PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Thorns FC's excitement came through in a way that was new one of the team's preseason training session, and new to a ritual the team goes through every preseason. Players leave the club at some point each winter, report to their national teams for around three weeks, then come back to their National Women’s Soccer League worlds. Once they do, those players have to reintegrate into a group that’s trained together for nearly a month.
Today at Providence Park, that dynamic came out in an ironic but celebratory way, and it came out early. “So this is what it’s like to have a full team together,” somebody joked as the team's performance coach took the players through their warmup. Said loud enough for the whole team to hear, the quip got a laugh quick laugh, as if somebody finally said something the thing that was so obvious, but also so unspoken.
“I heard that we were a little low on numbers, so it's nice, with people smiling welcoming us back, joking around,” midfielder Lindsey Horan offered, carrying the irony forward into a post-training interview. “It's just a great feeling, coming back.”
The quip's irony comes from the contrast between the last month of training and the dynamic the team had last season, when the isolation of summer’s Challenge Cup and the bonding of the league’s Fall Series left players lauding the group’s camaraderie. Normally, at the end of each NWSL season, teams go their separate ways, come back together in March, and have to regroup after five or six months apart. Whatever camaraderie existed needs to be rekindled, if not outright rebuilt.
On Tuesday, the Thorns began that process for 2021, but it felt different than it had a year before. Or a year before that. Or at any other point in head coach Mark Parson's time with Portland. Momentum from 2020 made the “full team” quip both exciting and, in its own way, a joke.
“I think there is a special energy, full stop,” Parsons said when asked if the day felt different. “We did some great work in 2020, and we've really grown as a group. A group of people. A group of athletes. A group of players. We've a got our eyes on being the best that we can be in as many areas, but there's also a bigger purpose about this group, right now.”
That Parsons' group has changed relatively little since 2020 helps. Of the 22 players currently on the team’s roster, 19 were with the Thorns last season. As opposed to the offseason before that, where Portland made major moves after their loss in the NWSL's 2019 playoff semifinals, the Thorns are trying to leverage continuity going into 2021.
One of the team’s few offseason acquisitions was United States international Crystal Dunn, who trained on Tuesday with the Thorns for the first time in a month. Now returning from her time in Orlando, Florida, where the U.S. was competing in the SheBelieves Cup, Dunn is “definitely” feeling a different energy than in other preseasons, tying part of that excitement to what happened to the Thorns in the days before Tuesday's workout.
“The girls over the weekend had a scrimmage, obviously,” Dunn explained. Portland visited Tacoma, Washington, on Saturday to play\ OL Reign. “It was nice for [the players] to get a game under their belt. But of course, there were a lot of us missing. I think there was a lot of energy, today, because the full team was in. It felt great to get a feel for what the rest of this year is going to be like."
It's a feeling Parsons has been waiting for since his team started training last month.
“It's a long wait to have everyone finally on the field together in 2021,” Parsons said. “We had to wait an extra four weeks for that to happen. In general, there was a special energy. Today is the first day I've been able to feel it, see it among the whole group.”