Saturday night’s 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup final saw the Portland Thorns grab their second trophy of the season and the sky is the limit with the National Women’s Soccer League Supporters’ Shield and playoffs in sight.
It is the fifth piece of hardware earned under head coach Mark Parsons, who will be departing at the end of the season. Prior to the kicking off the 2021 campaign he announced his next destination, the Dutch Women’s National team.
Though the Women’s ICC Tournament presented Portland with an undeniable home-field advantage, the timing of the tournament forced Parsons’ hand. Between pre-Olympic friendlies and his Olympians staying in the tournament for the long haul, he was missing four starters in the last couple of months. Gold medalist Christine Sinclair, U.S. women’s National team stars Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, and Becky Sauerbrunn’s absences could have left the team with holes to fill.
Instead of struggling, the Thorns have hit new heights, tapping into the team’s considerable depth to broadcast to the world just how stacked, and talented, they are.
“This has been a really, really important week in a very special year,” Parsons said during Saturday’s celebration. “Every player is adding value. Every player is making each other better. Every player is making this team better, and this tournament, every single player played and was massive. Players that hadn't played games before, they were lights out against Houston. Tonight, to be able to welcome some family back into this team that we haven't seen for a few months was great. So yeah, it's a special night because everyone, everyone contributed,”
Indeed, achieving the WICC took a village. With a mix of experienced professionals and stars in the making, it took some creativity and rotation.
Nobody was a better example than Natalia Kuikka. The 25-year-old Finn is a 2021 newcomer to the Thorns and earned Player of the Tournament honors after playing every minute of both games, doing so across multiple midfield and backline positions, and scoring a goal in the opener against Houston.
WICC week was quite a shift for Kuikka, who proved to be ready for whatever assignment thrown her way.
“I feel like just they don't give me too much time think about it,” she said. “I'll just jump in and do my best so I mean, it is sometimes hard, but I didn't want to think about it too much and just kind of focus on the game.”
Beating Lyon is going to garner most of the headlines, but the path there leaves Thorns fans with plenty of new information that should excite them. Through NWSL play, they already knew about the quality youngsters Sophia Smith, Simone Charley, and Morgan Weaver have.
They also knew 15-year-old midfielder Olivia Moultrie’s star is on the rise. What they didn’t know was she already has set-piece goals in her. It is fascinating and unprecedented that someone who is yet to be eligible for a driver’s permit can create goals that can make the most seasoned of veterans blush.
A very important question was also answered in the goalkeeper department. Just before kicking off the tournament, it was announced that Adrianna Franch had been traded to NWSL expansion side Kansas City. Franch closed out the Olympics for the USWNT and though her star is on the rise, she has been in a position battle with Bella Bixby in Portland. Recent workload saw Bixby sit in the opener against Houston, and Portland’s new no. 2, Shelby Hogan enter scene.
And just like that, another position battle could be on the horizon.
Hogan’s three penalty saves in the game’s shootout made for as noisy of a professional debut that one could have, and it is likely that we would be talking about a different WICC winner if she did anything less than stellar in the high-stakes moment.
“I can’t say that’s what I dreamed of, but I’m pretty happy it turned out that way,” Hogan said of debuting in shootout fashion.
Morgan Weaver’s return is another item that will leave Rose City fans thrilled.
In addition to the Olympians absences, Weaver had missed the last four weeks of NWSL play with an ankle injury. She came on in the 82nd minute and scored the tournament-winner just five minutes later.
The strike continued a trend of her having a flair for the big moment. Prior to Saturday, she was responsible for the shootout goal that clinched the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup title for the Thorns and her goal on Saturday represents another piece of silverware earned with one of her strikes.
“She loves drama. She loves energy. She chases, I think, the big moments, because she's smart…” Parsons said. “Weaver continues to improve her intelligence, reading of the game, her movements, runs. Her finishing has always been great, but this relentless energy, this relentless intensity is fueling all of this development, and you saw tonight, instant impact,”
With so many positives to talk about, the WICC hangover cannot last too long.
Looking ahead, the Thorns rejoin NWSL action Wednesday and are in control of the table, and it is a safe bet their freshly-minted double will have a target on their backs in the weeks ahead. Right now, it would be fair to say the Thorns are the best women’s side on the globe and no excuses will be offered if they can’t stick the landing.
The storybook season continues, and if two things wasn’t enough, it looks like Portland has more to bring back to Providence Park later this year.