The Portland Thorns, the NWSL’s hottest team, embrace joy

The Portland Thorns, fresh off a five match win streak, look to be hitting their stride after a slow start to the season

After starting the season winless in their first four matches and hovering at the bottom of the standings, the Portland Thorns have won five straight. They have surged all the way up to fourth place on the table.

Continue reading with a subscription to The IX

Get unlimited access to our exclusive coverage of a varitety of women’s sports, including our premium newsletter by subscribing today!

Join today

The latest win was a decisive 4-0 victory over the Seattle Reign on Saturday night in Portland. The Thorns goals were scored by Olivia Moultrie, Sophia Smith (unsurprisingly), and a pair of goals in stoppage time from Hina Sugita and rookie Payton Linnehan.

Smith is on a tear, having scored eight goals in nine games. She’s also the league leader in assists (six), shots on target (19), and shots overall (31).

Over the course of the Thorns’ winning streak, she’s scored six goals and finished five assists. And, there’s also this:

Overall, the Thorns have 21 goals – one fewer than the league’s scoring leaders, the Kansas City Current. So, what’s the difference?

Before the victory over the Reign, I asked Christine Sinclair if the team was hitting a stride. After this weekend, I think it’s fair to assume it is.

“I think we’ve started,” Sinclair said. “We were joking that we just had an extra long preseason in those first four games. But I think you’re seeing glimpses of what this team is capable of. I don’t think we’ve quite yet put together a 90-minute performance, even in these games that we’ve been winning. I mean, maybe Houston is the closest we’ve had. But I think, in these past few games, we’ve come out of the blocks very sharp. Obviously it helps to get a couple of goals early, but then in the second half we started to fade and we … we’ve given up some goals. So I don’t think we’ve seen a full 90-minute performance from us.

But considering two of the Thorns’ goals against the Reign came in stoppage time, the team from Portland is definitely getting closer.

For the WNBA’s 28th season, save 28% on your subscription to The Next!

The 2024 WNBA season is here, and our staff of writers is still working hard to bring you everything you need to know about every team in the league. Get started with a paid subscription, which helps support all of our writers, editors and photographers who work tirelessly to bring you this coverage, and save 28%!

I asked coach Rob Gale the same question about whether the team is hitting a stride. He concurred that it’s a bit too soon to tell.

“I think we’re in a good moment,” Gale said. “They’re enjoying their football, they’re working for each other. They’re playing for the team and the fans and for Portland. But there’s more to come.”

It should be noted that Mike Norris stepped down as coach of the Thorns after the first four games of the season and moved into a scouting, technical role. It’s unfair to point to Norris as the problem, but the Thorns are clearly playing with more freedom and joy than they have in a while, dating back to the end of last season.

Gale also seems to be managing the team’s talent a bit better. While at times it feels like the Thorns have an embarrassment of riches for a coach, that won’t translate to success on its own. A coach still needs to find the right plan, and it appears Gale has started to figure it out.

Oh, and there’s also HINA!

24/7 women’s soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The IX is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribers to The IX receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

One final note from the week. Injuries are starting to become a league-wide concern. While we don’t have updates yet, Jaedyn Shaw and Alyssa Naeher are the latest national team players to be injured this weekend. The Wave’s Alex Morgan, Abby Dahlkemper and Naomi Girma are already sidelined. Time to bubble wrap these players before sending them out.

Onto the week’s links!

Jackie Gutierrez for the Equalizer on the NWSL’s moms.

Jeff Kassouf rates the NWSL’s best and worse stadiums for ESPN.

USA Today’s Nancy Armour with a column on how the NWSL is the last major pro sports team that flies commercial.

The Desert New on the Utah Royals’ moms.

More midweek NWSL games bring travel concerns with a bit on Sophia Smith’s 40-goal milestone.

This is cool: The U.S. deaf national team will play before the US plays South Korea on June 1 in Colorado.

FIFA rates Brazil’s bid for the 2027 Women’s World Cup higher than the German-Netherlands-Belgium bid. A note: The selection is set for Friday at the FIFA Congress in Bangkok.

The Athletic’s Meg Linehan wrote a good column on the US/Mexico decision to withdraw.

Vivianne Miedema says she’s leaving Arsenal.

Ante Milicic chosen as coach of China’s women.

The new season of Welcome to Wrexham will include the women’s side.

Here’s a bit of what Kelli Hubly and forward Payton Linnehan said after the Thorns win.

Question: What has it been like on the back line during the five game winning streak?

Hubly: I think it’s unique because we’re all really close, and I think we all want to see each other succeed. So I think anyone that you put on the field is going to give their all and give a good performance. And I think the season is really long, and you need that depth. You never know when someone’s going to pick up a knock. You never know when someone might not feel well. So just knowing that we all can step in on any given day is really important, especially in a back line.

Question: Going back to your goal line clearance. Sinc and Soph came over and kind of chatted with the afterwards.

Hubly: They were all just `Fuck, yeah.’ So I was like (screams and laughs).

Question: Win was the fifth in the row, a team record. How has Rob played a role in that?

Linnehan: I mean, Rob has been great. Obviously, we didn’t start the season the way that we wanted to, and I haven’t been a part of this club very long, but for this to be the first time we’ve won five games in a row is really special, Especially to do it at home and against Seattle was really great. And I think that we just need to carry this momentum going forward. And I feel like at this point there’s nothing that’s going to stop this team but ourselves. So just keep putting our best foot forward every day in practice, every game, and just doing your best.

Hubly: Yeah, I agree. Rob’s doing a great job. Each week, like going to these games he’s reminding us, you can make history. So I think just knowing that we’re all like setting history together is like really important in the season. Because you always remember that winning championships was making history, but like in a season, you kind of need these little milestones to just like keep pushing. And I think it’s really cool and like we’re all on the same page, we’re all bought in and Rob’s just a great job of bringing us together and getting the full potential out of us.

Question: A lot of your teammates and coaches have been talking about joy and fun nonstop over the past four weeks, and then Rob’s really leaning into this energy thing. What has it been like just being part of this team, especially with the guys really high energy right now?

Hubly: A season can get hard and it can be easy to kind of forget to have fun because it’s your job. But I think we all have been brought back to just finding the joy of playing games, training, like just every day, being with each other. And I think it’s so important. And when you’re having fun, like you’re playing your best and I think you can see that, like when we’re playing like tonight, it looks like everyone was having fun. Whereas in the beginning of the season, like we did not look like that. So just knowing that and like the energy that everyone’s giving, we’re all feeling each other and it’s just been really great.

Question: Payton, this was your first rivalry match. What were you told beforehand?

Linnehan: Oh, gosh, a lot. I had a little bit of an experience with it in the preseason. We had a scrimmage against them, but it didn’t amount to anything that was like tonight. So just experiencing this for the first time and seeing the way that we all rallied around you, that was really special and I definitely look forward to that in years to come.

Want women’s hockey content? Subscribe to The Ice Garden!

Here at The IX, we’re collaborating with The Ice Garden to bring you Hockey Friday. And if you want the women’s hockey goodness 24/7? Well, you should subscribe to The Ice Garden now!

Written by Annie Peterson