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To ‘win everything’ in 2021, the Portland Thorns are trusting in the process

Simone Charley celebrates a goal against the Washington Spirit earlier this season. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When the Portland Thorns first decided that they wanted to win everything in 2021, it was something of a joke.

“In the beginning of the season, we have these goal meetings where we all get together as a team and write out our goals,” defender Emily Menges says. “And it’s pretty silly because any team, you’re going to write down ‘championship,’ you’re going to write down ‘win.’”

“And we were like, well, we want to win everything. Like, let’s get that out on the table because everybody wants to win everything. That’s why you’re here.”

The “win everything” mantra became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This year, the Thorns have won the Challenge Cup, the International Champions Cup and the NWSL Shield. Now, they enter the NWSL playoffs as the No. 1 seed and favorites to win the franchise’s third championship.

All of that success in one season might make it easy to look past Sunday’s semifinal game and toward the NWSL trophy. But the intention the Thorns players set at the start of the season has helped them focus on the little things.

“It’s not about looking at the big picture and checking off outcomes, but it’s just about being focused on the process,” forward Simone Charley says. “So I think tomorrow it’s just about winning the day and doing your best in training, and doing that the next day, and the next day, and just taking it day by day.”

The concept of focusing on process over outcome comes up frequently with Thorns players. While “trusting the process” isn’t new in sports, the Thorns have instilled confidence by understanding what is and isn’t out of their control, and that’s led to a sense of individual security and remarkable team consistency.

“If you had the right idea, even if you didn’t execute, you compliment the idea and you compliment the bravery,” Charley says. “And obviously you want to work on the execution, but it’s just about giving your best effort.”

Menges agrees: “Honestly, it’s better when you fail because everyone’s like, ‘OK, well I saw what she was trying to do.’ That’s what we’re trying to do as a team. And so you almost get applauded for failing, because you’re trying to do what the team is trying to do. And so that has created a culture of just growth from everywhere.”

Celebrating the bravery of risking failure feels radical in the current climate of the NWSL, where several coaches have been dismissed this year over accounts of abusive behavior. It hasn’t been uncommon in past years to see players freeze up on the field, overwhelmed with the anxiety of making a mistake and being punished for it. In Portland, different levels of execution instead foster conversations about ways to improve.

The Thorns organization as a whole, however, hasn’t been blameless this season, causing some disconnect. The club placed former general manager Gavin Wilkinson on leave after The Athletic’s Sept. 30 report implicated him in Paul Riley’s controversial departure from Portland in 2015. Thorns players and supporters had called on the club to address its failures in the Riley case. Since then, the club has hired Karina LeBlanc to replace Wilkinson, who remains the GM of the MLS’ Portland Timbers.

Inside the hurricane of the week following The Athletic report, players fell back on the lines of communication they’d established the year before, in the wake of widespread protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

“Culture is just a big part of who we are. I think, especially in the 2020 season, we had a lot of time off the pitch,” Charley says. “We had a lot of hard conversations about all our core values and things that we stand for, and what we want to hold each other accountable to.”

“Black Lives Matter, all the protests in Portland … we kind of started a culture of meeting as a team and talking about bigger things. And so it was not new,” Menges says. “We told Mark [Parsons] we need some time. And so that was nothing new, and we kind of sat down and opened it up. It’s a safe space for people to share things that they might not want to share publicly, or might not feel like it’s the place to share publicly.”

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Thorns players, including No. 5 Emily Menges, have leaned on each other during a challenging season. (Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

During those meetings in the first week of October, Thorns players opened the floor for anybody to speak. The team heard from players who were only just now learning of Riley’s history, to those who had been in Portland during his tenure, to those who were struggling with the memories of their own personal experiences with abuse.

Menges says it’s impossible to know if every person’s story got told, but coming to understand what their teammates were going through helped them manage their emotions in the weeks that followed.

“I think [Thorns players have] that kind of culture where we can kind of say, OK, this player had this going on that they shared with us, and now we’re going to go out and practice,” Menges says. “But you can approach those people slightly differently because you know they’re going through something.”

