Portland Thorns

Thorns FC's struggles continue in postseason, fall in NWSL Semifinal

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Portland Thorns

Thorns FC's struggles continue in postseason, fall in NWSL Semifinal

 

The Red Stars hadn’t defeated the Thorns since 2013, until today.

The third seeded Portland Thorns FC traveled to the midwest to play the second seed Chicago Red Stars in the semifinals of the NWSL Playoffs. In the win-or-go-home match, the Red Stars scored early off a long run by forward and NSWL’s leading scorer Sam Kerr in the eighth minute. Kerr’s goal proved to be the difference as Thorns FC was shut out in a 1-0 loss.  

At halftime, Thorns FC coach Mark Parsons told the broadcast that his initial lineup “didn’t stretch” the Red Stars like he had anticipated so he substituted midfielder Elizabeth Ball for striker Haley Raso. 

The substitution made a difference since Portland created much better chances in the second half. In the 63rd minute Raso made a run in the box but her shot was saved to keep Thorns FC scoreless. Three minutes later, a Portland free kick was on goal but was also saved by Red Star goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Then, in the 67th minute Parsons substituted off midfielder Andressa Cavalari Machry for midfielder Margaret Purce. But it wasn’t enough as the Thorns could not put one in the net.

Only four points differentiated the teams in the standings, but head to head matchups have been dominated by Portland including two 3-0 victories over the Red Stars at home. But, this game was played on the road where the teams tied 4-4 early in the regular season. 

Portland Thorns FC entered the playoffs in a slump highlighted by a 6-0 demolishing from the hands of the North Carolina Courage in Providence Park. Their poor play ultimately cost them a home semifinal game. By the game's end, Portland had surpassed over 300 minutes of gametime since their last goal. 

The Red Stars will go on to play the NWSL Shield winners, the North Carolina Courage who defeated Seattle Reign FC 4-1 in extra time on Sunday. 

Promising season excites Mark Parsons for the future of Portland Thorns FC

Promising season excites Mark Parsons for the future of Portland Thorns FC

All good things must come to an end.

After shocking the NWSL when upsetting two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage in the quarterfinals, Portland Thorns FC (1-3-2) fell 1-0 to the Houston Dash in the semifinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup.

However, all along, head coach Mark Parsons has stressed that the 2020 season will be a developmental season for his squad with the team.

Mission accomplished for the Thorns, but Mark Parsons and the club are not done yet. The Thorns FC head coach cannot wait to get back to work, building the franchise back into a title contender.

I can't wait. I cannot wait... [I] just want to get everyone back healthy and ready.... The improtant thing is that the belief is so real in what we're doing right now. - Mark Parsons

It was quite the turnaround from how Parsons felt after the conclusion of the 2019 season, that ended with Portland being shut out five of its final six games, despite entering the final stretch of the season as the NWSL's top team.

"We finished last year and I just wanted to climb into a hole," recalled 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 longterm."

The franchise shifted its priority towards building for the future during the 2020 NWSL College Draft, where they traded up to select Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, at first and second-overall respectively. 

The team didn't get to see their prized selection, however, after a knee injury sidelined Sophia Smith for the entirety of the tournament. 

Second-overall pick Morgan Weaver scored the game-winning goal against the Courage in the team's lone win of the 2020 season, but Portland was close to winning many of their three ties, dominating possession in a number of games with a poorly-timed defensive lapse leading to the tie against Washington. 

When it's all said and done, the team has grown exponentially during the 2020 shortened season. Parsons has claimed time and time again that no team worked harder during the pandemic when the season was up in the air whether it would happen, and the results showed in Utah where they showed they can compete with anyone. 

This was a very important two or three months for us. We made more progress than we had previously for a long, long time. We felt that before we got here. We felt that even more during and then we've seen that this team is capable of. - Mark Parsons

In 2021, with a healthy Lindsey Horan, Sophia Smith, and a returning Tobin Heath, the NWSL better watch out because Portland wants the path to the NWSL Championship to run through the Rose City once again. 

