Portland Thorns and the NWSL Challenge Cup: Looking for Redemption or Revenge?
The Portland Thorns could be considered the most consistently successful team in the league. Over the past eight seasons, the team has won two NWSL championships (2013, 2017), a regular season shield (2016), and have only missed the postseason once (2015). After a terrible end to the 2019 season which included a 6-0 routing by the North Carolina Courage, the Thorns still managed to make it to the semi-finals, where they lost to the Chicago Red Stars. The Thorns have made some big changes to their roster this year in the hopes of channeling the magic of previous seasons, by adding youth and several attacking weapons up front. With starting goalkeeper Adrianna Franch out with a knee injury and Tobin Heath opting not to play, the road to the finals will be much tougher. Perhaps with more than a bit of luck, the end of July will see them raising the Challenge Cup trophy.
Mark Parsons returns for his 5th season.
40 points, 3rd place
Player you should know:
If you follow international soccer beyond the USWNT, you already know that Christine Sinclair is the world record holder for international goals scored (for men OR women). What you may not know -because she plays for the Canadian national team, who has struggled to gain significant traction at World Cups - is that she is technically brilliant. Her playing style is beautiful and lethal in its simplicity and she should always be in the argument for best striker in the world. She also happens to be Portland’s captain. The Thorns will need to lean on her veteran expertise throughout the tournament to organize the front line and execute in the attacking third, which saw abysmal performances at the end of last season.
Under the Radar:
While most people think of Tobin Heath or Lindsay Horan, or perhaps even Adrianna Franch when they think of the Thorns, one of the linchpins of the team is centerback Emily Menges. She has played 106 games in the NWSL, all of them with the Thorns. On the field, she is consistent and disciplined, rarely committing fouls (about 1 every 6 games) but winning tackles and causing interceptions that create scoring opportunities. Off the field, according to her teammates, she brings positivity and fun to the locker room. The Thorns with Menges are one of the league’s best defenses. Without her, they are markedly average. Portland will need Menges at her best if they want to be true contenders for the Cup.
Keeping track of all the deals Portland made to create their current roster feels close to impossible. Each move involved multiple pieces, including allocation money, draft picks, trades, and player rights. Instead of trying to weave the complete and confusing multi-layered deals that were the Thorns’ offseason into something recognizable, let’s talk about the biggest gains and losses, starting with the frontline. Most notably they traded central defender and USWNT player Emily Sonnett away to the Orlando Pride, along with the rights to striker Caitlin Foord. That deal handed them the overall number one draft pick, which they promptly used to lock-in college standout Sophia Smith. In addition to Smith the Thorns added Morgan Weaver, who has already begun to be compared to USWNT star Alex Morgan, to their attack. They lost striker Midge Purce to Sky Blue but picked up midfielder Rocky Rodriguez along the way. And oh yeah, they also added Becky Sauerbrunn to the backline, who is arguably one of the best defenders the game has seen.
What makes them exciting:
Beyond the fact that two of the best players in the world in Christine Sinclair and Lindsay Horan will be playing for them in the Cup, the offseason moves added a lot of youth and energy to a team that seemed mostly lackluster last season after the World Cup. They have one of the best defenses in the league, and they have a will to win. In short, they’re a very good team but they also have grit and find ways to grind out wins where other teams may not.
North Carolina Courage – June 27
Chicago Red Stars - July 1
Washington Spirit - July 5
OL Reign - July 13
The Thorns have the daunting task of facing the current NWSL Champion North Carolina Courage in the very first match of the cup. Just three days later they’ll play the Chicago Red Stars, who not only ended the Thorns’ season last year in the semis, but were runners-up in the championship against the Courage. While the match against the Washington Spirit on July 5th may seem to provide a bit of relief, the Spirit have their full complement of players available including the lethal duo of Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan. The Thorns’ defensive midfield and backline will have their hands full there. The OL Reign, Portland’s biggest rivals, will round out the group stage matches, and even without Megan Rapinoe they have plenty of attacking power.
Why they could win the Cup:
They are the Portland Thorns. They have the pedigree and the potential talent, and a hunger to prove themselves after last season's finish.
Positional depth. They are without their starting goalkeeper, Adrianna Franch. They won’t have winger Tobin Heath, who opted out, and new star Sophia Smith will have limited minutes because of a nagging injury. So if not positionally, the Thorns also have to overcome the mental hurdle of running into the buzz saw that were the North Carolina Courage last season.
Since they’re the Thorns it is hard to discount them from at least making a run into the deeper parts of the knockout stage of the tournament, although they will have a challenging road to get there without some of their key players and lots of new chemistry to figure out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the semifinals, but winning the tournament feels like a longshot at this point.
The Thorns are the best-attended women’s pro soccer team in the world, and it isn’t hard to see why. With a supporters group like the Rose City Riveters, the Thorns have set attendance records every year, with last year’s August 11th match against the Courage drawing over 25,000 fans.