The eighth-seeded Portland Thorns were matched up with the top-ranked and tournament favorite North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Everyone knew that the Thorns would have to put in a masterful performance to get by a North Carolina team that had allowed the least goals and scored the most goals in four wins out of four matches.
Back-up goalkeeper Annabella Madeleine “Bella” Bixby was named the keeper one for the NWSL Challenge Cup. Thorns coach Mark Parsons named Bixby the number one after Adrianna Franch was left off the NWSL Challenge Cup roster due to an injured right knee. To outsiders, this looked like a big blow for Portland. Franch is often called into the U.S. Women’s National Team and was named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in both 2017 and 2018.
Parsons was not worried though. He knew that the Thorns had drafted a gem when they chose Bixby. When he was asked if her recent performances in the Challenge Cup had altered his confidence in the Thorns’ second goalkeeper he responded:
“My confidence hasn’t changed,” Parsons said. “I know it sounds surprising because of what we’re seeing in this tournament. … We’ve always seen that Bella is very, very capable of doing this. I think she’s just getting started. I really do.”
Bixby was born in Milwaukie, Oregon, just outside of Portland. She attended Thorns games since the inception of the NWSL in 2013. Bixby played collegiate soccer at Oregon State and made a university record 394 saves in her four years. Despite her performances net minding for OSU, Bixby was unsure whether she should continue her soccer career and whether or not it would be worth it to enter the 2018 NWSL College Draft.
As Bixby’s time at Oregon State wound down, Parsons and Nadine Angerer, the Thorns goalkeeping coach, took notice of her performances. Bixby started training with the Portland Thorns under the tutelage of the goalkeeper she watched so many years ago when Bixby she was a kid.
Angerer played for the Thorns in 2014 and 2015, but before that, she was capped for the German National Team at just 17 years of age. She is considered one of the best to have ever graced the pitch winning, the 2013 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year and two World Cups, in 2003 and 2007. In the 2007 World Cup, Angerer and Germany did not allow a single goal throughout the entire competition.
After her illustrious career as a player, she traded in the boots but not the Thorns. Portland signed Angerer as the Thorns goalkeeping coach for the 2016 season and extended her contract in 2018.
The German goalkeeping coach’s impact cannot be denied. Goalkeepers, outfield players and Parsons sing her praises and emphasize her rigorous goalkeeper training.
“It takes a lot to be part of Nadine’s program,” said Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg. “Not everyone can go through it. I wouldn’t go through it, no chance. It takes a year to get used to it, two years to get really good at it.”
Bixby was selected with the second to last pick in the third round of the 2018 NWSL College Draft by her hometown club, the Portland Thorns. It may have been her dream to play for Portland, but she did not have a dream start to her professional career.
Bixby spent most of her first season sidelined due to injury. When she got healthy, she went to Germany to find playing time but was hurt again. She returned to Portland to recover. Bixby’s injury woes continued, though, when she broke her finger in the 2019 preseason. She went abroad to gain experience again, this time in Israel, in 2019. Bixby did well in Israel and really settled in as a professional and avoided injuries.
In 2020, she returned to Portland again to challenge for a spot in the squad. Bixby and Parsons spoke, and she decided that it was her goal to become the number two goalkeeper behind Franch.
After the Franch injury, Bixby was starting in her first Thorns match as Portland opened the tournament against the Courage. This was sure to be a trial by fire for the young goalkeeper. But Bixby rose to the occasion in immense fashion. She faced five shots on target, 13 corners and 26 open play crosses from the best team in the league. The numbers do not do her justice though. People all over the internet were singing her praises despite the 2-1 loss in added time.
Bixby proved this was not a one-off performance and that she was here to stay. She continued to make acrobatic saves. In her four starts, she faced 13 shots on target, 24 corners and 51 open play crosses, making 11 saves and adding two shutouts.
The Thorns goalkeeper was being hailed as one of the revelations of the tournament and a potential Golden Glove candidate but, unfortunately, injury struck again. Ahead of Portland’s quarterfinal matchup with the top-seeded North Carolina Courage, Bixby was listed as questionable. But when the time came to release the lineups Bixby was not listed. Instead, third-string goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom and goalkeeping coach Angerer were in the squad.
The Thorns’ goalkeeping injury woes continued, but as the saying goes: pressure makes diamonds. Bixby stepped up and showed her class in the first four matches and now it was time to see if Eckerstrom could do the same.
Eckerstrom was the first goalkeeper drafted in the 2016 NWSL College Draft, by the Western New York Flash with the 26th overall pick. She joined the Thorns in 2017 and struggled to get playing time. Eckerstrom went on loan to the W-League in Australia in the offseason of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Here she played for the Newcastle Jets, playing in all 12 games in both of the W-League seasons.
In 2018, Eckerstrom played ten matches for the Thorns, making her debut against Washington on April 20. She played the same amount of games in 2019, but as the NWSL Challenge Cup approached she was third on the depth chart behind Franch and Bixby. But Eckerstrom continued to work hard for her opportunity.
“You wanna know who the most positive person on our team is???” Teammate Gabrielle Sieler asked in a tweet. “[Britt Eckerstrom]. No matter what. Whether she started, whether she was on the bench. Britt stayed the FREAKING course and she deserves every bit of this!!!!! An idol on the field, and off.”
What was it that Eckerstrom deserved? She deserved the nonstop praise she was receiving. Bixby tweeted, “GK PERFORMANCE OF THE TOURNAMENT!!!!!” and many players and journalists agreed with Bixby.
After Bixby’s injury, Eckerstrom was going to make her first NWSL start since August 3, 2019 in a knockout match against the North Carolina Courage. She faced a total of 21 shots, ten corners and 24 open play crosses, making eight saves. But the numbers are not the true testament of performance. Those eight saves were acrobatic, heroic and game saving.
Eckerstrom’s heroic performance was encapsulated by two moments. The Thorns were leading 1-0 and trying to hold out under waves of North Carolina pressure. One of the most dangerous players in all of the NWSL, Debinha, stood over the ball to take a free kick. She placed it perfectly in the top corner to tie the match, she thought. Eckerstrom sprung to her right and picked the ball out of the upper corner, parrying it wide, much to the disbelief of everyone watching.
It was Debinha again in the 86th minute. The Brazilian burst through the backline and was one on one with Eckerstrom with a chance to tie the game. It looked like a sure goal. But Eckerstrom dropped to her right and slapped the ball to the feet of Hailie Mace who fired another shot, but Eckerstrom completed the double save, shattering the hope of the Courage and propelling the Thorns into the semifinals.
The Portland Thorns have been riddled with injuries throughout the Challenge Cup. This has allowed others to step up and contribute in ways they could have never imagined. The NWSL Challenge Cup served as a coming-out party for the likes of Bixby and Eckerstrom, who have both revealed their quality between the posts.
Eckerstrom was the player of the match against North Carolina, but her job isn’t done yet. Parsons and the Thorns are here to win the Challenge Cup and will have to face the dangerous offense of the Houston Dash to make it to the finals. But one thing is certain: whoever is in net for Portland will be ready and she will have the training and confidence to parry anything that comes her way.