Preseason is underway as NWSL clubs gather to prepare for the upcoming 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and regular season. Portland Thorns have have historically hosted preseason fixtures with other NWSL clubs. The team's annual "Spring Invitational" was cancelled last year due to the current ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and this year an extended two month preseason is providing additional time for training ahead of the upcoming regular season.
Portland has been a perennial playoff contender throughout their time in NWSL, winning two NWSL champions in 2013 and 2017 and the NWSL Shield in 2016. The club has responded to failing to reach the NWSL finals the last few seasons with an active offseason from the front office, positioning the side to dominate the league once again.
Last year, the Thorns made it to the quarterfinals in the 2020 Challenge Cup, and took top prize in the 2020 Fall Series with a first place finish in the Verizon Community Shield. This year, they'll tackle the 2021 season looking to build off their limited window of 2020 matches, and get back to competing for more trophies for the storied club.
They'll do so with a preseason roster that is largely composed of longtime club veterans, first and second year players, and their biggest acquisitions over the last two off seasons in USWNT superstars Becky Sauerbrunn and Crystal Dunn.
Head coach Mark Parsons has been with the club since 2016, and is no stranger to coaching all different types of players and personalities, from league veterans to big international signings. Parsons has worked with international signings like Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim, and believes the extended time with this current roster has led to steadily building the team over the last several weeks.
"We've always needed extended time. Four to five weeks is never been enough. Now, doubling that is extreme, a hundred percent, I get it on paper. And I also think our planning to take advantage of it has been very good," says Parson.
Clubs have been together officially since February 1, outside of involuntary player workouts, and Parsons explains that the team has broken down the extended time together in increments over nine weeks to best capitalize on time with international players who may have been split time with the club between national team duty and preseason. Splitting up the extra time together into multi week blocks has allowed the team to maximize preseason sessions.
A stretch of four weeks, followed by a light week, and an increase in session load into the final four weeks during the build up to the upcoming Challenge Cup, has not only aided the team tactically, but culturally as well.
"I loved the nine weeks because of the way we broke it up, it doesn't feel long, and by the end of this -- in two weeks time, it's come around so fast. I'm already running out of time to build my team, I'm running out of time to build the culture and the team development off the field that we're having. I want more time. We're really embracing the moment, the day, the week, the present and the growth and process over outcome. When you do that you always would love more time."
One thing we don't know
Portland's 2020 draft class made noise as the team selected top forward prospects Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver first and second overall in the NWSL draft. As the global community was impacted by COVID-19, professional sports attempted to adjust, and NWSL put together competitive fixtures with Challenge Cup and Fall Series that provided limited looks for all players last year.
The window of time for the 2020 rookie draft class was short, and the level of impact for Weaver and Smith remains to be seen, but Parsons believes both players have an advantage with their 2020 season and extended preseason as the two players will finally be given ample time moving forward with the second annual Challenge Cup and eventual regular NWSL season.
"Look at it two ways. Either they were robbed of loads of hours last year, or this is their first full season and they got this extra 2020 hybrid introduction. Basically it felt like a preseason last year, we played 10 games in total, felt like a long preseason, that was it. So then we were, by the end of the Fall Series we were ready to go. But they now had an introduction and they were ready to play professional soccer. So, that's my perspective, they got a bonus intro period last year. And now is the first, rookie year in a sense, and they're just a bit more prepared than they would have been nice if it was their rookie [season] last year."
Three things we know
As the team continues to build over the course of its preseason trainings, Parsons also shed light on three areas of certainty for the club moving forward.
2021 is a new era for Portland Thorns FC
"2020 was finding the right perspective, ours was all about building for [this season]. Felt like a brand new team, brand new culture, brand new style of play. Everything kind of felt a bit like a reset. What I've shared with the group is the thought that the first era was 2013 to 2015 of the Thorns. Second year was 16' to 19', and 2020 was the start of the third year or the third cycle of where this club had been.
And we've reflected on those first two cycles, as a culture and in how the team played or performed, and we wanted to set a bar higher than anyone has ever set it, and just absolutely pursue that relentlessly. So, then [COVID] happens, then we've got Challenge Cup, then Fall Series. It was basically all about the future, all about growing everyday, and all about building and getting ready for 21'. Building something in our team, and our club, in our city -- more powerful or bigger than any individual or this one team, this one year. So, always looking to invest in a bigger purpose and the bigger picture for our club."
Rocky Rodriguez will be the defensive midfield lock behind Thorns creative midfield keys
Portland Thorns are no strangers to international signings in the past as they've had big names Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim. Costa Rican international and five year league veteran Rocky Rodriguez was acquired by the club back in January 2020 in a trade with Sky Blue FC for Midge Purce.
"In 2020, in the short limited games, what Rocky did was come in and announced herself as an elite player, we've known this for years, but just to the Portland Thorns -- announced herself as a very top midfielder that can absolutely perform in the biggest moments in the biggest game," said Parsons.
"I'm so happy with her in 2020, and I think we saw a 6.5 or seven out of 10 of what she's capable of doing the future, as in, there's no ceiling yet, the ceiling's not close 2021. So, she didn't doubt. She didn't play poorly or average. She played very well. However, the more she knows the people around her, as people and players, she is just going to elevate and grow and improve and we're already seeing it now this this preseason.
In our profiling, and how we look at players, so if we don't look at non-Thorns [players], who else in the league has ever pushed, or got near, or competed with Amandine or Lindsey? And for me there's only three, without saying who the others are -- one of them is Rocky. We've been pursuing Rocky for an extended time, three years in total, by the time we got her. And only two others outside of Rocky had ever got close that we feel can be an elite midfielder in this league for our club. So we're excited, we're excited to be able to get this special player and special person."
Crystal Dunn is the greatest player in the world
One of the earliest moves in the offseason was a three way trade between Portland Thorns, OL Reign, and North Carolina Courage that landed Crystal Dunn as the newest signing for the Rose City side. It was a blockbuster deal that needed to involve a third team, additional players, and allocation money. Dunn has already achieved the highest achievements in NWSL, including an MVP and golden boot award in 2015 to go along with her eventual back to back NWSL Championship titles.
"She elevates any team. One of the most unique players that every time the level jumps up off the game -- whether we're playing an opponent that's tough, or the intensity is tough, whatever it is -- I feel like Crystal is one of the most unique players. The higher the level, the better she is, and that normally works the opposite. The higher level, people could struggle or whenever. Every single time I see the game move, or go to a higher level. I see her then get to a higher level individually, and there's not many that do that."
Preseason will run through the first week in April as teams prepare for the upcoming Challenge Cup which will kick off on April 9 with the regular NWSL season kicking off on May 15. During the two month long preseason clubs will likely have scrimmage matches set up with local university and college sides should all appropriate COVID protocols be in place and pending league approval. Portland has held matches against OL Reign and youth men's academy sides ahead of Challenge Cup.
The preseason roster
The 22 player roster was narrowed down at the beginning of March and could have changes or additions ahead of the Challenge Cup and the start of the regular NWSL season. The current preseason participants consist of players acquired through trades, offseason signings, non-roster invitees, trialists, and the NWSL drafts. Defenders lead the way with 8 players listed at the position.
2021 Portland Thorns NWSL Preseason Roster
Goalkeepers (3): Bella Bixby, Adrianna Franch, Shelby Hogan
Defenders (8): Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Natalia Kuikka (INTL), Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally, Madison Pogarch, Becky Sauerbrunn, Christen Westphal
Midfielders (6): Celeste Boureille, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rocky Rodríguez, Angela Salem, Christine Sinclair
Forwards (5): Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver