PORTLAND, Ore. – Ana Crnogorčeviç spent her first week in Portland getting her body’s clock synced with its new place in the world. It was only three weeks earlier that she’d decided to exercise an out in her contract, leaving her club of almost seven years, FFC Frankfurt, and make the biggest leap of her career. From Germany to Oregon, Switzerland’s all-time leading scorer was ready to upend her world in search of a new challenge.
Thorns FC has a way doing that to a player. The crowds, alone, have garnered international attention, and with three trophies in the last five seasons, Portland’s is as successful as any franchise in the six-year-old NWSL.
“There are so many good players here,” Crnogorčeviç says in the days after her Thorns debut, meeting the Portland media for the first time. “I mean, look at the crowd. That was unbelievable. That’s one of the reasons I came here.”
Seven days into her Portland existence, though, and Crnogorčeviç was still getting settled. It had rained almost constantly since her arrival, in stark contrast to the sunny skies she left behind in Germany. “I’ve been getting pictures from my friends,” she says, describing 80-degree weather, wishing the blue skies had accompanied her move.
“I just came here and got bought some stuff for my apartment,” she says, describing her first week in Portland. A friend, “has been showing me around to a few restaurants, but that’s it. I hope to explore Portland a little bit more in the next few weeks. We’ll see."
The roots of Crnogorčeviç’s seemingly impromptu adventure extend back beyond her March 2018 signing date. They reach beyond last March, when she inserted an out in her Frankfurt deal, and the two years the Thorns had been evaluating her. Her path to the NWSL even extends beyond the five-plus years of Thorns FC’s existence. Almost counterintuitively, the seeds of her arrival were laid in 2011, at the end of the U.S.’ previous women’s league, Women’s Professional Soccer, when Crnogorčeviç was a teammate of one of the most accomplished players ever to put on a Thorns uniform.
“We knew each other for two years, we played two years together …,” the 27-year-old said of Nadine Angerer, the German legend and current Thorns goalkeeper coach. “We just talked to each other, and she just told me a little bit about the club, about Portland, about Mark [Parsons] as a coach, about the team. That was very helpful.”
Helpful, and arguably crucial. Crnogorčeviç and Angerer were more than mere teammates while playing together at Frankfurt. They’d stayed in touch since, including during Angerer’s time in the Thorns goal from 2014 to 2015.
“That was pretty cool,” Crnogorčeviç remembers about Angerer’s move to the U.S. At the time, the NWSL had just finished its first season, and although WPS had lured a number of prominent internationals, most of the best non-U.S. and Canadian players were spending the NWSL’s infancy in Europe. Angerer was the league’s first major acquisition from abroad.
“I didn’t know much about this league,” Crnogorčeviç says, recalling a couple of other Switzerland internationals had spent time in the U.S. “I just knew that Ramona Bachmann was playing in Atlanta in WPS. I know that Lara Dickenmann, from the national team, she played in Ohio, at Ohio State University.
“Nadine was the first big international coming to play here in Portland, in the NWSL. That was interesting to follow the results.”
Crnogorčeviç followed Angerer as her Frankfurt team claimed UEFA Champions League in 2015. She joined Switzerland at the World Cup in Canada that summer, getting a taste for life in North America in the process, and returned to the Bundesliga on the cusp of the Thorns radar. By then, Angerer was finishing her final professional season and was about to join Portland’s coaching staff, where she has become an invaluable assistant under Parsons.
Eventually, it was Angerer’s familiarity with Crnogorčeviç that sold the Thorns on their future talent.
“We worked on this for a couple of years,” Parsons says, talking about Crnogorčeviç’s acquisition. “Nadine not only knows her as a player but knows her as a person. And I think Nadine undersold the type or person she is. Nadine was quite safe, and [Crnogorčeviç] got here, and we realized this was more of a perfect fit than we imagined.”
To describe Angerer’s connection with Crnogorčeviç as a matter of coincidence would undersell Angerer’s influence, not only within the Thorns but in the broader, women’s soccer world. There are various players, agents, coaches and executives who seem to be at the hub of a vast, social wheel, one that turns around this small group who seem to know everybody. Angerer is one of them, as evidenced by the long-standing connection she had to another Thorns player, Hayley Raso. The German spent time with Raso’s Brisbane Roar in 2013 and 2014.
“You come across people who are connected across the women’s game, a lot,” Parsons explains. “If I think about through all the people I’ve met, there’s only one handful people that no one can say a bad word about. Nadine Angerer is probably the top of that list.
“If you find someone who does say a bad word about Nadine, or who has met her and hasn’t stayed connected with her, then they’re probably the problem. Nadine, if she’s met someone for five seconds, she always stays connected, and she always remembers who they are.”
It’s something that’s not only helped Crnogorčeviç’s recruitment but also her transition. Having made her own Frankfurt-to-Portland shift three years ago, Angerer has been vital in getting her former teammate up to speed as quickly as possible, acting as a type of liaison between her old friend and life on the ground. From culture to food, to where to go to start stocking Crnogorčeviç’s new apartment, Angerer has played a part, one that far transcends the role of goalkeeping coach.
“It’s really, really unique to have someone that is that connected,” Parsons says, “but Nadine is a really quality person who is very genuine and very honest. She attracts the people who she gets really close to, [and] it’s those types of people. That lets me know, when Nadine is close to someone like she is with Ana, that she’s going to share some of those qualities that Nadine has.”
For the Thorns, those types of cultural fits have become as important as the raw talent a player brings to the field. From the first days of his job in Portland, Parsons has sought to establish a culture that coincides with his core principles.
“If you look at our offseason,” he explained to FourFourTwo, two years ago, “whoever we kept or brought in, the biggest factor in their recruitment was their character.”
That demand has only increased in the years that’ve followed. What’s left, in Parsons’ view, is the tightest dressing room he’s had since his Portland arrival.
“This is the closest changing room we’ve had since I’ve been here the two-and-a-half years,” Parsons says, now. “This is the most team-first changing room we’ve had in two-and-a-half years, and I’m almost excited for some adversity, because I think it’s going to prove how close it is.”
Crnogorčeviç has already settled seamlessly into the group, meaning when the season’s first true adversity comes, Portland’s newest star will be ready to fight with its others. That presence, though, wouldn’t be possible without one of the Thorns’ reigning legends, somebody who, in her days away from the goalposts, has started to settle under the radar. Within Portland’s staff, though, Nadine Angerer remains the star she always was, shining brightly as she helped deliver the team’s newest international.