NWSL announces Los Angeles expansion for 2022

NWSL announces Los Angeles expansion for 2022

Women’s soccer continues to rise in popularity, talent and support in the United States.

It may have something to do with the US Women’s National Team dominating world tournament after world tournament but that support has trickled down to the NWSL as well. 

[RELATED]: Portland Thorns FC season opener attracts record television audience

Speaking of the USWNT, arguably the G.O.A.T. of women’s soccer Mia Hamm, teased a huge announcement on Monday night that had us all playing detective.

What could the 48-year-old soccer prodigy, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Champion (1991, 1999) be alluding to? 

We got our answer on Tuesday morning when the NWSL made an announcement that sent ripples through the soccer world.

Hamm not only teased the announcement, but she is a part the large group of in investors the includes 13 fellow former USWNT members

According to the official press release, "the founding investor group includes Serena Williams and daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., actors Uzo Aduba, Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner, and Eva Longoria, late night talk show host Lilly Singh, former US Women’s National Team players including twelve representing Southern California including Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Rachel Buehler, Shannon Boxx, Amanda Cromwell, Lorrie Fair Allen, Ronnie Fair Sullins, Joy Fawcett, Angela Hucles, Shannon MacMillan, Tisha Venturini Hoch, and Saskia Webber, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and FIFA World Cup Champions Lauren Cheney Holiday and Abby Wambach, author and activist Glennon Doyle, Netflix VP Original Content Cindy Holland, tech entrepreneur and filmmaker Casey Neistat, Founding Board Member of Baby2Baby, Sabina Nathanson, Media Executive David Nathanson, Baby2Baby Co-President Norah Weinstein, and Bad Robot President and COO Brian Weinstein."

[You can read the entire NWSL press release HERE]

How does the expansion impact the Portland Thorns and OL Reign? Well, a lot.

It started back in August 2019 when Portland Thorns and Timbers FC owner Merritt Paulson announced that the league would add two more teams in 2020 and a third in 2021.

“We’ve had multiple expansion groups in Portland for the last couple games,” said Paulson, who is a chief player in the NWSL’s small expansion committee. “We’ve got commitments from teams for 2020 and for 2021. We’re going to stabilize this league and we’re going to grow it.”

In December 2019, Jeff Kassouf of The Equalizer reported that Louisville is the confirmed expansion team in 2021.

Now that Los Angeles has “entered the chat”, the league has expanded to 10 teams.

Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby reveals she has suffered torn ACL

Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby reveals she has suffered torn ACL

As the Portland Thorns take the pitch against Houston Dash on Wednesday in the semifinal round, they’ll have to do it without Bella Bixby. 

Bixby had an impressive NWSL Challenge Cup debut and kept the team afloat with three draws in four games, but sat out of Friday’s upset victory over two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage due to injury. 

In a “bittersweet,” message on Twitter, Bixby, who entered the 2020 NWSL season as third-string goalkeeper, reveals she is heading back to Portland after suffering a torn ACL in practice. She does say however, it wasn’t a complete tear, which is positive news for the former Oregon State standout. 

Goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom sprang into action due to Bixby’s absence. Eckerstrom shut out the Courage on Friday with a total of eight saves, including two saves off of her line in the 86th minute to keep Portland's lead intact. It was Eckerstrom’s first appearance since last August. 

Thorns FC goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer was forced out of retirement to dress as the backup and will likely be asked to do it again as the tournament continues. Angerer, who was the Thorns goalkeeper in 2014, retired from professional play and became director of goalkeeping for the club instead. 

Under her coaching, Portland won the NWSL Shield in 2016 and the NWSL Championship in 2017, while goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in consecutive seasons. Franch remains out of the Challenge Cup due to a knee injury. 

Thorns FC won’t have long to recuperate from the loss of Bixby. They are headed to the semifinals against the Dash, who they’ll play on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. PDT in Utah. 

Portland Thorns FC upsets two-time defending champs North Carolina Courage

Portland Thorns FC upsets two-time defending champs North Carolina Courage

Heading into the NWSL Challenge Cup, the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage was seen as the team to beat.

