Emily Menges, iPTFC, 5.24.19

BEAVERTON, Ore.  – “I didn’t even know.” It’s probably the most Emily Menges response to a personal milestone that you could contrive, only this one is real. It was only well into Saturday’s game in Boyds, Maryland, that the long-time Portland Thorns FC player found out she had hit the century mark.

One hundred regular-season games. All with the same team. Menges is the second reach that milestone with the Thorns, with captain Christine Sinclair becoming a centurion last season. But Menges came into the league a year after her teammate, and Portland’s the only team she’s ever known.

That’s the part that makes Menges proud.

“[One hundred games] really doesn’t have that much of an effect on me other than I am pumped that all of my 100 games have been with one club,” she admitted. “I think that’s pretty rare, and it’s pretty cool for me to play all my 100 games here.”

Since Menges was drafted out of Georgetown in 2014, the Thorns have played 106 games with her, if you include the playoffs. Seventeen times, they’ve been without their defensive linchpin, with the difference in results marking her impact frighteningly clear:

Portland Thorns performance, 2014-present, with and without Emily Menges
MinutesGoalsGoals AllowedG/90GA/90
with Menges9,4331701251.621.19
without Menges1,66728281.511.51

Goals allowed increase by almost 27 percent when Menges doesn’t play, taking the Thorns from one of the NWSL’s best defenses to something that’s more middle of the road.

“Everything we see when she makes those tackles and those interceptions or plays passes that splits lines,” head coach Mark Persons explains, “and we go, ‘Wow, she’s so important on the ball.’”

But …

“You’re only seeing half of it,” Parsons continues, “because the other half is off the pitch, culturally.”

It came upin this space two weeks ago when talking about Katherine Reynolds’ importance, but it’s worth repeating, especially in light of Menges’ milestone. Along with Reynolds and Sinclair, Menges is part of the Thorns’ conscience, forming a center that defines the team’s culture. It’s difficult to imagine the team’s ethos without Sinclair’s presence, Reynolds’ judgment, and Menges’ example.

“[Menges] is a leader, both on and off the field: someone that brings it every single day,” Reynolds, who has 100 career NWSL appearances of her own (albeit with three teams), says. “She brings focus, brings hard work, but also is the most positive, fun, happy person in the locker room.”

It’s another way the trio complement each other. Sinclair is renowned for the humor she brings to the locker room, with her sarcasm and wit an important part of her legacy. Reynolds is the person who brings perspective, evident in her ability to appreciate the highs and weather the lows.

Menges brings the joy. Her focus on the field is as serious as anyone’s, but there is a humility that underpins it all, one that shows her gratitude. She gets to play soccer for a living, be around a group she’s come to love, in a place that’s become a second home.

“Whether it’s a bad day at training or a bad game, she’s always going to bring that smile, that laugh, and the jokes,” Reynolds says. “She’s just a friend to everyone, and a solid person all around – someone everybody on the team can count on, all the time. She’ll do anything for any single person on this team.”

“She’s so important to the community,” Parsons says. “She’s so important to our team, the relationships, and the team chemistry and the culture. Having someone who’s been and seen and done it for 100 for one club, it’s invaluable.”

The Thorns have been perennial title contenders for most of their existence, but Menges is one of the few Portland players that’s seen the low moments. Along with Sinclair and Tobin Heath, the now-26-year-old was here in 2014, when a title defense ended in disappointment during the league’s semifinals. She was here in 2015, when a sixth-place finish depicted a team unable to meet the challenges of their World Cup losses.

And she was here in 2016, when the Thorns claimed an NWSL Shield. In 2017, Menges was part of her first title winner, and in 2018 she played in her second championship game. She’s not only part of the team’s conscious; she’s part of its memory. As the Thorns’ identity has come into focus, so has the person Menges has become.

“You go through your stages of, like, right out of college until now,” she says, when asked how she’d changed since 2014. “That’s a huge transition period in your life. And being surrounded by one club the entire time is pretty cool.

“I don’t know what’s changed the most. I think maybe perspective on life has changed a little bit. I get more excited than nervous for games, which is new to me.”

It’s part of that joy Reynolds described, likely part of the reason why Menges forgot about her milestone. There’s a day-to-day excitement in her life in soccer that gives benchmarks like a 100th appearance the feeling of being too grandiose. There was game to play that day. That the game happened to be a big, round number was just “pretty cool.”

Maybe number 200 will feel like something more. Then again, that will be another game, within another season, and for Menges, that will probably feel more important. She’ll be too focused on what’s in front of her to keep a tally of her benchmarks. That’s probably a big reason why last weekend’s milestone came so soon.