PORTLAND, Ore. — Karina LeBlanc had never been to the highest point of Providence Park. When she played for the Portland Thorns, the stadium’s east side had no seats above street level. That was 2013, the first year of the NWSL, before three tiers of stands rose above Southwest 18th Avenue.
She retired in 2015 after 15 years as a professional, though her most memorable season came in the Rose City. She was an original Thorn, the starting goalkeeper on that year’s championship team, and part of the reason Portland’s inaugural season was so successful.
“It was the best year of my professional career, period,” she says.
Today, LeBlanc is a Thorn again, albeit in a much different capacity. For the first time in the club’s history, the Thorns will have a dedicated general manager, with LeBlanc leaving her role with Concacaf to return to Portland. Just as at some point it became time for Providence Park to grow, so too is it time to expand the Thorns’ front office.
“Last time I was here, really, was as a player,” LeBlanc explained. “I got to connect with the city. I got to wear that crest on my heart. We won a championship. It was a different time.
“Now, with this new role, it's truly special. It's beautiful in so many different ways, and it's an opportunity to take this club where it's never been before.”
LeBlanc’s opportunity began surfacing nearly one month ago. That’s when Thorns ownership reached out.
“I got a text, and then I had a call with [Thorns CEO] Merritt [Paulson],” she remembers. “It was two hours [that were] emotional, honest, real, authentic …
“And if that was where that conversation started? It was real. It was true. And I was like, ‘OK. Maybe I am interested.’”
LeBlanc will run the Thorns’ entire soccer operation, a role in which she never envisioned herself before conversations with the club began just under one month ago. At that time, she was serving as Head of Women’s Football for Concacaf, building on a post-playing resume that’s seen her work with UNICEF as an ambassador, cover a World Cup for FOX Sports and, through her work at Concacaf, be involved in the game’s development at the FIFA level.
She played in five World Cups, won an Olympic bronze medal, was active in the three professional women’s first divisions the United States has seen, and represented her country 110 times at the international level. She has now devoted 30 years of her life to the sport, even though she didn’t pick up the game in earnest until she was 11 years old.
“I got into soccer because they were doing that at a sleepover the next day,” she remembers, recalling the “shy young girl” that arrived in Canada from Dominica three years before.
“I went on to say, ‘I'm going to be an Olympian,’ and being cut [from my team],” she says, “and just at age 14 being all, 'I need to work harder to make my dream happen.'
“To go on and play in Olympics and World Cups, to have a professional career, and to go on to do things globally like UNICEF, I honestly sometimes stop and think — and I'm not saying this because I want people to be like, ‘oh my God, what a life,’ I'm saying this because once you start to live a life of purpose, and you start to do things that align with your purpose on this Earth, things come to you. And this came to me.”
LeBlanc’s “this” has allowed her to punch a soccer passport rivaled by few others. By 17, she was playing soccer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and beginning a professional journey that would take her across North America: from Boston to Montreal and then New Jersey; to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boca Raton; to Portland, and finally Chicago.
Through that experience, LeBlanc has seen two leagues fail. The 2003 collapse of the Women’s United Soccer Association left her without a first-division league to play in for six years. Then Women’s Professional Soccer came along. Three years after that, WPS folded.
She knows the value in a league being near the end of a ninth season, but she also knows how much more is possible.
“That's why I'm here. It broke my heart that people had conversations saying this league could fold,” she says, alluding to the league-wide reckoning that’s happened since The Athletic’s September report of past abuse. “I don't want those players to go through it … It's time to come together, connect, and rise like you’ve never risen before.
“I've been through that over and over again. I know what it's like to hit rock bottom over and over again. I know what it's like to have the league fold right when you think it's OK. I know what it's like to win a championship. I know all of it. But I know I want to be part of the conversation.”
Along with the NWSL’s path is the path for the Thorns. The team already has the highest profile in its league, and with the international attention players like Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Amandine Henry and Nadine Angerer garnered, the Thorns have one of the most recognizable brands in women’s soccer. But as the women’s game continues to grow, so must the Thorns. LeBlanc is going to be crucial to how the organization moves forward.
“The Portland Thorns are a massive and major part of the NWSL,” she said. “The success of the Portland Thorns is important to the growth of women's football, and I understand that. And I know the magnitude of what comes with this job, but I love it.”
Among LeBlanc’s first major challenges will be helping the team and league move forward from its current moment. Following The Athletic’s story, players and fans have demanded the league address its culture, insisting player safety become a bigger priority. In addition to making sure the Thorns respond to players’ needs, LeBlanc will have to play a major role in restoring fans’ trust.
“The only way forward is together ...,” she says, when asked about her club’s connection to its fanbase. “We [need to] sit down and say, 'how do we move forward,' because we will not be the Portland Thorns if they are not in the stands. That's what made playing here so special.”
“Now we're going to tap into the best part of what the Thorns can be …,” she said. “What are we meant to learn to be better? We're learning, and I'm telling you, we're going to be better.”
That’s part of the enormity of LeBlanc’s job, but so is the Thorns’ potential, as well as their present. The team she inherits has won three trophies in 2021, is striving for a fourth, and will go into its next season with one of the strongest rosters in the NWSL. LeBlanc not only arrives to an organization that has high expectations for today but has high expectations for tomorrow.
Yes, the Thorns have grown since she played in Portland, and the league has grown with it. Now, it’s time for one of the team’s former stars to help author the next stage of growth.
“I wouldn’t have dreamt of this,” she admits, “because this is more beautiful than any dream I could have had.”
“I can’t wait to get started.”
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