After leaving a four-game group stage undefeated, winning all four contests, that belief didn't change.

So when the eight-seeded Portland Thorns FC team took the pitch Friday morning, no one saw Portland having a chance of defeating North Carolina.

Well, no one but those wearing the red and black. 

Portland shocked the soccer world by defeating North Carolina, 1-0, in the quarterfinals. After the game, head coach Mark Parsons credited the belief of his team in not only themselves but the process. He's spoken numerous times about how no NWSL franchise put in more work during the pandemic in preparation for the tournament and it finally saw dividends in the knockout stage.

"Belief is a really powerful thing," said Parsons. "What's really cool and powerful is that even when the results aren't great, because of the performances and because of the belief we always felt... this was possible."

The standout hero for the Rose City was goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom who was thrust into action due to an injury to Bella Bixby.

"She brought a whole new level for us," said rookie forward Morgan Weaver. "That's where it started was with Britt." 

Eckerson shut out the NWSL's best offensive attack with a total of eight saves, including two saves off of her line in the 86th minute to keep Portland's lead intact.

The defense of the Thorns was elite inside the box not allowing one of North Carolina's 24 crosses to get into the net. 

"Defensively, we were warriors," Parsons told reporters. "I would have bet another 100 minutes that we wouldn't have conceded today because our bigger purpose was driving us." 

The Courage in the end out-shot Portland 21-10 with eight total shots on target, all while maintaining 54.6% possession. However, it was not enough as Morgan Weaver scored her first career goal in the 68th minute and that ended up being enough.

Weaver, who Portland traded up to select second overall this year in the 2020 NWSL College Draft, came into the game confident in her team, despite having not won a game this season.

"I knew going into today that we were going to get the win. I was very confident in ourselves and the amount of grit that our team brought, I think, brought a whole new level." 

While Parsons shared that belief in his team, noting that he knew they had something special from before leaving Portland for Utah, but his words about Weaver were something else.

"Morgan Weaver has the opportunity to be really, really special. And the biggest reason for that is her mentality, ability to learn, and ability to grow.

I think she's ready to take over the world. - Mark Parsons on Morgan Weaver

All along, Parsons and the Thorns as a whole have been stressing development, and improving has been the main goal of the 2020 season. 

That being said, they do want to win it all this season, if they can, and they'll have a chance to play their way into the championship game on Wednesday, July 22. 

Thorns FC goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer forced out of retirement

Thorns FC goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer forced out of retirement

The NWSL Challenge Cup has been anything but normal for Portland Thorns FC, and the wackiness continued in the quarterfinals.

Due to an injury to starting goalkeeper Bella Bixby, who herself entered the 2020 NWSL season as the third-string goalkeeper, Thorns FC goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer was forced out of retirement to dress as the backup.

One of the greatest goalkeepers in women's soccer history won the World Cup playing for Germany in 2003 and 2007. 

Angerer was the Thorns goalkeeper in 2014 before retiring from professional play and being named the director of goalkeeping in Portland instead. Under her coaching, Portland won the NWSL Shield in 2016 and the NWSL Championship in 2017, while goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in consecutive seasons.

The decision was announced when Thorns FC tweeted out its starting 11.

The addition of Angerer caught the attention of all of Twitter.

Even Thorns owner Merritt Paulson got in on the fun while voicing how proud he is of this season's team.

 

Meghan Klingenberg on facing N.C. Courage: “We freakin’ hate em’”

Meghan Klingenberg on facing N.C. Courage: “We freakin’ hate em’”

While previewing Friday's quarterfinals matchup against the North Carolina Courage (4-0-0), Portland Thorns FC (0-3-1) defender Meghan Klingenberg did not hold back. 

The way that we feel about [OL Reign] is the way that we feel about North Carolina: We fricken hate 'em. -- Meghan Klingenberg

As of late, the Courage haven't had to worry too much about Portland, however. 

Last season, North Carolina humiliated Portland 6-0 in Providence Park and then defeated them 2-1 to open the NWSL Challenge Cup in front of a record-setting audience. North Carolina topped Portland in nearly every statistical category: shots (15-10); shots on goal (5-3); corners (13-5); crosses (36-17)...

