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Bella Bixby: Thorns found joy in each other during ‘a hard year’

(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns’ road to the title wasn’t easy, on the field or off.

As the team has journeyed to the NWSL championship, they’ve dealt with a myriad of off-field issues. The fallout of Sally Yates’ investigation into systemic abuse in the NWSL, which the club is one of three teams at the center of, continued even as they made their journey in the postseason.

“It’s been a long year and we’re really happy to be in this position and have the opportunity and that we seized the moment,” said the Thorns’ Bella Bixby. “It’s been a hard year for Portland. I think there’s been a lot of external distractions for us and for this to be what we achieved this year means so much to us.

“We’re so happy to bring the trophy home.”

For first-year head coach Rhian Wilkinson, the team’s culture was paramount to continuing to navigate the hardships, which began last year with a report in The Athletic. She called the team’s connection with one another special.

“It’s just about showing up and playing,” she said. “And they did. The second half was really a lot of fun to watch just them doing their thing.”

Focusing on the match, versus the off-field drama that has ensued – which includes calls for owner Merritt Paulson to sell the team – was about staying close to the team, said Bixby. That’s where the culture piece came into play.

“I also think we all love soccer,” said Sophia Smith, who scored the game-winning goal for the Thorns and was named Finals MVP. “For me personally, soccer was an escape from all the things going on. I just look forward to going to practice every day seeing my teammates. That was kind of how I navigated it, is I always had that to look forward to.”

Leaning into the joy of playing soccer was something that the team talked about often, particularly when playing in such a competitive league.

“It’s really easy to go into a game and be stressed and forget that this is a game that’s meant to be loved and meant to be beautiful,” Bixby continued. “So that’s something we always come back to – this is a product of our joy. This year we did our best to step on the field every game and have a blast together.”