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What’s behind the Portland Thorns’ wild swings in the NWSL?

Written by on May 17, 2024

The Portland Thorns are two victories away from tying the NWSL record for consecutive wins, and it appears all is right again with the franchise that set the standard on and off the field in the league’s first decade.

This, however, has been quite an abrupt change of fortune for the Thorns, who started this season in a cloud of uncertainty as the club emerged from off-field problems and on-field questions.

A few weeks ago, the team reached the nadir of its two-year identity crisis. The Thorns had already spent an offseason going through an ownership change — a year-long process that came as the result of a forced sale following investigations into systemic abuse across the league.

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On the field, the 2024 season started as an unmitigated disaster. Portland got shellacked by the Kansas City Current on the opening day and managed only one point on from its first four games, a 2-2 draw at home against Racing Louisville that required a two-goal comeback and a stoppage-time equalizer.

“We don’t play to tie — we don’t play for a point,” midfielder Sam Coffey said after that March 30 match, adding: “This by no means is an acceptable result for us.”

Portland was off to its worst start in franchise history after four games. The Thorns’ problems didn’t look like one-off issues, but an extension of insecurities portended by last year’s inconsistent results.

After just four games, the Thorns made a coaching change. Mike Norris, who had been head coach since the start of 2023, was reassigned to the role of technical director in mid-April. Rob Gale was elevated to interim coach, and since then, it’s as if the Thorns’ problems are in the rearview: Portland has won five straight games for the first time in history.

“This was kind of a reset button for us,” Thorns forward Sophia Smith said after the 4-1 victory over Houston that sparked the current run.

The on-field reset was desperately needed, and it is part of wider-scale turnover in Portland, a franchise that endured a tumultuous two years off the field.

New ownership in Portland brings a sigh of relief

The Bhathal family, led by Lisa Bhathal Merage and brother Alex Bhathal, purchased the Thorns in early January for a then-NWSL record $63 million. Portland had spent the entire previous year-plus in leadership limbo following multiple investigations into leaguewide abuse.

Former Thorns owner Merritt Paulson failed to address former players’ reports of abuse by then head coach Paul Riley, according to the investigations, and the team’s efforts to protect Riley allowed him to continue coaching elsewhere in the league for years. Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage when the revelations went public in fall 2021 and he was eventually barred for life from the NWSL.

Thorns fans regularly called for Paulson’s removal from the team in the aftermath, and some vowed to stay away from Providence Park until Paulson was removed. Paulson initially laid low, including staying away from the team’s 2022 NWSL championship triumph and celebration, seemingly waiting for the storm to pass.

It didn’t. The NWSL eventually applied its own pressure after the investigations, and Paulson agreed to put the team up for sale in the weeks after the Thorns won the title. The process was complicated because of the resources shared between the Thorns and MLS’ Portland Timbers (also owned by Paulson’s Peregrine Sports) and it took more than a year to complete.

Uncertainty carried onto the field for the Thorns during that time. Rhian Wilkinson led Portland to its third league title in her first year as coach in 2022, but she resigned weeks after the final following a league investigation into her conduct with a player. The investigation cleared Wilkinson of wrongdoing, but she believed she had lost the trust of her players.

Norris, who was previously Wilkinson’s assistant, was elevated to the head-coaching role — a decision players supported, sources said at the time. Portland struggled through the early part of the 2023 season in uncharacteristic ways, including back-to-back 3-3 draws that preceded a 2-1 loss to a less talented Dash side in Houston.

“I don’t think we played Thorns soccer tonight,” Coffey said after that match last May.

The theme of the Thorns lacking an identity — “this isn’t us,” Coffey also said that day — persisted throughout the low points of the 2023 season without tangible solutions. The problems were punctuated by an embarrassing 5-1 loss to Angel City FC on Decision Day, a result that cost the Thorns the NWSL Shield on the final day of the season for a second straight year. They lost the NWSL semifinal at home to NJ/NY Gotham FC three weeks later.

The 2023-24 offseason was clouded by major questions on the field and off. Uncertainty around ownership threatened the foundation of one of the most talented teams on the field, one that managed to finish second in the league last year despite its inconsistent performances.

Portland’s greatest risk was the possibility of losing U.S. international forward Sophia Smith in free agency at the end of the 2024 season. The Bhathals took over in early January and Smith signed a league-record deal soon after.

“New owners changes everything,” Smith told ESPN in March. “Since I’ve been here, there has been a lot of things going on with this club — a lot of not-great things going on with this club — and I have just been waiting for some stability and some reassurance that this club is headed in the right direction, and the Bhathal family coming in is doing exactly that, if not more.”

Bhathal Merage told ESPN in an interview earlier this month that she is spending most of this year on a listening tour. “We didn’t really want to go in and rock the boat,” she said. “This is the most successful franchise in NWSL history.”

