Portland, Oregon — January 30, 2018. A mere two days after it was announced that the Boston Breakers would cease operations, the team’s roster was scattered throughout the league in a dispersal draft. For Midge Purce, about to head into her sophomore season in the NWSL, it had been a stressful 48 hours. “I just tried to stay calm,” she remembers. “I was not in control of anything — and I’m a person who really likes to be in control.” Then she found out — at the same time as the public did — she was headed to Portland.
“I got a call after,” she laughs. “Then I’m just thinking, ‘In two weeks I’m moving to the West Coast, where I’ve never been before, and I’m playing for the returning champs.'”
It was a whirlwind start to a new chapter in Purce’s career, one where just about everything is new: the position she’s playing, the pace and intensity of training, the size of the home crowd. For the most part, though, you wouldn’t know she was in unfamiliar territory by watching her — the 22-year-old Harvard graduate has made an immediate impression with her one-on-one play, starting with the Thorns’ preseason tournament, and is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Portland. As the hard-working forward settles in with her new team, the future looks even more promising.
The Thorns have lined up in a 3-5-2 formation to start every game so far this year. This shape is relatively unusual in the NWSL, deploying three center backs and two wingbacks — a hybrid position with both attacking and defensive responsibilities. That’s the job Purce was handed when she arrived in Portland. It’s an extremely taxing position physically, requiring players to push up the wings in the attacking phase of play, then sprint back to mark the opposing team’s wingers and overlapping fullbacks.
“It’s a demanding position,” says Portland coach Mark Parsons, “but it’s a really rewarding position, because when we get it right, we get those players, [Meghan Klingenberg] and Midge, on the ball with space, they can really hurt oppositions.” That threat was especially on display in Portland’s home opener against Orlando, when Purce bombed up the right wing again and again, sometimes beating two or three defenders to serve the ball in to Ifeoma Onumonu or Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic.
In many senses, Purce is tailor-made for this role. “We look at Midge’s strengths,” says Parsons. “She’s a great one-on-one defender stopping people across. She can combine and link. She loves to cross from all distances. She beats people on the dribble. She runs at speed on the dribble. … She gets to do all those things that match her strengths.”
In fact, the Thorns had an eye on Purce long before the dispersal draft. “We really wanted to draft her [in the 2017 NWSL College Draft],” says Parsons. “You can help and teach a player a lot about how to pass the ball, how to move, how to support the ball. … What you can’t teach is this individual ability to beat players on the dribble, the individual ability to see gaps and expose them with your first touch, with your one-on-one moves, and she brings that.”
That’s not to say it’s been easy. Asked how different her current role is from that of a winger or a fullback, both of which she’s played in the past, she says, “It’s not even close. It’s very unfamiliar. I felt like coming here, I started from ground zero in my role, in terms of understanding what the responsibilities were.”
Understanding the requirements of her specific position is just one of the new challenges Purce has been adapting to. “[This team] move [the ball] really quickly,” she says. “The speed of play is fast, and I want to be able to play just as fast, if not faster, on a consistent basis.”
Part of the reason for that demanding pace is Portland’s strong roster, which includes players like U.S. internationals Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Emily Sonnett, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, and (as of last week, when they arrived after wrapping up World Cup qualifiers) Brazilian and Australian internationals Andressinha and Ellie Carpenter.
The other reason is a deeper one that transcends individual players: the culture within Parsons’ Thorns team. “You can have all the ideas in the world, but nothing beats having really hardworking players turn up and work the right way every single day,” he explains. “Throw anyone in there, and they’re immersed into playing fast, doing the right thing, gritting it out, and being the best every day. … It’s turning up day in and day out and working at your best. It all comes back to that.”
Purce is embracing that environment, taking it upon herself to show up and get a little bit better every day. “I want to grow. I want to be a better player in general. I think I’ve said consistency 50 times, but I want to be consistent. I want to be quality.”
Her service into the box is one area she identifies as wanting to improve. “There are some days where I’m pretty decent, then there are other days where it’s really not good enough,” she says. “I think that’s part of being at Portland. You have all these players who are consistently giving you quality on the field, and that’s where I want to be.”
“Whenever I’m talking about a player that’s done a lot for us,” said Parsons back in preseason, “what always comes next is their mentality and their mindset to want to work hard, to want to improve. Midge has been the biggest, best student of the game.”
Off the field, Purce, a self-identified foodie, has been eating her way through the Rose City’s restaurants and food carts. Although she hasn’t had the chance to get out and explore the beautiful Pacific Northwest yet (it’s been a rainy spring, anyway), she also enjoys spending time in nature. “My dad needs to send me my fishing poles so I could go fishing!” she says. Back home, “I go with my dad and my brother, or sometimes my brother and I go by ourselves, which is a fun time. He’s more rowdy and he’ll bring, like, speakers, and I’m like, ‘You’re scaring the fish away!'”
At the same time as almost everything in Portland is new, that newness is both challenging and exciting. She describes playing alongside some of the giants of the women’s game, players like Sinclair and Heath — who nutmegged Purce with her very first touch back in training — as “the most humbling experience. … They’re just class players, but they’re such kind and humble people, and they made it really easy to just kind of jump in and do my best.”
For a young player who already looks right at home starting for a team with one of the league’s most talented rosters, the future is bright. “We’re not scratching the surface yet,” says Parsons. “If she continues putting in the hours on and off the field, there’s no ceiling for her.”