Bella Bixby, Thorns vs. Spirit, 7.5.20
(ISI Photos)

Forecasting 2021: Bella Bixby's season saw goals met and new challenges presented

PORTLAND, Ore. – There are two standards by which Bella Bixby’s 2020 was not only a success but a resounding one. There was her play on the field, where she was one of the best goalkeepers at the National Women’s Soccer League’s summer Challenge Cup. But there was also the standard of her preseason goals, which were, according to her, “very simple, and that was to get minutes in 2020.” When Portland Thorns FC kicked off their first game of the season, Bixby was in goal.

Bixby was so good over the four games she played in Utah, people are likely to forget. After being selected by her hometown club in the third round of the 2018 NWSL College Draft, the former Oregon State Beaver sat. For two years, she sat, living out the realities of a young goalkeeper while accumulating zero minutes of competitive action. Often, she wasn’t even making the Thorns’ gameday squads. But with the Olympics on the horizon in 2020 and the Thorns’ starting goalkeeper, Adrianna Franch, potentially headed to Tokyo, Bixby’s third season offered hope of a breakthrough. When the Thorns left for Utah in late June, though, she had as many professional minutes as the rookies on Portland’s roster.

Later in her career, Bixby’s Utah breakthrough will be the headline for her 2020. More than anything else, we’ll remember her performances, the wait that preceded them, and the level she showed from her first moments in Utah. As she speaks, though, it’s a week after Portland’s final game of the year, and she hasn’t played a game in three months. She’s in the middle of a medical recovery, the first major one of her professional career. In late October, the highs of Bixby’s year are living in the shadows. Instead, a moment of disaster, arriving weeks into Challenge Cup, is defining her job.

“When I tore my ACL, it was shattering in a lot of ways ...,” she says, recalling the moment in training when her ascent was halted. “I knew that something horrible had happened. I knew I wasn't walking away from that. Before I can even go to the hospital and get diagnostics, I know I'm not walking out of that situation and being OK, just purely based on how it felt.”

As spectators, we don’t spend much time thinking about the implied bargain athletes make in their professional lives. We talk about the perks of their lives, the privilege of a game becoming your job, and yes, occasionally, we talk about the inequity of trades, or the short windows of players’ careers. We don’t ignore the tradeoffs. But one tradeoff we rarely discuss is the risks athletes accept with their bodies: the realities of every day leaving your house with the potential to return broken. In one moment, you can be perfectly healthy, happy, and capable of pursuing every career goal. In the next, your life stops, with the consequences of your bargain extending beyond the field.

ACL injuries are weird, though. In terms of their on-field impact, they’re devastating. There’s a reason why they’re the most notorious injuries in the sport. Best-case scenarios could have you playing in half-a-year; worst case, and you’re never quite the same. As far as the rest of your life, though, there are worse injuries to endure. Most ACL surgeries are “minimally invasive,” amounting to a series of small incisions around the knee joint. There’s no major time spent in bed, immobile. Life around the field goes on.

Photo: ISI Photos

Psychologically, that can add to the challenge. With any significant injury, there’s going to be some "why me." But with the contrast of ACL tears – the difference between its on-field impact and it off – the "why me's" become more poignant. They become cruel. You don’t even get a cool scar. You’re left at the edge of the life you want, within touching distance of normal. But the only way to cover that distance is through a full, arduous rehab. It’s only through patience, and tackling the mental obstacles that go with it.

“I made myself process it immediately,” Bixby remembers about the time between her injury and a full diagnosis. In soccer, the specter of an ACL tear is so prevalent, each athlete knows the course. “If I go to the hospital and it's better, then it's better. But I made myself process in that moment that the worst had happened, and the worst actually hadn't happened, in terms of structural damage in my knee. It could have been a lot worse. But I made myself process the fact that I was going to be done with Challenge Cup and done for the rest of the year, not knowing that we would even be playing fall games.”

This is where Bixby’s first two years as a professional may have helped. For goalkeepers coming out of college, there’s no instant gratification. NWSL rosters are loaded. If you’re being drafted, you’re likely being drafted as second or third goalkeeper. And goalkeepers age well. If the player above you on the depth chart is 28 or 29 years old, they have an entire second career that’s yet to start. Your life becomes one of constant, quiet work, without your game’s rewards. Your progress rarely gets tested; your faith in yourself becomes vital. The process is arduous, demands patience, and leaves you lingering for years within touching distance of another player’s normal.

“I think initially my goal was to get minutes in 2020,” Bixby remembers of preparation for the season, “and that didn't change once the season plan changed.” When the impacts of COVID-19 set it, the NWSL’s season was warped.

“I obviously still wanted to play and get the ball rolling on my career in the NWSL,” she said, “and I felt ready for it. But there was that kind of panic moment and uncertainty when we didn't know what our season was going to look like, if it was going to happen at all. But that moment of clarity, it came with ‘my goals are still the same.’ Regardless of what that season looks like, I'm going to do my best. Try my best, prepare my best to accomplish the goals I set for myself when I was drafted, which is to really play for the Thorns, perform well, showcase my talents.”

Even more than her injury, that may be the thing that will matter most about Bixby’s 2020. For four games in Utah, she got that showcase, and she thrived. Whatever questions there were about the faith Mark Parsons and Nadine Angerer, Portland’s head and goalkeeping coaches, had kept in her were washed away. There’s little doubt Bixby will be able to come back from her injury, meaning there’s little doubt the Thorns will have another goalkeeper capable of stepping in, performing, and contributing to success. Franch has done that for years, and Britt Eckerstrom, another in the Thorns’ goalkeeping fold, continues to show she’s capable of starting. Now, after years of developing away from games, Bixby’s proved she can reach those same levels.

That proof puts her injury in a different, less devastating perspective, albeit a perspective that risks minimizing all the work that’s left to do. Bixby can come back at full strength from this injury and render this process as a footnote to her career, but that’s not a given. The same dedication she put into winning minutes ahead of Utah needs to go into making herself whole. But in terms of the long game – the place this setback will have on her life and her career – Bixby’s future should overwhelm her present, just as she knows other parts of the present overwhelm all else.

Photo: Kayla Knapp / Portland Thorns FC

“Tearing my ACL, there are a lot of really awful things going on the world, and it seems so small,” she admits, “something like having surgery and having to undergo rehab to get back to soccer. Seems so ridiculous that that's the lowest part of my year. In that sense, it's also given me some perspective. Because if that's the lowest part of my year, wow. So many people are directly affected by this pandemic, lost their jobs, can't pay rent. Rights were at stake with this election. As I say it, it sounds ridiculous that tearing my ACL was the lowest part of my year.”

Somewhere there’s another player reading that last thought, and that player is saying, “no, it’s not ridiculous.” Bixby’s misfortune matters, and it shouldn’t be forgotten. Still, her perspective allows her to move forward. Had Bixby stayed in July’s moment and lamented her luck, her view would be different, and her progress could be stalled. Instead, Bixby accepts she’s not above the process, which means she’s not beyond the work. And that, looking toward her 2021, means she’s above the rewards.

“I know personally I'll be trying to put myself in a position to play as if it's a normal year,” she said, alluding to both her rehab and the uncertainties of a COVID-19 world. “I don't personally think that it will be [normal], but if I can prepare myself to be in the best position to perform for this team and compete for this club, then I think that no matter what 2021 throws at us, we'll be ready to go.”