PORTLAND, Ore. — For almost every Portland Thorn, Tuesday morning practice at Providence Park wasn't their first with teammates in 2021. As veteran defender Emily Menges explained, some Thorns have been "training as a big group in the offseason. "We have a bunch of people who stay [in Portland]."
But Tuesday was different in terms of process, intent, and in terms of the National Women's Soccer League's 2021 season, context. For Portland, the session marked the first official training for the season, so whereas offseason practices tend to be player-driven, this time, head coach Mark Parsons and his staff were providing the course.
"Mark brings a whole new energy," Menges said, "and there's a little bit of extra intensity knowing that today is the actual start."
The NWSL's preseason officially began yesterday, but instead of taking to the field, the Thorns held meetings: opportunities to not only go over the COVID-19-related protocols for the new season but to review the goals the group will have for itself. For many teams, that means focusing on day-to-day improvement, and letting results be those process's outcomes.
"I stay right here, right now," left back Meghan Klingenberg offered about not only 2021's outlook but the feelings that remain from 2020's Fall Series results. Portland won the Verizon Community Shield during the year's end-of-season competition, finishing with the best record in the NWSL over their four games.
"The only thing that matters is being here with the group, connecting with my teammates, getting better every day, working together, pushing each other to get to a new level, holding each other accountable, smiling … Those are the things that matter, and everything else doesn't."
There was one other thing that mattered to Klingenberg: a feeling that was still with her as she left the field.
"The only word that springs up is joy," she said. "It's just pure joy being out here and being around people, because soccer is about passion and connection and fun, and striving for something bigger than yourself. All of those things come together. And for me, that sensation that I get when I'm out there is joy."
For the Thorns, part of that joy may be the feeling they carry forward from a successful fall, but it only takes a few minutes of looking at social media posts from other NWSL players to see Portland has no monopoly on joy. There is always a sense of excitement this time of year — one Klingenberg likened to "a kid going to kindergarten" — but particularly after the uncertainties of 2020, this year feels different. Though 2021 will still begin in a COVID-19 world, the NWSL's new, larger footprint across the calendar is a new chapter, of sorts. The season starts earlier, will last for longer, and with the Challenge Cup returning for a second season, there are more honors to play for.
"I love the optimism and the vision of the NWSL and the owners and the players' association, to be able to put the calendar year that they've put out there," Parsons said. "More time for us to train, more time for us to compete, more trophies to compete for is very important for any professional athlete, professional coach.
"The last few days" of offseason preparation, Parsons explained, "it's come around quick. We normally have a bit more time after the draft, which takes a lot out of you. But we're in the stadium, fresh air, playing soccer with a lot of people who did so well last year and new people who are adjusting is a blessing. I'm just so glad that we're here."
On Tuesday, players felt the brunt of that preparation, with the day's session slightly more advanced than would normally open a preseason. The reason may come down to what Thorns were doing in their offseasons. The team has a contingent of international players who were active throughout January. Other players, like Natalia Kuikka, Celeste Boureille and Meaghan Nally, were competing in Europe. And as Menges said, other players were working with each other throughout the break, making the biggest difference for some in Tuesday's training more structure than workload.
"The pre-practice meetings definitely add a little bit of focus, a different mentality," Menges explained. "And then having the coaches back out here, getting us on our prehab, on our warmups and stuff like that, it was definitely an extra little gear you have to turn on in the morning. But it's good. You can only have an offseason for so long."
You can also only begin preseason for so long. The Thorns are still in that mode, for now. Slowly, the team will put the new-season feel behind them and start focusing on what's to come: a Challenge Cup that starts in April; a regular season that extends through October; and a 2021 that will be defined by how far Portland's process takes them.
"We definitely have that feeling of we're starting a bit above the ground this year," Menges said. "That's good."