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Three Takeaways from the first day of the WICC

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What we learned from Day 1 at the WICC on Wednesday.

Houston Dash v Portland Thorns FC: 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Women’s International Champions Cup was billed as the women’s club event of the summer. On matchday one, the WICC absolutely lived up to the hype. Two matches, nine goals, a penalty shootout, and two NWSL teams duking it out with the previous two UEFA Women’s Champions League winners in Providence Park. What more can fans ask for?

It is an interesting tournament because it’s preseason for the European teams and midseason for the NWSL teams, who have to balance this tournament with their league schedule. Also, players from each team are reintegrating after competing in the Tokyo Olympics, so the teams aren’t able (or willing) to put out their best eleven.

It definitely isn’t the Club World Cup that everyone longs for, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t fun to be had and things to be learned. That’s why I’ve compiled my three main takeaways from last night.

Emotional Homecomings

Part of the allure of the Women’s International Champions Cup for Portland Thorns fans was the possibility to see several former Thorns returning to Providence Park for the first time. In the first match of the day, Lyon defeated Barcelona 3-2 with a Melvine Malard late goal proving to be the difference.

Ellie Carpenter was not included in the matchday squad for Lyon as she returns to action after the Olympics with Australia. But a former Thorn started and played 90 minutes for each team. Ana Maria Crnogorcevic started in defense for Barcelona and Amandine Henry started in midfield for Lyon.

Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona: 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Henry had the best return to Providence Park she could ask for. She patrolled the midfield well, advanced to the final, and scored a goal in front of her beloved Rose City Riveters. In the 27th minute, Lyon lined up for a corner. The ball was swung into the box and time seemed to stand still as Henry rose to meet the ball. She fired it into the back of the net and celebrated with vigor as she marked her return to Providence Park with a goal.

“I have a lot of emotions because to score at Providence Park, I [couldn’t even dream of this],” said Henry in the post-match mixed zone. “And to win against Barcelona [in front of] the fans … Yes, it was my dream.”

Henry later said, through an ecstatic smile, that she hoped to play Portland in the final in front of a full Providence Park. The Thorns advanced past the Dash in a penalty shootout to set up a dream scenario for Henry and Thorns fans.

The second semifinal featured two more homecomings. Gabby Seiler and Emily Ogle returned to Providence Park with the Houston Dash for the first time since they were traded for NWSL Draft picks on Dec. 16, 2020.

Ogle didn’t feature, but Seiler played 89 minutes. She was one of the Dash’s most influential players on the night as she marauded the midfield in familiar territory. Seiler created the second-most chances in the match and the most for the Dash (three). She also had the most touches and attempted the most passes for Houston. After the match, she professed her love and admiration for the Rose City.

“Yeah, I mean this place is electric … I love it,” said Seiler in the post-match mixed zone. “It has a special place in my heart. It was home. I love these fans even if, you know, they aren’t for my team anymore but I love this city so much and it’s really an amazing feeling to be back.”

Seiler and the Dash now have to regroup and refocus as they take on the reigning European champions Barcelona in the third-place match.

“I mean, it’s Barcelona,” said Seiler about taking on the Catalans in the third-place match. “I mean it is what it is. They are an amazing team and I think we have to pick our heads back up and we have to bring it in our next game and we are definitely going to go for third place. We want to prove ourselves and I think our backs are always against the wall and I feel like we always try to prove people wrong so that’s what we are going to do.”

Portland Thorns’ never-ending production of goalkeeping talent

Shelby Hogan signed her professional contract with the Thorns on Feb. 11, 2021. The former Providence Friars goalkeeper was given her first start by Mark Parsons in the WICC semifinal against the Houston Dash six months after signing.

Hogan stepped in goal and was a commanding presence from the first whistle. She made three saves in regulation and was not at fault for the two goals Portland conceded in the first half. Hogan was strong off her line and looked confident dealing with aerial service and a variety of shots.

Despite playing 90 solid minutes, Hogan’s most memorable moments came after regulation. The match would be decided from the penalty spot. Hogan saved the first and second Dash penalties and later saved a third. She was named player of the match after her heroic effort in the shootout.

Hogan stole the show in her first start, which may have been surprising to some, but it’s doubtful that it was a surprise to the Thorns’ players and staff. The Thorns’ goalkeeping coach and former goalkeeper Nadine Angerer has been held in high esteem because of her ability to help the Thorns produce great goalkeepers. There is a real conversation to be had about the extent of her influence and whether she is in the conversation for not only the best goalkeeper of all time, but the most influential goalkeeping coach of all time.

Angerer and the Thorns staff also clearly have an eye for goalkeeping talent. Obviously, these goalkeepers are excellent players before they are instructed by Angerer. But the German has been able to identify potential in goalkeepers and has helped them realize it. This is only the beginning for Hogan but there is no doubt she has the ability and the coaching to be another solid option for the Thorns between the sticks.

Thorns DNA

‘Thorns soccer’ and ‘Thorns DNA’ are clichés used by the team and its staff to describe the team. It can often be written off by those on the outside as just that. But clichés are used for a reason and there is usually truth to them. This match showed this team’s identity more than any other match this season despite it being in a friendly tournament.

The Thorns always talk about sticking to their principles and playing their style regardless of who is on the pitch for either side. There is no better example of Thorns soccer than this starting 11 and the subs that followed attempting — and in large part succeeding — in dictating play on and off the ball against a solid Houston Dash team. Parsons deserves immense credit for the team’s understanding of the system and the belief he has instilled in the squad that every player can step in and succeed if called upon.

The Thorns didn’t play poorly in the first half. In fact, Rocky Rodriguez was unlucky not to score because Rachel Daly made an acrobatic goalline clearance to deny her. Portland had the better of the play for large stretches of the first half but the Dash were clinical in front of goal and capitalized on some of the mistakes Portland made.

Shea Groom scored twice and the Dash went into the half with a 2-0 lead. Portland subbed on Emily Menges and Simone Charley at halftime and looked like a completely different team in the second half. Natalia Kuikka grew into her makeshift role in midfield and halved Houston’s lead from a corner.

Olivia Moultrie was menacing in the second half. Quickly after Kuikka scored a header from the corner, Moultrie made a late run into the box and headed a shot off the post. She later stepped up to a free kick as the fans in Providence Park held their collective breath. The midfielder struck the free kick beautifully and tied the match at 2-2 and Providence Park erupted.

The Thorns would complete the comeback in the penalty shootout to advance to the final. In this match, the team showed grit and an ability to play through adversity despite the pressure and get a result.

This was something the Thorns have struggled with all season up until the last two matches. Portland had not come back in a match to get a result all season until Charley equalized against Orlando on Aug. 14. They have now done it in back-to-back matches with a depleted and tired squad.

Obviously, the Thorns would prefer to not go behind, but it’s part of the game. They have worked through their struggles and have shown they can come back and get a result, which will be crucial going down the stretch in the NWSL regular season and in the playoffs.

Parsons’s management of players while maintaining a consistent style of play has been nothing short of remarkable. The Thorns are unbeaten in all competitions since June 26th and have been without their Olympic players for the majority of that period. Now those players are returning and the likes of Morgan Weaver and Tyler Lussi are getting closer to full fitness with the Thorns in prime position in the Women’s International Champions Cup and the race for the NWSL Shield.