PORTLAND, Ore. – After spending time in central Oregon last week in Bend, Portland Thorns FC returned to the Rose City this week to continue their preseason training at Providence Park ahead of 2022 season.
With a new head coach in Rhian Wilkinson, a new general manager in Karina LeBlanc, and a number of new players, much of the time in Bend was focused on how the team wants to define itself, create a team culture and build off their past successes. 2021 saw the team capture three trophies – the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup and the 2021 NWSL Shield – and expectations for more in 2022 remain, making this time in preseason so very important.
“Right now, I feel like it's like a really great time,” forward Morgan Weaver shared after practice this week. “I feel like we've grown closer as a team, especially with our new staff [and] our new GM.
“We're just kind of building a new culture with also bringing attributes from last year, of course…I think we're all just trying to learn from each other as well.”
Goalkeeper Bella Bixby agrees, feeling that the team has had a good base to build off of throughout the early days of 2022.
“I think that the culture within this club is strong, regardless of what changes come, whether it's in the roster or staff,” she said. “A lot of our tenets are the same in terms of our work ethic and expectations on the field.
“It's just been a lot of team bonding, making sure that we're establishing our principles, sticking to those, as we know that things are going to pick up here pretty soon. We’ve got a long season so it's just been building that foundation that has been critical in the last three weeks.”
PRESEASON | Thorns players travel to Bend to train, build team culture and bond...through go-kart driving
Both Weaver and Bixby had strong 2021 seasons. Weaver appeared in 19 matches (12 starts) and scored a goal and three assists. Her speedy play also led to her first international cap as she debuted for the U.S. Women’s National Team in a 3-0 win over Australia in November.
For Bixby, after establishing herself as a starter early in the year, the Milwaukie, Ore. native had a breakout campaign, capturing nine clean sheets and NWSL Best XI Second Team honors.
With former head coach Mark Parsons gone – off to coach The Netherlands Women’s National Team – and all of the changes now taking root, it could seem both daunting as well as an opportunity to begin somewhat anew. Bixby, though, believes that for her, finding the right balance of what she can bring as an individual will help with the overall team.
“I think it can be a little overwhelming if you're taking in all the change at once,” she admits. “So it's been really important to me to identify my value to the team and identify my strengths, make sure that I'm sticking to those in my player identity, but also working on things that I wanted to get better at towards the end of last season [and] tightening those things up.”
Weaver, similarly, looks to improve while also preaching a steady approach as she and her teammates all build towards a familiar, yet new, identity.
“I just think for me, I'm just taking it one day at a time, one step at a time, obviously,” she said. “Also, with new players, just learning what their strong suit is, or weaknesses, and just being able to work off that.
“And I think finding out what I need to work on for myself. I've made a few lists of what I've tried to grow on and stuff this year.”
For Weaver, that list includes improving on her already strong finishing – “Sincy (Christine Sinclair) has been a huge help this year,” she confides – while Bixby speaks to continuing the team’s strong backline.
“Our backline has stayed very consistent to last year,” she said. “It'll just be continuing to build off of the successes we had with shutouts last year and really good defensive efforts.”
With a recently announced preseason tournament at Providence Park and the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup fast approaching, both players believe the team is taking all of the lessons, the bonding and the team building into creating a strong start for the season in front of the Rose City faithful.
“I think just finally getting a game in and just being able to see what we built off last year and to come into a new coaching staff and building off that,” Weaver said when asked about what she’s most looking forward to.
“I think it's going to be fun. I think we're excited and we're ready to play.”