Portland Thorns FC wrapped up their strange season on Saturday with a 2-1 victory over the OL Reign. This was a season that saw Portland travel to Utah during a global pandemic to play in the NWSL Challenge Cup, which went better than anyone could have imagined (shoutout to Lisa Baird and her team for pioneering the bubble).
After the Challenge Cup there were questions about what would come next and we were introduced to the Fall Series. No one could have predicted any of this when the 2019 NWSL season came to a close, but the league made the most of the situation and put on two fantastic events.
The Thorns “irregular” season has come to a close. There are still some matches to be played by other teams in the Fall Series, but it is time to review the Thorns’ 10 best moments of this crazy year.
10: Kelli Hubly Puts in an Insane Shift against North Carolina
Throughout the NWSL Challenge Cup the Thorns struggled with injuries. Becky Sauerbrunn — who was Emily Menges’s center back partner — was injured and coach Mark Parsons had to experiment with his back line.
Both Parsons and Kelli Hubly believed that Hubly’s best position was at right back. With the departure of Ellie Carpenter, Hubly had the opportunity to solidify that position for herself during the Challenge Cup.
But as Parsons tampered with the back line, Hubly began to excel at center back. In fact, she put in one of — if not the most — impressive individual defensive performances of the season at center back.
After finishing in eighth place in the group stage, the Thorns had to play a North Carolina Courage team that had won all of their matches, allowing only one goal. The matchup looked like a daunting task for Portland. The Courage had scored seven goals in four group stage matches and were firing on all cylinders.
The Thorns defense stepped up to the challenge, led by Hubly. She completed both of her attempted tackles and had a tournament-high 14 clearances. She showed great recovery speed against the likes of Debinha and Lynn Williams; she was fearless in the box, making sliding challenges to block shots; and she also demonstrated her positional awareness and physicality while reading passing lanes and cutting out dangerous balls. Hubly was also crucial to the Thorns defense while dealing with the Courage’s 10 corners and 24 open play crosses.
This was an extremely memorable match and tournament for Hubly. She ended the tournament having made 32 recoveries, 12 interceptions, a tournament-leading 28 clearances, and completed 91.7% of her 12 attempted tackles. We will always look back at this match as Hubly’s coming out party at center back.
9: Thorns’ One-Two Punch
The ninth best moment of the season comes way before the Thorns entered the bubble or a ball was ever kicked. On Jan. 16, 2020, Portland Thorns FC hit the league with a one-two punch, securing the top two picks of the 2020 NWSL College Draft.
With the first pick the Thorns made the obvious choice: Sophia Smith. Smith was projected to go first in the draft long before she ever played in college. She had been called up to the U-17 national team at 15 years old and the U-20 national team at 17. Smith was even called up to the senior national team before ever playing a match for Stanford.
Smith was the youngest ever draftee in NWSL history. She played for the Cardinal for two years, winning the Pac-12 twice and the NCAA College Cup once. In 21 appearances she scored an incredible 17 goals.
.@sophsssmith and @morgan_weaver8 ready to do work in 2020. #NWSLDraft #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/oHyn4oYbLb— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) January 16, 2020
The Thorns picked Morgan Weaver with the second pick of the draft. Weaver was ranked 12th overall in Top Drawer Soccer’s Draft Projection, but Parsons was much higher on Weaver than that.
She led the Washington State Cougars in scoring in all four of her years in college. taking the Cougars to their first ever College Cup. She scored 43 goals — including six postseason goals — at Washington State.
Both of these players are far more than just pure goalscorers, but their goal scoring ability lands both of them on this list again.
8: The Great Horan’s Flying Header
In their third match of the NWSL Challenge Cup we witnessed one of the Thorns’ best goals of the season. Portland came into the match having lost to the Courage and having drawn 0-0 with the Chicago Red Stars.
In the 69th minute, the Thorns won a foul just outside the Washington Spirit 18-yard box. Meghan Klingenberg stood over the ball. As she started her run up Lindsey Horan took off sprinting toward the goal. Horan was untouched and, as Klingenberg curled the ball behind the Spirit’s defensive line, Horan stretched herself as far as she could and propelled herself forward.
