, where the Thorns have yet to score multiple times in a match this tournament. After the North Carolina win, Parsons admitted “our performance wasn’t as cohesive in terms of the attacking side,” later confessing, “I know we can step up on the offensive side.”

Game by Challenge-Cup game, the Thorns have scored one, zero, one, zero and one goal. At the same time, they were the only team to score a goal in the quarterfinals, and among teams that advanced to Utah’s last four, the Thorns have more goals this tournament than Chicago and Sky Blue. By Portland standards, the team’s attack is underperforming. Relative to a painfully low-scoring tournament, the attack has been strong enough.

That’s because the team’s defense and midfield, despite suffering its own losses, may be the tournament’s best. At the back, Bixby, goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom and defender Kelli Hubly have all had revelatory tournaments, while Christen Westphal, a draft-day acquisition from OL Reign, has been healthy enough to remind of her early-career promise. Emily Menges and Meghan Klingenberg persist with their metronomic quality, while Reynolds and Madison Pogarch have continued valuable parts into the knockout rounds. On paper, few would have thought the back five could weather the loss of three starters (Carpenter, Franch and Sauerbrunn) and a fourth player who showed a starter’s quality (Bixby), but by keeping a clean sheet against the Courage, the Thorns may have changed the thinking about their depth chart’s talent.

But here again is where Wednesday’s new pressure matters. Perhaps it’s not something that will impact how the Thorns play against the Dash, but it will impact how their story is told. They were underdogs against the Courage, and then they overcame. In doing so, they showed their absences can be overcome. They showed they’re capable of overcoming anything Utah could throw at them. And they were the first team to truly show that, yes, they have a blueprint to win Challenge Cup’s final game on July 26.

“We didn’t come here to just beat North Carolina,” Westphal said, this week. “That’s the mentality that we’ve had. We got a win, and we were excited about it, but we enjoyed it for that day and then immediately focused on Houston …

“We just have to stay true ourselves and play Thorns soccer. That’s just the mentality we’ve had this tournament and will continue to have.”

The Thorns have already accomplished something in Utah. New players have shown their promise, older players have shown their growth, and as a collective, Portland’s shown its new team may be primed to move on from 2019’s woes.

But in the context of the Challenge Cup, those accomplishments have seeded expectations. The pressure has shifted. Even with their absences, the Thorns now carry the favorites’ mantle.