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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Heath's return, 2016 playoff memories propel Portland

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Portland Thorns star Tobin Heath is back in time for Saturdays National Womens Soccer League semifinal against Orlando, with Portland on a roll.Having completed an impressive 10-win regular season in games at Providence Park, the Portland Thorns turn their attention to easing the sting of last season's National Women's Soccer League semifinal loss.

Last season's disappointment might not be discussed as the Thorns prepare for Saturday's 12:30 p.m. visit from the Orlando Pride. But the 2016 overtime playoff loss to Western New York has stuck with the club.

The memory, coach Mark Parsons says, has pushed him to improve each day for the past year.

"It's taken 12 months and a lot of work to get back to this," he says. "I don't think there's any need to be talking about it."

Thorns star Tobin Heath says the 2016 disappointment remains fresh.

"Everyone feels it. Maybe we'll talk about it a little bit this week, but it kind of goes unsaid. That was heartbreaking last year, and we're taking that into this semifinal," Heath says.

More than just motivation, last season's loss is a reminder of how critical it is to focus on the task in front of you, Heath says.

"Sometimes you can get ahead of yourself when you only have two games left — a semifinal and a final. But this time we're not getting ahead of ourselves because last season we saw what happened."

Heath long doubted she would play at all this season because of a back injury that appeared in the preseason. She entered at halftime of last Saturday's 3-1 win over Chicago, her first action of 2017 at Providence Park.

"I felt good out there," she says. "It was awesome to get a run in without … the stress. Run around and push it a little bit. I gained a lot of fitness and a lot of confidence."

Parsons says it was "a beautiful sight to see her on the field — especially on this field. I know she loves to play here. She's building fitness. She's building sharpness. She's enjoying herself. This is the Tobin we all know is one of the very, very best in the world."

Heath says it's been natural to rebuild chemistry with her teammates because most of them were in Portland last season.

"There's not too many relationships that I haven't already built," she says.

Parsons hopes Heath might be fit enough to start the semifinal. More likely, she'll come off the bench again because the match could last 120 minutes, and Heath isn't fit enough to play a full two hours if overtime is needed.

Whatever her role, Heath is thrilled to be able to participate.

"These are the games you live for. I really didn't think I would be back in time for something like this," she says. "I'm proud of the girls because they worked so hard to get that home playoff."

Saturday's win over Chicago was the seventh home win in a row for the Thorns. Portland outscored its opponents 17-3 in those games.

Despite their rabid fan support — they averaged 17,653 fans per home game this season — the Thorns were 17-10-6 at home over their first three seasons. In Parsons' two seasons, Portland is 18-2-2 in regular-season games at Providence Park, including 10-1-1 this year.

"Go back a couple of years, three years — it was tough for the club to play at home because every (opponent) gets excited about coming here. I remember being on the other side of it and coaching against it. It's the game you circle," Parsons says. "What we've done a really good job of, collectively with our fans, is made that as hard as possible."

The Thorns now have "imposed our personality. Imposed our aggression on anyone who comes in."

All of that success was overshadowed last season by the wild 4-3 overtime playoff loss to Western New York (now North Carolina).

"There's not a lot of times in life that you get a do-over," Heath says. "And I feel like this is kind of our do-over."

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