National Women’s Soccer League players reported this week for preseason training. In Portland, it’s been nearly 16 months since the Thorns last played in front of a crowd at Providence Park. The home games of the 2020 NWSL Fall Series, which the Thorns won, happened in an empty stadium, save for a handful of staff, media, and a lone operator of the red smoke machine in the stadium’s north end, called into service whenever the Thorns scored a goal.
While the size or mere presence of a crowd will depend on how much progress is made against the spread of COVID-19 (league president Lisa Baird says there may be games in person “as circumstances allow”), the team expects to be back in competition starting April 9 for the second NWSL Challenge Cup, with the regular season to follow, starting May 15.
The current offseason has brought national team star Crystal Dunn to town from Thorns nemesis the North Carolina Courage—though Dunn, who played under current Thorns head coach Mark Parsons for the Washington Spirit in her breakout 2015 season and is married to the Thorns’ head trainer, is hardly a stranger. In a press conference on February 2, Parsons described Dunn as “a massive, massive addition. Off the field, she’s an incredible personality and leader. Her standards are really, really high, and she never drops them. It’s all in, it’s 100 percent, it’s high energy, it’s in your face, it’s attack the day, attack the session, attack the game, attack the situation, let’s go.”
Along with national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who joined the Thorns last winter, Dunn already lived in Portland during her non-playing time, and the two are currently training with the team in between national team camps. Lindsey Horan and Sophia Smith, the other Thorns on the latest US roster, will be back in Portland in March, after the four-team invitational She Believes Cup (Feb 18–24). Christine Sinclair (Canada, also in She Believes and the Olympics), Rocky Rodríguez (Costa Rica), and newly acquired Natalia Kuikka (Parsons describes the Finnish player as “a no-nonsense defender who’s going to be everywhere and wants to stop everyone”) will also have some national team absences.
The offseason has also seen the retirements of defender Katherine Reynolds (after five seasons with the team) and goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom (after four seasons, including a short but absolutely epic 2020, with year-end-highlight-reel saves that knocked North Carolina out of the Challenge Cup), and sent Emily Ogle and Gabby Seiler* in a trade to the Houston Dash.
BREAKING: Naomi Osaka becomes the first woman to own the NC Courage since Britt Eckerstrom in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.— Incomparable Giacomo (@Gen_Yenter) January 28, 2021
The Thorns claimed four players in January’s college draft: Yazmeen Ryan (whose jubilant extended family made for one of the draft’s most memorable reaction scenes) from Texas Christian, Sam Coffey from Penn State, Amirah Ali from Rutgers, and Hannah Betfort from Wake Forest, all of whom plan to remain with their college teams for the spring season, postponed from its usual fall timeline due to COVID-19. Ryan and Betfort are slated to come to Portland in April or May, while Coffey and Ali currently plan to stay with their college teams through the fall term, too, and be available for the NWSL next winter.
With Eckerstrom’s retirement and keepers Adrianna Franch and Bella Bixby still recovering from injuries, the team is also bringing in an undrafted college goalkeeper, Shelby Hogan of the Providence College Friars. While there are no immediate plans for more additions, there’s roster space for another player or two, Parsons says, if the right person happens to come along.
“It’s always on the go,” he said of potential roster shifts. “If you asked me today how I feel about this group, I’d put them in bubble wrap and keep this group together and enjoy eight or nine months of what could be a fun year for us. I’m really, really happy. But I know we always have to be moving and thinking forward and be prepared, which we are.”
Plans for 2021 in general are “always on the go,” of course. League president Lisa Baird told media last month the intent is to stage the Challenge Cup in home markets, though it could end up in a bubble again—the 2020 version in Salt Lake City marked the first major league team sport to return to play in the pandemic. Baird says the league aims to stay “nimble, flexible, and innovative” with plans for both the Challenge Cup and the regular season.
While Parsons says his highest priority remains to be there for, take care of, and support players and staff, their partners and families, their well-being and mental health, he’s embracing the challenges brought by the uncertainties of the pandemic and injury recovery and the need for shifting lineups.
“Anything’s possible when you’ve got a group off the field that’s ready to go to war together,” he said Tuesday. “I’m pumped. I’m probably the most excited about the dynamic of our group as I have ever been, and you know that means a lot—a big part of our identity, culture, and people living the values that embody who this club and this community and this city want to represent.”
The Thorns are one of only four original NWSL teams not to have a change of name or location since starting play in 2013. In addition to Racing Louisville (which claimed the rights to OG Thorn Tobin Heath in an expansion draft), there is another “new” team this year in Kansas City, though it is essentially the Utah Royals in a new location with new, less problematic ownership. The 2022 season will bring in Angel City FC and a new squad in Sacramento, doubling the number of West Coast teams. Angel City will share Banc of California Stadium with Major League Soccer’s LAFC. Its 22,000-person capacity means Portland is likely to continue to hold the NWSL’s highest average attendance, as it has every year of the league’s existence until games were closed to fans in 2020.
“This is one of the best places in world football, men’s or women’s, to play the game,” Parsons said. “There’s a lot of people, passionate people, that aren’t able to be in person and support, which I think is obviously the right thing at this moment. When I bump into them, at whatever store it is, I always say I hope we get to see each other soon.”
* Yes, my middle name is Gabrielle, and no, I am not Gabrielle Seiler’s mother. Now that she’s off to Houston, I will miss people in Portland asking me if I’m Gabrielle Seiler’s mother and will miss imagining the alternate Gilmore Girls life in which I had a baby in my teens and named her after myself. Fare ye well, Gabby.