PORTLAND, Ore. — There’s no word in the English language that captures the sound of ping pong. The word “pop” works for some people, but “clack” or “clap” might work better for others. Some people think of the name ping pong and apply those words to the sounds, but the word ping never works. There’s just nothing in our language that describes a celluloid ball bouncing off one type of wood before being hit by another.
The Portland Thorns used to hear those sounds before practices started. This year, those noises are gone. They’re retired for now, along with the two players who helped make them. When Britt Eckerstrom and Katherine Reynolds were around, the entire Thorns locker room could hear the pops, the clacks, the claps of paddles and tables, and kill shots aimed at a table’s corner.
“We used to have that ping pong table, but it’s not back yet,” Thorns midfielder Angela Salem laments. Moving the table out of the locker room was a COVID-19 precaution, but it coincided with Eckerstrom’s and Reynolds’ departures.
Reynolds, a defender capable of playing any position along a team’s back line, had been a professional for six years before joining the Thorns in 2016. By then, she had established herself as one of the most reliable fullbacks in the National Women’s Soccer League. Eckerstrom, a goalkeeper, arrived in Portland in 2017 after a rookie year with the Western New York Flash. The ping pong began in earnest soon after.
“They would play every morning, and it got super intense,” Salem remembers, emphasizing super intense in a way that was more feeling than sound. “Then one season, they ended up taking a class that teaches really high level [ping pong]. They learned all the techniques, all the skills.”
Thorns center back Emily Menges tells a slightly exaggerated version of the ping pong story, one she acknowledges is slightly untrue. But if Menges has her way, her fantastic version would be the one written into the Thorns’ history books.
“This is something that people don't know that I want them to know,” she says, her smile fading from her face as she gets into character. In the end, though, most of her story is true.
“Britt and Kath are professional ping pong players,” she insists. “They go to tournaments. They compete. They had a coach that wanted to be their sensei, and they had to turn him down. Because they play professional soccer.”
Though the Thorns miss more than Reynolds’ and Eckerstrom’s ping pong, the sound of their games has become symbolic. Or perhaps it’s the silence that remains that reminds their teammates of why they were so loved.
On Saturday, Thorns FC will honor Eckerstrom and Reynolds before the team’s regular-season finale against the North Carolina Courage. Ahead of that game, current players and staff tried to explain why each were so important.
“It's just incredible to see those type of people in a locker room,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg says. “Maybe you don't see [their entire impact] on the field in a game, or through what people see in the media. But when they're not around, it's this huge void that's really hard to fill.”
Thorns head coach Mark Parsons first coached Reynolds when she was traded to the Washington Spirit in 2015. She joined Parsons in Portland the following season, with Eckerstrom joining a year later.
“On the pitch, you will never, ever see those players have a six out of 10 [performance],” he said. “When I think of these two, I don't think of a 9.8 out of 10 and then suddenly a four out of 10. We see that from of the world's best players. [Eckerstrom and Reynolds] will always be 8.5 out of 10. You know every day they are prepared, they are ready, and they perform. Consistent high-quality performance is what I think of when I think of those two on the pitch.”
Because of the nature of goalkeeping, Eckerstrom’s contributions usually eluded the public eye. Only one `keeper can play at a time. That `keeper was usually Adrianna Franch, though to Parsons, the game Eckerstrom had against the Courage in the quarterfinals of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, “was the best goalkeeping performance I have ever seen.”
Goalkeeper Bella Bixby and coach Nadine Angerer saw that talent daily. For each, though, Eckerstrom’s personal qualities had an even bigger impact.
“She was always in a good mood,” Angerer remembers. “She brought so much positivity. Britt is somebody that you can laugh with, all of us together.”
With the group of her, Bixby and Franch, her personality was a complement.
“She had a different character,” Angerer explained. “Each of them had a different character, and she was the link between the other two. She provided balance to our group: her, AD, and Bella.”
