Before the May 21st match between the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash, Thorns Goalkeeper Shelby Hogan, Thorns GM Karina LeBlanc and Thorns Owner CEO Merritt Paulson joined 50 Thorns Annual Members for an Open House to discuss all things on and off the field at Providence Park. Below are some of the key questions and responses from the event. The questions and responses below have been edited for clarity and some have been combined from multiple related questions or responses.
Shelby Hogan – Thorns Goalkeeper
What's it like being a goalkeeper for the Thorns, considering the great tradition that exists here?
"Getting the opportunity to play for the Thorns was a big dream come true. There is such a rich history of talented goalkeepers, I mean, one of them is sitting next to me right now. So, it's a really cool opportunity to be training with top goalkeepers like Bella Bixby and Abby Smith and then being coached by Nadine is like, I mean, it can't get much better than that. So, I just try to soak in the opportunity of learning from all these great talents around me and I'm just trying to grow every day and learn from them, and then improve bits and pieces of my game."
What's Nadine like as a coach?
"I mean, she is definitely a great character, as well as a great coach. There are a lot of good laughs that we have all throughout training, but it's all mixed in with a lot of work. We have a good balance where we can all joke around, but we know we're all putting in the work so that it doesn't get in the way of our focus. She was obviously a very talented player, but I think what's really special about her is that she's been able to translate that into the way she coaches. She just has a way of showing all that she was as a player, and translating that into teaching us. She's really good at breaking things down into a very simple form."
Any advice for these young fans in attendance?
"Keep chasing your dreams. This was a dream of mine, for my whole life, and to think I'm sitting in front of you guys and playing for such a great club. That's what I always hoped and dreamed would happen, but to actually be living this reality makes me so happy. I'll continue to push forward, because I'm really grateful to be here."
Merritt Paulson – Thorns CEO/Owner
Karina LeBlanc - Thorns GM
Assess the start of the season, how are new players integrating and what is your feeling on where the team is right now?
KL: "I think preseason was really about integrating our new coach, Rhian, as well as some new players and new staff. It was a time for us to kind of bond, and get to know each other, but then understand the style of play and where we want to be as a team.
Then the Challenge Cup came and, you know, we obviously want to win everything. We didn't win it, but I think what you saw was the team grow. You got to start to see some new players like Hina, Sam Coffey, a rookie who's done so well, and she's been killing it! And guess what, that's not even in her normal position. So, I think what you've seen is the team start to play different styles of play, which is probably different from how we've been in the past. The coaching staff has really come in and helped strengthen our football IQ.
As for the start of the regular season, have we wanted to get better results? Yes. But we're not frustrated. Merritt and I talk during every game and after every game. I think, it's just like Shelby said, you want to win the games, but you have key take aways, as you see the team rising. Hina, Sam Coffey…..some of these names we’ve just mentioned.
I mean, Bella, I will always talk about goalkeepers just ask me….four days ago, where you saw her produce some big saves! You see our defensive unit almost getting selfish and angry about giving up goals. In a way, stingy about it. And that's a mentality that doesn't just start with the defense. It's all the way from the top back.
To see Sophia Smith shining, I mean…"
MP: "I believe Sophia is going to have an unbelievably great breakout season. She can be one of the most special American talents that this country has ever produced. And we've produced a lot of outstanding players on the field on the women's side. In terms of Rhian, I've worked with a lot of coaches on both teams over the years. She is as much a pleasure to work with as anyone. She's special, I believe her ceiling is extremely high and her coaching aptitude is incredible, working with her and her staff has been amazing this year."
What is the team and/or the League doing to improve the compensation structure for the players? Is it competitive with the European teams? How are we incentivizing our players to stay in the league?
KL: "Yeah, it's a great question and I can speak to this from being a player, as well. This club has always been wanting to push the envelope because we are a club that has always wanted to compensate the players well. The NWSL has a salary cap, and then we also have allocation money, so there are limits to what we can do. However, we have always tried to give the players the best resources possible, like living arrangements, from even back when I was playing here. And, we're not talking about living in places where you’re like, ten to a room. Some of the things that were only just added in the CBA this year, those were always offered here. We have always tried to make sure the players feel valued as the professionals that they are and want to make sure they feel seen and heard in how we take care of them.
We cannot compete with overseas clubs on salary alone, because they do not have salary caps in the way we do. Some of the other things that our club does, helps with that. Another example is that we get meals after training that are cooked by top chefs. This is a dream, you heard Shelby say it. Because from top to bottom, they get that treatment, and it's across the board. It's completely night and day from when I played, and we still have room to go. We keep saying we want to be the standard at the club level, that also means giving the players the resources to help them think about their next steps in life.
What is also important is that we can give them a fan base. That's why you all are so important, Like, what you do the game days. I mean, you just heard, Shelby talked about it. To look up and see your faces, that you actually care. These are the things that we know are a part of our culture and family here. We tell the players that yes, you can go and maybe make more money overseas, but you won’t get what we have here. I know this because I have lived it. Here in Portland, you're gonna get it day in and day out and you're gonna get fans who know you, it’s where you're gonna walk the streets and have people buying you Salt and Straw."
What are the chances of getting either better referees or VAR?
MP: "I just talked with Jessica Berman, who's our new commissioner this week, about this. I will say that fundamentally, we have to get better, but we do have to pay our refs more. You can't just criticize the refs in this League, you also have to look at what are they making. I should be the last person who you'd expect to be an apologist for referees. I've been fined a lot over the last 10 years for comments. VAR is something we need in the NWSL, and that's something that we need to implement and it's going to be a big financial hit. I get that it's a big capital expense, I get that teams are coming out of COVID and a lot of teams have really struggled financially over the last couple of years in this industry, but that has to happen."
KL: "It also takes a lot of training, so there's a big process to make that happen, so there's the patience needed for that, too."
MP: "It's always going to be a human who you have in the booth. So there’s always going to be fallibility, but I will say VAR has been objectively a positive thing for Major League Soccer, and it's been implemented better than England has, because we’re not trying to call offsides on VAR by a fractional amount. We’re trying to get the bigger calls right, we need to do that with the NWSL. But, the issue that Karina smartly points out is you need the right trained people to do the booth replays. It's a disservice to the world class athletes. We had a couple players pretty upset after last two games on certain things and, you know, it's hard to disagree with them. So it's something one of the things that he has to do better."
How are we going to recognize our great players in the future. The Timbers have a Ring of Honor, what's in the works for our history of great Thorns players?
MP: "We'll be doing a similar thing for the Thorns. Let's hope that some of the obvious candidates don't retire soon. Let's do an obvious one, Sinc, she is 100% one of the great legends I mean, honestly, if you talk about building statues, which I know fans like doing, she would be somebody who deserves a statue at the stadium. She's the all-time leading scorer, and don't qualify for just women, she's the leading scorer, period. She's given her heart and her blood and her sweat and tears to this club. Hopefully, she works for the club after she retires. We're not doing our job right if she's working somewhere else in the soccer world, and it's not in Portland. When you start to see more retiring, we will have to figure out a way to honor them. We are recognizing Cups in the rafters the same way as the Timbers, I think we will do the same thing with individual players as well. Maybe we call it something different than the Ring of Honor, and tie it to a rose."