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Thorns have happy Heath

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'It was great even walking into the locker room,' she says

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - TOBIN HEATHEven steady rain did not keep Tobin Heath from smiling on Monday.

The first training sessions of 2017 for the Portland Thorns included most of the players who helped the Thorns to the best record in the National Women's Soccer League last season. That connection has the Thorns and second-year coach Mark Parsons thinking big.

"It was great even walking into the locker room. Just having the same faces, the same group (and) knowing what to expect under Mark," midfielder/forward/wing Heath says.

When she wasn't with the U.S. women's national team, Heath spent much of her offseason in Portland. She is beginning her fifth season as a key member of the NWSL's flagship franchise.

Heath, 28, says she is thrilled the NWSL is entering its fifth season — a milestone previous women's pro soccer leagues couldn't reach. Her connection to Portland and her teammates is stronger than ever.

"I love it here. I've played in great training environments all over the world and in different leagues, and I think it's fantastic here," Heath says. "I love working with Mark. I love the pieces that we have here in Portland. I feel like a part of the city and attached to it in some weird way."

That the Thorns have by far the most fan support in the league adds to the responsibility to put on a good show, and Heath embraces that challenge.

"That's what I love the most, because I like to entertain and this is a great place to do it," she says.

Portland's great 2016 season — the best record in the league for the first time — felt incomplete when the Thorns lost their first home playoff game to Western New York.

Parsons says 2016 must be only a launching point for the club. With the core group back, the challenge is to start playing good soccer with the April 15 opener.

The Thorns will have only 10 training sessions with the entire team before the season kicks off — a typical challenge for NWSL squads given the international commitments of players.

This year, at least Parsons and his team won't be learning about each other. The most significant offseason departure was goalkeeper Michelle Betos.

"The continuity is everything, especially at the beginning of the season," Heath says. "We know the identity of our team. It's just getting up to speed and playing together again. I know I've missed playing with a bunch of these girls, so it's great being back on the field with everyone."

One player not on hand Monday was Christine Sinclair, who is dealing with a family matter, according to Parsons. She is expected to join the team by the end of the week.

With a limited number of training sessions, Parsons says there will be an emphasis on tactics in the early part of the preseason.

"Everyone is in a good place (physically). And they had to be, because we need to train soccer. We need to organize. We need to tactically get to work," the coach says.

He says he is looking forward to building off of last season. He felt the team started to play the way he wanted it to over the final four or five games.

"Offensively, those last four regular-season games and the playoff game I felt like we really committed to something that we wanted to be," Parsons says. "That's where we want to start off now. But it's got to be better than it was those last five games."

• Betos, the popular goalkeeper, last month joined Norway's Vålerenga. That leaves Adrianna Franch as the projected starter and recently acquired Britt Eckerstrom as the backup. Franch had three shutouts in six games last season, her first with the Thorns. Parsons says he expects Eckerstrom, the goalkeeper for Penn State's 2015 national championship team and the backup last season at Western New York, to push Franch.

"There's no way Britt took four days to drive here in her car to sit behind (Franch) and cheer her on. It's going to be a fantastic competition," Parsons says.

• Five players are on trial at the opening of camp. Among them are three defenders, including former Portland Pilot and Washougal, Washington native Ellie Boon. Parsons says he hopes one or two can earn a contract, sooner or later, to provide depth on defense.

"If you put your head down and you develop, you move forward, because you're surrounded by people who are going to help you do that," Parsons says. "I hope that one or two of them do that in the near future so that we have them as options on the roster. And if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. We invest in them longer. They're great people that I think are going to come in and slowly get up to speed. Because it's a huge, massive jump."

• The Thorns will play preseason home matches on March 26 against Chicago, March 29 against the U.S. under-23 national team and April 1 against Houston.

Portland begins the regular season on noon Saturday, April 15 with a nationally-televised (Lifetime) home match against Orlando.

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