Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Thorns? | Portland Monthly

Here are a few of the reasons why the rest of the league should be cowering in fear—and why you should be watching this season:

1. A beefed-up back line

Portland’s hard-working, perennially dependable midfielder Tobin Heath will be joined this season by three USWNT teammates. Two of them—Meghan Klingenberg, acquired from the Houston Dash as part of the Morgan trade, and Emily Sonnett, this year’s No.1 overall college draft pick—are defenders, which is a good thing given that defense has been the team’s weak point.

Klingenberg is a national team fixture these days, having started every match in last year’s World Cup. Sonnett, meanwhile, has been a commanding presence at UVA, where she gained a reputation as a center back who can lead from behind.

2. Lindsay Horan

Up front, recent USWNT call-up Lindsey Horan will add some fuel to the offensive fire. After graduating from high school in Colorado, the 21-year-old opted to skip college and go straight to the pros, signing with French club Paris Saint-Germain in 2012. Horan arrived back in the states in time for the 2016 Olympics; Americans who don’t play in the NWSL are ineligible for the national team. The Thorns, following a bit of horse-trading, were able to acquire her because of Morgan’s departure. Horan was a beast at PSG, with 54 goals in 76 appearances, and she’s notched two goals with the national team since her first call-up late last year.

3. Fresh international talent

Former Florida State standout Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who hails from fantastically named Hella, Iceland, comes to Portland this season via the Boston Breakers. Brynjarsdottir started her professional career in 2015 with Bayern Munich, the 2014-15 Frauen Bundesliga champions. She’s joined by Danish international Nadia Nadim, who was an offensive leader for Sky Blue FC last year. Nadim’s biography is just as noteworthy as her soccer career: the 28-year-old forward was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she lived until age 12, when her father was killed by the Taliban. Her family fled the country and wound up in Denmark, where was called up to the national team in 2009.

4. Amandine Henry

The Thorns’ scariest new weapon has to be French midfielder Amandine Henry, who will join the club early this summer after she wraps up her contract with Olympic Lyon in France’s Division 1 Féminine. Widely considered the best defensive midfielder in the game, Henry was named one of the best 11 players in the worldearlier this year, and won the Silver Ball at the World Cup (awarded to the tournament’s second best player), despite France being eliminated in the quarter-finals. This is a huge signing both for Portland—because, duh—and for the NWSL itself, which has struggled to lure top European players to the states.

5. An energetic new coach

Mark Parsons, an endearing Brit with the can-do positivity of a Labrador retriever, comes to the Thorns from the Washington Spirit. Parsons turned the Spirit around after their dead-last finish in 2013, leading them to two respectable playoff runs in his two seasons there. With that record, league opponents should shudder to think what he might be able to do with Portland’s ridiculously stacked roster.

Any one of this season’s new signings would be cause for excitement; the fact that the Thorns got all of them is, frankly, ridiculous. If anybody was in the dumps about Alex Morgan’s departure this fall, they won’t be missing her much longer.

The Thorns’ preseason tournament kicks off 5 pm Sunday, March 27 against Seattle, and the regular season opens April 17 against—who else?—Morgan’s new club, the Orlando Pride. Check out the full schedule here.

I’m very baffled by all the hate Portland gets. I mean, when it comes to winning the league, the Reign have dominated. When it comes to winning championships, FCKC have dominated. Admittedly, three years isn’t much of a sample size, but it’s what we’ve got. The only place the Thorns have dominated is with attendance, with commercial success. Which is a positive thing for the league as a whole.

I sort of get why people would be frustrated if they feel like the Thorns are spoiled. My understanding is that Merritt Paulson pretty much made getting Alex Morgan a condition of starting up the team (and this is the main example I’ve seen of special treatment).

But think about this from a practical perspective. The league wants to be successful. It looks around and sees a city that, just a few years prior, managed to join the MLS and immediately begin selling out every game. I mean from the word go. I don’t think they’ve ever not sold out in the MLS era. 

The NWSL thinks there’s room for a women’s team, and they think the fans might be supportive. So they pitch it to the Timbers owner.

He’s also looking at it from a practical perspective. He’s not like, “Oh, these sweet little ladies need my charity.” He’s like, “Will this be a successful business venture?” So he comes up with a plan to make it successful, and part of that plan is launching with a massively popular star, someone who can be the face of the team. 

He tells the league he’ll only do it if he gets Alex Morgan. The leagues says OK, because their main goal is the success of the league, and they think this team could contribute to that.

I can see why this would frustrate other teams. But at the same time, lots of other teams have some really big stars. Morgan would probably have had a solid impact for them (and sold a lot of jerseys). But, considering that none of them had an MLS team attached, they probably wouldn’t have come close to the sort of success, commercially, that Portland has managed. 

Portland did an outstanding job of taking Timbers fans and making them Thorns fans. They didn’t market to young girls and their parents. They marketed to adults with disposable income. Which is genius, and also super obvious. A beer at Providence Park costs almost as much as a ticket to the Thorns. So if people are there and drinking 2-4 beers, you’re making way more money off them at concessions than you are on ticket sails.

Compare that to, say, Seattle, which plays in a high school stadium and cannot sell beer, and you can see why the one has been much better able to both draw crowds and capitalize on them. 

Which is not to say that teams should only target people who drink. It’s to say that they should target everyone, but especially those with disposable income. I cringe every time I see a commercial on a stream from another park, where they seem to target their pitch exclusively at school-aged girls who play soccer.

That is not how you have a successful sports franchise.

Imagine if the NFL only tried to sell tickets to pee-wee football players. It’s an absurd strategy. 

Paulson (and many other people, I assume) crafted a strategy to create a viable business. It was very successful. Shortly thereafter, the NWSL tried this same approach with Houston. Which is now their second most attended team. 

They’re doing it again in Orlando, and here, the Alex Morgan thing comes full circle. The Thorns don’t need her anymore. They aren’t reliant on her to draw people in. They can let her go. They aren’t going to do so cheaply, because that would be a really, really stupid business choice, so they try to wring everything they can from the trade. That’s just good business. 

Now, Orlando gets to launch its team with the most popular USWNT player as their star as well. 

I genuinely hope it works for them. 

Because here’s the thing: I want the whole league to be successful. I might enjoy talking shit about how Seattle plays in a high school stadium, but you know what I would like even better? If they didn’t. I would love it if they played in the Clink, and could draw in a crowd to make that practical. I would be ecstatic. 

I want the entire league to be successful. I want it to grow. I want it to be viable. I want it to be long term.

So taking that view, I don’t understand why people hate Portland so much. They are really, really good for the entire league.