Despite that, Portland believes they can turn the tide in the rivalry. 

Thorns head coach Mark Parsons will approach this match a tad differently.

Maybe last year we tried to defend Carolina and play Carolina. That’s not who we are. Our identity is to attack teams so this will be no different. — Head Coach Mark Parsons

[Listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Frye and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon].

Portland is 0-3-1 at the Challenge Cup and still looking to play that complete game and one they know they can do. The Thorns have seen plenty of action in the box, but just haven’t had the luck with finishing. 

The more we are a team in this game, in every element of the word team, our chances increase. — Thorns Head Coach Mark Parsons

I think as a team we have gotten better and better. It’s going to come and we feel that… It’s been shoeing in every game. — Rocky Rodriguez

Kickoff for this quarterfinals matchup is at 9:30 AM (PT) on Friday, July 17.

Thorns FC goalkeeper Bella Bixby gives us some perspective on playing with no fans

Thorns FC goalkeeper Bella Bixby gives us some perspective on playing with no fans

It’s been quite a journey lately for Bella Bixby, who was listed as the Portland Thorns’ third string goalkeeper heading into this season.  

However, the former Oregon State soccer goalkeeper made her Thorns debut as starting goalkeeper in Portland’s first game of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah on June 27.

In her first start, Bixby made four saves against the North Carolina Courage. However, the Thorns lost 2-1. 

The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup tournament kicked off on June 27 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. Due to the ongoing global pandemic no spectators have been or will be in attendance.

Bixby has been training and playing with the Thorns in Utah, but she also recently caught up with our Justin Meyers on The Bridge Podcast.

She shared her thoughts on playing games in front of zero fans. The Oregon State product has found that playing in an empty stadium has been "jarring" but it does also help her and her teammates communicate a lot better.

It was definitely a little jarring to walk into an empty stadium, certainly. Being on the sidelines and seeing, and growing up with Portland’s crowd at Providence Park is 25,000 people – it’s pretty loud and crazy and wonderful. It was a little jarring [in an empty stadium], but it also came with a lot of benefits. I was able to communicate with my teammates without any outside distractions.  -- Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby on The Bridge Podcast

[Listen to the latest Bridge Podcast with Justin Myers and Bella Bixby].

Bixby played in 72 games at Oregon State, getting 18 clean sheets. She also set a university record for most career saves with 394.

The Thorns selected her in the 3rd round of the 2018 NWSL College Draft.

Portland (0-3-1) is still looking for its first win after playing in five matches thus far in the Challenge Cup tournament.

"As far as me and my back line, I feel like we’ve been getting better every game," Bixby said on The Bridge Podcast. "We’ve been making adjustments. We’ll continue to make adjustments, but the preparation going into these games hasn’t changed. It’s just about it coming together on the field right now."

Next up, the Thorns will face the North Carolina Courage Friday, July 17 at 9:30a.m. Pacific Time in the NWSL Challenge Cup Quarterfinals. 

Mark Parsons confident Thorns FC can still make a title run

Mark Parsons confident Thorns FC can still make a title run

After a 1-1 draw against the Washington Spirit on Sunday, July 5, Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons was optimistic that the team could make great strides in time for its next match.

Well, if Thorns FC did make progress, it didn't result in three points as they drew rival OL Reign 0-0 on Monday morning to remain winless in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

But as disappointing as the draw is for a team that hasn't won yet, it's not all doom-and-gloom for Portland. Rather, the team is confident they're close.

"We're walking away from a game again, looking at 95% going 'That's top level' and the 5% hurting us," Parsons told reporters. "Coming away from a game and a fantastic performance in almost every area feeling very disappointed that we haven't taken care of business."

Portland has shown many flashes so far this season in Utah but hasn't been able to put it all together to leave the pitch victorious, and each time the same portion of the field has given the Thorns trouble: the last third.

