Portland, Oregon — Thinking about the Portland Thorns, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the sheer level of talent on the team’s roster. Tobin Heath. Christine Sinclair. Lindsey Horan. These are some of the best players in the game, all at the top of their careers, and obviously, they all play a huge role in the team’s success. What’s less obvious about the Thorns — despite those big names, and despite the fact that they now find themselves in contention for a championship for the second year in a row — is the very real adversity they’ve been through this year, and how those challenges have molded the character of the team.
One of the defining features of the 2018 season, for Portland, has been the spate of injuries the team endured early on. And while, with the exception of Heath, most of those injuries weren’t to players often seen in lights outside the Rose City, they impacted multiple key pieces of the team.
Center back Emily Menges was out until mid-May. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch played the first three games of the season, then sat out until late June. Then it was Midge Purce‘s turn, then Katherine Reynolds, then Emily Sonnett, then Purce again. All that came on top of the fact that one of Portland’s key offseason acquisitions, Caitlin Foord, had to sit out the majority of the season after sustaining a foot injury in the W-League playoffs. And all that, of course, happened in the most competitive season in the history of the NWSL.
“I’m a firm believer that the weakest moments make some of the strongest teams,” said Purce on Media Day on Thursday. “Something that makes our team special is we’ve had to go through a lot of ups and downs. … I just think our team has this unbelievable belief in ourselves.”
That belief hasn’t always been there, either this season or in previous years. The 2016 Thorns — whose core was the same as that of this team — won the NWSL Shield only to fall 3-4 to Western New York in the semifinals, after extra time. Earlier this season, they dropped a series of results at home, to Washington, Seattle, Orlando, North Carolina, and even then-winless Sky Blue. With the group of available players running low, those results were understandable, to an extent — but ultimately, the team knew they had to start finding ways to get results, regardless of the challenges placed in their way.
“Mark [Parsons] kind of zoomed in on [how] we can’t control what the other team’s going to do, we can’t control this, this, this, and this,” said Menges. “But your focus and your grit and your hard work, you can always control. … That’s always been a baseline of our team, but I definitely think there was a turning point in the middle of the season where we had to kind of remind ourselves to do that again.”
As far as focus and grit go, the team’s August 18 draw against Chicago at home is a case study. Although Portland was 4-1-0 since July 6 at that point (after going 5-5-5 to start the season), the four wins in that period were games they should have been expected to win — they were all against teams they’d gotten results against already. Faced with a very good Red Stars team fronted by Sam Kerr, a player notorious for scoring braces at Providence Park, they did something that felt new. They went down two goals, both by Kerr, and came back to draw.
“Two-nil down, we couldn’t come back against Seattle and Orlando earlier in the year,” said Parsons at a training in August. “The fact that we’ve got over that, I felt we were going to score. … That’s credit to the mentality and character that’s here.”
“I think it’s just the character of the team,” said Heath. “We have a great team, a super tight, united team and I think it shows in the results and the performances that we’ve had this year. We’ve had a lot of games that we have gone down a goal and we’ve been able to come back and have that belief within the locker room and within each other.”
There are plenty of examples of when the grit present in this team has come in handy. July 21 away against Sky Blue, when the team was again without multiple core players due to the Tournament of Nations, was one. August 25 against Washington, when they turned in one of their most dominant offensive performances to that point after a three-game week that included a difficult travel day, was another. But that mentality has never been quite as visible as it was in their last two games, both against Seattle at home, one at the end of the regular season and the other in the semifinals.
In the first game, Jess Fishlock scored early, which only seemed to motivate the Thorns to work harder and push for a goal. They equalized back in the 30th minute with an emphatic goal by Lindsey Horan, then won thanks to a second by Heath and a third by Horan. The semifinal was a similar story: Portland conceded midway through the first half, but came back to win.
“When we go down, our mentality has been stronger than ever,” said defender Emily Sonnett. “[In the first] Seattle game, we go down a goal in the first four, five minutes. I think it’s incredible how our team could kind of push, stick to the game plan, not freak out, and score a couple for the win.”
This team, most agree, is a better attacking side than last year’s championship squad. Beyond the starting lineup, from the top of the roster to the bottom, it may be a deeper team than the Thorns have ever had. None of that matters if the team’s mentality isn’t up for the challenges this super-competitive league presents.
“I think we’re more of a team this year,” said Thorns captain Christine Sinclair. “I think last year, if we would’ve gone down two goals, we weren’t coming back from that. … Whereas this year we have that trust in each other, and we’ll do it as a team.”
That cohesiveness is something that’s been molded in part by the number of must-win games Portland has played in throughout the final stretch of the season. “If you take the last four, five games that we’ve played, those were all must-win games for us,” says Heath. “I think for a lot of people, they don’t realize that we’ve been playing in these championship games for a while now. So this team understands pressure and this team understands what’s required to get results.”
When they face North Carolina, the best team in NWSL history, on Saturday, the Thorns’ battle-hardened mentality will be put to the test, something the team is ready for. “Under pressure, I think that’s where we’re at our best,” says Sonnett. “I think pressure defines what we do.”