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The quotes we get in sports teams’ press releases are often in a language that is different from ours, one that relies more on hints and subtly than direct conversation. Within today’s new release from Portland Thorns FC, though, there is something that’s actually quite direct, if slightly formal.

Today, Thorns FC announced that signing of Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn to new, three-year contracts. Both were Thorns players, before, but neither were technically signed with the club. Instead, they had contracts with U.S. Soccer and were allocated to Portland.

Thanks to a pair of new policies, the Thorns are able to sign Horan and Dunn to club deals, something team president Gavin Wilkinson tied to both his team’s goals and its vision of the soccer world.

“Having the ability to sign two of the top players in the game to contracts with Thorns FC is an important move for our club that highlights our commitment as well as the growth of the NWSL in the global soccer landscape,” Wilkinson said in his team’s statement. “Lindsey and Crystal are important individuals when it comes to our short-term goals and for the long-term success of this club.”

The Thorns derive a certain amount of pride at being standard-setters in the NWSL, but the extent to which they are has been pushed by other teams, both on and off the field. That competition is a good thing if the NWSL is going to move forward, but with new rules in place allowing teams to sign their own deals with U.S. players — and to pay them using a mechanism, allocation money, that expands teams’ salary caps — Portland had chance to reiterate their “commitment.” Combine that with Horan and Dunn’s prowess, and you have two first-of-their-kind deals.

“Lindsey and Crystal are key pillars to our future,” Mark Parsons, the team’s had coach, said through the club. “Their role on and off the field is crucial to our identity and the collective goals of the club.”

Why It Matters: Security, continuity at the heart of new Horan, Dunn deals - Crystal Dunn Portland Thorns

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns

How you unpack the decision, the new rules, as well as these new contracts’ implications will determine whether you think this is big news. In theory, though, this is Why It Matters to have players like Horan and Dunn on long-term club deals:

How We Got Here

Through the first eight years of the National Women’s Soccer League, most players who were also regulars for Canada or the United States existed as allocated players. They had contracts with their federations, not their clubs, and they were allocated to their NWSL teams each season. The Portland Thorns will likely have a number of allocated players again in 2021, with Christine Sinclair (Canada), Becky Sauerbrunn and Adrianna Franch (both United States) among the most prominent in 2020.

Horan and Dunn were allocated in 2020 with the Thorns and the North Carolina Courage, respectively. Thanks to a new policy that allows U.S. internationals to forgo allocation and sign directly with their NSWL clubs, neither will have that status this season. Instead, each has signed three-year contracts with the Thorns, though both players remain signed with U.S. Soccer for national-team purposes.

The subtext to that last part means nothing much will change. They’ll be Thorns players when their national teams aren’t playing; U.S. players during international windows. Both will likely go to the Olympics this summer. Both will likely leave to prep with the U.S. ahead of Tokyo. When the Olympics are over and the international windows thin out, each will be able to focus on the NWSL’s homestretch, as well as the Thorns’ quest to claim a third league title.

The big benefit to this news is in the long-term security, both for the players and the team. I’ll get into that a little more, below. For now, though, it’s bears reminding how Horan, 26, and Dunn, 28, earned these deals. Horan is a one-time NWSL Most Valuable Player who became a foundational piece for Portland the moment she returned from playing in Paris. Since that 2016 arrival, she’s been among the league’s best central midfielders, if not best players, period.

Dunn has also been in that best player conversation, and she’s also a one-time MVP. After being traded to the Courage before the 2018 season, she established herself as one of the league’s elite attacking midfielders, pairing with teammate Debinha to form a rarely stopped tandem behind North Carolina’s forwards. Like Horan, she’s in the prime of her career, and having adopted Portland as her home, Dunn projects as a long-term part of the Thorns’ core.

Thorns Best of | Lindsey Horan's 2018 NWSL MVP Season

Why It Matters (For 2021)

For the 2021 season, the new contracts don’t make that much of a difference. Horan and Dunn were going to be Thorns, regardless. Come season’s end, though, the three-year deals will make a big difference in two ways.

First, the NWSL is facing another expansion draft this offseason, and if past rules are any indication, each team will be limited as to how many U.S.-allocated players it can exempt from that process. Last year, that number was two, and with Horan and Dunn protected, Portland lost the rights to Tobin Heath. Though Horan and Dunn will still have to be protected regardless of their allocation status, they won’t be subject to any two-player, U.S-allocated limit. They can be part of the larger, non-allocated protected player list, which was nine players long for this offseason’s Racing Louisville expansion.

