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Thorns focused on growth as 2021 Challenge Cup approaches

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The Thorns were dealt a difficult Challenge Cup schedule two seasons running, but Mark Parsons is viewing the 2021 Challenge Cup in a much different light.

Portland Thorns FC v North Carolina Courage

Portland Thorns FC’s head coach Mark Parsons was not happy last season when the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup schedule was announced. The Thorns were drawn against North Carolina Courage, OL Reign, Orlando Pride, and Washington Spirit.

The schedule was adjusted when Orlando Pride had to withdraw from the 2020 Challenge Cup due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the squad. The Thorns’ new schedule saw them face North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars, Washington Spirit and OL Reign in the group stage.

“We were given the most competitive, the most brutal schedule in the Challenge Cup,” said Parsons. “At that moment, even though I know it’s against my personal principles, that it shouldn’t affect me but it did frustrate me that everything else felt more balanced across the whole schedule. Our Challenge Cup schedule in 2020 wasn’t.”

The Thorns struggled in the group stage. They conceded a very late winner against the Courage and drew their other three matches while only scoring two goals. Portland Thorns finished in last place in the group stage but every team advanced. They defeated the top-seeded Courage in a game that Thorns fans will not forget anytime soon. Then they lost to the soon-to-be champions, Houston Dash, in the semifinals.

“I was more sensitive [about the schedule in 2020] because we felt like a brand new team,” said Parsons. “We hadn’t had much time, four weeks building [up] to this tournament, and the goals of the tournament were … development and moving the team forward and preparing for ‘21 and winning, winning every day, every moment.”

“So let me come away from me being a little bit short sighted last year, and I’m allowed to be emotional at times,” said Parsons. “Looking at this year, I’m the opposite. I honestly don’t care. I don’t care who we play, where we play, or when we play.”

This season the Thorns have a similarly difficult schedule in the group stage of the Challenge Cup, heightened by the fact that the tournament starts during an international break and the Thorns will not have a full strength squad.

Portland opens against a relative unknown in Kansas City, but is then faced with three strong known quantities. They will play both finalists of the 2020 Challenge Cup in Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars away from home and will welcome their Cascadia rivals OL Reign to Providence Park. But the difficulty of the schedule doesn’t matter to Parsons this time around. He is more focused on improving the team and seeing how the Thorns adjust against teams that have different styles of play.

“We have to keep moving forward, we have to keep growing,” said Parsons. “Different teams will provide different challenges. I think the one thing I would care about if I really dive in, because of our overall development goals, [would be] playing against teams that play different ways. Like if I really look at scheduling and go ‘did we get some teams that play in different styles?’ That’s important for us … because it helps us to grow. I think we then get to be more adaptable and more flexible.”

“I haven’t overanalyzed,” said Parsons. “I think I stick to: it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter. We’re just excited to train to work, to grow to get better … I’m in a place where we’re going to be fully charged, we are going to be ready to go and we win or we learn, we move forward.”

The Thorns will have a chance to get a look at how the team is progressing very soon. The Thorns had an intersquad training match on Saturday, a training match against “boys” this week and a final training match against OL Reign on March 27 before hosting Kansas City on April 9 in their first 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup match.