By Katelyn Best
Looking back at the championship match Adrianna Franch played in to end her rookie NWSL season in 2013 is a reminder of just how much the landscape of the league has shifted in the five years of its existence.
The team she lined up in goal for, the Western New York Flash, no longer exists, for one thing (its players relocated to the North Carolina Courage in the 2017 offseason). For another, looking at that roster, virtually every name would end up elsewhere in the proceeding years—players like Carli Lloyd and Sam Kerr becoming stars for other teams, Abby Wambach retiring from club soccer altogether after another year in Rochester. Three members of that team, via their own roundabout paths—Franch, Angela Salem, and Katherine Reynolds—are now on the opposite side of that matchup, in Portland.
Although the Flash lost that night—the winning goal a Tobin Heath free kick that Franch says she remembers bending past her fingertips “like it was yesterday”—for her, the 2013 season was promising. “Going into the season as a rookie,” she says now, “and being able to play as many minutes as I did, with the players I was able to play with, I’m proud of the amount of growth I had in that group.” She let in just 20 goals in 22 starts, for a league-leading .91 goals-against average. “Then it was exciting to go, what does the next season bring?”
The following season, on the very first day of training, Franch tore her ACL. It was the first wrinkle in what would be a tumultuous first few years as a professional.
“It was weird,” she remembers. “You never really hear about a torn ACL during a straight run, but I dislocated my tibia-fibula, so my ACL stretched to the point that it didn’t work.” Her season over before it started, she spent 2014 rehabbing the injury. After that, she headed to Avaldsnes IL in Norway’s Toppserien in 2015.
Like the 2013 Flash, that Avaldsnes side was stacked with top talent: Norwegian internationals Maren Mjelde and Elise Thorsnes, Brazilians Rosana and Debinha, plus another American who was working her way back from injury, Casey Short. Otherwise, things were different—the coaching system, the league, the competition.
Inevitably, there was some culture shock off the pitch. “It was definitely a life experience,” she says, “especially coming from Salina, Kansas, Stillwater, Oklahoma, and Buffalo-Rochester.” Avaldsnes, an island village off the west coast of Norway, has just under 3,000 residents. Franch remembers how on Sundays, everything would shut down. “It’s like family time. Me and Casey were like, ‘Okay, it’s Sunday. What do we do?’. … If you wanted to get your groceries or gas, you better go on Saturday, or you wouldn’t be getting to work on Monday!”
Off the field, Franch got to hike and camp, which were new experiences for her. On the field, she got 12 starts, alternating with the Portuguese keeper Viviane Domingues. The team finished second in the league, qualified for the Champions League, and were runners-up for the cup.
When Mark Parsons brought Franch to Portland in 2016, she joined a Thorns side that was going through its own massive changes: Parsons was new that season, and roughly half the squad from the previous year had turned over. One constant, fortuitously, was Nadine Angerer, the former Thorns keeper and one-time FIFA World Player of the Year who’d stayed on following her retirement from playing to take over as goalkeeping coach.
Spend any time around Thorns trainings, and it becomes obvious Angerer has an influence that extends well beyond the goalkeeping corps. Asked what it’s like working with the German coach, Franch laughs. “Her personality just gets people,” she says. In 2017, Portland’s unofficial locker room mascot was the “ice bear,” mistranslated by Angerer from the German for “polar bear” in a pregame speech. “When you think about, ‘we’re ice bears, and we’re hungry for a win,'” says Franch, “you’re kind of like, ‘what?’ But with her personality, you buy into it, and you get chills because you know she’s what she’s talking about.”
That balance between focused intensity and humor is just one manifestation of Angerer’s seemingly natural skill as a coach—and it’s been under her guidance that Franch is growing to her potential as a keeper. “Putting in a master coach to work with [Franch,]” says Parsons, “you’ve got a dream team there, and lining these two people up is why we’ve seen what we’ve seen.”
Learning Angerer’s system was yet another challenge Franch had to adapt to. “AD came in and had to learn everything new,” says Angerer. In 2016, Franch traded starts with Michelle Betos, who struggled with some shoulder issues early in the season. “Betos’s advantage at that time was that we were training together for two years, so she knew my style, knew exactly what I wanted.”
“Where [Angerer] comes from, and what she did as a top goalkeeper,” says Franch, “all you want to do is be a sponge and take all the information that you possibly can.”
Angerer gives a thirty-second summary of the philosophy she preaches with her keepers. “In general, in America, goalkeepers run a lot to the ball,” she explains. “I like quick feet, but just to come to the right position, and then explode. No running to the ball. … One step, two if necessary, then take off.” If a shot is taken from inside the box, she reasons, running slows a keeper down too much. “I also think it’s so much harder when you’re running to find the right moment to take off.”
Those ideas didn’t click right away with Franch. “At the beginning, it’s totally understandable, she wanted to defend what she was taught for, I don’t know, 10 or 15 years,” Angerer remembers. “It took her a while to adjust.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 18, 2017
In the same place for two consecutive years for the first time in her career, everything fell into place in 2017. “The second year, when AD came back,” says Angerer, “I was like, ‘That’s a different keeper.'” Franch had the season of her life, notching an NWSL-record 11 regular season shutouts and allowing just 20 goals in 24 games. She had a league-leading save rate of 80% and was awarded NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year.
At the same time as Franch has found some stability in her own career, she’s working with a defensive unit that’s undergone very little change since Parsons arrived: Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett and Katherine Reynolds have anchored the back line in Portland for going on three years. “That, obviously, has a lot to do with your confidence, when you know what your players are going to do,” Franch says. “If a player is running in behind me, is my teammate going to run in behind with them, or are they going to hold that line? Little things like that can make the difference if you’re not on the same page.”
After Portland’s championship win last year, Franch gave each of her defenders a gift-wrapped box of dryer sheets, a lighthearted commemoration of the 12 clean sheets (including the championship game) the group racked up in 2017.
Off the field, life in Portland is good. Franch won the Thorns’ Community MVP award for her volunteer work with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and Habitat for Humanity—that latter group has huge personal significance, as she lived in a Habitat for Humanity home growing up in Kansas. “It feels a little more personal,” she says. “I went out and chatted with some of the women and men who were working on houses, looking at how different they are here in Oregon, and the difference in, I’m 27 now and I was 10 when we moved into ours. They have solar panels now, which is more energy efficient, which helps families save.”
Her fiancée, Emily—the couple got engaged just before the 2017 playoffs—has also gotten interested in volunteering for the group. They haven’t set a date for the wedding yet, due to the scheduling complications playing a sport professionally presents: “Obviously, most of my close friends are all playing soccer,” she explains. “Then, here are possible FIFA dates—could I get called in?—then it’s got to be after the season… so we’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s have fun and be engaged for a little bit.'”
Despite her massive season last year, Franch still sees room for growth going into 2018. She says she still wants to work on her decision-making in various tactical systems and game situations. Angerer says they work on distribution every day.
Franch has big goals, as the consistency she’s found in Portland allows her to keep improving. She’s been called into national team camps a handful of times, but remains uncapped. “Obviously, when you’re here in your club environment, you’re giving everything you possibly can to the team you’re playing for,” she says. “Then, if you progress, if you get a call in, there’s that opportunity, and you have to prove yourself in that environment. The only way I can do that is continue to get called in and continue to do what I do here with the Thorns.”