Yesterday was a big day — and not because of what any groundhog had to say about the current state of winter. No, it was a big day because it was the first time that Portland Thorns FC hit the field for preseason training. The excitement surrounding the team seems to be high as ever and for good reason.
The Thorns fleshed out their roster pretty well this offseason. They added Finnish defender Natalia Kuikka, re-signed players like Simone Charley and Emily Menges, and in the biggest move of all added Crystal Dunn to the roster in a blockbuster trade involving the North Carolina Courage and OL Reign. After finishing 2020 on a high note with their Fall Series victory, Portland is going into the 2021 season with the talent to do some damage.
“I think it’s going to be a fun group,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said. “I think the sky’s the limit. I think we have lots of opportunity.”
The Thorns have had plenty of success in years past. They won the NWSL championship in 2013 and 2017 and the NWSL Shield in 2016. They know what it’s like to be at the top. Now with the addition of Dunn, it looks more possible that they return back to their championship form in what will hopefully be a more normal season.
“I think we’ve had talent here with Thorns,” Parsons said. “It’s a club that’s always going to attract, sign, recruit talent, so that’s cool, and there’s a lot of other very talented teams in the league. But I do think we got a special group, and I think we’ve got a balance that these players could push each other to a limit and a place that maybe had not been before.”
How the Thorns use Dunn will be most interesting. Dunn has noted that she would prefer a more attacking role, and it’s something that she’s capable of doing. Our very own Grant Little previewed what that could look like alongside new teammate Lindsey Horan and other USWNT players. But Parsons kept it simple when asked where he envisioned Dunn playing with Portland.
“Hopefully on the pitch,” Parsons said. “It’s a massive addition. Off the field, she’s an incredible personality and leader, and I say her leadership and standards are really, really high and she never drops them. It’s all in, it’s 100%; it’s high energy, it’s in your face, it’s ‘Attack the day, attack the session, attack the game, attack everyone, let’s go,’ and nothing less.”
Dunn and others will help Portland build on the identity they cultivated in 2020, a style of play focused heavily on possession-based soccer. Dunn is a player that can be used in myriad ways, thanks to her versatility on the pitch. Kuikka is also someone Parsons sees as capable of bringing the necessary technical skills on the backline to help.
“You have to be very good on the ball and a good decision-maker to play on our team the way we play,” Parsons said. “And we also have a lot of those, and Natu (Kuikka) bring lots of those qualities.”
In terms of other roster moves, Parsons noted that the roster is set for the most part. All the rookies drafted last month will play with their respective college teams this spring. The biggest news signing-wise is the addition of undrafted goalkeeper Shelby Hogan out of Providence, who Parsons said the club will announce sometime next week.
That half-answers the question of what the future is at the goalkeeper position for Portland. Britt Eckerstrom retired back in January, and Adrianna Franch and Bella Bixby still aren’t quite 100% after suffering injuries last season. Parsons noted that both players should be fully fit once the Challenge Cup begins in April. After that, it’s just a matter of figuring out who gets the starting role.
There are still plenty of questions that need to be answered, such as where will Dunn play and how events like the Olympics (if they even happen) will affect the roster. 2020 was a wholly unique challenge, and 2021 won’t be much easier. It’s the kind of challenge that Parsons is ready to face.
“We’re going to have to see the very best of each roster, and we have to see the very best of each coaching staff, because we’re not going to have the same group available every week,” Parsons said. “It’s going be one of those years. I get excited about that.”