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Portland’s 2022 Challenge Cup run came to an end in southern California last weekend. The Thorns picked up three wins, a draw and two defeats through six games, but it wasn’t enough to make the tournament’s semifinal.

Forward Sophia Smith led the Thorns’ attack with three goals scored over the course of the tournament while newly signed midfielder Hina Sugita netted a brace in the team's 3-2 win over San Diego. Defensively, Portland kept two clean sheets and allowed just five goals through six games.

“The Challenge Cup is a tough tournament, but it’s good for a lot of different reasons,” defender Meghan Klingenberg said. “We’re getting some quality matches against quality opponents, and that prepares you for the regular season.”

While there were several isolated positives, the Challenge Cup served as a vital early learning experience that will benefit the team going forward. Still adjusting to a new head coach in Rhian Wilkinson, the Thorns now have six competitive games worth of film and experience to review and learn from.

Before turning the page to the regular season – which begins at home against the Kansas City Current on Saturday (3pm PT, TICKETS, Twitch) – it’s important to first reflect on the last month of games. From learning how to grow into games to experimentation with formations and lineups, these are a few things to note from this year’s iteration of the Challenge Cup.

The Sophia Smith effect

While she only played five games during the Challenge Cup, it's already clear that Smith is going to give several opponents headaches this season.

Drafted No. 1 overall in the 2020 NWSL Draft, the former Stanford Cardinal scored seven goals in 2021. If early returns are any indication, Smith is on pace for several more in 2022.

Creative, blazing quick and willing to run at any defender, Smith’s ability to be consistently dangerous while on the field is one of her greatest attributes. Even more valuable are the ways in which Smith utilizes space as well as her gravity, which attracts several defenders and frees up teammates.

Then there are the goals, which Smith has been scoring for fun recently. On Apr. 9 she netted a hat trick for the U.S. Women’s National Team against Uzbekistan, while her early goal against San Diego on Apr. 17 came from a well-driven shot outside the box.

With Morgan Weaver, Janine Beckie and Christine Sinclair along the front line, the Thorns have attacking options all over the field, but it’s usually Smith who makes things click. When Portland needs to break down a compact defense, it can just look for the third-year forward. The same can be said when the team needs to generate a bit more energy.

After a month in which Smith couldn’t stop scoring for both club and country, the hope is that her form translates to the regular season.

Defense remains consistent

With a new head coach and a shuffle in midfield, the Thorns endured several changes since the end of last season. One glance at the back line, however, makes it seem as if nothing has changed.

Kelli Hubly, Emily Menges, Madison Pogarch, and Klingenberg started together against Angel City, while Natalia Kuikka and Becky Sauerbrunn return for another season. Behind them in goal, just like last season, is Bella Bixby.

The unit’s familiarity showed throughout the Challenge Cup as it kept two clean sheets and allowed five goals through six matches.

“I thought defensively we were pretty efficient,” Bixby said.

In the three Challenge Cups that Portland has participated in, it has only conceded more than one goal in a game twice, a testament to its familiar defense that continues to take positive steps early in a season.

The overall cohesion has also allowed the Thorns’ defense to build off a solid foundation, receive more game experience together and continue to learn in preparation for the regular season.

“We are all learning at the same time,” defender Emily Menges said after the Thorns’ 1-0 loss to OL Reign on Apr. 2. “Nobody’s ahead of anybody else. It takes a ton of communication from everybody. I think it’s coming together nicely and we’re doing a lot of tactics throughout the week. We’re all learning at the same rate.”

What does a fully healthy Portland look like?

There were stretches of play in this season’s Challenge Cup where it became easy to discern the type of team the Thorns hope to be this season.

When clicking on all cylinders, Portland displayed fluid movement and individual brilliance, looking increasingly comfortable in possession. But, with it still being preseason, those moments came few and far between.

There were games in which the Thorns scored three goals, some coming in short bursts, and others where they struggled to generate even one goal-scoring opportunity. When looking back on the six games that made up this season’s Challenge Cup, it’s important to remember that Wilkinson hasn’t had a complete collection of players available to her yet.

The greatest reminder of that came Sunday where the Thorns had five players – including three starters from the previous week – absent due to health and safety protocols. In addition, Portland was without Crystal Dunn, currently on maternity leave, and Sauerbrunn, who is still recovering from a torn right meniscus.

What does this Thorns team look like when everyone is healthy and available? It’s hard to tell so early in the year, but the club displayed just enough teasing glimpses throughout the Challenge Cup.

“I think the strength of this group is that we want to win, and we also think we can produce quality results and wins with anybody on the pitch,” Klingenberg said. “I truly believe in our core group of players, and it has been fun to see these players step on the field during this hard time and see what they’re made of.”

Lessons learned

While structured as a competitive tournament, the Challenge Cup still serves as a kind of preseason for the league’s 12 clubs. The six guaranteed games are meant for learning, implementing new ideas and fine-tuning ahead of a grueling regular season. Portland took full advantage of that opportunity throughout the tournament.

“The word that comes to mind when I think about the Challenge Cup for us thus far is just growth,” midfielder Sam Coffey said after the Thorns’ 3-2 win against San Diego on Apr. 17. “I think we’ve done some things unbelievably well and I don’t think we take time to really factor in just how much change there is. New coach, new players, there’s a lot of change within the club right but we’re learning from everything.”

Some of that growth came tactically, such as when Wilkinson experimented with a 4-3-3 structure for the first time against San Diego. Other areas were psychological, like the team’s approach to facing a deficit. After Portland’s 1-0 loss against Angel City on Sunday, Bixby talked about how the team wants to be able to dictate and control different types of games as well as avoid drops in momentum.

“We’ve had games where we’ve started really strong and then lost it in the second half,” Bixby said. “We’ve had games where we’ve started flatfooted and then come back and really showed who we are. Then we have games like this where it is up and down throughout the whole game.”

Trying to find any sort of rhythm while tinkering with new formations, positions and players is a lot for anyone to deal with, but there was no better place for Wilkinson and her team to do so than in a competitive preseason.

“Those things come with a little bit of time, a little bit of experience and that is something that we got [against Angel City],” Klingenberg said. “I think that’s invaluable for the regular season.”