NWSL Championship media day was, for one team, a fairly routine event. The North Carolina Courage attended their media appearance professionally, sitting in their seats and answering questions, much like any normal team would. The other team played a game of pickup basketball. A few nights before the most crucial game of their season, in what other teams would probably experience as a tense moment, the Thorns were joking around, having fun and generally enjoying their time together.
It’s not that they were being unprofessional: media day is a pretty boring event, with most of the players spending 45 minutes sitting around while the big-name players are made to recite the same media-friendly truisms about how anything can happen in a final and both teams are great and it’ll be a good occasion. Halfway through the event, the Thorns not getting talked to just discovered that they were being interviewed on a basketball court and wanted to show their skills off, and things just kind of snowballed from there. Thorns players kept describing their team as loose and relaxed, and then they went and demonstrated it.
Playing the final at home probably contributes to the comfort level, but there’s no denying that this Thorns team is more comfortable with each other than they’ve ever been. The box scores this year have been dominated by a few big names, but despite that, they truly appreciate each other’s contributions and feel as though they’re more resilient as a unit. “I think we’re more of a team this year,” said Christine Sinclair when asked about the difference between this year and 2017. “This team is a lot more connected, a lot more together. I think last year if we would have gone down two goals we weren’t coming back from that. Whereas this year we have that trust in each other that we’ll do it together as a team.”
The team lost great soccer players in the offseason: Allie Long, Nadia Nadim and Amandine Henry are all quality, extremely experienced players. The players who replaced them in the lineup were quality as well, but less experienced and unproven at the top level of competition. Players like Midge Purce, a young player with a lot of promise whose only experience in the NWSL was a bad situation in Boston, and Ellie Carpenter, the youngest player in NWSL history joining the team exactly when she turned 18.
“We had a lot of new players, young players this year, still learning what it means to be a Thorn and the mentality it takes to play at this club day in and day out,” said Thorns coach Mark Parsons about the turnover in the offseason. The growth that those two players in particular were able to show over the course of the season, through real adversity—Purce getting dropped from the team, and Carpenter having to fight for her place—speaks to their strength of character. The fact that the most experienced new player at the top level of competition, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, Switzerland’s all-time leading goalscorer, has accepted a more defensive role and has become a crucial presence in the locker room speaks to the culture of the team.
The Thorns have been playing under incredible pressure in the regular season run-in, starting from the outside of the playoff spots looking in and dragging themselves into position to host a home semi-final. “In a way,” Sinclair said, “we’ve been having playoff games for the past month and a half.”
They’ve come back from behind in three of their last five games, starting with their 2-2 draw at home against the Chicago Red Stars, where they came back from a two-goal deficit against a Red Stars team that would go on to outplay the Courage in their semifinal loss. “I’m a firm believer that the weakest moments make some of the strongest teams,” said Midge Purce, “Something that makes our team special is the fact that we had to go through a lot of ups and downs[...] It’s made us stronger. I just think our team has this unbelievable belief in ourselves.”
The comfort on show likely has a lot to do with the knowledge that they’re able to cope with pressure and are confident in their ability to take hold of games regardless of circumstances, but it’s also a big part of the cause of that: this team learned in their toughest moments in the season to rely on one another.
As corny as it sounds, the thing that pushes this Thorns team to the next level, and the thing that pushes their great players to the next level, is their togetherness. Whatever happens in the NWSL final tomorrow, it’s a remarkable group, combining the drive to win with a carefree and breezy attitude to the weight of expectations on their shoulders.