National Team Call-Ups and MVP Voting: Big Day for the Thorns
Five Portland Thorns players will travel to Australia later this month with the US Women’s National Team, including two who are being called up to the senior team for the first time: goalkeeper Bella Bixby and forward Morgan Weaver, joining veterans Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, who have more than 300 appearances between them for their country, as well as Sophia Smith, who has 10 caps with the USWNT.
“She’s done incredible, so many shutouts," USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski said of Oregon native Bixby during a news conference on November 9, also crediting the entire Thorns backline for the role they played in setting a league record for the most shutouts in a single season, with 13. Andonovski praised Washington-born Weaver's ability to "put defenses under pressure" and doing "an incredible job making things easy for players around her." The coach said he was looking forward to see how both of the newcomers do in the high-pressure environment of international play.
Meanwhile, Bixby is a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year in the National Women's Soccer League awards for the 2021 season, with fans invited to vote for their favorites before a November 9 deadline. Emily Menges, one of her partners in the league shutout record, is up for Defender of the Year. Menges joined the Thorns out of college in 2014 and is second only to OG Thorn Christine Sinclair in number of games played for the Portland team.
A combination of players, owners, GMs, coaches, and media members selected the finalists, who also include Thorns midfielder Angela Salem among the five players in the running for league MVP. The veteran midfielder, 33, is in her fourth season with Portland and already won the Rose City Riveters Supporters’ Player of the Year. She has played in the NWSL since the league’s inception in 2013, and in the Women’s Professional Soccer predecessor league before that. While the other finalists might be among the flashier league leaders in scoring or assists, Salem is praised by her teammates for being an absolute rock. “She cleans up everything for everyone. She makes everyone around her better,” says Lindsey Horan, the 2018 NWSL MVP, in a team campaign video.
The Thorns finished the 2021 season at the top of the league standings, earning the NWSL Supporters' Shield for the second time. The first time, in 2016, was in the team's first season under coach Mark Parsons. They won the league championship the next year. Parsons, who is leaving the NWSL to coach the Dutch national team, is one of three finalists for NWSL Coach of the Year. Of the 10 teams in the league, only four ended the NWSL season with the same coach they started with. Many of the departures were related to allegations of abusive behavior and violations of the league's anti-harassment policy, with the most high-profile involving a former Portland coach who was dismissed in 2015 but rehired by another team, with the reasons for the dismissal not acknowledged until this fall after an investigative story published in the Athletic.
In the aftermath, the Timbers-Thorns ownership has announced that Gavin Wilkinson is no longer general manager of the Thorns (though he remains the Timbers GM) and has been replaced by onetime Thorns and former Canada national team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who has served most recently as head of women's football for CONCACAF. The organization looks to get even more Canadian with the reported hiring of Rhian Wilkinson, who was on the national team with LeBlanc and on the Thorns roster for part of 2015, as Parsons's replacement.
The Thorns face the Chicago Red Stars at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 14, at Providence Park in the 2021 NWSL Semifinals, which will air on the CBS Sports Network. The winner of that game will play either OL (née Seattle) Reign or the Washington Spirit in the NWSL final at 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 20, in Louisville, Kentucky. The final was originally scheduled to be played in Portland, site of the 2018 final that saw the Thorns lose to the North Carolina Courage, but was moved in part due to objections over the ridiculously early local start time demanded by the CBS broadcast schedule.