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These Thorns are feelin', well, like a real contender

by: COURTESY OF CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/PORTLAND THORNS - Alex Morgan, a U.S. National Team star, looks forward to teaming with Canadian superstar Christine Sinclair as Portland Thorns attackers. But getting the ball to them will be important for teammates. On Jan. 11, the new National Women’s Soccer League held its allocation process, assigning national team members from here and abroad to its squads.

Since that day, the expectations have been through the roof for the Portland Thorns FC.

Those expectations, combined with Portland being arguably the most enthusiastic city for women’s soccer in the world, makes the Thorns flag bearers for professional women’s soccer, which has yet to sustain a league.

“A great World Cup story and (the U.S.) winning the Olympics turned a couple of people’s heads and gained a little popularity within the sport and internationally,” Thorns striker Alex Morgan says. “With the NWSL starting this year and the WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) folding just two years ago, people realize that it’s going to take responsibility from all fronts to keep this league alive. We take that responsibility on as players.”

While that burden weighs heavily on the players, the biggest thing that the Thorns can do to help the league prosper is to simply play well. And Portland would seem to have the talent to do that.

The Thorns, who begin regular-season play in mid-April, and play home tilts at Jeld-Wen Field, may very well have the greatest women’s striking tandem in the world with Morgan, a U.S. Women’s National Team superstar, and Christine Sinclair, a Canada Women’s National Team superstar who played at the University of Portland.

Morgan and Sinclair have been rivals on the world stage, but they also played together for the Western New York Flash of the WPS in 2011.

“I’ve played with ‘Sinc’ before in Buffalo and we’ve played against each other plenty of times,” Morgan says. “We anticipate each other really well. I’ve always looked up to Sinc. She’s one of the most underrated players in the world. She’s a great leader. She leads by example. You’ve seen her stats from Canada. They’re out of this world. Having her as a teammate will help improve my play. And it will also help some of the younger players feel a little bit more comfortable and grow onto this team and feel like they belong.”

With Morgan and Sinclair playing up top, Thorns midfielder Allie Long says that the focus of the midfielders will be to do whatever they can to get Portland’s sharpshooters the ball.

“We need to be the connecting group that will link up between getting the ball from the defenders and giving it to Alex and Sinc, put them in great scoring positions, enable them to go forward, and make their job easier,” Long says. “We’re a technically good midfield, sound, clean on the ball. We have creative players who can help find Sinclair and Alex on top. As a whole, we balance each other very well. We have simple yet diverse players.”

Long also wants the midfield to be able to control the pace and rhythm of the match.

“We need to dominate the midfield,” Long says. “We need to win every 50-50 (ball). I’m holding the standard pretty high in the midfield, and I know that we’re going to get the job done for sure.”

With the expectation being that the Thorns will score plenty of goals, defender Rachel Buehler, a stalwart defender for the U.S. National Team, says that the Thorns’ backline has added incentive to keep clean sheets.

“Having those kind of quality (striking) players just inspires us to want to contribute,” Buehler says. “The success of the team is dependent on all the different lines and all the players who are on the field.”

Buehler says Portland’s backline is beginning to get comfortable with each other.

“Everything is really starting to come together,” Buehler says. “Things are starting to click more. We’re working hard and becoming more of a unit. It’s continuing to get better every day. This exact line hasn’t played together before, but a lot of us do know each other from various points in our career. That helps because we have friendships with each other to some degree. That helps the learning and jelling go a lot quicker.”

The Thorns will play their first exhibition match at 7 p.m. Saturday against the University of Portland at Merlo Field. The Thorns then will open the season on the road against FC Kansas City on April 13, before the home opener against the Seattle Reign FC at Jeld-Wen Field on April 21.

Coach Cindy Parlow Cone laments the fact that the Thorns have not had a longer preseason to prepare, especially with so much of the squad being on national team duty during the last month.

“The product that everyone puts on the field April 13 is not going to be as good as if we were in preseason for three months,” Parlow Cone says. “But, that’s the nature of the beast. We all have to deal with it the same way.”

When the season begins, Parlow Cone knows that if the Thorns are as good as advertised, they could help keep the NWSL alive.

“The expectations of everyone are very high,” Parlow Cone says. “We need this league to succeed and we need this team to succeed.”