Second, the three-year deals mean the Thorns have more assurances than they would with other allocated players. As Portland fans saw with Heath, and other teams have experienced with some of their players, allocated players can sign outside the league at practically any time. Dunn did this herself in 2017 when she left the Washington Spirit to join England’s Chelsea FC. Among other prominent U.S. players to make this choice have been Abby Dahlkemper, Morgan Gautrat, Rose Lavelle, Carli Lloyd, Sam Mewis, Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Emily Sonnett. Without contracts with their NWSL clubs, players have the ability to explore those options. With Horan and Dunn committed to the Thorns, any move outside the NWSL in the next three years would have to be a transfer or loan.

There is at trade-off there, though. The players get to enjoy the security of that new deal, too, and while neither Horan nor Dunn seemed in danger of losing their allocated player status, that’s the other part of the U.S.-contract bargain. You could lose that allocation status, still have your league rights tied to your NWSL club, and be left to negotiate a new deal.

There’s also the matter of compensation, something the NWSL isn’t transparent about. In theory, though, the ability to opt out of allocation combined with the league’s new era of allocation money (same word, allocation, but different meanings) means players like Horan, Dunn, and others could transcend the pay they would earn from their U.S. Soccer deals. Each team still has to consider their salary caps, but in trying to keep players in the league, the NWSL has given teams extra money to spend on its talent.

Why It Matters (Beyond)

Most of the long-term implications, we’ve already covered. The security each side gets is probably the biggest benefit to both. But how that security impacts Thorns FC’s roster management may be one of the most interesting parts. A number of what ifs left the conversation the moment ink dried on Horan and Dunn’s new deals.

What happens if the relationship between U.S. Soccer and the NWSL changes? That’s a very interesting possibility, but in terms of these two players, Horan and Dunn are now signed with the Thorns. And what if the relationship between the U.S. players and the federation takes a new turn? Horan and Dunn are still signed with the Thorns. If expansion rules change for allocated players, or the entire concept of federation allocation is rethought? Horan and Dunn are signed with the Thorns.

Why It Matters: Security, continuity at the heart of new Horan, Dunn deals - Crystal Dunn Portland Thorns

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns

We shouldn’t be naïve about this and ignore how this relationship works beyond the NWSL. Be it in Major League Soccer, other places in world soccer, or in the broader professional sports landscape, we see how player contracts work, and we know there are always obligations on both sides. The term relationship is more than a metaphor. But there are a series of benefits and costs to the NWSL’s allocated player rules that make those situations unique. Now, Horan and Dunn are on another course.

Together, the two players form their own tier within the Thorns’ team. There’s a veteran group of leaders that we think of in terms of Christine Sinclair and Becky Sauerbrunn, and there’s also the young talent that will continue to inherit bigger roles. Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver are most prominent, there. In between are the stars that will ensure continuity as the Thorns evolve, among which Horan and Dunn may prove the most important.

For a club that has preached identity and internal culture since the end of the 2019 season, having that type of continuity is important. Showing what you’re willing to do to ensure that continuity is also important.

What’s next

The Thorns have a little more than a month until Challenge Cup starts: a few more days of February; the first week of April; and the intervening March. Then the actual games start, and the wins of the offseason become irrelevant. As the offseason wanes, the Thorns have to take this type of success to the field.

And success is a fair word. Since the team lost its 2019 semifinal in Chicago, Portland has undergone dramatic changes. Had you told Wilkinson and Parsons then that, after a year-plus of moves, the roster would be as strong as it is now, they’d be ecstatic. The team has added Dunn and Sauerbrunn, Smith and Weaver, Natalia Kuikka and Rocky Rodríguez. Key parts of their core, like Sinclair, Horan, Franch, Emily Menges and Meghan Klingenberg remain. Other key components, like Kelli Hubly, Simone Charley and Christen Westphal, are back to help carry 2020’s momentum into 2021. The roster, as it sits right now, is about the best the Thorns decision makers could have hoped for.

Now it’s time to move to the next phase. After all, the point of all this is to produce something on the field. Winning Fall Series last year was a good start, but over the course of 2021, the team should expect more. Whether that results in trophies or not, the team should define itself by new levels.

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