The season has ended for Portland Thorns FC. After a somewhat disappointing NWSL Challenge Cup appearance, the Thorns put together an excellent Fall Series, nabbing the Verizon Community Shield for Mimi’s Fresh Tees and going unbeaten in the process. It was about as good of a rebound as anyone could ask for from their favorite team.
You don’t need me to tell you that this was a strange year for Portland (and just about everyone else). It was such a stop-and-go year that at times it was hard to get a true grasp on how good this team really was. There were flashes of brilliance and class sprinkled throughout, but when you only play 10 games in a year, you have to take everything with a pinch of a salt.
So, this leaves us with a very simple question: What do we make of the 2020 season for the Portland Thorns? Grant Little and Kyle Garcia discuss.
Kyle: Grant, thank you for your help in this matter. I enjoyed very much watching the Thorns in the Fall Series. They had a good mix of hard-fought victories and dominating performances. Christine Sinclair showed that she’s definitely still got it — five goals in four matches will do that for you — and as a former Portland Pilot, that makes me very happy!
But I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around what exactly to make of this season. So I need you, our resident Thorns expert, to help me make heads or tails of this season. What are your initial reactions to what we saw from the Thorns this year?
Grant: Obviously, there were some serious ups and downs throughout this short, strange season. The NWSL Challenge Cup did not go the way Thorns fans would have hoped, but there were still positives to take away. First, we got to see the number two draft pick, Morgan Weaver, get valuable minutes right away due to the amount of injuries the Thorns had to deal with in the Challenge Cup.
Because of the injuries, we had the opportunity to really take a good look at the squad and get a solid idea of how deep the Thorns really are. One of the biggest standouts in the Challenge Cup was Kelli Hubly. She showed her versatility throughout the cup competition and had an impressive performance against the North Carolina Courage. We also got to see the return of both Angela Salem and Gabby Seiler from their ACL injuries.
The Thorns won only one one match in the Challenge Cup, but it was a big one. Portland handed the Courage their only loss of the cup due to some great skill from Rocky Rodriguez and a clinical finish from Weaver. Overall, the Thorns should have won more matches in the Challenge Cup, and it was disappointing to only win one match, but coach Mark Parsons spoke at length about building and rebuilding the Thorns’ culture, and I think the Challenge Cup laid the foundation for the culture shift.
Fast forward to the Fall Series and the Thorns looked like a different team. They played an attacking brand of “Thorns soccer” and forced teams to adapt to their style of play. We also got to see the introduction of number one draft pick, Sophia Smith. Smith showed us glimpses of what she can bring to the Thorns and seems to be that something extra the Thorns offense was missing in the Challenge Cup.
The Thorns also seem to have found the midfield combination that is able to dictate matches and create from all areas of the pitch. The midfield was always going to include Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair (at the point of the diamond), but we had the chance to see what Rodriguez could do, and Salem looked really good as that deep-lying midfielder in and out of possession.
There is definitely more positive takeaways than negative takeaways from this strange season, and it was great to top it off with a Fall Series victory while helping out Mimi’s Fresh Tees. My biggest takeaway is that the Thorns have built a team with great chemistry who have all bought in to the vision of Parsons and have really reestablished their identity. Hopefully, they can remain relatively intact following the Racing Louisville expansion draft, because I am really excited to see this team play a full season (fingers crossed) in 2021.
We saw a lot of players get minutes throughout these two competitions, which was great to see. Who were some of your standout players and favorite moments of this season?
Kyle: I think you bring up a lot of great points. We saw a lot of players do interesting things in the Challenge Cup, and I may have been slightly harsh on them. That’s probably because it wasn’t quite as great as the Fall Series, but you’re right that it was nice to see players like Weaver and Hubly in action.
For me, there were a couple players that stood out, and you actually wrote about both of them: Simone Charley and Sophia Smith. Let’s start with Charley. She’s a player who never quite found her footing before this season. She did have some assists and key passes for the club, but she never found the back of the net. But in the Fall Series, she looked confident with the ball and had some very cool technical moments.
Look at that goal! That was one of the best goals of the fall for Portland (although Rocky Rodriguez still holds the distinction of best goal). Her dribbling improved significantly just over the time from the Challenge Cup to the Fall Series. She’s not just scoring goals; she’s making key passes and making quality runs at the goal. Charley was awesome these past couple months.
As for Smith, we didn’t get to see what she could do for the Thorns in the Challenge Cup, but we got an idea of her quality very quickly in the Fall Series. She scored a goal in literally three minutes, and, while she didn’t score again, she still made great runs at the goal and put pressure on opposing defenses. For a rookie, it was all highly encouraging stuff, and I don’t think we could’ve asked much more of a young player coming off an injury. I think she’s going to have an even bigger role in the offense come next year.
So we’ve touched on a lot regarding 2020, and it’s probably not safe to think too deeply about 2021. But for the heck of it, I want to ask you this: What are reasonable expectations for the Portland Thorns in 2021?
Grant: I think this needs to be prefaced with the fact that we are assuming that we will have a normal season next year (even though it will not be completely normal if the Olympics take place as scheduled). Portland Thorns FC are a proud team and should always be striving to make the playoffs. But before we get to the post-season we should look at the league.
We have seen a lot of improvement from different NWSL teams throughout these last few months. Specifically, the Houston Dash are playing better than they ever have and will be looking to continue their impressive form in 2021 by making a run at the league title and finishing in the top four to secure their first playoff birth.
The other main competitor in league is, of course, the North Carolina Courage. They had a decent showing in the Fall Series, but have only earned four points during the Fall Series (they have one more match against Orlando). They were missing quite a few key players who either opted out of the series or went abroad.
The Courage will feel like they have something to prove after dominating throughout the Challenge Cup Group Stage before losing to Portland in the first knockout round. I expect Paul Riley to play that underdog card he always plays and really look to fire up his team for next season.
We have also seen a lot of change and improvement from teams like Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit, who could be seen as dark horses in the league. Chicago Red Stars are another solid squad who made it to the final of the Challenge Cup despite a lot of injuries. I say all of this because we will probably see one of the most hotly contested NWSL campaigns because of the overall improvement across the league.
The Thorns should go into next season trying to win the league. That is the Portland Thorns way, and they have voiced that they want to be one of the top teams in NWSL again. Realistically, I expect the Thorns to place second or third in the league. They should secure a playoff spot, and then anything could happen in a knockout tournament. The Thorns will be confident that they can make some waves and bring some silverware back to Providence Park — and they have the chemistry and ability to do so.