THORNS AIM FOR A SECOND NWSL CROWN
The way the Portland Thorns rolled through the second half of the National Women's Soccer League season, they seemed destined to be playing on Saturday for a championship.
Portland has won 10 of its last 13 games and lost only once since July 1. The Thorns have outscored their last 13 opponents, 27-9.
But of the two teams that will meet at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Orlando City Stadium in the fifth NWSL title match, the North Carolina Courage have had the smoother path.
"They've had a few small injuries, but they've had almost everyone available most of the year. We've gone through more adversity," Thorns coach Mark Parsons says.
Tobin Heath's nearly season-long absence was the most significant of preseason injuries that delayed the availability of Portland defenders Katherine Reynolds and Meghan Klingenberg, midfielders Amandine Henry and Dagny Brynjarsdottir and forward Nadia Nadim.
"We've had to earn it. We've had to do it the hard way. And I think that's going to help us gearing up for this game," Parsons says.
It also helps that the Thorns are healthier and deeper than they've been all season. Heath played 80 minutes of the 4-1 semifinal win over Orlando last Saturday.
Heath could have played longer if needed. Parsons says the buildup of fitness similar to what every player goes through in preseason has prepared her for playoff soccer.
"She'll be ready for as much as the game needs her this week," Parsons says.
Forward Christine Sinclair describes Heath's return as "like a whole new player you're adding to your team."
The length of Heath's absence was not ideal, but it allowed two Australian players to emerge as key contributors.
Hayley Raso, a 24-year-old who was used primarily as a change-of-pace forward in 2016, became a fan favorite while scoring seven goals and adding three assists.
Less celebrated but as significant was the evolution of Aussie Ashleigh Sykes. She became the right-side wing back when the Thorns implemented a formation with three central defenders.
In March, Portland signed Sykes after she led Australia's W-League in goals during the 2016-17 season. Parsons knew he was getting "a top-class goal scorer."
But on a club with plenty of firepower, Sykes' value turned out to be her energy and defensive skill. She has started the last 14 games in a position that acts as an right-side winger when the Thorns are attacking and a right back when Portland is defending.
"What we have got is this fantastic attacker that can beat people with the pass, beat people with the dribble, beat people with her crossing ability. She sees things in tight spaces that helps us build" the attack, Parsons says.
Klingenberg plays the same role on the left side, giving the Thorns two quick players who can give them a numerical advantage at either end of the field.
"We've got two people that never stop in that position with 'Kling' and Sykes," Parsons said. "They just never stop."
The second half of the season, the Thorns' primary formation has used Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges and Reynolds as three central defenders.
That shift moved Sinclair, the team's captain and leading scorer (nine goals), from a lone forward to an attacking midfield spot.
"We wanted to be more aggressive with our defending," says Parsons of the shift first fully implemented in a 1-0 win over North Carolina on July 15 (though the team trained in that formation beginning in preseason). "We wanted to be more positive with our passing and then we wanted to get (Sinclair) more involved, and that's been critical."
Sonnett and Menges have been the best, if unsung outside of Portland, pair of central defenders in the league the last two seasons. Parsons coached Reynolds with the Washington Spirit and made acquiring the veteran right back a priority when he was hired in Portland.
"I brought her in to be an attacking right back for us with her great defending and crossing ability," Parsons says. But Reynolds' tenacity and athletic ability translated to the right-side central defender position.
After the semifinal win over Orlando, Parsons singled out Reynolds' effort defending Marta and Alex Morgan as an example of his team's work ethic, saying: "Who beat her tonight? And when they did beat her, she got back and got another piece of pressure on."
While the injuries challenged the Thorns' coaching staff earlier in the season, the headache for Parsons lately has been deciding which world-class players to sit. Allie Long, Nadim and Brynjarsdottir — internationals all — came off the bench late in the semifinal.
"It's not improved my hairline, having a lot of players to choose from and having some hard decisions and conversations, but this is a collective group that keep giving to the team, keep putting the team first," Parsons says.
On Saturday in Orlando, that group will be all-in together one final time.
If they win the championship, some might see it as destiny for a star-studded franchise. But Parsons says it is dedication, not destiny, that earned the Thorns this championship shot. Fueled by the unique connection between the players and the Thorns' rabid supporters, he and his players believe they are fighting for something bigger than individual glory.