“She was friends with everyone,” Bixby said. “She did different things with everyone. Everyone loved her. She was the universal friend …
“We had a ton of fun memories within our goalkeeper group, but Britt, she would do the dorkiest stuff. Like one time, she put a Halloween skull on under her sweatshirt hood but didn't say anything about it. She was just sitting there, sipping her drink, just doing it as this skeleton.”
Salem has known Reynolds since the two were teammates with Women’s Professional Soccer’s Atlanta Beat in 2011. They were together again in Western New York in 2013 at the start of the NWSL, and they were in Washington together when Parsons coached the Spirit. She rejoined her friend in Portland in 2018.
“[Reynolds] is someone you want by your side at all times, because you know she's going to give her all to the team,” she said. “She's going to work her ass off. She does everything at 100 percent, to the best of her ability, and that's a really good role model to have.
“Sometimes you come in and you might have a bad day, but you see Katherine running around, working hard, and doing everything to the best of her ability. She's a really good person, super lovable, has a great personality. She's someone you can't truly replace, to be honest.”
Kelli Hubly joined the Thorns at the same time as Eckerstrom, before the 2017 season. For her first four years as a professional, Eckerstrom and Reynolds were constants.
“Britt has this spunky, adventurous side of her that in the locker room was so fun to have, because she was so different than everybody,” she explained. “She would go camping by herself. She was somebody I would have never meet unless I was on a team with them. She always came in with a smile on her face, always wanted to have a good time …
“Kath, we have a little joke about her. We always cheers, lift our drinks in the air and say, ‘To Kath!’ We just all love her so much, and she's been a crucial part of this team for so many years …
“They're just two very special people that we've been able to play with, and we miss them. We love hanging out with them, still. They're just great people, great teammates, great friends, and we love them.”
Klingenberg was Reynolds’ and Eckerstrom’s teammate throughout each one’s time in Portland. She puts each among the best teammates she’s had during her 11 years of professional soccer.
“I love talking about Britt because she's brighter than the sun,” she said. “She is the kindest human I've been lucky enough to play with, and one of those people that makes everyone feel comfortable immediately, as soon as she walks into the room …
“Britt just allows everybody to be themselves, and that's the biggest compliment that she gives to other people. She allows them to be exactly who they are and embraces them for all that they are …
“Katherine is just a wonderful person … the ultimate human. She wishes the best for you and all you do, and makes everyone better around her. It's the greatest gift that you can give somebody, making sure they know how much you believe in them and how much better they make you just by being around.”
Menges is one of the Thorns that knows each the most. She also has some of the best perspective on what life in Portland was like before Eckerstrom and Reynolds’ arrivals.
“Both of them were the ideal teammates in the sense of support, hard work, always put the team first,” she said. “We miss them both individually, but for different reasons.
“What jumps to mind first with Kath is that she’s the kind of person that comes off very straight laced and serious, and nothing can be further from the truth. She is the biggest goofball. She’s really funny, just a very curious person.
“I think they both of them are. If you talk to either of them, you'll always have a very interesting conversation, because they're both very curious in a bunch of different areas. But they’re always in about what you're doing. They're both good people in that way.
“I don't know how Britt comes off to the public, but she is also quirky – but all goalkeepers are. But she's different in the sense that she could be on any outdoor reality TV show and hold her own, Like Naked and Afraid, one of those things. stranded on a deserted island, she would be everyone's first pick.”
Perhaps it was his head coach’s perspective, but it was Parsons who explained why the affection teammates feel for Eckerstrom and Reynolds is necessarily when it comes to results on the field.
“Britt and Kath are players and people you have to have if you want to win and win consistently,” he said. “Off the field, they are team first. They are people first. They take care of their teammates. They take care of their staff. And they do it in what I believe is the true form of leadership. They do it in a silent way, where no one will realize they're even doing it. They do it because it's the right thing. They do it because of who they are.
“They genuinely care about people. They care about making sure other people are good, and other people are performing, and other people are feeling good. They've done it for me as a person and a coach, and they consistently do it for everyone around them.”
“I miss them so much,” Menges admits. “The real world can't possibly be as good as here. I'm so lucky to have played with them for so long, and they deserve this retirement game. I'm just happy for them.”