Death. Taxes. @LindseyHoran headers.— NWSL (@NWSL) July 26, 2020
The @ThornsFC's midfielder's diving header was voted as the @SecretDeodorant No Sweat Play of the Tournament.#NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/F8dT6aToHj
Horan’s head connected with the ball with such force that she fired it right above Aubrey Bledsoe. The Spirit goalkeeper was able to get a hand on it, but she could only push it off the bar and into the back of the net because of the power of the shot.
The goal was the Most Searched Play of the Week — presented by Google — and Horan was named Budweiser’s Woman of the Match.
A great goal for the Great Horan.
7: Sophia Smith Scores in her Debut
After the draft in January, Thorns fans were anxious to see Smith in the NWSL Challenge Cup. But the number one draft pick was sidelined by an injury. After the Challenge Cup, we wondered if we would have to wait until 2021 to see Smith in a Thorns kit.
Then the Fall Series was announced and we had hope of seeing her again. In Portland’s first match of the Fall Series, Thorns fans were rewarded. After a 248 day wait, we had a substitute appearance for Smith.
"It was surreal."— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) September 21, 2020
It was a fairytale debut for @sophsssmith. #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/Y1JjjmVDcT
Smith was subbed on for Simone Charley in the 69th minute. We may have had to wait over eight months to see her play, but we only had to wait about three minutes to see her score.
Klingenberg won the ball in a dangerous area and Smith made Utah Royals FC pay. Klingenberg swung in a beautiful ball with her left foot aimed at the penalty spot. Smith made a good run to get there unmarked and launched a superb header into the top corner of the Utah net.
What an introduction to the NWSL for Sophia Smith!
6: Bella Bixby Steps Up Big Time
Annabella Madeleine “Bella” Bixby became the Thorns’ number one leading into the Challenge Cup after an injury to Adrianna Franch. In her first match she faced an onslaught of North Carolina attacks and was up to the challenge. Throughout the match she faced five shots on target, 13 corners, and 26 open play crosses.
The Courage would come out on top 2-1 after a late Lynn Williams goal, but Bixby introduced herself to the world with this performance. She made several acrobatic saves in order to deny the potent Courage attack.
Debinha with a rocket towards the net but Bella Bixby has been focused in all game #NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/z8pA9r3uuK— Women's Sports Highlights (@WSportHilites) June 27, 2020
Bixby’s performance in the match against the Courage solidified her starting spot in the absence of Franch. She started all of the group stage matches and recorded two clean sheets.
Unfortunately, Bixby picked up an injury and was unable to continue her fine form in the knockout rounds, but she displayed her goalkeeping ability and will give Parsons a lot to think about regarding that position going forward.
5: Rocket Rodriguez!
The second match of the Fall Series was a really special day for Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez. The Portland Thorns and Rodriguez were hosting OL Reign and Shirley Cruz. This was the first time in the history of the NWSL that two Costa Ricans would be lining up against each other.
Portland, you are cleared for takeoff.— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) October 1, 2020
The Complete Look of this Rocky Rocket gets better every time. #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/CtfHMuCbJC
To add to the historic moment, Cruz assisted the only Reign goal as they fell to the Thorns 4-1. But Rodriguez stole the headlines. In the 57th minute, Charley received the ball on the left and played a looping cross into the box. You could see the look of excitement and anticipation on Rodriguez’s face as the ball was served to her on a platter. Rather than take it down and set herself up, she swung her left foot and put her laces through it. The volley sped into the top corner of the net for Rodriguez’s first goal as a Thorn and the most stunning Portland goal of the year.
4: Eckerstrom Excites
After Bixby went down , it was Britt Eckerstrom time. It was her first NWSL appearance since Aug. 3, 2019, but she looked unbeatable. The Courage were flying high after winning all of their group stage matches. Eckerstrom proved to be their kryptonite.
One of the greatest goalkeeping performances in league history. @Breck28 put in the WORK! We go again on Wednesday. #NWSLChallengeCup #BAONPX pic.twitter.com/Bhy1483oem— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) July 19, 2020
North Carolina carved out opportunity after opportunity and Eckerstrom was up to the task on all of them. She faced 21 shots, 10 corners, and 24 open play crosses. She also made eight saves on the day, and almost every one of them was an incredible diving effort, including a game-saving double save on Debinha and Hallie Mace in the 86th minute to secure a Thorns 1-0 win.
