From earning the NWSL Shield in 2016, to hoisting the championship trophy a year later, to a strong end-of-season run to position themselves as 2019’s league runners-up, there’s no doubt that the Portland Thorns have found success under coach Mark Parsons. While his regular season record of 46-17-22 speaks for itself, Parsons’ focus extends beyond the results: He’s working to develop and foster a supportive team culture, a cohesive sense of identity, and a team mentality founded on the basis of continuous improvement and player development.
“I think we’ve shown a great history of having an environment that develops talent — young players, seasoned players, and top, top world class players,” Parsons said. In their time with the Thorns, we’ve seen international caliber players such as Lindsey Horan and Hayley Raso grow into stars on their respective national teams. We’ve seen Katherine Reynolds and Meghan Klingenberg take full advantage of both their skills and experience — both have been phenomenal for Portland this season. We’ve watched Celeste Boureille come into the team undrafted and earn herself a starting role in the Thorns’ 2018 midfield.
In a season altered by World Cup absences, the story emerging out of Portland is one of similar success: young players stepping up to the challenge and grinding out result after result. Gabby Seiler and Midge Purce secured starting roles, Simone Charley came out with a handful of incredible performances, and Marissa Everett looked dangerous as a late game sub (and tallied a goal against the Chicago Red Stars for her efforts). And that’s not to mention Elizabeth Ball who — after playing all of 102 minutes for the Thorns in 2018 — has shown tremendous growth to establish herself as a legitimate defensive option.
After going unselected in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Ball recalled speaking with Parsons. “The conversations were just really positive,” she said. “He said he wanted me out here and he was going to make it happen.” One of six players invited to Thorns preseason, Ball signed a contract with Portland ahead of the 2018 season. “I think [Parsons] was excited that I could play potentially up top or in the back line,” explained Ball, who made the move from forward to center-back in her time at Penn State.
Despite not seeing a ton of time in her rookie season, Ball showed well in flashes; it was clear she was a player with enormous potential. Her limited minutes were highlighted by a couple well-read tackles, or a handful of impressive defensive headers, or a fantastic free kick. But it wasn’t until this year that she was given a significant role on the Thorns — one she took full advantage of.
“We called it in preseason,” said Parsons. “Give [Ball] six, eight, ten games, and I think she can prove ... [that she’s] a player that can be in the top half of the center-backs in the league.” When called to step in this season, Ball has done just that, showcasing skills both on and off the ball, and — though she’s still building consistency — making a case for continued minutes on Portland’s back line.
One of the strongest points of Ball’s game has been her one-on-one defending, something Klingenberg made a point to praise earlier in the season. We can see that skill in the recent match against Reign FC: Ball puts herself in the right position to strip the ball off Ifeoma Onumonu, before sliding a pass forward to Raso (not in the frame):
Although it was Onumonu beating Ball that ultimately generated the Reign’s game-winner, Ball put up a number of strong plays throughout the night. After the match, Parsons spoke specifically to the match up between Ball and Onumonu as his reasoning for giving Ball the start over Reynolds — he was confident in Ball’s defensive abilities against someone with the speed and dribbling prowess of Onumonu.
And it wasn’t just tackles to contain Onumonu on Portland’s right; Ball has shown well with her decision-making throughout the season, picking moments to hold up and work to contain an opposing player rather than making a play on the ball. An instance of this is exhibited here, where Ball reads the pass into Imani Dorsey and steps to shield Dorsey towards Dagny Brynjarsdottir in the middle of the park, forcing the ball backwards:
Ball’s vision of the game have proven useful beyond defending; she has a knack for winning the ball with her head and a brilliant right foot, both of which can help the Thorns in the attacking third. Here, we can see her make a fantastic run to get on the end of Seiler’s pass and send a cross to find Charley:
We’ve seen a number of plays just like this one — including a stellar cross that led to a North Carolina own-goal last weekend — and increasingly solid passes out of the back throughout the season, both areas of Ball’s game that she has built tremendously this year. Ball attributed her growth to Portland’s training environment — specifically conversations with the Thorns coaching staff about how she can improve — and the caliber of the players around her: “The women I’m playing with are just unreal,” she said. “You don’t have the opportunity to not show up every day and play quick and play good soccer.”
Ball explained that practicing along the world-class players on Portland’s roster has helped enormously in developing her game, and the increased playing time she’s seen this season hasn’t hurt either. “It’s been really good to just build confidence every game,” she said, “and just feeling like, yeah, I can play out here, and I can start and play against these girls and play with these girls.”
Luckily, Ball found the Thorns mindset that Parsons has spoken so much of this season to be “second nature;” the mental determination and emphasis on continued growth were also areas of focus when she played for Penn State. “Coming [to Portland] it was just ... like of course we’re going to come out here every day and work as hard as we can and get better every day and compete,” she said.
Parsons attributed much of Ball’s success to her mentality. He pointed to her “open mind, willing to learn, willing to grow. And because of that,” he explained, “we’re seeing development. She’s got all the attributes to be a very effective defender at center-back or fullback in this league.”
Yes, Ball has room for improvement; the consistency isn’t quite there, and the times she’s been beaten one-on-one have occasionally resulted in a goal for the opposing team (most notably, Christen Press’ beauty of a nutmeg and following near-post strike). However, Parsons stressed the importance of learning from errors when they occur, and Ball has done just that. “The growth has been huge,” he said. Both he and Ball agree that there’s still room for growth, with Parsons expressing his excitement around her potential. “She’s doing well, but I still think she’s just got the first couple steps on the ladder, and she’s got so much ahead of her,” he explained. He pointed to the players on the Thorns who are performing to the best of their abilities: “The ceiling’s right above them, and we’ve got to keep them there.” When it comes to Ball, “we can’t see the ceiling.”