Thorns pre-game, 10.10.20
Photo by Jane Gershovich

Thorns strangest season wraps up with win, Shield, and eyes on future

Head coach Mark Parsons and his coaching staff received 90 more minutes of valuable information about Portland Thorns FC, but perhaps the most significant part of his team’s Saturday trip to Tacoma, Washington, was the final whistle. With it, what we can all hope is the strangest season in the team's history came to an end, with the 2-1 victory over OL Reign providing a coda to a season defined by life away from the field.

With the victory, the Thorns clinched the Verizon Community Shield, an honor awarded to the first-place finisher in the NWSL’s Fall Series, one that comes with a $25,000 grant to a community partner of the team’s choice. Portland was playing for Mimi’s Fresh Tees, a business dedicated to using fashion to elevate issues around social justice.

“It was a really tough, horrible game ...,” Parsons said. “I actually don't mind that. I don't mind that we had to dig deep tonight to be able to give back to our community.

“Nothing has been easy in 2020, so I think it's fitting that this night was really, really hard. Nothing was going to stop us from giving back to our fanbase and our club, but more importantly, Mimi's Fresh Tees and, hopefully, a lot more businesses and community partners that we want to continue to support and elevate the voice, the message of African Americans in this country.”

The more important concerns of Portland’s 2020 are not just about Covid-19, though that shouldn’t be ignored. Thankfully, the Thorns were able to keep themselves safe during 2020. No players contracted the virus during the league’s two spurts of play. No games had to be postponed because of it. Be it during summer’s Challenge Cup in Utah or during the home and road games of Fall Series, the team kept themselves safe. That’s important.

But games were delayed in September because of wildfires that scarred the West Coast, and with social justice issues and ongoing protests in focus throughout Portland, the context around the NWSL was always heavier than the games themselves. Sport as escapism has rarely felt more needed or true.

“That full commitment from every person, from every staff member, from every player was absolutely critical,” Parsons explained. “And if I can summarize and keep that short, culture is key. Culture wins. This team really wants to fight for each other, support each other, go through the good stuff together, go through the tough stuff together, and [the players] really believe in taking care of each other.”

Let’s consider the Thorns’ part in that escape. When the team arrived at the Challenge Cup in late June, fans had yet to see the product of Portland’s offseason makeover. Any expectations people had were based more on the team’s brand than what anybody had seen on the field. But once on that field, onlookers got to see how Rocky Rodríguez helped reshape the team’s midfield. They got a brief glimpse of what an icon like Becky Sauerbrunn brought to the backline. Christen Westphal emerged as a potential starter at right back, while the promise second-overall College Draft pick Morgan Weaver brought to the attack was evident, particularly with her game-winning goal against the North Carolina Courage in the tournament’s quarterfinal.

There were notable absences during that tournament, though, most prominently Tobin Heath, Adrianna Franch and the player that was selected ahead of Weaver in January, Sophia Smith. Sauerbrunn, too, barely played during the tournament. But in their absences, there was opportunity. Bella Bixby seized hers, playing like a possible No. 1 `keeper before a knee injury ended her tournament. In her place, Britt Eckerstrom won a spot on the all Challenge Cup team, while Kelli Hubly’s performance in central defense became the feel good story of Portland’s tournament. Even with a most-established performer like midfielder Angela Salem, there was a transcendent, positive story, with her return from 2019’s anterior cruciate ligament injury completed with a starting spot at the base of Portland’s midfield.

Had any team left Utah with one new starter identified, they could consider the Challenge Cup a success; at least, it would be a success in terms of what the tournament meant for that team’s 2021. When the Thorns returned home from the competition, they had identified between two and five new starting-caliber players, depending on how you look at each case. Portland’s time in Utah may have ended before the final, but for a team that was always going to use part of 2020 to build a new version of themselves, the competition will be a lasting success.

Consider, too, what it does for a group when you see players like Bixby, Eckerstrom and Hubly succeed. These are players who, for years, did most of their work in front of practice’s empty stands. Their progress was evident to teammates but few others. In Utah, they were given a platform to thrive, and they leveraged it. Those stories are not only important to those players, but they matter to a team’s entire culture. They bring joy to the locker room.

That joy has been evident throughout the Fall Series, and while some may be skeptical when they hear the Parsons, Lindsey Horans and Meghan Klingenbergs of the world espouse the beauty of their group, the evidence for that goes beyond their words. It goes beyond the 7-1 combined scoreline the team put up at home during their first two Fall Series games, or the work the team put in before those games to address the attacking deficiencies of Challenge Cup.

The evidence of Portland’s joy was in the beauty and the payoff of Simone Charley’s goal against Utah Royals FC to open Fall Series, as well as Smith’s first professional score in the same game. It was in the execution Rodríguez displayed 10 days later, when she scored her first goal as a Thorn. Perhaps moreso, it was evident in the celebration after Rocky’s score, when the same type of pride a team can take in accomplishments like Bixby’s, Eckerstrom’s and Hubly’s surfaced in response to Rodríguez’s emotion.

But the evidence was also there in the play of the team’s mainstays. Klingenberg, often overlooked amid a standout 2019, continued to show there’s no clock on her career. Horan, who came into 2020 seeking an element of redemption, was as central as ever to Portland’s approach. In the process, she reminded the NWSL why she may still be the league’s best midfielder.

And then there’s Christine Sinclair. With each year there is more speculation about when her time on the field will be up, or when time in general may yield a dip in form. To her credit, she’s been almost the exact same player over the last few seasons. Her goal totals hint as much. And on September 30 against OL Reign, her hat trick affirmed that as long as she wants to play, she can be a cornerstone. Saturday’s goals put her atop the scoring charts for Fall Series. There’s joy in seeing that type of excellence prolonged.

Portland’s joy has stood in such contrast to the rest of 2020. It’s part of the reason why the Thorns and those around them have valued the Fall Series so much. Without a regular season or playoffs, the games may have lacked definition. They floated, attached to little. But that lack of attachment meant we could make of them what we want, and all we wanted was a reason to be positive about something we loved.

Now that positivity becomes fuel for the winter, when there will undoubtedly be changes to the roster. With expansion luring, every team will have losses. But once that dust settles, the Thorns will be able to take the experiences of 2020 -- the things they accomplished, on the field and off -- to reap 2020’s real rewards. 

Because part of 2020 was always going to be about how this team built for the future. It was always going to be about the Thorns redefining themselves, and then testing that definition on the field. With those initial tests passed, Portland can look forward to 2021: to a time when context shifts back to normal; when obsessing over results can come back en vogue. Then, 2020 will be in the past, and new trophies can come into view.

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