It’s probably reductive to call soccer a respite from the off-field chaos, but Thorns players have found some clarity in the ability to set a deadline for off-field work and then put their phones down to focus on the task at hand.

Menges tells the story of the Thorns’ game on Oct. 6, their first since the NWSL suspended games in the wake of the Riley report. Before kickoff that night, Portland’s players released a collective statement asking for Wilkinson to be placed on leave, among other demands. It had taken them days to get the statement to the point where all 28 players felt comfortable with it being released.

They finished the message at 4:30 p.m. local time, two and a half hours before their scheduled kickoff. As Menges remembers it, the team got to the locker room at 5, and the players decided the statement would go out around 5:15.

“Once we put that out, since we had done it so well as a team and everyone felt like they at least got their voice heard, we put our phones away and we’re like, ‘We did it. F–k yeah. Now it’s time to play,’” she says.

Even under the most extraordinary circumstances this season, the Thorns’ ability to fall back on their foundation as a group has given way to consistency on the field.

“I think everyone within the team, we trust each other,” Charley says. “And we know that we want to bring out the best in each other. So when someone comes to you and has ideas on how you can improve, you’re willing to listen because you know that they have your best interests at heart.”

The players have built that bond, but the coaching staff has helped reinforce it. Mark Parsons, Portland’s coach since 2016, announced earlier this year that he would leave the Thorns at the end of the season to manage the Netherlands — a move inspired as much by a desire to be closer to his family in England as by soccer reasons. Parsons’ decision will make it a bittersweet end to the season, whenever that comes, both in on-field success and off-field ties.

“I know he tries so hard to bring people around who are good people first, and so you have that culture of, we are good human beings who care about each other first,” Menges says. “And when he is doing his head coach thing, and kind of separates himself from the team a little bit, he always touches base at the right moments. When he knows that something’s going on, or when you need maybe a little bit of extra communication with him, he always pops in at the right time.”

This Thorns team could possibly end up being Parsons’ magnum opus. They’re a tight-knit group that’s proven they can execute when all of their stars are away and when they have World Cup champions and gold medalists in their midst. They’ve drawn talent and built a foundation over the years, focusing as much on personality fit as on natural ability.

That approach has paid dividends, especially after their 2019 season plateaued and the regular season was canceled in 2020. Second-year regular season rookies Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, who sit on the U.S. women’s national team bubble, have created some of the team’s most magical moments this year. Five-year Thorn Kelli Hubly stepped in for the injured Menges during the Challenge Cup, and then played alongside her while Becky Sauerbrunn was away at the Tokyo Olympics. Charley, a national team replacement player in 2019, has been essential to keeping the attack moving as both a starter and a late-game substitute.

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The Thorns took home the ICC trophy along with the Challenge Cup title and NWSL Shield in 2021. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The team has relied on its culture when integrating new faces. It will be called upon again when Parsons makes way for a new manager, reported this week to be former Thorn and Canada international Rhian Wilkinson.

“Change is exciting, no matter what the circumstances,” Menges says.

Championship or bust this year, the players hope they can walk into the next chapter with their fans behind them. They know how important the Portland community is to their success, and being transparent with their most ardent supporters will be key going forward.

“What I learned this year specifically, because it kind of hit us so close to home, is that [Portland fans] are an army that’s ready to deploy at any time,” Menges says.

“I think the fans are a very powerful tool, not just during games, but when we need help. When we need help, they’ll show up for us, and when they need help, we show up for them. And so I think if we can better communicate what exactly our vision is and what their vision is, and kind of get on the same page that way, that is the ultimate goal.”

Portland fans have repeatedly held the club accountable, using signs and smoke and sending a list of their own demands to the front office. It’s a commitment borne from a deep passion, which the players have felt throughout the season and plan to embrace Sunday against the Chicago Red Stars, with a place in the NWSL final on the line.

“What makes Providence Park is the fans,” Charley says. “And I think that community aspect that the Thorns organization has, with the fans and with the community, I think it’s just who we are. And so I’m really excited to play in front of them one last time because when you put on the crest, you’re representing them.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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