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Remembering 2020: When the Thorns took over draft day in Baltimore

Winter in downtown Baltimore doesn’t feel like renewal. It feels like a blade. Winds coming off the city’s inner harbor flood through concrete alleys, cutting at legs as they race over downtown blocks. The daylight taunts January’s greys, keeping the idea of Maryland’s summers close. This is the price the city pays for the comfort of those June nights, walkable into late hours along the water. Winter’s blade is the balance.

In early 2020, this was where the United Soccer Coaches held its annual convention, and where the National Women’s Soccer League held its college draft. It’s where eight teams in the league were trying to offset the dominance of a two-time defending champion, the North Carolina Courage, and where the league’s most famous team, Portland Thorns FC, was plotting a renewal. It is where, through days of meeting and nights crammed around restaurant tables, that team’s President of Soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, and head coach, Mark Parsons, plotted their next major step. 

They evaluated, debated and discussed. And eventually, they took over 2020’s NWSL College Draft.

“It’s going to take a while to be able to sink in that we’ve been able to pull off what we have,” Parsons would say on January 16’s afternoon. His words strove for modesty. His smile betrayed his glee.

“You have to be so dynamic in how you have your vision, in what that is, and pursue it,” he said. “Be brave enough to go for it … It doesn’t come at a cheap price.”

To see the move as part of a renewal, you had to know what the Thorns just endured. For most teams, “endure” would be too harsh, but in Portland, expectations were higher than a third-place finish. The team had ended among the NWSL’s top two for three straight years, from 2016 to 2018. With that finish came the right to host a game in the playoffs. That, as Parsons’ time in Portland progressed, had become a minimum standard, of sorts, so even before the Thorns finished their 2019 campaign with a road trip to Chicago, the team knew something was off.

The core it’d assembled after the 2015 season, when Portland slumped to a club-worst sixth-place finish, needed to be shaken up. The talent was still there, but the balance was off. Over the last months of 2019, the Thorns’ ability to score goals dried up, and a defense defined by clean sheets in Parsons’ first seasons had proved something closer to normal. As the Courage raised the bar during back-to-back titles and teams like the Chicago Red Stars strived to keep up, Portland slowly crept down the standings: first in 2016; second in 2017 and 2018; then, in 2019, third.


Photo: Melissa Tamez/isiphotos.com

The 2020 season needed to be different, and in the days before the draft, Portland began its shakeup. On January 8, United States international Emily Sonnett -- a crucial addition ahead of the team’s 2016 resurgence -- was traded to the Orlando Pride. The rights to Australian international Caitlin Foord went with her, as did two picks in the top 15 of the draft in Baltimore (seventh, 14th overall). In exchange, the Thorns got the first pick in the draft, holding that spot for the first time since they selected Sonnett.

“Coming into the offseason, we knew we would have to make several bold moves that strengthen the team ...” Wilkinson said, when Sonnett was traded. “Acquiring the first pick in the draft was essential for us ....”

Hers and Foord’s wouldn’t be the only major departures. By the time Portland began training in earnest for the summer Challenge Cup, six other internationals would go, too: Andressinha (Brazil), Dagny Brynjarsdottir (Iceland), Ellie Carpenter (Australia), Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic (Switzerland), Midge Purce (United States), Hayley Raso (Australia). Tobin Heath had also played her last game in Portland, while Elizabeth Ball was traded in part of the team’s makeover. 

The draft was only one part of that process. Around it, another U.S. international, Becky Sauerbrunn, was added to the squad. Costa Rican midfielder Rocky Rodríguez was acquired from Sky Blue. In a draft-day trade, former No. 3-overall pick Christen Westphal was brought in from OL Reign. As the offseason played out, January’s college draft became one of many parts, but in the resources it took to leverage that draft -- in the players Portland had to give up, and the finality of those decisions -- the team’s week in Baltimore was when the renewal surged forward.

The first part of that surge was a player who, when Portland acquired the first pick, wasn’t even available for the draft. It would be another week before Sophia Smith was part of the player pool, with the Stanford attacker deciding in the days before the draft to forgo her final seasons in Palo Alto. A part of senior U.S. national team camps since her time in high school, Smith was one of the few players who would justify giving up a player like Sonnett, and taking their risk, Portland hoped the Colorado native would turn pro.

“We are excited for the opportunity to secure an extremely talented player in this year’s draft,” Parsons said when Portland moved up to No. 1, “and [we] have identified a player that we believe can make an immediate impact on our team.”

But as Wilkinson’s and Parsons’ time in Baltimore progressed, the desire to leverage the draft grew, so much so that, come the Thursday of the draft, the Thorns were in full pursuit of pick number two. One player in particular, Washington State’s Morgan Weaver, had come to dominate Parsons’ focus, with the forward’s late-season scoring spree through the NCAA tournament drawing increased attention to her profile. By the time the NWSL’s nine teams assembled that morning in the draft’s ballroom, Wilkinson and Parsons were no longer willing to see how far Weaver would fall. The minutes before the draft went live saw the Thorns’ decision-makers shuffling between tables.

By that time, Smith knew she would go first overall. When she arrived in Baltimore with her parents the day before, she did so knowing that she would be turning pro, and that the Thorns would be taking her number one. Weaver, in contrast, arrived at Baltimore’s convention center not knowing how long she’d wait, who’d write her name on their draft card, or where exactly her pick would fall. It was only in the moments before the draft, as players talked to each other in their roped-off part of the ballroom, that Weaver learned of her future.

“I had no idea, to be 100 percent honest,” she said, when asked to think back to where she thought she’d go. With the pick that began the days with Sky Blue FC -- and came to Portland from Chicago -- Washington native was staying close to home. “My mind was everywhere, from so many different rumors, looking on Twitter. So many different things. I heard Portland every once in a while. I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll go to Portland.’ ‘Yeah, maybe. Who knows? I don’t know!’ And then I got the call and I was like, ‘Oh, wow. It’s real.’”

The Thorns weren’t done with the second selection. By day’s end, they’d selected another player, Meghan Nally, in the third round while also bringing Westphal to Portland. But the story coming out of Baltimore was destined to be about Smith, and about Weaver, and about what a two-time champion had done. They’d become the first team to make the first two picks in an NWSL Draft, and in the process, they asserted their commitment to revival.

“The aim is to be better,” Parsons said, then, “to put together a group of players that is better than we’ve ever seen in Portland. After a day like this, we’re way ahead of where we thought we could be, and that vision is very real.”

For Smith, the first part of her debut season was difficult, with an injury that lingered leaving her without minutes coming out of Challenge Cup. At Fall Series, though, her impact was felt, with the recently-turned 20-year-old scoring against the Utah Royals on September 20 with one of her first professional touches. 

After the season, her place among her senior national team returned, with a December 1 appearance off the bench against the Netherlands marking her full U.S. debut.

Weaver also crafted memories during his first season, perhaps none more important than the goal she scored on July 17. Not only was it the first of her professional career, but it was the game winner against a team that’s become, in this moment, Portland’s biggest rival. Thanks to Weaver’s one-touch finish, the Thorns redeemed an early-tournament loss to the Courage, knocking the NWSL’s defending champions out of Challenge Cup and earning some early validation for their renewed squad.

Over the course of the NWSL’s Fall Series, the Thorns shed they showed in Utah, and by finishing with the league’s best record during that four-game stretch, the team hinted at what, come 2021, it could still become. The team had not only taken the plunge, brought in new anchors in defense and midfield, but decided to be “brave” in how they approached their draft floor. In taking over the 2020 College Draft -- in paying to draft two attacking linchpins for the future -- the Thorns used Baltimore to claim their renewal.

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