The Rose City and Portland Thorns fans all over the world have a lot to be excited about with the 2021 Challenge Cup inching closer. It was announced yesterday Providence Park will allow 25% capacity at home matches and this Thorns team looks ready to give the fans a show.
Last season signaled the start of a new project for Portland. The Thorns brought in top talent in Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver via the 2020 NWSL College Draft, while adding veteran pieces like two-time World Cup champion Becky Sauerbrunn.
The Thorns struggled to find the back of the net in the 2020 Challenge Cup and didn’t start to connect all the dots until the Fall Series. But coach Mark Parsons and the players used the preseason and their time in Utah to build a foundation for future success. The foundation was built around the culture of ‘Thorns’ soccer’ and Portland is looking forward to cultivating success this season off the back of last season’s work.
“I think Mark really wanted last year to be this kind of ‘Thorns 2.0’, like ushering in a new era,” said Becky Saurbrunn. “So he worked a lot on culture and just building a really strong foundation. Part of that culture was also the standards and what we want to be known for - what’s our identity when you watch us on the field will you know, ‘Oh, these are the Thorns.’ So I think we put in a lot of work in last year and we’re starting from a different level at the start of this preseason.”
Not only are the Thorns starting at a different level than where the team started last season, they have a much longer preseason. The longer preseason has allowed them to get fit and begin to work on more technical aspects of the game in much greater detail.
“You can feel it,” said Sauerbrunn. “The tactics are more ingrained. You see people really wanting to play the way that Mark [Parsons] wants us to play and the way that we really want to play. I think it’s progressed really nicely. We’re really hammering home certain things.”
“We’re still very much working on culture,” said Sauerbrunn, “and just trying to make this group so strong. Inevitably, we’re going to hit some tough, tough moments during the season, but we have the foundation to really hold strong through those moments.”
The team has had the chance to start building on the foundation laid last season while also integrating new signings into the mix, giving the team a new dynamic with more versatility in the defense and midfield. One of those signings is the Finnish defender Natalia Kuikka, or Natu as the Thorns lovingly refer to her.
“We call her Natu so that’s what I’m just going to keep saying, Natu,” said Sauerbrunn. “She’s been great. She is technically so sound and physically she’s very aggressive. She’s a very front foot defending and very smart. You can tell that she’s got that international experience in her bag. It’s been really great working with her. It’s fun getting to know her. She’s a little bit more on the shy side, so we’re trying to get her out of her shell a little bit. But she’s great. She’s such a great addition to the squad and it just helps beef up this backline and, already, this backline is extremely strong. So it’s very deep and I’m very excited about it.”
The midfield has also been improved with a dose of international class. The blockbuster signing of the Thorns’ offseason saw Crystal Dunn join Portland’s already dangerous looking squad. A player of this quality will undoubtedly improve the squad, especially when she is deployed in her preferred position. Thorns fans were obviously excited about Dunn’s signing so much so that the Portland Thorns FC store has had trouble keeping her name available for customized kits due to the overwhelming demand. But Thorns fans aren’t the only ones excited for Dunn to join the squad.
“It’s actually the first time I’ve ever been on a team with Crystal [Dunn] and it’s been exciting,” said Christine Sinclair. “Off the field, she’s just an incredible person. [She has] so much energy. It’s just been fantastic to start to get to know her ... But on the field, she’s so dynamic, quick, powerful. She just adds so much to our team. [We are] just trying to get used to playing with each other as a midfield unit. But it’s been fun. I can’t wait to see what we’re capable of this year.
Portland hasn’t added any fresh faces to the attacking line, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t improved. Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver have their rookie seasons under their belts and have visibly become more confident and more dynamic.
“They’re both exceptional soccer players,” said Sinclair. “Soph[ia Smith], I think her time spent with the [U.S.] national team has really helped her. She’s come in here with a new sense of confidence and trusting herself. She’s gonna be a world class soccer player, no doubt about it.”
Smith did not play many NWSL minutes in 2020. She was unavailable in the Challenge Cup due to injury and had to work to get some minutes in the Fall Series, where she scored her first professional goal. Smith has been called up to the USWNT under Vlatko Andonovski a number of times and has benefited from the competitive environment and it showed in her cameo against Argentina where she provided an assist to Alex Morgan to finish off a dazzling run.
Weaver scored one goal in 2020 and it was one everyone remembers. Her goal helped the Thorns knock off the North Carolina Courage in the quarter finals of the 2020 Challenge Cup. She got minutes throughout the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, but has continued to show her commitment to improving her game.
“[Morgan] Weaver, she spent the entire offseason here,” said Sinclair. “She’s so committed to improving, to helping this team. Like I said, she actually spent the entire offseason here training and you can see that she’s put in the work. I think last year, during the Challenge Cup specifically, as a team, we struggled to score goals and I don’t think that’s going to be a problem this year.”
Providence Park with fans (at least some), blockbuster new signings, improved young talent, veteran players and goals. It sounds like a recipe for success. The Thorns showed on media day that they are excited to get back to playing in front of the Rose City and the fans should be fired up to see this squad take the field on April 9 because they look like they mean business. Get ready to build a bonfire, Rose City.