Near the end of the 2019 season, the Portland Thorns were in first place in the NWSL poised to make a run at the franchise's third NWSL Championship.
Then it all came tumbling down. Thorns FC got shut out in five of its final six games en route to a first-round playoff exit.
"We finished last year and I just wanted to climb into a hole," recalled head coach Mark Parsons. "Previously, we had been a bit short-sighted - I was last year... and we fizzled out. We were very short-term, outcome-based. We got in a good position but that's not going to be effective in the medium or long term."
The humiliating skid made the Portland leadership embrace a rebuild, beginning with the 2020 NWSL College Draft, where they traded up to select Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, at first and second overall respectively.
Weaver would score her first career goal in the quarterfinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup Tournament in an upset of the defending champion North Carolina Courage, in a result which proved the team was trending in the right direction.
Despite leaving Utah with just one win, Parsons could tell the culture amongst his players was growing exponentially, as was the quality of play.
"The belief is so real in what we're doing right now," said Parsons following a 1-0 loss in the NWSL Challenge Cup Semifinals to eventual champion Houston.
Then, the NWSL implemented a Fall Series to give its teams more opportunity to play ahead of the 2021 NWSL Season. That's when the Thorns saw their hard work pay off as Portland won the Community Shield after finishing the Fall Series undefeated with a 3-1-0 record.
And that was done without USWNT midfielder Tobin Heath who signed a one-year contract with Manchester United. Portland retains her NWSL rights if she comes back to play in the United States professionally.
Now, with a first look at how much the team has grown in just one year of a rebuild and the results to show the franchise should expect to contend as soon as next season, the Thorns went all-in.
Thursday morning, the franchise announced it had traded for USWNT wing-back and 2015 NWSL Most Valuable Player Crystal Dunn in exchange for allocation money, an international roster spot for the 2021 season, and Portland’s natural first-round pick in the 2022 NWSL College Draft.
“We are delighted to add a world-class player to an already talented group,” said Gavin Wilkinson, Thorns FC general manager and president of soccer. “Crystal has proven herself on the international level and been a dominant player in the NWSL for many years. Her professionalism and presence will reinforce and add to the strong culture we have in this club.”
Dunn will immediately raise the ceiling and the expectations for women's soccer in the Rose City. The 28-year old is still in her prime years and her career speaks for itself: NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner in 2015, back-to-back NWSL Champion in 2018 and 2019, NWSL Best XI in 2015 and 2018, NWSL Second XI in 2016 and 2019.
“Crystal is a game-changer, and with her intelligence, dribbling, passing, and finishing ability, she can unlock a game in a split second, while her defensive qualities and work rate make her as impactful off the ball as she is on it,” said Parsons.
Now with two former NWSL MVPS in Dunn and Lindsey Horan, a 37-year old Christine Sinclair (the all-time leading scorer in international competition), USWNT alum Megan Klingenberg, Britt Eckerstrom in goal who led the NWSL in saves during the 2020 NWSL Fall Series, and two talented offensive forces with Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, the Portland Thorns should have its eyes on the franchise's third NWSL Championship as soon as next season.