A coaching change four weeks into the season was not part of the plans, but the team’s identity crisis remained. The opening-day loss to Kansas City would have been even worse without Smith making something from nothing and scoring a brace to get the Thorns back in the game for a 5-4 finish. The game plans still looked like a heavy dose of relying on Smith’s individual brilliance.

Norris was removed as head coach April 16, and the Thorns have been flying ever since. The usual question looms after a coaching change: Is it the interim coaching bump, or have things changed more permanently for the better?

A jolt of energy and tactical tweaks for the Thorns

Portland’s recent lineups don’t look drastically different from the group that started out the season in disastrous form, but Gale’s positive energy was immediately felt by players.

“Rob kind of just helped me re-find my love of the game, and it’s been an absolute blast and privilege to play these last few games,” said longtime Thorns forward Christine Sinclair, who turns 41 next month. “He just has told me to go out and play, be free, just read the game. I’ve always been able to put the ball in the back of the net if you give me a chance, so it’s been a lot of fun, I’m not going to lie.”

Gale made nuanced tactical changes to accentuate the strengths of each player, including Sinclair. She has two goals and an assist in the four games she has played under Gale, including the opening goal six minutes into the rout of the Dash that sparked the team’s current run.

Under Gale, Sinclair is back to her old center forward role, where the Canadian played for over two decades to become the world’s leading international goal scorer. Sinclair played more as an attacking midfielder for the Thorns in recent years, but she began this season awkwardly jammed into wide forward roles where the Thorns needed more mobility and defensive commitment on the wing. Sinclair’s positional shift — and the success of it — did not come in isolation.

Smith is back to being the world-beating forward who earned the 2022 NWSL MVP and 2023 Golden Boot awards, only this time she is playing more in a free role that pushes her out onto the wing. She has eight goals this season, three more than any other player in the NWSL one-third of the way through the year.

Smith can still run at and behind defenders on the wing, and her removal from the center of the park has made it more difficult for teams to simply shadow her and hack her down when they can’t keep up. Gotham, for example, fouled Smith six times in a 1-0 victory in March, often preventing counterattacks through tactical fouls.

Smith was scoring despite Portland’s struggles earlier this year. Now, she is again the driver of a harmonized Thorns attack. The front line of Smith and Sinclair (and Morgan Weaver before her injury) interchange seamlessly.

The Thorns’ 2-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars on April 27 exemplifies these changes. Smith started the game as a right winger and scored a brilliant individual goal from the left wing 10 minutes into the match. Sixteen minutes later, she scored from the right side after floating back there in transition.

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Sophia Smith’s excellent footwork and finish makes it 1-0 Thorns

Portland forward Sophia Smith’s excellent footwork and finish makes it 1-0 Thorns

Gale has implemented a system that gets the best out of everyone on a roster loaded with talent. Coffey is the team’s connective glue as its defensive midfielder. She leads the NWSL in ball recoveries, per TruMedia, and often sparks the attack with simple, patient passes from deep areas.

Time has been on the Thorns’ side, too, as it has allowed newer defensive partnerships to blossom.

Isabella Obaze, Nicole Payne, and Marie Müller are all new to Portland’s back line this season. Their lack of familiarity with each other and the rest of the squad was evident early in the season as the Thorns made defensive mistakes and got stretched out of their shape. In Saturday’s 4-0 win over rival Seattle Reign FC, the Thorns stayed compact and purposefully conceded possession to the Reign, challenging them to find a way through; the Reign could not.

The Bhathals and general manager Karina LeBlanc still have plenty to figure out. The Thorns job is one of the most attractive in the NWSL and should garner interest from top coaches. Gale, whose head-coaching experience prior to Portland was largely in Canada’s youth national team ranks and the men’s Canadian Premier League, also has the team bought in right now.

“Our intention is to build the top global women’s soccer team in the world,” Alex Bhathal told ESPN in a recent interview. “And this is an opportunity for us to evaluate the talent that’s available on a global basis to help us achieve that goal. Rob Gale will certainly be considered as part of that search.

“We’re not going to leave stones unturned because we do have a long-term vision for what we’re going to accomplish. And we’re thrilled with the success that Coach Gale was having with the team and the positive culture and winning and fun that we’re seeing. From the team, from the players, and everybody affiliated with the club is just really exciting. We want to keep that going.”

Another date with the Dash awaits Friday, followed by the Thorns’ biggest test since opening day: Their longest road trip of the year, to Orlando to face a Pride team that is unbeaten through nine games. If the Thorns win each of those, they will tie a league mark held by multiple teams, including Portland’s 2017 squad, which won the championship that year.

Expectations remain high for the Thorns. As Coffey said after a more recent win against expansion side Bay FC, “This is the standard now.” It always has been. Add in the rising standards of the NWSL and the Bhathals injection of investment and energy, and that bar will continue to be raised.

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