PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Thorns went 6-0-2 (wins-losses-draws) across two competitions between their Olympic athletes’ departure and their Saturday returns. When those stars returned, the Thorns their second trophy of 2020. Returning a team that went 57 days without loss over the Olympic period, gold medalist Christine Sinclair and her American counterparts — Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn – helps give us a glimpse of their squad’s potential, contributing to a 1-0 victory over Olympique Lyon to claim the Women’s International Champions Cup.
Over Saturday’s final half-hour, Lyon spent most of their time on the ball trying to break through pressure that pinned then deep in their half of the field. When they did, they were able to get into transition a create a few chances on Bella Bixby’s goal. But contrary to how most matches play out in Europe, OL was not able dictate a match. Instead of being the dominant side whose talent forced opponents to play on Lyon’s terms, OL — worn down by Portland and missing some of their stars — were subjected to Thorns soccer.
Portland had been so good over the month-and-a-half before their stars’ return, it became tempting to wonder what that return would mean. Is there still another level for the Thorns? In 2019, reincorporating prominent internationals saw Portland change gears from the first-place team they’d been during the World Cup and stumble to a third-place finish. If Saturday is any indication, 2021’s returns could build on that year’s lessons, perhaps producing the boost you’d expect from four of the world’s biggest talents.
For those who live the NWSL and women’s soccer, no reminders are needed. For others, here is that reminder: who, exactly, the Thorns are getting back as their chase for a third league title resumes Wednesday against Gotham:
- Who: A 122-time United States international and 2019 world champion who has played central midfield (predominantly), attacking midfield and forward this year for Portland.
- Backstory: Dunn was the NWSL’s first-overall draft pick in 2014 and won the league’s 2015 Most Valuable Player award. She won league titles in 2018 and 2019 with the North Carolina Courage.
- Present: Dunn was traded to her adopted hometown, Portland, during the offseason and has one goal, one assist across 10 all-competition games this season.
- Impact: Dunn has proven herself to be one the most complete players in world soccer and has flexed that versatility this year. Switching from an attacking to central role in midfield, Dunn’s won 78.6 percent of her tackles in league play this season.
- Who: Another member of the U.S.’s 2019 World Cup-winning team, Horan has made 104 appearances for her country since making her international debut in 2013.
- Backstory: Horan joined Portland before the 2016 season and has since been part of one Shield- and one title-winning team. She calimed the NWSL’s MVP award in 2018 and was the championship game MVP in 2017, when the Thorns defeated the Courage for their second league title.
- Present: Horan was enjoying an excellent spring with the Thorns before her Olympic departure, even though, as with Dunn, her performance wasn’t reflected in her conventional numbers. In addition to her two goals, one assist in nine all-competition games, Horan has been one of the team’s linking forces in midfield, averaging a team-high 62.5 passes per 90 minutes.
- Impact: Horan’s box-to-box influence may be unmatched in the NWSL. From her willingness to initiate play from her own penalty area to her prowess as a target near goal, Horan is one of the first Thorns opponents have to plan for.
- Who: Beyond being a two-time world champion and a goal medalist at the 2011 Olympics in London, Sauerbrunn has established herself as one of the best defenders in the sport’s history. She has made 193 appearances as a senior international.
- Backstory: Since emerging as a starter for the Washington Freedom in the NWSL’s predecessor league, Women’s Professional Soccer, Sauerbrunn has been a leading figure in the domestic game. She is a four-time NWSL Defender of the Year, seven-time member of the league’s annual Best XI, and captained title-winning teams in 2014 and 2015.
- Present: Sauerbrunn’s place among the NWSL’s defending elite is unchanged. Since her arrival in Portland before the 2020 season, the Thorns have only allowed 15 goals in 25 games, and while injury and international duty have meant she’s missed a number of those games, Sauerbrunn’s addition to the Thorns’ culture has helped restore their defense-first approach.
- Impact: As evidenced by Saturday’s lineup, Sauerbrunn will immediately go into central defense next to Emily Menges, rejoining a team that has the best defensive record in the NWSL. Between the regular season and Challenge Cup, Portland’s only conceding 0.55 goals per 90 minutes.
- Who: It seems weird to explain who Christine Sinclair is, but there might be people out there just now learning about the amazing career she’s amassed in the game. With 187 international goals for Canada, she is the leading scorer in international soccer history, and as of two weeks ago, she’s also won a gold medal.
- Backstory: Sinclair was a two-time national champion and a M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winner during her collegiate career at the University of Portland. Since joining the Thorns in 2013, she has 62 all-competition goals and is the only player to remain on the team from that inaugural 2013 season.
- Present: Sinclair remains one of the best players in the league and, from her place between midfield and the forward line, crucial to the Thorns’ game plan. Her execution of and decision-making within the team’s approach is as high as any players’ in the team. And oh, by the way, she also has four goals in nine matches this season.
- Impact: Beyond the leadership, connective ability, and tactical awareness “Sinc” brings back into the team, there’s the thing she’s known for most: goals. Since the end of last year’s Challenge Cup (13 games), Sinclair is averaging a goal every 112.4 minutes, which would work out to over 19 goals over the course of a 24-game regular season. The greatest scorer in international soccer history remains very good at scoring goals.
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