Just like Bixby, it was not a one-off performance. Eckerstrom continued to make acrobatic saves against Houston in the Challenge Cup and throughout the Fall Series. Parsons will have to take a hard look at his three keepers to decide how the depth chart will look in 2021.
Number Three: Sinclair’s Hat Trick
It was not completely intentional or expected that Sinclair’s three goal performance would come in at number three, but it seems fitting. She scored zero goals in the Challenge Cup and quite a few people started to wonder how much longer Sinclair would be a starter in Portland.
Well, if the Fall Series is any indication, it looks like that is not a question we will have to think about for a while. She is leading the Fall Series golden boot race with six goals and it doesn’t look like she will be caught. Half of Sinclair’s goals did come from the penalty spot, but she also created quality opportunities from open play — some of which she scored from and some of which she wasted.
A tip to the #NWSL | #ThrowbackThursday pic.twitter.com/pMCq3r70HY— NWSL (@NWSL) October 8, 2020
For her first goal against OL Reign, Horan made a great run into the box and cut it back for Sinclair. The Canadian opened up and hit it with the side of her right foot, sending it straight into the top right corner. She added her second in added time of the first half. The Thorns won a penalty and Sincalir stepped up. She sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and made it 2-0.
Sinclair’s third goal was a work of art. She received the ball from Horan again. She shimmied and shook off defenders with a great piece of individual skill before calmly dispatching.
@sincy12 @LindseyHoran pic.twitter.com/ozEntrh8Zf— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) October 1, 2020
Number Two: Verizon Community Shield Champs!
After winning only one match in the Challenge Cup, the Thorns’ results improved greatly in the Fall Series. At Providence Park they were unstoppable. They dismantled the Royals 3-0 and OL Reign 4-1 to secure six points from their first two matches. In their second Utah matchup, the goals did not come as easily, but the Thorns grabbed a point.
They needed a win to secure the Verizon Community Shield. The deciding match was in Tacoma. The Cascadia rivalry would determine if the Thorns were the Fall Series Champions. Sinclair calmly scored two penalties in a 2-1 win.
The Fall Series win is not a huge success or a notable trophy, but it did highlight improvement. Also, the win secured $25,000 for the Thorns’ selected local business — Mimi’s Fresh Tees. The players really wanted to win this for the community and were able to secure the title and give back.
The visiting locker room in Tacoma seems like the place to be tonight. #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/oQjjNcoKiP— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) October 11, 2020
In the post match interview, Sinclair said she was ‘Iced’ during the celebration by Weaver. I love the commitment to travel with Smirnoff Ices to Washington in preparation for the celebrations — a veteran move from the rookie. This could have been the number one moment of the season if we got our hands on the Snapchat that was no doubt taken of Sinclair downing an Ice, but without the video we are left to our imaginations. We’ll settle for having this at number two.
Number One: Weaver Scores to knock out North Carolina
The number one moment of the Thorns’ season is a pretty easy pick and I think most fans will agree. The Thorns finished in eighth with no wins in the group stage of the NWSL Challenge Cup. The team did not give us much to celebrate except for a few goals.
No one likes losing, especially when it’s to your rivals. After losing 6-0 to the Courage at Providence Park in 2019 and opening the tournament with a loss to North Carolina, the Thorns needed a win against them.
North Carolina were the most dominant team throughout the Challenge Cup. If the Thorns didn’t beat them I think they would’ve won the whole thing, which adds even more importance to Portland’s win.
DREAMWEAVER! #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/hIspsFMFNo— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) July 17, 2020
In the 68th minute of the knockout match, Rodriguez danced down the end line before placing a surgical ball into the box. Weaver cut in front of her defender and tapped the ball into the back of the net. The team celebrated fervently as the rookie put the Thorns in the driver seat, in what was a much needed win.
The Thorns lost to the eventual champions in the next round, but the celebration after knocking out the Courage was by far the most memorable moment of the season.