"We'll probably be working on the same things we've been working on," said defender Kelli Hubly. "Because I feel like around the middle third and the defensive third I think we are playing good passes getting out of things. It's just going to be getting to the final third and our final pass, I think, to goal because I think overall, we're doing great. It's just we need to finish."

In the last match against Washington, the Thorns largely dominated the first half in terms of possession and field positioning but could not get the ball in the net. A second-half diving header from 2018 NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan got Portland on the board, but a defensive lapse quickly followed resulting in another draw. 

Then against OL Reign, Moran (left hip) along with defender Emily Menges (right calf) were both absent from the lineup.

"The decision was made to set them up for the quarterfinal," said Parsons. "Remain hopeful that they'll both be available... Wasn't worth the risk but feeling positive."

As for playing the one-seeded North Carolina Courage, a rematch of the 1-2 season-opening defeat that broke NWSL viewership records in the quarterfinals, Parsons is excited about the challenge and believes in his squad.

"I love this matchup early. I think the later in the tournament we face them they become a bigger challenge... Go big or go home," said the Thorns head coach. "I've got belief in this group that we can do it."

"We're a team going through a transition missing some big and experienced players but we're a team. We've set up to be a better team this year with everything that we've done and people have stepped up and proven that they're ready for the opportunity... There is absolutely no doubt that the future of where we're going is brighter than ever.

When Portland steps onto the pitch on this weekend to take on the Courage, they will do so with every intention of moving onto the semifinals. 

"It's go time. There's no hiding it and I have belief in this group that they can do it." 

Parsons went on to say "I haven't felt this way about my team since '18, maybe '17. The way the whole team is playing as a whole." 

Despite the 2019 team finding desired results early leading to a postseason berth, Parsons knew that team needed to rely on "creating something out of nothing" while he thinks this group is a lot closer to the offensive attack he desires. 

So far from watching the games, it becomes evident what he means. The Thorns are creating chances in the box, but just not finishing them, as if there's something about that last third of the field. 

"We were better in the final third in creating opportunity and the positioning and the movements but our technical execution was nowhere near our level," said Parsons.

But, will Portland get there in time?

"We're going to find out if this game will happen too early or if it comes at the perfect time." 

We certainly will. 

How former OSU goalkeeper Bella Bixby stayed ready for her Portland Thorns debut

How former OSU goalkeeper Bella Bixby stayed ready for her Portland Thorns debut

Bella Bixby might have been listed as the Portland Thorns’ third string goalkeeper but that all changed on June 27, 2020. 

The former Oregon State soccer goalkeeper made her Thorns debut as starting goalkeeper in Portland’s first game of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup currently in Utah.

In her first start with the Thorns, Bixby made four (impeccable) saves against the North Carolina Courage. However, the team lost 2-1.

Listed as a third string means a lot of waiting and waiting and waiting for your name to be called. That time passed along with a little nerves of your first professional start would be reason enough to knock any athlete off their game.

Not Bixby.

How did she manage to stay ready and stay in the moment?

Well, having teammates such as Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair shoot rockets at you during practice might have had something to do with it…

I’ve been third string for the last two years but basically being in goal as target practice for some of the best players in the world the last two years - Lindsey Horan, Christine St. Clair, Tobin Heath - shooting on me for the last two years. I felt very prepared. — Bella Bixby

Going up against the best brings out the best in you. It’s an iron sharpens iron philosophy that worked in Bixby’s favor.

But when it came down to the game itself, Bixby relied on herself and the support from her teammates.

I was mostly just focused on making simple decisions, very clear decisions to not put my teammates in any danger and just playing my game because at the end of the day, I’m a goalkeeper. I’ve been playing this position for a really long time. The staff and my teammates obviously felt that I was ready for this… — Bella Bixby

The 24-year-old goalkeeper from Milwaukee, Oregon spent her collegiate career at Oregon State (2014-2017)and set the Oregon State career record with 394 saves, the third-highest total in Pac-12 history. She played 72 career games, holding 18 clean sheets.

Bixby was selected by the Thorns in the third round of the 2018 NWSL Draft.

The Thorns will face NW rival OL Reign on Monday, July 13.