When the Portland Thorns FC needed players to step up this summer, Yazmeen Ryan answered the call.
Seven players had departed for international games in early July, but unlike most other league’s in the world, the NWSL powered through with games throughout the international window. Things had finally been clicking into place. A May 21 loss was soon followed by a 4-0 and 6-0 trouncing of the Dash and Orlando Pride. The Thorns were back, and there was no time to ease off the pedal.
Ryan knew it.
A second-year versatile attacking threat out of TCU, Ryan started all three games between Jul. 1 and Jul. 16. Moved out wide from her usual central position, with more space to run, she returned to an attack-minded role, a first with the Thorns, but familiar from her time in Fort Worth. Already the NWSL’s league leader in assists (4), “Yaz,” as her teammates call her, added another goal and assist to her season total. Her team, meanwhile, earned five crucial points from a potential nine and decimated NY/NJ Gotham FC in a 5-0 home victory.
It’s easy to point out Ryan’s last-minute, game-tying goal in LA against Angel City on Jul. 1 as a notable sign of her recent impact, but her breakthrough in July wasn’t recorded on in the box score. Faced with increasing pressure to perform, Ryan embraced it, she says, growing in confidence and leadership.
With the international players back in Portland, and an unbeaten streak ballooning during their absence, we sat down with Ryan to talk about her busy and wild summer.
Take us back to your goal against Angel City to kick off the three-game stretch. What did you learn about the team from that game?
Yazmeen Ryan: We wanted to keep up the momentum we had when everybody left. It was a good first game for new players in new positions and we set the standard of not shutting down and trying new solutions for different problems. Getting scored on in the first minute of a game is difficult to bounce back from, but I think because we worked so hard to stay in the game and tried new things, we were able to find that last goal. We knew time was running out, but we stayed true to how we wanted to play and that opened up a good opportunity as well.
How did that give both you and the team confidence to begin the stretch?
We gained a lot of confidence in knowing that we probably should have won that game, and besides the first goal we kept [Angel City] locked in for the most part. Of course, there are moments where it gets a little hectic, but I think because we were all on the same page it gave us more momentum going into the next game. We told ourselves, “We need three points; we deserve three points, and we can definitely do that.” Every person on the team is able to contribute to it no matter if we lose players from COVID or to international teams. Because we knew we could have been a little sharper in places and cleaning up things, going into the next game, everything kept building on one another.
How do you balance taking advantage of these windows to show what you are capable of and making sure you don’t put too much pressure on yourself?
I tried not to think about [the pressure] too much or in the wrong way because for me personally, I thought about it as my chance to be set free from pressure. It’s kind of weird considering the situation, but because I was playing a lot and starting every game, I felt more free in a sense that I could do my thing. Coming off the bench, it’s so hard when you come in at a later moment and everything’s chaotic; you can’t find much of a rhythm. So, I felt like it wasn’t the time to think too much about it, I just wanted to set myself free from that pressure and play.
What did training sessions look like with international players gone? How would it compare to what they looked like before the break?
In training, it was about getting a lot more reps with passing patterns in your specific position. I think because we had a lot of new players coming in, we went back to the basics with attention to detail and our overall goal. I think it helped a lot, just revisiting what we started in preseason and the beginning of the season with how we structured everything. Having to explain that to newer players coming in helped players already here remember key things about how we want to play. It was a lot more reps in training and building partnerships by training with each other.
What were your individual goals throughout that stretch and how were you trying to take advantage of the window as a player?
I was focused on helping the team win and making sure we kept up the same level and standard no matter who was on the field. Individually, I wanted to focus on my new role in that because I was more of a midfielder and then gradually went out to a wide space as an outside forward.
I’m kind of changing my mentality with making sure I’m creating attacks, creating chances, I’m serving the ball in and picking people out.
I also focused on my first touch and making it nice and clean as well as being more aware of the people around me and where they’re going to be.
What’s the shift like for you going from a more traditional midfield role to a more attacking one in wide spaces?
I feel a bit more comfortable there because that’s where I did play in college [at Texas Christian University]. It’s pretty similar to that and so I’m having to go back and remember stuff like that. With everyone back, I am still out in the wide spaces, and I think so far [head coach Rhian Wilkinson] wants to keep me there as an option. In this position I’m able to express more who I am as a player and be more myself. That has allowed me to grow more confident.
What are some team goals going forward in this pivotal stretch of the season?
I think the goal is to never let up. In the last two games before international players left, we were winning by four or five goals. I think the meetings have been okay, we’re doing what we want to do, but can't back down just because we may be playing a team at the bottom of the standings. Anything can happen in this league, so making sure we keep our head on straight and stay focused is important so we stay true to our process. I think that also showed in the Angel City game as we kept playing that same way and didn’t let it get out of hand or focus on the immediate outcome.
What has the reintegration process been like so far and how does the team make sure to not lose a step from before the break?
Last year was crazy because I came in right when the regular season began. It didn’t take that long, but it was an adjustment coming in around the 70th or 80th minute. Something I learned coming in last year was to take advantage of any opportunity you are given. For everybody coming back in, it has shifted a little bit gaining back those partnerships. However, that won’t take long at all because we left off on a really good foot and everyone [in Portland] is continuing that momentum.