• Charles Olney

Bella Bixby and the Calm Within the Storm


Photo credit: Lucas Muller

In the weeks leading up to the NWSL Challenge Cup, Portland suffered a big blow: losing Adrianna Franch, one of the best goalkeepers in the world. But by the end of the group stage, all anyone could talk about was Bella Bixby, who had stepped up and turned in four excellent performances.

After spending two years honing her trade and waiting for an opportunity, Bixby more than rose to the occasion. She was excellent across all four games, but was particularly compelling in the tournament opener against North Carolina, a match seen by over half a million eyes across the country.

To many of those watchers, this may have seemed like a bolt from nowhere. Highly engaged women’s soccer fans probably knew of Bixby, but more for her college exploits at Oregon State University just down the road than for anything she had done in the league. After all, she’d yet to see a single minute in the NWSL, spending that whole time as the third choice option for Portland, with Britt Eckerstrom getting all the starts while Franch was away on national team duty or recovering from injuries.

But for those working behind the scenes, this was no surprise. They have seen her developing over the years, and knew what she could bring. As Portland’s coach Mark Parsons said after that first game against North Carolina: “She didn’t wake up and become a great goalkeeper. It’s a lot of work to be able to get to that point.”

According to Bixby, that work has involved completely rebuilding elements of her game. For example, Thorns goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer (a two-time World Cup winner for Germany) espouses a completely different technique for covering low shots. As Bixby put it: “In America, we were all taught growing up that when you step to dive as you're going for this low ball, your whole lower body hits the ground, and then your upper body hits it, and you kind of make a wall behind the ball as you're sliding for it. And then technique that Nadine has rewired us to have is you don't touch the ground at all until you get to the ball.”

It's taken Bixby two years to fully remodel her technique, but she says it was more than worth it. This way is “a lot more explosive, it's a lot more powerful, it's a lot harder to learn, and your timing's completely different because you don't get to fly behind the ball. You have to meet the ball exactly where it's going to be.”

These are the tiny differences that you’ll never see unless you know what to look for. But for Bixby, they make all the difference: “It’s something that if I tried to explain that to someone in the general public, they'd look at me like what's the difference? I have no idea. But it’s a huge difference.”

To those of us watching at home, goalkeeping can be impenetrable, hard to assess. Twenty of the twenty-two players are all essentially doing the same thing. So it’s no surprise that the two outliers gets a short shrift. In fact, Bixby says, that’s often true for other soccer players as well. “There's a ton of details and goalkeeping that I think even people in the soccer community that are field players have no clue,” she says, laughing. “It's like we play different sports. And we need to know your sport and our sport. Which is fun.”

Within the goalkeeper union, the biggest plays are often the ones that no one else notices. In Portland, she says, it’s actually part of their approach to training: “as a group we really try to train to make it look easy. We try to avoid making things look like a highlight reel, because it's unnecessary. Consumers of soccer see those highlight reel saves, but maybe a group of goalkeepers look at that and say if she had been in the right position in the first place, she wouldn't have had to lay out.”

This tendency to superficial analysis also produces some significant misalignments between observers and keepers. For example, I was surprised when I asked about the area of her game she felt still needed the most work, and her immediate answer was “dealing with crosses.” If you’ve ever seen Bixby, you probably noticed her height. She’s tall. But in some ways, she says, that has actually been a disadvantage: “My whole career I've been able to get into that pocket early and still win it and not get crushed because I'm taller than most players on the pitch. But there are players in this league that can put me on my butt if I'm in the pocket too early…I think that people see my height - and I've heard in a couple broadcasts, you know, she's been good in the air and I cringe a little bit because I know I haven't. Like, I've been okay, I've been handling stuff, but my timing is off. I'm not catching it at the highest point. I'm not attacking it.”

By contrast, the things she’s proudest of from these games are the stuff that many folks wouldn’t have noticed: the coolness of her distribution, her ability to read the game, settling into her own communication style. The goal is to combine her natural assets with technique. Only then, she says, will she really become “a force to be reckoned with. I'm not quite there yet.”

At the highest levels, goalkeeping is as much mental as it is physical. And according to Bixby, this is a special strength of the Thorns squad, where the collaborative culture among Angerer, Franch, Bixby, and Eckerstrom allows everyone to “really, really micromanage everything and still be keep our head on straight.” Even as they compete for spots, all three work together, creating a space where mistakes can be analyzed and where everyone is allowed to feel comfortable.

In many ways, that’s the key difference in Bixby’s game now, compared to when she emerged out of college. Back then, she says, “it was really overwhelming to be like looked at and scrutinized so every little thing is wrong. We break down film into different categories, whether it's distribution, area defending, conceded goals, positioning...all these different aspects of goalkeeping, we really get into it and dig into the little details. And if you go into that with a poor mindset, you're going to feel like you've done everything wrong, even if you had a good game.”

Top-level goalkeepers are occasionally volatile and passionate—think Hope Solo—but you’ll generally find a lot more tranquility among keepers than other field players. After all, for field players, the game is fundamentally collaborative. Even the greatest dribbler depends on other players to create space, receive and deliver passes, finish off attacking moves. But goalkeepers spend most of the game with no company besides themselves. They need to stay level-headed, preserving their zen state of concentration for the moment when they're called into sudden action.

That is certainly one of Bixby’s strengths. In fact, her calmness is surprising even to her coach, who sometimes gives her grief in training: “If I make a good save, it's like, why are you not excited? And I just feel: I'll be excited when the game's over. Like, I would hate to be excited right now and then I turn around and get scored on, and I look like an idiot.”

Goalkeepers are also the true last line of defense. Sure, they rise and fall with their backlines, and that communication is critical. But their truest community may be with their fellow keepers—the only ones who can truly understand what they go through.

Which is another key element of the Portland team culture. Thanks to a supportive environment, all three keepers have improved by leaps and bounds. Not only are they learning new techniques, they’re also able to constantly adjust and improve. Says Bixby: “You just look at your mistakes, you make a mental note, you apply them to practice and you move forward. Try not to make errors into consistent errors.” That kind of foundation makes it possible to tweak things long before they turn into catastrophic problems. And it means the team will still feel confident even if the number one goes down, because they know that everyone is singing from the same hymnal.

Sadly, that lesson ended up being proved a second time in a matter of weeks. Just before Portland’s first knockout game, Bixby suffered an ACL tear, ending her season after only four games. It was a devastating blow, not only for Bixby herself, but for the team, and for fans who had quickly grown to love her play. Still, Portland took the hit in stride, with Eckerstrom bringing one of the performances of the tournament to shut out the relentless Courage and them their first knockout loss since 2017. And down two goalkeepers from their initial trio, Portland were actually forced to call Angerer back into duty, naming her as the backup keeper on the gameday roster for the first time in five years.

It’s a testament to the group as a whole that they’ve managed to make two rapid transitions so seamlessly. And it’s also a reminder of just how much goalkeeping talent there is in the NWSL. There’s been a lot of discussion about expansion and the risk of spreading the talent pool too thin. I’m a moderate skeptic of the dilution theory across the board, but it’s clearly not an issue here. Look around the league and you’ll find a dozen or more players like Eckerstrom and Bixby—ready to step in at a moment’s notice and stand on their head—all fighting for the occasional start.

Bella Bixby’s 2020 was sadly cut short right before the team’s biggest game. But anyone who watched her performances in the group stage knows that she’s more than ready for a full-time job. Here’s hoping that her recovery goes well, and that the dream of a regular starting job becomes a reality sooner rather than later.