The Portland Thorns played their last game of 2021 on November 14, but the offseason has been nearly as action-packed as anything that happened on the pitch this year. On November 29, the team formally announced the hiring of new coach Rhian Wilkinson, a former Canada national team player and onetime Thorn, to replace six-season coach Mark Parsons, who is leaving to coach the Netherlands national team. Then December's trade windows and dual drafts are bringing more new names to the team, while some players won't be in a Thorns jersey next year when the third annual Challenge Cup kicks off March 19.
The addition of two new teams in the National Women’s Soccer League not only prompted a double expansion draft on December 16, but it also super-sized the annual college draft, on December 18. With many players taking an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, the potential player pool was bigger, too.
The teams joining the league in 2022—Angel City FC in Los Angeles and San Diego Wave—had already signed some players, and had agreed not to claim a player from some existing teams in the draft via trade deals. On December 8, the Thorns traded Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi to Angel City FC in exchange for roster protection, a second-round pick in the regular NWSL draft of college players, $100,000 in allocation money (which can be used to pay players over a team's salary cap). Charley has been a scoring leader and frequent starter, while Lussi often provided power off the bench and was responsible for one of Providence Park’s most dramatic goals, a stoppage-time game-winner against Orlando in 2019.
An agreement with San Diego, announced immediately after the expansion draft ended on December 16, protected the rest of the Thorns’ roster from being drafted by San Diego while sending Christen Westphal to the Wave along with the rights to Amirah Ali. Westphal was the third overall draft pick of 2016 and spent two seasons each with the Boston Breakers and the OL Reign before joining the Thorns. Drafted last January, Ali stayed at Rutgers for her final college season and has never suited up for the Thorns.
In the college draft on December 18, the Thorns drafted Sydny Nasello, a forward from University of South Florida who's played with the U18 and U20 national teams. "I've heard nothing but great things about the fan base in the Rose City. It has the best fan base in all the NWSL," Nasello said via Zoom after her pick. "I've kind of been in Florida all my life, and never really been to the West Coast other than for vacation or soccer, so I'm kind of excited to venture out."
Shortly after the draft ended, Nasello made her Twitter account private after Thorns watchers started sharing screen shots of pro-Trump, anti-LGBTQ+ Twitter posts she'd liked or retweeted, as well as their concerns about what the draft pick meant for the team's commitment to an inclusive culture.
With their next pick, the 22nd overall, the team claimed defensive player Gabby Provenzano of Rutgers, where she overlapped with current Thorn Madison Pogarch. And with pick no. 48, they chose Natalie Beckman, a striker at University of Denver, who adds to the team's Colorado contingent, along with Lindsey Horan and Sophia Smith.
The NWSL will kick off 2022 with its third Challenge Cup—a pandemic-born tradition that has become a preseason tournament—from March 19 to May 7, which will split the league into three groups of four, with each team facing the rest of its group both at home and away. The league boasts its first balanced schedule (meaning each team will play others the same number of times, evenly split home and away) since 2014 for the regular season, which will kick off after the Challenge Cup. The championship game is set for the weekend of October 28.