Everybody knows that the Portland Thorns are one of, if not, the best organizations out there in Women’s soccer. Not just the National Women’s Soccer League. In Women’s soccer. Period.
When the league started in 2013, they promised that they would put together one of the best teams to play in one of the best facilities in the country and would have both a great coaching staff and a massive fan base to raise support levels and attendance levels to new heights. And give credit to Merritt Paulson and his group, as they achieved everything that they said they would.
Except…it’s been a long time since the Thorns have lifted the NWSL trophy. Which over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been starting to formulate trends that will become apparent as we head towards the 2017 play-offs, as well as what could be expected in years to come…and a lot of things led me to this conclusion.
The Portland Thorns must win the NWSL trophy this year or it might take a few years before they lift it again.
Now, this projection isn’t a knock on anyone or anything that has happened in the past, nor do I have a crystal ball in front of me that projects what happens in the future. I do believe that a lot of my “projections/opinions” ride on going with gut instincts, a little bit of luck and looking at recent trends and formulating conclusions off of them.
Looking at the landscape of how the 2017 NWSL season has gone so far, the North Carolina Courage were a class above everyone else in the regular season. Meanwhile, the rest of the teams that made the playoffs (the Thorns, Chicago Red Stars and Orlando Pride) outlasted the rest of the field to lock up the remaining three spots.
But in American sports, we love playoff systems. We love seeing those lower seeded teams finding it within themselves to rise to the occasion and slay the kings when it matters. And as we’ve seen through the past four years in the NWSL, job one is just to make it here. Then everything gets thrown out the door and you do whatever it takes to win two matches in consecutive fashion to bring home the silverware.
This year though, it matters a little bit more for the Thorns.
The team that they have on the field, at this moment, may very well be the deepest in top-drawer talent we’ve seen in NWSL history – I mean you look at the lineup Head Coach Mark Parsons threw out this past weekend against Orlando and there are truly no weaknesses. Portland has three in-form strikers paired up top with Nadia Nadim, Hayley Raso and Christine Sinclair, along with possibly the strongest midfield in the world right now (and that midfield didn’t even include two players who were in the EUROs a few months back). Combining that with a defense that has posted clean sheets in four of the last five along with hardly ever been broken throughout up the entire season and a goalkeeper in Adrianna Franch, who is posting numbers that are out of this world right now, I don’t see many sides breaking them down.
You would think that with that lineup along with a Head Coach that is bent on winning that title, plus the usual raucous support the organization receives from their fan base, and the fact that Tobin Heath is getting back to full strength and could play a big part over the next few weeks, that they have all the pieces to win the whole thing, right?
Well…we’ve seen it before with teams that looked destined to win the title in years past, do all the hard work, get to the final, but come up just short (which I know Thorns’ fans revel in the fact that their rival, Seattle, were subject to this conversation in 2014 and 2015).
But I look at two things, one from the past and one for the future, which will be the motivating factor for the Thorns to get it done this year.
We look at the future first as the 2018 season will see the Thorns miss a few key pieces from this years’ side. It’s already confirmed that Amandine Henry will be returning to Lyon after the season ends. And last week, Manchester City Women revealed that forward Nadia Nadim, who showed so well for Denmark in the EUROs, will join Nick Cushing’s side in January for the second half of the FA WSL season.
Additionally, you would have to assume that similarly to the 2014 NWSL season, United States and Canadian Women’s National Team players will be leaving their club sides more frequently for training camps and friendlies in preparation for CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Plus, throw in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in April and sporadic UEFA qualifiers throughout the calendar, that could affect nearly half of the remaining roster, including regular starters such as Heath, Sinclair, Allie Long and Lindsey Horan, amongst others.
Now, we’ve seen this happen in the past where teams have had to adapt to these situations and Parsons and Co. have experienced success in recruiting good players to fill the void, especially looking at last year during the run up to the Summer Olympics where the Thorns hardly lost a match before the break. But it will be tough ask for them to repeat the trick again.
And looking back at the past, the Thorns haven’t had the best track record when it come to playoff matches since lifting the trophy back in 2013 under then Head Coach Cindy Parlow Cone. Two losses in the semifinals, including that gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to Western New York last year, could very well add to the pressure this time around. And despite Parsons’ consistency of getting his teams’ to the playoffs, whether it was with Washington or now Portland, he too has yet to get to the finals in three postseason appearances. While you would have to figure that the entire organization have looked past this and are focusing on the present, those near misses could surely creep back into the mind as we get closer and closer to their semifinal clash.
Will the Thorns use all of these factors as motivation to break through and bring the trophy back to the Rose City? We will find out soon enough, but the way I see it, the organization must strike now while the iron is hot and capitalize on this opportunity. Otherwise, as I said before, it could be a few more years before the Thorns lift the NWSL trophy again.