Bixby returns to lineup, Challenge Cup level in 2021 debut

20210703 bella bixby

It took 42 seconds for Bella Bixby to be tested. A cross came in from her left, and despite a couple of defenders’ attempts to clear it, the ball fell to Ebony Salmon’s right foot. But by the time the Louisville attacker shot, Bixby had cut off her angles.

It was the only save of a half that meant as much for Bixby’s minutes played as any other number. Making her first appearance since last summer’s Challenge Cup, Bixby completed a comeback which, because of her role as Adrianna Franch’s backup, seemed to have been forgotten. Come full time, Bixby’d made four saves, helped Portland Thorns FC to a 2-0 win at Louisville, and showed the same command we saw at Challenge Cup.

“It's very rare that another number one steps in when your number one heads to the Olympics,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said. “That's what we've got at this club. And we're proud of that.”

“We had a busy week leading up to [the game], but we have a good culture in the team,” Bixby began, when asked about the leadup to the match. “I felt ready. I felt like I got what I needed. I was excited leading up, to get my first 90 minutes this year, especially at this stadium.”

Bixby’s four previous professional appearances all came in closed stadiums. Challenge Cup marked the first team sporting event to be waged amid the Covid-19 pandemic; as such, there were no crowds.

Today, Bixby got to experience one of the more exciting environments in the NWSL. Lynn Family Stadium has been in the spotlight even since Racing’s debut. It was the first time Bixby had fans watch her as a pro.

“This is an awesome stadium,” Bixby said. “The fans really brought it.”

Bixby’s calm in catching two first-half corner kicks made it easy to remember last summer, when she was one of the best goalkeepers during the Challenge Cup’s preliminary round. In training before that tournament’s knockout rounds, Bixby suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and was sidelined for the rest of the season. Saturday marked her first game time since her Challenge Cup was cut short.

Since the beginning of the season, though, Bixby’s been ready to play, and with Franch headed to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, the 25-year-old will get another significant stretch as the Thorns’ starter. The fourth-year pro could start as many as seven games before Portland’s Olympians return.

“Two critical saves at the beginning of each half, which is her bread and butter,” Parsons said. “It's what she does. Obviously, goalkeepers are there when other people make a slip, and she came up big.

“But it's the rest of the game that's very important to us. Her composure, calmness, management, analyzing how the opposition are pressing us, giving information to other players. We struggled the first 10, 15 [minutes], and we were looking a bit flustered in solving some simple tactical things. Bella did a great job, especially in the second half, of making the right call, the right decision and giving the right information.”

As in the first half, Bixby got an early test to open the second. A pass from Racing’s Lauren Milliet to the edge of Portland’s six-yard box was directed toward goal by Yuki Nagasato. Moving across goal to her right, Bixby met the ball with two hands at chest level and maintained control. It was a more dangerous chance than Louisville had at the start, and Bixby didn’t have much time to get in position. Ultimately, she kept a “0” on the scoreboard.

Combined with last year’s appearances in the Challenge Cup, Bixby has now allowed three goals in five starts. Today was her first career win but her third clean sheet as a professional. She’s saved 83.3 percent of the shots opponents have put on target.

“I've got some really world-class teammates that have helped me get ready, whether it’s just in a shooting drill or training,” Bixby explained. “Because I'm training with such world-class players and athletes all the time, this really did fell pretty seamless, and [the teammates’ quality] helped me manage my anxiety, to some extent. They’ve helped me feel so ready, I didn't have any doubt in my mind that I was ready.”

When Bixby spoke after her 2020 debut, she met the media’s praise with a small admonition. Her debut against the North Carolina Courage might have looked good on television, but within the Thorns’ goalkeeping group, they would be more critical. Praise is nice, but it wasn’t the reality of her world.

Again, Bixby will go back to the film. She’ll review Saturday’s performance with goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer and teammate Shelby Hogan, and together, the goalkeeping group will figure out how to move forward. No matter our reactions and narratives, Bixby knows which feedback matters most.

“For me, [Saturday’s performance was] a good starting position,” she conceded. “We got the clean sheet. I felt like I had a relatively clean game. But the bar is not going to stay here.

“We're going to continue to raise the bar and raise the standard. We may have walked away from this with a win and a clean sheet, but there are definitely things that we can work on and continue to execute well … That applies to me, as well.”

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